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Useful Things

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You were still considering running for the Senate. Really, you were, in that hidden place in the back of your mind, where glorious dreams come true and things in your life go according to plan. It could happen, you thought. You would work for the good of Connecticut, and people would see how deeply you cared for women and children and families and the underprivileged and you could change something in Washington.

Considering the run made it easy to step down from the judgeship. You wished that you could say you wrestled with the decision, but now you didn't have to think about why you had resigned; you could just say you needed to focus on other options. See? It wasn't giving up, it wasn't quitting, it wasn't admitting defeat - it was simply saying that you had other avenues to explore.

So, yes, a run for Congress was on your mind, and you really were considering it, quietly and idealistically, until one morning, almost two weeks after your resignation, when you were exiting Starbucks.

The local political beat reporter had heard through that ephemeral "political grapevine" that you were considering a Senate run. This meant he felt no shame in flipping open his notebook, walking right over to you and asking, "So, Judge Gray. Karl O'Leary, from the Hartford Courant. If you mount a run for the Senate, how will you manage helming one of the most progressive and diverse campaigns to ever hit Connecticut?"

You stared blankly at him, your grande mocha Frappuccino in hand, as his pen stood ready. The best you could come up with was, "I'm sorry, what?"

"Well, you know. Between your brother and his adopted African-American genius child, your mother and her Mexican boyfriend, your status as a single, divorced mother, and your close relationship with your African-American colleague Mr. Van Exel who is, himself, a single father?"

He said all this looking straight at you, his voice perfectly level with just the slightest twinge of curiosity, the lightest note of smugness, as if this were a brilliant question to ask a stranger in every day conversation.

He was staring at you as if you were going to dignify this with a response.

And you felt the righteous fire of your mother's indignation burning underneath your skin. And for the first time in your life, you knew without a doubt that you were, in every way that mattered, in every way that made you who you were, your mother's daughter.

"I cannot believe, Mr. O'Leary, that you would stoop to ask such a question. What does any of that have to do with what I would accomplish as a potential Senator for Connecticut? No, Mr. O'Leary, what does any of that have to do with anything? That's a superficial and empty list of talking points that say nothing about me, my family, or what I stand for. And if that's what you and your paper think matters to the lives of the voters of Connecticut then I'm sorry for you, and for them. And I'm especially sorry for any candidate that engages in such empty-headed, mindless double-speak. And, yes, you can quote me on that."

His pen never moved over paper, because he had simply gaped at you, open-mouthed in wonder, and he didn't even begin writing until you stalked away without a backward glance.

Your grande mocha Frappuccino was lukewarm by the time you reached your car, and you knew, with absolute certainty, that you would never make it as a Senate candidate.

And you were secretly glad.


The next morning, your eyes fluttered open at 6 AM, the same way they had every morning since ... every morning since almost as far back as you could remember. Every morning since you had started law school. Every morning since you had Lauren. Every morning since the dawn of time.

There was no reason for your eyes to be fluttering open at 6 AM. Not just because it was the weekend, not just because you had a late docket. But because this morning, you did not owe anyone anything.

A small smile slipped across your face, and you closed your eyes.


Thus began a curious period in your life. You were beholden to no one, and you reveled in it. Some mornings, you rose at 6 AM anyway, and made breakfast for everyone. Other days, you slept until noon and watched talk shows in your pajamas. Never in your adult life had you acted like this and, the more you thought about it, the more it seemed you had never acted like this during your whole life - even as an undergraduate college student, you never slept in, you always turned papers in on time and arrived at class with your hair combed. All of that was out the window.

Now, you joined the PTA and actually participated in the meetings. Now, you read fiction that had been piling up on your nightstand for months. Now, you volunteered mornings with the Humane Society, and walked packs of dogs. Now, you took long bubble baths and weekend classes through adult education, learning to bake cakes.

Of course, your family thought you had lost your mind.


After the first two weeks of this, Lauren approached you about it in the car after school. "Mom, have you, like, gone totally crazy or something?" She said it bluntly, without even a casual roll of her eyes, so you knew she was serious.

"No, honey. I have not, like, gone totally crazy. I just felt like it was time to slow down and actually pay attention to my life."

"Huh. So, you're not going to ... to ... buy a sailboat and dump me with Dad and try to sail around the world or anything, are you?" Her voice trembled slightly.

