catching me in an ordinary moment
as you turn your shoulders to reach for a pen
or bow your head over books as in prayer
and now as—hands at 10 and 2—you
steer cautiously into your future.
How could you be so wholly beautiful
sweet child of mine?
Tell me how it is possible
I can’t remember entire years of my sinuous life
names of my students
where I put my keys just moments ago
and yet your voice at age three
rings clear as a bell
through the cavern of my skull.
How love has wrought an indelible record
of every childhood giggle
every puffed out cheek that ever hovered over birthday candles.
How it keeps making each sunrise
marbled and beautiful and vibrant
as the wonder I felt
the first time I saw your face.
Sandra S. McRae teaches writing at Red Rocks Community College near Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of the bestselling cookbook Weber’s Big Book of Grilling (Chronicle), earned her Master’s degree at University of Colorado-Boulder, and studied overseas on a Fulbright Grant. Her work has appeared in Poets Against War, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Word Soup, Steam Ticket, Pure Francis, and elsewhere. She lives in the Colorado Rockies with her family, two dogs, and the occasional bear. She is never bored. Visit Sandra at www.WordsRunTogether.com.
The moment was, on the surface, entirely unremarkable; neither the setting, an indoor festival in San Francisco one foggy summer’s day, nor the incident was dramatic. It could hardly compete with the poet Keats’ oft-quoted description of “stout Cortez,” so stunned by his first discovery of the Pacific that he stared “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” while his fellow explorers “look’d at each other with a wild surmise.” And yet, what I witnessed that afternoon three decades ago moved me as profoundly as if I, too, had discovered a new world. And in a way I had. I was filled with awe, that potent blend of wonder and a little fear that comes when a person confronts something powerful enough to shift her understanding of herself, of her world, or, as in this case, of someone else. What took my breath and words away was the smallest of scenes—a small girl raising a small hand in a big room.
I thought of this moment after a recent conversation with that now quite grown-up small girl. Once again, my older daughter was poised to launch herself into a new professional sphere, leaving what had become comfortable territory to enter a fresh world that would demand not-yet acquired skills, forcing her to push herself harder, to learn faster, to risk more. So many times through the years I have witnessed her challenging herself in ways that amaze and terrify me. Quietly pursuing through the decades my mostly secure profession, I gasp when I hear her describe her own career ventures. Her boldness startles me because I know how much trepidation and self-doubt, invisible to others, accompany the decision to go a step, often a giant step, beyond her comfort zone.
I did not always recognize the significant gap between my daughter’s outside and her inside. From infancy on, she was inscrutable, either misread by others or impossible to read. “Little philosopher,” strangers on the street would call her, slightly uncomfortable after failing to coax a smile. Those closer to her had as little success in figuring her out—babysitters, teachers, relatives, friends of her parents, even, alas, her parents. We were constantly befuddled by the apparent contradictions between how she seemed and how she felt, between what we thought she would do and what she did. Although she let us read much of her inside story by revealing her fears and hesitancies, knowing that text offered little help in predicting what new page she would write in the world outside. Why, for example, when anxiety and stomach aches preceded each game, would she continue to be the only girl –and a rather slight one at that—on the local soccer team?
Most of us expect and respect the mystery of personhood in our relationships with others, but parenting brings with it the illusion that we really have our kids’ numbers, that we have the magic key to their personalities. As each year exposed new layers of complexity, I grew to appreciate the slow, never complete reveal of my daughter’s character. What she helped me to understand was that children were not to be “got” but just to be wondered at and cherished.
Although I had to relearn it again and again through the years of raising my children, my first and most profound lesson came at that festival in San Francisco when my daughter was four. In a large hall, surrounded by crowds of adults and kids, she clung to me and to her father as the magician on stage at the front dazzled the audience with feats of prestidigitation. When he asked for a volunteer from the rapt audience, the air filled with frantically waving hands and giggles and shouts of “Pick me! Pick me!” I squeezed my quiet daughter’s hand and smiled down at her lovely, solemn face, recognizing that nothing could tempt her to the stage.
Suddenly, her other hand shot straight into the air—no wild waving nor tentative half-wave with sheepish smile, no words. Just a direct, no-nonsense, high in the air arm that said in her own way, “I’m your girl—choose me.” And he did. Watching with astonishment her small figure approach the big stage, I now registered the vibrations of her trembling hand still in my own hand and the clenched set of her jaw as she moved away from us. What was it that, despite the trembling, prompted the hand to go up? What was it that, despite the clenching, propelled my shy daughter to march resolutely past so many strange eyes and mount the high, wide stage? How could the rather-bewildered magician guess at the profound churning inside the little girl who assisted him as gravely as if she were participating in some complicated surgery? How could her parents make sense of her being there?
