what if the calling crows think you are a makeshift scarecrow built for chasing them away from their dreams? will they peck at you with sharp beaks so far from my grasp? will I be able to run fast enough to save you? the shifting rice tells me to take a deep breath. this isn’t a cornfield and the cranes won’t hurt you. but grey skies mean trouble so run to me anyway my boy. mother needs you in her arms.
Shoebox Poetry: This is the fourth poem in my series based on an old box of photos I inherited when my grandmother died in 2004. The back of this photo reads “Gary in rice field Nov ’53.” It’s a photo of my dad, but it made me think of my own boy. He turned 18 in December and is finishing high school in a few months. This poem poured out instantly along with some tears. I guess I have some feelings.
Here are the other poems in the series if you missed them:
pictures on sundays wearing pure white pearls, flowers, smiles
but not before
we wash in the family tub first dad and then my ten brothers then mother then me cold dirt shame s i n it absorbs deep into my soft skin my thick blood my frail bones leaving me scabbed broken apart dirtier than before but mother covers it all with white
smile, she says but I’m thinking of willow trees carving my name with a sharp knife pomegranate juice running down my chin screaming at the stars
straighten up, she says but I’m thinking of foggy forests walking barefoot through mossy earth honey dripping from my fingertips bathing in the moonlight
be sweet, she says but I’m thinking of roaring waves sunlight on freckled shoulders seaweed stuck between toes salt water taffy kisses
be quiet, she says but I’m thinking of throwing things messy hair and dirty fingernails cadmium yellow, ultramarine blue painting my own life
but not before
pictures on sundays wearing pure white pearls, flowers, smiles
Shoebox Poetry: Last week I rediscovered an old box of photos I inherited when my grandmother died in 2004. This poem is the first in a series of poems using those images as inspiration. Today’s photo is of my grandmother as a young woman. There is no date, but the sweeping handwriting on the back says “Kate, Gill St.” And yes, she told me her entire family bathed in the same water every Sunday before church. Can you even imagine?
Stepping through the maze of twisting vines covering mother’s garden shed, I open the round wooden door and enter without her permission. I need to see what she’s been hiding from me. A sharp, tangy smell fills the air and my bare feet squish into the wet soil. I can’t believe I’m finally doing this.
Streaks of light follow me into the dusty darkness giving me a narrow view of the interior of the shed. I see no shelves. No jars. No baskets. Nothing at all but an empty room. Although it’s small, the dark space above me is filled with scuffling sounds and feels much larger than it looks from the outside. I’m not afraid of the truth, I say to myself and take another step.
Reaching my hands above me to check for cobwebs, I stand on tiptoes and peer into the shadowy rafters. I can’t see anything, but the ruffling sounds increase and I freeze. A moment later, something small and round zips through the air and lands on the fingertips of my left hand.
Remembering all of the puncture wounds on my mother’s body, I brace myself for an attack, but nothing happens. After a few deep breaths, I gather my courage and rotate my hand slowly. The unknown critter hops several times until its heartbeat pounds into the curve of my outstretched palm.
For years I’ve been convinced my mother has been hiding the world within her shed and now I’m certain this living thing in my hand is the key to unlocking it. Lifting it closer to my face and into a streak of sunlight, I see it’s a little black bird with glossy unblinking eyes and a bright orange beak.
It’s the same type of bird I see perched in the peach tree outside the kitchen window every morning while I eat breakfast. I see them in the evening too, sitting in the thin branches of the birch trees while I play in the yard behind the house. Why has mother hidden them in her shed? The bird in my hand coos as if trying to answer and I bring it even closer to my face.
“Hello, little bird.”
I’m not supposed to be here, but the bird doesn’t seem too concerned. It chirps loudly and the sound is answered by hundreds of flapping wings above me. Wispy, dark feathers fall like autumn leaves onto the braids of my hair, the curve of my freckled cheek, and the tip of my upturned nose.
Each place they touch tingles with electricity and heat, moving inward through my body. When the sensation reaches my gut, it explodes. It’s as if the core of my body has been waiting for this moment to truly come alive. I don’t know why my mother tried to hide this from me, but I found it anyway. The truth rushes through me.
All the times I stood in front of the large mirror in my mother’s room and spoke to my reflection as if it might be able to answer me, I wasn’t wrong. Another world does exist, layered beneath ours. It calls to me. Closing my eyes, I picture myself sprouting wings and diving into fluffy pink cotton candy clouds. The world below looks much smaller than it did before, or have I grown bigger?
The birds continue to fly around me, cooing and singing in a language I can partly understand. Mimsy. Snozzwangers. Heffalump. Nerkle. As their wings brush against my cheeks and arms, the words flow through me bringing images of fantastical delights. If I could stay here forever I know I’d learn their language and their secrets. I could become like them.
