Excerpt for Motherhood: Lost and Found by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


by

Ann Campanella


SMASHWORDS EDITION


* * * * *


PUBLISHED BY:

Divine Phoenix with Pegasus Books in conjunction with

The Bridge on Smashwords

Motherhood: Lost and Found

Copyright © 2016 by Ann Campanella


All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


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ISBN: 9781370041145


Comments about Motherhood: Lost and Found regarding speaking engagements, book orders or author correspondence may be addressed to Ann Campanella directly at www.anncampanella.com.


This book is a work of nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Although the author and publisher have made every effort to ensure that the information in this book was correct at press time, the author and publisher do not assume and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions, whether such errors or omissions result from negligence, accident, or any other cause.


Copyright © 2016 by Ann Campanella

Cover photo: Juha Reiman/Cartina

Cover photo editing and enhancement: Scott Foster

Cover design consultant: Bill Williams


All rights reserved. Written permission must be secured from the publisher to use or reproduce any part of this book.


Portions of this memoir were originally published in different form in Today’s Charlotte Woman, A Cup of Comfort for Loved Ones of People with Alzheimer’s, A Cup of Comfort for Military Families and Sports in the Carolinas: From Death Valley to Tobacco Road.


Author’s Note

This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Some of the names of people and organizations in this story have been changed along with identifying details in order to protect their privacy. While I’ve tried to portray the events as accurately as possible, at times I condensed conversations or summarized scenes. My family and I share many memories, but any inconsistencies or errors in this story are mine alone.


Produced in the United States of America


Published by


Divine Phoenix with Pegasus Books in conjunction with The Bridge 


The Bridge

Huntersville, NC

www.TheBridgeBooks.com



Praise for

Motherhood: Lost and Found


Ann Campanella’s Motherhood: Lost and Found is a chronicle of family tragedy and triumph told in some of the most truly lyrical writing you’ll ever encounter. She writes of grief and loss with heart wrenching honesty but without sentimentality then adds humor in such unexpected places I found myself laughing and crying all on the same page. This is the best memoir I’ve read in years....”

- Judith Minthorn Stacy, author of Maggie Sweet

winner of the Carolina Novel Award


“The book is about... the love of a family... and how that love sustained them during a long and painful crisis, and how Ann’s relationship with her husband Joel was deepened and enriched by that crisis, and how three generations are better than two. Motherhood: Lost and Found has much to teach us all as human beings.”

- Anthony (Tony) Abbott, author of Leaving Maggie Hope

winner of the Novello Festival Press Book Award


“A sensitive, in-depth study of one woman’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s as detailed by her daughter, Motherhood: Lost and Found involves us in the dynamic of a multi-generational family as well as the author’s own story: horses, poetry, three terrible miscarriages, and in her 41st year, a final miracle.”

- Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer Prize winning poet


Ann Campanella’s Motherhood: Lost and Found records the ordinary and extraordinary courage of those who must endure debilitating, even crushing illness and those who must suffer with them while they do so. Here is bravery, patience, reconciliation, and -- at long last -- hope. I found this story valuable in an intensely personal way. I think others readers will find it so too.”

- Fred Chappell, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina


“As I read, my heart breaks and re-forms and breaks again... What a book!”

- Lyn Warren, owner of Les Yeux du Monde Art Gallery


“It is the gift of a lifetime. Nothing I have ever read has affected me more deeply or made me more thankful that I am alive. You have made your place... into your place on earth. And you have welcomed us—all of us—into it… Through your book, you have made it ours. The voice in the book is constant. Faithful, I should say… You have delved into the scarcest moments and found the Abiding. Something as fundamental as fire—and earth and water and air. As death and love, as death and love and death and love again.”

- Mike Martin, writer and artist


“...At the heart of Ann Campanella’s book lies the universal heartbeat of the human experience: love, dreams, suffering, hope, and tragedy. What Ann offers through the artistry of her words is a model of faithful perseverance. This is a beautifully written story that inspires me on my own journey--precisely what I need.”

- Pat Conley, Episcopal Priest


“I was so deeply touched by this memoir. Anyone with children or aging parents will be moved by this searingly honest story. Ann struggled with infertility at the same time she was trying to care for her mother with Alzheimer’s. In a clear-eyed way, she explores how her family navigated the suffering caused by her mother’s illness, and her own heartbreak of multiple miscarriages. Every sentence is beautifully crafted, with a poet’s attention to detail. The images are indelible, and in the end, the reader is completely uplifted by love and hope.”

  • Lisa Willliams Kline, author of Eleanor Hill

Winner of the North Carolina Juvenile Literature Award



For Joel and Sydney

and

for my siblings


***


In memory of my mother

who taught me to love words

and the spaces between them



A portrait of my mother,

Elizabeth Seelye Williams,

on the eve of motherhood




And in memory of Crimson



March 30, 1983 – Feb. 14, 2003



CONTENTS


Cold Front

Ripples

Cancer

Mountains

Ashes

Clouds

Heartbeat

Hollow

Between

Half-Life

Circles

Sparks

Little Red Bike

Showers

Stains

The Red Zone

Hills and Valleys

Meetings and Visits

Discharged

Myrtlewood Manor

Abscess

Radar

Mowing

Storms

Empty Spoons

Packing

Connections

Collection

Mist

Wading

More Ashes

Light

Heat

Wind

Dancing

Snow

Blue Sky

Warm Breeze

Dusk

Dawn

Blessings

Faith

Petals

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

About the Author



Cold Front


A cold front moves across the piedmont of North Carolina. The wind lifts my horse’s mane from his neck, causing us both to shiver. He stands like a statue as I mount. His ears are alert, catching the sound of stray leaves being stripped from trees. The sky is clear, but the sun feels farther away than usual. In another hour, darkness will fall and frigid air will sweep across the fields, the ground below the ring will begin to harden, and a layer of ice will form on the puddles left behind from last night’s rain. I urge Crimson forward, feel the lift of each hind leg as he walks.

