Harriet Halliday Renaud


April 2014

Owing to the facts that I lost my father in a plane accident during my prenatal period and after birth lived with a beautiful young girl who was not the right type for a mother, I had led a very problem-laden life. So naturally I knew even before I got to the university that I wanted to major in psychology and prepare myself for a lifetime career of helping others.

Well, last year, about a week before I was due to leave home for the campus in the northern part of the state, I thought I would tell mother my decision about the psychology. I came home early from a date, and there was mother playing cribbage with one of her admirers.

"Darling, how nice," mother said. "I didn't expect you home for hours."

I have always had a terrible time remembering the names of mother's admirers.

"Ford was nice enough to offer to keep me company until you got home," mother said, which was her way of reminding me what his name was.

"Nice enough and crafty enough," this Ford said, unwinding a whole lot of himself and standing up. "The plan really was to beat her at this game fifteen ways to Christmas, although"—he smiled down at mother—"I can't say that is precisely the way things worked out."

"No, it didn't, did it?" mother smiled, standing up too.

This particular admirer, Ford, is the big type of man who wears burly tweeds that look prickly, and I can't say that I looked into him any more than that.

"Thank you very much, Marita," he said, putting out his hand to mother.  "I must be off." 

"Well, if you must," mother said, putting her hand in his.

And then he surprised me.  He put out his hand to me and said, sounding very serious, "And may you have a most rewarding year, Miss Gibbs."

"Why—thank you," I said.

After he left, mother went into the kitchen and came back with two hollow-stem glasses filled with beautiful sparkling Burgundy.

"My goodness, where did that come from?" I said, moving over to the card table.

"Ford brought it—for you."

"For me?" I said, really bewildered.  "Whatever for?"

"Because you're going away, and he likes you," mother said.

"Likes me?" I hooted.  "You mean likes you."

"Me, too," mother said calmly and shuffled the cards.

The Burgundy was good, and I enjoyed it much more than I had intended to, so after a while I said, "Well, why didn't he stay and have some, then? Ford, I mean."

"He didn't think you wanted him to," mother said, and dealt out two cribbage hands and set the pegs.

"What do you mean?" I said, feeling my face flush.  "What do you mean? What did I say that could have given anyone the impression I didn't want him to stay?"

"You didn't have to say anything," mother said.  "Did you want him to stay?"

"No," I said.

"All right then," mother said.  "It's your turn.  Play."

I beat mother two games out of three, and then I said, "I've decided what course I'm going to take in college.  I'm going to major in psychology."

Mother smiled her divinest smile.  "Fine," she said.

So just to test her I said, "Although I don't really know.  I'm also considering atomic aeronautics."

Mother smiled that smile again.  "Fine," she said.

"You don't care what I do," I said.  "What kind of a parent are you, anyhow?"

"A pretty good one, judging from you," mother said, positively creamy with self-satisfaction. 

"I never got a piece of advice from you in my life," I scoffed, trying to feel a few tears in my throat.  "I brought myself up."

"Congratulations," mother said.  "I like your results."

I made one last try.  "Wouldn't you like me to be a fashion designer—or at least a textile expert, or something like that even?" I said.

"Why?" mother said.

"Well, because that's your field," I explained to her.  "It's the normal thing to look forward to the day when you can put out a cunning sign, all glittery and shocking pink, saying, Marita and Sprout, or The Two Maritas.  And you tell everyone how proud you are—"

"Why are you supposed to like what I like?" she asked.

You can see how confusing things got sometimes.  I mean, with mother you can almost count on it that all the basic, accepted ideas in the world somehow get turned into brand-new questions in her mind.  Which can be unnerving.

So I kissed her on the top of her beautiful, feather-brained head, and went upstairs to pack some more.  And there on my bed was my mother's contribution to my wardrobe: the seven-piece light-wool ensemble from her new line, which she hadn't even shown yet, and which includes everything from a formal to lounging-in-the-dorm pants. A short red mole jacket.  And her own beaded and rhinestone evening purse which I have loudly coveted since I was thirteen.

I consoled myself with the thought that even though my mother didn't happen to be an adult, she was beautiful, and fun, and successful, and generous; and that was something.

At the airport mother kissed me happily, said she'd be glad to hear from me whenever I felt like writing, phoning or visiting, and handed me an envelope labeled, Plane Letter.  Then that Ford, who'd come along to drive, stepped up and pinned a green orchid on my suit lapel, saluted me on both cheeks, and then kissed mother, for no reason at all that I could see except that she looked ravishing.

