Close-up

Close-Up: The Face of the Fire

It’s twilight and raining when I leave in the van. I leave Smoke, my eight-year-old, standing alone in the field. (Kellie and Stump are inside.) Smoke’s got his winter coat on with the hood up. He’s holding a long stick and poking at the burn pile that’s been going all day. A sheet of gray smoke changes direction with the wind.

I’m leaving in search of hot dogs. Smoke’s been asking all day if he can roast them on the fire. All day I’ve told him “Sure—I’ll get those later.” Now I’m racing the darkness and I’m losing. The remaining daylight is dimmed by this thick blanket of gray-turning-blue-turning-black. The corner store has one sad package of hot dogs tucked between a basket of wilted lettuce and some string cheese. I don’t trust those hot dogs. I drive another three miles to the grocery store.

By the time I return it’s so dark that I can barely make out my son’s figure. Though it’s distant, I can discern the glow of the dying fire. I wade through thick puddles to make it there. I’m impressed that my son is still tending, unfazed by the dark and the weather. His concentration is steady. This is the same son who normally would spend the whole weekend indoors if I let him; the same son who, when I tell him that we’re going to the park complains: “But we just went outside yesterday!” This is the son who wants only to alternate between Legos, video games, books, and occasionally setting up a pillow fort with his brother. But this fire has now held his attention for hours.

We’ve lived in this place for two months now, and though we have land, we have mostly remained inside. We moved in the dead of winter; we moved through rain to get to school, and drove home in the dark. We’ve spent weekends huddled by the woodstove. We’ve read books and watched movies and baked cookies in our warm kitchen. But now, as spring slowly returns, we learn what it means to live on the land.

Earlier this week Kellie pruned the apple trees and left piles of branches. After school one day I insisted that my sons help me drag the branches across the yard and add them to the burn pile. Smoke protested: “But I don’t even know where the burn pile is.” I laughed at him. “I’ll show you,” I said. I recognized myself in him, getting totally stymied by some minor uncertain detail. Ten minutes later, Smoke was dragging branches when the rain returned. “We can go in now,” I offered, but Smoke declined. “I kind of like working in the rain,” he confided.

All I see now are glowing embers and thick smoke. The branches my son carried are turning to ash. My son spears a hot dog with a stick. He insists they are best when you set them directly against the glowing coals so they sizzle. He’s not interested in my suggestions. He likes ash on his hot dog, he says. He eats it in the dark, directly off the stick. When I ask if he’s scared of coyotes he says, “The fire makes me feel safe.”

Two hours later, after I’ve put his brother to bed, I cross the hall to check on Smoke. He’s been listening to Kellie read. She’s still reading. Smoke is lying on his side, turned away from her, so she can’t see that his eyes are closed and his mouth is wide open. I look at the clock. It’s 8:25. It’s been years—I mean literally, years—since Smoke fell asleep before nine. But he is worn out tonight from the weather and the fire. He’s asleep before bedtime not because he is sick, but because he is healthy.

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Close-Up #4: Candy, Our Lord and Savior

I’m standing outside the bank, the door to the van wide open. Stump has his arms crossed and he’s staring me down. “I don’t want to go to the bank,” he says. It’s the hundredth time he’s said it. It’s the end of the day, and he’s a real mess. Moments ago he screamed and pounded on me as I carried him through the corridor of his daycare center. I have no idea why. Normally he runs through the hallway and beats me outside. Normally I have to yell at him to wait up. But today he skipped nap and decided that whatever we’re doing is not the thing he wants to do. “I don’t WANT to go to the bank,” he tells me again. If I could skip it I would, but I can’t. Today is the day we pay the carpenter in cash. The bank closes in fifteen minutes. She’s building walls for us; I don’t want to let her down.

My shirt is riding up and I’m sweating. I release Stump from his car seat, scoop him up, and pray. “Don’t you want a piece of candy?” I ask him. “Okay,” he says, and leans into me. He looks tired and pale, half-dried tears rolling down his cheeks. Maybe we will make it through this errand.

The candy basket sits on the welcome desk. The receptionist nods at us and continues to type. He sifts through the top layer of candies and asks me to name them: butterscotch, strawberry, lemon. He points to a peppermint that he spots through the weave at the bottom of the basket. I dig to retrieve it. I hope it will cure him.

Stump is perched on my hip, sucking away on his peppermint when I approach the teller. I’ve got a number written down on a piece of paper, but when I lay it on the counter, I’m suddenly unsure. “Shoot,” I say. “I’m sorry. I think I need to do the math one more time.”

“Take your time,” she says. I pull my phone out, choose the calculator function, and start typing numbers. I’m still sweating and I know she can tell. She gets that I’m frazzled. She plans to roll with it.

