A Woman from Colorado

 

San Francisco Vista

 

I

once knew a woman from Colorado named Mary Pinner. She moved to San Francisco when she was twenty. This was just after the Summer of Love, which makes her my mother’s age. She married a nice guy, a high school history teacher named Tom, who I still see around from time to time. He’s got to be in his seventies by now. Mrs. Pinner worked her whole life as a paralegal for one of the big law firms downtown. The Pinners had one son who died at birth and one daughter who grew up to be a successful filmmaker. It was small bowel cancer that got Mrs. Pinner in the end. It spread from her lungs, or it was the other way around. That’s what it was. It went from her bowel to her lungs. She was sixty-five. Here are some things she is known to have said.

Bug. (1955, aged 2)

Is a clover a flower? (1957, aged 4)

Why eat boring cauliflower? (1959, aged 6)

Daddy gave me twenty dollars to give the store man. The counter is taller than I am, so Daddy lifted me up to pay for chili fixings. The store man gave me nine dollars back plus seventy cents. I got to keep seventy cents. I must wait until I’m older to keep nine dollars. (1960, aged 7)

My father and my mom’s friend Mrs. Archer stood next to each other at the parade and didn’t talk. They watched like everyone watched, without talking. The Air Force drove a missile down Howes Street on a long truck while the mayor watched. My father and Mrs. Archer whispered to each other. The missile is called Atlas. It’s going up from Fort Collins, and to the left. (1961, aged 8)

My dad gives me presents. Mom is honest. Daddy likes to have fun. Mom is bossy. (1962, aged 9)

My mom asked why I was reluctant to answer her questions. I asked what’s reluctant. She said look it up in the dictionary. Reluctant means unwilling. Unwilling means not ready. Not ready means I don’t want to. (1964, aged 11)

The bookstore burned down last night. The same fire burned down Collinado Drug and the State Dry Goods Company. The Fire Chief died fighting the fire. I say his name over and over again: Clifford Carpenter, Clifford Carpenter, Clifford Carpenter…. (1965, aged 12)

I hate when my art teacher Ms. Gifford asks me what I’m passionate about? How should I know what I’m passionate about? (1967, aged 14)

I’ve been taught what to think a healthy relationship is by two people who don’t have one. A healthy relationship is built on trust. Add commitment, honesty, shared values, and knowing the difference between love and lust. (1968, aged 15)

If one more person tells me what a nice guy my stepfather is, I will shoot myself. He is a combination of at least two kinds of misters. Mr. Nosey and Mr. Know-it-all. His real name is Lou Bifano. What a fool, Lou Bifano. (1970, aged 17)

They lowered the voting age to eighteen the year I turned eighteen. I would celebrate, but how? The boys have gone away. The girls are their sisters and pining sweethearts. (1971, aged 18)

The wind funnels down from the mountains. It doesn’t smell salty, the way tropics would. It smells clean like snow. Snow is pure silence. Against the snow, ravens steal stale doughnuts out of the dumpster behind the Safeway at College and Mulberry. When the snow melts, red-shafted flickers pound the side of our house. They thrash hard against the aluminum. (1972, aged 19)

When I say love is overrated, I’m playing with you, Tom. I’m being ironic. Don’t worry. Love is underrated, as far as I’m concerned, and I love you. (1973, aged 20)

Tom took me to see the Grateful Dead at the Winterland Ballroom. I had more fun than he did. He couldn’t take it easy. It stressed him out that people were tripping. Or he wanted to do drugs, but worried I would judge him. I would have done something mild. I was happy with or without it. What made me happy, though, wasn’t the music. It was too longwinded. What I like most is people-watching, so I spent the evening soberly twirling and imagining everyone’s backstory. There were a few bad trips. This was to be expected. Tom has his mechanical way of dancing. Everyone was dancing. (1974, aged 21)