Before going into the ring, we warm up around the outside. Crimson is lazy by nature, but with the wind behind us, he launches into a loose, flowing trot. I give him his head and he seems to float for an instant above the ground before pushing off with diagonal legs. The cold breeze stings my cheeks and my eyes water, but I wouldn’t give up this feeling for anything.

I am thirty-three years old and have been riding horses since I was nine. From the beginning I was entranced with their power, their muscled fluidity. I was a typical young girl in love with horses. But there was more—a nuance I couldn’t articulate, and still struggle to name. Call it a connection, an invisible fiber that runs between me and these four-legged creatures, as if we are one and the same. Crimson’s large brown eyes, his very skin seem to absorb every sensation and emotion that passes through me. Standing in the aisle this afternoon, brushing his coppery coat, it was as if he intuited something was different, that I was different. Could he feel the new life growing inside me?

The wind howls eerily and Crimson gives a gentle, rolling buck—the kind that shows that, while he’ll go along with it, he’s ambivalent about working.

I wish I wasn’t, but I’m ambivalent about being pregnant. Having a baby feels like the most incredible gift anyone could ever receive. But I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a mother. As the youngest in my family, I hardly spent any time around children younger than me. I was much too self involved. Now, facing the idea of raising a child scares me. I’m unequipped, and there’s so much at stake. What if I don’t have any mothering instincts? Or, what if, on the other hand, I fall madly in love with this baby? Will I lose myself in the caretaking as my mother did? Who would I be if I gave up my love of horses and my passion for writing?

Joel and I have worked hard turning our dream of having a farm into reality. We’ve lived off his salary, saving every check I earned as a magazine and newspaper editor. We own the land, but we still have fencing and a barn to build. Will the vision of bringing Crimson home disappear if I have a baby? And how will Joel and I handle the stress and exhaustion that come with a newborn? His long hours at work and his travel schedule are already a source of tension between us. I want him to partner with me in raising a child.

And, last, the thing I’m most concerned about, the thing I don’t like to think about: I inherited a chromosomal abnormality from my mother that gives me a fifty percent chance of having a miscarriage. I could lose this baby.

Trying to escape my thoughts, I nudge Crimson into a canter. My chest swells at the clatter of his hooves against the hardpan. Rising out of the saddle into a hand-gallop position, I sink my weight into the stirrups and press my hands against the crest of my horse’s mane. His breathing, like his hoof beat, becomes regular as a locomotive.

When he gallops I remember that he is a descendant of Secretariat, and I think of the day he took off across a meadow. On a trail ride with friends, the horses began pulling at their bits, wanting to run. It was a cool morning. There was an open field ahead. We were feeling fearless, so we thought, Why not?

Crimson and I started out behind the other two women and their mares. But when he sensed a race in the making his neck stretched out and his body instinctively lowered. He’s so reliable by nature I never imagined I would lose control of him. But that day, his canter strengthened into a full gallop and his neck hardened to steel. His jaw was set and no amount of pulling on the reins would slow him down. All I could do was hunch down and hold tight to his mane. We surged past one horse, then another. Wind tore through my hair and lashed my face, whipping tears from my eyes. Crimson’s hooves thundered over the ground. My body felt the vibrations that ran up his legs, the strands of his muscles beneath me tensing and flexing. It was only after he was well in the lead that his pace began to slacken.

At the edge of the field I was finally able to slow Crimson down enough to circle and eventually bring him back to a trot. The other women, open-mouthed, caught up to us. “He really is a race horse, Ann!” I pressed my quivering palms against Crimson’s firm neck as I nodded. I had caught a glimpse of how life could change in an instant.

Today, Crimson maintains his slow, even canter. After a couple of laps, I tap him on the flank with the whip to encourage him to pick up the pace. We make two more circuits around the outside of the ring. When I sit back in the saddle, Crimson immediately slows to a walk. The sun hovers behind a thin line of clouds along the horizon; darkness is already descending. I check my watch. Twenty more minutes. Then it will be time to untack, cool down and do a final grooming before my lessons start at six. If things go well, I’ll be home by eight or eight-thirty, in time for a late dinner with Joel.


***


My students enter the ring on their horses. I ask them about school, and they offer me pieces of their day. Warmth for them blooms in my chest. Like Gill, my first riding instructor in Panama, who practically adopted a group of us “horse-crazy” girls, I share a bond with them. I used to spend afternoons in lessons with her or propped up on her tack trunk, listening to her stories about riding in England. She taught us to respect our horses and praised each of us for something different. I had “soft hands,” which meant she trusted me on any horse, even the ones with tender mouths, the ones who had been abused.

The girls trot their horses in circles around me. After warming up, I ask them, one at a time, to pick up a canter in both directions, then form a line in the center of the ring. I rub my hands together to keep them warm. January is the worst month to be a horse person in North Carolina. When I was nine, my father was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone. Living in the Tropics for five years made it hard for me to get used to the change of seasons in the States, how the cold wind sweeps across the fields in winter.