I have had in my lifetime some grand moments of high drama that have swept me away, but none, I think, has stayed with me as much as this subtle moment of emotional magnitude that left me speechless. No vast, unlooked for Pacific Ocean. Just a small girl, raising her hand in a big room. Just two parents, looking at each other “with a wild surmise,” their expressions full of wonder, love, and a little fear. Who is this girl?
Maureen O’Leary is a writer and professor of English in northern California. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous local, national, and international newspapers, journals, and magazines.
It’s four o’clock on an early spring afternoon, and I am sitting alone in my car in the middle of the Kroger parking lot, sobbing uncontrollably. I stopped here after work, intending to quickly pick up a few things for dinner, but grief has completely derailed my well-laid plan. I am incapacitated, unable to leave my car. I try desperately to regain my emotional footing. I remind myself that I am a mature adult—a 56-year-old woman, for heaven’s sake, a tax-paying, reasonably productive member of society. But none of that means anything to me now. I am inconsolable. I can only bury my face in my hands and cry like a frightened, motherless child.
Because that’s what I am. My mother died six weeks ago, and every day since I have awoken with a sense of apprehension, of uncertainty, of not knowing what it will feel like to be in the world without her hovering somewhere around the edges of my life. My first steps each morning are tentative, as if I am testing the ice, unsure if it will hold me or give way. And I am astonished at how deep, pervasive and ever-at-the-ready my grief is. I had my mother much longer than most children—especially we late-in-life cabooses—have a right to expect. She slipped away peacefully in her sleep at 96 ½ years old, never having suffered a major illness or infirmity. She had a remarkably good life, and if there is such a thing as a good death, she had that as well. I was naïve enough to hope that because her death hadn’t been “tragic,” the sadness wouldn’t be so profound. So far my hope has not been rewarded.
My tears flow daily from what seems a bottomless well. They spring forth without warning, mid-sentence, triggered by something as sacred as the “Ave Maria” and as mundane as a Chick-Fil-A billboard. Today it was a recipe. As I pulled into the parking stall, I was mentally debating the ingredients in an old family recipe. I couldn’t remember if it called for vanilla wafers or ginger snaps. Switching off the ignition, I shrugged and actually said aloud, “Ah, well, I’ll just call Mom and ask her.” Immediate realization, a catch in my throat and then the total meltdown.
I was born last in a family of three daughters and one lost son. I was the consolation baby, the one who had not been in the original plan, the one intended to make up for the tragedy of the stillborn infant who preceded me by a year. The loss of that child was the great tragedy in my mother’s otherwise charmed life. I remember as a young child hearing mysterious, hushed references to “the boy,” spoken with such reverence that I instinctively bowed my head. Into the saddened silence that always followed, someone would suddenly chirp, perhaps a bit too brightly, “But if he were here, then we wouldn’t have had Lee Lee.” Next, a chorus of “That’s right” as all eyes and smiles—wistful? grateful?—turned in my direction.
That allusion to family planning, obviously well above my young head, confounded me. How they could know they wouldn’t have had me, I used to wonder. Had God told them I had originally been slated for another family until the tragedy redirected me to them? What I did understand, though, was that a very, very sad thing had happened—and happened most particularly to my mother—and I was put here to make it better, to make my mother forget “the boy,” the one who was somehow sacrificed to make room for me.
As a young child, I was, as everyone often remarked, “tied to my mother’s apron strings,” and at the time I couldn’t have imagined a place I wanted to be more. I was extraordinarily attached to my mother, partially because my sisters were several years older, but also because my mother—and I—wanted and needed it that way. After the trauma of delivering a full-term stillborn child, I can only imagine how fretful my mother, high strung and emotional to begin with, felt throughout her pregnancy with me. It was as if I absorbed her fears while in her womb, as if molecules of anxiety and apprehension passed through the umbilical cord directly into the marrow of my forming bones, setting up the symbiotic relationship my mother and I had for the first several years of my life. She was afraid to let me out of her sight and I was afraid to be let out of it. I felt safe only in her watchful gaze and repaid her attention to me by being as clever and entertaining as a young child’s resources would allow.
When I was eight years old, I was separated from my mother for the first time in my awareness. My parents left me in the care of my older sister when they traveled to New York City to attend my father’s Navy reunion. They might as well have gone to Jupiter, so far away did it seem to me. Fifty years later, I can still remember lying in my bed that first night, crying myself to sleep in the dark, because I missed my mother so desperately. I became the object of much gentle teasing in my family for years afterward for the response I offered when my mother called to ask what I wanted her to bring me from New York.
