"Oh there you are, Jessica!"
After the second hour of shmoozing, I'd wandered out of my sister's engagement party into my parent's front yard. My favorite of my mother's friends, Myrna Chasin, had spotted the moss-colored sweater I was wearing as it weaved its way through the party and out the front door. She followed me out into the chilly November night.
"I told your mother I was only coming to this party to see you," Aunt Myrna said, handing me someone's coat. "I got to exchange all of four words with her and your sister, and I haven't been able to get within six people of Aaron. And I don't even know if your father is in the house."
I laughed. "He's in there somewhere," I said, scanning the fleet of mismatched cars lining the street. "He's probably hiding, too, if he's smart."
"How they managed to get that many people in the house I know not," she said, sounding like the MidAtlantic version of the Southerner that Judith Ivey plays in every movie she's in. "It's like how many college students can you stuff in a phone booth."
I smiled as she tucked her arm in mine.
"Are you having a horrible time?" she asked.
"No," I said. "I'm surprised, but I was enjoying the party in spite of myself..."
That was when my mother's voice reached us. My mother -- sophisticated in a pleasant way, and razor-sharp in sizing up a person’s innards.
"I knew you would have snuck out of the house by now," she said, catching up in step beside us, holding my coat over her arm. Already snug in the jacket Aunt Myrna had purloined, I smiled at the two of them as we walked down the street in companionable silence for a few steps.
My mother broke it.
Did you tell people you're joining a wilderness Survivalist Movement in Idaho?
"Jessica, did you tell Ruth Kanner that you're joining a wilderness Survivalist Movement in Idaho?"
I smiled unconvincingly.
"Oy, you did."
I tried to look helpless. She laughed.
"Well, she was very alarmed and told the Shelleys that you had fallen in with the Aryan Brotherhood or something."
"I didn't say that," I said innocently. I was just tired of listening to everyone yammer on about how everything would be fine if they ran the CIA's counter-terrorism unit. Even more quickly, I'd run out of ways to explain that I wasn't sure what I was doing with my life. So after telling a few people that I was mulling over "Uncle" Stu's offer to join his company, I'd gotten creative. I told one of my sister Beth's law partners that I was going to join a yoga ashram in Western Massachusetts, and told a friend of Beth's fiance, Aaron, that I was going to start a "whole food" co-op with vegetables grown in accordance with the lunar cycle.
"Oh, Jessica," said Aunt Myrna, shaking her head. "You've not changed much since you were 15, have you?"
Oh no! She's going to make me discuss my feelings!
"Myrna, would you mind terribly if I subtly sent you off so I can talk to my daughter for a minute?"
"Only if you're that subtle," Myrna chuckled, heading back toward my parents' fully lit house, shining down the street like a beacon.
--Uh-oh, I thought. Am I in trouble? Or perhaps worse, is Mom going to try to make me share my feelings? -- eeeeeew.
Yup, the latter.
Not that I am so complicated to read, but my parents always know what I am feeling before I do. "Honey," she said, "nobody is judging you by your job or lack of one. You're feeling judged, more than you're actually being judged."
I didn't say anything.
"Sweetheart, these people know you better than anyone. They've known you since you were a little kid. And they know that you're the same bright, capable, creative, loving woman now, with or without your shield of a job, that you were as a little tike."
"Except I dress better now," I dead-panned.
"Except for that, of course." She smiled, then paused. "But, I don't think the whole job thing is what’s really bothering you."
I looked at her.
"Jess, Beth has been engaged for several months now. And you’ve been the perfect sister -- volunteering to help with everything and as supportive as she could ask. And she's anyways so understandably self-absorbed right now that she probably wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't been," she said. "But I've noticed, honey."
"That you avoid the subject like the plague," she said, her voice trailing off.
"Okay, so what..." I said, defensively.
"--What? Okay, so fine," I said, stopping, rolling my eyes and exhaling dramatically: "So I am insanely, utterly, maddeningly, bone-crushingly jealous?"
After being silent for a moment, she said, "Well, that about sums it up."
And I felt, surprisingly, as if the proverbial load had been lifted from my shoulders.
What? That I am insanely, utterly, maddeningly, bone-crushingly jealous?
