It isn’t easy to surprise your mother when you are five years old, but Henrietta doesn’t mind doing hard things for the people she loves. For the last several hours she’s been on a hunt for blackberries to give her mother for her birthday. A tiring barefooted quest that’s led her to the very edges of where she’s allowed to go on their small farm.
Despite checking the ditches along the road, the field behind the animal barn, the banks of the small creek, and the apple orchard, her little wicker basket remains empty. Henrietta thought finding the berries would be easy as she’s gone with her mother to harvest them many times, but she never paid attention to where they picked them and now she wished she had.
Mother does so much for Henrietta and she loves blackberries and cream. She can’t go home empty-handed. She simply must keep looking.
Stuffing her left hand into the pocket of her favorite purple linen dress and swinging the basket in her right, Henrietta skips along the edge of the property marked by a two-rail wooden fence. Her thick, blonde braid bounces against her back and she sings a song about blue jays and mockingbirds with a sweet high voice her mother says is “purely delightful” but her new teacher calls “truly distracting.”
Pink-cheeked, she stops abruptly when she spots a dirt path leading into a patch of scrubby-looking old trees she’s never noticed before. Perhaps that’s where the berries are hiding. She stares at it for a long time, wrinkling up her nose and twirling the basket in her hand.
To follow the path means she must break the rules. It’s beyond the border of the wooden fence—the one she swore to never, ever cross. Closing her eyes tight she pictures the joy and delight on her mother’s face when she hands her the basket of berries and the decision is made. She has to go for it.
Hiking up her dress, Henrietta carefully climbs over the fence and lands with a thud on the other side. Her heart races as she sprints to the clump of scraggly trees, certain a huge blackberry bush will be waiting among them. It isn’t. There are only rocks, dirt, and weeds. She picks up a round grey stone and throws it in frustration. The berries must be just a little further.
For the next few hours, she follows several winding paths through a mostly dry forest of thorny weeds. She knows she should turn back but she keeps thinking she sees the dark green leaves of the berry bushes just around the next corner. Just a little further.
The path suddenly ends at a lumpy hill covered in swaying, yellow grasses. With hope still wrapped around her like a tiny silken cape, Henrietta tucks the basket under her arm and climbs on all fours like a bear to the very top. Thorns make her palms and bare feet burn and itch. Just a little further.
On the hilltop, Henrietta watches the dark purple wild lupine flowers sway slightly in the warm breeze of the now late summer evening. Tiny golden hairs escape her thick braid and curl around her ears. Still no sign of berries.
Scrambling onto a small boulder, Henrietta stands on tiptoes and reaches for the puffy white clouds in the darkening blue sky. She’s certain eating one would make things better. It certainly can’t get any worse.
Suddenly her left calf starts to cramp and she yelps in pain, tumbling from the rock into a patch of scratchy brown weeds. Curling into a ball she uses her thumbs to try and massage out the pain but it doesn’t work. Tears from her soft blue eyes make tracks down her bright pink cheeks. It’s not fair.
Rolling onto her back, she lands in a patch of soggy mud and feels it soak completely through her thin dress. Mom will be furious at the stains. She’s stupid and dumb for wandering away and getting lost. A useless baby.
These kinds of thoughts aren’t like Henrietta at all and she wonders if perhaps the wind is saying these awful things to her. She’s simply lost. That’s all. There’s no need for name-calling.
“Stop it wind. Stop being mean.”
As if in response the wind gusts across the hilltop causing the long stems of the flowers to lean almost to the ground. There’s a high-pitched sound, like when mother’s yellow tea kettle is ready, and Henrietta covers her ears and closes her eyes. She isn’t sure she wants to look for berries anymore.
When the wind stops, Henrietta sits up, expecting to see her beautiful mother appear over the crest of the hill and rescue her. When she doesn’t, Henrietta wipes the tears from her eyes with the muddy hem of her dress and sniffs loudly. Being brave is getting harder and harder.
Maybe it’s time to go home and give mother something else for her birthday. Henrietta’s thinking about putting together a bouquet of wildflowers when a horrible screeching sound causes her to look up. Two rather ugly birds sit on the rock she fell from. They are covered in black feathers with bright pink naked heads, hooked white beaks, and intense black eyes.
She scrambles backward further into the mud puddle and the birds laugh at her. It’s a horrid sound and it makes her mad. Jumping to her feet, she places her hands on her hips and stomps her foot sending a spray of mud up around her.
“Go away you mean things.”
“We aren’t mean things. We are vultures. Don’t you know anything?”
They take turns speaking, each saying one word at a time, with matching slow growly voices. Henrietta feels her cheeks heating up and she twists the hem of her dress in her left fist. The birds smell terrible so she plugs her nose, causing her voice to sound strange.
“I know lots of things.”
“I know how to spell my name and count to 100.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“I know all the names of the flowers in my mother’s garden; pansy, bellflower, iris, candytuft, tulip, wisteria, and hydrangea.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“I can snorkel in the water all by myself and know the names of all the fish in the lake; trout, salmon, bass, catfish, perch, and pike.”
“Everyone knows that.”
The vultures laugh again, scraping their shiny black talons loudly against the rock and clicking their beaks. Henrietta thinks nothing of this warning but instead grabs a handful of mud and throws it at the birds. They dodge it easily and then dive toward her with loud, terrifying squawks.
Realizing a bit too late she’s in danger, she turns quickly and sprints down the far side of the hill. About halfway down she discovers she’s going too fast but can’t stop herself. Instead, she falls forward until she’s rolling like a wild croquet ball spinning towards a field of wire wickets.
“Help! Someone help me!”
Within seconds a mass of blue and white swirls around her, circling wildly with tiny quick moments too fast to fully see. There’s a sweet sugary smell in the air and a low rhythmic humming Henrietta associates with lullabies and bedtime. She’s scared but also very curious.
The creatures move faster and faster until they are able to stop Henrietta’s forward movement and suspend her in midair upside down. She looks from the delicate soft creatures to the sky beneath her wiggling toes and giggles.
