Tell Me A Story

Grief doesn’t heal. It becomes a part of you like a tricky hip or a bum knee. It changes you yet not demonstrably, not to the casual observer, but it is sensed by those that love you and dane to know you. It’s in the quiet moments when you feel unobserved and find yourself staring out at a view as the projector flicks to life and memories play out unbidden. The sound of their laughter, the smell of their clothes, the words you know they would say in response to your thoughts.

I thought age would force me to be accustomed to death and it would hurt less with the preparation for the anticipated occurrence. How stupid of me. It might seem as if those older than us are not as keenly affected but they simply have learned to keep it together for the sake of others around them. We’re all falling apart inside just at different rates of decomposition. 

A coworker passes suddenly and it’s heartbreaking but life must continue because you’re expected to, you’re under thirty and it’s expected of you. Then an aunt passes, yet she was poorly and didn’t stay in touch so you tell yourself to pick up and carry on. Then another friend and colleague, an old lover or two, a pet here and there, and then a parent. All of them wound you in different ways and none of them heal as much as mark you. Some are flesh wounds and others feel as if you can’t breathe when you try to quietly cry so you wait for moments alone to scream and you silently wish you could blurt out to anyone you encounter, “My mom died.”

But it’s the middle of a pandemic. People don’t want to hug, travel is risky, and all of us are scared little kids inside that don’t want to ask someone, “How are you? I’m sorry your mom died.”

“Tell me a story?”

It’s as if someone stopped the amusement ride unexpectedly. I blink quickly and smile out of reflex as I turn towards the voice of my daughter, “What’s that?”

I look in the rearview mirror and she won’t meet my eyes. She pets her stuffed animal and glances out the window, “Tell me a story about…uuum – “

“You have to give me a topic!”

It’s a gauntlet that is thrown down. The race is underway and both kids are scrambling to shout out a topic for me to spin a story or relate a memory to them. It’s my way of mourning my mother and their way of safely asking about her and, at times, my past. They can sense that I edit my stories for the listener and I can tell when they’re tired of the yarn and need me to cut it short.

My son yells out, “Underwear!”

“NO!” She glares at him and huffs in resignation as she’s outvoted by our laughter.

“Underwear it is!” I glance back at her and note the look of hurt, “But I’ll keep it short…get it?! Shorts!”

She rolls her eyes and laughs.

“This is one of my favorite stories and it’s about UNDERWEAR!”

They settle in looking as excited as if I just promised pork chops wrapped in bacon.

“Once upon a time, there was a young girl who wore only hand-me-down clothes – “

“What those?”

“You MEAN, “What ARE those?””

“NOOO, I mean, “What THOOOOOSE?!””

“NOO – “

“ – I said what I say!”

“Oh my God…” she sighs in disgust, his eyes bug out in fury as his mouth turns inside out and his arms fold like an embittered old man, I interject in appeasement, “Story or no?”

They won’t meet my eyes in the mirror. They refuse to look at one another and stare out their respective side windows yet can agree on their chorused response, “Story!”

“Where was I? Right, there was a girl who only wore hand-me-downs (that is, secondhand clothes) from her elder sister…”

“Was it grandma?!”

“Hush!” Sister was not amused by her brother’s interruptions. They spoiled the magic.

“Yes, – “

“ – SEEE I was right! – “

“ – now are you ready for the story?”

“Yes, yes! Story, story, story!”

“Right, ok then – where was I… right, there was a girl who only wore hand-me-down clothes from her older sister, Kate. It wouldn’t have bothered her except her and her sister were very different shapes and sizes so the clothes that looked beautiful on her eldest sister looked – well, not so great on Karen. She would try to pin them, ask for help tailoring them, and try not to complain but there was always one problem – the underwear!

There was no way to alter the underwear without it being lumpy, itchy, or getting stuck with a pin at the most inconvenient of moments. She would pull them up under her chest while she pulled on her shorts or pants and then the problem could be ignored once she got moving but when she went to school? Well, that was dangerous. She had to wear a skirt as part of her uniform. Every day she had on those underwear was a day that they might fall down at Catholic school.

She was worried on the way to school. She panicked when she stood from her desk too quickly. Genuflected mentally as she had to stand in line for anything. She agonized when the nuns made her do penance by shuffling around the classroom on her knees and saying the rosary. 

