Curtis Dickerson: “Acknowledge My Sacrifices”

Sometimes on long stretches of highway I imagine that my Hyundai is a giant beetle I can control, and every jerk of the steering wheel and tap on the gas is me willing this beast to move, telling it where to carry me and my children. Their quiet chattering and the voices from their various devices are drowned out by a complete focus on the green strip of median between the lanes, the length of yellow line that bends forever onward. I see myself as the hero of their movies, the world weary and kindly warrior mother, slapping leather reigns from my oversized saddle, urging some massive blue insect to buzz faster towards our destination.

Right now our destination is school. Then grocery store, then home decorating store, then home, then school, then soccer, then home, then soccer, then home. I am their portal from place to place, the one who makes their interactions in the real world possible. They engage with one another and with the screens and with one another through the screens and with one another about engaging with the screens. I keep them here and show them the real and coax them from the digital. It is a daily battle.

I do not mean to say that I am somehow immune to the charms of these screens. I have been known to go on a shopping spree or two, remembering what I have purchased only days later as it arrives on my doorstep. But I know what creatures lurk, I am more watchful than my children give me credit. Only Husband knows the true extent of my observation and only because communication between parents is important. He knows, as they might one day, that I am waiting in the wings, waiting to whisk them up and out when the situation arises. Be In the World, Not Of It.

My children hurl themselves out of my car when we pull up to their school like parachuters. I tell them to Have a Blessed Day, and they bend their arms behind their backs to wave goodbye discreetly while walking into the building. What I cannot control, the school will. I have the utmost faith in the school, in the teachers, in the kindly principal with the crossed eye who could have gotten it fixed if he wanted, the kindly principal who refuses because he is a Man of God, because he believes we all are given Burdens For Our Own Development, and that his just happens to be his eye. Which may be true, but even if it is not, it is a comforting worldview to entrust my children with. Their days at their school are screen free, perhaps the longest parts of their day which are screen free. In that time when they are not distracted, my children are learning about the Word of God, about how to be Crusaders for Christ, Men and Women Of Faith who never falter. It is a very good return on investment, Husband and I are very satisfied with our decision to pull our children out of public.

Onward! I tell my beetle Hyundai as we pull out of the parking lot and make myself laugh. It is important to laugh, is easy to forget the importance of laughing in the face of all the forbidden fruits this world has to offer.

Husband is in better spirits after his fishing trip with his unsaved and unrepentant coworker. I ask him if he had a chance to share the Good News again and Husband smiles and tells me that his coworker was unreceptive.

What all did you do? I ask.

Fishing, mostly, Husband says. We stopped at this diner on the way and it was like stepping in a time machine. It was crazy.

What did you have?

Pork chops. Forget what he had.

Did he try to get you to go out drinking with him?

No.

Did he pay for any of the meals?

Yes he paid for his meals.

Did he pay for the hotel room?

Yes he paid for half of the hotel room.

Did he pay for gas?

Yes he paid for some gas.

How much did he pay?

I don’t know, Siobhan, Husband says. He filled up the tank. He went in. He paid for the tank. He came out. I didn’t look to see how much it was.

Ok ok, I say. Gosh. Where’s that Spirit Of Generosity Pastor was talking about? I’m just trying to find out how your trip was.

Sorry, Husband says.

We are sitting around the table and eating the lasagna that I have made with my own two hands to feed the family I love. My children are nose deep in their screens and the dog just jumped up and almost stole a roll.

Henry, I say to my child. Don’t use your phone at the table.

What?

I said put away your phone.

Sorry.

Eat your lasagna, I say. I want to know what he sees on there, how he manipulates the shapes and words into knowledge and meaning, tapping and scrolling and spinning and swiping and poking and zooming, but it is not the sort of thing a mother can ask her young son. When he is older, our relationship will change. When he is older, he will be more attentive to my needs as a mother, as a person, will be more willing to engage and to acknowledge my sacrifices. Now he pretends that I am a robot who dispenses food and transports bodies.