The metallic thud of a car door closing silences the birds in an instant. Mother’s home from the store and if she finds me in here I’ll be in big trouble. I open my eyes and the birds have all scattered—returned to the dark shadows of the rafters. I want to call out promises to return, but I don’t want to risk being heard and I’m not sure I’ll be able to come back. Instead, I walk out the door and close it as quietly as I can behind me.
I’m a mess, covered in feathers and smelling like the sticky mud on the bottom of the shed. Without looking toward the house, I run through the thick birch tree grove to the shallow creek which separates our property from those of Old Man Stefan. Birds circle and scream in the sky above me, but I don’t know if they are the birds from the shed. I can’t make out what they are saying.
Mother will be calling me soon to help cook dinner, so I dangle my feet into the cold creek and splash water onto my bare legs and arms. It’s icy cold and I shiver slightly. The sun has moved to a place behind the trees and the sky has a golden tinge that will soon grow purple.
The water flows slowly, causing several clumps of vibrant green algae to wave gently. A small gray spotted fish darts out from behind a pile of smooth river rocks. It opens and closes its mouth and I have the strangest thought—if I stick my head in the water will I be able to hear it speak?
Although I know my mother will be calling me soon, I have to try. Laying on my belly on the grassy shore, I plunge my head into the water and listen intently. The rushing sound of the water as it flows over the rocks is occasionally interrupted by an odd popping sound, but I don’t hear any voices. Forcing my eyes open, I see the fish mere inches from my nose. Its large, round eyes stare at me and its mouth continues to move but I don’t understand what it’s trying to say.
Surfacing, I shake the water from my braids and tell myself I’m being silly. The birds didn’t speak to me and neither can this fish. The certainty I felt in the shed has faded and I’m far less confident any of it is real. It’s as if a magical silk was drawn across my eyes coloring the world and is now removed again. I’m suddenly very tired. I cover my face with my hands.
Minutes pass and I only lift my head when I hear the sound of several birds landing in the trees across the water. They stare at me with dozens of shiny black eyes and the warming sensation in my gut flares to life again. I have a feeling I’m supposed to do something, but I don’t know what.
A single black feather floats from the trees and circles above the water. I watch it dance back and forth before it lands delicately on the surface, balanced like a water bug on its spindly legs. Before the current can rush it away, the same grey spotted fish swims frantically to it and bites at its soft uneven edges. I have the sense it’s trying to tell me something so I lean closer to the water.
“You want to be a bird?”
I’m not sure why I say it, but incredibly, the fish nods its head and stares back at me. Okay, I think, I can do this. Lowering my hand into the cold water, the fish quickly swims into my palm. I close my fingers around its wiggly body and pull it out of the water. I stare at its round fish eye for a minute before closing my own eyes.
Using all my imagination and concentration, I picture one of the birds in the shed. I concentrate on the way the feathers fold across the body and the way the beak curves on the top. The fish wiggles in my hand and then goes limp. I open my eyes slowly, afraid I may have killed it, but it worked! I did it!
A small black bird, exactly like those in the shed or those in the trees staring at me now, sits in my palm blinking at me. I giggle as it shakes its wings, nods its head, and flies into the sky. Splashing around in the muddy dirt beside the creek, I watch the bird soar overhead diving and flipping through the clouds. It seems so happy. I’ve never been more proud of myself.
“Ta-Ting! Ta-Ting! Ta-Ting!”
Mother rings the metal triangle by the back door three times which means it’s time for me to go inside and help with dinner. I wave goodbye to the fish-turned-bird and skip my way back home. I don’t remember ever feeling this happy.
Mother puts on her favorite jazz record and luckily doesn’t seem to notice my muddy feet. She hands me the apron covered in lemons and sets me to work peeling potatoes and carrots. She seems lost in thought and I’m happy to work in silence as she seasons the chicken, adds my veggies to the tray, and puts it in the oven.
While dinner cooks, I do my evening chores. I sweep the kitchen and living room, dust everything, set the table, and change into a nice dress for dinner. Mother and I eat in silence, passing the rose-colored salt-and-pepper shakers back and forth. She seems in a good mood and I’m lost in thought. Dinner passes quickly.
After dinner, we do the dishes side-by-side, like always. She washes and I dry. She hasn’t noticed any change in me and I’m doing my best to act normal.
I’m not supposed to know about the magic of the birds, but it’s all I can think about. I wonder what other magic I can do. Does the creature have to want to be changed? Can I change things into something other than birds? Could I change Old Man Stefan’s mean cat into a toad? The thought of the scraggly mean cat croaking and jumping across the fence makes me laugh. Mother notices.
“What’s so funny?”
Mother stops washing the dishes and stares at me with her hands on her hips. I know this stern look and I try hard to keep a neutral face. I don’t want to give away my secret.
