We write to prompts at spring and fall retreats, continuing the process that has claimed our words and often soothed our hearts for a dozen years. The prompts, aimed more toward healing and remembering our children at the beginning, might now reach in other directions: our own childhoods, our family relationships or fiction.
~See descriptions of all the prompts used in our first five years in Farther Along: The Writing Journey of Thirteen Bereaved Mothers.
~Follow this link to read an interview with one of the members of the Farther Along group about our group’s experience writing from prompts. The blog by Dr. Julie Dodd of the University of Florida is Teaching, Jobs & Internships and is aimed toward those leaving college for employment. Here’s a link to the second part of the two-part conversation.
~And examples of writings from prompts:
Howard Thurman, theologian and Harvard professor, said, “There are two questions that we have to ask ourselves. The first is, ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is, ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order, you are in trouble. Fulfilling our sacred contract is an individual, existential mandate. We may find others to support us, others whose mission is the same, but first and foremost, we are here to fulfill our own calling.”
My response: “Fulfilling our sacred contract…”
I have reached a level of great comfort in my life’s journey. Not to say that there are no other levels of even better comfort ahead. But for now, I feel quite satisfied with my life. I feel I am living as authentically as I ever have in my life. And I’m grateful for being in a place—in relationships, in surroundings—that support this authenticity.
Most of my life I was living as someone else: my mother’s daughter, my sisters’ sister, a troubled teenager, someone’s wife, the mother of all my children. They have all been a part of my journey. But about two decades ago I was confronted with the idea of what Thurman calls, “a sacred contract.” I finally realized that life could not be lived in notions of “some day.” I could not continue to make easy choices or to settle for decisions that would not disrupt the harmony for other people at the expense of my own soul’s peace.
My sacred contract has been to love myself, to forgive myself, to appreciate my uniqueness and my gifts. This has not been a commitment to a life of wild abandonment or to doing only what “feels good.” Rather, it has been a commitment to honesty and truthfulness even when that causes some discomfort for me.
Writing has given me the voice to safely express many truths—to put them in a place I could live with, and ponder, and accept, and embrace.
I would say that the past twenty years have been much less scary than at any time in my life. Even though scary things, unpleasant things, traumatic things, have happened, I have been different in the way I have grown to respond.
Where am I going? I don’t know exactly where. But I do know wherever I go, I am strong and fearless. I take with me all the people I have ever known throughout my life. Every single person (in both negative and positive circumstances) has contributed to who I am today. For that reason, I can only feel love and gratitude for them.
The relationships I have chosen to maintain—friends and family—are those which support and encourage my authenticity. As I meet people, for example at the Family House, I can truly feel empathy, respect, and love. The work I have chosen to continue is a venue where I may contribute the knowledge I have gained from all my prior life experiences. It is comfortable. It feels right.
Do I live an entirely stress-free life? NO! But my perspective on any challenges is so very different now. Those are opportunities for me to continue learning and to feel the sweet energy of a full life!
~Dottye Currin, March 3, 2013
1. Using a photo-art, create a scene, a sense of place.
2. Put two characters in and write from Character One’s point of view. NO DIALOGUE
3. Switch to Character Two’s POV (NO DIRECT DIALOGUE).
4. Write dialogue between these characters.
5. Give one character a flashback.
6. Write anything to close the scene.
Using a photo-art, create a scene, sense of place.
This stately old house just outside Atlanta, Georgia had been in the family for generations; always a reflection of the time and culture as it aged beautifully in place. Originally constructed in the late 1800s just after the Union troops had burned their way through the South, the house is elegant and strong, reflecting the resilience and character of the people who built it and their descendants who have maintained ownership for nearly 150 years.
The current occupants are the Carter family. Ben is an environmental lawyer working for the state. His great-great grandfather was also named Ben and would be proud that the tradition of social responsibility and strength of character continues through this soft-spoken young man.
Ben’s wife, Dolly, has adapted well to the southern life. Born in New York City, Dolly is active in human services and stays busy in her career and current occupation as a lawyer for the ACLU.
When Ben and Dolly moved into the house just after their marriage in 1996, the façade of the house had not been updated since the early 1960s. To make the house reflect more of their sense of style and interest in art—which had brought them together in the first place during a Young Lawyers Association meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the early ‘90s— they added an additional living space. This new space is totally open to the outside world, connecting them to nature and consistent with their honesty and integrity.
