By Jill Talbot and Marcia Aldrich
You know that photograph, the one I’ve kept on the refrigerator of every Somewhere we’ve lived? The one of you—at maybe two or three—standing on the edge of a pool? You’re wearing a tiny blue bikini, the bulk of a yellow life vest snapped tight, one of your hands held to it. Are you checking it before you jump? Or are you gesturing, the way you still do when you speak, your arms floating up and down, almost flapping at times (like a bird). The water shimmers in the sun, and your short, blonde hair is wet, and there’s a puddle on the pool deck, so this must be jump two or three or ten. Your sweet knees bent, your tiny feet. There’s the dark blue tile at the water’s edge and three bushes line the flower bed behind you. Do you remember how Gramma would stand in her black swimsuit, moving the hose back and forth, back and forth over the bushes? Here, in this moment, she’s behind the camera, catching your joy. You’re all glee, giddy, but it’s the certainty that gets me every time, a pinch of tears in the back of my throat. Because I’m the one in the water, the one you’re watching. I haven’t always been something you can be so certain of, someone steady. I’ve told you this, but you claim not to remember. Your memory of those years an empty pool. Everywhere we’ve been, everywhere I go, I tack this photo on the fridge to remind myself—it’s my job to catch you.
When we moved back to Seattle, you had just turned two. I wouldn’t say the terrible two’s in the sense you didn’t throw regular tantrums, but you did have moments of supreme willfulness, and I couldn’t predict them for they came out of nowhere and caught me off guard. I remember one such fit staged in a public space to devastating effect.
I was pushing you in the stroller through the University of Washington’s Bookstore. Perhaps I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to you, absorbed as I was in aisle after aisle of glorious books that I had missed. Or perhaps you sensed an opportunity to act out since my mind was elsewhere. Raw instinct told you to grab as many books as you could from the shelves, which you did. The aisles were narrow enough that your little arms could reach on both sides like a wrecking machine. By the time I woke up so many books had already spilled onto the floor. I began to push your stroller down the aisle as fast as I could, and you kept grabbing, all the while you fixed me with a look I can only describe as chilling in its defiance. It was the first time, but not the last, that I saw your usual happy nature take a turn towards destruction, as if inside your sunniness a force of antagonism resided. You would not be thwarted from your task which was to create chaos, and as an unintended by-product to bring shame and embarrassment upon me, your mother.
Of course, I couldn’t wheel you out of the danger zone fast enough to avert multiple saleswomen from flocking over to scold me—What seems to be the problem they crowed. And can’t you control her? No, I cannot control her, I wanted to scream, obviously, but I did not. I felt exposed as a fraud, parading myself as a mother. I meekly apologized as I continued to push your chariot out the store and onto the street where I collapsed against the wall of the building. It was then that you suddenly transformed back to the girl you had been when we entered the store and showed no trace, no trace whatsoever of that other person you harbored inside you. I wondered what people passing by thought about us. They would only see a perfectly beatific two-year-old girl with rosy cheeks and blonde curls and a woman, her mother they presumed, undone.
You don’t remember Elder or Arapahoe in Boulder, because those were the roads of your blue infant seat. But two months before you turned seventeen, we took a trip to Colorado, and one day, I drove us down Mountain Avenue to show you the hospital where you were born in Longmont, fifteen miles northeast of Boulder, which is where we lived back then, where he and I brought you home. Turning each corner, I thought of that line from On the Road, “It was beautiful in Longmont,” and it had been, the snow falling outside the window the night you were born. The flakes shimmering under streetlights. You.
Driving us on that bright-sky day, I took the road to Boulder, and you saw, for the first time, those mountains towering before us. You said it looked exactly like the oversized print I hang in all our living rooms. The black and white of a highway heading toward snow-capped mountains, a storm suspended in heavy clouds. I told you that the road we were on is the reason I bought it, but I didn’t tell you this: it reminds me of the storms I’ve driven us from and how you and I see majesty in highway roads.
You didn’t ask until you were eight where he was, if I had loved him, if I had a photograph. You keep a photograph in your room, one of him holding you the day we brought you home to Elder Avenue.
On our drive, I showed you the apartment on Elder and the one on Arapahoe, not able to explain that this was where I watched from the window—night after night while you slept in your crib—for the blue of his truck. I couldn’t get the words from behind my throat. He left us on Arapahoe, then you and I left for Utah on I-70 West.
When we talk about the places we’ve lived, we don’t use time stamps or years, we use cities. Here are the streets: West, Dewey, Woodland, Lakeview, North Duncan, East Main, South Pacific, Dallas Drive. I never intended. I never imagined. What if one day when you are older, you struggle to keep from filling out a change of address form every year or so? Will I be asked to explain the transience? I have no answer. Except this: “I’m sorry.”
Bird, you sense a larger view of the world than most of the people around you, and you wonder how someone can live in one place their whole lives when you have highways, gas stations, motels, U-Hauls, blankets in the back, naps in the passenger seat, and the hum of the roads, the roads, the roads that are, in many ways, who you know yourself to be.
