Madge Moves Along (or A Rake’s Progress) by Shelley Pineo-Jensen, Ph.D.
The hardest part of leaving was breaking up the record collection. She and her soon-to-be ex-husband took turns choosing albums. She got the Eagles; he got Sweetheart of the Rodeo. She got The Planets; he got Bartok. She didn’t take much. It all fit in the ’40 Plymouth. It was 1972.
She drove in a caravan with a friend and an acquaintance. When she got to the other side of the Grapevine, she started to feel better. The place she left was hot, dreary, overcrowded, plagued with constant destruction of anything of architectural interest, say, an old hotel, which was replaced with something sterile, say a parking lot with a small rectangular drive-up bank. Giant blocks of strawberry fields replaced with rabbit-warren apartments with no green spaces, the slums of the near future.
They camped somewhere; the aloneness of it was refreshing. A house full of people, parties, and getting drunk every night was replaced with an early fall empty campground. What did they eat? Barbequed hot dogs? They boosted some firewood from the honor-system pile loosely maintained by invisible park rangers; rounding a corner one of the bundles flew through the air and smacked and cracked the plastic window in the back of her friend’s makeshift camper. “Instant Karma” he told her at the next stopping place.
They drove quickly from Orange County, California to Bellingham, Washington, where he had friends and the acquaintance had brothers. They landed at “Grey House,” pompously named by the brothers and their hippy dippy friends who rented the large old mansion. They were copying the style of the established communes, Blue House, Yellow House, and so forth. She was welcomed on a tentative basis and soon became unwelcome. She and one of the brother’s had history, in which she had ridiculed his unsupported political ideas for lack of substance and critiqued his request for her to stop soaking in water and destroying her own wooden bowl set with the comment, “feel free to wash the dishes.”
What she had to process was the movement from married woman in a committed relationship to single woman. What she had to create, whether she knew it or not, was a new persona that was not part of Stan and Shirl, business owners, was not part of her family of origin, but was rather, a whole individual person with no responsibilities to another person and no one else upon whom to depend. It was not easy.
She moved from Grey House to a studio apartment out on the edge of town, right adjacent to forest. It smelled good. No one came to see her there except the young guy who took her dog Pal off her hands. She had a dog; did I fail to mention that? Clearly, she was not attached to the poor beast. She hoped he had a better life with some stranger she palmed him off on.
Life in the studio apartment was hard. Being alone was not that tough, she got a job serving burgers and shakes as a car hop at a squeaky-clean drive-up restaurant called “Bunk’s Hamburgers.” She had become friends with a woman at the employment office in the process of finding a job. She and that woman, who eventually came out as a lesbian, helped her form a women’s consciousness-raising group. The group of eight met Wednesday mornings for tea and conversation. After discussion about why the term “lady” was objectionable, parsing it deeply into the divide between “ladies” and “non-ladies” such as “tramps” “sluts” “whores” and “trash,” they named the group “The Ladies Aid Society.” Except for her, every woman in the group had a story to tell about the time she was raped. She understood that she had already led a extraordinary life, indeed a charmed life, just by the fact that she had not been abused by any men. She did not have the term “patriarchy” in her vocabulary. Women talked about “sexism” rather than “misogyny” and “masculine hegemony” was not in the common discourse. But she did find solid support from her allies in The Ladies Aid Society for her identity as an independent woman who needed a man about as much as a fish needs a bicycle. They were in agreement that a woman is entitled to equal pay for equal work, to sexual freedom / liberation, and to an abortion if she wanted one.
The problem was cooking for one. Back at the Ash Street house she had cooked for a crowd every day, herself, her then-husband, and whomever were the current residents of the two bedrooms they rented out, and whomever else was around. There was always someone else around. The place was an ongoing party. She kept gallon bottles of booze in the little dining area at the front of the kitchen. She painted a red line with nail polish onto the stereo volume knob to show the place above which one was not permitted to turn the sound, lest the police come. Later she saw this same solution in the movie “Say Anything” and realized that women all over the country were doing that same thing.
So, she found that trying to scale back her cooking style to serve just one person was too difficult. She settled on pancakes and fried eggs. Krusteaz Pancake Mix was her main supply. She got a free meal every day at Bunk’s, so it was only dinner that was lonesome. But she knew she would need to figure out a better plan.
She searched the local paper daily for a room-mate situation and soon found one with a woman named Dar. Dar wanted to rent a nice three-bedroom house in a lowly populated area of Bellingham, in the southeast area behind the hill that hoisted the local college. Our hero, Madge of course, paid more to get the big bedroom upstairs. It had an amazing view of the hills to the south end of town. When winter came, they were frosted with snow. Quite memorable.
