In her sixties, Ella began to take courses in theology. She'd always practiced some form of religion or another--Buddhism had taken up the greater part of her spiritual life, after she escaped from the dour pews of Wynn Moor Presbyterian--but she'd never gotten a proper overview of the entire subject. Now restive, ambitious and with time on her hands, she hit the books wholeheartedly and found she had a knack for it. She was the oldest student at the seminary but was thin and erect as a girl, and the bloom of new ideas filled her with vitality.
"No one has understood this before!" she would say excitedly into the telephone. On the other end of the line, dotted here and there across the country, her six children stood in their kitchens and living rooms performing whatever chores they could within their reach as they listened and periodically interjected their encouragement. Whenever they spoke to each other they remarked on how well their mother sounded lately, the best they could remember since their father died. She seemed almost sanguine. They'd grown up humoring her intermittent passions, and rather than resenting any pursuit that deflected her attention from them, they were always relieved when something interested her enough that her pervasive sense of disappointment ebbed. Only Margie was ambivalent about this latest development. When she heard her mother's voice, fevered and insistent, her stomach began to purl with the same combination of dread and titillation that she'd felt during all of Ella's pregnancies, which were the very definition of a mixed blessing as what was gained in the form of a miraculous addition to the family never sufficiently atoned for the further division of Ella's time. But it seemed she was the only one of her siblings for whom these betrayals and abandonments remained an open wound. Everyone else had either gotten enough of their mother or gotten over it. Perversely, Ella sought the most approval for her new insights from Margie, who was the least able to mindlessly jolly her along.
"Why hasn't anyone thought of this before?" Ella asked after giving her latest brainstorm. It was a rhetorical question, the only possible answer being that no one was as smart.
Margie handed a toy to her baby daughter while coaching herself to be patient. "I think you've got something," she might say, or "that's an interesting way to think about it." What harm could it do for her mother to believe she understood God better than anyone else did? The wisest course was to allow Ella to talk herself out about Him--she was like a teen with a painful crush--and then move on to more pertinent topics. Yet in spite of Margie's best efforts, the conversation always returned to the subject of religion, and all the secret anger of their relationship came to the surface.
"I'm tired of men," Ella began one day. "If only women would keep their legs together, we could fight back."
"I think women would do better to give up religion. It's the Judeo-Christian ethic that gives moral authority to the idea of a patriarchy. "
Of course, when Margie said women should give up religion, she meant Ella, and when Ella said women should keep their legs together, she meant Margie. They had always envied each other both their soulfulness and their sexuality and the envy had kept them from being either direct or supportive.
"It depends on your interpretation," Ella said. "Some people think Jesus was a feminist, and that his mother and Mary Magdalene were disciples on par with the other twelve."
Margie's shoulders tightened. "I'm the one who said that to you."
"I don't think so. "
"Where did you hear it?"
"We had a long talk about this, " Margie said. "I told you that was one of my theories. Jesus had an inkling of the possibilities of equality, and then St. Paul came along and reinstated the traditional misogyny. Jesus was an anomaly."
"I think I heard it at the seminary," Ella said. "I'm sure some of the other women were talking about it."
Anger swept through Margie's body, but when she saw the baby watching her she quickly turned away, instinctively protecting Caroline from the rage she could feel twisting her features.
"Don't you remember?" she pressed. She named the time and the place of the conversation. As a child, she had developed a memory for such things in order to stave off obliteration by Ella's tendency to assimilate the provenance of any idea or style that appealed to her.
There was a pause. "Well, it doesn't matter whose idea it was. The point is that it's a good idea." Ella thereby dismissed the wrangling over the theory's derivation, as if it were beneath her.
It did matter, though. It mattered to Margie that she'd had the idea, that she'd told it to her mother, and that her mother had found it good. But if Margie continued to insist the idea was hers Ella would call her egocentric and vain. Ella had many such tricks; Margie had internalized them so thoroughly that even when Ella was far away, she might as well have been in the same room, in the same bed, in the same head. Margie wasn't blind to the dynamic of the situation. She was well aware that her constant echoing of that belittling voice made it all the more powerful, but her analysis changed nothing.
This rash of theological conversations prompted Margie to think about religion again. She had given it up years earlier when it seemed to effect a separation from the other parts of her life rather than affording the connection for which she longed. Now it all came back. Soon she was nearly as obsessed as Ella, and whenever her husband came near, she harangued him with her ideas. These were not conversations. They were monologues, diatribes, filibusters, because he already agreed with her on this subject and most others. She promised herself continually that she would stop bothering him with this stuff and cut straight to the complaints about her mother, which were more dangerous to keep to herself. She was afraid that if she didn't air the litany of grievances she had against Ella that they would gather and multiply and she would end up with cancer.
"I can't believe how much you've changed," Margie needled Ella. "I always used to tell you that Catholic theology was compelling, and you dismissed it."
"I don't remember that," Ella said.
"Surprise, surprise." Margie's voice was acid. She was tired from the baby, tired from her work, tired from living a life that was turning out to be as disappointing as her mother's, tired of trying to please her mother by leading a disappointing life, tired of justifying why she wasn't doing better. She used to read every night before she went to sleep, but now she turned out the lights the moment she got into bed and welcomed the languid slide into unconsciousness.