Setting up a row of jumps, I bend down to lift one of the poles from the ground. Like a jagged piece of glass, a cramp stabs my stomach. The grey below my feet blurs for a second before turning back into sand. Stadium lights shine on the ring and there are deep shadows around the jumps. I put my hands on my knees before straightening up. My face must have blanched because Brooke trots up to me on her pony and asks if I am okay.

“I think so, but I may need to cut this lesson a little short.” My breath mists the air. I unzip my coat and cold wind hits my body like a fist. After college, I took off for Australia as soon as I could afford the plane ticket. I told myself it would be warm there and I could find work with horses.

The cramp fades. I raise one of the jumps three inches and direct Kim and Annie to it. They are the oldest of the group. One loves to jump, while the other prefers dressage. But both girls adore their horses the way I loved my old pony, Cochise.

A grey minivan and a white Honda pull into the parking lot. I wave. Often one or two of the mothers come and stand by the ring to watch the last five or ten minutes of the lesson. My mother used to pick me up from the barn when I was young, too. She waited patiently while I finished up my chores, waving her hands at flies, stroking my pony’s long nose and murmuring soft words into his ear.

My students trot past me on their horses one by one. I can’t help but smile. They are precious to me.

“Keep him on a straight line,” I urge as Kim’s horse swerves slightly before the jump. Quiet, dark-eyed and petite, Kim follows my instructions exactly. “That’s right! Good job!” Spending time with my students makes me wonder what it will be like to be a parent.

Annie’s horse, Gentle Ben, ambles up to the jump a little too slowly.

“More leg, Annie!” I call.

Annie has long blond hair and loves to be outrageous. Her favorite tee-shirt has a large black and white sketch of Kurt Cobain’s face with the eyes painted blue. Her mother and I have talked about how you can’t force her to do anything.

My mother had begged me not to go to Australia. “It’s so far,” she said. “Can’t you stay closer to home? I’m sure you could find work as a secretary.” I was incredulous. “A secretary!” Didn’t she know I yearned to be creative, to work with animals, to be outside? The thought of being cooped up in an office doing someone else’s bidding felt like death.

Unlike my mother, Joel encouraged me to follow my dreams. As a college student, he listened with his head cocked sideways when I told him I wanted to train horses and have my own barn some day. It was clear that my words intrigued him, and I loved the fact that he didn’t try to direct or dissuade me.

Annie’s horse continues to lollygag towards the jump. “You’re not getting through to him,” I yell. “Use your whip!”

Annie gives her horse a gentle tap on the shoulder. Ben pauses before the jump, then takes off from a standstill. The sudden movement propels Annie into the air, and when Ben’s front legs touch down, she lands hard on the pommel of the saddle. His back legs brush the rail, knocking it down.

“Ow!” Annie turns around and makes a face at me. “That hurt!”

“Next time, use your legs, and if he doesn’t listen, go right to the whip.” I bend over to pick up the fallen rail and feel another twinge in my midsection. Was it the baby or my late lunch? Have I been on my feet too long? Should I not have ridden today? Surely not. I have friends who rode into their ninth month.

As a student at Davidson College, I went through a process of elimination before deciding on a major. There were professors I didn’t care for, classes that were too hard or bored me to tears. I crossed subjects off one by one: history, sociology, psychology.... Finally, I settled on English because I loved to read, and I figured writing papers would be easier than memorizing obscure facts that I’d forget as soon as exams were over.

“Try it one more time, Annie,” I call out, “with a little more energy.”

She picks up a trot and urges Ben into a canter. This time horse and rider move fluidly over the jump. Annie turns her head, with eyes sparkling, to see my reaction.

“That was excellent! It feels completely different when you’re in sync, doesn’t it?” I say smiling.

During my senior year, with most of my required subjects out of the way, I took a creative writing class with Tony Abbott. Under his inspiring tutelage, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be—a poet! Abbott encouraged me, suggesting I enter the student writing competition and attend a poetry reading by Charles Wright, a Davidson alumnus, who was relatively unknown at the time, but would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize.

Wright’s poetry struck a deep chord within me. The rhythm and imagery of his words communicated an intensity of feeling that I connected to and longed to express myself.

As the judge of the student competition, Wright awarded me an honorable mention and invited me to meet with him in person. He had asked me to bring a portfolio of my work, and as he leafed through my handful of poems, he paused at one called “Day on a Rock.” It was a meditative piece I had written at Big Bend National Park in West Texas.

Lyn, my best friend from college, and I had taken a term off from school the previous year and driven to Dallas, where we spent a month working with Gill, my instructor from Panama who had moved there and started a show barn. Before coming home, we drove to West Texas to experience the rugged beauty of the Chisos Mountains. There, as Lyn and I sat on a rock off one of the trails, I jotted down words that became the poem Charles Wright was reading.

“Why didn’t you submit this to the contest?” He looked up at me. I shrugged, unsure of how to answer. Wright tapped the paper with his finger. “You could have won the competition.”

His words swept over me like a flame. I could have won? It didn’t matter that I didn’t. Just the thought that I could have, that he saw merit in my writing. I couldn’t stop smiling. Wright invited me to keep in touch with him and to send him new poems. As I left the meeting, my feet hardly touched the ground.

Annie brings Ben into the center of the ring and pats his neck.

“I think you’re ready to try the full course,” I say, reaching up to caress the soft skin around Ben’s nostrils.

“Really?” Annie’s face glows with excitement, and I feel a swell of pride at her growing confidence. She urges Ben into a canter and heads toward the first jump.

