High school senior Ashley St. Helens
has suddenly found herself living a fairy tale life....
Which is not as much fun as it sounds.
Until... the other shoe drops.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My Father’s Face

Suddenly Sylvia was standing there, just out of her bath, wearing her fluffy robe, her hair in a yellow terrycloth turban… and holding a stack of lavender bath towels.

“You folded these, didn’t you?” she asked me. I nodded, glad she had noticed. She had asked for help with the laundry, and I was glad to do it. Well, the next thing she did was drop the stack on the board, scattering our game across the polished tabletop. “Didn’t your mother teach you anything? What is this?” She picked up the top towel and stared at it. “The edges are showing!” She shook the towel open and laid it flat across the mess. “You fold towels in thirds. Pay attention.” She turned first one long edge in, then another, her movements intense with efficiency… and some weird rage I did not understand. Then she brought the folded ends over, one at a time, until the towel was a submissive package of gentle, well-behaved, and definitely humbled corners.

Debra and Donna had changed in her presence, from carefree companions to stiff and snooty judges, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads. Sylvia shoved the pile of towels at me and left the room with her girls. I sat there, stunned, kind of just trying to catch my breath. Didn’t your mother teach you anything? 

Didn’t yours? I wondered.

At dinner that night the three of them chatted away with my dad, as if nothing happened, but I kept fighting back tears, trying to act normal for the family’s sake. I was still stunned by what she’d said and how she’d talked to me. After dinner, Sylvia swept my dad away from the table to show him carpet samples for her redecorating plans, so I never got to talk to him. The Girls went off to talk on the phone, and I sat there at the table, surrounded by dirty dishes, feeling empty, listening to the grandfather clock in the hall chime the half hour, then quarter of, then the hour of seven. Finally I decided to clean up. After all, it was my kitchen, too. And when I cleaned it, I could put things back where they belong.

When Sylvia came back to the kitchen I had just started the dishwasher and was wiping the counter. She didn’t say thanks or anything. Just, “Ugh, I don’t want to see those pots and pans in the morning.”

That was about enough. I remembered the tender moment after she had yelled at me the first time—but this was different. I squeezed the sponge in the sink and was hyper-aware of how my shoulders were positioned. I forced the words out, not wanting to start an argument, but something had to be said. I said it: “Do you treat your daughters this way?” I mean, she did treat them pretty bad, but she never left the cleaning to them.

She shrugged her shoulders as she took two wineglasses out of the cabinet. “Well, you’re not my daughter.”

When I told my friend Linda (we were in college at the time) about Sylvia, she said Sylvia’s cold manner was her way of masking her own buried pain, created by parents who never gave her the love she needed. Okay, I get that. But at that moment I only felt confused at the wave of contempt that washed over me. That blatant statement of rejection was completely unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I stepped back at the force of it, feeling my chest tighten around my lungs. And when I stepped back, I could see my dad’s shadow blocking the door to the hallway. He had heard us speaking. I saw his face, gone white. Sylvia turned and saw him, looked stricken for a moment, caught with her guard down. Then she steeled herself, narrowed her eyes, waiting for a challenge. She didn’t get one—my dad just stood there with this incredibly pained look on his face—so she gave one.

“Well, she’s not,” Sylvia spat. “She’s inattentive, reclusive, holier-than-thou, and defiant. You heard her tone.” My mind reeled… was I really all those things? Inattentive, yeah, to some things, but on the other hand I had about a hundred more things to pay attention to than Debra and Donna… like my studies, my volunteer work, my college applications, my sewing projects (many of which were for other family members). And I loved to read. I was working my way through my mother’s library. Sylvia’s voice went up a few notches. “Whenever I say anything to her, I can tell she’s just trying to imagine what her own mother would have said.” Well, that part was actually true.

We both stared at my father’s face, his very pale and slightly sweaty face, hoping he would say something that would support each of our points of view. I really needed him to stick up for me, to say something sweet, to tell her what a genuinely good person I was, how hard I tried to do the right thing, and how Sylvia was the grown-up, and needed to take some responsibility.

My dad’s eyes unfocused just a little bit. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but no sound came out. He turned, instead, into the bathroom off the hallway, and threw up.

Then he passed out.


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