Saving Face

Chapter 19
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Oct. 23 2009 6:44 PM

Saving Face

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Cole has taken the kids to the grocery store while I try to clear enough of a landing strip to host a dinner party tonight. I'm way past organizing bins. I'm now stuffing piles of massed clothes and shoes and broken toys into closets and slamming doors before they tumble out. I hear a car pull up and wonder who would possibly be stopping by unannounced at 10 a.m. on Saturday. A yellow taxi sits in my driveway. The passenger door pops open and a petite pair of Ferragamo flats emerge.   I drop the armful of Hot Wheels I'd collected. There's only one person I know who takes cabs in Charlottesville. My mother.

I race outside, hair sweating. Her bag, a small, rolling overnight case, assures me this isn't going to be any kind of extended visit. A red light at the back of my Martha Stewart brain flashes briefly but urgently to remind me that I don't have enough place settings for nine tonight. Also, Marina and my mom have never attended the same social event without one accusing the other of being the death of the entire women's rights movement.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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I'm wondering if Frances mysteriously and suddenly forgot how to use her cell phone or send an e-mail. She never shows up without calling. But she must be seeing all of these thoughts chase themselves across my face because as she pays the driver, tipping generously, like a New Yorker, she says briefly, "I'm giving a speech in D.C. tonight, so I thought I'd fly down here and take a car up this afternoon. Catch up for a few hours."

Thank God. I grab her bag, and she remembers to kiss me on the cheek. She kisses as she always has: like she's working, not playing. I ask her if she wants a cup of coffee.

"Please," she says. She's in her off-the-bench uniform of crewneck cashmere sweater and wool pants. You'd never know she'd been on the 7 a.m. flight from New York. There's not a wrinkle on her. She's wearing a tasteful scarf and tasteful gold earrings.   She is among the last generation of women whose flesh has never come into contact with denim. I look down doubtfully at my fraying jeans. I am of a generation that feels like it's in costume when it wears anything else.

"How are my grandchildren?" she asks, as I bump her suitcase up the front steps and into the foyer.

"They're at the grocery store with Cole, but they should be home soon," I reply, taking her trench coat. I open the closet door, and sweatshirts, mittens, and boots tumble out. She raises a delicate silver eyebrow. I stuff everything back in and drape her coat across a chair. Chairman Meow promptly jumps on it and settles himself in a pile before he begins fiercely licking his own rear end. My mother wrinkles her nose and wordlessly leads the way to the kitchen. The coffeepot is down to a quarter-inch of black tar. I search for new filters, wondering whether she has even seen me in greater disarray and wondering why I care.

"I have presents for the children," Frances says, carefully unzipping her suitcase on the kitchen table. I wonder how she can top last Hanukkah's offerings: A copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves for Ellie   and Rosetta Stone Latin starter CD-ROM kit for Sam.  

"Hah!" Frances crows, pulling forth a set of matching T-shirts that read "Guns Kill People!"   The smaller one is pink.

I decide not to remind her that this is Virginia, where it's widely believed that only people kill people. My mother tends to suspect that one only ever leaves New York City because one has failed somehow.

"So, what brings you down, Mom?" I ask carefully, keeping my gaze on the coffeepot as I prepare a fresh batch. "I haven't heard from you in almost two weeks." I turn to look at her. She has the good grace to look embarrassed as she folds and refolds the tiny T-shirts on the table in front of her.

"I was ... absorbing," she explains, "trying to understand what it is you've leapt into here and why."  

"And what have you decided?" I flick the switch on the loaded coffeepot. She's still folding and unfolding the shirts. This is the most protracted domestic activity I've ever witnessed from her.

"I'm not sure yet, Erica. I used to think you loved the law. You always seemed to love it. But the way you write and talk about it, like it's a big punch line—"

"What?" I cut her off. "Let me guess. It's unworthy?"

She looks startled. "No, nothing like that. You have a voice again. A clear, brave voice, and that's fabulous. I couldn't be happier that you are capable of speech after all these years doing … whatever you've been doing. Although I do find it very hard to catch sight of your articles and my clerks have to locate them on Google.   I really do wish you could write for The Nation or something …

"You just have to bookmark Splitigation," I begin.

"But I don't understand why you seem to hate the law so much. Every sentence is a sneering put-down."

"What are you talking about?"

"Everything you write and everything you say is so full of contempt for the law, for lawyers, for judges. It's like you have taken this great edifice and reduced it to a few catchy, dismissive phrases."           