Every other Wednesday of each month is Prayer Brunch, a gathering of some of the mothers from our children’s school for us to discuss our triumphs and disappointments and fears about the future and prayer requests. We go around the table and the seven of us, for the most part women who have two or more children at the school and who are actively involved, each say one blessing and one struggle. I tell them Husband is both the blessing and the struggle and all the other women laugh and the waiter is maybe smiling when he leans over to refill my water glass.

At Prayer Brunch we quiz one another over omelets from a booklet for our written test before our class later in the afternoon. The ladies are planning on going and getting our gun permits together, a Concealed Handgun License. It is a protection we hope we never have to use, but it is important to be prepared and ready when the time is right to be able to protect our families from the dangers of this world. There are murderers out there who would murder my children without blinking, pedophiles who lick their lips at the thought of fondling my children’s genitals, perverts and crazies and psychos and kidnappers and sex slavers and wanderers and people who lack any sense of morality because they have turned their backs to God. They can be anyone, they can be friends or neighbors or family members or doctors. If they come for my children, they will find me waiting with a little surprise in my leather purse, a Justice For Their Inequities, waiting to right their wrongs. Our instructor is a handsome man with a mustache who wears shirts that are probably too tight for how cold it is outside, but we do not care. We like it, we laugh about it together because it is important to laugh.

What’s the most important thing to remember when you’re cleaning your gun? Rhonda? one of the mothers asks.

Make sure the safety’s on, keep it away from your face, another mother says.

Don’t want to blow off your nose, another mother says.

It would be a good excuse to get a new nose job though, I say and everyone laughs. Doctor, I was cleaning my gun. Can I get the Amy Grant? I say and everyone laughs. Or the, what’s her name, the Kristin Chenoweth?

One of the mothers decides that we should split the check seven ways, which is unfair since I only had water with my meal and most of the other women had orange juice or coffee, but I hold my tongue and pull out my card. Turn the Other Cheek. Or, the Other Check, as Husband used to say.

After getting in the car, after turning the keys and pulling out of the parking lot, after stopping by the grocery store and grabbing the usuals like the well-oiled machine that I am, after going home and unloading the groceries equally efficiently, I drive back to my children’s school to pick them up. My children get in the car and I ask them how their day went and they say Fine.

Peter, I call back from the driver’s seat to my child. Can you put your earphones in or turn that down? One or the other, please!

What?

Peter, you need to turn that down!

Sorry.

Husband tells me he has caught our child watching pornography on one of his screens. Because our children must keep their bedroom doors unlocked, Husband knocked and entered to find our child quickly trying to hide his phone in a drawer of his desk, and when he asked to see it and my child said No, Husband walked over and took the phone from him and unlocked the screen and the lewd sounds of the video blared in the room and Husband fumbled to turn the sound off.

What did you do? I ask.

I took the phone. He’s grounded for a month from electronics, Husband says.

That’s it? I ask.

What do you want me to do, Siobhan?

My children inherit their vulgarity from their father. My father would have never permitted such immoral behavior; he would have smacked me or my brothers from here to Timbuktu, he would have banned us from friends and from eating and from fun and from breathing.

So you’re not going to do anything else?

Look, says Husband. This is very awkward for me. I don’t know how else to handle it. He does something wrong, he gets a punishment.

Well you’ve already punished him, so there’s nothing else I can do now is there?

If you wanted, you could. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I just did what I thought was right. What should I have done?

You are the laziest man on the face of this planet, I say.

After I pick up my children from their school, after I drop some of them off at home and some of them off at soccer, after I tell Husband and my children to fend for themselves for dinner, I head to the gun range and it all goes away for a little bit. I pick up some of my children from soccer on my way back home from the gun range and one of them complains that I am late and I say nothing and he goes back to his screen.

I tell the ladies at Prayer Brunch about the incident with Husband and my child, and they are shocked. They tell me that he is Not Being Very Proactive, that he could Learn a Thing Or Two From My Jonathan, that he needs to Step Up To the Plate, that the whole thing is Just Not Right, It’s Just Not.

What should I do then? I ask.

What can you do? one of the mothers says. He’s your husband. Head of the Household.

