The Reluctant Daughter by Lesléa Newman - Romance>GLBT>LesbianA story every daughter will recognize, The Reluctant Daughter depicts the struggles of Lydia Pinkowitz to communicate the realities of her life as a lesbian, as a feminist scholar, and as the woman she has become to her mother Doris. After years of hoping to attain her motherâ€™s love and acceptance while struggling to live a true and honest life, Lydia eventually acknowledges her mother will never really see her. When Doris develops a life-threatening illness, Lydia is forced to make a life-and-death decision of her own: should she make one final attempt to heal her relationship with her mother or simply let her go?
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Excerpt:IT TOOK ME half a century to find my mother.
My mother wasnâ€™t lost like the poor child whose sad face graces the poster hanging outside the convenience store that I pause to study every time I dash in to buy a carton of half-and-half for Allieâ€™s morning coffee. Nor was she lost like the small gold Jewish star my parents gave me to wear around my neck when I turned sixteen that slid off its chain one day when I wasnâ€™t looking and disappeared as completely as an ice cube melted by the sun. No, Iâ€™ve always known exactly where my mother is: sitting in the living room of the split-level house I grew up in on Maple Drive, a quiet tree-lined street in Oakwood, New York, a suburb smack dab in the middle of Westchester County. I can locate my mother any time I want to, but that doesnâ€™t matter. She is still missing in action. At least to me. My mother and I are so estranged, she doesnâ€™t even know that weâ€™re estranged. Itâ€™s not that we donâ€™t communicate with one another. We speak on the phone once a month, sometimes once every other month, sometimes once a season. I am always the one to break the silence between us and dial my parentsâ€™ number, usually during a weekday when I know my father isnâ€™t home.
Itâ€™s never my idea to give my mother a ring. The thought would never even occur to me on my own. If it werenâ€™t for Allie, years could easily slip by without my mother and I having a conversation. But Allie, my sweet, kind, wonderful, not to mention drop-dead handsome as a butch can be Allie, canâ€™t seem to mind her own damn business and leave well enough alone.
It can happen on a Tuesday. Or a Thursday. At around three oâ€™clock, Iâ€™ll climb into our just purchased, â€śpreviously lovedâ€ť station wagon and drive toward Main Street to do some errands. Allie and I reside in a quaint, liberal college town on the southern tip of Maine called Paradise, and it pretty much lives up to its name with the smell of the ocean permeating the air all year long, the beauty of the landscape equally breathtaking during all four seasons, and on top of that, the many shops that hang rainbow flags in their windows, letting both the locals and the tourists know that ours is a gay-friendly town. I pull into a parking space right in front of our organic food co-op, unsuspecting, maybe even humming to myself. Itâ€™s a glorious spring day and Iâ€™m generally a happy, humming type of person. After I shut the ignition, I pocket my car keys and reach into my shoulder bag for my list of things to do: Pick up dry cleaning, drop off vacation photos â€¦ As I scan each item planning my route, my eyes catch on something. Three little words scrawled in Allieâ€™s small slanted southpaw handwriting that make my heart beat faster. Not â€śI love you,â€ť which is written at the very bottom of the page underneath buy battery for alarm clock . No, the three little words that stop me cold, inserted between donâ€™t forget kitty litter and mail car payment, are â€ścall your mother.â€ť
â€śYou call your mother,â€ť I say aloud. Itâ€™s a mean thing to say even if Allie is miles away at the lumberyard she manages and cannot possibly hear me. Allie would give anything to call her mother, but the woman died two decades ago, when Allie was barely twenty-seven. Allie is an only child and her mother was her only parent. They left Puerto Rico when Allie was five, first living in the Bronx with some friends they knew from the island, and then moving up to New England because Allieâ€™s mother wanted her daughter to breathe fresh air, live among grass, trees, and flowers, and be close to the sea. Allie says her mother loved her more than life itself, and she never felt like she was missing anything by not having a father, siblings, or any kind of extended family. Until her mother died, that is. After Allie lost her mother and before I came along, Allie was all alone in the world. And even though Allie is once again a part of a family of two, a family she and I have created, she still misses her mother terribly. Every year on November 11, the anniversary of her motherâ€™s death, Allie wakes up in tears, rises without a word, and lights a pure white seven-day candle in her motherâ€™s honor. Allie and I got together four years after her motherâ€™s death and at that point, she couldnâ€™t even mention her without breaking down completely. Things are better now, but still, Allieâ€™s voice shakes and her eyes grow moist whenever she speaks of her mother.