“Thank you, but I think I’m pointed the wrong way.”
The swarm of blue and white butterflies lightly laugh, flip her around, and gently ease her dirty feet onto a patch of soft green clover. Holding out her arms and spinning in a circle she dances with them until they eventually disperse and fly off into the darkening forest around her.
“Wow. What was that?”
The fast breathy voice comes from inside the branches of a large sycamore tree leaning slightly to the right. Henrietta moves closer and finds a tiny squirrel climbing up and down the branches grabbing acorns from a pile at the base of the tree and then storing them inside a hole midway up the tree’s trunk. Its long bushy tail twitches up and down.
“Did you say butterfly effect?”
“The butterfly effect?”
Henrietta laughs in frustration but the squirrel doesn’t stop moving and doesn’t add anything further. She leans down to examine the fat brown acorns touching one of the wooden caps with her fingertip. A terrible squeaking sound erupts and the squirrel rushes toward her.
“Don’t you dare! Those are mine!”
Henrietta quickly pulls her finger away and takes a step back.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was just looking at them.”
“Had to purge my other spot…got too busy. Too busy. Industry moving in. Those beavers have no scruples I say. No scruples at all. They just take and take and take. These are mine. I collected them. Mine. Mine. Mine.”
Henrietta covers her mouth to stop a chuckle from escaping and then smiles gently at the squirrel who has stopped moving to look at her closer. It sniffs her hand with its twitchy nose and she can see the forest reflected in the shiny black of its small eyes.
Its voice is slower and softer. Henrietta thinks it sounds worried about her. Looking around the thick forest of tall trees she finds nothing looks familiar. She really is lost.
“I guess I am. I was looking for blackberries for my mother’s birthday and I didn’t find them and then…I kind of got lost. I don’t know where I am.”
The last words bring a few tears and Henrietta quickly sweeps them away with the back of her hand. She feels like she should be tougher, after all, she’s a kindergartner now and can go down the big twisty slide without anyone to catch her at the bottom. The squirrel takes another step toward her with its head turned to the side.
“Can I help?”
Henrietta brightens at this.
“Maybe….do you know the way to my house? It’s the big blue one with the white fence behind it.”
The squirrel shakes its head sadly and they both sit quietly for a few minutes staring at the forest floor. Henrietta feels bad for stopping this kind creature from its work but then she has an idea. An exciting idea.
“Could I help you?”
“You’d do that for me?”
“Of course! We can use my basket to gather up the acorns and then I can climb up and dump them inside.”
Nodding its head vigorously they get to work putting the plan into action. Henrietta climbs trees in the orchard all the time to help her mother get the apples near the top, so climbing with the basket isn’t hard for her at all. Before the sun sets another inch in the sky, they are done.
The squirrel rushes around the tree chirping excitedly and Henrietta feels proud of herself. She loves to be a helper. It makes her heart feel as if it has grown big and full inside her body. Her mother would be so proud.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” it chants over and over in time with its twitchy tail.
Stopping mid-tree, a thoughtful look breaks across the squirrel’s face followed by more frantic running and squeaking. Henrietta laughs hard and this time she doesn’t hide it. Bouncing on its back legs as if ready to spring high into the air and take flight, the squirrel talks super fast.
“I have an idea! I have the best idea of all the ideas in the woods. Will it work? I don’t know. But it’s a good idea. A fine idea. A wonderful idea. He owes me a favor and he has to be able to help. He has to. It’s a good idea. A great idea. I can help you!”
“Yes. I know someone who might be able to help! Wait here!”
With that, the squirrel scampers away at top speed mumbling “great idea.” Henrietta sits on the forest floor and picks out thorns from her dress and tosses them as far as she can. She wishes she’d asked for one of the acorns because her mother loves to draw little faces on them and line them up along the kitchen window. She decides she will ask the squirrel when it returns.
“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. You can’t make me talk. No. No. I won’t tell you. I won’t.”
A gruff voice breaks through the woods and within moments Henrietta sees the squirrel walking slowly beside an old, fat, grey rabbit with a slight limp. It’s shaking its head, making its long, floppy ears flap all over the place. Henrietta thinks it’s the cutest rabbit she’s ever seen and has to sit on her hands to avoid reaching out to touch its soft fur.
“See! She’s nice and she needs our help.”
Stopping a few inches away the rabbit stares at Henrietta for a long time. She’s not sure if she should say something to it, and after what feels like forever, it nods once.
“I’m no snitch. I tell ya. No snitch. But I’ll show her the berries. For her mother…”
Henrietta jumps to her feet, sending both the squirrel and the rabbit into a nearby bush.
“Sorry. I’m just excited.”
“It’s okay. I’m no snitch, but let’s go. Don’t tell anyone I told you okay? Nobody. I’m no snitch.”
“Oh, I won’t tell a soul.”
The squirrel rushes to its pile and then returns to Henrietta with an acorn in its tiny paws.
“For you mother.”
“She will love it! Thank you!”
Henrietta wants to touch its soft fur but decides it might be bad manners and instead blows the squirrel a kiss before turning to follow the grumpy rabbit into the forest. They walk slowly in silence for a long time around fallen logs, through patches of bright green ferns, and around several large colorful mushrooms.
The sky beyond the trees has turned golden orange and purple. Soon the moon and the stars will be out. Her mother must be so worried about her and it makes Henrietta feel terribly upset. By the time they reach a large blackberry bush hugging the edge of a small stream her enthusiasm for picking has been replaced with utter despair.
“Here you go. Now, remember, I didn’t take you here. I’m no snitch.”
Henrietta begins to sob. She can’t help herself. All she wanted to do was make her mother’s birthday special and she missed the entire day, broke the number one rule, and probably won’t ever find her home again. Thinking about her mother’s crying green eyes makes her feel sick as she clutches her stomach.
The rabbit hops into her lap and looks at her with concern in its dark shiny eyes.
“You can pet me if you want.”
