I can see us now. The two of us, under a hot, blue sky, intent, watching by the swampy creek side. Knees and ankles protesting, I lever myself down for a closer look; he hunkers, supple and balanced, toddler’s round butt hovering just above the ground. Following my finger, he peers into the water.
It’s a rare warm spring day. Sunlight paints the chartreuse mosses and glitters on the grasses where we sit. It squeezes the scent from sage and antelope bush on the dry hillsides above us. In the gentle heat, the muscles under my shoulder blades and along my spine soften. I roll my shoulders to feel them flex. Brushing my fingers across his head, I draw back the hood of his little red jacket to let in the sun.
Our afternoon walk has taken us into a tiny valley, probably cut by this very stream, behind and near our just-moved-to country home. The dirt track we followed — he sometimes striding ahead, sometimes riding astride my hip — threads its way, dodging in and out of sight, back through pale gold grasses, like a tether. A crow sails overhead, a black-winged hole in the sky. Rrraak —
And the silence thickens, spreads around his call. A breeze, trickling in, finds us and moves on, absorbed into the stillness.
The creek itself is our first discovery of the day. We gaze together into the water, holding our place, side by side, at its low bank. We are new here and finding our way. I learn the direction of roads, the landmarks of the countryside, and the landscape of motherhood. He, curious and brave, finds messages in leaves, mystery in a rock, jokes in the wind. Joy in whatever comes his way. He is learning the world.
At our feet, long grasses trail and wave gently in the flow of water and a mat of something with tiny blue flowers floats near the edge.
Look, he says, reaching out his own small hand.
Anchored by reedy ties, a mass of bubbles ripples in the water before us, crystal jelly bumps; tiny, black specs cannot hide in their perfect clarity.
And above … above, the sky is blue enough to cut the heart out of you.
Susan Safford lives in Kamloops, B.C. where she teaches English at Thompson Rivers University. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Descant, Cahoots and Accenti.
Amidst a tangle of weeds and forgotten fall leaves, my daughter discovers a lone lily of the valley. She spots the tiny bells peeking out from the debris and immediately abandons her bubbles to reach for the stem of white flowers.
“No!” I bark before her small hand can pluck the delicate flower. I immediately place my hand on her shoulder to offset my harsh directive; however, at the same time, I am desperate to save this flower from her four-year-old death grip, so I gently pull her back.
She watches as I kneel and carefully clear the area around the wide leaves, inhaling deeply. I think of childhood walks down a city alleyway. On one side, weeds and a dilapidated house. On the other, a patch of grass and a disorganized row of lilies of the valley. With my hand in my mother’s, we always took time to pause, lean close, and breath in the fragrance.
Now, as my own daughter sniffs the flower, I explain, “Your grandmother loved lily of the valley.” When my husband and I bought our house, I planted my own crooked line of lilies of the valley. I wanted to remember those childhood walks. The scent of spring. My mother’s hand.
Although I waited for years, the flowers never bloomed. Eventually, I forgot to watch – chasing toddlers kept me too busy to spend time gardening. Now, seven years later, one catches me unaware.
My daughter loses interest and runs off to play, but I feel there is a message waiting for me in this single bloom. Like many motherless mothers, I am constantly searching for signs from my mother to pass along to my daughter. Anything to connect my past to her present.
So, I pull out my phone and research how to grow lily of the valley. It all seems so easy. How did I fail? In fact, I read that the flowers tend to wander and don’t conform to borders. They often spread wildly, freely.
I look up to see my daughter roaming toward the untamed part of our yard. She, too, loves to wander and does not conform to boundaries.
An explanation I read in several articles intrigues me. Apparently, underneath the dirt, the shoots of the flower form an extensive network. Each shoot connects to others, allowing the flower to spread and cover more ground. All shoots can be traced back to the mother plant.
I think of my daughter’s hand reaching for the lily of the valley, its strength hidden beneath the earth. I think of the roots of my own family tree, a line of ancestors my daughter never met. A network of women underneath her surface: Mary, Audrey, Helen, Estelle … A line that ends with my wild, strong, and delicate girl.
My daughter, now covered in dirt, wanders back to me. I hold her hand and lead her back to the lone lily of the valley. We will search for more.
Sarah Clouser is a former high school English teacher and current stay-at-home mom. Instead of lesson plans and grading, she now stays busy chasing her two young kids around the house and writing. You can find some of her thoughts on parenting and children on her blog, onemilesmile.wordpress.com.
I come from a family from immigrants, each generation desperately trying to forget where it came from even as it struggles to keep memories alive. Everywhere I go people stare at my brown skin, my hijab, my accent, and immediately, insensitively inquire: “Where are you from?”