Call your mother . I stare down at the words, seething. Isnâ€™t it enough that Iâ€™d sent the woman a Motherâ€™s Day card last week after spending the better part of my day off choosing it? Iâ€™d walked up and down this very street, going into the drug store, the stationery store, the bookstore, and several overpriced galleries and gift shops, browsing through racks and racks of frilly pink cards that said things like, â€śGod couldnâ€™t be everywhere so He invented mothers.â€ť Oh please. I could hardly stomach reading that card, let alone bringing it up to the cashier and paying for it. The only card I seriously considered purchasing was one picturing an endless field of day lilies that read, â€śIf I had a flower for each time I thought about my mother, I could walk in my garden forever.â€ť Well, thatâ€™s certainly true, I mused, as I stared at the card in my hand, but then again the thoughts that run through my head on a regular basis are hardly complimentary and if my mother is anything, she is smartâ€”smart enough to know that much and decode my hidden meaning in two seconds flat. I put the card back and looked at dozens of others, all the while knowing I would never find what I was searching for. A card that said, â€śMom, Iâ€™m sending you this purely out of obligation,â€ť or â€śMom, I know you did your best, but it wasnâ€™t good enough,â€ť or â€śMom, weâ€™re both getting older. Do you think weâ€™ll ever heal our relationship?â€ť But since they donâ€™t make Motherâ€™s Day cards for daughters like meâ€”daughters who feel too hypocritical to send a â€śyouâ€™re the greatest mother in the worldâ€ť card but canâ€™t quite bring ourselves to boycott the Hallmark holiday altogether eitherâ€”I do what I do every year: buy a card with a photo of a bright yellow sunflower or a vase of peach-colored roses on the outside, and on the inside where it is blank, I write, â€śDear Mom, Have a wonderful Motherâ€™s Day. Love, Lydia.â€ť And thatâ€™s the end of that.
Except now on top of sending a card, Allie wants me to make a follow-up call, too? â€śAlicia Maria Taraza, I canâ€™t believe you did this to me.â€ť I rattle the folded-up to-do list in my hands, though it is really Allie that I want to throttle. Without meaning toâ€”or perhaps on purposeâ€”my dearly beloved has ruined my day completely. Anybody who knows me at all knows that my day will certainly be ruined if I do call my mother. And now if I donâ€™t call my mother, my day will still be ruined because Iâ€™ll feel guilty. As charged. Guilty of being the worldâ€™s worst daughter. You canâ€™t even pick up the phone and call your own mother, bring a little happiness into her life, make her day? How can you be so selfish, so self-centered, so self-absorbed, so self-involved?
â€śDonâ€™t forget self-cleaning, Mom,â€ť I say, answering my motherâ€™s voice, which is ricocheting around my head like a cold metal ball bouncing about a pinball machine. I get out of the car and fume through town, marching in and out of shops and checking off the errands on my list. Iâ€™m in a bad mood when I return to the station wagon, and the sight of the yellow parking ticket wedged behind my windshield wiper puts me over the top. â€śDamn it, Allie, youâ€™re paying for this,â€ť I say, snatching up the ticket. â€śItâ€™s your fault I forgot to feed the meter. If you hadnâ€™t messed with my listâ€¦â€ť
Iâ€™m still muttering to myself when I pull into our driveway. At this point even I know Iâ€™m not really mad at Allie, who is only trying to help, after all. I hang up the dry cleaning, put the kitty litter in the closet, and then go in search of Mishmosh, so named for the cacophony of colors splayed across his fat little body. According to our vet, only one in about three thousand calicos is male, and though Mishmosh came from very humble beginningsâ€”Allie and I found him mewling behind a Dunkinâ€™ Donuts dumpster covered with fleas and powdered sugarâ€”he never lets us forget how lucky we are to reside with such a rare creature who allows us to wait on him hand and foot. I find His Highness sprawled belly-up in the middle of the queen-sized bed he begrudgingly shares with Allie and me, soaking up a spotlight of sun and getting his orange, brown, and black fur all over our vintage white chenille spread.
â€śWake up, Mishmosh. I need you.â€ť He opens one eye and throws a look in my direction that clearly says donâ€™t even think about disturbing me but nevertheless allows me to lift his limp body and drape it over my shoulder for moral support. He even purrs in my ear as I flop down on the maroon tweed living room couch, prop my feet up on the oak coffee table Allie made for my last birthday, and dial my parentsâ€™ number.