Ben and Dolly have assured the continuation of the Carter family for at least another generation and have been great parents to fourteen-year-old son, Sanders, and eleven-year-old daughter, Gabby. Most people would describe them as a typical family in many ways, whose lives are busy with active participation in school, community, church, and professional organizations.
But things are seldom as they seem. As Dolly describes it, Life is so unfair.
Put two characters in and write from Character One’s point of view. NO DIALOGUE
“I grew up with the idea if you work hard, get a good education, live responsibly and always do the right thing, you would likely be successful and live contentedly.
But this day is one of the saddest and most difficult anyone could have. I look around at all my blessings—a great husband, smart kids who are loving and kind, a satisfying career, and many interesting friends.
Gabby is my soul mate really. She and I have had a special bond—established even before she was born. A difficult pregnancy with unknown causes but lots of procedures, tests, ultrasounds —and sleepless nights—worrying that we might never enjoy the adventurous life this little growing baby would surely bring with her.
But after five months of bed rest and careful monitoring by outstanding physicians, our sweet Gabrielle Margaret Carter arrived with no adverse effects from the problematic incubation and has continued to be healthy and vibrant.
But she has always been a little ‘different.’ I sensed it from the beginning. She has always seemed to have a sixth, even seventh, sense about people and about things going on around her. Because of this, she has spent a lot of energy helping her friends and being an ample shoulder to lean on. In our frequent family conversations, she has always offered up a wise perspective and a unique point of view. I wish I had the right words to say now.”
Switch to Character Two’s POV (NO DIRECT DIALOGUE)
“My mother has always been my best friend and I’m so proud she is such a neat person. My friends can’t believe the stories we tell each other. My mom has such a great imagination! She’s funny, too. I love when she comes into my room at night and we lie on the bed, ‘comparing notes’ as she calls it. Sometimes we start laughing at some silly little thing and before you know it we are falling on the floor holding our sides and gasping for breath!
But lately she seems very troubled and sad. I’ll have to help her now, and we’ll figure out something.”
Write dialogue between these characters
D: “Gabby, I have already talked to Dad and Sanders about this and I wanted them here with me as I have some news for you. Do you remember the times last week when I had several doctor’s appointments.”
G: “Mom! Please! Do you have cancer? Are you okay? What’s going on?”
D: “No, no. I’m fine. Well at least I am fine in that I wasn’t seeing the doctors about myself. And I was also seeing hospital administrators and attorneys. Oh, what a week.”
G: “So you had a lot of appointments! And with all those different people. You are scaring me, now. I don’t get it.”
D: “I have a rather bizarre story to tell you and it will end with us having to make some very difficult decisions.”
G: “Well, if you’re not sick and you are not about to tell me that you are dying, then nothing else matters, right?”
D: “We’ll see. As you know, I had a very difficult pregnancy with you, and we were always afraid that you might not survive being born. Because of that, the night you were born we were admitted to a delivery area of the hospital whose nurses were trained in caring for at-risk babies and their mothers. It was an extremely busy night and lots of babies were born and, as happens sometimes, the nursery was short staffed. The primary point of this story is that you and another baby were switched that night. Or, more accurately, you were purposely exchanged.”
G: “I don’t understand this. How could that happen? Do you mean that I am not your baby? Well, I mean your child now? Who would do that? Where is the mother who had me? What happened to the other baby? Your baby?”
Give one character a flashback
God! She is asking the same questions I asked that afternoon. That dark afternoon I had been called to a meeting with the hospital administrator and her league of risk management, attorneys, and the like. And even with their explanations, I still go back to those same questions:
How could that happen? (How could Gabby NOT be my child; she is my soul mate!) And who WOULD do that? Why? Who is that OTHER mother?
And as much as I love our sweet Gabby, now I am consumed by grief at the loss—that I am suddenly, reluctantly aware of —the loss of that other baby girl. OUR baby girl. But we are so lucky to have Gabby and our lives have been so enriched and blessed by her presence. Yet I feel so very sad about the other baby, the one I knew for all the months of my pregnancy and for whom I felt such a connection.
