When I met my husband, I noticed immediately how he stumbled with the gender articles of Spanish. La mano was el mano to him. Kindly, I’d correct him. His parents wouldn’t. It’s been like this for years, yet I don’t give up. I know it can be a drudge to him, but he appreciates it nonetheless because among my family, as forgiving as they are, they can be purists when it comes to language. I remember our months of courtship at family dinners when I would count his mistakes as if they were numbers that weren’t lined up straight, missing their decimals. Years of conversation in Spanish with my mother and aunties has polished my husband’s Spanish to the degree that has impressed even his parents. Despite being born in Mexico and arriving into this country as an infant, he is more assimilated than I am regardless of our shared Spanish-speaking upbringing. Both his parents and my mother are from Mexico, albeit from different states, among other distinctions.
Our children are learning Spanish. It is our way of keeping alive a language that nursed us since birth. It would feel utterly treacherous to have our children speak only English. It would be foolish to bring them up unable to speak to their grandparents, unable to communicate profundamente with them at all, unable to carry a flavorful conversation while they make visits to see them. They aren’t learning Spanish from a book, as we didn’t either. They are learning it informally as it is spoken—naturally, organically—between hearts nurturing its nuance. As Maria Montessori said: “There is in every child a painstaking teacher, so skillful that he obtains identical results in all children in all parts of the world. The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything!”
This is not to say that children don’t learn anything. Quite the contrary. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.”
Language was the heart and soul of the world I knew as an infant, as my mother would put me to sleep with lullabies in Spanish, the only ones she knew, until Ms. Jaye in the daycare center would draw me near to her and call me the girl with the rosy cheeks, telling me how sweet I was. It was language—whether in English or Spanish, whether from a teacher or my mother—that rooted my understanding of the crucial identity of speaking two tongues. A bilingual friend of mine asked me when I had my first child if I was going to teach my child Spanish. Of course, I said. We agreed it was essential. She said, Cariños sound better in Spanish anyway, don’t they? Cariños. Endearments. We never want to withhold those. Sweet little things we say to children, to babies, to those we love.
As a family, we converse as intentionally as is possible in Spanish. Despite our best efforts, it is inevitable to speak English as a first language because as a homeschool family, our lessons are in English. It is a fine line, it seems. Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” I’m finding this truer because where does the schooling end and the home begin? The fusion of these two entities is our way of life without limits. When my eldest was in private school, he spoke English there and it was very easy to speak to him exclusively in Spanish at home, just as my mother did for me growing up. Schooling didn’t happen at home where Spanish only appeared. Now, there is no separation of school and home. It is all conflated. We are all one and therefore, we need to make it a purpose to speak Spanish at given moments in our day. We are two things at the same time: teacher and mom/ student and child. We are ambiguously identified, much like our languages are.
My husband tries not to make any mistakes as he speaks to the children in Spanish, lest they acquire his faulty article designations. He is more aware of his shortcomings, and I am too, although I use Spanish in the vernacular more expressively than he does, but he is catching on and picking up momentum. We exchange dichos—curious expressions in simile, idiom, or proverbial form—and I’ve taken note that my children use them too, a tremendous victory in my book, a sweet affirmation that our best efforts are yielding good fruit.
How can we forget the Spanish we know? How can we be expected to forget it when it is the language of our mothers, our aunties and uncles? How is it possible to detach from that past we never lived but only heard through oral storytelling? Frank Smith said, “One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” I can only explain to my children now as they are little that being bilingual is a privilege in this 21st century. My mind likes to think it always was. But today as the globalization of education, culture, and literature takes a ubiquitous presence in our lives, I want my children to realize that indeed, a door opens for them along the way. They’re able to negotiate two cultures, two worlds, two dimensions of knowledge that not many encounter in their lifetime. With my children, my intentions to bring them up bilingual seem more decisive than trivial.
On sunny days when we take the homeschool out of doors, we scour the library bookshelf where all the Spanish storybooks are for children. I pick about a dozen by authors I’ve never heard of. At home, I nestle closely with my daughter and read her about four storybooks at a time. After every page, I ask her questions about what I just read, what we see on the pages, what we don’t see. She is listening attentively and understands what I’m saying, what I’m asking. She points to the balloon, to the bird, to the tree. I ask her to count how many dolls are seated at the table on one page and she counts a dozen. It’s trite, I know, to go through this process, but it’s so necessary for us both. I am learning new words in Spanish, a new dialect perhaps from Central America, or South America, a Spanish familiar yet new to us both.
At some point, my reading time with my daughter becomes what I long to do. It is what I look forward to. As I read with her, I magnify the importance of entering other worlds that a storybook can suggest, but linguistically speaking, it turns into an exercise in which she dips her ears into a poetic and lyrical sound that she has only heard in conversation. Spanish is not a new language for her, just as English isn’t. She slips and slides her thoughts and sights in English and Spanish with a very precise sensibility that is all she is aware of, that is harmonious and natural. There is no distinction, it seems, for her. Both are her languages. Both respond to her. Both are what she yearns for without hesitation.