I-70 West and I-15 North (those narrow curves between the red rocks) and US-12 West and I-84 East (the snow sweeping across the lanes in Wyoming that night) and I-35 South and I-44 East and I-70 East (when we ate only McDonalds for five days and you set up fries and ketchup on a napkin plate) and I-90 West and I-80 West and the way we’d sit on our back deck in New Mexico every night, watching headlights sneak around the curves of I-84. By then, we didn’t know how not to be on a road. Out there, we looked to the lights and wondered aloud where and when we might go. And we did, across I-40 East until we crossed into Texas, where we’ve been for five years, where you will leave in a year. I want to leave, too, my own direction. The exit to I-35 waits less than half a mile away.
Halloween was a holiday my mother paid no mind—it is a blank to me as if it didn’t even exist in my childhood. By the time I had you, even I realized it was a big event, and not just for the candy collected but because of the competition over costumes. It wasn’t until I had you and then David that I realized I was going to fail one of the crucial mother tests, that all the other mothers, all the mothers of your friends and classmates, all the other mothers on the block, or so I imagined, had started sewing costumes in July to be ready for the big reveal at the end of October. Or if not sewing, assembling.
My mother-in-law, probably sensing the impending crisis since she knew that I lacked all sewing skills, sewed you a clown costume for your first Halloween. I was grateful. It was adorable—a white cotton jump suit dotted with red and blue balls, puffy sleeves that flared at the wrists, and a matching tall hat. She even sent me clown makeup. I remember you sitting on the toilet seat in our small bathroom in Seattle while I applied the thick mask of white and the red bulbous nose. You made a striking appearance, all the mothers fawned over you, more than a little jealous of your costume. Some who didn’t know me assumed I made it, and some asked rather incredulously if I had, sensing a deep incompetence in me in the domestic arts, or what I liked to call the dark arts. They were, of course, right. I was completely incapable of making any costume and certainly one that was so professionally polished.
I felt relief that Grandma had spared me the humiliation of you going without a costume, and I also felt shame. I also felt angry that because I was a mother it was expected I should be skilled in costume making as if I was born with the skill. No one expected that your father outfit you for Halloween. In weak moments I wanted to pass as a skilled seamstress and not admit that I hadn’t made the costume. I wanted to don the mask of motherhood. This was the first realization that I would be measured against other mothers and I would fail to live up to the measurements of what a mother should be, a creature with wings that doubled as cookie sheets. Little did I know that when I became a mother, I was to appear a born mother who didn’t leave her home without a first aid kit and a bag of snacks.
Grandma made your next costume and after that Gail Adams, our friend from West Virginia, stepped in to rescue all of us, but unlike grandma who made recognizable types of costumes—clown, princess—Gail sent us a box of costumes labeled Sun Goddess, Joan of Arc, The Wolf Man. When I asked you and David recently what you remembered about those costumes, you said no one knew what or who you were supposed to be. You didn’t sound bitter, but it was clear you felt yourselves outliers to the other children in our Midwestern town where we had moved, marked as eccentric. And that was true.
And then came the years without Grandma and Gail, when we were thrown on our own devices, the period of witches and ghosts, constructed from store bought hats and masks and household items. And green makeup and wigs. They were not original, and perhaps you and David were relieved to be finally in costumes that looked like everyone else. I doubt you knew how large the distance was between who I was and who I felt pressured to be, how much motherhood was a mask that did not fit my face, how it slipped off my nose, obscured my eyes, and made it hard to breathe.
You don’t remember Boise, the five months we lived there when you were four. Well, that’s not true, you remember a love seat against a wall in a living room and an A/C unit in the window, how it rumbled and threatened to shudder into pieces. And you remember the stepstool, the one Gramma sent you. Two wooden steps painted white, the top one with your name on it in cheerful pink letters surrounded by pink and red flowers, green leaves. But after that, your memory darkens like a theater as the film begins. You don’t remember how I stopped smoking after you followed me out to the tiny porch (only a step, really) to tell me you didn’t like the way I smelled of smoke. So I smoked my last cigarette on that step. Stubbed it out and went on with my life, closing a long history, one of many histories I made the decision to turn away from when I realized that I would be raising you alone.
Boise was a bad turn around the wrong corner. An impossibility given my adjunct salary and daycare and rent and groceries and one Halloween costume. You’ve asked me to describe the place many times, and I’ve tried—the yellow walls, the maroon cabinets and door frames. A bathroom off the kitchen with only a shower. You missed baths, so I’d put a rag over the drain and let you splash in two inches of water. Not the same. Your stepstool under the bathroom sink, all sweet and bright against the suffocation of the impossible space we shared. I joked that we had to go outside to turn around. You cringe when I tell you this part, how we slept on a mattress on the floor, a mattress I found in a shed behind the duplex. Even I wince thinking of it now, but we brought nothing to Boise that wouldn’t fit into the Escape, our car a metaphor during those years. Now I drive a Focus. That doesn’t seem nearly as daring, but daring happens differently for mothers like me, the ones who skip the Parent 2 sections on forms, the ones who clap alone in bleachers during basketball games, the ones who stand a little off to the side from other mothers obviously questioning our singularity or worrying we’re after their husbands.