When I close my eyes and do these mudras, I see red sandstone cliffs, freshwater lakes, and white pelicans migrating early in the summer. I see myself snowshoeing in the Rockies in February, when the Aspens turn and the chinooks are blowing. A chinook is a species of wind, you know. Like plants and animals, it’s native to where I’m from. Again? Okay, again. When I close my eyes, I see a moose. (1974, aged 21)

No one came to our wedding, Tom, because no one knew we were getting married. We’ll do something big once we’ve established ourselves in our professions. We’ll upgrade our rings to platinum. We’ll throw a party with a band and a catered reception. We’ll take the roses you gave me and multiply them by a thousand. (1975, aged 22)

Tom and his best friend Max have been listening to The Eagles. Any song calling men desperados strikes me as a little pathetic. (1976, aged 23)

I miss summertime in Fort Collins. It warms up in the afternoon, and a thunderstorm cracks open the sky. Then rain falls and temperatures drop. These great thunderheads sail away to the east. You feel like you’re saying goodbye to your true love. The clouds grow larger and more spectacular the farther away they drift. (1977, aged 24)

I’m leaving you, Tom. We’re too young for this and too set in our ways. This begs the question of how anyone can be young and set in his ways. To be old and young at the same time misses the point of youth, does it not? It negates it. Because I love you, I’m not going to negate your life, and you’re not going to negate mine, either. (1978, aged 25)

I’m not sure, but Tom’s friend Max Feher may have come on to me today. He stops by too often. He’s so watchful, so solicitous. Today he told me he had nothing to say or do. We made small talk. Mostly it was awkward silences. He had a hard time making eye contact. He touched my wrist like it was an accident. He moved around in a field of nervous energy. I asked him to leave because I felt tired. He left. (1979, aged 26)

The attorneys I work for take a combative stance with everyone. They can’t wait to pounce on you for your every blunder. Today I was accused of harming documents. Can you imagine harming poor documents? What does this even mean? (1979, aged 26)

Why don’t you grow basil, Tom? Not all women want to raise things. That’s the nurturing myth. Do you even know what to do with basil? I bet your mother doesn’t either. (1980, aged 27)

The attorneys I work for ask us for blue-booking briefs. We compile their binders of evidence. We code their documents. We arrange what they thoughtlessly call their war rooms. We follow them to their depositions like caddies after golfers. We have obligatory drinks with them on Friday afternoons, when all we want to do is go home. I wish I were sitting with Tom on our stoop right now and drinking beer with him, but I can’t leave until they all do. I smile at the last of the bigshots. He looks at his watch but doesn’t seem to know what time it is. His life is his work. He has no one to go home to. (1980, aged 27)

Yes, Tom. I will marry you again. I will marry you in church. I will marry you before our friends and whatever family can make it. I will sit with you and write our vows until everything is how we like it. I will hold you to your promise of a honeymoon on a tropical island, once our baby is old enough to travel. (1981, aged 28)

Patti wasn’t an easy birth. I didn’t think she was going to make it. I couldn’t accept that she was a healthy baby. I said our dead son’s name over and over again: Paul Pinner, Paul Pinner, Paul…. (1981, aged 28)

Putting my two-year-old in daycare is like handing parenthood over to strangers. I will quit my job before I become a stranger to my only perfection. Tom must make more money. (1983, aged 30)

I hate the term ‘abandonment complex.’ Unless I’m in deep denial, and I am not, my parents’ divorce, Tom, did not predispose me to assume that everyone would vanish from my life. (1985, aged 32)

I believe in religion. It’s good for people. But I wouldn’t confide in a priest. Not now. Not anymore. I must find it by myself, without the scaffolding of a man of the cloth. Anyone searching for truth for herself will find it, even if it’s only a tiny morsel. You can eat that morsel and feel satisfied. (1986, aged 33)

One thing I’ve learned as a paralegal is that justice isn’t about fairness. Believe me, you need incredible insider knowledge to gain full access. (1988, aged 35)

We’re fighting a war some say is illegal. Patti is ten. What will I tell her when, ten years from now, she asks about it? What will we make of the word Persian? (1990, aged 38)

Do you believe Anita, Tom? (1991, aged 38)

