“Can I pluck my eyebrows, Mom?” I asked when I was a freshman in high school.
“Are you crazy? Absolutely not,” my mom directed. “Don’t you ever do it.”
Growing up with 100 percent Greek ancestry, I was destined for thick eyebrows. I guess I should have thanked the Greek Gods that they didn’t grant me just one long one, growing like a weed between my almost-black eyes. Yes, I should have considered myself lucky—I had two separate brows. They stretched like reaching hands—trying to join above the nose, but the brows never quite linked fingers. But yet, I still wanted them thinner. More like the whiter girls in my classes. Their brows were faint and light, arced like skinny rainbows highlighting their faces.
I wondered, What are the upperclassmen staring at more, my braces or my almost-unibrow?
When I entered my sophomore year of college, with a very low GPA, I started making more of my own decisions: what classes I took, who I made out with, and what alcohol I drank. And finally—I grabbed the silver tweezers, and plucked my forbidden eyebrows. One by one, they fell into the sink.
About a week after my brows took an ax, my parents came to watch one of my home soccer games, and like always, after the game we climbed up to my dorm room. My mom huffed up the stairs while carrying a box full of Easy Mac, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and her famous spaghetti. She threw the door open. My mom never judged me on the soccer field so I was trying to figure out why she seemed so upset. After entering the messy room, I sat down on my bed before hopping in the shower. Standing over me she asked, “What in the hell did you do to your eyebrows?”
“What’s the big deal? I just plucked them a little,” I said. But all of a sudden, a boulder of regret sat in my gut.
“A little?” she persisted. Her eyes took aim at mine—and disappointment fired.
“Mom, they’ll grow back. It’s fine.” I said.
“No,” she said. “They won’t. They’ll never be the same.”
Turned out, she was right.
After the thin eyebrow trend was over, I stopped plucking them. That was over a decade ago. And although, they’re still thicker than most, they’re not what they used to be. At thirty-six, my body, face, and hair are all changing more than I’d like them to. And I’d worship any Greek God to have those thick brows awarded back to me.
The older you get, the more of an individual you want to be. But when you’re young, you always strive to be everyone else. We want to be the blades of grass—never a dandelion. Although dandelions are wild weeds, they pop. Despite the fact that they’re a little gnarly, they attract. They’re contagious. No, they don’t bloom in their own immaculate beds like a flower. Other dandelions grow all around them because they see that to be vibrant, you also have to be a little wild.
Yet, every spring these dandelions cause a raucous on our lawns. So we spray chemicals on the pops of yellow—killing them, making sure they never return. We’d rather our lawns all look the same—uniform. In high school and college, I desired to be wild, but I also strove to be the grass. I didn’t want to stand unique and proud like a dandelion. Instead, I mixed in with the others. Conforming.
I now have my own daughter. At three-years-old, she’s already unruly. She climbed up the slide before she could walk. At age one, I caught her shaking her hips dancing on top of our dinner table. And now, there is a picture of her face in the dictionary, sticking out her tongue, next to the word, defiant. I couldn’t be more proud.
Not only is my daughter disobedient like her mother, but her eyebrows are, too. Yes, they are faint still. Her hair hasn’t quite darkened yet. But anyone can tell—puberty will make them grow thick and dark. And I will give her the same advice my mother gave me, “Never pluck your eyebrows.” Because being a wild weed, is a hell of a lot better than a simple blade of grass.
Angela Anagnost Repke lives with her family of four in Michigan. She is a flawed mother who turns to writing to help in both her daily blunders and rediscovering herself outside of being a mother. Angela is a contributor at POPSUGAR and Parent Co, and has also been published in Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, MSN Lifestyle, BLUNTMoms, Mothers Always Write, and others. She has a forthcoming essay in an anthology by Belt Publishing. Angela is passionate about the comradery of motherhood and is an advocate of moms’ night out that involves too many cocktails. She is at work on a memoir.
He has my short, plump fingers. They interlace with mine as I lie beside him in his narrow bed, his left hand clasped to my right. With his fingertips he absentmindedly strokes the smooth surface of my nails. If he will just stay quiet for a stretch, he will fall asleep.
“Mommy, do octopuses have bones?” he asks. He is four years old.
