Monday, February 21, 2011

Freedom! vs the Pink Handkerchief

© Liz Hoyt Eberle
Not only did Barbara storm out of the house right in the middle of their argument, she slammed the door and then kicked over the tricycle as she flew down the front walk.
She had never thrown a temper tantrum before, but David had never been so dictatorial before, either. She didn’t know where she was going. Just away, out, anywhere. The angry words of their argument still rang in her ears and a deep rage burned within her.
How dare he! Men! So sanctimonious. King David, he thought he was. Well, …well… Well what, Barbara?
          In spite of her intense fury she suddenly felt a little foolish, stomping down the street with no destination, but she wasn’t ready to go back. Not yet, if ever. Unsure what to do with herself, she began to jog. The cool autumn breeze felt good to her hot cheeks. She turned into the little neighborhood park and was relieved to see it was deserted. All the children must be at home, eating meals dutiful mothers had prepared. Duty. Well, into every life there comes a time when some things are more important than duty and this was one of those times for Barbara. She had to know where she stood in this marriage.
She sank down onto a park bench, put her face in her hands and cried. Hot tears of anger and emotion poured out. She clinched her fist and pounded her knee.
Barbara nearly jumped out of her skin when the old lady tapped her gently on the shoulder and whispered, “You seem so unhappy, my dear. How about a peppermint? The perfect cure for tears.”
“Why, uh, yes. Thank you,” Barbara sniffed, trying to compose herself. “These are my favorite.” The old lady was right: one really could not cry and suck on a peppermint at the same time!
Barbara rolled the candy around in her mouth, feeling even more foolish now that she had an audience. She scolded herself for accepting the gift; never in her life had she taken candy from a stranger.
Before Barbara could collect her thoughts to make a graceful exit, she shocked herself further by asking the old lady, “Do you live near here? I don’t remember seeing you around before.”
The old lady laughed softly and said, “That depends on how you look at it. Distance is relative. But, you must live close by. Just look at you, no jacket on such a cool afternoon.”
“Well, yes… uh, I needed a walk. I live a couple of blocks over. In one of those neat, little cottages, mortgaged to the hilt!” She intentionally said ‘cottage’ with a sneer.
“I see. Is that the reason for tears streaking such a lovely young face? Money? It often is, it seems.”
“No. Not money exactly,” Barbara said, and began to pour out her frustrations and mixed-up, pent-up emotions. She couldn’t have explained why it came out to a stranger, but out it poured.
The old lady listened quietly while Barbara reeled off all of David’s shortcomings. He was unreasonable, demanding, didn’t understand that she had needs, ambitions and goals.
She began to cry again and the old lady patted her arm, handed her a handkerchief and murmured, “There, there.”
Barbara wiped her eyes with the lady’s handkerchief and smiled, “I have one just like this. My little girls gave it to me for Mother’s Day last year. Pink is their favorite color. Funny, I haven’t seen it lately. I wonder where it is.”
The old lady smiled and Barbara went on, “Anyway, David is absolutely determined that I must not go to work. He wants me to stay at home, to be a slave! He cannot see how terribly depressing it is to do nothing but cook, clean, sew, and work in the garden. Look. I’ve even got blisters from making those dumb macramé hangers for the pot plants like my mother used to make. And, here. I burned my hand last night making a cherry pie he loves so much. My jeans are worn out from being on my knees in that old garden and I’ve got permanent stains on my hands from refinishing my grandmother’s chest. I don’t even have any fingernails anymore. David just doesn’t care that I have ability and talents and a need to contribute to the family. As a matter of fact,” she sat up straighter, “I can have my old job back any time I want it. I don’t really need him. I could manage quite well on my own!”
The old lady said, “Oh, my, yes. I know exactly what you mean. A woman certainly has the right to demand to be something more than a mere wash woman.”
Barbara sighed and drew pictures in the sand around the bench with the toe of her shoe. She wondered why she felt miserable if she were so self-sufficient.
The old lady continued, “I think the young women of today are smart. They do have rights. Just look at me. I demanded mine,” she said triumphantly.
For the first time, Barbara looked at the woman sitting beside her on the park bench. From her own just-30 perspective, Barbara decided that the old lady was probably 80, at least. She was well preserved, though, and her suit was the latest fashion and expensive! She wore, on her right hand Barbara noted, a diamond the size of one of Barbara’s prize strawberries. The old lady’s hair and nails were professionally done and her makeup was modern and in good taste. Barbara felt rather dowdy and homemade in comparison. But, there was something about the eyes. Was it emptiness? Sadness? Maybe bitterness? Well, Barbara had neither the energy nor desire to take on another person’s problems. She had enough of her own.
The old woman tapped Barbara’s knee firmly, to emphasize her words, “Men don’t want their women to be courageous. Men want to be the strong oak tree and they want their women to be the puny sapling...” 
Oak tree? That touched something within Barbara. Oh yes. Their wedding vows. She and David had recited a poem to each other, something about two oak trees standing side by side.. well, it didn’t matter now.
“.. and men expect women to do all the dirty work…”
She’s got a point there, Barbara thought. Like the garden she had put in. Well, actually, they had put it in together. It is, she had to admit, a joint project. Come to think of it, David always sanded the boards for the art projects Barbara used for the Sunday school classes she taught. And, David was proud of her paintings. He hung them in his office, gave them to his mother, and told everyone that God had given his beautiful bride a special talent. Well, that was fine and good, but earning a paycheck would certainly be more rewarding than David’s stuffy praise.
“… and of course,” the old lady droned on, “we have to produce the babies! Men just think they know what hard work is!”
Babies. Barbara looked down at the delicate pink handkerchief she was absently folding and smoothing. Babies. She walked to the fence across from the bench and looked down at the perfectly kept flower bed. Fenced off from the children. The faces of her two little girls seemed to smile up at her from every flower. She thought about the old lady’s diamond being on her right hand. She thought about being fenced off from David, about being fenced off from her little girls. There was a knot in her stomach and she rubbed her cheek with the soft handkerchief.
The old lady was talking about compromise again and Barbara said, over her shoulder, “Maybe I have confused compromise and commitment and goals. Maybe.. just maybe..”
“Hey, Honey!  I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I was so worried.” Barbara spun around to see David running toward her. In an instant she was in his arms. As they held each other David said, “Are you O.K.? Who were you talking to?”
Barbara drew back, a little embarrassed and said, “Why, that old lady.. well. There was a lady…  I guess she left while I was thinking. You probably passed her on the way in.”
“I didn’t see anybody. There’s not another soul in the park. But, that doesn’t matter. Just so you are O.K. Honey, I didn’t mean to be so unreasonable. The house was empty when you left.”
She was in his arms again. “No, David. I was unreasonable. I was selfish and childish.” Her words tumbled over each other as she rushed on, “I felt so tired and unimportant and useless. Maybe –well, I—uh. Oh David, life is just so daily. I..I forgot that I really am important. That you are important. That our daughters are important—to both of us. I guess I…”
“Sweetheart,” he interrupted,  “you are absolutely the most important thing in the world to me and the girls!  We desperately need you. But, we need you to be happy.”
“David. Dear, sweet David. Let’s go home.”
As they walked home, arm in arm, talking, listening, and both feeling a deep sense of unity and purpose, Barbara let the thoughts of the old lady find a safe place in her heart and she gently and tenderly stroked the pink handkerchief, still clutched in her hand!