The summer after graduation, Joel and I met at Lyn’s house in the mountains for a fiddler’s convention. After an evening of music, we sat outside enjoying the warm summer air. I felt a sense of freedom and fun being with Joel; his free-flowing ideas expanded my world, yet there was a groundedness about him that made me feel safe. We could talk about anything and found our differences stimulating: my sensitivity and love of words versus his boldness and enthusiasm. The Perseid meteor shower was at its peak. Joel and I shared a hammock, leaning our heads back to watch the show. The night was alive as cords of light pulsed across the immense sky. We were both shy about expressing our feelings, but the air was electric around us.

Two months later, I flew to Australia and stayed there for six months, working my way around the country by cleaning stalls, teaching riding and grooming for a polo team. Joel and I stayed in touch through the mail. In my journal, I wrote poems about the Australian countryside. My mother wasn’t thrilled about me leaving. But she sent me letters every week.

Annie crosses the diagonal of the ring after the first line of jumps, and Ben breaks into a trot.

“Keep up the impulsion, Annie!” I call out. “You’re going to need it for the next jump!”

She taps her horse with the whip and Ben surges forward. As they approach the last line of jumps, Ben stumbles slightly. But Annie keeps her balance and the horse lands safely.

After I came home from Australia, I lived at home for a few months until Lyn and I headed out west. We went with a group of friends, including Joel, to Colorado to see the Grateful Dead, then followed the band to New Mexico. When the show was over, Joel and our other friends went home.

But Lyn and I kept going. Lyn had a group of postcards of famous paintings, and I kept a volume of Charles Wright’s poetry—a birthday present from Joel—in the glove compartment of my car. Each day I’d choose a poem to read, and Lyn would choose a painting to study—one that somehow reflected our journey.

In Wyoming we stopped to work as wranglers. Under the moonlight we herded horses and watched the bright red dawn flood the plains. During the day, on our sturdy, sure-footed mustangs, we led small groups on trail rides up and down the rugged mountains. Each night we listened to the coyotes howl and vowed to keep a part of their wild spirit within us. I was oblivious at the time to the distance between me and my family. My mother continued writing weekly letters.

Brooke is next in line to jump. She circles her pony, Freddy, over and over in front of the cross rail until I finally say, “I think it’s time.” Twelve years old, Brooke has always been tentative about jumping, but her face brightens each time she does it. When she was learning to ride on the lounge line, her mother stood by the fence and let out small screams each time her daughter looked slightly off balance. When Brooke began jumping, I urged Barb to stop coming to lessons, so her fear wouldn’t rub off on her daughter.

“You can do it,” I say. Brooke glances at me, circling one more time before turning toward the jump. Her pony trots a few strides, then breaks into a canter. Freddy has a habit of tucking his head and bucking when he feels his rider tighten up. Out of the corner of my eye I see Barb peek out from behind the barn.

“Steady. Try to relax,” I say. “Remember, Brooke, he can feel your tension.”

Freddy picks up speed as he approaches the jump. The faster he goes, the more Brooke leans forward.

“Sit up! You’ll be okay. Remember to keep his head up.” She has come so far. A fall would set her back.

Lyn and I returned to the East Coast and roomed together in Charlottesville. Settling down after so many exhilarating experiences on the road proved difficult for me. Confused and directionless, I worked at a series of part-time jobs, and tried to write in my free time. Lyn began studying for her masters in art history at the University of Virginia, and I made the decision to apply to UVA’s Creative Writing MFA program where Charles Wright was on staff. I was devastated when I wasn’t accepted, unaware of the fact that there were hundreds of highly-qualified applicants for a handful of openings in the elite program.

Brooke’s pony tucks his legs neatly over the bar. When he lands, Freddy ducks his head. I hold my breath while Brooke leans too far over the front of the saddle. “Get his head up!” I yell. Her shoulders stay rounded for a moment before she leans back and brings Freddy down to a trot. Her mask of tension melts.

Joel visited on weekends frequently, driving up from Atlanta, where he had moved with his job. Our time together was a balm, soothing the raw, aching places within me. We talked for hours. Often, Joel didn’t leave Charlottesville until late Sunday night, driving through the early morning hours, arriving home just in time to shower and shave for work. After a year of living apart and missing each other, spending long hours in the car and on the phone, we decided that it was time to get married. I was twenty-four.

Lauren stands in her stirrups and calls out, “Can you raise it for me?”

I nod and her pony, Little Bit of Spice, trots briskly to the jump. Her ears go forward and her white hindquarters bunch as she takes off. The mare reminds me of my old pony, Cochise—as steady as they come. At eleven, the youngest of the group, Lauren always wants to jump higher and ride longer. She comes from a large Cuban family. Her parents both work to afford luxuries for their kids, so every minute in the ring counts. I can relate to Lauren’s drive. Money had been scarce when I was growing up. A horse was a big expense for my father, so I tried to prove that I was worthy by working hard.

After we got married, Joel and I worked hard. I had the romantic notion that we would head west and start our life together working side by side on a ranch. I could train horses, and my husband could manage the property or be a handyman.

Much more skilled in business than odd jobs, Joel soon convinced me that we should live in Atlanta, since his insurance position provided a good income. Unable to bring in any money as a poet, I decided to follow his lead and get a “real” job. I was hired at Communication Channels, Inc., a magazine conglomerate, and worked my way up from editorial assistant for two health food magazines to associate editor of Cashflow magazine. The work was stimulating and I was good at it, but I hated being confined to a cubicle every day. After two and a half years in Atlanta, Joel’s company transferred him to Houston.