"Well, there isn't really time for string citations when you are doing cable news, Mom!"

"But then why talk about it at all if you're going to write about the law like its last night's Phillies game, with winners and losers and unfounded opinions about which side stinks? The law doesn't really care about your opinion, Erica. It's immutable and ennobling."

"Wow." I shake my head in utter disbelief. "It's awfully hard to hear you speaking so loftily about a kind of law you've always dismissed as 'fighting over the Tupperware.' I'm trying to write and talk about how soft and subjective family law is. It's really not about justice.   It's just mired down in judges' ideas about gender and money and what constitutes good mothering. I'm guessing half these family court judges are working out their own mommy issues on the bench."

I make a quick mental note to write that last line in my next Splitigation post. It's guaranteed to kick up a fuss.

"And is there any chance at all, Erica, that you are working out your own mommy issues on your blog?"

I fill up a mug and plop it in front of her. She doesn't say thank you. She takes her coffee black, but I shove the sugar bowl toward her anyhow.

"Are you really as convinced as my husband that all of my career choices are about lashing out at you?" I pour myself a cup of coffee and add a splash of milk.

She takes a small sip. "Are you absolutely certain they aren't?"  

Are we really going to replay the entire fight I just had with my husband, but with my mother reading the part of Cole?

"Oh good grief, Frances. If you're going to psychoanalyze me, let's just get it over with." I stir my coffee furiously, slopping some over onto the table. I reach for a paper towel, but the roll is empty. As it has been since Monday.

My mother thinks for a long time. She has always been more of a talker than a thinker.   Her silences are almost as startling as her kisses. When she does speak, it's in a tone I don't recognize. Almost as if she's reading it from someplace far away. "I feel like we somehow created a whole generation built exclusively out of our regrets. We built a generation of daughters who have turned their lives into the sum of all the holes they think we've left behind. You're all so angry. I just don't get it. We were getting things done. And I could never understand why you and your friends wanted lives that were so much smaller than ours, so much less consequential."

I count to 10, breathing deeply. Is that what passes for an apology among the path-breaking feminists these days? She's apologizing for the fact that my life is trivial?

"Mom, it's a little late for the great big Kumbaya talk about what an absent mother you were, don't you think?"

Frances looks startled yet again. She sips, then she says, "But I'm not having the Kumbaya talk, Erica. I'm not sorry for any of the choices I've made.   I just wish I knew why you feel guilty for all of yours.   You girls started apologizing when you were 7 years old, and you've never really stopped. What are you so sorry about? And why do you think you can fix it with Pottery Barn place mats?" She shakes her head, then sips again. "Good coffee."

"Mom, I don't have the energy for another throw-down in the Feminism Wars. I'm sorry you think you and your warrior women friends raised an entire generation of ungrateful, boring housewives but it sounds like you aren't even happy with my efforts to remedy that. I have a job. I am getting paid. I am using my legal degree to start an important conversation about a topic that is rarely discussed except when celebrities are caught in the pool house with the nanny. You know, most people in this country have no interaction with the legal system other than during their divorces. But you know how much we talk about family law at law schools? Never. At the Supreme Court? Never. In the appellate courts? In the media? Family law lives in the dirty little sub-basement of the legal system, and all I have tried to do is throw open the windows—"

"Then go to a law firm. Get an advocacy job or a position at the law school. Write a law review article. You've proven you're a great writer. Write a book. Right now it just feels like you're throwing a very public tantrum on television every night."

"You know how many people log on to Splitigation each night, Mom? Thousands more than read law review articles."

"And do you know that if you allow yourself to be paired up against the handful of men in America who hate women every night on cable television, you will start to convince yourself that all men think that way?"  

I almost spit out the last of my coffee. "You? Now you are giving me the men-are-people-too speech? After a whole lifetime spent proving they aren't?!"

My mother stands up to her full 5 feet, 3 inches. Not a hair is astray. She isn't even angry. She is using her jury-instruction voice. "I've never had a problem with men, Erica. Not even with your father. I've just wanted what was fair for women. We live with our choices, but we have to make them first. And yet I never ever see you making a choice. I only see you running away from your last one—or mine."  

I stare into my mother's eyes, trying to fathom what she sees when she looks at me. Frances spent a whole lifetime doing battle. Every day she watched as judges directed their rulings at her breasts, and clients sent her out for coffee. I went to law school because I wanted to be a warrior, too.   But now I am not sure why. I am always looking for some middle place between what she was and what she wasn't. In her mind, that cheapens everything she's done. But I think I've found a middle place here. A place that works for Cole and Sam and Ellie, and for me. Even with the house a shambles and Cole and me, for the moment, speaking to each other like two polite strangers in a waiting room, I still know we are happier as a family than I ever was growing up.

