“From the Desk of Miriam Masterson”, year 1969
Father is a minor player in our home life. Mother always seems to me to be
the star. Father is a recurring character with an extended walk on role. He
seems to know what mother needs and makes sure that she has it. This all
takes almost no communication whatsoever, as if they can read each other’s
minds. Years later, it will occur to me that mother’s needs weren’t being
met at all, that she was possibly pretty unhappy, maybe even something like
miserable, certainly unfulfilled, and only seemed to be content because
she’d mastered the art of looking that way.
As a child, I think that my parents must do all their talking behind closed
doors. Their scenes together take place off stage: in the bedroom, or downstairs,
in the den, once I’ve gone to sleep. At dinner, mother tells me to sit
up straight, paying serious attention to the way I chew my food, the way I
look, the way I speak. She seems to know what I’m thinking, verbalizing
Tension runs from her place at the table to mine. Father reads the paper,
or watches the TV. Something very important is always in the paper or on
the TV and one of the very first things I learn in life is that when father is
watching TV he must never under any circumstances be distracted or
interrupted in any way. I must be nine or ten, and we’re sitting there at the
table, and father is chewing as he watches something on TV - possibly the
news - and without taking his eyes off the screen he compliments mother on
her perfume. It’s as if he’s talking out loud to himself.
Sometimes, mother and I go to the department store together, which is like
a movie set, complete with backdrop displays, extras, and intersecting
intrigues. The smiling mannequins are dressed like mother and could be
her stand-ins. At the perfume counter, I search the bottles for anything
that looks like the one mother has at home, while she chats theatrically with
the sales associates. She acts as if she knows them, asking about their
families, complimenting them on their outfits. She knows everyone in their
families by name. She knows the ages of their children and remembers
their accomplishments and activities. She’s so friendly, so sociable, that I
barely recognize her.
In this alternate universe, she’s the picture of happiness. Her laughter
spreads around her infectiously, and I find myself laughing too, without
really knowing the script. The mall is full of women, and all of them smell
like perfume. The only man I see is the owner of the place, who emerges
from a doorway every so often, standing in the background, watching our
interaction. He acts as if he’s orchestrated the conversation, as if he’s the
director, but to me he seems peripheral, as if he’s been shut out of the scene.
If you missed part 1 and part 2, just click the links.
photo via www.annmagnuson.com