originally published December 29, 2005

I find myself at odds with much of Glenda’s story. As I relisten to her story, I find myself slipping into judgement. However, with judgement comes self assessment. Glenda lost custody of her older daughter after running away from an abusive husband. I could not help but ask myself why she didn’t take her daughter with her if life was so bad? After listening to her tell her story, it seemed that she believed her ex would not harm her daughter and that she truly believed this to be best while she spent the next few years fighting in court for custody, something hard to do when one doesn’t have any money. Eventually, the daughter ended up living with a friend and teacher she trusted and, through the passage of time and circumstances that I won’t go into here (for I am not entirely clear on them myself), she lost custody and lost touch… until she got word of her daughter’s wedding.

By this time, Glenda had raised another daughter, Bippy, who is now graduated from high school, herself, and will be finding her own independence. But it is here where I find myself in the examination of parallels and divergences. It can’t be helped. It is part of the process of understanding and assimilating the material… My charge, afterall, is to create some kind of narrative portrait of Glenda and the other ladies. If I cannot bring into my heart some kind of empathy, how can I do my work in a way that will invoke a response in others?

But I have been avoiding my work…I think of it often, listening to the voices in the conversation, looking and editing the photos, taking more photos, finding yet more as I try to add to the collection the ones that help tell the missing story. Glenda is an enigma that way, a woman with many masks, who hides behind them in order to survive. There is the student…. Glenda has been a nearly perpetual student getting good grades, only to undermine her success with one emergency or another. A friend, and expert in family psychology, once described this behavior to me as a sort of addiction to the drama. Maybe that applies to Glenda, too. For it seems that she will go through cycles when life appears to be moving forward and then, through neglect or absence of mind, something important has fallen from her attention… like the rent, or car repairs, or… her older daughter? Leading to eviction, lack of transportation, or… losing parental rights…

Yes, this is where I am troubled. Glenda described one eviction where she eventually left Bippy to stay with neighbors while she and her sister spent two nights in a hotel unwinding, going out only to get food or drink. Should I judge her because she found a safe place for her daughter so that she could go somewhere else where it was safe to unwind? flee from the stresses she’d just undergone? the stresses she’ll soon have to endure again? No… maybe it’s only because, secretly, I have wished I could unwind like that, too. It seems like it hasn’t been the case for many years… maybe a youthful activity. But on the other hand, what mother hasn’t needed to step away from the stress of the demands of children and the home?

Yet the fighter would stay and fix the problem… address it head on… vow never to let it happen again. But that is me. And this is not a portrait of me. It is Glenda’s narrative. She has gone through another eviction since we met. Bippy has moved on to begin her own independent life. And, once the portrait is completed, if I have done my job well, it will have to be left to the viewers to decide for themselves…

Images that come to mind from Glenda’s story – the shopping cart… Why? Glenda spent her days “phantom shopping” at a nearby Farmer Jack while Bippy was at school. She did not want to go back to Doorstep Shelter. And, if she did not have any doctor’s or counselor’s appointments, she would spend her time walking up and down the aisles of the grocery store filling her cart with the foods she wished she could buy (she insisted she did not put perishables in there, though)… Then, after her cart was full, she would repeat the process in reverse, slowly putting the items back on the shelf. For, of course, she could not afford to buy them.

It is not the shopping cart of the homeless who push them around like so much luggage overflowing with the detritus of wealth they’ve picked up on the street. No, this shopping cart is more dreamlike. What would I buy if money were no object? at the Farmer Jack?

Another image…. drawers full and overflowing with stuff… Glenda saves everything.

Maybe this is part of what frightens me. My home is sometimes in a similar state. Part of my procrastination this ‘tween holiday week included a sort of purging of old papers, receipts, etc. Filing away bills and receipts I did not need quick access to (not that the big box they were dumped in was “quick”).

And my own phantom shopping tricks became apparent. In this post-Christmas holiday sale period, I had fooled myself into thinking I would buy some items that would be marked down. As a college professor, I make a good salary. Yet this time of year always seems to be tighter. The heating bills have crept up, property tax bills due soon, prior Christmas shopping, a daughter’s November birthday bills come due… And this year we can add the start of my recent student loans to be paid back AND my older daughter’s return from college out of state.

No, I’m not complaining. But as I walked the aisles of Target the other day, I found myself NOT putting anything in the basket, except maybe some Christmas cards I would use for next year. What would normally be a joyful shopping spree became an exercise is sad restraint. There was nothing that appealed to me more than the cost I would be paying.

Isn’t that the trade off? Isn’t that why we use the phrase “If money were no object…”? Because Money IS the object. We make a conspiratorial trade for it. I give the merchant X amount of dollars in exchange for something I feel is worth that. However, this week, as I contemplated the story of Glenda, and my own financial position, I found that I could apply Glenda’s phantom shopping – “window shopping” as my grandmother used to call it – to get to the front of the store without a full cart. The restraint was both depressing and liberating. Depressing because I did not find anything that really thrilled me. But liberating because I paid cash for my little purchase. No credit cards. This purchase will not haunt me into the next month.


But Glenda’s story is more than the shopping cart, more than stuff. It is the many masks of Glenda… the student Glenda, Bippy’s mother Glenda, the lost-mother Glenda, the ex-wife Glenda, the confused Glenda, the faithful Glenda, the calligrapher Glenda, the wishful Glenda, the sister Glenda, the singing Glenda… and the often very sad or angry Glenda. No, she did not show this side of her to me directly. But through her stories, and in her eyes there were the occasional flashes. These were the sparks that would ignite the storm that seems to hide under the masks. But how is she so different from the other ladies I’ve met? Maybe she’s not. Maybe it is through her story that I can relate those faces of Glenda, and her steps, tentative, twisting, turning, and sometimes forward, that make up the journey of Glenda, a path that contains a hard journey still ahead of her.

Thursday, December 29, 2005
Mara Jevera Fulmer