My most vivid memory from the moments after he was born is of his fat, tiny hand wrapped around my finger. We held onto each other in this way that whole first night after sixteen hours of laboring to cleave ourselves. His hand was a beacon guiding me into motherhood as it assuaged the unexpected fear that came with this strange, new love. My husband and I had suffered through miscarriages, endured fertility treatment. And then our son was there, a longing embraced skin against skin. His eyes opened wide as they drank in new light and movement. That was the first night I couldn’t get him to sleep. Desperate with exhaustion, I asked the nurse to take him for a while so I could rest. That was also the first night I felt rent by maternal guilt.
He inherited fighting sleep from me. I spent too many nights in my own early years willing myself to stay awake while my own tired mother lay by my side. I have always hated the day’s finality, the little rehearsal for death. Even as I write this, I should be sleeping.
The nighttime terrified me as a child, car lights flitting across my ceiling or strange creaks from the attic. “It’s just the house settling,” my mother reassured me. I lay in bed certain I’d wake in the middle of the night with a stranger in my room, and each night I prayed, not understanding the difference between wishes and prayer, that God would put a force field around our house to keep out thieves and Soviets. This was during the tail end of the Cold War.
I don’t think he is afraid, not like I was, despite his periodic complaints about “the darkness.” He just doesn’t want bedtime to end. It is the warm glow at the end of his day, when his little sister has gone to sleep and he can have us entirely to himself.
After his bath he struts imperially to his room, donning his robe and slippers. We begin with books. Tonight he grandly holds out two books about planets. We talk about Jupiter’s Red Spot and Venus’s volcanoes, and he asks if I’d ever want to go to Mars.
We read as he sits in my lap in the same rocking chair I held him in as a newborn, a spot where so much of my mothering has been performed. I held him here through the colic of his first weeks, when he never slept more than forty-five minutes at a stretch. My husband would bring me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which I ate while I blearily nursed. I have held him here through ear infections, stomach bugs, and croup. I have held him here through two rounds of postpartum blues, as I cried and felt ashamed about crying while he slept on my shoulder. I have fallen utterly in love with him while sitting in this chair.
Our reading done, I tuck him in. Now it’s my husband’s turn to take over. I practically run to our bedroom and shout, “You’re up!” My son is already back out in the hallway, pretending to be our cat. This too is part of the ritual.
My son’s prolonged bedtimes fracture me into incompatible halves. My resolve to savor every transitory moment with him collides with my introvert’s need to restore myself in solitude. The sliver of time after he falls asleep is all I have untethered from duties of work and motherhood. These are delightful burdens, but they drain me to the dregs. The hour or so after the children are finally asleep is a lifeline that pulls me through long days. There are too many nights I am left feeling either ashamed for wanting a period of autonomy or depleted by not getting it. No other facet of motherhood has challenged me quite like this.
Through the monitor I hear my husband’s story winding down. Tonight it’s Odysseus and the Cyclops, highly adapted. My son loves how Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is Nobody, and he squeals with glee when my husband mimics the giant, his huge round eye still intact, shouting, “Nobody is tickling me! Nobody is tickling me!” This has been far too much fun. Tonight it’s going to be late.
“Mommy, I need you,” he calls out moments after my husband returns to our room. I try to wait it out, but he repeats more loudly, “Mommy, I need you!” He’ll wake his sister, so I go.
“Mommy, could you outrun an Apatosaurus?” Sometimes I get frustrated, especially when it’s 10:30 and he’s still going strong. But I also adore these interrogations, and a large part of me longs to lie there with him for hours debating my odds against dinosaurs. As we talk, he removes the band holding back my ponytail and twists my hair around his fingers.
Newborn babies seem oblivious to the distinction between themselves and their mothers, hardly aware that what seemed to be one has now divided into two. Recognition of this separateness happens only gradually as the child’s interior world strengthens and builds. My son has now accepted our duality, and he reaches out for me not out of fear of separation but desire to reconnect. This process of severance will only continue as he carves out a fuller space apart from me. There will not always be these bedtimes.
“Is it daytime now in Australia?” he asks. My husband is an Aussie, and we traveled there this past summer to visit my in-laws.
“Yes,” I say. “Grandma and granddad are just sitting down to lunch.” It reassures him to know the world is still spinning, that we are slowly trekking back toward the sun and morning is on its way.
“Are there planets in other galaxies, mommy?
“Of course there are, but they’re so far away we’ll never see them.”
“Are there little kids on those planets?”
“And do their mommies read them books before bed?”
“I am sure they do.”