And perhaps a part of me knew something extraordinary had happened. Ben and I have always discussed how Gabby really did seem so “different” and we attributed it to some uniqueness of her personality, perhaps reaching far back in the gene pool to bring to life some nearly extinct feature of the family.
But with all the legal ramifications of this new discovery, it is possible that we will lose our Gabby. And I can’t imagine a worse loss than that of a child we have loved and nurtured for over eleven years.
Write anything to close the scene
So, here is the story from that night.
One of the other mothers was a fifteen-year-old girl who had not been to a doctor during her entire pregnancy. The medical staff was concerned about all the unknowns and because she was also extremely agitated and very emotional, they decided she should be in the high-risk area. This young mother-to-be had confided to the nurse caring for her that she just wanted to get this over with and leave. She was planning to give this baby up for adoption and had no intention of taking it home with her. She seemed to be street-smart, determined, and fearless. She gave birth to a healthy little girl.
The nurse working in that area on that night was seasoned and compassionate; after thirty-plus years of working in labor and delivery, she had seen it all. She was also very highly respected for her technical skills, her breadth of knowledge, and her deep love for the mothers and babies she assisted at this most critical transition in life.
Last week, the hospital received a call from the nurse who had recently retired and shortly afterward been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Whatever her motivation—facing her mortality, trying to amend past bad judgments, making right some wrong—she confessed to having exchanged these two baby girls that night in the nursery.
You see, in a spontaneous act of sorrow, sympathy, and hopefulness, she had reasoned that it made sense to give the teenager’s baby to us and spare us the trauma of loss we would have faced because our baby died.
Since the teenager was going to give her baby up anyway, why not go ahead and make one family happy with the birth of a healthy infant and let the teen mom be spared any regrets at a later point in life reflecting on where her baby was and whether she had done the right thing. She was told that her baby had died, so she would know where her baby was.
Of course this was not only unprofessional, it was an illegal act. But until last week, no one knew. And the hospital had to notify us. And they had to notify the other mother, who is now in her late twenties, attending graduate school here in Atlanta, and who is curious to meet the baby who lived, her baby.
~Dottye Law Currin, February 2012
Antique Wedding Dress
With a heavy heart after the death of my Mother, I climbed the rickety steps to the attic to begin the clear out process. I passed mementos stacked on the steps, and paused to look each item over carefully. Mom loved to read. She saved every book her beautiful long thin fingers with manicured nails touched. Christmas decorations were stacked, awaiting their final destination to the storage bins in the back of the attic. I am sure it was much too cold for Mom’s frail physique to venture beyond the puffs of heat only felt ankle deep while ascending the attic steps.
I continued my journey up the steps, pulling my sweater around my turtleneck already perched over the bridge of my nose. I was attempting to “self heat” as I breathed slowly in and out. At times, I shed tears as I came across pictures of Mom and Dad. What a truly happy and blessed life they had lived. At times, I wished I had a brother or sister to share in times such as this, to make the burden of Mom and Dad’s loss somewhat easier.
One picture I loved in particular was of Mom and Dad on their wedding day. I was shocked to see how young and vulnerable they appeared-like children. I remember Mom talking to me about her wedding day, and how beautiful she felt in her wedding gown, hand-made by her grandmother and aunts. Mom said it took them over a year to hand stitch the lace overlay-it was one of a kind.
The black and white wedding photograph prompted me to search further into the attic despite the cold that made my teeth chatter. Although I never had the chance to see Mom’s wedding gown, I was destined to see if she saved it as she did every other treasure in her life.
I walked the narrow walkway, passing bin after bin of clothing, books, decorations, and my Dad’s war memorabilia he used to share with me. Tucked away on a back shelf, with cobwebs attached to almost every corner, was an unusual rectangular box faded and water stained from years in the attic.
Brushing the cobwebs away, I gently pulled down the box from the shelf. To my surprise, it was quite light weight, quite different from what I expected.
I gently carried the box across the attic and down the stairs, feeling relief as the heat hit my ankles before it spread lovingly around my body as I reached the landing. There was a cord wrapped around the box that I gently pulled apart. There was no “viewing window” to see inside the box as more modern brides were used to.