My calculator verifies the original number, and just as she is counting my cash—just as it seems that we are going to leave the bank without incident, I hear a sound. Something hard has hit the floor just below me. I look at Stump. A moment of silence ensues as he and I simultaneously figure out what has happened.

The peppermint has fallen from his mouth.

It has hit the hard tiles and shattered. Stump has already sucked off all of the red stripes, and so now it just looks like broken shards of white glass. Somehow I manage to bend over and scoop them all up in my left hand without letting go of Stump. He’s crying, sobbing, tears and snot streaming down his face. He was loving that peppermint. Like, really, really loving it. I can only imagine how it feels to be three years old and exhausted from a day of following instructions and fighting naps, exhausted from the drama of fighting your mom, weighed down by that sinking-tired feeling, that hungry-but-you-have-trouble-with-hunger-cues-so-it-just-feels-like-pain-feeling, and then you put a peppermint on your tongue. Your mouth surrounds it and you suck with all your might, and for a moment your whole body is focused on nothing but that sweetness. All is well.

Now his cries echo off the tiled floors and vast walls of the bank. The teller produces a bowl of candy. It’s an entirely different selection: Tootsie Rolls and Tootsie Pops, and gummies wrapped in plastic. Stump shakes his head. He cannot be won so easily. He tries to resist at first, but then he notices a small yellow box of Dots. Those will do, he decides. He holds the box in his hands. We watch the teller start over and count all the money. I continue to hold the candy shards in my left hand. I carry Stump back to the van and this time he doesn’t rail against me as I secure him in his car seat. He asks me to open the Dots.

In the front seat, I finally open my left fist to release the candy into an old coffee cup. It sticks to my hand and so I wipe it off with a baby wipe. I check to make sure that I still have the envelope of cash. I do; it’s a miracle; it’s in the front pocket of my bag. I start the ignition. I drive us home. I hear the sounds of vigorous chewing in the backseat.

image credit: Janet Beasley, https://www.flickr.com/photos/janetbeasley/8201584932

 

Close-up #3: Captive

Last night—the last night of my East Coast trip with Smoke and Stump—I set the alarm on my iPhone for 5:20 am, and picked up my grandmother’s autobiography. The book has heft—not because it is especially long, but because she wrote it in 1984, typed it out on a typewriter, three-hole punched the single-sided pages, and bound them in a thick three-ring binder. To read it, I must sit cross-legged on the bed and lean over so that I can carefully turn the pages.

In the chapter I read last night, my grandmother described her family’s move from Kansas to Montana by railroad in the early 1900s. She was a young child at the time traveling with her parents, baby brother, pet horse, a dog, and several cows. My grandmother rode with her mother and brother in a passenger car, while her father rode with the livestock so that he could tend to them. The journey lasted several days, and my grandmother describes what it was like to ride with her mother, who nursed the baby, who changed and washed diapers on the train, who relied on the workers to bring fuel for the wood stove, who cooked meals of oatmeal, boiled potatoes, and beans, and who offered my grandmother snacks of peanuts and dried fruit.

I’m writing from the airplane now, somewhere between Boston and Seattle. Smoke is playing Angry Birds on the iPad and Stump, bless him, fell asleep some minutes ago while watching a movie. I know that it would be logical for me to write about how easy we have it in comparison to my ancestors. We are traveling by airplane not by rail. We are not hauling cattle. My children have devices that keep them entertained. A flight attendant just brought me a cup of Starbucks coffee. But I am actually more struck by the ways my experience may be similar to my great-grandmother’s, how the details of travel and transport may change, but the feelings of confinement and dependency remain.

Our flight this morning was delayed by two hours. Every so often an agent would get on the speaker and tell us to be ready, and then twenty minutes later they would announce the very same thing again. Though I had roused my kids at six am, dressed them, and carried them to the car, we did not board the plane until eleven. Once we were in the air, my children complained that they were ravenous. They didn’t want the cookies I had packed; they wanted real food. It didn’t matter how often I checked the progress of the food cart. It took another hour for it to reach us at the very back of the airplane where we sat and by that time they had sold out of most of their options. (I would have preferred a meal of boiled potatoes and beans to the box of prepackaged snacks I purchased.) By then, Stump had decided to move to my lap and so I tried to contain our snacks and drinks to the small tray in front of me, to somehow keep track of the various wrappers my kids created, to contain our bodies, our crumbs, our mess.

As I write this there’s a two-year-old in front of me who keeps lying down in the middle of the aisle, and there’s a mom to the left of me who paces the airplane with a fussy infant in a carrier. (She just took a wide step over the two-year-old.) She won’t have to hand-wash her diapers in the airplane sink, but I did turn my head a while ago after noting the scent of baby wipes, and saw that she had laid her child across the seats to change him. We are in our own kind of cattle car.

