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RUDE AWAKENING

By Doreen Bradley Satter


"...Ma was heavy, but not fat; thick with child-bearing and work. She wore a loose Mother Hubbard of gray cloth in which there had once been colored flowers, but the color was washed out now...her thin, steel-gray hair was gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of her head..."

Martha closed her book and stared into the fire. How many times have I read this passage over the years. She reflected into the glowing embers. I've always pictured Ma Joad before, but this time I see myself--old, fat, gray and tired. Her long sigh was like a tuneless accordion bellows.

Martha got up to make a cup of tea, putting "Grapes of Wrath" on the table beside her chair. Old Joey opened one eye, but seeing that she was just going to the kitchen, shut it again, gave a half-hearted thump of his tail and went back to sleep.

Lloyd, her husband of almost 40 years was once again lost behind the evening paper, most likely asleep. It never failed to amaze Martha how he could sleep and still hold the paper up as if he were reading it.

Old, fat, gray, tired---and neglected. She ammended her former thought. It's like I live here alone. Lloyd sleeping all evening and me sitting by myself reading, lost in a book, in someone else's life. My own life slipping farther and farther away. Nothing much ahead and nothing much behind.

She leaned against the stove waiting for her tea water to boil. Martha had her dreams, she just hadn't gotten to them yet. There had never been time for them to happen, and now most were forgotten. She looked at the kettle hissing on the back burner. Just like my life...she mused...Always on the back burner. For years everyone else needed me to help them with what they were doing. My life has been on hold, suspended in time until...until when? It's still suspended and I can't seem to get it back. My life has been lived through everyone else's and now suddenly I feel so old and tired and wasted.
-- --
Shortly after Martha married Lloyd she had to quit college to go to work. Lloyd thought it would be better if he finished up and got his engineering degree. Martha could work until he was settled in a good job and they had a little savings in the bank. Then if she wanted to go back and finish college she could.

Maybe a few courses here and there. He couldn't understand what she would ever do with a degree anyway. Especially in Literature, her major when they met. "What use would that have later on in life?"  he'd always ask her.

Martha tried to understand Lloyd's thinking. She agreed that he should finish school and find a job to support them. She didn't mind quitting school, at least for a few years. Lloyd would soon be done and the job market was particularly good in his field. He'd get a job in no time. She could be back to her beloved classes in just two or three years. She could wait that long.

Lloyd took an extra year to complete school, telling Martha he could do better if he didn't load himself down with too many credits each term. Martha secretly thought sometimes that if he didn't spend so many nights out with his friends relaxing at the local hangout he would have more time to study, but she didn't say anything to him. He needed to have time to relax too and have some fun, she'd remind herself. She just wished he would take her with him once in a while. It was so lonely at home alone, and she really didn't have any friends anymore to do things with. Her old girlfriends were still in college, busy with their own lives. She'd lost track of them.

"You wouldn't have anything in common." He'd tell her when she'd ask to come along. "Just a bunch of us guys sitting around talking engineering stuff.  You'd be better off at home reading one of those books of yours and resting up for work tomorrow."

She knew some of the guys brought their girlfriends from time to time but she went along with Lloyd's wishes and stayed home. Being the only married man among them, he probably just wanted to relax and forget his responsibilities for awhile she told herself. Her books helped pass the long, lonely evenings.

One night Lloyd came home with a puppy. "Jeff's dog had a litter and I thought a dog could keep you company when I'm not here." Martha cradled the puppy against her, burrowing her face in his thick, soft fur. It was love at first sight for both the puppy and Martha.

"I'll call him Joey." She told Lloyd. "I'm reading a book now with a dog in it named old Joey and he..." Lloyd had already walked out of the room, leaving Martha talking to herself. Joey nuzzled his cold nose against her cheek.

Soon after Joey came Martha got sick. She missed a week of work and Lloyd finally noticed how pale and thin she was looking. "Go to the doctor Monday. You're loosing too much weight and your color’s bad" he told her one evening when he returned from a night out with his friends. Martha was just coming out of the bathroom.