Henrietta does and is surprised to find it makes her feel better. The more she strokes the soft, grey fur the calmer she becomes. The babbling sound of the nearby stream draws her attention to the blackberry bush and she feels a renewed sense of purpose. This day can be saved!
“Thank you, rabbit. A million times thank you.”
It hops from her lap and she runs toward the bush and begins picking the fattest, prettiest blackberries she’s ever seen until her basket is filled to the tippy-top. Mother will be so overjoyed she’ll forget everything else. Henrietta pops a few of the berries into her mouth and chews them happily.
A deep voice causes Henrietta to almost drop her basket and she’s shocked when she turns around to find an enormous deer with huge antlers pawing the ground a few feet from where she stands. It occurs to her in an instant that the berries must be his and he’s going to be really mad.
“I’m sorry. You can have them back.”
She’s about to pour the basket onto the ground when the deer laughs. It’s not mocking like the vulture’s cackle but rather a gentle soft chuckle between friends. Tilting his head he nods to her.
“My forest friends have told me you are trying to get home for your mother’s birthday. You are almost too late little one. Mother moon has opened her eyes and her starry children are rushing out to play. The day is almost over.”
Tears reform in Henrietta’s already swollen eyes as all the feelings of the day flood through her again. She falls to the forest floor letting the basket of berries tumble from her hands. Nothing is as important as being with her mother and she should have never left the farm. Love and time together are the most important gifts of all.
“It’s okay,” the deer says. “It’s all going to be okay.”
Henrietta looks up to see all her new forest friends gathered in a circle around her—big deer, grey rabbit, twitchy squirrel, and the swirling mass of blue and white butterflies. They gather the berries for her and return them to the basket. They kiss her on the cheek and help her onto the smooth back of the large deer. She can feel his breath beneath her and her own breathing slows to match his.
“Time to go, little one. Your mother’s waiting for you,” the deer says.
“Thank you!” she calls to her friends who stand waving until she’s out of sight.
The journey takes no time at all and soon Henrietta sees the fence at the back of the orchard. Her mother stands near the treeline with her back to her. She’s wearing a long purple dress covered in tiny white flowers. The moonlight makes her hair look sleek and silver.
“Henrietta! Where are you, daughter? Henrietta!”
Sliding quickly off the deer’s back she kisses him on the nose, leaps over the fence, and runs toward her mother.
“I’m right here! Mother! I’m right here!”
Her mother scoops her into her arms and kisses her from head to toe, the basket of berries falling to the ground beside them.
Author’s note: This was a hard week for our family. We gathered together in my sister-in-law’s home as my strong loving mother-in-law gently faded away from us in her upstairs bedroom. We held her hand, kissed her face, and brushed her hair. We made sure she knew she was loved but also that it was okay to leave us. It was a beautiful and incredibly hard week.
My short story, written mostly in one sitting, was inspired by my love for her and many of the wonderful moments we’ve shared over the years. There’s a little Alice, a little Blueberries for Sal, a nod to family history, and a lot of grief. I’ll miss you forever, Janet. Your loving legacy will not be forgotten.
Short Story Challenge | Week 34
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 about an interrupted journey. We had to include butterfly effect, vulture, cramp, industry, purge, scruple, snorkel, snitch, warning, and useless.
The same old silver grater, clear glass bowl, dented wooden spoon used to make round applesauce cake for first birthdays today made muffins for freshman and senior year. Instead of watching from your wooden high chair, bass boomed behind closed bedroom doors while green granny smith apples, bright orange carrots joined honey, oats, almond flour for you. Another day of beautiful childhood fleeting before lovesick eyes not done soaking up all the wondrous firsts, seconds of motherhood’s dance. Don’t blink they tell you; blink blink blink
Another fiery hot headache erupts inside your skull turning pale cheeks crimson. Disappearing beneath a thin, black blanket—you retreat into the cave’s deep crisp darkness. I suppress bubbling anger’s hot breath tight inside infinities compassionate heart; draining like cups lining crowded cracked windowsill. Please,
be okay. Worry lines crease, carve my aging mom face— chiseled rock tracing waters long cascading movements through life’s echoey darkness. Foamy pools of cooling relief sit waiting for moments to pass, for pacing eons to eek by into light’s laughing return. Heart remembers every nighttime outcry, each soothing back rub. Please,
be okay. Reaching through foggy depths flash flooded with writhing madnesses ugly nightmares, your fingers wind tight around blankets edge; my feather-soft motherly kisses on soaked brows do nothing. Anger ripples dirty clothes piled high igniting guilt’s powerful ringing rage pounding ancient rocks into fine powdery dust. Please,
be okay. Fear transforms uneven tapering columns into screeching monsters to slay. Drawing wet sword angry words drip, drip, drip through silence too thick for thinking. Screams soften by plunging heavy, headfirst into icy water’s depth to see through stinging eyes past adventures where love’s sweet patience held fast. Please,
be okay. Lashing, tearing with pain’s tired hoarse voice blame begets blame until desperate razor-sharp rockslides throw open windows repose letting sweet swirling wind signal truce. Whispered kindness wipes at particles left stinging, laughing off this dance, forgetting how darkness clung everywhere at once—embracing love’s shining light.
My teenage son suffers from chronic migraines. While I strive to be loving, kind, and motherly at all times, anger bubbles forth when he’s down. It’s anger at the situation, but it becomes anger at everything. We fight when it’s over as if we can keep it from returning by scaring it away. I’m not proud of this pattern and this poem is my attempt at processing my feelings.
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
Sometimes my teenage daughter’s anxiety gets too big, and I pick her up early from school.
I know her education is important, but living through a pandemic has changed my priorities and perspective. When she calls me, I don’t hesitate and I don’t make her feel bad. I get her.
Last week I picked her up after a flurry of upsetting texts. She told me her mental health was bad again. It scared me. It scared her. She’d kept it from me for weeks because she didn’t want to make me sad. My heart broke she’d tried to protect me, and I felt I had to say the right thing.
“We face what is,” I said.
These four words felt important.
I repeated them.
“We face what is.”
