How I Want to Live

My mother smoked throughout her pregnancy with me. I grabbed onto her long black locks while she smoked and I breastfed, one hand holding onto me, the other at her lips. My mom quit smoking when she saw a commercial with a mother and daughter on our black and white tube TV. Do you want to live to see her grow up? the narrator asked. She did. It was 1977. I was two. It was the year her mother died and my dad moved out. I’d already eaten a cigarette. I knew the difference between a camel and a joint and I’d inserted a peanut in the place I'd seen her put a tampon. I walked around the house naked in cowgirl boots that came up to the tops of my fat, buttery thighs.

But it wasn’t my mother I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to grow up and get married three times and divorced twice, just like my Dad. I wanted to smell like unscented pink chapstick from the twisty black tube and fresh sawdust and cigarette smoke. I wanted to move at the end of each year into a new apartment or townhouse or rental with a new husband or wife or girlfriend or lover. I wanted to marry my dad but more than that, I wanted to grow up to be just like him, wild and free and never in the same place, doing the same thing, past its expiration, for long.

After I moved out of the house I’d lived in with my mother my entire life except for the one time she moved- across the street- I slept in hostels and motels and tents. I slept in cabins and yurts and the beds of strangers. I slept in dorm rooms and train cars and bus seats and truck beds. I slept in hunting lodges and cruise ships and trailer parks. I slept in as many places, with as many people as I could.

My dad’s second wife wanted me to call her Mommy but I called her Baby instead. I called my Dad Snorky and he called me Little Pig. We spoke to each other in high-pitched nasal voices and invented worlds inhabited by talking animals and magical creatures and friendly monsters that did whatever you said. Turn all the house lights on. Turn the music up. Let the faucet run until the house flooded into oceans. My mother told me she was concerned that I couldn’t tell the difference between reality and make-believe. I like the make believe world better, I said.

Not sure where they'd went, I remember pacing the narrow wooden hallways of my Dad and Baby's fan apartment frightened of monsters and robbers and things I didn’t know how to name. My mom stopped letting me spend the night at their house and I hated her for that. I wanted as much of my dad as I could get. 

When their marriage ended, my dad ended up in rehab. I was crushed not to spend Easter with him that year. My mom was Jewish, did not eat sugar and made terrible health food Easter baskets. Even though I’d grown up in the back of AA meetings I didn’t understand drinking, the allure or meaning of getting drunk. At least not yet. 

When I was seven, I asked my Dad to marry me in the checkout line at Safeway. We should wait until we’re 100 though, I told him. I thought that by then my age would have caught up with his.

When I was 22, my fiancé  and I moved to Arkansas to live in a tool shed on his father’s farm. Our bed was wedged between nests of rakes and shovels and farm equipment while his father slept alone in a tiny cabin he built himself. After a couple of months of waiting tables and smoking weed and drinking everything I could from Ruby’s liquor store across the dry county line, I decided I was in love with my fiance’s father, the same age as my own. The morning after I moved into Will Senior’s king sized bed, I woke up from a dream screaming, snakes crawling out of my mouth and all around my head.

My dad married for the third and final time when I was twelve. He and my new stepmother have lived in the same house out in the country for the last twenty five years. They are still in love. Their home and their land in their hard won life is open and full of air and light and love.

And that love exists inside me too, lit like a lantern in the blackest night. The ripping apart and the merging together, the coming and the going, the leaving and the staying, finally the staying. The many selves I’ve tried on, wanted to be, the lives I’ve thought I should live, the converging and twisting and dying and being born again and again, trying to reconcile who I should be, who I really am, and how I want to live.  

Valley Haggard1 Comment