â€śHello, Lydia.â€ť My mother answers on the first ring. She never sounds surprised to hear from me, no matter how long itâ€™s been since Iâ€™ve called. Her voice is pleasant as though this is something ordinary, just a daughter calling her mother on a weekday afternoon. â€śHow are you?â€ť my mother asks, and then before I can answer, says, â€śI got your card. Thank you.â€ť
That taken care of, Iâ€™m ready to hang up the phone, but my mother has other plans. I hear the click of her lighter, and the inhale and exhale of smoke, which means sheâ€™s settling herself in for a nice little chat. Since we really donâ€™t have anything to talk about, I know she will turn to the one subject that can always be counted on: the weather. â€śSo is it raining by you?â€ť she asks as if on cue.
â€śBy us, itâ€™s pouring, Iâ€™m telling you, what a rainy spring weâ€™re having. It rained so much in Aprilâ€”well, you know what they say, April showers bring May flowersâ€”but itâ€™s the middle of May and itâ€™s still raining and the poor flowers are drowning, so enough already. And it was such a wet winter, besides. So much snow we had. And ice. I donâ€™t mind the snow so much, but the ice storms are really the worst. Your father even stayed home one day, the driving was so terrible, and you know how bad it has to be before heâ€™ll miss a minute at work. God forbid some nut should be out in such miserable weather to pick up his dry cleaning and find the shop closed. And now this rain. They say itâ€™s supposed to stop tomorrow, but what do they know? Bunch of dummies, those weathermen, theyâ€™re always wrong. How you can keep your job and be wrong ninety-nine percent of the time is beyond meâ€¦â€ť
As my mother rambles on, barely pausing for breath, I feel myself careening toward the altered state I always drift into when I speak to her on the phone. Or rather when she speaks to me. During these conversations I donâ€™t say much. I slump down on the sofa, cradle the receiver between my neck and shoulder, and enter some sort of fugue state. Sometimes, like now, I study the ends of my hair, searching the dark strands for split ends, a habit I gave up as a teenager. A habit I thought I gave up as a teenager. I sigh a lot. My mother doesnâ€™t notice.
As she talks on and on, I picture my mother sitting in one of the two matching forest green recliners in the living room, the cordless phone in one hand, her cigarette in the other. On the end table beside her there is a cup of coffee gone cold. At her feet is a pile of magazines; on her lap are a pack of playing cards and the remote control for the TV. She is wearing a blue velour bathrobe and matching slippers even though it is the middle of the day. The window shades of the room are pulled down, the burglar alarm is activated.
Even two hundred fifty miles away, I can barely breathe.
Eventually my mother ends her filibuster on the weather and asks, in a cutesy voice, â€śSo howâ€™s by you? Whatâ€™s new like this?â€ť
â€śNothing,â€ť I reply automatically. Itâ€™s the same one-word response Iâ€™ve given to this question for more than thirty years now, ever since I left home for college, my ticket out.
â€śNothing?â€ť my mother repeats, a hint of hurt in her voice. Iâ€™m sure she knows that something must be new in my life; after all we havenâ€™t spoken since the middle of January. â€śAre you still teaching?â€ť she asks.
â€śYes,â€ť I tell her for the hundredth time. Iâ€™ve been a tenured professor for over a decade now, but my mother always thinks Iâ€™m on the brink of being fired. â€śIn fact, I proposed a new course for next year and it looks like itâ€™s going to be approved. Itâ€™s calledâ€”â€ť
â€śDid I tell you Selma Appelbaumâ€™s youngest daughter finally got married?â€ť My mother interrupts me, proving what I knew all along: she couldnâ€™t care less about my academic career, she was just making polite conversation. â€śLast weekend, the wedding was. You remember Karen.â€ť
â€śNo, I donâ€™t.â€ť
â€śYes, you do.â€ť
â€śNo, I donâ€™t.â€ť
â€śYou do, Lydia. Think for a minute. They lived right around the corner from us, Karen and her sister Sharon, remember? She was the skinny one, Karenâ€”who would ever dream it would take her so long to find a husband? For a while her parents thought maybe sheâ€™d turn out, you knowâ€¦like you. But thank God, last year she finally met someone.â€ť
They thought maybe sheâ€™d turn out like you : a happy, healthy lesbian living with the woman of her dreams in Paradise. She should be so lucky, I think, as my mother drones on.