As I gently lifted the lid, my heart took a flutter as I cast my eyes across the certain fabric that made my Mom’s wedding day one of the happiest days in her life, and I could see why so.
Just as my Mom, the fabric was fragile and unique. I could just imagine how she must have felt on her wedding day, and fortunately, today, I was able to feel her joy as I lay my hands on the fabric of her life.
This is a work of fiction.
The Wedding Dress
The fading of an elegant dress-satin, tulle, a fine nuptial tiara, now crumpled and old in tan tissue paper decorated with scalloped filigreed edges courtesy of Mr. or Mrs. Moth.
I sat next to a lady at a community luncheon at the Convention Center this week who might have worn this dress. Her withered and shriveled form still had a hint of former glory and elegance. Her ivory colored coat was draped over the back of her chair, revealing the Montaldo’s label and a creatively artful moth-eaten design on the inside collar. I asked her about her involvement with the Women’s Fund and what brought her to be a member. She delivered a dissertation on the power of women, how women must support one another, and how women are the cinderblocks of our society. “Besides,” she said, “I need to do something exciting, so when I chat with my grandchildren on Facebook, I will have interesting things to tell them!”
Then the program began, but I really didn’t need to hear any more that day. My luncheon partner was finishing up every morsel on her plate, pushing the last bit of chicken salad on her fork with a crust of bread. “We mustn’t waste any food,” she told me. “That was how I was brought up. Someday all that waste will catch up with us.”
Our elders possess much wisdom, I thought. We must listen more carefully. Could it be that moth holes are really the openings through which our ancestors, our oracles speak?
1. Lines of a poem are cut apart and placed in a bowl. Each person draws a line at random and writes for 20 minutes.
2. The writings are shared with the readers reading their responses to the lines in the order in which they appear in the original poem. The whole poem is then read.
This writing was a response to a line from “Grandmother Speaks of the Old country” by Lola Haskins. Read the whole poem at this link: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178279
The line drawn was this: “died at their mending. Children fell at school”
School should be a safe haven, a place for education and growth. A place where lessons are learned and friendships blossom. School should be a time of remembrance, hard work, school trips, report cards, and open house meet and greets. The innocence of this bygone era was forever changed not many years ago in a school half way across the nation. A set of students decided one day to open fire on the institution of learning they themselves attended. What deep down problem led them to such a bizarre event that forever changed the innocence?
The attack on the school was so sudden and random everyone ran screaming in scattered directions in an effort to flee the range of fire. Fear and wide-spread panic permeated the campus as swift and violent as high tide against the shore during a horrific storm. The only difference was that high tide didn’t recede on a schedule around the moon.
Teachers and administrators tried frantically to care for the fallen students and teachers. The chaos was too much to muster. Blood was spattered everywhere as if a paint ball contest was being held center court. The wounded grew by the minute leaving few other unskilled people to medically treat the numerous wounds. Unfortunately, before the police and EMS arrived, many died at their mending. Children fell at school. And it wasn’t the common scrape requiring Neosporin and a band-aid from the school nurse.
This was a deep penetrating wound that would never heal-a scar unlike any other.
~Monica Sleap 9/30/06
Prompt: Write about a place that no longer is. (April 2007 retreat)
Carol read “Drucker’s Mule Barn” by Jeffrey Franklin, a poem featured on Poetry Daily for April 20, 2007 (but no longer available online) about a place that no longer exists except in the mind of the poet.
Home…my first one…it’s still there…yet it is no longer what it was.
I wasn’t born when Daddy had it built for a mere $5000, a good deal of money to a young couple in their late 20s. That was the mid-’40s. The simple white-framed Cape Cod with a cement stoop got a face-lift several years after I came along. I remember when the ‘siding men,’ as I called them, turned our house pink and added the white shutters, both of aluminum, the trend of the day in exterior home décor. I told my neighbor friends, Phillis and Kathy, “The siding men are making our house pink.” I’m sure Mama and Daddy wouldn’t have referred to it as ‘pink’; perhaps ‘mauve’ would have been the grown-up word.