I'm just not sure why nobody can see that but me.

The back door flies open and Sam and Ellie charge in, sticky with contraband midmorning chocolate bars and the layer of goo that seems to accumulate on them by 11 each day. When they see their grandmother at the kitchen table, they hurl themselves gleefully into her arms. Her face softens and her eyes light up as she gathers their chocolate-smeared selves to her small cashmere chest.

"Franma," shouts Sam.  

"Franma," bellows Ellie.

"Well look who's Miss Chatty, Little Ellie," Frances lifts Ellie onto her lap and kisses the top of her head. She shoots me a quick look of approval. She'd been more worried about Ellie's delayed speech than I was. My mother can't acknowledge how much of my work has gone into these grandkids of hers, but some part of her sees it. Maybe that's all I'll ever get. She might be the toughest cookie on the federal appellate bench, but these rare opportunities to see her crumble may be the only way she says thanks.

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Amanda and Danny are here to watch my children and Marina's while the grown-ups eat dinner. Amanda's become something of a fixture in the past few days. I realize that whatever residual anger I feel toward her non-Quid Pro Ho persona is both unfair and irrational, and so I am trying hard to get past it. It turns out that she is brilliant and funny and fantastic with kids. Amazingly, it was Marina's stalking behavior that actually led the happy couple to meet. Somehow when the QPH frenzy was at its peak, I had left her Facebook profile open on the home computer. Danny saw her photo and fell hard. He friended her. She accepted. The rest is recent history.   Maybe I should think of all this as the one good thing that came out of our misadventures with imaginary online infidelity. Nevertheless, it's probably too early to suggest that Cole draft the prenup.

In addition to Bob and Marina, I've invited Kate from Cole's firm and her partner, Karen, and a tax professor and his wife, who teaches intellectual property. As I clear the soup plates and serve the salads, I take a moment to enjoy the whooping laughter of children in the playroom. Only in the years following Toy Story can the words, "Ellie, you're stepping on my Buzz!" and "Stop grabbing my Woody!" be so completely benign. The kids have feasted on macaroni and cheese and are stuffing themselves on Pixar. It's by no means an elegant affair, but I feel myself relax for the first time in days.

Cole is juggling a tray of chicken satay with peanut dipping sauce from Trader Joe's   and a platter of steaming mini quiches.   After a long, fraught lunch with my mother, we couldn't motivate ourselves to do anything more exotic than eclectic freezer tapas tonight. I am quite delighted to discover that tiny apple-cheese-walnut raviolis are amazing.   Nobody seems to mind. There's a lot of beer and the over-representation of the cheese-and-dough food group appears to have gone unnoticed. In other happy news, nobody has yet been taken out by a closet avalanche. I am desperate to talk to Cole about my mother's criticisms, but they map so perfectly onto his own that I don't quite know how to start. We had a nice afternoon, sharing some good red wine as we oversaw the thawing of All Things Trader Joe's. I never saw the need to bite one's tongue as a feminist trait, but I am learning the wisdom of it—and from my mother, of all people.

Cole and I have always talked clearly and openly. Now we are being crushed by our own subtext.   We're just shouting at each other's fears. My mother may have inadvertently just taught me that, as well.

I hear the beep of a new e-mail and wonder vaguely if it's from Whit. Ignoring it, I head to the dinner table with a baked brie I have doctored up with some cranberry chutney. Cole is explaining to Kate and the Dean that he's feeling good about Kayne's chances on appeal:

"There's some interesting new case law out of the California Supreme Court suggesting that a custodial parent's proposed relocation will almost always have a negative impact on the relationship of the noncustodial parent and the children," he's saying. "And I do think the judge made an error in factoring in the child care here. We also have a bunch of experts saying that this is being done principally to hamper dad's relationship with the children, and we've discovered some e-mail threats from the mother to do whatever she needed to get dad out of the picture."

Cole is so animated when he gets excited about a case. It's been ages since he's talked this way in front me of. Indeed, he stops talking as I walk into the dining room. We have arrived at a point in our marriage where he is no longer comfortable talking about the details of his big relocation case in front of his blogger wife. I contemplate ducking back into the kitchen for a moment to check if that e-mail was from Whit. Then I think better of it and sail into my dining room with a slightly burnt offering of baked brie.

***

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