“Oh, I was thinking about a funny joke I heard at school…”
It’s a stupid lie and I immediately try and think of a joke I could use if she asks me what it is, but her attention has switched to my hair. She pulls a black feather out of my braid and holds it up to the light. Her face goes from slightly annoyed to angry.
“How could you? I told you to stay out of the shed because it’s dangerous, but did you listen? Of course, you didn’t. You think rules don’t apply to you—little miss perfect. It’s because you think you are better than me, isn’t it? You think the birds won’t attack you, huh? You are wrong, child. You have no idea what you are playing with.”
Without drying her hands and before I can say anything in response, she slaps me hard across the face. I stumble backward and drop the towel onto the floor. She picks it up and throws it onto the counter, knocking over two glasses that tumble to the floor and shatter.
“Look what you made me do! You are an ungrateful brat! Go to your room. I don’t want to see your face anymore.”
Rage prickles through me like a spiny monster trying to get out. Images of throwing things and slamming doors run through my mind, but I know if I act on those feelings everything will get much worse. I’ve never seen my mother so mad, so I do my best to appear calm by hanging my apron on the hook by the door, walking slowly to my bedroom, and shutting the door with a delicate click.
Throwing myself onto the bed, I scream into my pillow until it’s soaked through with tears and my body goes limp. Rolling onto my back, I stare out the window at a crescent moon and wonder if the birds in the shed are still singing mimsy and truffula. Mother will be doing paperwork by candlelight at her desk. I wish I could ask her about the birds. I wish we could talk about anything.
Mother painted my room pale yellow when she was pregnant with me and it’s remained the same color. I scan the three shelves above my bed, looking at my collection of neatly arranged stuffed animals, framed artwork, and little glass figurines. The kids in my class have much messier rooms, but I’ve always been proud of how much I can be trusted to care for my things.
On the shelf closest to me, tucked between a reproduction of “Starry Night” and a stuffed blue penguin sits a glossy glass black bird with a delicate tiny beak of pale orange. I’ve got a collection of ten birds, all given to me by my aunt Nona as birthday presents. She wraps them in pristine white silk and includes a note saying, “Happy Birthday little bird” in curling cursive letters. I wonder if these gifts were meant to be hints at what I discovered in the shed. Does she know? Can she do the same magic?
Without thinking, I reach my hand toward the bird and call it to me.
“Come here, little bird.”
The warming sensation in my gut returns as the bird shakes its wings, chirps softly, and glides from the shelf to my outstretched palm. It breathes slowly and I stroke its soft feathers. It’s alive! I made this bird real just by thinking about it. A rush of excitement thunders through me and suddenly I’m giddy with possibility.
“Come, little birds, come and play with me!”
Singing the words as brightly and cheery as I can, the effect is immediate. A swirling mass of wings and chirps fills the air as the nine figurines come alive and land on the bed around me. Before I can say anything to them, several paintings around the room shake as colorful fantastical birds wiggle out of the frames and join the blackbirds on the bed. These are fuzzy and colorful, unclear but beautiful.
The chorus of birds sings around me. Woozles. Borgroves. Runcible. Versula. As the words worm through me and tell me stories of lands unlike mine I’m dazed with wonder. Tales of horned villains, talking bears, and flying broomsticks. I’m swept away by it all until I hear my mother’s voice in the hallway.
“We need to talk.”
Her voice sounds soft and I know she’s sorry for what happened earlier, but she’ll quickly return to anger if she finds all these birds in my room. I’m not sure what to do, but the birds seem to sense the danger and fly quickly into my open closet. I shut the door softly as my mother walks in. She looks at my ruffled blankets and at the closed closet door and frowns.
“What’s going on here?”
It’s absolutely not convincing, but surprisingly she lets it go. Smoothing the blankets on my bed she pats the spot beside her and I sit close enough our legs are touching. She’s got a new bandage on her wrist, covered in tiny dots of blood. She grabs my hands and squeezes them hard in hers.
“You don’t know the horrors of this world, and I’m glad for it. I don’t like being like this with you, but it’s my job to protect you. Please, please, forget about the shed and the birds. Okay? They are not for you and it will only lead to you getting hurt.”
The word escapes before I can stop myself, but she doesn’t yell. She squeezes my hands harder and speaks in a low, sad tone.
“They will show you things you will want and can never have, my child. Those worlds are not for you and will only make you hate the one we live in. Forget the birds. Come and listen to music with me in the parlor. I’ve made hot tea and we can forget all this unpleasantness. Okay?”
I nod my head and, as she kisses my cheek, I look toward the closet and know the birds are waiting for me. For now, I must keep this power to myself, but someday I’ll be able to let the birds fly free and I’ll join them. We will travel to all the worlds together and maybe I’ll even convince my mother to join me.