On the plane I opened mother's letter, which was mainly a lot of advice such as Lord Chesterfield never gave his son.  Things like: If you have to stay up to cram all during exam week, remember that one good night's sleep will make up for it.  If you rinse your socks and undies every night, then they won't pile up; but if they do pile up, then you can do them all at once. Things like that.  But down at the bottom, it said, "I know that whatever courses you decide to take, darling, your natural talents will shine through. Love to you, Mother."

Which by tremendous coincidence was very close to what Chip said to me very early in our acquaintance, after I met him through Science 46, which was the prerequisite course to Psychology 1A.  As a graduate teaching fellow in psychology, Chip was the one who graded the papers in the course, and on my mid-term paper he wrote a note asking me to confer, and signed it, The Reader.

I don't know what I expected The Reader would be like, except maybe like The Professor, except not quite so much.  So you can understand how unprepared I was for Chip, who, even first thing in the morning, looks like Jimmy Stewart's younger brother, with a faint resemblance also to Gregory Peck and Anthony Eden.

Well, that first interview I was wearing my cherry-red cashmere sweater and a winter-white flannel skirt, and my hair, which is blond, was pulled back so that only a few small curls managed to escape, mainly on my forehead and over my ears.  And I can't remember that we ever did talk about the mid-term paper.

"What are you planning to take next semester?" Chip asked, looking very bemused or something.

"I am mostly taking as many psychology courses as I can fit into my program," I told him, sounding as eager and interested as I could in the face of Chip's looking as though he were listening to something else that was going on very far away.

Chip stood up and looked at me thoughtfully.  "Have you noticed the course in Courtship and Marriage?" he asked. "Science one twenty-three in the catalogue."

"No," I said, "I haven't.  Thank you very much for mentioning it, but I have a lot of psychology courses to take first."

"That isn't really necessary," Chip said.  He was very gentle.  "You have natural talents.  Those tend to be more trustworthy than what you pick up in books."

Which, to refer to what mother wrote in her Plane Letter, was the coincidence I mentioned at that time.

In the spring I took the course in Courtship and Marriage, and we were married in June, so I had the whole summer, which we spent alone in mother's house in Santa Barbara, to feel smug about how easy marriage was for me, when it was so hard in all the books.  I mean, already I could feel how I had changed from a "wild, willful weed of a girl, into a full-blown, flexible flower of a woman."

But then in the fall, when Chip and I returned to a temporary room near the university as man and wife, I discovered that no matter how scientific you are about measuring Compatibility in Science 123, there are hidden facets in everyone which, no matter how long they have been there, absolutely nothing brings out the way the Early Months of Marriage do.

You see, once Chip and I set about making a budget to meet the Practical Problems ahead, I realized it might take a while to find an ideal home that we could also pay for.  But nothing that we said prepared me for the reality which confronted me one day after Chip dashed into our room and said, "I found it, Mari—the place we've been looking for.  I had to take it before lunch hour because it's advertised and someone would have grabbed it."

Well, we got into our wedding-present car, and Chip raced until we got to a block lined with tired old houses.  He stopped in front of one of them with a triumphant jerk on the hand brake, leaped out of the car and disappeared.

I followed him, and groped in a black shaft of a hallway until I found a staircase.  Chip was waiting at the top, and he ushered me into our new home with a flourish.

The Odious Arms, a name which came to me in a tear-blinding flash, lived up to everything it promised on its outside.  It was dank, drafty, and dilapidated.  There were six cubbyhole rooms, one right after another down a long hall, at the end of which was a triangular kitchen with a hole in the floor.

"It's only forty-five dollars a month," Chip crowed.  "And the landlord's letting us do all this over ourselves!"

There was a period after this during which I experienced shock, disbelief, terror and finally acceptance.  The latter came to me after I finally realized that men are different from women in ways that are not gone into in Science 123.

You see, practically my whole attitude toward men was formed by mother's way of saying, "We'll have to get a man to do that."  So it was absolutely revolutionary to my psyche to discover that in addition to doing things women can't do, men also go in for things women wouldn't consider doing whatsoever.

So we moved into The Odious Arms.  After the spectacular success of our honeymoon Period of Adjustment, I had been eagerly looking forward to the Reaping of Fruits from Mature Compromise. But things came up which I had to admit were much more like Seeds of Discord.

