Sarah’s mother wears red and white lipstick. First she puts on the white, and she looks like she should be living in the 1960’s world of beaded door hangings and lava lamps. Then she puts red lipstick on over the white and rubs her lips together until she has achieved the perfect shade of pink. Sometimes you can still see bits of white at the edges. Watching this ritual over the years, Sarah has often wondered why her mother didn’t just buy the shade of pink she was after, but she suspects that her mom likes the ritual more than the color.
Dorothy thrives on rituals. They lend structure and dependability to her days. It starts in the morning as soon as she gets out of bed. Her white slip-ons wait at just the spot where her feet make their decent, as she slips out of bed. Before even going to the bathroom for her morning pee, she makes her bed, complete with a particular arrangement of the many shaped pillows and bolsters that adorn it. The actual bed making is an easy feat, as she prides herself on “sleeping neat” so that she won’t disturb the covers.
After her bathroom basics, she goes to the kitchen where she melts an American cheese slice onto a toasted half of a bagel-flat she special orders from the Jewish deli on 34th street. She has a big mug of tea, filled to the top, even though she will not drink the whole thing. She likes the feel, and the sight, of the full cup steaming in her hands.
As Sarah descends from her tree house sanctuary she knows that her mother will expect her to apologize for not coming home by 4:30 as the rules clearly state. Sarah can recite all of the many house rules, but she doesn’t believe in them. She only respects rules when she can see their value and their purpose. Most of her mother’s rules are arbitrary. What is the big deal about 4:30? It isn’t dark by 4:30. It is too early for dinner. It isn’t even time to feed the cats, a job she is happy to be responsible for.
Sometimes Sarah is ready for a fight, but not today. Today she wants to be left alone in peace. She rehearses excuses in her head, to see which one comes through the easiest. (I fell asleep in the tree house. I was helping Mrs. Jarvis with the weeds in her back garden and I lost track of time. I have been in my room the whole time, and I was so involved in Anne of Green Gables that I didn’t hear you…)
Sarah loves her mother, but she can’t talk to her – not really talk. And Sarah has so much to say, and so much she needs to know. She needs to talk about why her dad left when she was in fourth grade, and she needs to tell someone that she knows about the other women, the ones whose presence peppered her childhood with fights through bedroom walls and mom’s “black times.” She needs to talk with someone about boys, and how to be around them. She wants to tell someone about what happened with Billy last summer, but there is no one to tell. Joan would just tell her sister who would tell everyone. Jen would judge. Her mother would ground her for life, and then cry for days in her darkened bedroom. That is why she loves that tree house! It is her private sanctuary after the other kids go home, or in the winter when everyone else thinks it is too cold.
Sarah loves winter. She loves the warm enveloping hug of sweaters, and the smell of the heat coming on. She loves the sound of water through the pipes as she bleeds the radiators the way her dad taught her. She loves hot chocolate and the smell of snow. She loves to listen to the snow fall from the tree house windows. Most people, she’s learned, don’t know that snow has a smell or a sound. Winter taught her to be a writer. It taught her to listen to the stillness…
(See the blog post "The Tree House" published June 18th, for another glimpse of Sarah)