â€śThey went all-out for the wedding, over three hundred people were there, can you imagine? Her father probably had to mortgage his teeth for her dress alone, but no matter what he paid, it was worth it, she looked gorgeous. She always had a lovely figure, Karen did, not like her sister Sharon, who could still stand to lose a few pounds. You remember Sharon.â€ť
â€śNo, I donâ€™t.â€ť
â€śSure you do. Who could forget Sharon and Karen? Well anyway, the wedding was very unusual, the color scheme was bright fire engine red, I couldnâ€™t get over it, whoever heard of such a thing? The groomâ€™s mother, who was no Slenderella, believe me, looked like an overgrown tomato andâ€¦â€ť
While my mother proceeds to trash every member of the bridal party as though she were auditioning to be Joan Riversâ€™ co-host on Fashion Police the morning after the Oscars, I canâ€™t help but wonder what she would say about the outfits Allie and I wore at our wedding, which took place fourteen years ago and to which my mother was not invited. Allie, with her short sharp hair slicked back and her dark eyes shining with joy, looked positively dashing in an off-white satin shirt with wide Spanish sleeves tucked into black tuxedo pants complemented by brand new spiffy patent leather shoes. And I felt quite glamorous standing beside her with my dark curly hair piled on top of my head, wearing a cream-colored suit with a fitted jacket, knee-length pencil skirt, and matching pumps with ankle straps and four-inch heels that made me almost, but not quite tall enough to look my betrothed in the eye. Allie and I tied the knot on our second anniversary, and though the state of Maine refused to grant us our civil rights and call our union a marriage, I refused to call the event anything other than a wedding. For my moneyâ€”and we spent plenty on the reception hall, the food, the cake, the flowers, the rings, and the deejayâ€”it was a wedding like any other, legal status be damned. I knew that Sunday in September would be the happiest day of my life and though Allie tried, I could not be convinced to invite anyone who would be one iota less than overjoyed to be in attendance. And just as I knew without the slightest doubt that I wanted to become Allieâ€™s unlawfully wedded wife and spend the rest of my days, not to mention my nights with her, I was equally certain that a public declaration of our love and devotion would not be met with a rousing â€śMazel tov!â€ť from my father and mother or any other member of my family.
Itâ€™s not that they donâ€™t like Allie. My parents like her just fine. Actually Iâ€™m pretty sure they like her better than me. Itâ€™s that to this day, they have not gotten comfortable with the fact that they have a lesbian for a daughter. I keep thinking theyâ€™re getting better, but then something happens. The last time Allie and I visited my parents was about a year ago, and things were going along relatively wellâ€”in other words, nothing disastrous had occurredâ€”until we made the mistake of accompanying my father to the grocery store to pick up the cheesecake my mother had ordered to serve that evening for dessert. While waiting on the bakery line, we ran into a young family that had just moved into the neighborhood. My father put his arm around my shoulder, saying, â€śThis is my daughter, Lydia,â€ť and then introduced me to the husband, wife, and two young children who were strapped inside their double stroller happily munching away on sugar cookies shaped like dinosaurs. Then there was an awkward pause, and just as I was about to introduce Allie, my father stepped in and did the honors. â€śAnd thatâ€™s her roommate,â€ť he said, gesturing toward Allie and shocking us both. And though I explained the error of his ways several times, he refused to acknowledge that heâ€™d done anything wrong. So I in turn refused to speak to him for the rest of the afternoon.
â€śAnyway, it was a very lovely evening,â€ť my mother says now, wrapping up her report of the Appelbaum affair and bringing me back to the present. â€śWhy it took so long for a pretty girl like Karen to find a man to marry, I couldnâ€™t tell you, but all right, as they say, allâ€™s well that ends well. Sheâ€™s not forty yet so if they hurry things along, they still might be able to have a child, or I guess they could always adopt, plenty of people do. Aaron seems like a very nice guyâ€”oh, I forgot to tell you, thatâ€™s the best part: the groomâ€™s name is Aaron, can you believe that, Karen and Aaron? Iâ€™m telling you, everybodyâ€™s already joking they should have a boy and name him Darren. And then someone saidâ€”oh, wait. Hold on a minute, Lydia. I have another call.â€ť
My motherâ€™s voice disappears and I shut my eyes, exhausted. I feel like I could sleep for days. My breathing slows and I adjust Mishmosh to use him as a pillow. But before I drift off, my mother gets back on the line.
â€śItâ€™s the plumber. Iâ€™ve been waiting for him to call all afternoon. Iâ€™ll speak to you later.â€ť My mother hangs up the phone, and I, who have been known to rant and rave for hours about the rudeness of call waiting, thank God for this brilliant invention that lets me off the hook.