Max claims reincarnation is a reality. I seriously doubt it. But it does give some narrative heft to my feeling about death as something other than total loss, something other than oblivion. (1992, aged 39)

My father will never know his granddaughter as a young woman, a high school grad, a college grad, a fiancé, a bride, an expecting mom, an honest-to-god mother, or a person in full command of her resources. We buried him this morning at Grandview. You would have thought he was an exceptional man. Over four hundred people paid their respects, and yet I couldn’t help but feel that each of them was holding something back from me. (1993, aged 40)

I do remember feeling a little dismissive of Fort Collins because there weren’t many people of color. There were the Utes, if I’m not mistaken. They were our most identifiable, non-white ethnic group, unless I’m forgetting someone. I’m afraid they were all disadvantaged. Given our history, I’m pretty sure it was a living hell. (1994, aged 41)

I want to go as long as I can as if nothing is the matter. (1995, aged 42)

If I were to bare my heart without thinking about it, what would it show? What would I find? What could be learned about me? (1996, aged 43)

Patti has always wanted to go to film school, and now she’s in. The Program sent her acceptance letter. It’s a minor miracle, really. What will happen next? How will she portray us? How will we be remembered? (1997, aged 44)

Rest in peace, Mom. We should have put ‘I did the best I could with you’ on your headstone, you said it so often. When it comes time for Patti to evaluate my parenting, I’m sure I’ll say the same thing. You did a great job with me. I wish I’d told you more often. (1993, aged 45)

When I told my therapist I’d named my mid-life crisis Violet, she asked why? ‘I thought it would funny,’ I said. ‘Did the name Violet call out to you?’ ‘Not really.’ ‘Who do you think Violet is?’ ‘It was the first name I thought of.’ Rolling her pen between her fingers, she asked, ‘Did Violet speak to you, Mary?’ ‘Really, Dolores,’ I said, ‘it just popped into my head.’ (1998, aged 45)

For one of her student projects, Patti went to The Lemon Fair in her father’s hometown of Sewanee to shoot a short documentary film about glassblowing. She captured the gaffers and their molten glass in all their subdued glory. The timescale was real time. The voiceover was the voice of a child. The script was something sparse Patti wrote called Creative Mind. The soundtrack amounted to a few notes on a piano. As I watched the final cut, I realized how rarely I seek out stories with no narrative arc, no dramatic tension, and no discernible characters. It was like a meditation. (1999, aged 46)

Tom calls his hometown Podunk. I try to remind him of how much fun we’ve had there. But this is beside the point. This is where Tom grew up. When his parents were younger, chattier, you understood his complaint. Their speech belied their bigotry in ways they weren’t always unaware of. And yet they were very nice people. It was a troubling combination. We must love and cherish them all their lives. We must ask ourselves who they were harming. Now Ursa has passed away. (2000, aged 47)

If there’s such a thing as good luck, and I doubt there is, it’s something you work hard for. Tom works hard at his school. I wish he felt luckier. (2000, aged 47)

If I had it all to do over again, I would become a child psychologist. Not because of Patti. She’s fine. But because childhood as a discipline is something I would like to look at more closely. My second choice would be to go to law school and to ace it. (2002, aged 49)

We’re using a doctrine of shock and awe to fight a war my daughter calls illegal. She quotes the UN Charter as evidence. I haven’t read it, but my Patti is a reliable and enlightened young woman. (2003, aged 50)

I’ll take Julia Roberts over Meryl Streep any day, even if Meryl is a more durable actress. Julia may have played a Cinderella hooker in a ridiculous movie, but she was also Erin in Erin Brockovich. It’s about a paralegal who takes on PG&E for poisoning groundwater. (2004, aged 51)

Tom would never cheat on me. In the time it took him to work out the logistics, he would mangle himself in his own guilty conscience. I wouldn’t cheat either. I could never give myself to someone who would participate in my adultery. (2005, aged 52)

Tom is trying to convince his bother to bury their father in the Kuppenheimer suit he got as a hand-me-down. Mike has said no to the suit. He’s picked the outfit. Everything is settled. (2005, aged 52)