Author’s note: This story began as a writing assignment meant to explore my own legacy of writing and how I came to be a writer. I had the idea of using birds to represent books and equating the act of writing to magic. Partway through the story, I got into my head and doubted the very premise of the idea. I was stalled out for weeks, but I finally pushed through and finished it. My dear editor friend said it reminds her of a Studio Ghibli film and I couldn’t think of a better compliment to receive. Let me know what you think and I hope you have a wonderful day.
Elle leans on the black metal railing in front of the train station in a lopsided blue hat, matching blue shirt, and bright red bow tie. There are two round white buttons at her waist. She places her gloved hand on top of a small boy’s head to mess up his hair and he giggles.
Click. Click. Click.
A girl in a twirling pink princess dress runs at top speed and almost knocks her over. Elle saves the moment, catching her and doing a sort of silly dance. They turn to face the camera together, a whirl of happy motion.
Click. Click. Click.
All pacifier and big eyes, a terrified toddler hides in his stroller clutching a stuffed mouse to his face. Elle gets down on one knee and plays peek-a-boo behind her gloved hands until he warms to her. He gives her a high-five and smiles for the camera.
Click. Click. Click.
A group of teenagers in the crowd yell out they love her and Elle makes a heart shape with her hands and presses it toward them. She waves and waves as children pass by her, the joy contagious and beautiful. Smiling, she hops on one foot and then the other, until she spots Greg off to her right with a clipboard in his hand. He’s writing and she feels herself deflating.
Everyone knows when Greg comes to watch your shift it means one of two things; promotion or firing. Elle tries to ignore him, but her eyes keep returning to his dark handlebar mustache, blue pinstripe suit, and bright white cummerbund. His pen stays in motion.
She can’t help but think about her now ex-roommate Britney. Greg visited her a few weeks ago during her final performance of the day and afterward released her. He said she “didn’t have the right energy” and “looked off-brand.” In an instant, her dream of being promoted to a face character ended. It broke her.
Elle found her sobbing on the locker room floor. They took a bus to a small diner far from the tourists and Britney cried into her cheeseburger for a long time, her snot congealing with ketchup to form a stream of gross gunk down her face.
“How dare he do this to me! I’ve worked so hard!” Britney sobbed. “Greg’s a monster!”
“It’s not rocket science, Elle! I don’t know why he makes it out to be so difficult. I didn’t do anything different today than I’d been doing for two years. It makes no sense. I deserve to be a princess! He was never going to give me a fair shot.”
Elle had worked beside Britney a few times, and although she’d never say it to her face, she understood Greg’s decision. Britney felt she deserved better, begged for it all the time, and didn’t put much heart or enthusiasm into her current role. Elle felt a mix of sadness and relief watching Britney stuff her blow-dryer into the top of her packed wheelie bag and walk out the apartment door.
Click. Click. Click.
A large family approaches and Elle lies on the ground in front of them, as she’s been taught. It’s the only way to make the large group photos work. She knows her poses are correct, but Greg writes and writes on his clipboard and she can’t imagine what he could be writing.
“Fails to be perfect.”
“Not good enough.”
Elle gets the signal and follows her handler to the cast room. She waves and does a little dance until she’s fully out of view. Although she can’t see him, she knows Greg followed. As she removes her giant head and gets a drink of water, he walks in smiling.
“Wonderful job Elle,” he says.
“You know why I’m here, right?”
Elle doesn’t want to make any guesses, so she shrugs and smiles. He smiles back.
“I know you have been waiting for this, so I wanted to tell you in person. You have done it, Elle. Congratulations. You are now friends with Snow White.”
He hands her a red hair bow and she rubs the satin with her fingers.
“You will begin your training next week,” Greg says.
Elle finishes up her shift, 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off until the park closes. It isn’t until she walks back to her apartment, the full moon bright in the sky above her, that it hits her. For as long as she can remember, her mother has dreamed of her playing Snow White at the Happiest Place on Earth. She’d told Elle it was her destiny because of her pale white skin, dark black hair, and red lips. There wasn’t any other plan for her and now she’s done it.
She should call her mom. She should celebrate. She should be happy. All the shoulds feel wrong.
She takes a hot shower, slips into soft pink pajamas, and runs her hand along her bookshelf until she finds the well-worn book of pastel drawings, the soft cloth binding frayed slightly on the edges. She flips to her favorite page marked with a red silk ribbon, a beautiful painting of a garden filled with bluebells and snowdrops. Written in her neatest handwriting along the bottom are the words, “Snow White’s Garden/My Garden.”
She remembers writing those words when she was 10 years old, the year her mother gave her the book and told her she would become Snow White. Elle loved the idea. It made her feel special and loved. She practiced singing and talking until she could mimic Snow White as well as anyone. Her mother would beam with pride watching her.
When she was 18, they drove across five states to California for the auditions. On the drive, her mother opened up a bit about her own life, something she rarely did. She told Elle she’d been a model her entire childhood and teenage years, and how she’d been on the cover of hundreds of magazines and traveled all over the world.
