The Loving Cup
She wanted me to have it. She expected me to win it.
At five years old I didn’t care about winning. Already I hated competing. But my mother needed me to get that cup. She told me it should be mine. I’d never heard of this prize until she brought it up, but the moment she did, I wanted it bad. I needed desperately—it was a matter of life and death in those days and for a long time thereafter—to please her.
Not to win the loving cup would have been far worse than simply failing to place first. Not winning meant a lazy, worthless, no-account shirking of what I was capable, at the very minimum, of doing. She made it obvious I could win this Best in Class award if I made the least degree of proper effort. I was smarter, prettier, and had better manners than any other child in the entire Anderson Street Methodist Church kindergarten.
Never mind that I didn’t experience myself as any of those things. In my experience I got wrong or didn’t understand an alarming number of things; and she routinely told me I was ugly because my mouth turned down; and my failure at decent manners was a regular topic for correction. I knew very well her expectation about how I should be perceived publicly. If my behavior, my performance, didn’t support her professed truths about me, I was simply off my form, and could have done better if I’d actually tried, and would have done better if I really loved her the way I claimed I did.
This situation is, I know, a so-common experience of pressured, nervous, over-achieving children. That I suffered because of it, that she made dreadful mistakes, even that she suffered, this hardly bears examination. Suffering is too entirely common. And so is vilification of one’s abusive parents, and, in memoir, the grown-up child’s struggle to come to terms with the damage and the damned. What concerns me here—what allows me to believe there is some purpose beyond self-justification to my writing this—is the true nature of love, the crooked path by which we arrive at forgiveness, and how we ought to use our time as we make our way through (to quote a wise and weary friend whose facility with language exceeds mine) the hard walk toward death that we call life. The Big Questions are my territory—as answered, or illuminated, in the tiny, quotidian particulars of my half century of strivings, disappointments, disasters, and rebounds.
So: in this vignette I am five. And You—center of my world, the only light I see—you in this scene are my mother, and you have set me a single task: to win.
“Loving cup” must have been your term for the prize. Some years would pass before I’d notice that other people called the object a trophy. Nowadays I wonder if you meant to suggest the award was a cup of love, conferred on the winner by admiring teachers. But at the time I understood I was to love and desire the cup itself. The ‘why’ I did not question; the value your desire placed on it was all the motivation I needed. Soon the very words ‘loving cup’ pulsed and gleamed with my longing for the object and all it signified. Maybe I felt way down beneath all surface forms of five-year-old knowing that if I had the cup, I’d have loving I could hold in my hands.
I can’t remember one single thing about the competition itself except an oral questioning, by the head teacher, Miss Maude, of the students deemed to be in the running for the cup. The questions, I imagine now, tested our knowledge of facts kindergartners should know, such as the names of the seasons, and the president. I recall that during the questioning itself I experienced a vague contempt for how ridiculously obvious and easy the answers were. I was accustomed to knowing more answers than I was supposed to know when it came to school. I’d arrived there already knowing how to read without understanding that I did; you’d been reading to me for as long as I could remember and I’d memorized any number of Little Golden Books in their entirety. My disappointment was keen the day we first received our eagerly anticipated “first books,” which turned out to be mimeographed pages bearing line drawings labeled with two or three baby words I comprehended without the least effort. I regularly felt distressed by how far beneath my expectations the challenge of kindergarten fell. I seemed simply to have always known things other children were learning with difficulty. Quickly I learned the price for too often having the right answer and especially for too often volunteering it—alienation from my peers. But I liked having right answers: you’d taught me the pleasure that praise and approval conferred.
I don’t remember if there were other categories of competition for this kindergarten best-in-show award. I faintly recall my fluttering terror-excitement on the big day during the hours that preceded the examination. But I recall with bitter clarity what I would carry with me like a cup of gall into high school and beyond: an exchange between me and some other child’s mother in the anteroom just after my questioning.
Maybe I was looking smug. Maybe my reputation as smart kid and teacher’s pet preceded me already at that age. Maybe I seemed like a target because I was alone; you, for some reason, were not with me as other children’s mothers were. Or maybe the woman meant only to make friendly conversation with a kid who looked lonely.