I don’t think the screened-in back porch was built with the house originally, but it was there as far back as I can remember. With less than 950 square feet indoors, the porch was a favorite spot for our family on rainy evenings in late spring, during warm autumn sunsets, and especially on those sweltering July and August nights, a reprieve from our more-than-cozy interior. Plus, we had no air-conditioning. It didn’t matter if we were in the house or on the back porch—we were still hot.
The porch floor was hard cement, painted a deep red, a burgundy shade—did Mama coordinate the color with the pink siding? Was she inspired by a favorite lipstick shade? More likely, the paint color was an old stand-by from Wilson-Covington Construction Company, my Daddy’s employer. Daddy was a painter by trade; I’m certain he was allowed to help himself to extra paint from the company. That was the day when employees came home with overstock items—employers considered them as part of their bonuses. No matter the impetus or the source, that burgundy floor cooled our feet on those summer nights when the cicadas hummed and the crickets played their harmonies. And then Daddy would take the melody with his harmonica, playing his sweet music by ear. I was the solo vocal performer most nights, Daddy only stopping to fill in the words I hadn’t yet memorized. Mama was busy sewing or preparing a Sunday school lesson inside if she wasn’t on the porch with me and Daddy. “Amazing Grace…how sweet the sound.” “Hey good lookin’, what ya’ got cookin’?” “Don’t you listen to ‘em Dan, he’s a devil not a man and he spreads the burning sand with water…cool, clear water.” Old hymns, country ballads, trail songs…most of the lyrics I’ve long forgotten.
I remember having a sleepover there one night so many summers ago. Phillis, Kathy, and I started in the carport with a tiny campfire and sticky marshmallows. I liked mine burned until crispy, brimming with carcinogens. We sat on cement blocks and told silly ghost stories, reminiscing about Old Man Vickers and his telling us one Halloween to “trick or treat the devil.” We stared at the star littered sky, wondering if aliens really did exist. However, we were not going to let make-believe ghouls or little green men from Mars spoil our fun. Just in case, we moved to the porch, closer to Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. We latched the screen door for added security.
My playhouse, the washhouse, still stands, with its matching blush of pink. Before I was old enough to help with the wash, I had tea parties in the cement-block building. I took care of my babies and washed up my dishes and swept my floors. Mama would interrupt on summer days, loading the shelves with canned green beans, pickles, and beets and filling the freezer with corn. By the time I started my “pip” as Mama called it, I was past tea parties and baby dolls. I was washing real dishes and mopping real floors. Mama wouldn’t let me go in the washhouse if I had my pip; I would cause the sauerkraut to spoil.
Attached to the playhouse/washhouse was the tool shed—Daddy’s tool shed…my bathroom in my younger days when I was too busy to go inside to use the real one. I would just squat and pee on the dusty, red clay floor. Daddy would come home from work to work some more, always having some hoeing or picking to do in his one acre garden in the spring and summer. Did he notice the small irregular puddles, almost dry, causing the dirt to wrinkle around itself? I wonder how old I was the last time I peed there…5…6…maybe even 7 or 8. I loved to play…I knew how to play. I was a vocal child who would let her Mama know if I wasn’t finished playing.
The smokehouse was Daddy’s domain. Not really a smokehouse, his most important stuff was in there, his electric tools, paint buckets stacked 3-5 deep, bristly paintbrushes soaking in turpentine. It too was painted that same hue of pink. I mostly left the smokehouse alone. Spiders lived in there—I didn’t like spiders. The tang of turpentine and oil-based paints had long ago swallowed any trace of smoke that had cured pork when it was a used for its namesake, a smokehouse. It reminded me of my daddy more than any of the other storage buildings on our two acre lot. I loved the Saturdays that he was home, working in his garden or mowing the yard…I probably used the real bathroom on Saturdays though, afraid to disappoint him.
The inside dwelling of 228 Gladstone Road was humble, modest, unassuming, yet it was brimming with pride—the pride that my mother instilled there. It was as if she was giving our home a reason to be content with itself, regardless of its size and lack of any real decorator’s touches. I remember vividly the year we took on that task—redecorating the kitchen, me, Mama and Daddy. She chose soft tones of yellow and green, not the muted gold and olive that were popular in 1972, to adorn the walls, cabinetry, floor, and ‘kitchenette set.’ The trend was to ‘frost’ the furniture in pastels, so Daddy painted the table and six matching chairs a bright yellow, then coated them with a white glaze. Mama and I thought they were beautiful!