Honestly, I don’t know. I could trace a finger on the map and show you all the places I’ve lived in, but are any of them really home? Before Texas there was Tennessee, and before that it was Florida, and before that Ohio. We could talk about the cities, quote you all my addresses – I think there are twenty at least – but am I really from any of those places? I was born in Pakistan, which is probably what everyone means when they ask that loaded question, “Where are you from?” But the story of migration doesn’t end there, not by a long shot.
Pakistan is a nation of migrants. My father’s parents lived first in India under colonial rule, then traveled in haste to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) when the British tore apart that subcontinent in a terrible wound that has still not healed. Then another war, and they fled to Pakistan, where my father grew into a young man and I was born. We called Karachi home, but Karachi is like a third world New York, with all sorts of cultures and languages and ideologies meshed together, trying to forget their pasts.
My mother’s family followed similar migration paths, not the same cities or countries, but with similar stories of pain and abandonment and a sense of loss each time they found a new home. I know what it’s like: nothing feels right, everything is different and harder and somehow disappointing. The process of migration is fraught with despair, a final understanding that people who are uprooted from their homes for any reason can never find enough peace to lay down roots again.
So when my daughter asks me why her skin is darker than her friends, or my son wants to know why nobody can pronounce his name correctly, they are actually asking me why we are so rootless. Why did I not do my duty as a good mother and provide them with that one gift we all yearn for: a sense of belonging? They are born in the United States, in the state of Texas which will soon become a minority-majority state, surrounded by immigrants as lost as themselves. They don’t want to come from somewhere, they want to be of this place, already, now.
But we are all from somewhere else, and that absence of a real home is felt like a poisoned dart trickling into our bloodstreams at glacial speed. If I invite you into my garage, you will understand what I mean: in the corner there is a pile of boxes from every electronic I own. I only need those boxes when I move, and so they lie there, waiting, just in case.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American freelance writer with bylines in the Huffington Post, NBC Asian America, Catapult, Sojourners and more. She is the author of the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, founder of Have Faith, Will Parent, and editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a literary magazine.
Plant roots maneuver through soil in much the same way as mothers feel their way around in darkness. If they encounter an obstacle, they instinctively reach for a clearing in a new direction in efforts to anchor their seedlings.
“Mama, my breathing is bad,” my youngest daughter, now 11, has said to me countless times over the years. Her asthma flare-ups are particularly pronounced at the change of seasons.
During these times, I sleep with one ear awake. I listen for the cough from down the hallway. When the cough is loose, I know it’s okay for now. When it’s tight, I know it’s time to pull on my fuzzy socks and shuffle through the darkness.
I know the route and obstacles to avoid from my bedside to hers by heart. Except when she changes her room around, like she did this week.
Although I was the one, earlier in the day, who helped push the desk to the corner and swap her bed with the dresser on the other side of the room, I forgot about the new layout in my sleepy stupor.
I bump my hip on the dresser, stub my toe on her desk chair and painted ceramic dolphin that’s for some reason on the floor, and find myself on the wrong side of the room flailing my arms in search of my daughter.
Finally, I focus and follow the subtle whistling and wheezing coming from deep within her chest until I reach her bedside where she is still mostly asleep. Once there, carrying on in the dark, I know exactly what to do. I pull out a vial of medication from its foil pouch on the nightstand. I twist off the top and squeeze the liquid into the reservoir of the nebulizer we keep beside her bed. I pull loose strands of her blond hair slightly covering her face to the sides like lace curtains and tuck them behind her ears, and wrap the connected mouthpiece around her head.
I turn on the machine and lie down on the other side of her double bed. Butterscotch, her stuffed dog, and Peek-a-Boo, the monkey, are nestled between us. The familiar hum and soothing mist calms me. I imagine the vapors expanding her airways like roots stretching out into the soil, and fresh air bursting into her lungs like a new bloom sprouting oxygen into the atmosphere.
That’s how it is with motherhood. Sometimes we’re in the dark bumping into things, flailing our arms, not knowing which way to turn. Other times, we’re in a clearing reveling with inexpressible relief and joy.
Many natural wonders can be decoded by science, such as the remarkable cycle of plant roots, powered first and foremost by light energy of the sun. A mother, on the other hand, taps into a mysterious, undefinable light discovered deep within herself. A light so burning and infinite, she’ll shuffle through the darkness, triumphing the most unruly barriers to safeguard and fortify her young.
Julie Jo Severson is a mother of three, freelance writer, and co-curator/co-editor of HERE IN THE MIDDLE: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between. She doodles about past, present, future clinking glasses and making peace at her storytelling blog www.carvingsonadesk.com.