“bittersweets” (memoir chapter from “whitegirrrl”)

“We should have tea with them,” he says.  “Sunday.”

Maybe this is the beginning of your silent rebellion.  It’s that mean look on your mother in laws face that you can’t stand and you don’t want to go.  You don’t want to go because you can’t stand to hear the clock ticking away and that sound it makes every so often.

You learn later, via your therapist that you don’t have to.  There are years where you buy the candy only, on holidays, sent with a small card.  You liked his father, with a face like a Toby mug.  The sort your grandparents had.  They gave them some Staffordshire horses that hung in your little bedroom as a child, as if to bridge a sort of divide.

“You’re a dead loss,” she says to him.  It’s Christmas.

He’s going deaf and you get him gardening books because he seems like your grandfather, sometimes.  Relief was walking in his garden down to the little lath house and looking at the seeds he was starting, or at the trees he had grafted.  You had flowers in common, but that was all.  And today you try and catch his eye as the kettle screams from the kitchen and you take a shortbread from the ever present tin.  He opens the gardening books that were Christmas presents and he seems to like them, smiling back, just silently, from his chair by the fire at you.  His eyes even twinkle a little at you, merrily.

She’s doing that pinched face sniffing thing again.

“Such a dead loss,” she says again, looking over at him.

Your grandparents love each other, so it is different.

“You  don’t have to go up there ever again, you know,” your therapist says.

It takes a while for it to sink in, that you might have that much power.  At first.  He breathes strength into you.  Every week you drink a little more of that strength as if from a cup that brims with goodness.

“Did I ever tell you what my mother said once about one of my plays?”


You look at him expectantly because most of the time he has said little about himself.  The sessions are for you and so you treasure these times when he has a story.  He stokes the fireplace, and the puppets and paper stages and the bookshelves and the warmth pour into you like nourishment from unseen colorfilled sources.

“She crucified me.”

“That’s terrible,” you say, looking into the rafters.

“I’m like this room, Dennis,” is what you tell him, in a whisper.

“I’m like you.”

Felix his partner has been bustling around in the kitchen making autumnal jam, and they give you jars of it, as you are leaving.  Two little jars and you take them home and think to yourself maybe I could eat this, a little of it, like a spoon sweet but you don’t.  Instead your husband opens the jars.  Everything is a violation like that.  He consumes all the space and all the air and all the light and his presence looms large over everything.

The only hour you have to yourself is that one in session.  You look forward to it all week, and in all weathers, and you crunch up the gravel path to the studio where you see Dennis.  This goes on for three years.

Dennis gives you a cyclamen plant at Christmastime.

“Here is something to care for,” he says.

His mother had crushed him when she treated his play as meaningless.  You absorb it as a lesson in how mothers act, sometimes.  Maybe he means to tell you that he sees yours this way, but it is roundabout, the way he approaches that.  What you wanted that year was a baby.  It was this longing, and the clock going off — the clock inside, and your husband didn’t want to.  In fact he had stopped fucking you.  Period.

Dennis refers him to someone, but he says, “I don’t need that.”

So he doesn’t go, but you do.

Years later, you find out that Dennis hung himself in the rafters of the studio.  Felix found him swaying there.  Amid all his paper theatres and the books on art and the puppets and marionettes.

He couldn’t save himself, and he couldn’t save you, because no one can.  That is really the reality.  But it takes a long time to learn this and many life lessons.  In the end there is only happiness to reach for.  Your own, and hopefully the company of like-minded others.

“Would you like the fudge cake?” your grandmother asks.  You are in a tea room in Los Angeles at a famous very old department store.  She is holding your little white gloved hand in hers.  You nod your head yes, and she is having the Waldorf salad.  The teapot is charming like she is and the air is perfumed with the scent of women who shop all day long on cold wintry days like this one.  Everything is bathed in pale mint green light — an afternoon of peppermints.

Life is filled with bittersweet things at times.

The Staffordshire horses hang trotting on the wall near the clock now.  The horses that had been in your little bedroom in childhood, and the clock ticks with its horrible slow sound back and forth and you watch the horses as if it is a relief to see something from your own life there when it is all so lifeless and terrible.

She sniffs at the biscuits and rumples her nose digging through them.  And you’ve given her candy, like the kind you get your grandmother all of the time, from the place that you went together all of the time and she held your hand as the two of you chose all the flavors and they packed the box so beautifully.

She didn’t deserve the candy you brought to her, this mother in law.

She was selfish and cruel and mean.  You find out later that she had a daughter that she gave up for adoption during the war who was only age three.  It’s like a kind of secret she had to carry, you think.  She tries to tell you that she always wanted a daughter, but that isn’t true because she had one, once.  She talks about the wives that came before you too, and she never has anything nice to say about them, either.  Just that hideous sniffing sound she makes at everything as if nothing ever added up or was good or decent or wonderful enough.

There are two kinds of rooms.  There are rooms where artists live and then there are rooms where people who are not artists live.  This is just a fact, or a fact of nature, and the truth is bittersweet if you sit and think about it too long.  It’s like when you choose the wrong candy in the box somebody just ruffled their way through, that you didn’t actually like.  Bitter sweets.

“bittersweets” ~ copyright 2010 by Valentine Bonnaire ~ all rights reserved

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