"I think its the flu. I can't keep anything down and I'm so tired." Her dark eyes looked huge against her transparent skin. She got back into bed and sunk against the pillows. The dark circles under her eyes made her skin appear even more pale than it actually was. "I'll be better in a day or two." She said softly.

"No, go see Dr. Parks Monday morning. We can't afford you to miss any more work. You look awful." Lloyd went into the bathroom and took his shower. When he came out again Martha was asleep.

The news she had for Lloyd Monday night wasn't good. "What?" he said in disbelief. Martha knew he would not be pleased. She was shocked herself at first, but now, after ten hours of thinking about it, she was beginning to like the idea; even starting to feel happy about it.

"We agreed not to have a baby until I was settled in a good job, until we had a house, savings, furniture! We don't have anything! This junk isn't what I want forever!" He swept his hand around the sparsely furnished little apartment as he spoke.

Lloyd buckled down. He doubled up on his courses and stopped going out so much and finished school in January, finding a job almost immediately.

"It's not what I want..." He told Martha over and over. "...but at least it will pay the bills. I'll keep looking for something better." The twins were born that summer. Martha named them after sisters in a book she'd read. Katherine and Megan became the joys of Martha's life. She lost herself in her girls, trying to be the perfect mother.

Lloyd loved the girls in his own undemonstrative way but gave little to the family except monetarily. When the girls were five he took a job in a neighboring city, almost 50 miles from their home. Lloyd worked long hours and made frequent business trips out of state. He had little time at home with the family but provided well for them.

As Katherine and Megan got older, Martha immersed herself in their activities:  ballet, sports, tap dance classes, piano and voice lessons, art and craft classes.  When they were sixteen she taught them to drive. When they were eighteen, she packed them off to college. For years Martha was totally involved in the girls' lives; her own life put on hold. When the twins left home she was totally lost for the four long years they were at the University.

As the time grew closer for Katherine and Megan's graduation, Martha was full of plans for their return home, but shortly after Valentine's Day the girls wrote with news that they'd be staying in Denver. They were moving in with their boyfriends and both girls had found jobs they liked.  Martha was devastated. She had always planned on the girls marrying and raising their families nearby. Near her--not half-way across the nation! She knew Lloyd would never move. He would never leave his job and this place. She knew better than to even bring up the possibility.
-- --
The whistling kettle interrupted her thoughts. She poured a hot cup of tea and returned to her chair by the fire. Glancing over at Lloyd she noticed the paper still propped in front of him. She sighed and reached for her book.

Old Joey looked up with his soft brown eyes meeting and holding hers for a brief moment. There's more feeling in that old dog than I've ever felt from Lloyd she thought sadly as she opened her book. I know I love old Joey, and I love the girls of course, but I really don't know if I love Lloyd. I can't feel it. I must have been in love with him at one time, but I don't even remember that anymore. This realization startled Martha. She didn't remember ever thinking it before.

Martha quiltily glanced at the unmoving paper to make sure Lloyd was still asleep, then sighing deeply she leaned her head against the soft cushioned chair and returned to her secret thoughts. Thoughts that seemed to be getting more enlightened by the day.

A Knock on the back door interrupted Martha's reverie. She got up quietly and peeked out the curtained window. Her neighbor  Vicki was standing under the porch light.

Vicki, a middle-aged, divorced woman with grown children and grandchildren had recently rented the house next door and was so insistent on being a friend that Martha's usual reserve could not match Vicki's persistence. Martha thought they couldn't possibly have much in common, but after a few talks over tea she found herself really liking Vicki. Vicki was someone to talk to; someone who would actually listen to what she had to say and genuinely seemed interested and caring.

Over the past few weeks they'd shared many things. Vicki was helping Martha start to think for herself and to understand and listen to her feelings. Thanks to Vicki's help, Martha was beginning to realize she had ideas of her own--long forgotten, but beginning to resurface.

This is an odd time for Vicki to be out  Martha thought as she opened the door. Vicki usually didn't come over when Lloyd was at home.

"Vicki, is something wrong?" Martha was suddenly concerned.

"No, not really.  Is he asleep?" Vicki nodded in the direction of the living room.

"What else is new?" The sarcasm in Martha's voice was out of character for her and Vicki was surprised to hear it. "Come in, I was just having some tea. The water's still hot, I'll pour another cup."  Vicki was glad to hear Martha sounding more like her old self again with her last sentence.

"Thanks." Vicki pulled out a dinette chair and sat down, putting her elbows on the table and propping her head up with her hands.

"What's up?" Martha asked as she set a mug of tea in front of Vicki. "Just a minute, I'll get mine.”

When they were both settled Martha again asked Vicki what brought her out so late.

"Well..." she began and picked up her mug finally looking up at Martha..."I can't believe this... the home office called today...I've finally just come to terms with being here, just got settled, and now they've asked me to come back to Denver...I can't believe them...I didn't want to leave in the first place, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to see just what I could do on my own... and I could hardly pass up the promotion...now they've offered me even more to go back to Denver, to my old position! They've decided to close this office. All my hard work was for nothing, I guess...I can't believe it...I've been upset all day but I'm starting to get use to the idea, I guess...my kids are a lot closer to Denver than here. That's the big plus for going back. I can't turn down the money either.  I thought of something a little while ago and I wanted to come over and talk to you about it."

Vicki’s words tumbled out so quickly that she hadn't taken a breath. She inhaled deeply and waited for Martha's reply.

Martha was stunned. A hundred thoughts were going through her mind at once and all she could do was stare at Vicki, her mug poised midway to her gaping mouth. She realized the feeling she had was panic. The thought of loosing Vicki was almost unbearable. Vicki was helping her come back to her old self. The old Martha from college days when there was a future ahead, and endless possibilities. She knew she wasn't strong enough yet to continue on her own. She needed her friend's support and encouragement. Vicki gave her confidence to try new things and think new ideas. She was just learning about herself again. She couldn't lose that!

Vicki watched Martha's face pale, then go through a variety of expressions. A single tear slid down Martha’s left cheek. Vicki reached over and took Martha's hand.

"Listen to my idea." Vicki said softly.

When Vicki had finished talking Martha sat quietly. The paleness had left her face and rosy blotches had appeared on her cheeks.

"Do you think I dare?" Martha said in a small voice. Then answering her own question, she excitedly told Vicki "Why not! Lloyd would never dream that I would do it, but I think I will!

He'll say I can't go. He's always said I can't do this or I can't do that...I'll tell him ‘yes I can, and I'm going to'!  It's time I did what I want for a change!"

Vicki was so proud of Martha that she jumped up and gave her a hug. "That's the spirit! We'll take our time driving to Denver, stop wherever we want, do whatever we want. We'll have some fun.  It'll be just what you need. Your girls will be so happy to see you, and you can stay with me as long as you like. Maybe you won't even want to come back!"

The hall clock chimed and both women jumped. "I had no idea it was getting so late. I'll talk to you in the morning." Vickie stood up and walked toward the door before turning to Martha. "Sleep on it tonight and let me know what you decide, tomorrow."

"There's nothing to decide!  I'm going!  Martha said with a confidence that Vicki had never seen before.

Martha closed the door waiting a moment for her friend to get to her own yard before turning off the porch light. She picked up the mugs from the table and placed them in the sink before going into the living room, switching off the kitchen light on her way. Old Joey's eyes followed Martha as she quietly walked across the room to where Lloyd was still asleep behind the newspaper.

Martha stood over Lloyd for a moment thinking, then she slowly lifted her hand and swiftly hit the newspaper with a loud slap jarring her husband to a rude awakening.

©Doreen Bradley Satter, 2011

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