Poems & Essays

29 Jun

The Cartwheel Dance

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I had no idea if four-year-olds could do cartwheels, but my daughter, Nina, had been working on it all morning in our living room, and she was close to giving up. She couldn’t quite gather the courage to commit her weight to a vertical arc over her hands and fell to the side every time. Her enormous eyes brimmed with despair.        

Scanning the room for inspiration, my eyes fell on the bag of recycling sitting by the front door. I smacked my forehead. “Of course you can’t do it,” I said. “We haven’t done the cartwheel dance yet.” I grabbed an empty 2-liter plastic bottle and, beating out a crazy bongo rhythm on it, I swung around into the kitchen and continued dancing through to the living room. I stopped there for a few final flourishes. Nina followed, laughing a bit hysterically while the tracks of her tears dried on her neck. With a final drum roll on the bottle’s black plastic bottom, I said, “Now. Now try it.”

She strode to the corner of the living room and turned to attention, arms raised. In one fluid motion, she extended her hands to the floor and her legs swung, one, then the other, slicing right over her head to a clean landing on the other side. 

I’ve always wondered if it was this early success that led me to believe I could fix things for my daughter. Perhaps that is just the way we are wired, us parents: to want to.

Seven years later, I sat in our pick-up truck, trying to remember the rhythm of that dance, trying to feel again the inspiration and power that came from Nina’s belief—not in the magical qualities of plastic bottles but in my ability to make things right.

Nina pushed open the heavy door of the dance school, half a block away, and looked one way and then the other until she saw us parked across the street. She walked to the crosswalk, head down, her pink dance bag bumping against her leg. Several other girls spilled out through the door. Below their jacket hems, their thin, pink-tighted legs seem all joints, and they reminded me of a flock of flamingos, who would never be caught dead alone in the wild. They laughed pointedly at Nina and then walked the other way, a tight gaggle. Nina had been the only one in her kindergarten class who had not been born in Montana. She had been bullied ever since. In school, in dance class—everywhere in our small town, it was the same.  

Nina pulled open the passenger door of our truck, climbed onto the bench seat, and sat next to her little brother, Thomas. She clicked her seatbelt into place and hugged her bag to her chest. I glanced over and saw, still tied around the handle of her bag in a simple overhand knot, the scrap of embroidery into which Thomas had placed all the love and protective powers he could muster. 

Earlier in the week, he had gone to my sewing table and had pulled out embroidery thread: pink, yellow, purple, and then a thick needle. After stitching a pattern of simple flowers in a row about five inches long, he tied off the thread with a huge awkward knot and snipped it free. Then he carefully trimmed the fabric right up to the edges of the sewing, so that I worried it would come undone. But what did I know of protection? What could I tell a boy who would stand in front of a moving train for his sister? What could I say when I had exhausted every possibility—had tried even the impossible—in order to bring life back into my daughter’s eyes?

I reached over and squeezed Nina’s leg before putting the truck into gear. She didn’t look up.

Later that night, we sat at the kitchen table with the dog at our feet, and we laughed at the stories my husband always brought home from his law practice—about drunken cowboys who ride their horses into bars or, the latest, about a weed-whacker thief, a stolen car, and the bar where—as any reasonable person would—he stopped for and obtained a quart of oil.

We could laugh at home. With our plates pushed back and our elbows on the table, with the leftover chicken going cold in its baking dish on top of the stove, with the windows dark enough to play back our reflections to us, we could fill the night with a different story than the one we had lived during the day. The warm yellow flames from the beeswax candles added color to my daughter’s face. 

We had dipped those candles months before, in February, on a brisk, brilliantly sunny day. We had walked around and around that same kitchen table, a wick in each hand, the trip around long enough for the slim tapers to cool and set before their next bath of hot wax. We had laughed and sung while we walked and dipped, and I prayed to the flame that some of that happiness was rising along with the wisp of black smoke.

Thirteen years later, when my daughter was twenty-four, I stood by the stove in her tiny New York City apartment, all four burners going. A whole chicken boiled in one pot, lentils in another. Broccoli and olive oil popped in a frying pan. Cabbage, onions and sesame oil sautéed in another. In the oven, sweet potatoes roasted with butter, bacon, brown sugar and thyme.

Nina had just gone through a bad break-up, and I had heard over the phone a note in her voice that put me on a plane right away. Although a bag of recycling sat by her front door, overflowing with plastic bottles, there was not enough room in her apartment to turn a cartwheel. No matter. There was no need for magic dances. There was no need, even, for inspiration or the power to make things right. By then, I had learned that the one who had been fooled so long ago had been me, not Nina.  

My daughter would suffer. She would suffer because of the accidents and injustices of the world, because of my mistakes, and because of her own. I would suffer because there was so very little I could do to make it right. But I could be present. I could pay attention. I could clean her bathroom, which didn’t really need it, and I could take out the recycling, which did. And I could fill her freezer with food, so that even when I wasn’t there—“I had lentils and cabbage today for breakfast AND lunch!” she texted me later—she would remember the steady flame of my unbounded love.   

Lea Page is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch, The Boiler and Entropy, among others. She is also the author of Parenting in the Here and Now (Floris Books, 2015). She lives in rural Montana with her husband and a small circus of semi-domesticated animals. 

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