Together we glued bright orange and yellow plastic Popsicle sticks on Welch’s Jam jars, which were created to use as drinking glasses. But we had better plans for the cartoon-characters peering at us through the glass. There were three what-not shelves on each side of two of the windows, so we had nine places to display ‘collectibles.’ We filled our vases with plastic flowers in the same bright hues and set one on each side of the kitchen window. Live plants, souvenirs from mountain and beach vacations, and a plaque with an inspiring quote or Bible verse filled the other shelves…nothing expensive, just things that said ‘home’ to me.
Mama made many suppers in that kitchen…that happy, yellow kitchen with soft green walls that said, “Sit down, eat your vegetables. Now you can have some banana pudding, but you still have to wash the dishes tonight.”
Both of my parents are gone now, Daddy in 1979, Mama, eight years ago today July 1, 1999. My only sister, eleven years my senior and unmarried with no children, came back home from Oklahoma City in 1996 and decided to make this her home again in order to help our mother. When Mama passed away they were in the middle of having the house freshened up with paint and new carpet and tile flooring. They had plans to hire a painter to refurbish the exterior, at least the cement block buildings and the peeling burgundy floor of the porch.
But those things never happened. My sister’s finances alone didn’t allow for further improvements. My sister, diagnosed in late August of 2006 with Frontotemporal Dementia, is in an assisted living facility. I had to ‘place’ her there. Now, the house sits lonely on its tiring foundation. The exterior paint continues to peel, slowly revealing the dull gray cement of the porch floor and the blocks used in constructing the storage buildings. The screens have holes and are blackened with dust and pollen. Mice have moved into the crawl space; spiders live in the musty closets. The kitchen hasn’t felt bright or cheerful for many years, especially since the last few meals with my sister about a year before her diagnosis, when I knew something was wrong with her.
I sit here on my own back porch, the sun setting on this July 1, 2007 night. I can almost see Daddy drawing deep breaths to hasten sharps and flats from his harmonica. I can smell Mama’s biscuits that she baked for supper. I can hear the train whistle in the distance and the dogs barking at its shrill call. But I am suddenly forced back to my reality of what is to come very soon—a for sale sign staked in the front yard.
It is a sad place now…it is a place that is no longer what it was…it will never be that place again.
*Footnote* It is now January, 2013. I sold mine and my sister’s home place in June of 2008. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve done in my life. I told the family who bought it to please love it like it had been for over 60 years. I rode by there recently…I don’t think they’re ‘loving’ it like our family did. I hope there is at least as much love inside those walls–love within their family, like there was in our family, regardless of its faded pink exterior.
This piece was written April 22, 2007 to a prompt at a weekend retreat: Write about a place that no longer is.
The oak trees in my grandmother’s yard had colors for names. Black oak, white oak, red oak. But as far as I could see as a six-year-old, they all had green leaves in the spring and summer and brown leaves in the fall and winter, and I thought they might have been rightly called green or brown oaks by someone of little imagination.
The red oak was massive and it stood a little to the back of the house and to the side, and its sprawling roots that protruded above the ground were splayed out like spider legs all around it. Between those visible roots, I planned my home. The living room was between the two roots that were tallest, the dining room was between the next root and one of the living room roots, and the bedroom followed, then the kitchen. I don’t know why I didn’t think to have a bathroom. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was because my grandmother’s house did not yet have an indoor bathroom. Beneath that tree, no grass grew, just reddish brown dust. It wasn’t quite the red clay of other parts of the yard nor the rich brown loam of the garden.
When summer brought dry wind and no rain for a time, I pried pancakes from the earth. I could put a thin stick just under the thick piece of dried mud and pry up a piece of cracked earth intact, resting it on a large leaf plate, and underneath the pancake I could leave my fingerprints in the moist earth that gave the faint smell of spring rains past.
Under that red oak, I played house. I swept clear the acorn caps and oak tags and leaves with my small broom. I used bark and broken dishes and a dented red and white enamel pot as the cooking implements. I allowed visitors in but only if they wiped their feet, brushing off the dust before entering. I held school in the living room most days, making my brother and younger cousins sit quietly to read or spell or write or count. How many sticks am I holding? If I take away two of them, how many do I have now? I know I still have five, but how many do I have in this hand?
