monthly luncheon group was just one of those things
I tried to avoid when I lived at home
, so really it was just a coincidence
that I stopped by the one day last July the ladies invaded our house. But I really needed some of these big paint brushes my father kept down in the basement, because there was a rally
that afternoon and Kevin, the guy that usually kept our supplies, had completely disappeared. So I braved the simpering small talk
for the sake of the rally and of all the others waiting back at the campus
for new supplie
s. Passing through the kitchen
after retrieving the brushes, I heard my mother’s voice: "Did you hear about what’s happening in California
? Those students-- those hippies
"I did. And I tell you, this country is going to seed, girls. I don’t know who these children think they are-- better than the rest of us, somehow--"
, is what they are--"
"Everything handed to them on a silver platter
"And never had to work for anything in their life, so of course the idea that they do so much as serve their country--"
"They’ll learn one day," my mother went on, cooly lifting her iced tea
glass to her lips with a mild raise of her eyebrows
. "They’ll learn not to fight. We had ours and they’re getting theirs. But they’ll
learn one day to just make do
, and be happy with how things are
My mother has been "making do" since she was born. That’s what she’d say if she got a chance. If someone, anyone, would just ask her, "Mrs. Charlene Kaufman, what is the secret of life?" She would tell them, "Well, I can’t say so for anyone but me and mine, but I’ve found really it just lies in making do." She’d say it’s all she’s ever done, taking those lemons and mashing out lemonade, not crying over the spilt milk but just turning the glass right side up again and sipping whatever’s left. And I tell you what. She’d be lying. She’s never made do. Not really, except for at first. She remembers the Depression, how they scraped and saved and reused and still nearly starved; I figure that’s what it is, that mindset that was forced on her when she was so young, like it was forced on everyone if they wanted to pull through. The thing is, she learned that one lesson, that one truth, and she’s kept that with her, that compulsion to take what she can get, the first, the quickest, the cheapest, the easiest, just the path of least resistance. But she’s done it all wrong.
She married my fatherbecause he was the first to ask, surrendered her life to him because that was just what happened. And, me clinging to her skirt, she cried but didn’t question when she watched her husband troop off with half the neighborhood men-- to what? Fight the good fight? The good fight that sent him back half-dead three years later to her in her coveralls, greasy hands, hair short and coarse just because she didn’t have time anymore, with me clinging to her pant legs. And all she did was fold up her coveralls, the bandana, hand the time card back over to him, and sink back into her world of smile, nod, kiss.
And now she’s telling me that I’d better decide what to do with myself, what to do with my life. "Pick something, June," she says. "Pick something. Find a boy, pick something. Settle down and live your life." It’s her dream for me. Maybe the only dream she’s ever really had, and it’s that somehow I’m going to grab right onto this elephant-train life she’s been living for 42 years, and fit in, and never complain. And not just never complain, but love it. And then dream the same thing for my daughters. And on and on.
But it’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mother. And it’s 1965. I am picking something. And I’m picking to see, and to hear, and to be heard.
Rudy Sheffield is the boy my mother thinks I’m going to marry. She thinks we’re going to live in a nice little house, down the block or across town or wherever because it’s all the same as long as I’m nearby, and we’re going to have four gorgeous blonde children with freckles and he’ll drive an Oldsmobile and teach English at the high school, and I’ll sew curtainsand I’ll start my own luncheon group. She’s never even met him.
Rudy and I were out in the quad on campus later that afternoon, after I got the brushes. There were four or five other kids, and we were all doing posters for the rally. He’d heard about my mother before but I was giving him the full picture then, just because I was so angry about it. "It’s so unfair, it’s just so unfair of her," I kept saying. "She’s the same person she was when she was nineteen, and it doesn’t bother her, and she wants me to be the same way. Because it’s safe, or because she really likes it-- I can’t tell. And she doesn’t even realize what kind of world she lives in."
"What a flat-liner," Rudy mused.
"Gosh, no, it’s not that she’s a boring person--"
"No, really," he interrupted. He took the paintbrush from my hand and pulled it once across some scrap cardboard laying off to the side. "That," he said, pointing to the line, "is your mother’s life." He dipped the brush back into the paint, and dragged it across the paper again.
I stared down at the spiral. "And that’s mine?"
"If that’s what you want."
I’m not sure what kind of person my mother would be if she let herself go. I can’t imagine it, can’t see her as one of the people I’m around with every day, the girls in the dorm or Rudy and his friends, or anyone else, even some of the more extreme people at rallies and meetings. But even I’m not like them. I don’t call myself totally liberated by any means-- I still clash with her, don’t I? But things are getting better. On campus, I mean. And thank God for Berkeley, or the fight would be tougher. At least now we can say what we want to say, even if we have to be careful, even if they aren’t going to hear us. And a lot of the time it seems like nobody hears us, only sees us, and they hate what they see so we’re pushed back, dragged off. And then we’re bruised a bit but still unheard, so the next week, the next month, we’re here again.
