4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Summer is the time for visiting with family. The summer months are just brimming with relatives. And it’s so necessary, this grounding, these reminders of where you came from. But it’s exhausting, too. Ex-haust-ing. And it’s not so much the laying of an extra plate, or two or four and the washing of the sheets in the guest room. It’s the psychic energy of time travel. It’s seeing the past through the eyes of someone else who lived it. It’s the stories.
Because we all have stories.
In my family the stories have sordid underbellies. And these stories belong to each of us individually, they are the things we’ve petted and fed, coddled and shared, we’ve polished them like ocean stones until they become something wholly different. I can’t begin to tell my siblings’ stories. I don’t even understand most of their stories. I am invariably shocked when a new one crops up.
Was I there? Because I don’t remember it that way. These stories are utterly foreign to me. But my younger brother’s two favorite stories, those belong to me, too.
“Jennie knocked out three of my teeth.”
And (my favorite)- “Jennie fed me a fried chicken drumstick covered with maggots.”
Now both of these are true. And while one is more Bad News Bears, the other is Poltergeist. Seriously. There were maggots on the chicken.
There were mitigating circumstances in both cases of course, a badly timed accident and misplaced responsibility on a child too young to determine the difference between secret spices and maggots. But still, the facts remain: a handful of teeth and a plate of maggots.
With the family visits comes the stunning one-liners about wrongs perpetuated, some stories still fresh and writhing (unlike the teeth and maggot stories, which are perennial holiday favorites and thus already old news by a long haul.) And the most jarring memories are new. Eating-disorder, depressive, television-medical-drama revelations.
There is no defense. Why did I never know this? Was it something I caused? Is this really how it happened? And is this something I need to know now?!
I have tried to deny most of my stories. Because they can be so sad. They are evidence of a childhood not particularly well-lived. If I can’t add a ba-dum-bum chhhhhhh, then I don’t want it in my airspace. You know? For what? We cannot right these wrongs.
Last night my son woke up and I found him screaming, crying on the stairwell. For those who’ve wondered how I get my kids to sleep through the night, I’m mean Mommy when woken. It’s my self-defense against sleepless nights. Don’t wake me up unless you’re bleeding or covered in vomit. That’s my motto. (Mother of the Year material, am I right?)
And so to find him screaming, crying, inconsolable, in search of a toilet to pee in, well, that did not bring out the best in me. And he kept at it, this overly dramatic gasping inverted, barking laugh-cry, AH, AH, AH, his exhalation, followed by his wheezing inhale, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa. Repeat. AH AH AH! So I whisked him away to the toilet hissing “Be quiet. Be quiet. Be quiet!” And just as I was beginning to threaten, “I will put you on the porch if you don’t stop making all this noise,” my sister popped her head in the door. She crouched down, face to face with the tragic actor, “Tell me what’s wrong. Why are you crying?”
He looked to me with accusing eyes. Then turned his now doleful, glistening eyes to my sister and deadpanned, “Mama put me in the closet in the dark and I was scared out of my wits, apparently.” I kid you not.
And there it is. The next story. The dark underbelly. It has begun.
Did I put him in a closet earlier in the evening? Sure. With the door open, one of those closets big enough for furniture, like a bureau, and with nothing hanging down, just wood floor, an empty laundry basket and a bureau. For about four minutes. And the door was open, by the way. Also he’d been whining and crying and yelling so loudly and so stubbornly, kicking the bunk of the bed above him while his siblings attempted sleep. Also, I’d warned him twice that he was headed to a bad time out in a place where no one else would hear him (and yes, we could still hear him.) But still. His new truth sounded wonderfully, evilly dysfunctional with just enough jagged edges and dark underbelly to floor his siblings during summer vacations 40 years hence.
And so my sister offered to write down what he said, what made him scared, and then the two of them would throw it away. From behind him I was pointing at my watch (which read 4:21 am, by the way) and I was giving my sister the circle in the air sign, which means wrap it up. Wrap. It. Up. Together they took this memory in the making, they captured it on paper and threw it away.
Today my sister and I walked to a stark, rock-covered beach, just the two of us. We sat quietly. She looked out over the darkly crashing ocean waves and remarked that my father would have loved this place. And I agreed that he would. We picked up perfectly rounded stones and threw them away, away, far out into the surf. Then I scrambled down the beach until I’d found a large stone for her to hold, heavy, smooth and warm. We sat with this shared weight in our hands, a common childhood. And then we left it there on the beach to bask in the sun.
(This post was inspired by the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, Memoir Madness, my dear family and a dramatic little boy utterly unwilling to do the time when he’s committed the crime.)