“I love you. Do you know how much I love dinosaurs?”
“Only one. But I love you nine hundred thousand and a hundred and a hundred.”
At this I wrap my arm around him and close my eyes. It is 3:00 a.m. when I awake. He is snuggled up against my side, his breathing steady in my ear.
I groggily make my way back down the hall and climb into bed beside my husband. I’ve been denied my hour but am still enveloped by the warmth of my sleeping child.
Stephanie McCarter has published essays in Eidolon, Literary Hub, The Millions, Avidly, and Gucci Stories. She is a Classics professor, and most of her non-scholarly published writing has taken up the intersections between the ancient and contemporary worlds.
Towels and swimsuits crowd the table upstairs, waiting. I stand in front of my laptop watching lines spread across the southern United States. There is no mistaking it. We will drive into the path of Hurricane Irma on our trip.
“So we’re just supposed to die trying to make the beach trip this year?” I say to my husband who is pacing the living room.
Kevin shrugs, his pursed lips blend into a constellation of freckles. “I think we’ll be fine. I’ve been keeping an eye on it.”
I nod and then shrink into the couch to hide the weather updates that are scrolling across my phone screen. Kevin is determined for us to make the annual trip to Virginia Beach to see Lucy, his mother. I am determined not to get us killed. Another part of me is tired of this tradition and wants to start making our own.
We usually pack our luggage each autumn, fly to Virginia, then caravan to the beach with Lucy and Kevin’s sister and her family. Kevin and I punctuate the drive with stories about our lives before we met. I often recall my 8-year-old-self leaning from the backseat during my family’s road trips, watching my parents’ silhouettes whisper as Neapolitan streaks smear the sky. The daydreams end with me wanting to travel the open road with my own children the way my parents shared these experiences with me. I want my children to giggle as they wonder about their parents’ secrets. When I share this with Kevin, he smiles and says, “I want that too.”
During the trips to Virginia Beach, our unrest typically begins in small ways. We leave the caravan to follow winding paths. We slow down to discuss groves and cemeteries. We veer off course to Colonial Williamsburg, delighting in the hours-long retreat. We sample Americana and it alights our souls.
This year, we want to drive to the beach instead of flying. The road trip serves as ballast to our independence. However, with the looming hurricane, Kevin and I look to Irma to provide an excuse for us to go our own way. The news is a swell of misery detailing the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and predicting the devastation of Irma.
We imagine ourselves braving swirling winds and rising floodwaters for the sake of a family vacation. Neither of us can stand that pressure weighing on our conscience. Neither of us wants to endanger Halaina, our daughter. We wait for coworkers and friends to shout us down. We hope our mothers will wring their hands, their voices shaking as they call, begging us to cancel our trip. No one gives us what we want—permission to say no.
This hurricane, powerful and unforgiving, uproots our desires and throws them right at our feet. We want to be respectful of Lucy and all that she has done for us. Yet, we have outgrown the beach tradition in the way that we outgrow our favorite outfit. It never quite fits the same, but we keep it in the back of the closet while we wear something with a better fit.
We pray (and I fast) for clarity. The days drift by and the devastation grows before we find our resolution. We cannot cast away the beach tradition altogether, but we also have to set boundaries. We agree to journey to Virginia Beach, stopping in Alabama to visit my grandaunts. While there we will assess the weather ahead to determine if we should continue or travel to a different destination—just the three of us. We also decide that we should visit the beach every other year, reserving the off years for our own travels.
We load my SUV with luggage and emergency supplies then journey a day behind Irma’s path. When the road ahead is clear, we drive through the Natchez Trace, a parkway lacquered in shades of green, to Virginia. We are the last to arrive at After Ours, our beach house for the week.
On the third day of our stay, the Atlantic climbs closer to the house—another hurricane churns toward us. Lucy, Halaina, and I take our last walk on the beach before the storm hits. We are three generations signaling the start of a new era. I lift Halaina up, her toes leaping over cord grass that carpets the shore. Our steps deepen; our heads bend lower as we march. The wind snatches our words.
Lucy clears her throat. “Do you think you guys will come back next year, or not? We have to reserve a house in the next day or two and we want a good one like this.”
I pause and search for what must be said. Lucy did not give birth to me, but she is still my mother. She sends cards to thank me for raising her granddaughter and for the way I love her son. She sends gifts that anticipate our needs and to say she is thinking of us. She deserves kindness and not rebellion.