So, this young woman, finally settled into a new life, had a home, a place to live that she liked, with a housemate she liked, and that woman’s daughter, whom she didn’t dislike, at least. She had a job she enjoyed. It was quite a relief to have a job where there was no burden on her for the success of the operation.
Of course, she had been maneuvered out of her responsibility for the business she had created with her soon-to-be ex-husband. And that division had killed the relationship just as though it had been a baby that had been ripped from her breast. And her year at college was an unmotivated if successful visit to academia, at least until her third semester, when she could feel her grasp on a career in geology slipping away from her because of an inability to parse the structure of crystal axis and poor performance on rock identification tests. She had not yet perfected the skills of being a student and had been gliding along on high intelligence. It was not until later in her academic career that she would form study groups for challenging classes.
It had taken a year for the other shoe to drop after she stopped running the business. She was not kicked out, but it might as well of been so. And the emptiness and drinking took its toll. She was lucky to have a friend like Miney, who suggested that she move to Bellingham. After she had decided to do it, she was gone in three days.
So, she made a final transition, from family member at the Primrose home of her folks, to married woman, to partner in a business, to half of a rocky and eventually failed marriage. What would she become next?
Sitting on her bed in her spacious room, the walls decorated with faded barn siding, she contemplated her worldly possessions. All her stuff was stacked along the walls in cardboard boxes, which she disguised with lengths of fabric from projects that she had never completed after the business took off like topsy. She had what she needed. She answered to no one, except to be a good employee, something that was easy, to be a civil and respectful housemate, something that came naturally, and to avoid dishonest behavior in her relationships.
She participated in Co-counseling of Whatcom County, a therapy system that trained the participants to sit in a counseling session with a partner. These sessions lasted an hour, 30 minutes for each, in which the participant was in charge of their own therapeutic course. One would work through stages of discharge, crying, anger, trembling, raging, laughing, warm perspiration, yawning, laughing and relaxed, non-repetitive talking to achieve a state of “free attention” that would allow reflection, learning, growth, and freedom from old patterns and grievances, various stressors. It was cheap and it worked. She was able to learn why she sometimes reflexively lied and to remove that undesirable behavior from her repertoire of instinctive responses, replacing it with a straight-forwardness, a blunt honesty, that became her hallmark.
She reflected on the fact that this was the first time, in this move to Bellingham, that she had slept alone. During the time of infantile amnesia, the first of her sisters was born. They were sharing a bed when she “woke up” to rememberable consciousness. When she moved out her parents’ house, it was with the young man who would become her first husband. She didn’t sleep alone until she drove away from all that crazy swirling Santa Ana wind driven grasping consumerism sea of asphalt.
The need for freedom from dishonesty was something she crashed into, as she turned the corner out of the smog-bowl of LA into the chaparral of the valley, at the ridges of the Grapevine. She didn’t need to hide who she was, what she wanted, or how she felt. The longer she stayed in Bellingham, the more boyfriends she had . . . well boyfriends wasn’t the right term, more like the men she chose to be involved with, in short term relationships amounting to very little worth reporting. . . the more she shook off any need to please others by being less than who she was.
She stopped putting herself second in her communications. She stopped pretending to be nicer than she really was. She was plenty nice enough, in her personal evaluation of herself. She strove to be honest with everyone, but never intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings. She learned that the simplest way to have honest relationships was just to be simply honest.
This was the biggest effect of her time alone. Battered by the indignity of being reduced to “less than” Stan and Shirl, the weak one, pitied or criticized for her drinking, or her clothing, or her opinions, she re-embraced her estimation of herself as intelligent, good looking enough to attract male companionship, nimble, reasonably well-educated and reasonably well-read, hard-working, and morally responsible for her behavior.
She embraced her aloneness – her singleness. She had many relationships and knew that she didn’t need to be involved with anyone to sustain her own life. She could earn her own living. She made good decisions.
And when her convenient affordable home became a cluster-flock due to the arrival of Dar’s elder daughter Sandy, and hot on her heels Sandy’s soon-to-be ex-husband, and all the ensuing fighting and shouting in the living room where Sandy had taken up residence, Madge moved out. In her haste, she took up residence in a large walk-in closet just a bit larger than her double-size mattress. She put her college art up on the walls and thought about her future. She figured it was time to go back to college. She made plans to move back to California and stay in San Francisco with her Aunt Donna.
Madge started a new phase of her life, strong, independent, single, and not needing anyone to help her make her way. She prized her honesty with herself and anyone who chose to spend time with her would get the blunt truth.
Life is so much simpler to let people know who you are from the get-go then have them figure it out later and discover that they don’t really like the “real you.” And a happy ending is determined by where you end the story, so let’s just end it here, shall we?