I once wrote a story called “Mary the Brave.”
It’s not much of a title, but to be fair, I was in the first grade. I knew how to spell all those words. I wrote them on a speckled black and white notebook and I colored in full-page illustrations, with a badly spelled caption under each. They concerned a stick figure in a skirt with shoulder-length yellow hair, having adventures. Mary went to space and traveled among the planets. Mary went back in time and met the knights of the Round Table. Mary found herself in a haunted house with a witch and a ghost. Mary somehow shrunk to three inches tall, got locked in the freezer, and mushed around on a miniature dog sled until she was rescued. Mary had no fear.
I filled up the whole notebook with those vignettes.
That year I was brave, on and off of the page. I used to go for hikes with my uncles in the strip of woods across from my grandfather’s old house, and pretend to be hunting for wolves. I swam in my grandfather’s pool and trod water in the deep end. I went to King’s Island with my girl scout troop and went on a ride through the haunted house, on a roller coaster and on the big ship that swung back and forth. My father marveled at my pluck. “We’ll have to call you Mary the Brave,” he said.
The next summer, between first and second grade, I broke my ankle. I had to limp around on it for days before anyone in the household would believe I wasn’t faking agony for attention. When I finally got to the hospital, they gave me a pink plaster cast that kept me out of the pool and off the hiking trails for most of the rest of the summer. I sat on my grandfather’s sofa and read books. The grown-ups teased me and called me a brat because I whined too much.
The next year, second grade, my school notebook was full of writing, most of it copied word for word out of books. I didn’t have the same imagination. I panicked and went into hysterics when I made mistakes in arithmetic and handwriting.
I wasn’t brave anymore.
Meanwhile, that summer or shortly after, my family had fallen into the Charismatic Renewal. I don’t blame them for that anymore. They were duped as much as I was. But I got brought up on cultish nonsense presented to me as good orthodox Catholicism– the notion that the devil is everywhere present and can hurt you at any time. That demons jump from hand to hand when you touch a stranger, or materialize to possess you if you watch the wrong film or read the wrong book. That the devil would curse you if you celebrated Halloween or played a role-playing game. God seemed cold and distant, a terrifying being who would intervene to make the sun dance or strike a victim soul with stigmata but not to save me from the devil. Everything seemed dangerous. I had to walk an increasingly straight, ever-more-narrow path to avoid total destruction.
I was eventually sent to a smaller school, where there were bullies who took advantage of my mounting anxiety to terrorize me. They teased everything about me, from my pudgy face to my love of books to my increasingly eccentric religious practices.
I had a breakdown.
I was taken out of school to homeschool.
My mother told me time and again after that, that of all the children she’d had, I’d hurt her the most. And I felt terrible about it. I tried to make it up to her but she was never satisfied.
I haven’t been brave for a long, long time time.
I was shy and severely anxious for the rest of my childhood and teenage years. I panicked too much to get a drivers’ license. I went to college close to home. Then I was dropped off at Franciscan University to attend graduate school, commuting back and forth from the dormitory on a shuttle bus, because the only thing I was good at was studying. My mother lectured me all the way up to the dormitory door about what a horrible person I was, finishing with “I just hope this school can do something for you, because we give up.”
Eventually, somehow, I got up the courage to cut ties with most of my family, the ones who called me names and despised me. But I was still not brave. I married Michael shortly before I came down with a case of fibromyalgia. Then I had Rosie, and I was trapped– chronically ill, stuck in an economically depressed small town during and after a recession, without having finished my master’s degree, with no car, with no way out.
I live in a town where the bus runs about once an hour, until six o’clock at night, and you can get out to the mall or to downtown. There are a few cabs if you can afford them. But other than that you have to walk, and there are a limited number of places where it’s safe to walk.
And I was more terrified than ever.
Things have gotten better.
The one thing I could do besides studying was write, which is how I ended up blogging at Patheos. I’ve found that I’ve got a voice and something to say. And, though I’m still very anxious when the internet piles on me for saying something that a woman shouldn’t say, I’ve discovered ways to navigate through the anxiety. I live on tips from people who like my writing, but the tips keep coming in, I’ve got one book published and another coming soon, and we’re starting to hold our own. I’m beginning to feel like less of a failure, as I see myself holding my own.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been taking driving lessons in little fits and starts.
It started a few years ago, when a reader gave me an extra big tip and I bought six hours of lessons with an instructor. Then I ran out of money and stopped. Then, last year, Rosie’s godparents bought me some more lessons. I got as far as to go to Bridgeport for the exam, where I passed the road test but failed Ohio’s notoriously tricky maneuverability test. They bought me a few more lessons, and I was almost ready to take the test again when I had a severe fibromyalgia flare that lasted months. It finished just in time for the COVID-19 shutdown. Every driving school and license bureau in the state closed in March and stayed that way until summer.
This fall, I took one last lesson.
Today, I drove to New Philadelphia, to the new social distanced driver’s exam station. The drive took an hour, a beautiful trip down country roads. I’ve told you that the Ohio Valley is ugly, and it is; it’s an astonishingly ugly place. But it’s also beautiful, especially in the fall, especially when you’re outside Steubenville city limits on a bright day, driving under glorious trees. We didn’t drive down beside the dismal Ohio River like we had when we went to Bridgeport, but up through farmland past Tappan Lake. It wasn’t wine dark and rust red but gold grass, gold and orange trees, under a fierce blue sky. I could understand, just in that moment, how the Ohio Valley might be a place where someone might want to live voluntarily, instead of a trap to get stuck in.
In New Philadelphia, I took the maneuverability test: Drive up through the traffic cones and turn left, then park, then back up through the traffic cones without knocking one over and park. The instructor sat next to me with a mask on and wasn’t allowed to talk, and the test-taker walked next to the car and watched through a window. That’s the new way they have to do it, during the pandemic.
I drove up.
I put the car in reverse.
I turned, muttering to myself to always turn the car TOWARD the cone I didn’t want to hit when I drive in reverse. I straightened the car. I turned again and straightened the car again.
I watched the cones go past me, one, two, three.
And then I parked, and I was too excited to even cheer.
Today I can drive, for the first time in my life, at the age of thirty-six.
Lord knows when we’ll be able to afford a car and all the expenses that go with it, but that’s a worry for another day. Right now there’s nothing but excitement. I don’t have to take lessons anymore. I’m a licensed driver.
The instructor drove me home, on that beautiful road past gold grass and gold trees. The radio was on. I caught myself bouncing in my seat and singing along behind my mask. I felt fearless, powerful, grown-up and interesting. I felt as though a part of myself that died thirty years ago had risen from the dead.
I wasn’t afraid of anything just then.
I wasn’t anxious at all.
I was Mary the Brave.
Image via Pixabay.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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