For one thing, the drafts in our apartment were more like minor gales, and Chip claimed that I kept pulling all the covers off him at night and insisted I contact a Blankets Anonymous chapter about my addiction.

Then there was the discovery of my allergy, which appeared very soon after I started painting our foolish bathroom pink and the outside of the claw-footed, bulging bathtub black.  I mean, it would be impossible to imagine such a crawling as began inside of me when I got up in the morning and whiffed that fresh paint and turpentine, so, of course, I didn't take very well to Chip's saying that my allergy was merely a form of resistance to doing the painting.

But then the most unsettling shock of all came the night I discovered that Chip and I weren't compatible on the subject of my mother's character.  I had just got a letter from mother in answer to my description of how everything in The Odious Arms seemed to lean.

"Practice leaning the other way yourself, darling," mother had written, "and pretty soon everything will seem perfectly straight to you."  Which struck me as pretty unfeeling of her.

"With a mother who just never got to be an adult and never learned about Maternal Protection, no wonder I'm insecure," I said to Chip, who was filling in a hole in the kitchen floor. 

"Yeah," Chip said.  "Like a baby in a buggy."

"What do you mean?" I said.  "Mother never even treated me like a baby when I was a baby."

Chip went back to working on the hole, and I went back to burning the hamburgers.  But I still had an uneasy, unfinished feeling.

"Listen," I said, "all I'm saying is that my mother's not exactly maternal—she's always been too young, and she has her career and admirers.  You should have seen her the day I left home for college.  She acted as though it was absolutely the happiest day of her life."

"She didn't want to crowd you," Chip said.

"Crowd me?" I gasped, and I felt a little cold stab of something down there along with my allergy.  And then it was as if someone had suddenly taken away my favorite chair, the one I just naturally sat on.  Without any warning at all.

After dinner I still felt strange and lost, and I went to bed early. The fact that everything between mother and me might really be turned around from what I'd always thought, was something I needed to take away, off by myself.  I thought about her being a young girl, just about the age I was, alone with a child to bring up.

Suppose that all the years I'd been forgiving mother for not giving me advice and for leaving me to make my own decisions, she had made herself stand aside, letting me learn my lessons in freedom and grow up in my own way? Suppose it really had been the hardest thing she had to learn in her life, when I was all she had?

Suppose mother had always made it clear how full her life was, so that I wouldn't ever feel responsible for her happiness? Suppose mother hadn't married partly because of my attitude toward her admirers? How many had there been, during the years, that I'd pretended not to notice, or openly didn't like?

My face burned, and my sins lay cold and heavy on my heart, and then Chip came to bed and I sobbed in his arms, and a lot of me got washed away, but I don't think I'll miss it.

In what seemed like a very long time, but wasn't, according to the calendar, there were plants in gilt pots on the pale pink walls of the bathroom; the kitchen was white, trimmed in dark green and red, and linoleumed in green with a white border; and there was a dining counter built and in the process of being sanded by me.

I tried to be pleased because Chip was, but the truth was my entire faith in my unwavering maturity was shaken by how positively joyless I was beginning to feel when I woke up in the cold morning and realized I was in The Odious Arms.

I tried to keep all these feelings from Chip, who, being a very task-oriented person, is usually forging ahead on several fronts at the same time, without its occurring to him that other people aren't necessarily doing the same. I mean, what with Chip's painting, papering and wiring, and his research, and his classes, and grading papers, and holding conferences, and having long—very long—academic discussions with his colleagues in our kitchen, he was very busy.

But then after I had had these feelings in me for quite a while, some of them finally started to come out, and one morning, right in the middle of one of my classes, it suddenly came to me that, instead of listening to the lecture or taking notes or doodling or cramming for a quiz next hour, I was just sitting in a miserable haze without any Inner Resources whatsoever, but only a whole lot of allergy.

So after class I walked off campus and went home and sat down at the window with my hands clammy and folded in my lap.  All I could see before me was years and years of sealing and painting and papering the walls of The Odious Arms, without any end ever to the paint under my fingernails, and hamburgers tasting of turpentine, and mass confusion in my stomach, and mother hardly ever close enough for me to see her.

And then Chip was on his knees in front of me, and he was saying, "Darling, I looked for you after your class.  Mari, what is it? Are you ill?"

I looked down into Chip's face, and my heart turned over with love for him.  And then I was in his arms with my heart thumping wildly, and all I could get out was, "I don't know, I don't know what's wrong.  I'm just so sick—sick of The Odious Arms and—Oh, Chip," I wailed.

