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.
I see anger and hurt in her little face, but there isn’t time to address it.
I pack her lunch. I make her toast and oatmeal. I put a little watercolor Valentine heart next to her plate.
“You make me proud every day.
She smiles and says thanks, but I can see it didn’t reach her. The place inside where it is hurting is hidden too deep. I can’t reach it with a card or a hug.
It is time for her to leave for school. She moves slowly, layering three jackets over her flower dress.
“Remember,” I tell her. “You control what kind of day you have.”
“Yeah,” she says and gives me a half hug before walking out the front door.
I watch her stomp away with her head down. She doesn’t look back, but I wave from the door anyway.
I drink my coffee and silently pray for her.
The day drains away. Errands. Cleaning. Driving. Driving. Driving.
Carpool reports she screamed on the way to school because she lost a game.
Brother reports she was yelling at some kid on the playground.
She reports everything is unfair.
The day isn’t over. We have to make a second trip back to school. She brings her knitting and I think maybe this wave is over.
On the drive back home, she starts in on her brother again. It is over nothing at all.
He tries to tell her he doesn’t want to argue, but she clearly does.
She needs to prove her point and won’t stop.
The sound scrapes along the edges of the car and seems to fill every space.
“Stop it,” I say.
She does not. The sound escalates and I try again.
“Just drop it,” I say louder. “I’m serious. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
I turn on the music, but she continues even louder.
The sound reminds me of arguing with my brother as a kid.
I want to tear my hair out.
I want to tear her hair out.
“I’m fucking sick of this shit,” I blurt out. “Stop fighting. You have been fighting from the second you woke up. I’m over it. STOP. NOW.”
Even as the words come out, I regret them. I want to force them back down my throat, but the damage is done.
She begins to sob.
You fucked up, I tell myself. You really fucked up.
Even so, I am still angry and my heart has turned into a heavy stone.
“Stop crying,” I yell.
“I can’t!” she yells back. “Don’t you understand I can’t?”
“You can and you will,” I say.
The rest of the drive home, I fume and she sobs.
We walk in the door and she loudly clomps up to her room. I stomp into mine muttering about respect and how ridiculous she is being.
I put on my pajamas and wash my face. My anger slowly fades and the sound of her sobs reaches me. A stab of guilt and regret does too.
I take a deep breath and walk into her room.
She is hiding under the blankets crying.
“Can I sit down?”
“Can I hug you?”
She lunges into my arms and cries into me.
“I’m a ugly, bad and stupid girl,” she cries. “Nobody will ever forgive me.”
I hate every one of these words.
“Oh love,” I start.
“It is true,” she says. “I am so stupid and dumb.”
I hold her and let her tell me all the things. The boy who told her she looked like a pile of garage. The girls who won’t let her play with them at recess. Her fear she will never learn to ride her bike without training wheels. Her anger at being the littlest in the family.
All. The. Things.
With each word her body softens until she is a mushy, soft baby back in my arms. I cradle her to me and rock gently.
“No matter what you do, I will never love you any less fierce,” I say. “You can never, ever do anything I won’t forgive. Ever. You are my girl and nothing will ever change my love for you. Ever.”
The smile on her face radiates and I am bursting with love.
How could I have ever yelled at this precious face? How could I have forgot for even one second how small and beautiful and tender and perfect she is?
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “I should not have yelled at you. I lost my temper and it wasn’t OK.”
“You are the best mommy ever,” she says.
We melt into a mushy pile of love under the blankets and talk and talk and talk.
He won’t look at me anymore. I twist my head all around trying to find some angle to reach him, but he is allusive and quick. I don’t know when I lost him, but I feel the separation as sharp and painful as a knife wound. I bleed out silently, letting the anguish take me further and further away.
His feet shuffle slightly and I hear his breathing quicken. The tears are right there. I can almost feel them as if they were forming in my own eyes. He squints hard, fighting them and looks in the direction of the clouds.
“Do you see that?” he says pointing his entire hand upward.
“Yes,” I say without following his gaze.
“I want to go there,” he says.
“So let’s go,” I say.
His breath quickens even more and I look away. I don’t want to break the spell, so I count my intake and outtake of breath.
“Really?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Good,” he says.
I can feel him shift next to me and I stop breathing. I hold everything perfectly still, afraid to shatter this moment or even to crack it a little. It feels like the most fragile thing on the planet and I’m worried that even my thoughts will cause it to flee.
His hand reaches for mine and I stay limp and let him grab it. He squeezes it hard and I match his firmness without moving anything else in my body. My breath is as quiet as I can get it and I’m willing my mind to stay blank.
I feel our feet lift off the ground and I’m terrified. Now I squint my eyes closed, the tears pooling quickly as I feel the air become colder around me. His grip stays tight and I want to look at him. I want to see his face and read all the emotions I know are there.
I don’t risk it. The wind is getting stronger and I feel my hair blowing all around my head, as if it is trying to pull itself free of my scalp. My shoes fall off of my feet and my dress begins flapping loudly in the breeze. Whomp. Whomp. Whomp.