This opened the door for her to share, and for me to listen. We made plans for her to get new kinds of help, and to pursue roads to healing we hadn’t considered before. I reminded her she isn’t alone, and I’m more interested in her truth than in feeling comfortable and happy.
The next day, I was sitting alone and spiraling out about my eyes.
My eye to be specific.
I’ve got one good eye and one lazy one. It’s been this way my entire life, and normally it’s not on my mind. But lately, I’ve had trouble seeing when I read, or when I’m on the phone. Things were blurry and I couldn’t read the instructions on a medicine bottle. I bought a pair of reading glasses, and it helped. This should have been the end of it.
However, my anxiety over the experience grew and grew. It became unruly, demanding more and more of my attention and emotional energy.
I’d convinced myself I must have some horrible disease, most likely brought on by my weight gain and laziness. I began to tally all the ways I’m failing at caring for myself. I don’t wear my sunglasses all the time. I spend too much time on screens. I don’t blink enough. I got bacon grease in my eye on Christmas morning, which was irresponsible and preventable if I’d paid better attention. I haven’t done enough research to see how to protect my eyesight. I don’t eat enough green leafy vegetables or omega-3 fatty acids. I’m going to lose my ability to see, and it will be my own fault.
As I sat still, berating myself, those four words I told my daughter came to me.
“We face what is.”
I looked up the number of an optometrist near me and made an appointment.
As I sat in the waiting room, all the anxiety and blame thick about me, I kept countering it with those four words. Whatever the eye doctor tells me, I will face. I have family and friends who will love and support me. I can’t face what I don’t know.
As I went through the exam, I made lots of self-deprecating jokes. I knew I had to keep the mood as light as possible, and I had to keep talking.
“Which is better? One or two? Three or four?”
Each question was scary. The letters I couldn’t see felt ominous, surely indicators of something serious. I kept trying to hear it in her voice, waiting for the bad news to drop.
My eye’s fine. I’m getting older. It’s normal.
She prescribed reading glasses, the same kind I’m already using. She told me I’m okay.
We face what is.
I have some other health things I have to face. I’ve put on too much weight. I have pains in my hips and back. I’m concerned I might be pre-diabetic, it runs in my family, or I could be putting too much strain on my heart. I’m taking steps to correct my health, which means facing things like the scale, a check-up at the doctor, and returning to the gym. All of these things feel hard, and damn, there’s a lot of judgment and guilt around them.
However, I can’t do anything without turning toward what is. I have to stop ignoring the truth for some pretend comfort. I have people who count on me, and I have a lot more I want to do with my life. There’s no reason to run from perceived scary things or to let myself build them up until they are monstrous. It’s far better to shine a light on them.
Ellyse wants to check the doorstep for a gift the second she wakes up, but she restrains herself. Yesterday when she rushed outside her grouchy neighbor, Old Bobsy the Gnome, saw her in her rose petal nightgown and shook his watering can at her and scowled. She should have punched his wrinkled old face and pulled his filthy white beard, but she’s not that kind of elf. Not anymore, anyway.
She changes into a maple leaf dress topped with her favorite cotton fluff sweater and takes a quick peeks out the screen door. Sure enough, there stands Old Bobsy wearing his stupid red pointed hat and doing his daily snooping under the guise of watering his vast mushroom patch. If Ellyse wants to avoid conversation, which she most certainly does, she better wait until after her morning cup of chicory root tea. She’ll wait for the sound of Old Bobsy snoring in his hammock and then do a proper check.
After heating the water on the stove, she settles into a place in the backyard where she can drink her tea and watch the birds dive and play in the birdbath. A pair of doves, the same ones she can hear cooing down her fireplace most afternoons, wash and splash until an enormous Blue Jay chases them away. If her knees weren’t hurting her, Ellyse would do something about it, but instead, she turns her attention to the treasures set on her table.
The gifts started arriving three days ago, all wrapped in bright green leaves and tied with a thin strand of white wool. She’d found them on her doorstep with no note, and not even snoopy Old Bobsy saw who left them. It’s a mystery, something she hasn’t had much of since her son Farryn headed out on his own last spring. She lays them out in a row, touching each one.
At first, she thought the gifts were from the pack of grubby goblin kids who live down the street. They are always running through her yard trampling her garden or knocking over the flowerpots. However, she can’t imagine those wild things sitting still enough to wrap something so carefully.
Her second thought was her friend Arylea, but she’s on a trip with her teenage son to visit some distant relatives across the ocean and won’t be back for another month. They had invited Ellyse to come with them, but she couldn’t stand to leave her garden and her animals.
When she was young, caring for a garden would have felt like a punishment worse than death. Back then, she was filled with energy and a restless spirit, adventure luring her with a song so clear and strong she could hear nothing else. Her parents tried to stop her, but when war broke out, she ran away to fight.
The Great Fairy War, pitting the creatures of light against the forces of darkness, lasted decades and Ellyse grew up slinging arrows and fighting with short swords. She can remember the horrible blasts of the human rifles, the roar of the hideous snarling beasts, and the sting of magical rain. It still clings to some part of her and, although Farryn wishes he could experience it, Ellyse is happy he won’t have to. Peace and harmony have filled the land for decades now, and she does her best to keep it so.
The chickens squawk from their coop, and Ellyse slips on her rubber boots and lets them out. She sprinkles feed across the yard, lets the rabbits out, and gathers eggs in a wool-lined basket. The carrot patch needs weeding, and it’s time to prune some of the rose bushes. Her body aches, but it’s a good feeling, and Ellyse surrenders to the work.
Her stomach begins to growl around noon and she realizes she’s forgotten to check for another gift. She rushes to the front door and there it sits, another beautiful leaf package wrapped with a thin thread of white wool. She bends over to pick up the treasure and cradles it in her arms.
She unwraps it carefully and finds a bundle of dried lavender, brown twine woven intricately around the stems. Breathing in the sweet herbal smell, she’s filled with memory. When Farryn was a small boy she taught him how to gather the lavender without stripping the flowers off, and how to tie them into bundles exactly like this one. They would hang the bundles from every beam in the house, letting them dry, and then give them as gifts to all their friends and family at Winter Solstice.