Once we moved, I enjoyed the freedom of working at home for a few months freelancing for various publications including Horseman Magazine, which was based in Houston. But with Joel working long hours and traveling, loneliness drove me to look for a full-time job where I would be with people. I was hired as executive editor for The Observer, a community newspaper that published three editions. A year later, I was promoted to managing editor of The Courier, a daily paper in Conroe, a town just north of Houston.

Though I made a decent salary and was happy to be in a job where I could write, newspaper work wasn’t my calling. The daily deadlines and the late-breaking news wore me down. At the same time, I gradually became aware of the tug in my chest when I thought about my parents. My mother had just turned seventy. I started talking to Joel about moving to North Carolina. He put in for a transfer with his company and two years later we arrived.

As soon as Bit lands, Lauren calls out, “Hey, Ann! Can we do one more? Please!

“Please! Please!” The others join in, knowing it’s hard for me to resist their enthusiasm.

I put my hands on my hips and do a mental check of my body. The pain and cramping are gone. I think back to my pregnancy book. A little cramping can be normal. Another jump can’t hurt. “Sure. Why not? But just one more.”


***


At home, in the bathroom, I discover a bright spot of blood. The condition I inherited from my mother flashes through my mind. The doctor’s words had been sober: “You have what’s called a balanced translocation. A piece of one of your chromosomes is attached to another, which means there’s a chance that too much or too little genetic material will be passed on in a fertilized egg, which will cause a miscarriage.”

The red stain sends a deep shiver through my body.




Ripples


It’s August, and my parents’ dark green Cadillac pulls up our long driveway. The door on the driver’s side opens. My father sets one foot onto the gravel drive, twists his torso, then sets the other foot on the ground. Beside him is the shadow of my mother’s figure.

Daddy braces one hand against the steering wheel, the other against the door before heaving his two-hundred-and-fifteen-pound body out of the seat. His khakis are wrinkled and his short-sleeved, white shirt bulges at the waist. Between the buttons there’s a glimpse of undershirt. Leaving my mother in the car, he walks with a slight limp toward the house. His white hair, usually cropped in a military style befitting his rank of colonel, brushes his red-tinted forehead, a sign he’s been away from the barbershop on the Cherry Point base. My father’s lined face breaks into a smile when he sees me on the deck.

“There you are!” He lifts his hand in greeting.

“You made it!” I meet him halfway. I’m usually glad to see my parents. But today my joy is subdued. I had asked them to call me when they left New York, so I’d have a few days to prepare for their arrival, to clear my schedule of writing projects and riding lessons. They have been at Lake George at my mother’s family’s summer home for most of June and July. They didn’t call until a half an hour ago when I was in the middle of typing up a freelance article. My father told me they were driving through Statesville, just twenty-five miles up the road. I hurriedly finished the article and set it aside. Tomorrow is Thursday, the day my writing group meets. I hate to miss it, but spending the morning with my parents is more important.

Daddy embraces me in a bear hug, and I feel the familiar weight of his arms. The sharp edges of the pens he carries in his front shirt pocket dig into my chest. There is a faint scent of Aqua Velva mixed with sweat. The light stubble of his beard brushes my cheek.

Although we’ve always had a close bond, I was a little afraid of my father when I was young. He was a big man with broad shoulders, and the floors shook when he walked. He wasn’t around much, fitting the stereotype of his generation. He worked hard, leaving home early each morning and returning just in time for dinner. The house felt different when he was home. His presence was everywhere. Maybe it was that he left his magazines on the couch and put his socked feet on the coffee table. Maybe it was the way he turned the TV up so loud. Maybe I knew as a child there was no way around him.

Daddy often said things like, “Children should be seen and not heard,” and I, for one, never doubted that he meant it, especially after seeing him use the yardstick on my sister. But over the years my father has softened.

Over his shoulder I see Mom emerge from the car. She holds a cup in one hand and wipes the side of her denim skirt with the other. When she sees me she waves the hand with the cup. I hurry to her side.

Mom’s hair has turned from silver to white. Each time I see her it is thinner with the shine of her scalp beginning to show through. She is seventy-five, and her skin is a network of fine wrinkles from years in the sun at Lake George. When she smiles, tiny furrows fan across her face as if her skin has turned to liquid and someone has disturbed the surface with a pebble.

It’s hard to believe the years have passed so quickly. I still remember how soft her skin was. Everything about her was soft—her face, her hair, her manner. As the youngest child, I rode on her hip much of the time. Often, I’d simply reach my hands up and she’d gather me into her arms. She smelled of Pearls and Lace, the powder she ordered from Avon. After a bath, she’d sprinkle it under her arms and on her chest. Propped on elbows on her bed, I studied her as she unleashed auburn curls from bobby pins and drew deep red lines of lipstick across her mouth, then pressed her lips together and smiled into the mirror. I thought she was beautiful.

Though she has aged, I still see her beauty.

“It’s good to see you, dear,” she says in a soft voice. We hug, then she steps back and brushes her hand over her skirt, then scratches at the material with her fingernails. “I must have spilled something. Do I look hideous?” There’s a small stain above the embroidery on her hip pocket. It looks like it might be coffee or possibly chocolate.

“You look fine. The car, on the other hand...” I shudder in an exaggerated way. There’s no telling what she might have sat on in Daddy’s car. Joel calls it Winton’s traveling closet. But it’s more like a messy kitchen, especially after being on the road for a few days. There are half-filled bottles of soda, grocery bags of food, cups stuffed with hard candies and free samples he’s picked up in various supermarkets. There was barely room for my mother in the passenger’s seat.

