By Suzanne Palmieri
“Draw me a mermaid,” she demanded.
“I don’t do it right, remember?”
We were living in a tiny apartment in the Bronx off Fordham Road, and it was raining so we couldn’t go to the park.
Instead, my little girl was coloring. About a week before, I’d taken her to the Botanical gardens and spent too much money in the gift shop on one of those delicious, intricate coloring books that was all about mermaids. That child is, and always was, a painstakingly careful little person, and she’d colored herself diligently through the entirety of its underwater pages within a few days. I didn’t have enough money to buy her another one. So instead she kept asking me to draw the outlines of mermaids. And even though I’m not a half bad artist, my mermaids didn’t meet with her approval. Not one of them.
“I’ll try another one,” I said. “But if it’s not right, don’t be angry. “
I drew another crooked mermaid tail.
“It’s not right, and I’m not angry. But it’s not right.” She said, and got up from the little trunk I was using as a coffee table stomping herself into the tiny kitchen for a snack.
Mommyguilt. The gift that keeps on giving, and the gift that doesn’t discriminate between social classes.
There’d been a lot things I didn’t do right. She had no idea how many things. She still doesn’t. Those are my burdens, not hers.
A year before we’d been living in my hometown and I was trying to raise her on my own, and finish college at the same time. I had a tiny apartment and we lived off state checks, food stamps, title 19 (healthcare), and WIC checks.
My room was a mixed up mess of Indian bedspreads and novelty lights strung against the mantle of a boarded up fireplace. My bed was on the floor, and there were low lamps on the floor, too. Stacks of books lived in dusty layers on the radiators. She loved that room.
She wanted to sleep with me every night and even though I knew it wasn’t right, I held my arms out, because I couldn’t sleep without her anyway.
But there was always one condition: I had to read my books out loud. We didn’t have a television then. Nothing but each other for distraction. Four pages into “Sociology and the Law” she’d be asleep.
But even then I didn’t stop reading out loud. I’d read the whole chapter through. Safe with her in the crook of my arm, one hand stroking her forehead, the other fumbling with a clumsy textbook. All the while her little chest rose and fell, in a sleeping baby way, that made me think of Heaven. (Heaven, stay).
Last summer we walked into a sunny, modern Apple store downtown. The light streaming in from the windows played across the floor like waves on the top of the sea. We were waiting for Sam, the young man who was selling us our new iMac, to come back with the big gleaming box. She leaned against a table, tucked a beautiful stray curl behind her 20-year-old earlobe (how did she get so big so fast?) and looked at me with those eyes of hers. “What?” I asked.
“Mom, can you believe that we’re even here?”
“Yes. I can believe it. Why?”
“Well, think about it. We used to be poor. On welfare. And now, here we are, about to buy this incredibly expensive thing without even worrying. And I’m going to a great college, and you have books being published. It’s crazy… I mean, when you think about it.”
“Yeah, crazy,” I said.
We could have talked more about it that day, I guess. I could have told her the stories she didn’t know. The demeaning ones, the ones I’m ashamed of. Like, how I considered becoming a stripper so I could spend more time with her during the day. Or, how I wrote a bad check for Chinese takeout because that’s what she wanted to eat, and then she threw it all up with a late season flu.
Or about the Christmas Eve I stood in line for almost an hour with her sleeping in the shopping carriage, and when I got to the checkout, realized it wasn’t one that accepted food stamps or WIC checks, and even though the cashier was going to let me go through anyway, the man behind me was so angry, and made such a scene, that I had to go wait in another line. The right line.
No, these aren’t things I tell her. I tell her another story.
“Once upon a time, when you were born, it wasn’t safe to live on land, so I dove into the ocean with you instead. It was hard, being under the water. Not being able to hear things others said, and not being able to see things clearly. It was cold there sometimes, and hard to breathe, too. But we made it work, and soon, we grew gills and tails and thought we lacked for nothing.
One day, I saw something shining on the shore that made me think it was safe to come up for air. So I brought you back on land and we walked the beaches with our hands laced together and our heads held high. And even though you were afraid, at first, you grew to like the sun on your face and the wind in your hair. And even today, all these many years later, you know you are stronger than most because you lived and thrived both on land and under the waves.”
During the darker days, I read poems by Mary Oliver. One shining quote made the difference: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My answer, then, now and always is this: I will not drown.
Suzanne Palmieri is the author of The Witch of Little Italy and The Witch of Belladonna Bay. Writing as Suzanne Hayes, she is also the author of Empire Girls and I’ll Be Seeing You. She lives with her husband and three daughters in Connecticut. Connect with her online at http://suzannepalmieri.com/