She asked me if I’d studied. She might have said she bet I had. I had not. Until she mentioned it, I had no idea that a person could prepare for questions; the concept of ‘study’ was not familiar to me. I habitually read whatever I could get my hands on, including as many of the words in the World Book Encyclopedia as I could decipher, but that was because I liked finding stuff out. Her question brought a rush of strange feeling over me. I didn’t know what it was but it had to do with the size and force of your certainty that I could and should win the prize. I swooned with sudden fear that I wouldn’t. And squirmed, at the same time, with deep shame at knowing that I probably would win, without studying, because the questions were so absurdly easy. The confusing, charged complexity of my emotions swept me away from myself. I told that other mother a lie. I said, “My mother kept me up all night studying.”
She was shocked. I was shocked. I had no idea such a thing was on its way out of my mouth; never in my life had I told such a whopping lie. I felt certain I’d be found out, with terrible punishment to follow. From that moment until the loving cup was placed in my hands, I oozed the cold sweat of fear. Misery so overshadowed winning that I barely remember the award ceremony—some end-of-year event for which I was overdressed and excruciatingly self-conscious.
Once I possessed the cup, I put it in your hands, pleasing you no end, of course. You put it on display in our house and showed it to everyone—relatives, friends, neighbors—any chance you got. If I heard you, I writhed.
The cup itself, forever poisoned by the lie, I hated. When it came to live in my room, I avoided its malevolent eye.
My mother—an abuser who’d been terribly abused; a vicious and sensitive person driven mad between twin extremes of vengeful rage and catatonic despair—passed away at age 89. The following year, in the last stages of emptying the house she’d ruled and rotted in for six decades, I discovered the loving cup, furred with dust, awaiting me on a high shelf. I lifted it down reluctantly, marveling at the durable discomfort so simple an object set off in me.
I’d left home for good at seventeen, but as long as I lived there, winning awards and earning A’s for her while losing friends and then myself in depression, drugs, and early marriage, every encounter with the loving cup’s arms-akimbo handles and slender self-important face pained me freshly. The moment my mother’s interest in it waned sufficiently, I banished it from my room to the top of the bookcase in the den, but I could not banish its effect, a blood guilt. No one knew about my transgression but my secret awareness scourged me.
Why had I lied? At five, the lie made me feel as unworthy of winning as if I had cheated. Even in kindergarten, I had a compulsion toward truth telling, and yet I lied easily and urgently, betraying my values. My values were her values, of course. She despised lies, she expected my public success, but most of all she required—in order to stay alive—I knew that already at five, too—my absolute loyalty. When I lied to plump myself up, to protect myself by disguising the ease with which I’d beat out my peers, I made my mother look mean. I sinned against she-who-was-my-god, and for that I sure enough expected retribution.
But I couldn’t trace my fear to its source at five, and not for years afterward. As far as I could get was that I had, for some reason, made myself bigger than I deserved, and that I must, therefore, have a regrettable tendency to self-aggrandize under pressure, and because of that, I merited whatever criticism and misfortunes befell me. I replayed my kindergarten debacle: the humiliation of the social faux pas, the pain of spontaneous moral transgression, and the baffling question of why, in a world I was determined to perceive as just and fair, my efforts to be good so frequently ended up as evidence that I was bad.
To make that equation balance, I compulsively generated shame and blame. On that compulsion, I built a way of being. A way of understanding myself, my mother, the requirements of love.
With a good dose of shame I could hammer myself down a few notches, making damn sure I wasn’t getting swell-headed, and that I was, damn-sure, striving with maximum effort to be the kind of person—completely at the service of someone else’s agenda—my mother had taught me I better be if I were to have the least chance of deserving love. I hewed a knife from shame, too. A cutter before doing so was the fashion, fearful of blood and observable consequence, I never put a real blade to my skin. When I thought of razors I pictured only the final solution, the laying open of my veins (I never could conceive any kind of middle ground). I needed pain, just like modern self-mutilators, to remind myself I was alive when depression ground me numb. Shame also served as shield: a steely show of passive-aggression toward my mother and those subsequent objects of desire—men, jobs, degrees, a perfect marriage, a published book—who took her place in my life. I can make myself so low you will have to love me, for pity’s sake. And if you don’t, then I’ll just glory in my decadence, grant myself license to engage fully in self-destruction via black moods, suicidal ideation, and drug addiction. It never occurred to me in those days that this behavior, seeking death through incremental self-neglect rather than grand gesture, exactly replicated hers.
