Last month’s column ended with my mother and me about to square off because I wanted to call off a big, glitzy wedding that my parents had planned to the hilt and paid for.
I was young, just 21, half hippie, half yuppie (Google it), with a fresh degree in Comparative Literature (insert hysterically-laughing emoji). I was oblivious to “the future” and still mightily distracted by sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
To the eye-rolling dismay of my girlfriends, I got engaged to my college sweetheart. I’m pretty sure it was my idea, that I maneuvered to that goal, convincing us both of our happily-ever-after.
He had gleaming white teeth and great arms and a long black ponytail, which, within a month of graduation, he’d cut off to enter the job market. Definitely marriage material: ambitious, and supportive, and kind. His Jewish family was loving and close, like my Italian-American clan, but with a more contemporary home, better books on their shelves, and an open perspective on the world. I was attracted to that; it felt like sophistication.
I did love him, I did, and he loved me. But I missed the ponytail.
It wasn’t conscious, but getting married presented itself as the escape route away from the world of my old-fashioned parents. I thought I could define myself differently, better. Ironically, I chose the well-worn path walked by the women in our family, our culture, as wife and mother. I only realized this years later when I finally reckoned with relationships. That’s another story, one that continues. It turns out, defining yourself is the work of a lifetime.
My mother’s dream was about to come true: A grand affair at a catering hall that ran eleven weddings at a time to capitalize on the surge of boomers reaching marriage age. The place was decorated with crystal chandeliers, red velvet drapes, and marble staircases, brides ascending and descending. My mother was dazzled. She was a former glamour girl who believed fiercely in traditional marriage and was willing to spend money they didn’t have so that I, her wild child, would be safely parked in one. Wedding planning became her vocation. The List came in at 250 people.
My eye-rolling girlfriends became bridesmaids. We’d gone from jump ropes to training bras to catting around with fake IDs and, now, a bachelorette weekend in Atlantic City for general girly debauchery. On the first afternoon, I met a guy who did lighting for the shows. I forgot my friends, and also the fiancé undergoing his tuxedo fitting back home. I spent the next 18 hours wrapped around the lighting guy. Is that scandalous? Back then, it was typical, if you ignored the fact that I was getting married in three weeks, which I did. The friends moved from eye-rolling to more serious reactions: “Are you crazy? You can’t get married!”
I’d proven both, I was and I couldn’t. It was time to go home.
The fact is, I sleep pretty well, but worrisome things do rise and heave. I review the archives, overthinking, making it worse. Memories grip me hard or maybe I grip them. They crash the insomnia party. You can’t uninvite a memory, can you?
My mother conducted all business from Command Central – the kitchen table, telephone on the wall above her head. Next to it hung one of those mail organizers with slots for hot bills, greeting cards to be sent, her address book and pen, and The List. Years later, my mother sat in that same spot, my daughters across from her, their chubby fingers splayed on the table so she could paint their nails. This was not that.
I took my seat. I have a terrible memory, but I do remember this conversation.
— I need to talk to you, Ma.
She shakes her head, not emphatically, not in disbelief or concern but in anger. She already knows what’s coming. She knows because she knows me. She shakes her head “no” because she forbids it.
–– Close to 300 people.
— I know. I know! I went to Atlantic City and I … I met someone. Someone I liked.
— Someone you liked.
I don’t know why I bothered to position it as anything other than greedy, burning desire.
— It’s a mistake. I can’t do it. You gave a deposit. You can get the money back.
She scoffed. I cried. I was a crier then, I’m a crier now.
I was desperate. I needed her. I stared her down. I shook my head, held her eyes in mine. She reached for the address book and The List, smoothed the loose-leaf papers she’d used to plan her dream and pushed it across to me.
— You’d better start dialing.
My mother was funny and wise and tender, for the most part, but this was her Waterloo: Humiliation in front of the 200, defeat at the whim of a non-compliant, post-virginal daughter. She probably suspected all along that the engagement was too good to be true. Like I said, she knew me.
Honestly, I’m still stunned. Yes, it was my mess to clean up. But I wanted cover from my mother. The kitchen table betrayal — that’s how it felt — lives at my core, a tiny crack that has crazed my heart. We resumed a close relationship, forever never talking about it, me forever feeling that I was — am — owed an apology. Truly, forever; she died 29 years ago.
If you haven’t surmised by now, yep, I married him. I tried to be a wife and I was terrible at it. It ended in divorce a year or so later. I’ve peeked on social media. He’s still a good guy, his short hair is steel gray, his smile is kind.
I certainly do owe an apology, but not to my mother. And I’m not brave enough to cross 40+ years to say I’m sorry I hurt you to this man, though I am.
See you next month when I tackle apologies I owe friends and those I think are owed to me.
Is there anyone you wish you could apologize to? Are there still apologies you’re waiting for? Share your story in the comments below.
About Stephanie Gangi
Stephanie Gangi is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Carry the Dog is her second novel. Her acclaimed debut, The Next, was published by St. Martin’s Press. Gangi’s shorter work has appeared in Arts & Letters, Catapult, Dame, LitHub, Hippocrates Poetry Anthology, McSweeney’s, New Ohio Review, Next Tribe, The Woolfer. She lives in New York City, where she is at work on The Good Provider, her third novel.
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