“Isn’t it awful?” She wrinkles her nose and we break into laughter. I hook my arm through one of hers and guide her to the front door.

My father brushes past us. He makes several trips from the car to the house, bringing in luggage of various sizes, plastic and paper bags filled to the brim. I’m thankful Joel is at work, not here to witness the parade of suitcases, bags and food entering our home. It would exasperate him.

Mom follows Daddy outside and on the return trip, her voice is high pitched. “I still don’t know why you wouldn’t let me drive. You always used to let me. What’s gotten into you these days, Wint? For years, we’ve shared the driving. What’s happened to make you like this?” My mother speaks to my father’s slumped back. He says nothing, but steps into the guest room and lies down on the bed. The springs squeak under his weight. He lets out a long sigh, closes his eyes.

Part of me wants to go upstairs and shut my bedroom door. There’s been a dull ache in my breast all day, as if I’ve been holding something back. This morning, when I looked at my calendar, I remembered my doctor counting the months on her fingers and showing me the date on her plastic wheel. August 3rd. Today should have been my due date.

I invite Mom into the living room and we sit down on opposite couches. We chat for a while about their time up at Lake George. She tells me (the way she always does) how beautiful the lake is this time of year. She fills me in on my uncles and cousins, tells stories about the family.

She has always told stories, and, as she talks, I put my hand on my abdomen and drift back in time, remembering the “baby stories” my mother used to tell me before bed. “Rose Janeway was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. It felt so good to hold her.”

She described Nate as “a dear little thing with a dimple in his chin.” He had been a breach birth. I learned he came out blue due to lack of oxygen. He’d been born while my father was off fighting in the Korean War. The best military doctors had been shipped overseas, so my brother had been delivered by an inexperienced general practitioner. As a newborn, Nate spent the first weeks of his life in an incubator. Despite the doctor’s ineptness, which contributed to Nate’s mental retardation, Mom didn’t seem to hold onto any bitterness. She smiled as she said, “I was so thankful when the nurse finally put him in my arms.”

The next baby, my brother Will, came early, right after Christmas. My mother had been nervous about the pregnancy because in the first few months she had spotted. “But everything turned out fine,” she said. “He had this precious little round face, and when he got bigger, the most adorable curls.”

I’d tug on her shirt sleeve as she leaned over to kiss me goodnight and ask for a story about me. She’d pull the covers up to my chin and tell me I needed to go to sleep. But she always obliged, patting her stomach, saying, “I carried you right here.” When I asked where I came out, she’d smile and say, “From a hole at the top of my leg.” Maybe she actually said “legs” but I heard “leg,” and for years I imagined babies emerging from an opening on her thigh. Her skin was loose there, so that made sense.

As she talked, Mom would bend her arms as if she was holding a baby and her whole countenance would soften. After she left I’d drift in the darkness, snuggling close to my panda and imagine I was still small enough to lie back in the crook of her cool arms.

If only I had a “baby story” to tell. Mom leans forward from the couch, noticing a change in my expression. She asks how I am. When I don’t say much, she wonders if there’s anything wrong. I don’t mention the significance of the date. Maybe I think I should be over this grief by now. But I’m not.

When I was sick as a child, Mom would sit on the edge of my bed, pressing her cool hand to my forehead or plying me with baby aspirin. I could ask for anything on those days, and she would deliver—stacks of books from the library, a glass of Pepsi, crackers, even a cream doughnut from the bakery. My mother loved being a mom and was particularly suited to mothering young children. She responded in kind. When I smiled, she smiled. When I laughed, she laughed. When I cried, she wrinkled her brow and her eyes got teary.

I could use this kind of mothering today. I’m not sick, just empty and sad. But I don’t know how to ask for what I need. Instead, I tell Mom that I wish she’d called earlier to let me know she and Daddy were on their way.

Mom looks down at her hands. “I’m sorry, dear. I should have let you know.” Her voice is quiet. “Sometimes your father makes plans and I’m kind of left...” she glances at the bedroom, then back at me, “...in the dark.”

“It’s okay.” I reach over and place my palm on top of her hands. My father has always been one to call the shots and without much sensitivity to other people’s feelings.

Mom settles back in on the couch and we begin our familiar conversation about Daddy. She says she wishes he’d do more, that ever since he retired, he’s taken over the house. I tell her he looks tired. As if on cue, a faint snore comes from the bedroom.

“It’s no wonder,” she says, “with all the driving he’s been doing. I just don’t understand him.” She shakes her head.

For years we’ve had discussions about people in the family. Often when Mom was upset about something someone had done, she’d talk it through with one of her kids. After processing the situation, she’d start to feel better. Today she tells me that my father’s control issues are getting worse. As she talks, the lines around her mouth deepen. “He just doesn’t trust me like he used to.”

“Has anything happened?” I ask, shifting my position on the couch and glancing toward the guest bedroom. I don’t want to take sides, but I can tell Mom needs affirmation.

She stares straight ahead, then closes her eyes. Her lids are wrinkled as if she is pressing them down hard in an effort to think. When her eyes open again she says, “I can’t think of anything in particular. It’s just...” she pauses. “Well, I guess there was one thing.” Her voice becomes hushed. “He probably told you about the time I fell asleep.”

My eyes widen. “Fell asleep? When you were driving? What happened? Were you okay?”