Yet, as my own daughter bucks in my arms and stretches away from me so that she can walk on her own, I know that independence is inevitable. My life is changing in ways that I am just beginning to understand. It is leading me on a course that does not mirror my mother-in-law’s. Lucy’s life is changing too. She is holding onto familiarity with her traditions, but these fine grains of sand are slipping through her fingers. We need to let go of her hand and find a path that fits us all the best.
I inhale and blink back the tides cresting my eyes. “No, we probably won’t. We want to do something on our own next year.”
Lucy smiles and nods her head. “I get it,” she says. “Don’t worry about it.” She gazes down at Halaina and smiles. “Come on! Let Grandma hold you so Mommy can get a break.”
Her response surprises me. I expected Lucy to be upset or to challenge me. I know now that this is the way of mothers—to lead their children as they forge the way ahead, to know when to let their children go so that they may lead instead.
As we crest the dunes, I gaze at our footprints trailing to and from the beach, mine crossing over Lucy’s, Halaina’s prints in the middle of mine. Realization crashes over me as I study our tracks. The present parallels the past; the future merges with the present. Lucy has been this way before with her mother—leaving behind old traditions to create her own and merging them when needed. I will take what I need to create new traditions with Halaina. My daughter will do the same until our paths diverge and we go our own way. Until then, we will all enjoy the intersection.
I am thankful for the traditions that have been given to us. I will take the parts that I love and in turn replicate them to delight future generations. By watching the steps of my mother-in-law, I’ve also learned how to be gracious when my own children approach me one day and announce that they want to go their own way. I will tell them that we cannot leave behind the traditions that laid the way for us. We cannot abandon what formed us. But we can take pieces of the past and make them like new.
DW McKinney lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. A former biologist and ethnographer, she proofreads legislation for the state. Mothers Always Write has featured her work. Her non-fiction is forthcoming in TAYO Literary Magazine. She promotes Otherness on her website, www.forlangston.com.
Leaves of sienna and pumpkin and chardonnay hues lay on the ground, leaving the elm and poplar and maple trees bare. The last piece of Thanksgiving apple pie is claimed. Temperatures fall, making crisp the inhaled air and the chill on our skin as we rush between stores. It’s Christmas season, holiday “game on” so to speak. Anticipation builds, children make out their lists. Mall Santas are seasonally employed. A few snowflakes might even begin to dust the roads and the lawns of our brightly lit homes.
It’s a time of preparation, impending celebration.
The story of the Nativity brings with it the joy of a birth, the coming of a baby.
But for mothers, Christmastime is a bit like spring time. Nesting behavior abounds—cleaning the home for guests, decorating, icing cut out cookies, carefully hiding presents. Children and parents pass through our own stages of our lives: we believe in Santa, we don’t believe, we are Santa. No matter where we are in the stage of our life cycle, the expectation of a baby goes together with the anticipation of Christmas in an especially magical way.
For those moms approaching the Decembers of the reproductive years, a pregnancy during the holidays can renew the enchantment of motherhood, and of childhood, invigorating us with anticipation like that of the youngest children peering out the window for a team of reindeer and a chubby bearded man in red.
One particularly frigid fall, I learned that I was expecting my second child, and that’s exactly what happened. I was already three months pregnant, and the holiday to do list was growing fast.
At 39 years old, I was no spring chicken, yet I was about as healthy as I could expect from myself, given my lifestyle, age, and my honest, but not fanatic commitment to exercise. I did the elliptical a few times per week. My weight was normal, my eating habits were balanced. But subtle things were starting to make me feel, as a mother, like my days of summer were being crossed off the calendar, and that each month was a glossy page being yanked off a coiled binding ring, sailing off the calendar, just a little too quickly.
I had just started to notice a few stray gray hairs.
My breasts no longer pointed toward the heavens.
And the upcoming Christmas season was approaching forty years redundant for me.
Even with a giddy eleven year old, the thought of battling the shopping crowds and writing the addresses on piles of Christmas cards and donning the right dress, the right shoes, the right bag, for office parties and block parties and family parties, seemed a touch repetitive. These weren’t unpleasant responsibilities for me, but they were, nonetheless, responsibilities.
And I already had a ton on my plate.
Now my abdomen that had returned to normal after my first baby at 28, seemed to balloon twice as fast. My feet swelled, my breathing was short. There was no doubt that this pregnancy was harder with older maternal age, than the cake walk my first one was for me at 28.
