I always kept people waiting. “Who cares if I’m three minutes late,” I would say, defensive, and secretly ashamed of the stubborn pattern picked up from a single mother who was late even when she tried to be early. In ninth grade, my best friend’s brother would pick me up for school each day. Every morning he drove up to the condominium where I lived with my mom and brother, always the same time: 7:05 sharp. He’d shift his clean white Ford Taurus into park, brusque beeps announcing their arrival, and begin the wait. I’d run to the door, feel a familiar lump growing in my throat, auburn curls still wet, droplets dampening the back of my cheap Contempo Casuals shirt.“Two minutes,” I’d mouth optimistically through the screen, fingers raised in a V, dark polish eroded from constant chewing. Forced smile, hoping he wouldn’t be mad, knowing he was cursing at his sister in the passenger seat about me as he nodded his head in understanding, certain I’d make him late for school again. At school, I would tiptoe to the front of the classroom, skin ablaze, drop the late pass onto the teacher’s desk, crumpled and wet.
Once you build a reputation, you’ll always be the late one. Plans will be made, reservations will be scheduled, all with a buffer to account for your selfishness. Even when you really did leave the apartment thirty minutes early but your Uber driver goes the wrong way, or there’s traffic on the West Side Highway. So you text, and they might believe you, but they’re not surprised. Typical. Even when you become a mother and you show up to swim classes and baby gyms fifteen minutes early. When you nag your husband to hurry up because you’re going to gnaw at your nail beds, make your deodorant work overtime, shake your foot so hard your whole body vibrates if you are even a minute late. Leaving a minute early is still cutting it too close. “When did you get like this?” he’ll ask because it worked better for him when you both thought three minutes wouldn’t hurt anyone. He’ll flash a playful half smile, rub your shoulder gently, try to assure the new punctual you. You’ll smile back with a slow, growling sigh when he says, “No one cares if we’re three minutes late.”
For three full minutes after my son is born, time’s knowing middle finger cuts through the air. Payback. “Don’t worry, he’s breathing,” says one of four nurses, each in different colored scrubs. Lime green, salmon pink, sky blue, and slate gray. I steady my focus on my baby boy’s slender fingers, pale pink body still covered in white vernix, matted brown tresses. Jaw agape, all the blood vessels in my face broken from pushing for over an hour and a half. Salmon has one hand on the back of his tiny head, the other on his pink bottom, juddering vigorously like she’s been working behind the bar for an extra shift, it’s last call and the customers won’t stop ordering cocktails. Don’t worry. We just need him to cry. Did I drink too much coffee? Is it the Zoloft? Did I not sleep enough? I knew I should’ve exercised. One eye on the clock, the other on my son. The room spins and I feel like I am falling, fast. Someone told me when you get too drunk, lay down, put one leg on the ground and the spinning will stop. I can’t reach the floor but still, I throw my sweaty, unshaven leg over the side of the bed. It lands softly. The spinning stops. Lime green hands him to me. My baby and I both cry. I whisper in his perfect little ear, “You kept me waiting.”
Stacy N. Ross is a writer and teacher living in northern California with her husband and young son. Originally from New York, she has also lived in Arizona, Italy and South Korea. Her work has appeared in Pidgeonholes and Anti-Heroin Chic. You can find her online at stacynross.com, or tweet her @sn_rossitto.
My daughter paints her body red and green and every color of the two, and paints the pool, the naked baby, Buzz, the door where handprints mud the screen. Leave them there, I say. Keep going. I want her rage, the furious wave of crayons rubbed on sidewalk paper, no’s to cards for grandma, or a yes, her first red heart so crooked on the page. Beautiful, I say. Keep going. There is more magic in us than we know, and more to give away. I want her wants, her hearts, for every sheet to be a waste; for her to be the things she makes—or doesn’t make. For her to be, for her. Time to clean up, I say. Keep going.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author or editor of many published books, and her chapbook An Inventory of Abandoned Things just won the Split/Lip Chapbook Contest. She also writes young adult speculative novels under her pen name, Annabelle Jay. Kelly is a PhD candidate in fiction at Florida State University and teaches speculative fiction for Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA in creative writing. Her poetry has been published in Glitterwolf, District Lines, Poetry Pacific, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and elsewhere. More information about Kelly can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com or www.annabellejay.com.
The first time I heard your cry outside, I was struck by its smallness: how it hardly
seemed to reach the twin Catalpas in our front yard, shedding their green pods;
how it landed so softly on the world. Inside the house, it filled our small rooms, filled
my whole body with your sound; like when I breathed in your smell, and it was morning sun and wheat
fields, everywhere. That summer at the lake we watched the rough grey waters, thick haze, clustered
gulls. It was what I craved, I’ll admit: to feel small beside you, to be held by the world
just as I held you.
Emily Patterson is a writer and editor in Columbus, Ohio. She holds a BA in English from Ohio Wesleyan University, where she was awarded the Marie Drennan Prize for Poetry, and an MA in Education from Ohio State University. Her work has been published in Spry Literary Journal, Better Than Starbucks, catheXis Northwest Press, The Pinkley Press, Apeiron Review, and elsewhere.