“But my mother didn’t protect me, Elle,” she’d said. “And people hurt me. Lots of people hurt me. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
Her mother stayed for several months after Elle got hired, and pressed hard for her to be Snow White. Elle understood she had to put in time as other characters, and she didn’t mind at all. She enjoys slipping on the costumes and transforming into the beloved characters of the park. The ritual of it, the tears of joy, and the infectious laughter make Elle feel whole.
The day her mother finally left for home, she’d squeezed Elle painfully tight to her and sobbed into her shoulder. They’d never spent time apart and Elle was a bit terrified of being on her own, but also excited. She felt it was time for her to make her own decisions and friends—something she’d not done her entire life.
“Promise me you’ll be okay,” her mother said, black mascara running down her cheeks.
“I’m okay mom,” Elle said. “I’ll be okay.”
She wasn’t sure she would be, and on the first night alone with Britney in the apartment she’d spent a long time crying in the shower. She wondered how she’d manage to feed herself, work until late at night, and do her own laundry. It felt overwhelming, but Elle surprised herself. She found a rhythm, made friends, and discovered she was more than capable of caring for herself.
Now, with Britney gone, Elle realizes how much she loves being alone with her own thoughts. She’s taken up reading, painting, and baking. On her days off she meets friends at the park, goes for a run, or has friends over to play games. Her life has become full and her own.
Her mother calls her at 5 a.m. every morning, and Elle waits up for her call. It’s always the same questions, rapid-fire and breathy from her anxious mom.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you Snow White yet?”
“Who can I talk to?”
Elle brews herself a cup of mint tea and snuggles under a blanket. She looks around the room at her place and feels a swelling of pride. It’s been two years since her mother left, and Elle loves her life. She thinks about how wonderful it feels to see children light up at the sight of her and how often their joy brings her to tears. Snow White may have been her original dream, her mother’s dream for her, but it doesn’t fit her. It’s not what she wants.
Elle takes a sip of tea and picks up her cell phone. It’s her life, she thinks and smiles.
“Sorry to call so early, Greg, but I’ve been thinking about the offer and I’d like to decline. I love my current role and I wonder if I might keep it.”
“Are you sure, Elle? You’d make a fantastic Snow White.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.”
“Okay, then. See you tomorrow.”
She sips her tea, watches the sunrise through her front window, and happily waits for her mother’s call.
Author’s note: As you may have guessed, I spent the week in Disneyland celebrating my nephew’s 3rd birthday. It was a wonderful whirlwind of a trip! There was very little time for writing and thinking, but I did manage this short story written late at night with sore feet and a full heart. I hope you enjoyed it.
Short Story Challenge | Week 11
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where the main character thinks he or she is about to get fired. We had to include the words magazine, blow-dryer, congeal, bluebell, cummerbund, wheelie bag, pastels, cheeseburger, binding, and science.
I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.
“The van is dirty,” he says.
We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.
“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”
“Yes! It’s dirty!”
“Well…what do you think we should do?”
He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.
“You think so, huh?” I say.
“Yes! Car wash!”
“I don’t know…”
“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”
He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.
I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.
It’s pure joy.
A ritual we’ve discovered together.
An auntie thing.
He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover.
Our shared treasure.
They feel big and important.
My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.
When they were mine.
I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen.
These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.
It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.
All the love.
All the silliness.
All the tears.
All the firsts.
This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.
The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.
It feels different.
When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.
There you are.
The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.
To look at me now you might think all kinds of bad things about me, but I can assure you my beginning hinted nothing at what was to come.
Built on a new curved road with fresh brown dirt and bright pine wood, everything about me said potential. My genesis was unremarkably normal as far as these things go, but it was paired with a sort of frenzied hopefulness for the kind of place you can be proud of.
The suburban dreamscape of middle-class pioneers.
Plans and potential.
Hopes and fresh starts.
My walls were painted bright colors and covered in wallpaper with large bold flowers. My rooms overflowed with golden light and fresh air. Every inch in pristine condition—new and welcoming, surrounded by tiny baby plants taking root in the soft soil.
It’s unfair to erase it all as if it didn’t happen, but I see you crying and perhaps you can’t remember. The dark cumulous clouds have blocked out all the light and all you can see is the eye of the storm.
I’ll remember for you.
There was a swing set, a dollhouse, and a front-yard wedding. Kids ran through my halls, drew on my walls, and hid in my cupboards. There were bubble baths and birthday parties.
A pot-bellied pig rushed through my screens and a dog died on my doorstep. Doves sang caged inside a back room, while a parakeet flew out the front door. There were guinea pigs and kittens and fish.
I held you all, but you don’t seem to remember.
You look and see the end of things and it breaks your heart. You see the way the broken things left unfixed became hazardous and ugly. The holes in the ceiling, the torn mashed carpet with exposed sharp nails, the brown-tinged water stains growing larger each day, and the tangles of weeds pushing through the cracks in the walls.