“I got you,” he says.
His voice is almost lost in all the sound around us, but I somehow hear it. My body, all tense and tight in fear, loosens at his words. I open my eyes and look at him.
“I love you mom,” he says.
This time his words are loud and seem to echo around us, bouncing off the clouds and air. His glasses have fallen from his face and his blue eyes have brightened to match the sky around us. His shabby brown hair, always in need of a haircut, looks somewhat perfect up here.
Sunlight is bouncing off his tan face, giving him the glowing effect the leaves in the tree of our backyard get in the early morning light. He is searching my face and seems pleased by what he sees reflecting back at him.
The air is suddenly still and quiet. We stop and he reaches for my other hand. He looks into my face as we circle slowly, the clouds wrapping themselves around us like golden blankets of light. The magic within him, the power I’ve always seen, swirling around us in bursts and bubbles. He giggles and smiles.
“I love you,” I say.
My voice echoes too, bouncing around and coming back in every pitch and tone. Like a chorus of my voices, high and low, singing the words over and over. The words seem alive and powerful, filling up every part of the space around us with great warmth.
We start to descend, the sounds of flapping clothes and wind rushing forward again in a great gust. He lets go of one of my hands and for a moment I fear I will fall, but his other hand is strong and reassuring. I close my eyes to stop them from burning in the wind and don’t open them again until my feet land back in my shoes. His hand drops from mine at the exact same moment.
I turn to look at him, but he is already looking away. I feel the space between us become heavy again, as if a wall was being quickly rebuilt in the span of 10 seconds. He angles away more and more until his back is facing me. I follow his gaze and see he is still staring up at the sky.
There is a massive cloud taking up the entire span of the sky directly in front of him. The cloud is made up of hundreds of textured layers, each varying in color from the palest of pink to the darkest of gold. It is glorious and we both stand still and look at it.
I want to reach for him, to yell and sing out my love in all the voices of the sky, but I don’t move. He knows, I tell myself and nod my head. He begins to walk away without turning around and a smile bursts across my face and fills my soul with the knowledge of it all.
The laughter drew me to them from my bedroom, where I was folding laundry with my morning coffee. I walk down the stairs and find them sitting on the living room floor with a paper between them. They are taking turns drawing on it and bursting into hysterics, their entire bodies literally shaking from the power of their giggles.
“What’s going on?” I say.
They don’t hear me at first.
“Hey guys,” I try again, attempting to sound casual and not at all like I’m about to start making them clean up. “Whatcha doin?”
They both look up at me like I’m an alien trying to invade their tiny planet.
“Nothing,” they say together and resume whatever nonsense this is, erupting into new fits of laughter as I walk away.
My children have a club. I’m guessing they call it “CoopLa” as I see it scrawled all over the place, but I’m not privy to the information. It looks like a pretty fun club. Their mission seems to be along the lines of:
*Cut up as many things as possible and use all the tape and aluminum foil in the house.
*Be really loud and make sure to laugh and scream out random words frequently, like Moo and Noodles.
*Move around the furniture often and in a dramatic fashion.
*Name every stuffed animal you can find and cover every surface in the house with fluffy cuteness.
They are enthusiastic about everything they do. They fight sometimes, but generally find resolution without intervention. They are tight, like peas and carrots.
There are days when I try hard to join in their fun, but I will never be in the club. I’m the bouncer and owner, but I’ll never quite belong.
They are exclusively exclusive.
Which is as it should be, I tell myself.
Childhood belongs to children.
Right? It’s how I’m supposed to feel. This is their time, not mine. I didn’t give birth to them so I could have friends and comfort.
But fuck. I miss it.
When they were very little, I was everything to them. Comfort. Food. Friendship. Playmate.
I was the sun, the moon and the stars.
But now I am not the only thing in the world filling those needs. They have each other, friends, grandparents, teachers and themselves. They have discovered inner strength and often find contentment in being alone.
All this is what is supposed to happen. This is the parenting process.
It’s beautiful and natural.
But I fucking hate it.
I feel myself being pushed away and pulled back on a daily basis. Give me space, but you better be there for me when I need you. Ask me what I’m doing, but don’t expect me to answer you. I need to know you care, but I don’t want you with me. Give me what I want, but don’t really because I’ll change my mind in five minutes.
The teenage years are still far away, but I feel them coming. This is the sweet spot of parenting right now and I know it. They are somewhat independent, but not disillusioned yet. They want stuff, but it is not their primary focus. They still ask questions and actually listen to the answers.
This is supposed to be the easy part.
There isn’t one.
I walk into my boy’s room and find him listening to the iPod with earbuds in. He is singing and tapping his toes while flipping through an animal magazine.
“Mom, there is this new song on the radio I think you will like,” he says pulling out just one earbud. “You have to hear this.”
I put the earbud in and sit close to him and my heart feels all kinds of confusing shit.
My girl and I go school shopping, just the two of us. She picks out clothes she likes and goes into the dressing room all by herself. Hanging the sign on the door, like she has seen me do a thousand times, and then coming out and modeling the clothes.