It was bad enough to bloody your knees from their inventive, yet “educational” corporal punishment, but her hands had to stay up to pray so she couldn’t grab her underwear as they slid down her legs. She had to be careful when she stood and then shimmy back to her desk with them inching ever close to the edge of her skirt and hope that she made it in time to stealthily pull them back up. Some of her classmates thought she was knock-kneed but it wasn’t her health that was tripping her up but her underwear.

Yet the worst of all the scenarios was mass. That’s right, the dreaded walk down the aisle of the cathedral as they filed in for Catholic mass. Your hands needed to be up or at least far away from your crotch, you were to be praying in earnestness or marching stoically, and you were to look clean and respectable. Yet every weekend all she could think about was waking up on time, not angering her parents, and keeping her underwear from falling off.

Then came the fateful day. It was after a long week of getting in trouble with the nuns, getting into fights at home, and her father being angry with her. She was so busy thinking about what she might get to do after church and trying to stay awake during the sermon that she wasn’t pinching her buttcheeks together to hold up her underwear as usual and she wasn’t squeezing her thighs to catch them if they started their descent. 

No, this was the day that she stepped out of her hand-me-down underwear in the middle of her march down the aisle at mass. The thought of that eventual snack of grape juice and saltine wafer disappeared from her flustered mind and was replaced with the horror of feeling her underwear around her shoes.

What am I going to do?!

She looked over at her sister who refused to make eye contact and continued to march in under the watchful eye of her parents and look pious in her reflection of God. She flicked a side eye at her younger sister to silently say “bug off”. Oh, no! She’s not going to help me…ok, I guess I’ll have to…but if I get caught – oh GOD!

It was one step for Karen and not one more step for those sad underwear. There was nothing for it, they were going to get left like the sacrificial rags that they were. She stepped out of them and continued further into the church with her head held high and that wad of used up, discolored cotton left behind her. It was freeing, terrifying, a rush. Like she just stole candy and got away with it free and clear! Each step away from the dreaded undergarment left her more buoyant, reckless, and bottomless.

Her family crowded into the pew after the procession, all nine of them, and she found herself smiling with the cold, sweaty panic of a criminal who had just escaped the scene of her crime. She barely could contain her amusement as she chuckled to herself and her elder sister elbowed her to shut up. Their mother looked down at her and shook her head with a silent warning. They were smashed together, shoulder to shoulder, so she couldn’t twist her body to look back. Oh, but she desperately wanted to! To see the shocked faces, the puzzlement of the adults, the laughter of the kids. She was terrified of her siblings giving her away as they eventually would have to leave the cathedral but she was shaking with glee at the anticipation of seeing the reactions to her daring caper.

She had almost forgotten what she had done until it was finally time to stand and file to the front for communion. OH NO! Communion!

Her body was upright but all the blood ran from her face as the realization sunk into her that someone was bound to notice her underwear as they clamored to the front for those crappy crackers and watered down punch. (At least that’s what her parents told her it was.)

She waltzed with her eyes on the priest as if she was doing a walk with Jesus himself. If I don’t look guilty then they won’t suspect me, right?! Ok, just keep walking and don’t look down. Keep walking and don’t look BACK. Eyes forward, right?…

It was all good. She kneeled, genuflected, opened her mouth, apologized to God for her abandonment of her underwear and for thinking horrible thoughts about the nuns, and was back on her feet. Her mother was waiting for all seven of them to finish and then herded them out like the feral farm animals she knew that she was disguising. They pulled at their clothes and groused under their breaths as they grew closer to the exit in relief from surviving another torturous episode of Catholicism. They were outside, in the sunshine, she was safe! They were running towards their station wagon and their mother was yelling at them to watch out for cars while their father lit a cigarette and glowered at them in exhaustion.

But wait! What’s this?! All of their heads whipped back in Pavolvian excitement at the audible gasp of shock from inside the church. Then it was a manly, “What the – ?” Followed by the telltale sound of shocked chuckling.

Oh no, oh no, oh no – !

But her family was already piling into the car and no one was staring at her. She had waited too long and was going to have to sit on the outside edge of the backseat but that was a fair punishment considering and a great cover. She could appear to be lost in concentration holding the door shut as they drove home unless she wanted to fall out as they rounded the corner. They never did get around to fixing that door. She could be in for a bumpy ride for sure with no underwear, no seatbelt, and a busted door keeping her from meeting the asphalt.

She settled in and silently thanked God that no one noticed the underwear. Her father drove silently and everyone remained silent as well as to not anger the old man. Yet amongst the silence a squeaky voice of her brother rang out, “Hey, did anyone see the underwear in the aisle today?!””

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