One of the mothers tells us about her recent vacation with her family to Jamaica. Her family walked on the beaches and slept under the stars and got their hair braided and swam with the stingrays. I remember the vacation I am planning for the week my children are on spring break from their school and am encouraged. It will be a time for us to bond together, screen free. It will be a time for us to come together as a family again, to remember who we are together in a less hectic setting.

The only screen I’m allowing on our vacation is sunscreen, I say and everyone laughs. Maybe the screens on the hotel windows because I hear the bugs are huge, I say and everyone laughs. Who knows? Maybe I’ll kill them all in their sleep and then I’ll go on vacation by myself for a change! I say and everyone laughs.

When I come home after dropping off our children at Wednesday Church, after all the other things I have done today, Husband is waiting in the kitchen and wanting to start a conversation with me, but I am in a mood which is less than great.

Love is Patient, Husband says quietly.

Don’t speak to me right now, I say.

Husband and I go to church twice on Sundays and our children go again on Wednesdays. They practically beg us to go on Wednesdays. Sometimes Wednesday rolls around and I am thinking that, after the day that I have had driving around in my Hyundai in service of my family, I would rather read a good book or relax a little bit in front of the television, but my children need a ride to church so I give my children a ride to church.

Husband is never the one who gives our children a ride to church. Husband comes home from work and he is tired and is in poor a mood. He eats a plate of whatever dinner I have made, sometimes at the table with our children and sometimes not, then goes up to the bedroom where he watches television and avoids us. The children do not seem to mind since they are also on their screens, but how could a child not mind that their father is not around often, or even if he is around often enough, he is holed up in his Man Cave watching sports or news or self-help seminars? Train Up a Child In the Way He Should Go, sure, but what sort of example or Training is Husband providing? Husband is not providing training. Husband is providing a model for Slothfulness, a model from which our children will not depart when they grow old. It has already begun; my children are showing signs of their father’s laziness and it will continue to grow worse unless I can correct course.

After I wash the dishes, after I fold the laundry and go up to my children’s rooms to get their dirty clothes out of their dirty clothes hampers, after I feed the dog, after I do more research on the computer for the vacation for the week my children are on spring break, after I clean my firearm, making sure to keep it away from my face and to keep the safety on and to make sure the gun is unloaded, it is time for me to pick up my children from school and drive through the McDonalds to get them a snack and drive them home and then later to church and be ignored the entire time like some sort of maid.

I’m not your maid, I tell my children in the car. You’re supposed to bring your clothes downstairs so I can wash them. Especially you, Ruthie. There were probably two weeks of clothes up there.

Sorry, my child says.

And another thing, I say. Your room smelled funny, Mark. Do you know why your room smelled funny?

What? my child says.

I said you left an apple core under your bed, Mark! You let it rot and when I found it, it was disgusting. Did you not notice it?

Sorry, my child says.

Did you not smell it? How can you not smell rotting fruit under your bed?

I said sorry, my child says.

At the gun range, the ladies from Prayer Brunch are different people. I am a different person. There is a power to this tiny, weighty thing in my hand. When I pull the trigger, my arms steady because I am now familiar with the Kick Back, when the bullet leaves the trigger and travels faster than I can see into the heart of a paper target which looks like an African American attacker at the end of the sort of concrete hallway, I feel like I have finally gained complete control. There is nothing I cannot conquer, there is nothing I cannot master. When I pull the trigger, it is all the laundry for the week done in a flash, it is every dish I will wash, it is the feeling I get when traffic is light and I find myself arriving in my driveway with my children and a half hour to spare.

Nice shot, missy, the instructor with the mustache and the too-tight shirt says after he takes off his giant red ear protectors. Got him good.

Siobhan doesn’t mess around, says the mother beside me.

I certainly don’t, I say.

Looks like someone’s working out some aggression, huh? says the instructor.