Yes, I was completely green with envy. I wanted what my sister had: great guy, commitment, seeming lack of doubts -- and a completed registry for Calphalon and the nesting glass bowls from the Pottery Barn.
Sure, I had a grasp of all the essential caveats: she's older than I am, she worked for this, my turn will come. At last, I could admit: I felt like the blond sister in "Fiddler on the Roof," squeaking "when will the canopy be for me?"
"Jessaleffa," she said, using one of my least-favored nicknames, "you have all the time in the world. Your time and your guy will come. And your life will work out in the immediate short term as well, but you have to stop flailing around in indecision. Your father has said this to you more than once: you always knew what you wanted to do with your job, but that's not the same as knowing what to do with your life. So now you have the opportunity to figure out both at the same time."
I felt confused. I knew what was most important to me -- but does wanting to "get married and have kids" count as a life goal? Is that something that you can be "directed" about? Why would saying that aloud make me feel, more than anything, whiney?
"Would you stop apologizing for what you want?" she said. "You are so all over the place sometimes. You, more than almost anyone I know, see so clearly how meaningless and even damaging career obsession is, but you're still embarrassed to really embrace what’s important to you. Do you know that, with all the other stuff, the greatest things I've ever accomplished are raising you and Beth."
Before Beth was born, my mother had been working toward a doctorate in history. She'd taught part-time once we were in school and, though she never finished her dissertation, had published a number of articles in well-respected journals. Once I left for college, she and her friend Evie had started a historical tour company, which they'd built into a very respectable business.
"At the end of my life, do you think I want my tombstone to list the places my work is footnoted, or what Evie and I grossed last year?" she said. "Yes, that's important to me, but ultimately, your father, you and Beth are the most important things in the world to me. Are those misplaced priorities, or would it be 'whiney' to link my goals to you?"
Do you think I want my tombstone to list the places my work is footnoted, or what I grossed last year?
I shook my head. We were now back in the front yard.
"So if building a family is the most important thing, you have to do what you've been talking around since you got home -- not just to find a husband, but to turn yourself into the sort of woman who will be the best wife and mother. You said that you want to develop your 'essence.' Honey, that is a serious goal, whether it sounds cheesy or not."
While I digested what she said, she kissed me and walked back into the party. A short while later, I found myself sitting in my father’s study with a very pregnant young woman whose husband knew Aaron from the synagogue nearby. They'd moved here last year for her husband's medical residency; she said she was still adjusting to the move.
"I know what you mean," I said, thinking with sudden clarity how much I didn't want to move home -- not yet anyway. I felt like I had started something in Phoenix, and that moving now would be leaving unfinished business behind -- always bad karma.
Somehow, when she asked me about myself, I didn't bother making up anything and told her the truth -- down to leaving my job in protest, and not knowing how I was going to find something else in the Phoenix that I love. (Speaking of sounding like Fiddler...)
"Oh my gosh," she said, startled, waving a hand in front of her, "You say you left a TV show about fashion? Did you write a letter?"
Cyberspace did its thing, and now a pregnant woman was quoting my words back to me.
"Did you write a letter, you know, to resign?"
"Was it about how the true beauty of a woman is her innermost core and that the emphasis on externalities had gone from a natural and healthy thing to a perversion?"
-- Uh, yeah...
"Oh my gosh!" she said, clapping her hands. "I don't believe it!"
"I don't understand," I said, confused, "how do you know about what I wrote?"
"My friend Kelly e-mailed it to me two days ago!"
"It got around, that e-mail. A friend had forwarded it to me, after it was forwarded to her," she said, "There was a whole slew of e-mail addresses in the header."
"I don't understand," I said, "I just wrote it three weeks ago..."
And then I realized -- I'd BCC'ed a bunch of my friends because I'd been so pleased at my spontaneous burst of courage. Cyberspace did its thing, and now here I was, shmoozing with this cute-as-a-button pregnant woman quoting my words back to me.
--- "But you're not listening, Jessica," she broke in, excitedly. "The reason my friend Kelly had tried to figure out where it came from is that she is a features editor at the newspaper and she wants to talk to whoever wrote it -- about a job!"
"A newspaper? Where?" I said, flabbergasted.
"That's what's so funny -- in Phoenix!"
I stared dumbly at her. Back in my town with the World Series champs? It’s too good to be true...