Ellyse begins to laugh as she adds the bundle to the row of gifts. Each one of these items is connected to a memory of Farryn, her only son. She can’t believe she didn’t see it before. The realization makes her heart sing with joy, and she touches each one again, feeling the energy and love of each.
The first gift was a fat dark brown acorn with a wide textured hat. Each fall, she and Farryn would travel two hours on foot to harvest acorns from the large oak trees near the fairyland border. They would carry home one bucket each to make acorn flour, but leave the rest of the acorns for the squirrels to hide. She taught him a little song. She can still hear his golden, high voice singing as they walked home swinging their full buckets:
Squirrel Nutkin has a coat of brown, quite the loveliest in woodland town; two bright eyes look round to see where the sweetest nuts may be.
Squirrel Nutkin in his coat of brown scampers up the trees and down; dashing here and swinging there, leaping lightly through the air. All the livelong day he plays in the leafy woodland ways but stop at night when squirrels rest in their cosy treetop nest.
The second gift was a dried seedpod from a white birch tree, the kind found in the backyard of Ellyse’s family home. When they’d visit for the Summer Solstice, they would collect the pods, dry them in the sun, and snap them open to release the seeds. The dried petal-shaped pieces would be made into jewelry or saved to make sweet, sticky syrup. She can still see Farryn balanced on a chair stirring a huge wooden spoon through the thick, rich liquid, making the house smell like caramel and honey.
The third gift was a greenish willow tree stick, the kind she’d cut from the trees lining the slow-flowing creek at the far back of their property. They’d stand at the top of the rocky bridge and throw the sticks in the water, rush to the other side to see whose stick emerged first. Farryn would then scramble through weeds to the water’s edge, balance on the slick rocks, and retrieve their sticks so they could play again and again. It took forever to pull all the stickers and burrs out of his socks afterward.
Ellyse looks up and sees the moon has risen high in the sky, and she’s amazed at how time can slip by so fast these days. Lost in her memories, she wonders how her son has been managing to leave her these gifts, and why he hasn’t shown himself. She devises a plan to catch him, and giggles at the silliness of it.
Dressing all in greens and purples, Ellyse hides behind the giant lilac bush beside her front door. She waits and waits, enjoying the deep, rich smell and watching the stars twinkle across the sky until she sees a familiar shape sneaking on silent steps. Just the way she taught him, dressed in dark colors to camouflage in the night. She watches him place another gift on her doorstep with an enormous smile on his youthful face. Her heart feels something she’d tried not to feel since he left, a sort of longing mixed with pride, and she elicits a loud sobbing giggle.
Farryn jumps and pulls aside the branches to see his mother’s face peering out at him.
“What are you doing mother?” he asks.
“Catching you,” she says.
He lifts her to her feet and hugs her to him.
“What took you so long?” he says. “I thought you’d figure me out the first day.”
“Getting old, I guess.”
They hug and laugh so loud they wake Old Man Bobsy who emerges from his house wearing quite scandalously short red shorts, his wrinkled chest as white and hairy as his beard. He holds a stick in his hands and begins yelling a string of threats and curses at the mother and son. They duck inside, giggling madly.
Once they are sipping hot cups of mint tea by the fireplace, Ellyse opens the final gift, a large heart-shaped river rock. She glances over to a shelf covered in seashells, rocks, and bark, all heart-shaped items found by her boy. She holds his hands in hers and smiles.
“I’d have definitely known from this one,” she says.
“I’d hope so,” Farryn says.
“I love you, mom.”
“I know. I love you too.”
Author’s note: When I first read the prompt I had the idea of a time travel story where the items are left to help prevent something terrible from happening. However, when I sat down to write, my mind kept wandering back to stories involving a mother and son. I suppose I wasn’t done feeling all my feelings yet about my son turning 17. My first draft was a very sad piece about a mother and son not talking to each other, and he leaves little gifts out for her so she will know he remembers the fun they’ve had over the years. It was fine, but it felt too sad and too raw. So, I took another crack at it, and this silly little elf story took shape. I think it captures some of the same feelings, but it’s not nearly as heavy. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it!
Short Story Challenge | Week 2
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 anonymous gifts that start arriving at the doorstep. We had to include the word teenager, camouflage, birch, harmony, rifle, screen door, wrinkle, dive, pick-up, and sticker.
Someone has swept all the dried leaves from the grey stone floors and polished the colorful wood of the massive round table until its surface gleamed like a mirror. I squeeze between two of the tall backed chairs and place my palms on the cool, smooth surface. My face looks dark and angular in the flickering firelight.
It’s been four days since I arrived at Camelot to find I was too late. It turns out the prophecy delivered to me was true, and my son has ridden with his armies into the thick of it. I pull my woolen shawl tight around my shoulders and squint at my reflection, searching my eyes to see if they’ve been altered by what I’ve done.
My mind slips into memory, not of things past, but of things which are to happen, or maybe not. The images torment me, taunt me, and I wonder if she’s the one who set this all in motion. I wish I could stop the vision, but it comes, as it has for seven days now. It comes, relentless and vivid, and I’m helpless to stop it.
My beautiful son lies bleeding near an ancient oak tree, its branches rustling in a terrifying wind. His bright sword, Excalibur, sits bloody and still across his body. His deep blue eyes, the eyes of his father, are filled with terror and fight. I see him mouth my name, Igraine. He doesn’t say mother, or beloved, but instead my name. Igraine. He knows not of my true undying love for him. He knows not of the burning ache inside, always longing to be with him, and he remembers not the embraces and kisses I smothered him with as a babe. No, he cries out the name of the woman he hopes will feel his dying and perhaps do something to stop it. A silver-clad comrade, a crossbow strapped to his back, appears from the woods running towards Arthur, screaming his name, but it’s too late. The light from his eyes fades and his lips stop saying my name.