“What do you want, doll baby?” she asked.
Choking on sobs, I sputtered, “I-I-I ‘wanchoo,’ Mommy. I ‘juswanchoo.’” (Translation sans tears: “I want you, Mommy. I just want you.”)
Pitiful little eight-year-old me could never have envisioned how, just a few years hence, those short apron strings to which I’d clung so tightly for so long would begin to stretch farther and farther as I grew more and more independent in the necessary process of separating from my mother. The process started innocently enough with pajama parties and first dates, continued through college, jobs, a husband and baby—then no husband, a grown daughter and a new husband—and somehow, before I knew it, more than forty years had passed. There were times during those years when the tie that bound me to my mother was so attenuated that it was nearly invisible, perhaps undetectable by others, yet I knew it was there, fully intact, unbroken by time or distance.
Until about two-and-a-half years before she died, my mother’s mind was completely clear. She had strong opinions on world events, knew the score on family matters and could reconcile a bank account down to the penny. And then came the fall. Amazingly, the 94-year-old bones of her leg and hip all mended back together, but the anesthesia required to set them in place took a permanent toll on her memory. She became confused about who people were unless they were standing before her in the flesh, and even then her recognition could be spotty. Since she was living with my two sisters at the time, more often than not she knew them, but I, living 500 miles away, was a different story altogether. I existed only as a name, an abstraction, floating around somewhere in the ethers. The notion that she had a third daughter, just out of sight, struck her as preposterous.
“Oh, you girls are crazy,” she would say with a laugh if my sisters tried to tell her about me. “I don’t have any other children. That’s ridiculous!”
And so after more than five decades of being the youngest child, the caboose, the consolation baby, my identity as “daughter” was deleted from my mother’s memory bank and the file was renamed “friend of the family.” When she referred to me as such during our visits, of course I understood that it was the effects of the anesthesia talking, but it was still unsettling and painful to sit face to face with her as she politely inquired how my mother was doing. In the beginning, I would laugh and tell her that she was my mother, certain that if I repeated it enough, sooner or later it would click with her. But that never happened, so for the last years of my mother’s life I had to be content playing the assigned role of family friend.
The last time I saw my mother we sat together on my sister’s screened-in porch. For nearly two hours I recounted story after story to her about my childhood, including the famous “I juswanchoo” incident, hoping to elicit a spark of recognition from her. She listened intently with her head cocked and her forefinger resting upon her cheek, amazed that I possessed such detailed memories about a family that was not my own. My voice finally trailed off and I fell silent for a few minutes, trying to reconcile myself to the idea that my mother would leave this earth with absolutely no idea who I was. Suddenly, she reached across the table and put her hand over mine. She looked at me, her eyes tender and moist, and said, “I remember when you were a little girl. You were so pretty. Everyone always said so. And now you have grown up to be such a wonderful person. Your mother must be very proud of you. I would be if I were your mother.”
I stared back at her, wide-eyed and stunned, as my quivering lips struggled to blubber a thank you. My mother passed on many gifts to me as her daughter—her sense of humor (and drama), her talent for cooking, her appreciation of music, and her love of languages, to name a few—but nothing compares to the gift she gave me, the family friend, with her words that day. Those words sustained me through her decline and passing and they continue to bring me comfort even as I mourn.
And so, here I sit, a 56-year-old woman, crying in my car, in the middle of the Kroger parking lot. I don’t know whether to buy vanilla wafers or ginger snaps. I don’t know how the recipe will turn out if I make the wrong choice. I don’t even know if I still want to make the dish now or not. My chest heaves and my head falls back against the car seat as I make a final attempt to stanch my tears. Looking heavenward, I exhale the only truth I know for sure at this moment. “I wanchoo, Mommy. I juswanchoo.”
Lee Gaitan has worn many hats in her 25 years as a professional communicator, from public relations writer and television host to stand-up comedienne and educator. She is the author of two books, Falling Flesh Just Ahead, and the recently released My Pineapples Went to Houston—Finding the Humor in My Dashed Hopes, Broken Dreams and Plans Gone Outrageously Awry. She has also authored a chapter in the bestselling book, The Divinity of Dogs, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post, Midlife Boulevard and The Good Men Project. She lives in suburban Atlanta with her husband and dog. Connect with her at www.leegaitan.com; https://www.facebook.com/mypineappleswenttohouston; www.twitter.com/LGPineapple.