I'll always remember the day when I left my 4-year-old daughter in the Head Start classroom in the church basement, with more children than I could count running between the brown waves of folding tables. I earned too much money, really, for her to attend, but the center Director manipulated the math. I worked at night in a home for retarded adults who hit themselves in the head and smeared feces on the walls. I didn't need her to go to Head Start, really, except that I also earned too much money to qualify for food stamps. Somehow that $10.50 an hour, which put me outside the bracket for help, never went much past covering my rent. At Head Start they would feed her two meals a day. This was what I wanted--for my daughter not to be hungry. And in theory I believed in the program.
In practice she only attended for a week or two. I coudn't find a day job. I missed spending my days with my girl. I was alarmed, too, at the rapid deterioration of her language skills. When she began speaking about herself in the third person, and even that incorrectly--"Her hungry,"--I withdrew her.
I'd breastfed my daughter and we'd rarely been apart and I had always talked to her constantly, explaining everything to her, at the laundromat, at the grocery, at the library, in the kitchen. This is detergent. We're going to have nice clean clothes. This is a can of tomatoes, we like tomatoes, don't we? This is where we get the books we like to read. This is how Mommy makes dinner. Her round eyes stayed glued on me and she recorded it all and by the time she was two we were having complete conversations.
Her recording of everything is what gave me the strength, finally, to leave her drunken father, although it happened in fits and starts.
First there was the little cadet-blue house on stilts. The oven didn't work and the toilet wobbled. There was a big dirt driveway for all three cottages and migrant workers lived in the other two. They asked me to drive them places. Next I shared a winter rental with a coworker, a college girl. When I lived there I dated a little man who resembled Captain Hook and when I got pregnant and then aborted, he said I'd broken his heart. I couldn't bear the thought of living forever in his dangerous neighborhood. Then there was the tiny apartment upstairs from the antiques store where the previous tenant had kept a pet rabbit. I crawled around on my hands and knees picking up pellets of poop. The bedroom had such a low ceiling that I couldn't stand up so we slept in the living room. I worked then in a homeless shelter and I understood that the women there had a better chance at success than I did. Finally we lived in Rachel's basement where the lack of sunlight destroyed my circadian rhythm and I gained weight because all I could do was play Disney movies for my daughter over and over. Rachel's daughter had more toys than my daughter and there was often conflict over this. I was hopeful when I responded to an advertisement about selling my eggs, imagining I how quickly I would move us out of the basement. My application was rejected due to my lack of college education.
When I found the apartment on the North Fork, I believed it was kismet. The landlady came from the same small state I did, 300 miles away. We knew the same people, who we called "kids" because that's what they were in our memories. The apartment had two bedrooms and lots of windows and carpeting and a porch. My family was upset because it was so far away from them--45 minutes--but I knew it was the place for us.
We loved it even though we had almost no furniture. We painted the bathroom purple and the kitchen red, and we fed peanuts to the squirrels on the roof. We went to the beach and lay in the sand and listened to the surf and stacked rocks and pebbles. I drove a car with no insurance or regstration back and forth to work at night, while my daughter stayed at my mom's apartment with her. I appreciated the help.
In the winter things were not as wonderful. The landlady controlled our heat and we could often see the white clouds of our breath at night and we curled together like oysters and kept the electric heater on high next to the bed. My daughter kept getting sick. But in the spring things began to seem possible again. I didn't know what was coming: that my car would break down and I wouldn't have the money to fix it, or that I would quit my job on impulse and wind up taking a part-time position in a health food store where I would steal food so we could eat. The depression that perpetually haunted me, that had waxed and waned since I was twelve, crashed over me like the glass container of organic milk that shattered when I dropped it. Precious milk spilled to waste and all I could do was walk away and go back to bed. I left the thin white rivers running all over the red kitchen floor.
It was early spring when we tried Head Start. The air smelled washed and clean and I dropped my daughter off in the morning at the brick church building where a concrete Virgin Mary stood with her hands outstretched. I drove to the town park. I brought my new paperback journal and a set of markers. I sat on the cement jetty and squinted at the glistening water and drew merry pictures in my book. The sky seemed endlessly blue that day. I believed then that we might make it, that we might be able to somehow survive and that things might get better. I was, of course, wrong.