“It was nothing, really. It happened on the way to the lake, and it was only because I didn’t get my morning coffee. Your father was hurrying me like he does, and I guess I just forgot to drink it.”

“But, Mom, were you driving? And on the highway? That could be really dangerous.” I imagine my parents’ car careening out of control, traveling across several lanes of New York traffic and plowing into an oncoming bus.

She studies her fingernails, tilting her head. “Well, I guess you’re right.” Then she waves her hand as if pushing the thought of disaster away. “But nothing happened. I just closed my eyes for a second and the car started veering off the road. When the wheels hit the shoulder, there was this bumping.” She jiggles her head, reenacting the moment for me. “And I opened my eyes. By that time, you know your father. He’d already reached over, grabbed the steering wheel out of my hands and ordered me to pull over.” She leans back against the couch and her arms go limp by her side like a rag doll. “There was nothing else I could do. He made me so nervous, I was afraid to keep driving.” She sighs.

I study her silently. Anyone could nod off. But to do it while driving? This could be serious. Had my mother reached an age where she should no longer be behind the wheel?

“The real lesson for me is to not forget my coffee,” she says, as if reading my thoughts. She sits up straight again. “Maybe I’d better have a cup now.”

I offer to fix one for her, but she refuses, saying she’ll get it herself. I can’t tell if she doesn’t want to be any trouble or if she’s trying to show me that she’s independent. I don’t offer a second time because I’m afraid I’ll make her mad and she’ll accuse me of being like my father.

I explain to Mom that she’ll have to heat the water in the microwave because Joel accidentally scorched the bottom of the kettle last week. She looks at me strangely and I feel a sigh escaping from my chest. Why is it that simple things seem hard today?

I tell my mother I have to run to the stables to check on my horse. Crimson has a condition called Anhidrosis, which causes his sweating mechanism to shut down in hot weather. During the summer I check on him regularly to make sure he hasn’t overheated and that his water buckets are full. The day is overcast and relatively cool for August, so I’m not too concerned about him. I just need to get away for a while.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” Mom says.

The barn is less than two miles away. I drive slowly, feeling the ache from this morning spread across my chest. Memories from the past winter sift through my mind. Despite my genetics, it had been easy to get pregnant. Joel and I stopped using birth control, and a few weeks later my period was late. Suddenly, all Joel and I could think about was this tiny baby growing inside me. Whether we were ready or not, we were going to be parents. I remembered conversations with my mother. She’d never had any morning sickness, and she loved being pregnant. “I felt so powerful,” she whispered as she caressed a phantom bulge. “After all,” she said, “look what I had done.”

On our way to the first ultrasound, Joel and I discussed baby names and childbirth classes. When I asked him if he was ready to be a father, he smiled broadly. Joel had no ambivalence. His personality was all or nothing.

Then there was the tiny dark spot on the screen, the doctor’s forced smile, her assurance that we had miscalculated the time of fertilization. After the spotting I had during the riding lesson, I contacted the doctor’s office and was again assured that everything was on track. When I called my mother to tell her I was worried about a miscarriage, she had pooh poohed the risks. But the chromosomal abnormality we shared was like a constant shadow following me. Maybe this was the reason for the dark spot.

I waited for my next appointment, dwelling on the black spot, willing it to turn into a baby. But at the next doctor’s visit, the picture was the same. A black dot on a grey background. “We may have miscalculated our dates,” the doctor said again. But I knew that was impossible. I had studied the pictures in What To Expect When You’re Expecting and there should have been a tiny shrimp-like fetus with a distinguishable head and body. “What if we haven’t miscalculated?” The doctor cut her eyes away from me, “Well, it could be a blighted ovum,” she said slowly, but then added, “Let’s set up an appointment for two weeks. We don’t want to jump to conclusions.” A blighted ovum. The term made me think of the potato blight in Ireland. Was my body a fallow field?

Pulling into the gravel drive of the barn, I scan the pastures for Crimson. He is grazing next to Ben along the fence line in the far paddock. Crimson, a Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse cross, is over sixteen hands. As I walk through the dry grass and open the gate, Crimson and Ben lift their heads. The horses begin walking slowly toward me. I pull a carrot from my pocket and wave it over my head, calling, “Hey, Crimson. Hey there, sweet boy!”

After my third ultrasound, it was clear: the baby was not developing. The doctor scheduled a D&C—dilation and curettage—for the next week. My womb would be literally scraped and the contents suctioned out. Numbly, I went through the procedure and woke to Joel sitting beside me. My devastation took me by surprise. Despite my fears about becoming a mother, something within my heart had unwound and wrapped itself around the idea of this baby. My baby. And now it was gone.

A deep sense of failure enveloped me. I was used to succeeding at things. I thought of myself as a hard worker, someone who could be counted on. I would go the extra mile to make things happen, to please someone. But there was nothing I could do to change this outcome. I was powerless. Joel tried to comfort me. We took long, slow walks down our road, my head against his shoulder. But he had to go back to work. Soon his mind was engaged in his present responsibilities while I was unable to move forward.

When I had called my mother to share my feelings, she said, “I’m sorry, dear. It must be hard for you. You’re not used to dealing with hardships.”

“What?”

“Honey, you’ve sailed along pretty smoothly, lived a charmed life. Not everyone has it so easy.” Her words took me by surprise and tears sprang to my eyes. I had expected sympathy, not a lecture. This was so unlike her.

