There is a box that resides beneath my bed, a shallow plastic tote home to a hundreds of pictures from the last twenty years. I occasionally unearth the famous photo box, seeking reassurance that I had been the mother of four small children. There are a handful of the photos that call to me. They capture fixed points in time allowing me to escape to when my children still fit in my lap.
The photos are stacked on a corner of my dresser. They blend with confiscated toys, broken electronics, and lone earrings. Some days the prints don’t catch my eye. Other days my creaky cherry dresser props me up as I gaze into the glossy one-dimensional time machines. Lost in the tiny portraits, I am caught between then and now.
Sitting on our blue and pink flame-stitched couch, the one I never loved, my husband snaps a photo of me with our new baby. Nestled on my chest my daughter sleeps, arms and legs folded frog-like beneath her. The ebbing glow of early evening is a spotlight aimed perfectly on us. At three weeks postpartum my body is less watery. Still, I wear my husband’s oversized t-shirts. The shadowed room tells the story of parents terrified to wake their infant daughter, who nurses like a piranha. My young-mother eyes brim with exhaustion, yet hold a new look, too. Pride, contentment, possessiveness have settled in as well.
While at a Christmas party I round a corner and notice a young woman talking to my husband. With a shock I realize that she is my daughter and stinging tears flood my eyes. Nineteen years have passed since her birth. My little girl is quite grown. But for me, with a tilt of her chin, she is six again. Resolute and prideful, ready to prove how right she is. I now know how true it is, that idiotic saying that it all goes by so fast, and I hate the phrase more.
I sleep squished between a two-year-old and newborn. We lie head to head on the same pillow, while curled at my breast the baby sleeps. My bedroom was our world in the afternoon. Quiet conversations focused on mermaids, forests, and Mary Poppins fill the empty, white walls. The baby’s bobbing head as she nursed to sleep keeps time like a hypnotic metronome. Rubbing slender backs, fuzzy with fine hair, is a lullaby for us all. This is a snapshot of our everyday life.
“Turn!” I advise, shouting more than I mean to, while teaching my second child to drive. This is like when she was learning to ride a bike. The only way she knew to stop was to crash into stationary objects; a tree, a fence, a car, or me, standing with my arms wide open waiting to
catch her yelling, “Turn!” Clutching the unyielding passenger door handle I pray she doesn’t notice my tension. My confidence in her ability is more important than she will admit.
I am perched on the edge of my daughter’s pink-covered bed holding my newborn son. A white plate edged in red holds fluffy scrambled eggs alongside a slice of toast topped with unmelted butter. The blue nursing gown I wear is decorated with a perfect-circle wet patch. My daughters pose in front of me, donned in matching red flannel nightgowns. They each have bird nest hair on the back of their heads. My girls are my audience, standing straight, their bodies angled reverently toward me.
The realization that three of my children stand eye to eye with me hit me in the winter. We posed in our festive clothes for my mother’s camera, our heads all level, my husband and I no longer above them. I share the same vantage point with people who spent their lives looking up at me. Their little hands held mine as we met the world together. With a snap of the shutter I see them as the full grown people they are. I instantly feel what is gone.
It is late autumn. Dry, brown leaves surround my four children; two girls, two boys. The skinny jeans my daughter wears convince me she is on the verge of change. Her younger sister is uncomfortable in her pre-teen body, small hands tugging self-consciously at the hem of her shirt, urging it to cover her sweet belly. My first boy at six now appears gargantuan; just a few weeks before he seemed so small. The baby’s sweater, striped light blue and bright red, is much too big. I could not wait for it to fit.
When my youngest child begins losing his baby teeth I feel a season of motherhood slip away. “Always be my little boy!” I beg him, tickling his newly lean stomach. Holding water in my palm would be easier than containing these fast-moving days. Mourning seems melodramatic but no other vocabulary fits.
I am becoming one of those women who stares hungrily at other people’s babies. My annoyed family huffs when I chat with mothers of little ones. They do not understand the phantom pain of little bodies resting in the crook of my arm. They do know feel the throb of longing in my heart.
I seek solace in the shiny photographs waiting for me on the surface of my dresser but reverie cannot be sustained. The present holds real, honest colors and smells. Today cannot be imagined as better than it really is. My time machines allow me to recall only the best parts of those days. Those images aren’t the only truth.
Clearing my dresser happens accidentally. I’m tired of the mess and begin slowly putting things in their place. I allow myself to sift through the photos one last time. Surrendering to the longing for little ones I give the sensation the space it needs. It is fierce and tinged with regret, this feeling of want. Want of little hands, soft bellies, and warm necks so strong that it demands to be known. I empty myself through violent, shocking tears. Lamentation surges upon me until there is nothing left. My muscles are sore when the sobbing stops but my mind feels strangely refreshed.
There is a clearing, a letting go. An unwinding of some intangible thing in my chest that leaves me free and full. Full of joy and sadness interlaced. Full of the knowledge that the time for a new box has come.
Kara Shepherd lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her husband and four children.