I like not having tons of lingering questions hanging over me. Especially out here in the willywags with my husband of more than 40 years, I’m glad to usually find answers to everything from the monumental to the mundane. Did we make the right choice moving up the mountain for good? What’s for suppah? How many more months till we can go on MediCare? Where’s that scratching noise coming from? Which fruit or flower-themed festival is in town this weekend? Who’s gonna drive our UPS packages past the causeway come December? If one or both of us doesn’t know, we make something up and stick with it.
There is, however, one big, burning question that shall remain unanswerable in this lifetime. One that has haunted me since childhood, all through my formative years and on into what should be wise old womanhood. And even though I can feel it coming—bellowing forth from an all-seeing, all-knowing male interrogator—I remain dumbfounded, seemingly perplexed.
“What were you thinking?”
“Ummm…that I was going to somehow miraculously get away with whatever I was doing before you saw how horribly wrong it turned out,” I say to myself, head hung low.
Typically, my onlooker’s quest for knowledge involves a moving vehicle and centers around my performance while operating said vehicle. Especially a boat trailer. Moving in reverse. Or a Subaru that, despite the commercials, is not really equipped to maintain traction in all-weather conditions.
Like the time during the ice storm last winter when I assumed all-wheel drive would help me negotiate the driveway without plowing into a snow bank and almost hitting “that tree stump right there in plain sight” in front of me. “What were you thinking?” Tom hollered, as he stomped up the driveway to take my place behind the wheel.
“Ummm…that I’d be able to throw it into reverse and rocket my way out of this mess before you came charging out of the house and you’d be none the wiser till you spotted my huge ruts come springtime,” I wanted to answer. “That I was driving the official car of Maine and was thereby granted super powers.”
But such things, I’ve learned, are better left unsaid. Especially when my dad, my grandpa, my husband, or whatever guy who happens to be a curious witness is obviously too busy storming to my rescue to listen. Besides, from the look on his face (inherited, no doubt, from his forefathers), he’s already come to his own conclusion. “She has the intellectual capacity of an earthworm and, Lord help her, wasn’t thinking much of anything.”
As far as I can tell, this need to know is purely a guy thing. Guys ask. Girls squeeze their eyes shut, think of a better place, and don’t answer. I understood this basic fact of life, this mysterious difference between the sexes, before I knew much about the birds and the bees or figured out that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. I was born on the receiving end of the question and I’d better learn to live with it. It helped, though, realizing that my mother would never beseech me and my sister the same way my dad (“Mac”) did and why I, in turn, would not do so with my daughters. We’d need to save our strength, to get our stories straight. That way, when Father comes home, discovers whatever mess we’ve made and demands, “What were you thinking?” we’d cover for each other, cut him off at the pass and stand tall with our silence.
“Don’t ask,” we’d say as Daddy came through the door. “She feels terrible enough about it already.” And I, like my mother before me, would try to explain the inexplicable on our daughter’s behalf. We’d never let on what she was thinking, just field the question. It’s what we girls do. Whenever we are around to bear witness, anyways. When not, we reach out as best we can in sympathy and solidarity.
I wished my mother was actually there with me the first time I remember being asked the unanswerable. She was out trolling around on the lake with my father for most of the afternoon while I wrapped all but a few feet of line around the dock and the trees trying to perfect my spin cast. The boat had barely throttled down for a landing when Mac spotted my cluster snarl and his cry bellowed across the water: What were you thinking?
Mum gave me a “you poor thing” look. And while she stayed quiet, I could see she yearned to answer for me. “Ummm…that if she fumbled her first few practice casts, she could Houdini her way out of it. That when you finally came back, you wouldn’t see a little dock dweeb standing next to an eagle nest of knots, but a girl who could fish just like her daddy.”
Mac was still wondering what was going on in “that little blonde head” of mine by the time he walked me down the aisle so Tom could officially assume his quest for insight. “Good luck with that,” I thought. While I was sure I’d married Tom because he had all of my Dad’s good qualities minus the really annoying ones, I sensed it wouldn’t be long before he’d take up wondering what I was thinking right where Mac left off. And I couldn’t begin to tell him the truth.
If I remember correctly, it wasn’t my vehicular navigation shortcomings that first begged the question from my new husband. It was my disassembly of household objects requiring more mechanical aptitude than a monkey to put back together. Or more precisely, my tendency to force household objects back into some semblance of their former function.
“What were you thinking? Tom asked.
“Ummm…that somehow the vacuum cleaner dirt canister worked just as good when I shoved it in the wrong way. That I’d figure out it didn’t and be able to suck up this cloud of dust before you came into the room.”
Even as a new bride I knew silence was my salvation. So was taking comfort that these sorts of interchanges didn’t begin or end with me. Way back before the dawn of formal written language, I bet the first cave man pleaded for an answer. Then, when he didn’t get one, he left petroglyphs on his stone walls to try to make sense of what he couldn’t understand. He carved a man behind a woman, his loud interrogation funneled toward her in deep, squiggly lines while she crouched, shoulders hunched and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture, next to the fire she’d let burn out or whatever rudimentary tool she’d wrecked.
Now that we live in the digital era, I sometimes wonder why the question isn’t listed on insurance claims—right under the description of whatever auto or homeowner’s possession I need replaced or repaired and how, in my own words, I hopelessly junked it up. That way, instead of filing it under “Acts of God” and providing details about how a tornado or other force of nature wrecked my stuff, I could go to the special “Acts Without the Sense That God Gave Geese” part of the form, complete the “What were you thinking?” section, and make it official. And meaning could finally be extrapolated from my contribution to historical data.
But, in truth, I am more grateful than curious, relieved that my answers can remain undocumented. Especially that time I shaved a couple layers of bark off the pine tree at the top of the driveway. Well, actually, I didn’t do it, the fender of the new boat trailer did. “What were you thinking?” Tom yelled when he came back from launching the boat, his look of utter disbelief honing in on the crumpled fender, then to the naked trunk, and back at me.
“Ummm…that my depth perception was a bit better than it actually was. That when you said to swing the trailer wide when I got back to the driveway, you didn’t meant really, really wide. That, despite what it says on the rear view mirror, objects aren’t closer than they appear.”
I just winced and shrugged. Luckily, no insurance claim was ever filed. And the stately old pine tree, still standing tall above its 30-year-old graying girdle, ain’t talkin’. Tom stayed mostly quiet, too, as he pried the fender back into place with hammers and wrenches. But I betcha somewhere back in the most primitive part of his brain he also wanted to take out his knife and leave a petroglyph on that tree truck. In honor of our forefathers and for all posterity, he longed to carve a couple stick figures—of him with big question marks funneling out of his mouth—and me with shoulders hunched, head hung low, and palms raised in universal “I dunno” posture.