I rode as fast as I could the day the vision first came, but I arrived too late. Camelot was empty, the staff wide-eyed and teary, but not welcoming. No, they had no love for the mother of their king, for they’ve heard the stories, and they believe the lies. I knew the moment I arrived that I would seek her out, that this would be where it happens, but it took me four days to find the courage to set it in motion. Now I must wait and I must see his dying moments replayed in my mind over and over until I can be sure it’s undone.
“My lady,” a small voice whispers behind me.
I’m startled, but I don’t allow it to show. I turn, holding my head high and my back straight. It’s a thin girl with pale skin, one of the half-dozen servants I’ve seen the last few days. Strands of dirty blonde hair escape from beneath an off-white cap, and she’s got smudges of dirt on her small freckled nose. She holds a heavily loaded tray out in front of her with both hands and bows her head.
She’s probably one of the many orphans Arthur has taken into his care. Stories about the compassionate king who pulled the sword from the stone have been told across the land. Told and retold in taverns, castles, and all the places in-between. These stories of kindness and bravery seem fantastical, but I don’t doubt they are true.
While I haven’t seen my son in 20 years, I know his heart. The boy who would collect wildflowers and bring them to me, the boy who curled in my lap as I read to him at night, and the boy who rescued wounded animals and nursed them back to health. My heart could sing ballads of all the good of Arthur, long before he became king, and long before he wasn’t mine anymore.
The young girl makes a sort of small squeak, like a wounded puppy. She’s staring at the floor, at the soft brown leather boots on my feet, and at the mud and grass sticking to the sides, soiling the cleanliness of the majestic hall. I know what disgraceful things have been said about me, and I wonder if she believes them. She won’t meet my gaze, so I imagine she does.
“No thanks,” I say. “Take it away.”
The ceramic teapot and cup rattle on the wooden tray, her hands and body shaking as if raked with fever. She doesn’t look up from the floor but speaks again. Her voice is now breathy and panicky. I wonder who made her come in here.
“My lady, I was told not to take no for an answer,” she says.
The poor child looks as if she may collapse, so I motion for her to set the tray on the table. She shakes her head no and makes the same sound as before. It takes a moment for me to realize, I sigh. The rules.
“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Nobody may use this table until my son returns.”
It’s one of the many rules I’ve learned since my arrival in Camelot, always delivered by some young servant with shaking hands and downcast eyes. I’m unsure if there’s an actual list of these rules somewhere, or if they are created by someone who wants me to know how unwanted I am here. Whoever gives the servants orders, they must be scarier than me.
The girl says nothing, but silent tears fall down her face. I wish I could enfold her to my bosom and tell her all will be well, but I cannot. I have lost the ability to comfort others, as my son’s dying face fades in and out of my vision. I point to a small round table set near the fireplace.
“Set it over there,” I say, “and please leave me. I don’t want any more interruptions, no matter what anyone tells you.”
The girl sets down the tray with a thud and runs as fast as she can out of the room. A sick feeling rushes through me, making me weak and dizzy. I close my eyes and summon stillness and strength, calling it to me as I was trained to do during my time in Avalon, amongst the priestesses. I walk with silent footsteps to the oversized brown leather chair by the fire and sit stiffly with both feet on the floor in front of me. I allow the full force of the feeling to hit me.
It’s happening faster than I thought. I consider drinking some of the tea, but my body hums and vibrates, and I know it won’t be possible to swallow it. The coldness inside burns, but my body begins to sweat. I stare into the fire, trying to see the happy image promised to me. I see nothing but the flames and feel nothing but the chill, as I replay the night, the horrible details clear and naked before me.
She’s easy to find, far easier than I expected. Her hut lies in the exact spot I’d been told it would be, deep in the woods, past the boulder fields, and nestled on the shore of a long-forgotten bog filled with decay and death. The smell overwhelms me, but the sound of my son’s pleas moves me forward until I’m standing at the doorway of a sideways leaning shack, the wood covered in greenish grey moss and mold. I knock hard on the scraggly door of rotting, softwood, and it responds with a squishy, soft thud, barely audible.
“Come in,” a scratchy voice says. “I’ve been expecting you.”
For indeed, this is the way of things, I think. Prophecy and fate, for I must have known all my life I’d end up here with this wretched spirit. Her voice sounds familiar, the stuff of nightmares, and a terrifying internal tugging accompany the sound. My body recoils and I fall to my knees and puke onto a pile of dead leaves. Something stirs, moving through the brownish mound, and I stand before I can see what it is. The door creaks, shifting toward me, and I turn the handle. I’ve already made up my mind, there’s no turning back.
The hut is small and dark, but several shafts of sunlight spike through the tattered roof and illuminate the scene before me. A horribly thin woman sits naked in the center of the dirt floor, a pile of grey skin and bones. Her legs are twisted to her sides, bent at odd angles, as if she’d been crushed. Tall piles of too-white bones lay around her. Long grey hair falls over her face and breasts, tangled and filthy. I try not to think of the things she’s eaten or killed, but instead on why I’m here, and what I’ve come to bargain for.
“You know the price,” she says.
She laughs, a short screechy sound I feel move through me like a gust of wind. She picks up two long bones, femurs, and smacks them together before dragging them in the black dirt, drawing two spiraling circles weaving in and out of each other. She presses harder and harder, the bones digging deeper and deeper, creating furrows in the ground. Grunting, she presses harder and harder still until the bones snap in two. The sound lingers and moves around me, mocking me. She lifts one of the broken bones to her mouth and licks it, her tongue a snake darting out of her hair and back, one quick repulsive motion.
She hums deeply and rocks back and forth. Then pulls a rough stone from under one of her thighs and sharpens the broken piece of bone, rubbing it back and forth across the dark rock. The continuous humming and sharpening sounds make me feel weak, but I don’t dare sit on the floor. I’ve heard the stories of those who show weakness in her presence.
“Say the words,” she says, “and it will be done.”