You try to convince yourself it’s all for the best, but you can’t let go. I see it in the way you touch my textured walls and turn the lights on and off. You take photos of my doorknobs, but you don’t recognize me.
I don’t either.
Time has jumped ahead, and without someone to protect and sustain the old me, I’ve transformed into a living representation of the sadness I’ve held within me for the last decade.
It hurt to watch it happen. I could do nothing to stop it.
Oh, if I could have stopped it.
I want so much for things to be different, but we both know it’s neither of our faults and it can’t be undone.
Things break and things change.
You use a shovel to remove the garbage piled inside me into black shiny bags, an archeological dig of the past. I see you unearth a few treasures I protected for you, loading them into your van before you turn to say goodbye.
There’s so much we want to say to each other, but we don’t have to.
The love and memories we’ve shared are intact and unbroken.
We get to keep them and we don’t have to say anything.
I watch you take a pair of scissors and fight through the weeds to gather up the last of the spring roses, a fragrant bundle of pinks, yellows, and reds. Breathing them in, you trace the gold house numbers with a shaking finger.
You stand in the middle of the driveway and we stare at each other. I watch you fall off your bike and get a black eye, run across the street to play with your best friend, and kiss your boyfriend beside his car. I see the transformation of us both as if it’s happening in a blink before me.
It’s painfully beautiful.
Crossing your arms across your chest and squaring your feet, you seem unable to move.
I want you to go.
You haven’t lived here in a long time and neither of us is the same as we were. We’ve been looking back through a cloud of time, yearning for something long gone, but it must end.
It already has.
Release me and turn from here.
Go, dear child.
Don’t look back.
I’ll be okay.
There will be a new future for me and there’s nothing left here for you.
Author’s note: When I read this week’s prompt I was flooded with memories of my childhood home. It felt visceral and raw, a wound not quite healed. I wrote about the experience of letting it go a few years ago, but apparently, I wasn’t done processing my feelings about the loss.
My childhood home wasn’t sold but was foreclosed upon. My brother and mother lived there, both suffering from depression. The house had endured a long-drawn-out decay, breaking bit by bit, and by the end, it was a mere shadow of the place I grew up.
It was something about the final goodbye which brought about the contrasts for me between how it was when I was a child compared to what it had become. I wrote this week’s short story in a rush, a blend of reality and fiction that poured out faster than I could type. It felt cathartic and I cried as I typed the final words. Three years later, I think I’m finally ready to let it go.
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about selling a childhood home. We had to include the words dreamscape, convince, pioneer, genesis, cumulous, jump, mash, condition, erase, and gold.
Being a parent is like walking blindfolded into the wilderness. You have to use all your senses, listen to your natural instincts, surrender any idea you know what you’re doing, and you can’t call it quits.
Before the pandemic, my kids were involved in all kinds of activities and I felt the rushing movement like a giant truck I was simultaneously riding and driving. We would fight to get out the door and I’d yell. There were too many car meals, bathroom clothing changes, and exhausted tears. I felt overwhelmed and busy, but confident. I did my best, and at the end of the day, I felt good about the efforts I put in.
During the pandemic, all the things my kids claimed to hate but secretly loved, stopped. The life I’d helped them cultivate away from media and technology suddenly revolved around screens. I was here with them all the time, yet I felt like I didn’t really see what was happening. Our lives became a series of solitary moments in our rooms with our phones or computers, interspersed by nature walks and car drives to nowhere. It went on forever, yet it felt like a blip or a bump we’d get past. We expected it would return to normal, but it didn’t.
The pandemic has transformed me as a parent.
This is not what I expected my life to look like at this moment. I suspect some of you, perhaps all of you, can relate in some way.
For me, the fundamental shift is this; my belief my kids will be okay has been replaced with fear and anxiety.
I can trace how it happened.
Early in the pandemic, my son was in a skateboard accident. He got a road rash on his face and arms, knocked out his front teeth, and had a fairly serious concussion. Each first responder and hospital staff member took a moment to yell at him, and by extension me, for him not wearing a helmet. They rubbed it in thoroughly, and I felt their words chipping away the image I had of myself as a mother. I felt bruised and beaten as I nursed my son back to health in a dark room for several weeks, blaming myself for his accident.
A few months later my grandmother died of Covid. I tried to call her once at the hospital, but she was asleep. I didn’t try again. I was scared to talk to her. There’s was so much unsaid between us, and I wanted her to get better so I could say the things. The lost opportunity felt huge while bringing fears of Covid closer to home.
While I tried to convince myself my kids were strong and would fight Covid easily, I was terrified of unknowingly passing Covid onto my mom, who has bad asthma, or to my mother-in-law who is elderly and fighting cancer. Each time I had a tickle in my throat, I’d worry it would develop into something more, and I’d be one of those who weren’t so lucky to fight it off. It wasn’t a rabid fear, but rather a slow-simmering background of fear which chipped away at me bit by bit.