After one particularly bruising conversation Margie found herself praying for relief. Please God, she thought, please let me get away from her. No--that wasn't what she meant. Please God, she amended her supplication, let my mother see me.
She stopped abruptly. What was she doing? She didn't pray anymore. She didn't even believe in God anymore. She believed in nature. She believed that all answers to everything could be found in nature. She would tell Ella that, and forever after drop the subject.
"Here's the way I think about the Trinity," she said the next time Ella called. "I think of it as an extended metaphor for a sperm and an egg coming together to make a baby. The man, the woman, and the new life they create are all utterly connected in that one moment. They are three, but they are not separate. Each person alive embodies this moment, and is the ongoing unity of himself and his parents. Nothing religion says really improves on this. I think it's miraculous enough simply to see the thing for what it is." Unexpectedly, Margie found herself crying. Caroline was at her feet, reaching to be picked up. Margie knelt by her as she held the telephone tight, waiting.
"What a lovely way of looking at it," Ella said.
"You like that?" Margie steadied her voice.
There was a pause. "I think it's terrific. I wish you would do something with your ideas. You're wasting your mind. You don't have forever, you know. You have to think about yourself. Caroline will grow up in spite of what..."
Margie stood again and pressed fingers into her eyes, making bursts of light fly across her field of vision. When she opened them again, she saw that Caroline was crawling for the first time. Margie had maintained that it wouldn't bother her to miss out on such milestones--if Caroline did something important while with a baby-sitter, for instance--but the sight of her child's brute determination was heart-stopping.
"Just a sec, Mother," she said and tiptoed protectively alongside the lumbering baby. She was so moved and amazed and caught up in the moment that it wasn't until some time later that she remembered she'd left Ella waiting on the other end of the line. Margie retrieved the receiver, her chest aching with excitement. "Ma, guess what? Caroline crawled!"
"Now you're really in for it," Ella said. "Now you'll have to watch her every second. Be sure to block off all the plugs." She paused for the same amount of time it had used to take her to pull in a lung full of smoke. She'd quit twenty years earlier, but her conversations still had a smoker's rhythm to them. "Let's get back to your idea about the Trinity. What about multiple births, especially fraternal twins..."
Caroline maneuvered onto her hands and knees and made for the doorway. Margie instinctively began to wave her back but thought better of it. Instead, she lay the receiver down again and unobtrusively followed her daughter into the dining room, a distance from which Ella's precise words were indistinguishable, nothing more than a murmur, a swarm of bees pestering a growth of peonies, droning on and on, ad infinitum. Margie pulled the door closed behind her and the buzzing in her ears that had threatened to drive her to violence countless times in her life...stopped. Then peace came, but briefly. Ella was not giving up without a fight and the image of her that Margie carried in her conscience weighed in with the grim reminder that someday she would be dead and Margie would miss her very much.
"Fuck!" Margie said and banged her fist on the sideboard. "Fuck a duck!" The idea of that particular abomination made her laugh sharply. Let Ella come up with a theological explanation for that! Caroline halted and flipped around to stare. The knees of her leggings had already collected round patches of dust. "Oh Caroline, I was just being silly," Margie said. "You have to learn to ignore me."
The baby looked doubtful.
"Go ahead. Keep going, you're doing wonderfully! Daddy will be so proud."
The baby went back to work and Margie crept to the door. But she couldn't bring herself to disappear without saying something, she hated seeing children manipulated in that way, as if they could be tricked out of their feelings. "I'm just going to go say goodbye to Grammie," she called out.
Caroline was so absorbed that she didn't even turn around, but no sooner had Margie resumed her conversation than the baby began to cry, a plaintive cry that pinched Margie's stomach. "I have to go now, Mother," she said.
"But I'm so interested in what you have to say!"
"Oh..." She peered in the direction of the wailing, her nerves nearly shot. "Okay...I'll call you back."
"How soon? I have to go out in a little while," Ella said.
"Wait," Margie said anxiously. "Just hold on for a moment." She ran to the kitchen door and banged her shoulder against it, but rather than giving way and squeaking along on its familiar arc, the slab was stiff and unyielding and she smashed into it and gasped. After a moment she tried again, inching the door open gently until she hit the obstacle; there was a dull thud on contact. "Caroline? Caroline?" She listened, deeply sickened, blaming her ugliest traits--competitiveness, envy, superiority, inferiority, shrill egoism--for all of this. She was on the verge of a raw hysteria when the baby let out a chilling shriek which she instinctively echoed, clamoring with fear and empathy. Together they screamed back and forth, filling the house with a chorus of forsaken wailing that sounded to Ella on her end of the line as though they'd turned on the television and were watching some jazzy police or hospital soap opera that had made them forget about her completely. That wasn't very nice, she thought, and reflected how glad she would be when Margie's early-motherhood stage of tunnel vision came to an end. Until then, it was hardly worth calling; in a bit of a huff, she hung up and made a few quick scribbles about her latest notions so they could pick up where they left off when Margie wasn't so preoccupied.
Copyright © 1996 Alice Elliott Dark
Originally appeared in DoubleTake, Issue 5.
Photo of Alice Elliott Dark copyright © Jerry Bauer.