She continues to rock, to sharpen, and to hum. I’m dizzy, and I don’t want to say the words, but the face of my boy dances around me. All the faces of my boy, from the day I pulled him from my body to his dying moment, they flash like lightning before me, a cruel horrible storm of time, love, guilt, and regret.
I know the moment has come. I have no other choice. It’s now or he will die. Fate, it seems, has no wiggle room. Stepping forward, I hold myself in the regal way I was taught. I let down my defenses and speak clearly and strongly.
“Save Arthur. Save my son,” I say. “Please. I will pay the price.”
The words slice through the air, stopping all other movements and sounds. A wind rushes around us, moving the hair from her face, revealing dark holes where her eyes should be. She leaps to her feet and rushes toward me, faster than a diving hawk. I watch, outside myself, as she stabs the sharpened bone into my chest, into my heart. I feel the blood pour from my body, the corruption of my soul, the death of all I’ve been or ever will be. I don’t scream, and I don’t cry.
We stand locked in this position, her boney body pressed against mine and a wide, toothy smile on her skeletal face. Her teeth are sharp, and for a moment I think she will lunge at my throat, but she yanks the bone from my body and retreats to her spot on the floor, to her pile of bones. She begins licking and sucking the bloody bone, a horrible slurping sound, and I walk, dazed, out the door into the moonlight.
Never have I seen such a moon, so full of light and life. Merlin once told me it’s a giant stone in the sky, nothing more. Like a boulder in the middle of the ocean, held in time and place, but responsible for the movements of the tides and the flow of blood in a woman’s body. I didn’t understand until this moment. It’s as if death, its icy grip tight around my throat, wants me to truly see what I’m leaving behind.
As I walk back toward Camelot, I feel resolved. I would choose to save my son every single time. My life hasn’t been what I thought it would be when I was young, my dreams of adventure and epic love dashed and broken. I’ve made bad choices, I’ve hurt those I love, and I’ve suffered. But I saved Arthur, and I loved him with all I am, and for that, I am beyond grateful.
I touch my chest, expecting a gaping hole, but find none. There’s no trace of blood or gore on my body or my clothes, but I can feel it moving through me. I didn’t know death would be so cold. As I reach the top of a small hill, Camelot comes into view. The sun rises behind it, making the glorious castle glow golden and pink. It could be in heaven, I think. Such beauty belongs to Arthur, not to me.
“Arthur’s back! Arthur’s back! The war’s over! We won!”
The excited voice of a small boy breaks the silence of the hall, and I realize I’d fallen into a trance as I watched the flames, reliving the last few hours, and feeling the cold devour me, bit by bit. I’m empty of the truest part of me, and I know it’s nearing time. I want to gather Arthur into my arms and feel his warmth, feel the life in his body, and tell him I love him. He must know I love him, he must know all the things I’ve held back, all the truths, and all the sacrifices.
The hall’s alive with activity; colorful banners and flags appear on the walls, the large chandeliers burn bright with dozens of candles, enormous barrels of ale with shining silver spigots appear everywhere, and plates of hot food and large, pewter mugs cover the famous round table. Servants rush to and fro, smiles on their faces, singing and laughing. Arthur’s alive and so, it seems, is Camelot.
The sounds of horns, horses, and metal armor reach the castle, and I stand. Nobody notices me, as I take a final look at the place my son created, at the people he protects. This victory will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for these people, his people. I know this to be true, the same way I know I shall never embrace my son again.
Weaving through the rushing servants, I exit the great hall. With all the strength left in my body, I hurry through empty corridors until I reach a small wooden door at the back of the castle. It’s left ajar, beckoning me outside, as if Camelot has decided to help me, to protect the king.
Nobody notices as I walk down the stone staircase, through the beautiful gardens, and to the shore of the lake. A bit of fog hugs the edges of the water, but it’s not too thick, and I can see the trees reflected in the glassy, smooth surface. I stop with my toe at the edge, savoring the sounds of celebration in the distance, and lift a large white stone into my arms.
I won’t allow Arthur’s victory and joy to be crushed by my death. It would be cruel to die in his arms, although my heart longs for nothing else. Oh, to hear his voice say, “I love you, dear mother.” I can’t think of it.
No, my disappearance, if he’s told of my visit at all, will not seem out of character for me. My son has grown used to my comings and goings, my life seemingly my own. He knows not of the ways I’ve guided the world to bend toward him, and he will know nothing of my death or the price I paid to save him.
I step into the cold water, its iciness matches the chill already infecting my body from within. My dress and shawl absorb the water, forcing me to fight them, to fight for every step. I know not what awaits me, but I know this is the way it ends. I’d seen it as a child, felt it every time I was near the water. Yes, this is how it ends.
I step over slippery stones and see small fish rush away from my boots until I reach an underwater ledge, a drop-off so deep I can see nothing but blackness. Cradling the stone in my arms, as if it’s my baby, my Arthur, I step into the deep, and allow myself to sink below the surface.
Author’s note: With this prompt, I decided to play with the idea of the martyr mother. My son recently turned 17, and I’ve been experiencing some strong feelings as we navigate a new relationship. It’s been painful, and although I strive to not slip into martyr or victim mode, it felt like the perfect moment and story to explore the idea of giving all to our children without expecting anything in return.
Short Story Challenge | Week 1
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 anew take on the Arthurian legend. We had to include the words Avalon, crossbow, orphan, list, comrade, corruption, lake, enfold, disgraceful, and grass.
Chopped onions, mushrooms and garlic simmer in the pan with a little olive oil. I add a handful of spinach and push everything around with a wooden spoon.
“Here we are in the kitchen of the famous writer,” says my girl.
Wearing her soft white pajamas with gold snowflakes, she points a camera at me and talks in a tumble of quick words, her sweet voice trying to mimic the cadence of the reporters she hears on NPR.
“You may know her from her famous blog, but she is also writing two novels which are sure to be New York sellers.”
She walks closer and I turn, aware of my dirty apron and unwashed hair. The camera is on my face now.
“Can I ask you a few questions?”
“When you’re famous, will you allow your books to be made into movies?”