Chip got very quiet, and then after a long while he said, in his easy and settled way, "Look, darling, after the end of this semester I'll have my degree and we can go anywhere.  I'd planned to stay here for another year, but actually I can do my research at any university.  We're going to have to leave eventually anyhow, because the psychology department almost never hires its own Ph.D.'s for regular staff jobs.  If I start applying right away, there's a good chance I can get an instructorship in one of the colleges around Southern California, nearer Santa Barbara."

The first thing I felt was warm, blessed relief. And then I was filled with wonder over why I hadn't known that of course Chip would always be able to find the miracle solution to everything.  I curled up tighter in his lap, feeling safe and murmuring, "Oh, sweetheart, really? Could we really?"  Already I could see us in a sunny, shining house with sweet-smelling lawns, and mother dropping in for coffee.

The next morning Chip said casually, "Why don't you cut classes today, Mari? Get a good rest, darling, and you'll feel more up to things tomorrow."

I had already sniffed one of the painted walls, so I just nodded my head and waved to him.  I put on my jeans and sat down on the floor and got comfortable to count up to a hundred, after which I was going to make myself go on with the sanding.  I had counted up to forty-seven when I heard all the doors rattle, and I was on fifty-nine when I looked up and saw mother.

"Mother," I screamed.  "Oh, mother, mother, mother, I've never been so happy to see anyone in my whole entire life. Oh, mother—"  I threw my arms around her and hugged and squeezed and then I was crying.  And it made me feel so safe to see mother looking exactly like herself, gay and beautiful, and she smelled so wonderful without any whiffs of paint about her whatsoever.

"Oh, mother," I sighed, "I'm so tired, and so sick to my stomach all the time, and there's so much to do, and I always seem to be wearing jeans, and I don't know how I'm going to last until Chip maybe gets a job near Santa Barbara."

"Well, you look fetching in jeans," mother said, taking one thing at a time, "but why don't you change and come out with me? And while we're gone, would you mind if Ford helped out here? He's been begging all the way up."

And that's when I first saw a man standing in the dimness of the hall. He came in, and I blushed with pure shame because of the long, long time I had refused to notice that Ford was mother's most present admirer, and I didn't know anything about him except that he owned a department store, and lent things to art exhibits from some collection he had of something, and he'd brought me sparkling Burgundy once, and kissed mother at the airport.

He walked in now and said, in a hot-milk-and-honey voice that sounded just like the doctor when you're having a fever, "It doesn't look as though anyone needs any help around here, but I never could resist a piece of wood that wants to be sanded."

So mother and I went off on an errand, which yielded the most awesome information, and for the next two days of mother's and Ford's visit my happiness grew like some large, billowing thing.

And then on the third night, when Chip came home from campus, his face was gray and his eyes looked sunken. I wanted to throw my arms around him and ask what had made him look like that, but I just smiled up at him instead, because I'd already learned that on a man sometimes plain hunger can look like other troubles.

All during dinner, even with mother and Ford there, Chip not only still looked gray but he barely spoke, which in somebody in Clinical Psychology is an especially bad sign, because clinical psychologists are, as an entire group, very verbal people, not to say talkative even. So when Chip excused himself and left the room, skipping dessert, I took off my apron and went into bedroom number two, where Chip was sitting on the bed with his head bowed and his hands over his face.

I sat down on the floor and put my arms around his knees.  "Chip," I whispered, "Chip, darling." And I was afraid—afraid for Chip because he looked so torn, and afraid for me because I didn't know what to do when Chip looked unsure.

"Mari," Chip said, his voice somehow muffled, "it's about the job. The department has offered me one here, when I finish my degree.  I mean a real staff appointment.  It—they almost never do, Mari. There's a new man coming on the faculty—a very well-known clinician—and he's setting up a new program the chairman thinks I'd fit into. It's a wonderful opportunity and—and honor."

I'm not noble. I didn't think first of how proud I should be of Chip. I saw my beautiful little dream of a house near Santa Barbara fading away, and I remembered how I had felt sitting at the window—trapped, in a new, strange life, and doomed to be separated from mother forever.

"Oh, Chip," I said, not wanting to believe it.

"I know how much you want to leave, darling, especially now—" Chip put his hands over his face again.

It takes longer than such a little while to change, I thought, and even the tip of my nose felt frozen. It takes a much longer time than I've had, to change from a weed. I'm not finished yet; I'm not a full-grown flower, and that's what I need to be now.