I looked for fairies under that tree nearly every morning when my parents dropped me off as they drove to work with other uncles and aunts who lived nearby. In the cool of one summer morning, I sat under the red oak in the living room checking to see if the bluets I had smushed into the acorn cups had indeed been supper for the fairies and planning my housekeeping tasks for the morning when I felt something hit my head, a light plop. I brushed it aside. Another plop, light as a pod of peas my grandmother gave me to shell but of a more giving shape. Then many plops and one large swoosh and I was covered with yellow and black caterpillars crawling, falling and trying to hold to some part of me where they had landed.
My grandmother who could not walk well and who rarely ventured out of doors had told my cousins and me not to pick up any worm or snake. Not trusting us to tell the difference between a copperhead and a tent caterpillar, she told us all of them would bite us and kill us. “Just like that. You’re dead,” she told us.
I looked at the caterpillars crawling on my legs and belly and elbow, and I knew I was going to die.
I ran across the yard, shearing some of the creatures off as I brushed under branches of a Rose of Sharon bush. I ran erratically, trying to fling them off by the shear power of my legs pumping and pushing as I drew in sharp breaths.
When an older cousin caught me under Uncle Boyd’s apple trees, I had stumbled and fallen but I had managed to shake off most of the caterpillars. Only a few remained, inching their way through the curls in my hair. I must have looked like a miniature Medusa, and I felt as if I had outrun death.
More than forty years after this, I thought of this awful surprise and the wish that I could outrun death when a young sheriff’s deputy brought the news that my daughter was dead: killed instantly in a car crash less than half a mile from home.
The red oak tree never had quite the same comfort and security for me after the caterpillars fell from its branches. I didn’t sweep so proudly each morning, and I started holding court at my school on the screened in side porch where the old church bench nudged the wall instead of between the roots of the red oak. But I still looked to see if the fairies had enjoyed their bluet pudding or Rose of Sharon blossom stew in the cool of a summer morning. I needed to know the fairies might still come. I needed to know the thin veil that separates night from day, spring from summer, time from forever is still there.
Prompt: Write about a place that no longer is
April 22, 2007
I finally framed that little snapshot that had been in our family photo album for 25 years. I put it on the windowsill in my studio, beside a small photo of my mother.
The picture was taken in Laurie’s den after one of my earliest outings after John was born. I walked the two blocks to her house with all my little ducklings—my 3 little girls– following behind as I pushed the old green buggy that carried their new brother.
Laurie, ever the neighborhood historian, lined the kids up on her couch. Julie, age 7, holding weeks old John, Sarah at 5, with her hand on his leg, Rebecca at 2, looking at John rather than the camera. As long as I could remember, I wanted a big family. (9 I used to say as a kid). I loved pregnancy, giving birth, and babies, babies, babies! I guess to me, John finally made us a big family and thru the years I loved photographing them as a group—when I could assemble them as a group. That picture represents a moment in time when I had everything I ever wanted. How lucky was I –at 34 that my life had been so blessed. I knew I wanted that large family, but also knew there was a matter of luck involved in that. Not everyone meets the right man. Not everyone is able to conceive, or give birth to a healthy child. I had done so FOUR times. Everything I always wanted.
With Julie the oldest at 7—for all of us—the best of our lives were ahead of us. They were all still closely under my supervision and protection. I could even still choose their friends and activities, healthy food, TV shows and movies. Still hopes of honor students, obedient personalities, loving Little House on the Prairie people—the Waltons—it was all possible at that moment in time when that photo was taken.
But that moment in time is SOOO long gone—twenty-six years ago. Not only is Rebecca gone, the other three are gone in a different way. The pure innocence of life and hope have cut thru our family. But I still love that picture, because it reminds me that once I DID have everything I wanted. Now I have everything that’s HAPPENED…but we are still a family. And its nice to know WHO we all have become, even without Rebecca. How lucky we didn’t know what would happen to our lives when that photo was taken. That moment was perfect—as are many moments, really, if we only remember to breathe them in, hold our breath; and enjoy them. Tomorrow we will add another snapshot of something that is no more.