And as I read these lyrical, short expressions of language, bursts of rhyme and repetition, I realize that I am also entering the world of a child. Reflected there in those storybooks is a magnitude of enchantment where tone, inflection, and perception coalesce into a tangible force. It is sublime in degree even, for someone like me who’s read a wide spectrum of writing. The trappings of bilingualism and writing creatively may have grown stale while I was in the academe, but they are sure to flourish surprisingly between the humble pages of a child’s storybook.
Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega’s fiction appears in West Branch, The Puritan, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, and others. Her poetry is featured in Origins Journal, The Sunlight Press, and Mothers Always Write. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Faithfully Magazine, The Mudroom Blog, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP], and many others. She is writing a novel. Her work is forthcoming in L’Éphémère Review.
The word “contract” comes from the Latin word “contracts,” meaning “drawn together, tightened.”* In The Human Contract, Sarah Dickenson Snyder draws together a multitude of life’s experiences into a full-length collection of poetry that is honest, touching, and beautifully wrought. There is something wonderful about being human, about the human experience, and especially about the experience of being a daughter, a wife, and a mother that lives and breathes in each of these poems.
The book, which is broken up into three sections—mothering, aging, and remembering the past—does not waste time on easing us into things. It is in the first poem that Snyder offers an honest assessment of the “avalanche” that life can be. We learn right away, with the very first “I,” that the poet is flawed, that life has been far less than perfect, and that the reader has been invited to experience a sort of redemption.
The title poem, “The Human Contract,” appears second in the book, as a recollection of a moment where the narrator of the poem chokes on a piece of gum while driving, until another motorist pulls over and helps dislodge the gum. This is the human contract—that we will somehow try to work to help or even to save each other in a world that is often difficult. Snyder is not sentimental in her rendering of this experience into poetry. The poem ends with the poet and the good samaritan standing “on the side / of the highway like that, me shaking, / him, holding me backward.”
Some of the poems turn ideas of what should be on their head. In “My Mother’s Wedding Dress,” Snyder writes about her mother who will not let her daughter wear her wedding dress because “You’re getting married in August / That dress was for November.” Snyder hands the information over gently. These poems are quiet in their honesty. Snyder often whispers the things most of us would want to yell, and it is in this quiet space that we better experience not just what is said, but all the things that are hidden within the words.
These poems are not depressive; rather they glow with the small moments of a life well-lived. In the poem, “Set Free,” a mother takes a snow day and transforms it into an imagined day at the beach, with beach towels, suntan lotion, grapes and all. The poem is a gift of optimism. Just as winter is “cancelled” by painted suns taped over the window, the human connection is revitalized with writing’s ability to connect us with each other.
In the second section of the book, Snyder writes poignant poems about her aging parents. The small details she includes in each poem, the “nubs of pencils,” or the “rum with four ice cubes,” put us there with her in a room with her mother or with her father who is having difficulties hearing yet doesn’t want to wear the hearing aids because “Today, he’d rather not hear / my mother reminding him / how far away he is / from the man he was.” These poems are lyrical, and yet they are clear. The difficult moments that Snyder reveals in these poems are always relatable. At times it is as if she has taken the reader’s hand to lead us to a window or to the water, where we are surprised by the line “I swim with my dead parents, burned to white ash and bits of bone—.”
In the third section, Snyder includes several poems that take us back to her childhood. It’s as if the poems are rooting us back into solid ground. We have come full circle in a way, each poem a handful of snow thrown to the side as a way to dig out of the avalanche of life. In the poem “South Strafford,” Snyder recollects the memory of her father in her childhood home: “And / evening would commence, a slab of beef / on the grill, zucchini and cheese bubbling / in the oven, the deep salad bowl / of loose greens and August / tomatoes, beer bottles perspiring / on the railing of the deck as the sun / fell behind Whitcomb’s Hill.”
The reader finds it deeply satisfying that Snyder ends the collection with a poem titled, “What I Would Do Were I in an Avalanche.” These poems are a sort of avalanche in the best way possible, and they have covered us, we have been immersed in them. And what would Snyder do if she were in an avalanche? She’d “clear a space in front of my face to breathe / (of course) but also to drool. Whichever way / it runs on my cheek or chin, I’d dig in / the opposite direction—not Earth / but sky.” These poems are places for us to breathe. They are spaces cleared for us, that uproot and then upright us. We come out of the collection like a “newborn…moving toward a light.”
Alexandra Umlas lives in Huntington Beach, CA and is currently an MFA student in the Poetry program at California State University, Long Beach.
Sarah Dickenson Snyder has written poetry since she knew there was a form with conscious line breaks. She has two poetry collections, The Human Contract and Notes from a Nomad. Recently, poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Stirring: a Literary Journal, Whale Road Review, Front Porch, The Sewanee Review, and RHINO. In May of 2016, she was a 30/30 Poet for Tupelo Press. One poem was selected by Mass Poetry Festival Migration Contest to be stenciled on the sidewalk in Salem, MA, for the annual festival, April 2017. Another poem was nominated for Best of Net 2017.
“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.