“I know you doubt your acting skills, but if given the chance, would you star in the movie?”
“No. I’d leave it to the professionals.”
“You could, you know.”
“Thanks, but it isn’t something I even want.”
I stare at her through the camera, my tone serious. Teachable moment.
“You do know I may never finish my book, and it may never be published. You know that, right?”
She sighs and smiles.
“You will mom, and you are already famous,” she says. “Because you’re awesome.”
She turns the camera on herself.
“Well, there you have it, folks. A short interview with the famous writer as she cooks dinner. Tune in tomorrow when we interview a leprechaun about the true secrets of the rainbow.”
She walks into the next room and I hear her playing the video back to herself. I wonder what she is thinking as she watches it.
Does she see the bags under my eyes or the way I cringed when she called me “famous writer”?
Does she know how much I fear I’ll never finish writing anything?
Can she possibly understand the enormous feelings her little interview exploded inside me as I cooked a frittata on a Monday night?
Thank goodness the answer is no. She is 10 years old, all she knows is she loves her mother and she believes I can do anything. I’m still a hero to her, someone to look up to, someone to admire.
Like all aspects of motherhood, it’s crushing, suffocating, messy, confusing and fucking wonderful all at once.
I don’t want to let her down.
I’ve always told her she could do whatever she wants in life.
“You are only limited by your own fears.”
I worry I will fail, and she will watch it, and all her hopes and dreams will crash along with mine. She won’t believe me anymore and I will have broken her.
I worry she will watch the video years down the road, when I am gone, sad her mother never finished those books she always talked about.
She is watching me.
She sees me trying, hears me reading sentences out loud to myself, watches me rush to scribble something on a piece of paper, listens as I tell her something new I figured out about one of my characters and hears me cry when I think I’m alone and everything feels too big.
She is watching me.
Fear and self-doubt, like Oden’s ravens, sit on my shoulders. They mock me, tell me how foolish, stupid and boring I am. Famous writer. Blah.
Yet I keep going.
I’m crafting stories and characters and worlds. It’s hours of tedious work, reworking the same sentences over and over until they read exactly as I want them to, mixed with a tiny moment where the magic sends a shiver through my entire body and I feel life pure and whole and without edit.
I don’t know how this story ends, but she is watching me.
Digging through the bag of fabric paint, she knows exactly what she’s looking for. The body of the unicorn gets turquoise blue in swirling dabs, while the mane, tail and tiny hooves are carefully added with small, precise strokes of bright pink. Next, the horn and three music notes are added in dark purple.
Smiling, she dips a slim brush into a glob of sparkly gold and begins adding dots around the large black lettering of her band name, “Punk Rock Unicorn.”
“This looks so good,” she says.
She doesn’t ask what I think.
She doesn’t worry if her bandmates will like it.
She loves it.
“Can you paint my nails?” she asks. “Some blue and some pink. Oh, and with gold tips!”
I say yes, but I struggle to make it happen. The main color doesn’t reach the edge of every nail, and the gold tips are uneven.
“Sorry,” I say.
“They are perfect,” she says while wiggling her fingers in front of her face. “Thank you!”
It’s time to leave for her band’s show, the culmination of a week of Girls Rock Camp. She is wearing her favorite leggings, a faded swirling galaxy of pink and purple with visible holes in the knees. Her hair isn’t brushed and it’s matted in the back where she slept on it wet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to wear a sparkly skirt and brush your hair? Maybe add some color?”
“I look fine mom,” she says. “I’m comfortable.”
I want to fight her.
I want her to care more about how she looks.
I want her to look more put together.
But there she is, my Punk Rock Unicorn, smiling at me without any hesitation at all, while I changed my outfit several times and still wasn’t happy with my own reflection in the mirror.
This is all I’ve ever wanted for my girl, to be unapologetically herself, to not shrink for anyone, and to rock everything she does without fear or doubt.
Her confident smile is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
At the show, I watch her and all the girls playing instruments and singing with a reckless joy I don’t know I’ve ever felt in my life.
They are brave, free and strong.
They are working together, not in competition, lifting and rising as one.
I’m so happy for them…until I’m not.
Something inside starts churning up, this voice of perfectionism and criticism.
Why is my girl singing so quietly? She isn’t smiling and doesn’t look as confident as some of the others. Why did she act shy when she was given a compliment? I’m sure it’s my fault, something I’m doing wrong. I’m ruining this perfect girl.
After the show, she runs to me and hugs me hard. She has bright blue eye makeup and sparkly lip gloss her coach put on her backstage. Her arms feel strong and solid.
“Did you have fun?” I ask her.
“Yes!” she says.
“How come you looked so shy up there? Why weren’t you smiling more?”
The words come tumbling out before I can stop them. I recognize this voice, the very same one sabotaging my writing and stopping me from doing anything I might fail it.
I don’t want it to be her voice.
I search her face, looking for any trace of damage my words may have caused.
“What do you mean?” she says.
Her face is as radiant as ever.
“I’m very proud of you,” I say. “You really rocked it up there! It looked so fun. I bet you are proud.”
“Thanks,” she says. “I am!”
She melts into me, the warmth of her body like a blanket soothing my critical voices and giving me another chance.
Always another chance.
I remember her plan to have her bandmates and coaches sign her shirt.
“People are starting to leave,” I say. “Did you still want to get signatures?”
“Yes,” she says and runs off to borrow a pen.
I watch her go and make it happen for herself.
Her confidence isn’t loud or boastful, but calm and careful.
She gently taps friends and coaches, asking them to sign her shirt, standing still as they do.
I see many are holding the tiny pink unicorn erasers she spent an hour digging out of the bins in her room, the ones she so thoughtfully brought for them all.
My heart nearly bursts.
This girl is everything.
After the show, we head to dinner and she gives the waitress one of the teeny unicorn erasers, a light pink one with a purple mane and tail.
“Did you see her smile?” she says. “I think she liked it.”
“Yes,” I say. “You make everyone smile, just by being you.”