My blessing and my curse, I say, and everyone laughs, and the instructor smiles even though he is not in on the joke. After everyone has had a turn, after we all say a prayer together in the gun range for the Blessings Of Protection and Freedom and Liberty, after we say goodbye and get into our separate cars and I pick up my children from their school and I drive home, I reapply my makeup and pull the dinner I have made out of the refrigerator and put it into the oven and tell my children to work on their homework. I peek over the shoulder of my child who is sitting at the kitchen table and see that she is working on homework for her class in Current Social Problems.

Mary, what are you guys studying? I ask my child.

Prayer in schools, my child says.

And what does your teacher say about prayer in schools? I ask.

That it’s bad. No, that not having it is bad. Prayer in schools is good.

What else does your teacher say?

That it signifies The End of Days.

What does?

Not having prayer in schools.

What else?

That people are mean to each other and violent because God is not in our schools.

Do you feel lucky that God is in your school?

Yes.

Do you know that not everyone can afford the sacrifices your father and I have made so that you can be in a school with God?

Yes.

Don’t forget our sacrifices, I say, and kiss my child on the head and check on the dinner in the oven and check to make sure my other children are doing their homework and tell the ones who are not to Get On It.

On Sunday, Pastor is continuing in his series of sermons about guilt. It is funny and full of tender stories about him and his wife and it is very enlightening. Pastor is a true Man of God. Husband and I sit in the pew and fill in the blanks of our programs with the little pencil nubs in the back of the pew in front of us. I write Forever Forgiven in the blank as Pastor says that we are Forever Forgiven From Sin Through Christ, and Forever Forgiven appears on the screen over his head. I am glad that the words are projected as Pastor says them, since sometimes my mind wanders and I find myself picturing being at the gun range and aiming at the paper target and pulling the trigger.

Just a reminder, Pastor says, after he finishes his sermon, after the music director comes onstage and leads us in worship and we clap our hands in time to the music and sing the lyrics projected on the screen, after Pastor comes onstage and thanks him and makes a small joke. Next Sunday, we’ll finish up our series by talking about what’s worth holding onto and what we need to just let go, so be sure to stay tuned. Ok, have a great Sunday! God bless!

We file out and head to our favorite Chinese restaurant since Sunday lunch is the only meal of the week that I do not cook and we order the same meals we order every time and my children badger one another since they know they are not allowed to use their screens when we are eating out. They are not allowed to use their screens when they are eating in, but they are especially not allowed to use their screens when they are eating out. We talk about our weeks and I try and get my children to go around the table and share one blessing and one struggle, but my children are not paying attention and I have to abandon this idea, since they are pulling each other’s hair and chewing with their mouths open and not saying Thank You to the Chinese man whenever he refills their water glasses and they are being loud and throwing food and spilling their water glasses and insulting each other and hitting each other and not appreciating the experiences they have been given. Husband pays and we drive home in my Hyundai and I try to hide how upset I am by turning up the volume to the Positive and Encouraging radio station.

As the vacation I have planned for the week my children are on spring break from their school approaches, I feel myself going into my Vacrazy mode, which is what Husband calls my occasional lashings out during the weeks before a vacation from the considerable stress of trying to plan a fun and memorable time for my children and their father.

I ask the ladies from Prayer Brunch to say a prayer for me and for my family, since earlier in the day I called my child several inappropriate names in front of my other children because my child did not know how many pairs of socks to pack for a week-long vacation.

They’ll get over it, one of the mothers says. Children don’t remember trauma the way all the doctors say they do. And besides, if shouting at your children or insulting them is trauma, I’m Hitler.

They can pay for a shrink when they’re older, one of the mothers says, that’s what I always tell my kids. Tell it to your therapist when you’re thirty!

You’re a great mother, Siobhan, one of the mothers says. And with everything you have to put up with, even if you killed one of your children, you’d still have plenty left who are well adjusted. You’d still go to Heaven, is what I’m saying.

Oh gosh, is my Husband going to be there too? I say and everyone laughs. Maybe I’ll just take the other option when they ask, I say and everyone laughs. My flesh boiling off forever and my tongue ripped out of my mouth forever on repeat? Could be worse, I say and everyone laughs.

We pray again and agree to meet at the gun range before the soccer game on Saturday and split the bill seven ways. When I get home, I see my child who was caught watching pornography on his phone reading something on his phone on the couch in front of the television.