"No, I most certainly am not. This isn't about that, Lauren. All this time means is ... well, that now, if I want, I have time to take you for cupcakes at the new bakery downtown. How does that sound?"

It sounded good.


Two days after that, Gillian stopped by as you were on your way out to one of the yoga classes you'd began sporadically attending. "Amy, it's just that we're all a little worried. You've never behaved this way before, and we want -"

You smiled at her, and held her hand. "Gillian, sometimes, we get a reminder about how short life is. I got two, in quick succession, and I want to pay attention to what's happening around me before I get another."

And she smiled back, and clutched at your hand, because she understood.


A month after it all began, after that eye-fluttering moment of freedom, it was finally your mother's turn to confront you. You knew it was coming.

She was calm about it, coming to you one night when the rest of the house had fallen silent and you were curled up on the couch with a glass of wine and a trashy Chick-Lit book. She sat beside you and stared forward. "Amy, it's time."

You feigned innocence, casually placing your bookmark in your novel and setting it down, taking your time to answer nonchalantly. "Time for what, Ma?"

"Time to stop grieving in this way."

It was not what you expected.

"I'm not -" you find yourself at a loss for words.

"It is okay that you have been grieving, Amy. I hate to break it to you, but you're going to go on grieving for quite some time. But it's time to stop doing it this way." She still hadn't turned to face you, and her voice was still level.

"Ma, there's nothing wrong with my life right now. I'm just taking some time. I haven't gone crazy, I'm not acting irrationally, I just need some time to figure out what I want to do next."

"Amy, you are a Gray. And Grays pick themselves up and are of use in this world. And sitting around the house, taking pottery classes, and learning to poach eggs is not being of use."

"I am TIRED of being used by everyone else," was your sharp and succinct reply.

She turned to face you then, her eyes blazing in that way you knew so well. "I did not say used, Amy, I said `of use.' There is a great deal of difference."

"I don't feel a difference, Ma. I just feel drained and exhausted and used up." And here, though you fought it, your voice cracked.

"The difference, Amy, is that being `of use' is much harder than just being used. When you are of use, you make a change in the world, in people's lives. When you are of use, you help someone buy a house, the way your father did and your brother does, or you bring someone joy or knowledge through something you've written, the way your other brother does. Or, Amy, you make sure a child has someplace safe to sleep at night or someone who can take care of her. That's what you did. You were of use, you made a impact in the world."

Her voice was steady, her voice was steel. You felt something inside you collapse, and you felt the weight of all that you had lost drop heavily onto your shoulders.

You thought of Graciela's face, lit up by some simple pleasure, you thought of David standing in the doorway of the house you would never get to live in, you thought of the baby you had been so excitedly scared about.

"Oh, Ma." And then you were in your mother's arms, weeping while she stroked your hair and said, quietly, "Amy, you are not used up."


You are going to take the Praxis and begin teaching in Graciela's old school, the high school she might have made it to, had life been fair and if everyone got the same breaks. You'll be teaching social studies, only they don't call it social studies anymore. Now it's called "government" and you figure that makes you especially cut out for it. It sounds much more appealing than a Senate run and an endless stream of reporters like Mr. O'Leary. Maybe that can wait another four years. Who knows, the whole country might have woken up by then, and people will be asking real questions. Or maybe you'll just be more prepared for another fight by then.

You are still taking adult education classes, salsa dancing is up next, and you are thinking about volunteering at Juvenile Probation. You and Gillian go to yoga two times a week, nothing sporadic there, and sometimes afterwards, Donna joins you for a drink, and the three of you talk about how life can surprise you in the strangest ways. You're less active in the PTA, but you make it to enough meetings for Lauren to groan about the "total embarrassment." And there is time for cupcakes.

In the spring, when flowers are blooming, your mother is going to marry Ignacio in a ceremony in the backyard. It will be simple and quiet, blossoming with life. Sean will sing.


And so you are "of use" again, and you know now what your mother meant, that night on the couch, and you see now that there are thousands of ways in every single day to be of use.

Tonight, for instance, you will take advantage of several of them.

You will go to Bruce's house and cook him a fantastic meal (you've had lessons in this sort of thing) and then you will cajole him to dance with you in the kitchen, clichéd though it may be, and you will kiss him while he laughs into the curve of your neck.

You are Amy Gray, and you will never be used up.