If we stop, they win. And that’s so, so dangerous right now, and so scary, and so possible. Here in Ann Arbor, in Washington, in Berkeley, wherever-- the minute they have us down for good, silent for good, they have won. We’re fighting the mechanism, the system, the protocol; so are all the others. It’s about saying what we want said, about stopping what we want stopped. It’s the war, it’s the everything. From the inside out, from the outside in, from the sideways in, whatever we can get.
So of course my mother hates this. Of course she resents me for it, because it violates every principle she’s ever convinced herself of. Don’t question what you’re given. Make do. Choke it down and go on through. It was never about good and bad. It was rarely a two-sided issue, and if it was, the answer was yes. Over and over and over again, yes yes yes yes.
The straight and narrow. Like the line Rudy painted. That was it, my mother’s life, the shortest way between two points. Life and death. Nothing changed, not her and not her situation and not anything. Just a line.
It was nearly four-thirty that afternoon at the rally, and there were twice as many people on the quad than we’d ever had before. Rudy and I were waiting by the platform set up at the north end of the crowd, when one of the student rally coordinators came pushing through the crowd of organizers.
"Going to get this thing going any time soon, Dionne?" Rudy called out to her.
Dionne didn’t speak but continued towards us until she was in earshot. The crowd was getting louder by the minute. "We’ve found Kevin," she said breathlessly.
"What? Found him? Where is he?"
"Enlisted?" Rudy and I fumed in unison.
"Someone talked to his parents. Said he’d tried to call some of us, something like that--"
"But why’d he go? He was so adamant--"
Dionne shrugged, wiping sweat off her forehead with a bandana. "He told his parents he was sick of not getting anywhere, said we weren’t making any progress. Anyway, his number was coming up soon, so he figured he’d just go on his own terms."
"Was he blind? I can’t believe him--"
"We don’t have time to get mad about this now, June," Rudy stopped me. "Kevin was supposed to talk out there today. We’re going to need someone to go out there instead, we can’t just have them all running around out there like this--"
"Okay, then, Rudy. You do it," Dionne decided.
"No, Rudy," I started. "No--"
"No. I’ll do it."
Within two minutes I was on the platform, alone, with one skinny microphone stand between myself and the crawling, pushing crowd. It was all one body, a body with a thousand arms and five hundred heads and beards and braids and all of them, all of them wanted what I wanted. Anything but a straight line.
"My name is June Kaufman." The words just started falling out of my mouth. I was grateful. "I’m not the one that was supposed to talk today, but the one that was has quit the cause. He has joined the thousands of others fighting overseas in Viet Nam. The fact of the matter is not that he has gone against what he believed in-- but that he has abandoned something he cared so much about, and for only one reason. That he thought we weren’t getting anywhere. He thought--" The crowd pulsed with discontent, some yelling, and I could hardly hear myself speaking above the drone and the buzz of my own ears. "He thought we weren’t getting anywhere, thought the cause was lost. Well, let me tell you something about progress.
"Progress is not just living, not just growing, not just evolving. This world we live in moves around and around. Life and society and war and peace and politics and money. Same events, different circumstances. What makes each year different isn’t the mere passage of time, but what happens in that time. And that’s progress. By it’s very nature progress is selective, so it won’t happen to everyone, or everything. But it can never, ever happen if it is feared.
"This planet we live on, for as much as it’s path around the sun has been the same for thousands and millions of years, even it sometimes wobbles. And that wobble is progress. It’s progress if that wobble-- that, or something bigger-- if it makes our life a better life, a different life, or if it at least tries to.
"So what are we doing here, and what is our cause doing? We are progressing. We are not attempting; we are succeeding. We are rejecting the formula for life we are handed- by our parents, by our schools, by our country. When she heard about Berkeley, my mother said--"
And that was it. That was all I could say. The moving bodies and the faces and the posters, the flags, the shouts and the people on the sidewalks watching, watching-- it all started swimming together and the words in my mouth were heavy and dry. I clamped my hand over the microphone in an absent move to steady myself and recoiled at the instant, piercing feedback. To the left of the platform I could see Rudy and Dionne, sweat-stained, faces a flushed mess of awe and confusion.
"But-- but, no," I found myself speaking again. "No, this isn’t about my mother or your mothers or fathers or anyone. This is about us, and our lives, and the lives of anyone who cares enough about their world to change it, or--" A wind of flat, dry heat blew over the stage. "Or-- at least to try."
Dionne was waiting for me with a canteen of water when I stumbled off the platform, as Rudy took my place at the microphone with a borrowed guitar and the crowd stamped and yelled all around us. I sat behind the platform with my back to the crowd with my head on my knees, and the smell of heat and dust and grass floating all around me, and there was nothing in my head except a dull ringing of my ears and the sound of Rudy singing behind me, the song I had heard five hundred times before, hearing and not hearing the words. "Come mothers and fathers," he began the last verse, and all I could think was: Mother. She’s never even met him. But she’d hate him if she did.
Because he’s one of those platter grabbers.
I guess I am too.