In addition to Covid, I began to fear how people were acting. The division of those who refused masks contrasted with those hoarding supplies and preparing for a sort of social war. All of these things made leaving my house feel risky and dangerous. I stockpiled dried beans, rice, and bottled water. My neighbor and I talked about his guns and how he could protect us; the conversation felt appropriate at the time.
I watched my kids implode in a way I didn’t understand, and still don’t. It wasn’t simply losing school and friends; it was a sort of reckoning of what kind of life they wanted to have. The trajectory of their accomplishments stopped, and they had nothing to be proud of. They had too much time to think about the world, to see all the ugliness of it, and it changed them.
Six months after his first accident, my son had a second one. This time he was hit by a car walking to the store to buy a soda. The police came to the door as I was doing the dinner dishes and I followed in a daze to the hospital. More scraps, another concussion, and a fresh batch of fears for me. The moments of that day play over and over in my head and it’s hard to let him out of my sight. I’m only truly comfortable when he’s home. I worry when he’s at school or with his friends. I obsessively track his phone throughout the day in an attempt to ease the anxiety. If his phone dies or I can’t get in touch with him, I panic.
My daughter, through the isolation from her peers and anxiety of the world, has developed some mental health struggles. I won’t share the specifics to maintain her privacy, but I missed the signs for too long. I felt another blow to my parenting ego, but worse; I felt a terrible sense I’d let her down in all the ways that matter. I had missed the big stuff. I felt selfish and scared.
All of this has changed me as a parent.
I find it hard to return to the way we were before because much of my mental energy has transformed into anxiety and fear.
My kids miss a lot of school and I don’t care about homework. I let them hang with their friends as much as they want, drive them to therapy and support groups. I’ve put thousands of miles on my car listening to their music and hoping they will feel better.
I want them to feel better.
I am also not requiring enough of them so that they can grow in the ways I know they need to. I’m scared to push and to hold them to the standard I did before. They are not falling short; I’ve simply grown fearful of requirements because I don’t want to lose them. I don’t push.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you I’ve been more worried about my kids dying in the last two years than I did the entire time they were little. I was all about letting them climb a tree, or take a risk. I thought it was good if they got hurt because it showed them a boundary and allowed them to grow.
I’ve lost that.
Now, I fear pushing them will result in dire consequences.
It’s a tightrope of wanting to require more so they feel proud of themselves and grow, but also holding back because I see them as fragile. I know they aren’t as fragile as I’ve made them out to be, but I am.
It feels perilous.
How do I become the right kind of hard while still protecting them and myself?
I don’t know.
There’s another component, a sort of social reckoning. What they have experienced has shifted the momentum of their lives. They see their life path, their goals, as something far different than I did at their age. It’s no longer as an individual, but rather how they will be in the world.
They are examining complex things: gender constructs, systematic racism, global warming. There’s a sort of punk rock attitude forming; a kind of new version of the “fuck the man” mentality. Instead of music and drugs, they want marches and social justice reform. They want the world to do better, to be better.
They aren’t going to sleepwalk through their lives, moving from one checked box to the next like I did; high school, college, career, house, kids.
I moved through each thing as if I had no say in the matter; as if all the decisions of my life were preordained and I was simply saying the lines written for me. After all the boxes were checked, I felt cheated and empty. I missed so much because I did what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t slow or pause to examine if the path was what I wanted or if the roles I’d cast myself in fit me anymore.
My kids aren’t doing that.
They think about the kind of lives they want, and although the images are still so unclear, I don’t think they will settle. They don’t believe the story my generation did, and they don’t want the same outcome. I see them looking at me and their father and shaking their heads at how much we don’t question things or fight for a better world. They check us on the language we use and talk about things it’s taken me over 40 years to recognize.
They are facing forward and not shrinking from it. While I see them as fragile, the evidence doesn’t support me. If they can look at the problems in the world with a sort of determined energy of change, how can I see them as weak?
I have hope that all this social awareness is leading to something amazing for their entire generation and, not to be too grandiose, the planet. This outward focus and the ability to accept and empathize with all kinds of people has to be leading to a better world for all of us.
None of this, however, makes it easy to be a mother right now. There are days, more than I care to admit, I wish I could hop into a time machine and do a better job of protecting and shielding my kids. I’d put them in a bubble and not let anything in.
I know that’s not actually true and it’s the fear and the pain talking.
It’s my desire for growth to not hurt, but that’s not how it works.
The story my kids are living, well…it’s their story. All the things they have been through are shaping and molding them. And they are incredible kids.
My challenge has become to support them, to love them, and to go slower. To continue to sit with them in the discomfort, to listen as they question things, and, most importantly, to see my fear as separate from their experience.