Our two sons, one in graduate school, the other in college, have been home with us for a few months. At the start of spring break, their universities ordered all students to pack their bags, vacate the dorms, and finish coursework online. A few weeks ago, our sons learned that their fall semester studies would continue as online, distance learning. For many students, our sons included, this has meant a protracted return to the family nest. My husband and I are fortunate to have the space and bandwidth to accommodate them.
When I say “bandwidth,” I am not talking about internet speed or capacity—although these seem vitally important now. Instead, I am referring to the psychic space to host our adult sons at home, and for all of us to live amiably en familleonce again. Admittedly, we are not always all amiable, but we’ve learned how to cultivate an environment of tolerant harmony instead of dysfunctional discord.
To cope with our ongoing coexistence, we each stake out our territories. I am stationed outside on the patio for hours at a time since hot weather and mosquitos don’t bother me. (I don’t like cold weather though, so talk to me in November and see what alternative I’ve found.) My husband works in our small home office–an area I find positively claustrophobic. He manages, however, to create an expansive and environment there thanks to Spotify. My sons are fortunate to have their own bedrooms. At twenty-one and twenty-six years of age, their social world is virtually robust. They escape from confinement by using social media to connect with friends now scattered all over the country and world.
In common spaces, such as the kitchen and family room, we have adopted attitudes of conscious courtesy, maybe something long overdue. For example, viewers keep the TV sound at a discreet level, and no matter how bad a caffeine craving, no one appropriates the kettle’s hot water that someone else put on to boil. When there are lapses in our homebound politesse, it is like being foisted into bad immersive theater. The problem is that none of us can walk out on the performance; we each have a starring role, 24/7.
It has struck me that a silver lining of this time is a jackpot of opportunities for taking the family photos we send with Christmas cards. From my sons’ teen years onwards, finding time for these portraits has necessitated serious strategizing. Now we have plenty of time, but no interest. It’s not a question of our homespun haircuts or hair color. It’s bigger than that: We have no enthusiasm to document this time of personal upheaval, restriction, and truncated plans, especially since no one knows when it will end. Yet, we realize that we are among the lucky ones. We have good health, a home, food to eat, and employment (both my sons found online summer jobs, and my husband’s and my work easily transitioned online). Many living close by have few of these.
Despite our good fortune, each one of us has cranky and impatient moments. Were someone to ask my sons, they would say that I have been the worst culprit. I like to think of myself as expressive, but they sometimes perceive me as overly dramatic. They are probably right. But in my defense, during this time I have averted mealtime malaise by preparing their favorite foods as I do during holiday breaks. I am not talking about Thanksgiving turkey or Easter ham; instead, I whip up dishes I know our sons enjoy but don’t get in college cafeterias. Specially prepared food says, “I am so glad you are here—I love you,” and I try to say that in different ways, even if my thoughtless words occasionally communicate something else.
I am lucky to be able to offer this home-cooked succor to our sons. It is a small compensation for all they are missing, but I now have multiple chances to cater to their food preferences—just as I do during their long holiday weekends. In fact, it feels like we are now living in a suspended long holiday weekend—sort of like nine months of Thanksgiving weekend.
When I say this to my women friends, it elicits a wry chuckle and a culturally relevant version of “OMG!” They get it. For many of us, Thanksgiving weekend conjures up emotional and relational baggage that we start to unpack—but never resolve—over that four-or-five-day period. It is a time of affective complexity: we feel grateful for our families and fortune, but we are stressed. Sometimes there are minor stressors, such as, I neither know how to make, nor care for the creamy mashed potatoes my mother-in-law insists must be on the Thanksgiving table. Other times, major stressors arise, some destructive or even tragic. Then there are those that in hindsight could be plot lines for a Hollywood holiday release based on the reunion of a wildly silly, dysfunctional family. We always find in those films a character who reminds us of one of our relatives—someone we tolerate but also manage to love.
As is the case with Thanksgiving weekend, many of us feel we have little choice now but to spend lots of time with our family members. In my case, I realize that my family is doing reasonably well, as a group, and also as individuals. And while I might not have chosen to exist in a period of so much enforced togetherness, I cannot imagine how I would live through these times without my husband and sons. I am so lucky to have their support and love, although on occasion, they have interesting ways of demonstrating their affection. But honestly, they could say the same of me.
At dinner when my sons, husband, and I are stumped for mealtime chat that wasn’t already introduced at lunch, we sometimes revive a Thanksgiving tradition of mentioning something for which each of us is thankful. My oldest son invariably is the first one to say, “my family,” but we all soon follow suit. This reminder elevates our collective mood and our conversation. I would recommend trying this if you feel overloaded with too much family togetherness during these times. What your family members say might surprise you, in a good way.
Will we be able to maintain our peaceful coexistence through the rest of the year? I hope so, but check in with me in November to see if I have found a substitute encampment for the outdoor patio. And who knows? I may also tell you about the recipe for the creamy mashed potatoes that my husband and sons love.
Tara Munjee’s essays on parenting and family have been published in Autism Parenting, Her View from Home, and Pilgrim: A Journal of Catholic Experience. In addition to caring for her family, Tara is also an adjunct professor of dance and humanities at Dallas College in Dallas, TX.