David, what do you think you’re doing? I ask my child.

It’s been a month, my child says without looking up from his screen.

After I make dinner, after I tell my children to do their homework, after Husband gets home, after we all sit to eat, including Husband this time, I try to tell my family about all the things that we will do on the vacation I have planned for the week my children are on spring break from their school, but they are not listening. They are on their screens.

Why are you telling us? one of my children says. Why can’t it just be a surprise?

Well it’s not a surprise for me, Chelsea, I tell my child. I’m the one who has to plan it. Why don’t I get to be surprised?

Because you’re the Mom, my child says.

In the morning, after a night in which I could not sleep, after a night spent drinking coffee and researching more and more events for my family for the vacation I have planned for the week my children are on their spring break, after Husband woke up and asked me what was wrong and I told him to Just Go To Work and he went to work, I tell my children to collect their phones and their tablets and my oldest child’s laptop and their music players and their personal gaming devices. I put them all in a box. I find I need a second box to put all of their screens in. I unplug the televisions in their rooms and carry them down to the kitchen table. I collect their gaming consoles and place them on the table too. The only screens left untouched are my phone and Husband’s phone and the television in our bedroom and the family computer.

What are you doing with all that? my child asks.

I’m getting rid of them so we can be a family again, I tell my child.

This is stupid, my child says.

Whatever, it’s your money, my child says.

Mom, be serious. You can’t get rid of everything, my child says.

Please don’t do this, my child says.

I paid for half of my PSP, my child says. If you get rid of it, you owe me that money.

I don’t owe any of you anything, I tell my children.

I drive my children to their school and some of them are crying and some of them are fuming. My child begs me to be reasonable, says that I am making a Big Mistake. I drive on without a word. I will not be moved.

When I pick all of you up after school, we’re going to get rid of all of this, I tell my children after we have pulled up in front of their school, after I have handed back a pack of tissues. My child calls me a vulgar name and I tell him that he is Really Making Me Want To Change My Mind Right Now, which grants me an immediate apology. Some of my children are still crying when they exit the Hyundai and walk into their school. Today I will be all my children can talk about, I will be at the forefront of their thoughts when they do Morning Prayer, when they are in their classes, when they are at lunch, when they are at recess. My children will tell their friends that their mother is Crazy but years later they will recognize the wisdom in this decision, this investment in their future.

My father owns several acres of land about an hour north of where we live which he uses to hunt and where my children hike and sometimes swim in the lake in the summer. After school, after I pick them up, after I have gone home and washed the dishes and done several loads of laundry and fed the dog and prepared dinner and prayed and gone to the gun range, I drive my children and their screens in boxes in the trunk of my Hyundai to my father’s land and they fuss and they whine the entire time. They ask Where Are We Going and What’s Happening and What Are You Doing With Our Phones and Does Dad Know You’re Doing This? I say nothing. A Mighty Fortress is Their Mom, I think, and make myself laugh because it is important to laugh.

We get out of my Hyundai and I tell my children to stand near the car while I open the trunk and take out the boxes and put the boxes with the screens in them on a pedestal that my father leaves in one of the fields for target practice. One of my children tries to physically stop me and I tell him sternly that You Are Never To Touch Your Mother Like That.

This is for your own good, I tell my children while they cry, while they pretend to not care, while they shout at me, while they hug one another. Plenty of people in the world get by just fine without all this junk. Hopefully this will teach you all some respect.

I respect you, my child says. I never disrespect you.

Well, Steven, you can thank your brothers and sisters for this then, I say.

I respect you too! my child says.

This is for all of you, I say.

I pull my handgun out of my purse and my children begin crying all over again. I close one eye and aim my firearm and it all goes away for a little bit. Their crying and pleading is drowned out by a complete focus on the boxes filled with their screens on the pedestal.

Plug your ears, I tell my children.

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Curtis Dickerson

Curtis Dickerson has recently received his MA in Creative Writing from Miami University. He is a native of Ohio, where he teaches and writes.

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