“Oh, Mom.” I wanted her to understand me, to come inside my body and see that my limbs felt like anchors, my stomach scooped out, my mind invaded by grey. I wanted her to tell me the miscarriage wasn’t my fault, that I didn’t deserve this, that I was a good daughter and she loved me. I wanted her to know I wasn’t the perfect, complete person she seemed to imagine at that moment I was. I should have reached out to her, told her I needed her. Instead I said, “Mom, I feel like crap.”

“Maybe this will make you a more compassionate person.”

Something inside me recoiled, and I felt as if I’d been slapped.

Crimson breaks into a trot, the muscles across his back rippling under his coppery coat. Ben follows him at a walk, then tosses his head and begins trotting. Instinct makes me catch my breath as I see two thousand-pound animals gathering speed as they head towards the barn and me. But I know these horses and trust them not to hurt me.

After my miscarriage, I began writing poetry again. The rhythm and expression of the words soothed something deep within me. One spring weekend, when Joel was out of town, I attended Persephone’s Celebration, a literary festival at a local community college. The name caught my eye. It seemed metaphorical to me since I felt like a woman emerging from the darkness after a long, cold winter. A writer there told me about a critique group that met in Davidson. I began attending their weekly meetings.

When Crimson reaches me he lunges for the carrot which I have broken in half. I hold a piece in each palm and feel feathery lips nibble them clean. I stand there, letting the two horses nudge and rub against me. For the first time all day, the ache in my chest begins to ease.

When I return from the barn, Mom is dozing on the couch with an open book across her chest. Her reading glasses have slid halfway down her nose. I smile, thinking of how my grandmother used to nod off when she read stories to my brothers and me. Walking into the kitchen, I spot a coffee cup on the counter and the kettle on the stove. It is not the kind that whistles, but it’s rumbling and steaming as if it’s been boiling for the last twenty minutes. I flick off the heat and dump the water into the sink. Flecks of rust swirl around in the emptied water. Mom jerks awake on the couch.

“Is the water ready?”

“No, Mom. Didn’t you hear me? I told you not to use the kettle. The bottom is rusted.”

She shrugs. “Oh, sorry. Force of habit, I guess.” She comes into the kitchen and hovers by my side as I rinse out the kettle, draining more rust-colored water. “I hope I didn’t do that,” she says.

“No, of course not. I thought I told you, Joel left it on the burner too long last week. I should have thrown it out.” I look at her sideways. She is scanning the contents of the cabinet for coffee. “We keep it in the freezer, Mom,” I say. “Joel and I don’t drink coffee. We always store it there to keep it fresh for you and Daddy and Joel’s parents.”

“The freezer? That’s a good idea,” she says as if it’s the first time she’s heard of such a thing. She opens the freezer door and peers in.

Mom has always seemed oblivious to things like times and dates compared to my father and me. But is she losing her grip on other details? I don’t want to make her uncomfortable by asking too many questions.

I fill her coffee cup with water and slip it into the microwave. “Two minutes should do it, okay?”

“Gotcha. Two minutes,” she says, turning around quickly. “I’ll take it from here.”

That afternoon, my father sleeps until dinner, then goes back to bed. In the morning, I find his cereal bowl in the sink. He must have been tired from the trip, and now he’s back to his usual schedule of getting up extra early to eat, then going back to bed for an hour or so. As I pass the guest room door, I peek in.

My parents are cuddled like two large kittens. My father lies on his side with his arm around my mother. Her hips curve towards him. The covers are pulled halfway up their bodies. The wrinkles on my mother’s face have smoothed. Mom’s head is on the edge of her pillow, cocked so that one ear rests against my father’s chin as if she fell asleep listening to his secrets. His lips are parted, and strands of my mother’s pale hair flutter as he exhales. It’s nice to see my parents at peace. But I can’t help but wonder if they’ve reached that age, where I need to be concerned about them.

I write a note for them before leaving for the barn again. As I brush my horse, scrub and refill water buckets, my mind drifts back. When I was young, my mother kept her age a secret. My brothers and I relentlessly badgered her about it. “Come on, tell me how old you are?” I constantly asked. Mom always responded with a tight smile and said, “Sixteen.” Over the years, sixteen turned into nineteen, and nineteen turned into twenty-nine.

She finally broke down and told me her age on my birthday. I’d been bugging her all day, preoccupied with age since I was turning ten. Maybe she thought she was giving me some kind of gift. Or maybe she was just tired of hiding it. That night, after cake and ice cream, she came and sat on my bed.

“So tell me, Mom. How old are you? Please, tell me!”

“Well,” she took my hand and pressed it between her palms, “since you must know...,” she paused and I studied the shadows on her face. “I’m fifty.”

Fifty!!” My face must have registered a major shock.

“Oh, I shouldn’t have told you.”

“No, no, it’s okay. I figured it was something like that.” But of course I hadn’t. Most of my friends’ mothers were in their late twenties or early thirties. My young mind hadn’t leapt so many years ahead. Probably the night of my birthday she also shared with me the fact that she had married my father when she was twenty-nine, given birth to Rose ten months later, then my two brothers and finally me, ten years after her first child. But I can’t say for sure when she told me this, because everything went hazy in my mind after I heard fifty.

For years I wished she had shared the secret of her age one year earlier, when she was forty-nine. At least I would have had a year to swallow the fact that the half-century mark was coming. The sudden span of forty years between us was like a chasm I could never cross. Once I knew her age, I couldn’t ignore the way her auburn hair was grey around her temples, how the skin on the back of her hands was lined, how lipstick crept up the tiny ridges in her lips. All of these were signs that she was getting older. Right then, I think I started preparing for her death.


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