That feeling I’ve had since waking this morning, this dread of having to move my children through tight and crowded spaces, to usher them up and down escalators, to herd them to the right side of any corridor, I’m sure that feeling was familiar to my great-grandmother Bertha  who cared deeply about propriety, about keeping her family safe but also organized and tidy. Even in 2016, with every imaginable convenience, that still feels like an impossible goal.

Image Credit:  Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. http://www.nps.gov/gosp/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=708221

Close-up #2: Familiar

It is dark outside when my half-sister pulls up to the rental house, but my son Smoke runs out to greet her. “I’ll carry your bag,” he says. His offer surprises me-I’ve never known him to play the gentleman. Once she’s inside, he tells her: “I can help you unpack.” “Why thank you,” she says. She is as surprised by I am at his chivalry. Her voice is the same as it’s always been—soft and almost laughing.

Smoke waits for her as she drinks a glass of water and uses the bathroom. While he waits, he lines her three bags against the wall from small to large. When she enters he is all eagerness, unzipping zippers, lining bottles in rows, putting shirts in one drawer, skirts in another. In the eight years he’s been alive, he has met my sister five or six times, but he is utterly, immediately at ease with her.

A memory: It is a hot summer night and I am sitting in my sister’s lap. I am four; she is nineteen. My parents have taken us to see a play at a community theater in rural Maine. Outside, the air has cooled. At intermission, we watched bats catch bugs by the outdoor lamps. But now we are back inside the theater where the air is still and muggy. We are waiting for the play to start again. The heat brings out all the body smells. My sister smells like baby powder and shampoo. Her hair spills over her shoulders. I pick up a handful and put it under my nose to pretend I have a mustache. It is an excuse to be as close to her as possible.

I wonder how it is that Smoke has recognized in my sister what has always been so comforting to me. He seems to intuit that all of her belongings are carefully selected treasures. He wants to be near her, in her space, sitting next to the woman who feels in some essential way just like his mother but also—and this is important—in some essential way mysterious and different.

image from: http://www.liberty.co.uk/fcp/categorylist/dept/paisley-fabric

Close-up #1: Nightlight

Your childhood bedroom in your childhood home. It is a guest room now, with a different bed, but you recognize the sheets: tan and printed with zebras and gazelles. They were your sheets once you’d outgrown the Muppets and Strawberry Shortcake, and now here they are, thirty years later, unstained. You lie there now with your three-year-old. It’s eleven pm. Because it’s your second day on the east coast, and you are straddling time zones: it’s eleven but also it’s eight. You are tired, but your son is not—he napped from 5 to 7. Your son is feeding you lines of a story while you drift off to sleep. “Tell it Mommy!” he says, and then you come to for a moment, and utter aloud what you think you just heard, but it’s not making much sense. “And then the dragon peeled the orange,” you say. You’re not sure if you’re repeating what he said, or if your sleep-brain is corrupting everything, spitting back a story that has nothing to do with his original. He doesn’t seem to mind though as long as you keep talking. “Mommy, tell it!” he commands again. When you open your eyes you can see his face in the glow of the nightlight. The nightlight was your brother’s: a silver crescent moon set against a circle of frosted glass. When he was a child it sat on top of a small wooden shelf that your father had carved to look like a cloud. That shelf is gone. The nightlight sits on top of the dresser now. Its light softens everything. “I’m tired,” you tell your son. “Can I please go to sleep now?” You are surprised and relieved when he answers “yes.”

The feeling wakes you up a little. You open your eyes and he’s lying still on his back, his eyes open, looking at nothing, looking at the ceiling. You watch him for a moment. His eyelids grow heavy and close. Then they open again. Open, close, open, close. His stillness startles you. It wakes you even more. This is the boy who climbs trees and throws sticks, who fights you with all the strength in his body when you try to carry him away from the park, the boy who refuses food and then screams because he’s hungry, the boy who resists nap time until he collapses from exhaustion but who, by some strange miracle, agrees to bedtime. You wonder what goes through his mind as he lies next to you in this room that used to be yours. What is behind those eyes? You remember a time when you were about the same age, lying in this same spot, and you were supposed to be asleep but you weren’t and you found a penny in your bed and discovered that it left a black mark against the wall and so you kept making lines, over and over, your mind wonderfully blank, caught in the slow motion of leaving your mark.

Your son is asleep now. You are awake. You get out of bed and turn out the light. Outside the window you can make out the branches of the backyard tree, a tree you saw nearly every day of your childhood. Somehow, in spite of time, it looks exactly the same, no bigger or smaller.

image credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/full-moon-during-night-time-53153/