Patty is pregnant. Where’s that husband of hers? What kind of man doesn’t return to his marriage for the sake of a child? It defies all logic, not to mention emotions and morals. (2006, aged 53)

If I were a young woman, and single all over again, I would do online dating. My understanding is that you meet a lot of nice men and can vet them based on their answers to key questions. I’ve heard the drawbacks too. With so many men to read about, and so many enticing photographs, you run the risk of perpetually looking, instead of taking a chance on someone. The other thing, and this makes me laugh, is the fact, and they’ve confirmed this, that the average man, in writing his online profile, adds an inch to his height and whatever else. (2007, aged 54)

The heat is unbearable. I can’t sleep with all these covers. (2008, aged 55)

Jordan has left his incubator. Patti says this means he’s generating his own warmth now. (2009, aged 56)

If Tom would walk to the Lyon Street steps three times a week, he would be a lot thinner. It’s forty-five minutes up and back. The houses along the way, and the trees in the Presidio, are beautiful. The views are iconic. He won’t, though. He won’t form the habit. Not unless I go with him. (2011, aged 58)

My friend Carol is reading a book called The Collaborative Habit. It’s about artists in collaboration with one another. She’s bugging me to read it with her. She thinks it will deepen our friendship. It’s just that we’re not artists. (2011, aged 58)

We’ll never reverse climate change. We’ll change with the climate, and we’ll die. Sorry to be so bleak about it. But we’ll never, not ever, turn it back. We’ll come to terms with it, even if it’s cataclysmic. It’s like ageing. I’ll never be thirty again. Turning forty was traumatic. Fifty was bittersweet. Sixty is a comfort, regardless of the climate. Sixty is a new effervescence. (2012, aged 59)

What do you get a five-year-old for his birthday? Jordan wants an amphibious remote-control crocodile car, which is easy to do. But will it help him fit in with the other boys? Fitting in is his biggest challenge. (2012, aged 59)

Carol sent me to her stylist near Laurel Village. When she asked me how I looked, I said, ‘I’m still processing it.’ ‘Sabine,’ she assured me, ‘will fix it.’ I asked her to let it drop. I couldn’t sit through it again. What could Sabine possibly do without cutting it even shorter? (2012, aged 60)

What do I do? I’m a paralegal. I would have preferred something more essential, but that’s all right. The field is interesting enough, and I’m comfortable. (2013, aged 61)

You can spoil your grandchild with love, attention, games, in-jokes, and plain silliness. This is our kind of spoiling. The other kind is indulgence. You feed them sweets instead of meals, let them run wild, and look the other way when they break rules. The first kind comes from the love a grandparent feels. The second kind, which we avoid, comes from a need for gratification. You manipulate him into adoring you. You plant the seeds of his troublemaking. (2013, aged 61)

They say we baby boomers broke America with our excessive self-interest. If it’s true, and I doubt it is, Tom and I didn’t get much for it. (2014, aged 62)

She’s a bitch. That’s what men think of Mrs. Clinton. And some women too. If she were a man, she’d be respected and powerful. She’d be president by now. (2016, aged 63)

I remember two occasions where I used to work, when I needed to say to a man, ‘You don’t intimidate me.’ I’ll never forget what the first man said. A decade later, the second man later said the same thing, verbatim: ‘I apologize, Miss, but don’t you think you’re overreacting?’ The first one wore a plaid shirt and smelled like Irish Spring soap. The second one was sweaty and red and in need of some soap. (2016, aged 63)

If they impeach Trump, we’ll have a civil war. Tom insists I call it a cold civil war, one without bloodshed. He thinks it’s crazy to imagine fighting in the streets. But there could be a race riot, right? We’ve had so many. There could be new Rodney King escalations. (2017, aged 64)

I want Tom to live courageously. I wish I could fix his life for the time he has remaining. It will be a long time. He’ll live to be a hundred. (2017, aged 65)

Take care yourself. (January 11, 2018)