A DIY Life

by Vivian Lawry

flower-smThe first person who wasn’t there for me was my overworked, overwhelmed mother. Initially, her body betrayed me. When I was eight or so, she tried—again and again—to give my father the son he so wanted. What she gave him, instead, was a weakened, broken wife. She had several miscarriages close together. The final pregnancy lasted five months. She hemorrhaged so profusely that the doctor said her choices were abortion or death. She turned her face to the wall and said, “Do what you have to. But if it’s a boy, I don’t want to know.” Soon after that she had a hysterectomy—at the age of twenty-eight. She had asthma and appendicitis, plus surgical scar tissue that obstructed her bowel, requiring further surgery. Pain pills followed, and then alcohol. Whether curling my hair or shopping for school clothes, every task was do-it-yourself. By the time I turned twelve, she was leaning on me. I managed the household and supervised—some might say bossed—my younger sister and the brother we’d adopted, the same age as me. The summer after my sixteenth birthday, she was hospitalized for suicidal depression.

* * *

On the surface, it seemed I could count on my strong, hardworking, capable father. Before he would let me get my driver’s license, he made sure I could change a flat tire and fill the radiator as well as the gas tank. At sixteen, for my first on-the-books job, I waited tables at a family restaurant in the next town over, sometimes working the closing shift. Dad said, “Park near the door and lock the car as soon as you get in. Blackjacks are illegal, but you can get the job done with a bar of soap in the toe of a sock.” I traveled with one under the driver’s seat, along with a sawed-off axe handle as backup. He said, “Don’t ever fight unless you have to, but if you have to, fight to win. Forget about fair play or what girls aren’t supposed to do. Kick, gouge, knee him. Whatever it takes.” He lived by the principle that family should always do for family, but made clear that it was better to be the one lending a helping hand than the one taking it. He taught me to be strong and capable—with the subtext that I should take care of myself.

* * *

My first mad, passionate love started the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college and ended several months later when he said that his first love was his kids, the second his ex-wife, and the third himself, and that he cared for me too much to ask me to take less than that. My first sexual experience was a date rape by a man I’d dated for nearly a year. He said the only woman he’d really loved was the one who dumped him while he was in Vietnam. When I told my graduate school husband that I thought we should get a divorce, he said, “Okay.” Simple as that—except that he kept the car, the mobile home, and everything else except my personal possessions and a few wedding presents. The man for whom I left him never moved for a divorce; he reconciled with his estranged wife two years later. And the man who salved my bruised heart turned out to be engaged the entire time we were together, to a woman student teaching in a northern city. Thus I learned not to count on husbands or lovers.

* * *

My sister moved to Ashland when her husband’s health started to fail. I found a house for them and helped make it habitable. For three years, we lived a mile apart rather than hundreds of miles. I helped in all the ways I could, which often meant lending a sympathetic ear. We talked pretty much every day, and saw each other more days than not. When her husband went into a nursing home, she came to dinner on the nights she had to work until seven o’clock. We hit the gym together, shopped, gardened… We talked often about how compatible we were, and joked that when we were both gray-haired widows, we would live together. I held her hand when her husband died, and took her to the beach for a week after her thyroid surgery later that month. She told me about encountering her first husband at their grandson’s baptism, and about forcing him to talk to her, to speak to her in a civilized fashion for the first time in more than twenty-five years. A few weeks later, she told me how shocked she was that he showed up at her house, unannounced. He said he’d found God, had become a new man.

One Saturday, I dropped by her house unannounced and saw a car in the driveway displaying Ohio vanity plates that said Emmaus—a town mentioned in the New Testament, Gospel of Luke. My gut clenched, sure it was his car. I left. She didn’t tell me he’d been there that time, and I gave no sign that I knew. A couple of weeks later, I stopped by the bank where she worked and saw a diamond on her ring finger. I might not have noticed if she hadn’t tried to hide it. The following weekend she took me to lunch and said they were engaged. She said he’d offered to move to Virginia but she couldn’t ask him to give up seniority on his job. Two months later, she’d moved back to Ohio to marry him. Caught between anger and hurt, feeling betrayed, I stood as her matron of honor—and gave up counting on my sister.

* * *

My second husband didn’t gather flowers constantly—or at all—and never promised to die for me and more. Indeed, he’s pretty noncommunicative. During our commuter marriage years, he didn’t write, he didn’t call. But he’s supported me through every career move, taking over all the cooking and other household chores after he retired. He views our marriage as a partnership, and counts on me to manage our money, advise our children, and be his best friend.

He never promised me forever, but decades later he’s still here. He’s fourteen years my senior. I do not delude myself. If his mind holds fast, his body will devolve. Barring some inversion of demographics, I will be twenty-five years a widow.

All our children live hundreds of miles away, and I’ve organized my life to relieve them of any concerns about me in old age. When I need to know who I can really count on, always, I look in a mirror. In this, ultimately, I am like everyone else, whether they know it or not.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing