Friday, August 7, 2009

Joyce Maynard Guest Post: Throwing Away a Screw Gun and Finding a Fictional Character

This week, I’ve been talking about the connections between my own life experience and those of the fictional characters in my new novel, Labor Day. I am not Adele, the single mother in Labor Day. But the experience of single parenthood is one I know well, having raised my own three children as a divorced woman for most of the years they were home.

I spent a lot of years grieving over the failure of my marriage to my children’s father, and regret at not having been able to provide for them the intact family I would have loved for us to be. And, like Adele, I remained haunted—too long, no doubt—by bitter feelings towards a man I once loved.

Most of the time, I was a steady, dependable mother. But it’s my job as a writer –and as a human being, I think—to acknowledge those less than heroic moments, when I became—for a moment or two anyway—someone considerably less than who I wanted to be for my children. Here is the story of one such night:

Seven years after I separated from my children’s father it was still hard going back to our old house. I knew that house so well, I could find my way around in the dark. I knew where the wild trillium came up in the woods out back of the garage and where the ladyslippers grew. I knew every knot in the floorboards.

After my marriage ended I moved to a small city, thirty miles from that house, and my children continued to spend every other weekend with their father. Sundays were designated my time to pick them up. Our children found some kind of rhythm, transporting their brown paper grocery bags filled with clothes from one house to the other and back again. But I'd rather have driven a hundred miles in any other direction, than make that particular trip.

Usually when I’d get to our old house, my former husband would be there, standing in the doorway. But one Sunday late last winter he and our older son had gone off with friends so I was only picking up our younger boy, Willy. And for the first time in ages, I stepped into my old kitchen.

A bitter taste rose in my throat, like what happens when you think you’re going to throw up, but you don’t. I stepped into the hallway and glanced at the bed where all three of our babies were born. I went back in the kitchen, ran my hand over the wood of the kitchen counter, where I must have prepared a thousand meals, and looked out the window, to an eery and beautiful streak of light from a full moon slashing across newfallen snow. I remembered another full moon night, when my husband and I had skated on black ice on the pond down the road, and another full moon night, when we’d fought so bitterly I paced the rooms of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children, and then another, unable to find sleep.

This wasn’t even close to the first time I felt that bitter taste: I had it the day seven years ago that I drove a U-Haul filled with my belongings down this driveway, the day I sat in a courtroom, hearing a guardian ad litem evaluate my performance as a mother. I could have risen from my chair and put my fist through a wall, that day. The surprise was discovering that years later, the wild rage I felt in the early stages of divorce seemed to have flared up again. Suddenly I felt the urge to paint graffiti on the walls, smash dishes. Although if you’d walked in the room at that moment all you would have seen was a 42 year old woman looking out a window, not saying a word.

Now comes the hard part of this story. On the kitchen counter lay my ex-husband’s screw gun. I picked it up and palmed it as if it were a 45. I put it down again. Picked it up and tucked it under my jacket and walked out the door.

Then, like a person in a dream, I saw myself raising my arm the way my two sons have taught me when we’re playing catch, and I let that screw gun fly. I watched it land in a clump of snow-covered bushes. I walked back into the house and called to my son. Time to go home.

By the time I got back to my own house, I felt sick with shame and embarrassment at what I’d done. Monday morning I tried to work, but all I could think about was this man I used to be married to, looking for his screw gun and realizing that it had disappeared the same night I’d come to his house when he wasn’t there. I saw his face, twisted into a mask of justifiable rage.

Just after noon I put on my jacket and headed out to my car. And as I drove it came to me that the worst thing about divorce is not what the other person does to you, or how he behaves, but the strange and terrible behavior divorce produces in your own self. After an ugly divorce, someone who used to love you reshapes his view of you into that of a hateful and monstrous person. That Sunday night I turned into her.

As I turned the final bend in the road leading up to my old house I saw with relief that my ex-husband’s car wasn’t there. So I walked over to the clump of bushes where I’d thrown the gun. At first I couldn’t spot it.

Then I saw the handle, just barely sticking up out of the snow. I dried the gun off on my shirt and carried it onto the porch, where I set it on a table. I didn’t put it back where I’d found it, because to do so, I’d have to enter the house. And it wasn’t my house any more.

A post-script to this story. I am older now. We all are. I don’t throw screw guns any more. But I understand the deep sorrows in the hearts of a woman who would behave this way. Now I do something more constructive with my familiarity with those feelings: I write fictional characters who experience them.

And, in my own life, live a lot more peacefully.