The last one has been the hardest for me.
I have to work on healing my own fears around losing them, and not let my decisions be based on either guilt for what they’ve lost or fear I’ll lose them permanently.
I’m trying my best.
Maybe the pushing will come when it feels right, but for now, I observe and I listen. I try and see the ways I can nudge and build on those. These kids have been through so much, and it’s made them strong.
They are freaking rock stars.
My daughter has started having friends over again and they laugh so much. She pours herself into her artwork. It’s for her, not for show or attention. She does art to express her feelings and she holds people accountable for their actions. She sets boundaries, even with me.
My son began working out at the gym and he plays basketball with his friends. He plays guitar in his room for the pure love of it, not caring to impress anyone or show off. He makes everyone laugh, can size up his teachers, and isn’t afraid to call them out when they are being unfair. He forgives me when I hold too tight or freak out, but doesn’t let me off without a fight.
My kids talk to each other all the time. It’s not fake. It’s not superficial. They talk about real stuff and lean on each other.
All of these things are beautiful and real.
My kids aren’t fragile.
I’m facing forward and I’m doing the best I can, and for that, I need to give myself grace.
No looking back.
I’ve come to realize, parenting doesn’t get easier, and maybe that’s part of the complexity of my own feelings. A bit of sadness my kisses and hugs aren’t magical anymore. A bit of the rose-colored glasses slipping as my kids enter the imperfect world-not the careful world of fairies and magic I crafted when they were little.
While this part of my life feels unsteady and hard, all I can do is keep loving them and trying to do better. As the Everly Brothers sang:
Love hurts, love scars Love wounds and mars Any heart, not tough Nor strong enough To take a lot of pain Take a lot of pain Love is like a cloud Holds a lot of rain
This morning I woke up early to make steel-cut oatmeal with homemade applesauce. I spooned it into pretty bowls, played the “Moana” soundtrack and tried hard to listen to my kids for the entire drive to school.
Yesterday, I made pink homemade bubble solution and watched all the “tricks” the kids wanted to show me; a bubble stacked on a bubble, a bubble inside another bubble and “look there’s a mosquito inside a bubble!” (That one was impressive).
These were premeditated mothering moments.
I don’t dislike doing these things for my kiddos. Not at all. I’m just finding I must “manufacture” them more than I used to. I don’t have the kind of mental and emotional energy I had for entertaining my kids. It’s not “spontaneous” anymore.
I plan these moments out now and make deals with myself.
Be a patient, good mother all morning and when you get back home you can stare out the window for 30 minutes.
Play three games of Sorry! after homework, then you can make the kids play outside and listen to your audiobook while cooking dinner.
These deals keep me going, because motherhood is hard and I don’t want to share my candy or my blanket.
I don’t want to hear how unfair everything in the world is, how blobfish are the ugliest creatures on earth, every detail of a dream which includes the phrase “and for some random reason” about a thousand times, how adorable sugar gliders are and the life-changing effect a giant pogo stick would have on our family.
I just want to sit in silence and do what I want.
So, I do extra things when I can muster it up and make deals to push myself. I cut sandwiches into hearts. I fill hot water bottles up before bed. I massage their feet. I listen to the same story over and over.
Sometimes I’m rewarded with moments of pure motherhood bliss.
When my girl puts her hand on my chest because, “I can feel the warmth of your heart momma.” Swoon.
When my boy curls up in my chair, and I rub his head, and he coos the same sound he has made since he was an infant. Nothing better.
But then there are the moments when they are so loud, I can’t even breath. When the sound of their voices, even in play, makes me want to scream.
Yesterday, I read the same paragraph 15 times because the kids were laughing so loud I couldn’t comprehend the words in front of me.
They run by as squirrels, bears, monsters, quickly morphing from one to the next effortlessly with a kind of unhinged glee I can’t ever remember feeling.
They tear things out of every cupboard to make elaborate costumes, forts and lands, in an endless game of pretend which leaves me feeling dizzy with the speed and ferocity of it all.
Don’t you guys want to watch some TV?
Did I just say that?
Yes, I did.
I am turning 40 years old in April and I think I’m having a stereotypical freak-out. I don’t want to. I keep telling myself, it’s a number and it means nothing.
But, shit, I still have so much stuff to do.
I was supposed to have written lots of books by now, have tons of friends, explored castles and be a serious grownup.
I still sneak candy, forget to brush my teeth and don’t like vegetables (I only pretend to so my kids will eat them). I wear all black like a moody teenager, love Harry Potter, cry when I’m disappointed and don’t know what I’m doing.
When I pay bills and taxes I feel my age. When my back hurts after scrubbing the tub or my hand hurts from sleeping on it wrong, I think maybe this is adult life.
But, I don’t feel like an adult.
Maybe I never well.
I’m just Bridgette, and maybe accepting all my contradictions is the most grownup thing I can do.