Lastly, paradoxically, shame gave me a way to stay alive. Yes, I constantly courted death and wallowed self-pityingly in my miseries, but the essence of me that was quick-witted and lively found a way to survive by gaming the shame. I’ll do it to myself before you can do it to me. If I played the game really well, I’d never have to be surprised by disaster or rejection, never be caught out trusting anyone or anything that might betray me. I’d expect the worse, and expect it so good I could never be blind-sided.
The problem with this winning strategy was, of course, that it made me want to die. But for many years I managed despair with some temporary success, via an ever-shifting mix of magical thinking and self-medication. Sometimes, of course, I racked up worldly successes despite myself—often in school, sometimes in publication or love. Every time that happened, I’d catch myself compulsively dissembling to make it look harder so I could be both more special (look how hard I worked!) and more like everybody else (look how hard I had to work!). And all the while, I’d be compulsively disassembling, too—sabotaging success by pointing out to myself and everybody else all the ways it wasn’t success—the flaws, the straws and tape, the tricks with mirrors.
All this—from one lie in kindergarten! All this, without ever comprehending why I lived the way I did, suffered the way I did, and wanted—so often, just like my mother—to turn my face to the wall and die.
The loving cup I could not toss out with all the rest of the two-dozen extra-large black plastic sacks of detritus I carted from the house of my childhood to the curb. I carried it home with me—at that time eight hundred miles distant, in central Florida—amid a carload of other odd objects, like the ceramic spoon-rest I’d painted for my mother in grade school; a footstool she’d made of slip-covered coffee cans; a bowl-shaped piece of granite weighing forty pounds my father’d lugged home from somewhere; the china bride-and-groom that topped their wedding cake in 1936; several boxes of mildewed photographs mostly from times and places before my birth; and seven courtship letters written by my father to my mother, bound with black ribbon and filed in her desk drawer amid her teacher’s contracts and household accounts. I stowed what I carried home in closets and cupboards and underneath my bed for no reason I could understand even at age forty-five, and I held onto them thereafter through three rounds of emotional and material purge, moving house first to down-size and then to leave the state, and finally to up-size and remarry, starting my life all over again in late-mid-life.
That object my mother and I had so desired—a cheap, soft-metal, goblet-shaped trophy mounted on an even cheaper white plastic cylindrical base—lives now in the windowsill alongside my writing desk. Corrosion has dulled and pitted the loving cup’s once brassy face, nearly obliterating the words engraved there. I make myself make them out sometimes, a kind of penance for the genesis of my grasping at affirmation and safety, and my prickly relationship to the truth about myself and other people.
"Lucy Hale," says the cup, insisting on a first name I abandoned in first grade, twenty years before my parents reluctantly stopped addressing me that way.
"1961, A.S.M.C. Kindergarten," it taunts me, naming and dating that first social setting in which I blatantly failed to fit in.
"Honor Award," it mocks me, reflecting back at me a quality I have so wanted to exemplifyand yet repeatedly betrayed, often in the very same moment, all my life.
Not just my self-perception but my path has circled and collapsed, repeatedly, inside the loving cup’s steep and slippery walls. I lied about my mother on the way to winning the cup she wanted. Inside that blurted untruth nested truth I needed to tell, feared to know, and had no words for anyway: she did have that kind of power over me and, to my shame, she did exercise it inexorably.
She was my very first object of desire. The only light I could see by at five. It’s no wonder I confused my honor with her necessity. Pleasing my mother—saving her from herself—was the first of the consuming attachments I would mistake for the true practice of love.
First published in New Madrid, Summer 2010
Selected Fiction and Creative Nonfiction
From the classroom