I stand there, outside the door, and I don’t even know what to feel.
I make eye contact with a mother of a teenage girl and she looks exhausted. She smiles at me encouragingly, but it looks forced. It is forced.
This shit is hard.
Not the kind of hard babyhood is. Not the sleep deprived, please don’t choke on something small and die. No. More like, my heart breaks every day to see you figure out how fucked up things can be and please don’t let you have the same depression I have.
That kind of hard.
Sometimes I just wander the house, not knowing what to do with myself. I am drawn to them, but also pulled away by a million things always needing to get done. I rush around cleaning, making plans, paying bills, writing and working. I see them slip by me and I reach out, but then they are gone.
I walk into my daughter’s room to deliver laundry and there they are. My boy is reading to his sister. They are snuggled and happy. My girl looks up and gives me the smile she always does and I want to join them. But I don’t. I smile back and walk out of the room.
The kids have dubbed it my “queen chair” and it is my favorite place to sit in the house. The soft-brown striped cushions are enormous and I sink deep into them. My beloved quilt is always folded across the back so it can be easily pulled down for cuddling and comfort. This is where I read, watch TV, craft, drink my morning coffee and have a good cry. It is also where I nursed my babies and read all the Harry Potter books.
I love my chair.
This week I shared it with a special baby, my sweet nephew. I fed him, burped him, played with him and let him nap in my chair. I spent four days with this little guy and I cherished every moment of being his auntie.
But something else happened this week too.
I truly saw my boy.
He is almost 10-years-old and things are changing.
I can remember sitting in my chair with him as a newborn and being so madly in love with him that I wanted to scream it to the world. He became my reason to get up in the morning, to move my body and to love. We did everything together and practically became one.
Now? I barely know this kid.
This week I took both kids roller-skating as a fundraiser for their school. I completely checked out when we got there, spending time chatting with my friends. At some point I see my boy and I reach my arm out to stop him.
“What are you drinking?” I ask him.
“Coke,” he says. “I won it. Didn’t you see?”
“I didn’t say you could have soda?” I reply.
He skates off and I’m angry that he didn’t ask me first, embarrassed I didn’t see him win something and just plain annoyed. I don’t see him again until it’s time to leave, and then I don’t bring it up because I have no fight left. He puts himself to bed and I barely have enough energy to muster a half-hearted kiss goodnight.
The next day we fight in the morning. I make his breakfast and pack his lunch and he takes 700 hours to put his clothes on.
“I have nothing to wear,” he screams from his room.
“I don’t want to hear it,” I yell back. “Get dressed now. You’re going to make us late.”
He finally comes to breakfast with a scowl and barely touches his food.
We go to a birthday party after school and I see him drinking a Pepsi. I call him over and he tries to hide it. I’m furious.
“Where did you get that?” I ask.
“My friend bought it for me,” he says. “Everyone is drinking them.”
“Not you,” I say and take it from him.
I see his anger and hear him tell his friends that I just don’t understand.
Again, I’m too tired to fix things between us.
We come home and fight over homework until bedtime. He is being so lazy and I’m extremely agitated. I yell. He cries. Not sure I even give him a kiss goodnight.
Yesterday we drop sister off at grandmas. We are alone for the first time in a long time and I just want to yell at him. He was poking at his sister the entire drive, he was rude to me and I want to just scream.
Where is my boy?
I miss him.
I miss us.
I look back at him in the mirror and mentally prepare a lecture about responsibility, kindness and not being a jerk to his mother.
But he looks different.
“You OK?” I ask.
“Mom, I need to talk to you about something,” he says.
“OK,” I reply and then brace myself for what I assume will be a barrage of complaints about how unfair I am to not let him play video games, watch TV or drink soda.
I am ready.
“My friend dreamed he kissed a girl,” he says.
“Sometimes I get a funny feeling when I think about girls,” he says.
He tells me about some strange dreams he has had, conversations about sex with friends and how he stood up for his sister at recess.
I listen quietly, asking questions for clarification, but just taking it all in.
He is processing so much, seeing the world differently and he needs me.
He is talking to me.
I haven’t lost him.
Maybe I’m doing something right.
We talk the entire drive.
We talk about what he wants his future wife to be like, how he can be a better friend to someone he knows is struggling, how he really doesn’t like scary things, what he wants for Christmas and how much he loves the Percy Jackson books.
He talks and talks and talks.
I take him in. His long legs and lean body; the way his eyes shine when he gets excited about something; the little smirk he gets when he says something clever; that laugh that he makes with his entire mouth open and his whole body jerking.
I fall in love all over again.
This afternoon I shared my chair with him.
We snuggled under my quilt, took selfies with my phone, giggled and talked.
I’m in love.
No, he isn’t my sweet baby anymore. He is a growing boy filled with wonder, excitement, joy, optimism and hope. He drives me crazy with his boundless fits of silliness and complete inability to just do what I ask, but I wouldn’t change a thing.