We sit around a café table at the Mall. Chairs are scattered at odd angles on the white tile floor. It’s a table for two, but five of us are gathered here. Grandpa sips his coffee and glances at the newspaper. Little One proudly displays her boyshort underwear, which she proclaims are not underwear, but shorts. My Handsome Man declares that she can prance around wearing them as shorts all she wants at home but, whatever she calls them, they will not be making a solo appearance on her in public.
Dear One, with us on our traditional Thanksgiving trip during her break from college, is studying the plastic advertising display standing on the table next to the Orange Julius cup filled with water. She notes the holiday season special – turn in your receipts totaling a certain expenditure at the Mall for a given day, and get a cash card reward so you can do more shopping.
“We did this,” she asserts with a smile. “At the Mall on Monday with Mom.” She and the Divine M had gone shopping with their mother. “We didn’t spend enough but Mom just bought something to get to the amount and returned it, so we got the credit.”
“Was that honest?” My Handsome Man poses the question, almost rhetorically, his voice calm and his eyes without judgment.
“Well, yeah. I mean it worked and we did spend the money. We just bought stuff we knew we were going to take it back. I mean, we still spent that much, you know, after we got the card.” Dear One spits out this response rapid fire.
Grandpa is lost in his paper and may have turned down his hearing aids. I stare at the crumbled chocolate chip cookie that Little One abandoned – left resting on its rumpled brown paper sleeve when she ran off to catch up with her cousin and Grandma. MHM takes a sip from the Orange Julius cup.
Dear One keeps fumbling with the plastic stand holding the gift card offer. She reaches over and grabs a chunk of the cookie. “Is this anyone’s? Is anyone eating this?”
“No, I think you can probably have it,” I reply.
“It was the girls’. They’re done with it,” MHM follows. He reaches over to shake a paper coffee cup with a cheerful holiday design and smudged white lid. “There’s hot cocoa, too,” he begins. Then stops, “Oh, I guess they drank it.”
“There’s a Maurice’s in the Mall, you know. I have a 25% off coupon. I think I might go look. Do you want to go look?” Dear One says this to no one in particular. Her gaze, which had been lowered toward the table, is now dancing around the room, even skipping off the ceiling.
“Sure, let’s go look.” I get up, knowing she means me. “We’ll be back,” I say to MHM as we walk away.
. . .
Dear One is a straight arrow. She is a law-abiding rule-following upstanding citizen who hates lies. But, in this moment, she is lying. Lying about what honesty is and pretending that acts of omission do not count. Telling lies to justify and cover their tracks. Lie upon lie to cover the not-lie.
A few days earlier, Dear One had been telling, texting, me that I should become friends with her mother because her mother was more than willing to become friends with me and it would make things easier for everyone. I had the bad taste to suggest that this proffered friendship was false and superficial given her mother’s disregard for my husband and our marriage. She has encouraged the children to believe that she and their father would be together if it weren’t for me, even though she divorced him for another man long before I met him; repeatedly texted him of her willingness to take him back while engaged to that man or, later after the engagement broke-off, with another boyfriend. She also has a nicely subtle, but weirdly twisted, way of getting the kids to believe their dad isn’t doing right by them, or her as if she has some remaining spousal claim over him. This in the face of stark and regular evidence to the contrary of how well he provides for and treats them. Dear One countered that her mom’s superficial sweetness was preferable to my open rudeness and I couldn’t help but agree – both for my own peace of mind and for the sake of the kids and my husband.
However, when Dear One tells this happy story of how she, the Divine M, and their mom, thick as thieves, with Little One tagging along, banded together to game the system for an extra $25, the bile rises in my throat. I do well in the moment. I suppress it, say nothing, smile and go off with Dear One, chattering about nothing. But later, I sink, in anger and sadness. Anger at Dear One for taking the bait, anger at their mother for not growing up, anger that they are having so much fun shopping and getting what they want that they don’t even realize it is taking them away from who they want to be. And sadness that the way of truth isn’t more appealing and rewarding.
It is true; I do not want to be friendly toward this woman who tricks her daughters into learning the art of deception. I do not like that she teaches them to believe what they were doing was not lying because it was not untrue. That it was no big deal. They really did spend the right amount of money. They might have kept it. It was there on the receipt. The numbers all added up on the calculator.
And so I watch, mute but disapproving, as these beautiful young girls learn to deceive. Apprehensive of their future hardship, I choke on my fear. Fear that they will become cheaters and adulterers who justify their behavior and destroy their marriages, their families, and their children. Like their mother did to them, and her mother did to her. While I disrupt our relationship by anticipating their inheritance, inadvertently bestowing on them my own legacy of resentment. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Yet, how I try to wield it!