And there was still so much holiday work to do.
Yet as the unique individual within me began to grow, so did my expectancy of motherhood, again. And as Christmastime approached, the suspense built. I imagined the joy of the holidays for our newest addition, a sibling for my son. I read the pregnancy magazines again, comparing the size of my developing baby to fruits of increasing sizes. I likened my baby’s growth to the seasonal delicacies: a fig, an orange infused with cloves, a spiced pomegranate. My baby was getting bigger, and so was I, and I anticipated the baby’s coming with childlike excitement. One evening, while my son and husband and I were trimming the tree, I held a Christmas ornament, a shiny, round bulb, in my hand, saw my reflection in it.
My skin was renewed and supple. My breasts were once again pert. My hair was thicker, fuller. And by five months gestation, I couldn’t help but realizing that my little one was quickly expanding as we awaited the holidays, and a baby’s debut. Perhaps this was all second trimester second wind, but I couldn’t help feeling a renewed sense of seasonal joy.
My first baby, Roman, was now six, and he was just able to feel the gentle baby kicks over my belly. As he patiently awaited Christmas Eve, asking me if Santa might bring him a puppy or the new pair of hockey skates he needed, or the packs of baseball cards he coveted, I nervously awaited my amniocentesis results.
Finally, the call came, revealing something entirely novel, something that removed all redundancy from my life.
I was having a genetically healthy baby girl.
Maybe the extra estrogen explained my healthy glow, but I like to think it was the joy of being a mother all over again. The wonder of the holiday season. Yet I doubted myself. I worried. That night, a group of caroling little girls wearing red taffeta dresses, with braids and patent leather shoes and white tights, holding candles and singing Silent Night, came to our door. I didn’t own any pink onesies yet, didn’t have a single barrette, not one bow. I still had a baby wardrobe of six to nine month denim overalls and a toy box of trucks and dinosaurs, and my son’s hair required only a trim every six to eight weeks.
Our new baby would be a lot of work.
I listened to the girls’ carol. They were selling mint chocolate candy bars for their cheerleading squad, and my cravings for chocolate were insatiable then. I bought a dozen of them, and wished them well. Then, knowing that this would likely be our last child, and that there was likely a woman somewhere across town that had more to worry about than we did, I boxed up my son’s old coats and mittens and play clothes, decided to donate them to a shelter, despite the fact that I still had an emotional connection to them.
The next night I sat and brushed away my worries with a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows and big dollops of real whipped cream. From the front window, I sat watching the snow fall. I put my bunny slippers on and my feet up on the chaise. I already had firsthand experience developing a strong mother daughter relationship. I remembered the special Christmas cookie recipe my mother and I shared, the baking that, when I was my son’s age, ended with me and the kitchen covered in sifted sugar and flour. I remembered holding my baby brother, recalled thinking that he looked a bit like a wrinkled little man, and I remembered learning to run the scissors along the ribbons of the Christmas presents so they coiled up in multicolored curlicues.
When I was done with my cocoa, I tiptoed upstairs, peeked beyond Roman’s door.
He was fast asleep.
I crossed out yet another day on the grown up calendar, noting how almost an entire month had flown by, again. Then I opened the 25th door on Roman’s Advent calendar, sneaking a tiny chocolate soldier one day premature, and popped the candy into my mouth. I sat and wrapped the presents from Santa, created those springy curlicues of ribbons with the scissors. I stopped to feel my daughter’s legs stretching out against the wall of my tummy muscles, put my hands over my belly. She was actively stretching, but she was kicking back, too, as we sat waiting for the coming of a baby.
Melissa Franckowiak is an MFA student and writes for Traffic East magazine in Buffalo, NY. Her short fiction piece, The Very Pertinent News of Gabriel Vincent DeVil, recently placed in the 86th Annual Writer’s Digest Literary Fiction Awards. Melissa set goals in early childhood to be a best-selling novelist and physician. She writes thrillers as Melissa Crickard. The daughter of an English and a Science teacher, Melissa attended Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Buffalo, and after being awarded two Bachelor’s degrees in Physical Therapy and Chemistry, she advanced toward her M.D. degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo, going on to become a diplomat of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. Melissa is the mother of two children, the owner of a chatty Panama Amazon parrot and a lover of all things outdoors.