"What did you say you would do, Chip?" I said, and I could hardly hear my own words for the buzzing in my ears.

"I said I didn't know, I couldn't decide a thing like that without—I said I'd have to talk with my wife."

And that's when I saw it for the first time, something I had never suspected could exist—the hidden facet in me. You see, I'd been so used to thinking that what I wanted most in the world was to be married to Chip that I'd never realized the truth, which was that I'd also been trying to hold on to my life with mother. Even when I'd started understanding about mother's maternal feelings, I hadn't understood how much I'd always depended on her to make the world bright and comfortable for me.

And now I wasn't afraid any more. It wasn't frightening for Chip to be unsure. I was truly his wife, which was somehow turning out to be the same and yet different from the Marriage Partner of Science 123, and it came to me that Experience is a very important thing to have if you are ever really going to understand Science.

All our lives there were going to be times when both of us would be unsure, and it would be all right so long as we felt sure in each other. I'd been afraid of Chip's needing me, but that wasn't the way it was any more. Anything he needed from me I could give him, because there was a strength and a sureness that you got just from being able to love and being looked to as a wife.

I got up and sat down next to Chip and took one of his hands in both of mine and held it tightly. Now that I saw what my choice was, it didn't feel like a choice. Letting go of the plan to move near Santa Barbara really meant letting go of mother. But that meant I'd be freer to love Chip.

"Chip, darling," I said, "it doesn't matter where we do our living so long as we do it together. And since we've already put so much work into The Odious Arms and the doctor says I won't be bothered by the paint much longer, I think we ought to go on just the way we've been doing. And besides, it's an awfully good place for the rent."

Chip leaned forward and touched my cheek gently. "Mari," he said, "I will love you always, even if you should develop a cyclops eye. Do you know what it's like to live with someone who keeps unfolding wonders to you?"

"Of course," I said.

"I was afraid, somehow," Chip said. "I don't know what of, exactly."

I saw the clear, sure light in Chip's eyes again, and I got up and kissed his cheek, and I didn't tell him what he had been afraid of.

Then we went in and told mother and Ford the news, and mother said brightly, "How lovely. I've always wanted to take more trips up this way, and now I'll have a place to stay, which will cut down expenses nicely."

Ford smiled at her. "You're such a fake," he said, "you're going to make me burst out crying."

Mother smiled back at him, but then her face changed, and she got up and walked over to the window and pressed her head against the pane. Everything got very quiet, and then Ford got up and went over to her. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her toward him, and then he quoted some lines of poetry to her:

 "Is it not time that, in loving,
we freed ourselves from the loved one, and,
quivering, endured: as the arrow endures the
string, to become in the gathering outleap
something more than itself?"

"'For staying is nowhere,'" mother finished, in her low, lovely voice, and I sat very still next to Chip, my throat filled with tears of pride for mother and for me, because of the same hard lesson we both had learned.

And then mother came away from the window and back to us, and she said, her voice trembling a little, "Hear ye, Ford has an announcement to make."

"Well," Ford said, "since no baby is completely respectable without a maternal grandfather, I hereby confess myself willing—"

"—to oblige us all," mother finished, "and me in particular, and become a grandparent to Mari's and Chip's baby, among other roles."

Chip blushed along with me and looked very proud, and when I kissed mother and Ford, I had a slight remembrance of how I'd always thought I would feel if mother got married, but I don't expect ever to remember it again.

"Mother," I said, "do you know something? You're a terrific success." And mother didn't just look interested. She looked as though she knew exactly what I meant, and she bowed her head to me happily and graciously and said, "Thank you, my darling."

So, in conclusion, we sat in the kitchen of The Odious Arms, and all around us, to keep us and make us safe, was love and peace and friendly quiet, except for the rattling of six of the doors.

"Tomorrow I'm going to start preparing that wall in the nursery so that it can be papered," Chip said contentedly to no one in particular. "It needs to be filled and sealed."

"You can count me in on that," Ford said promptly.

"I know the perfect paper," mother said.

But I only smiled happily into the warm dimness of The Odious Arms. I was thinking of all the things I had learned during the period of matrimony that no one had mentioned in Science 123. And it was very reassuring to me to see that it is perfectly all right for Science to slip up once in a while, so long as there is always Mature Love to take over.

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Harriet Halliday Renaud has been a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor since 1935, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar.
For more of her writings in Scene4,
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©2014 Harriet Halliday Renaud
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April 2014

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