We needed more than a mattress on the floor, so I Goodwilled a makeshift home: a love seat, a plastic tv tray, a black bookcase, the tiny tv where I watched the fifth year replay of the 9/11 attacks—as if history is never history, but something on Repeat. I remember a voice mail from Gramma in those months, Where are you living?
We left Boise because I couldn’t make rent. We left Boise because I couldn’t afford that run-down daycare. We left Boise early one morning—the love seat and the bookcase and the mattress inside. We pulled away, an Escape filled with only what we could carry. If it had been a film’s final moment, there’d be only a road on the screen.
I left your stepstool on the bathroom floor. You asked about it once. It wouldn’t fit, or maybe I thought you didn’t need it anymore. I’m sorry. I wonder where it might be now, your name probably painted over, erasing its history, our history, this one we share, the one only I remember, and the one I will always see as one of several missteps.
Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? More glamorous than Boise or East Lansing, Michigan where we lived. I had never been anywhere outside of the United States unlike almost everyone I knew. So, when I was asked to teach in the Summer London Program with a colleague at Michigan State University, I leapt at the chance. I didn’t think about what it would entail practically. All I thought about was that I would take you on a travel adventure you’d never forget. I didn’t think about what would happen to the life I had painstakingly built–who would take care of our two dogs, one of whom was a puppy, and three cats and I don’t know how many fish. I didn’t think about how I should be working feverishly towards securing tenure and that I probably wouldn’t get a single piece of writing done the summer away. I didn’t think about how the four of us would live and travel on my per diem and salary. I was given lodging in London and what seemed a more than adequate per diem for one person but that turned out to be inadequate for four.
Suffice it to say, the whole enterprise was not what I had imagined in my transatlantic fantasies. I was a wreck from the moment I said yes. I put on a good front because everyone thought it the most exciting thing that had ever happened, a life-changer. As the manager of our house and animals, I spent vast amounts of anxious hours trying to find someone to stay in our house and be caretaker of the huge menagerie. Student meetings, the endless work with the studies abroad office, the papers and forms and arrangements, the course preparations, the travel preparations for us: I was exhausted before we even stepped on the plane. But while much was challenging about teaching 35 students in London, what I hadn’t reckoned on was how challenging it would be to have brought you. No day care, no school, no babysitters. But even more memorably what I didn’t reckon on was how poor I would feel, how ashamed I would feel about how expensive everything was and how I couldn’t afford it. It being everything but most crucially eating.
We scavenged for free concerts and free museum days and free outdoor fairs, free this and free that because almost everything wasn’t free. On Saturdays we’d go to Portobello Road Market and carefully stock up on what we could afford—mostly apples, it turned out. Things like strawberries and lettuce were beyond our means. And we had to walk by the pastries lavishly displayed. In my memory we lived on digestive biscuits and apples and peanut butter. Just the words digestive biscuits turns my stomach. I see them large, oval and brown. We took them everywhere. All I have to do to this day is say digestive biscuit and you groan in unison.
But you never complained. It was as if you had internalized my financial anxiety and understood it and had decided to cost as little as possible. It was heartbreaking. You were unfailingly cheerful and wildly exuberant even if you were subsisting on digestive biscuits and apples. We went everywhere by public transportation, and you were never still or quiet. You’d run and skip on the streets, dance about singing on the train platforms, chanting mind the gap, mind the gap, and we’d herd you into your seats like you were wild animals. That summer there weren’t many children to be seen in London. We wondered where they all were. And when we would spy an actual child on the tube or street corner, they were so subdued they hardly seemed like children, more like mini adults. Londoners looked at you askance. And then they’d look at us as if they were waiting for us to subdue you, asking what kind of parents we were. Then they’d see we were Americans.
One day you asked if you could go shopping. You had been given money from your grandparents to buy souvenirs. We let you go on your own just down the street while we waited in a nearby park. After an hour you came skipping back and what should you have but a present you had bought for us as thanks. It was wrapped in flowered tissue paper and after we pulled it apart we found a turquoise star fish made in China—not exactly a memento of London, but it turns out it was the only thing you could afford.
That photo we recently found of you, the one in a shoebox of photos Gramma kept in a closet? You were three, and you’re sitting backwards in a white chair, naked. I don’t remember taking the photo, but I remember the blue kitchen, the chair, your almost-white hair in a bob, tiny bangs. Sweet. Those were the years you refused to wear clothes, your nakedness a uniform in our Utah house. I let you roam. One day, you were playing restaurant in the living room fixing “mac-n-cheese, cherry sours, and a tortilla,” when I noticed your renegade art, the swirl of purple crayon on the wood paneling behind you. You loved to draw and paint and cut construction paper with those safety scissors. I’d find your designs on the linoleum in the kitchen, on the walls of rooms I didn’t know you had snuck into, and once, on the full-length mirror on the bathroom door, when you grabbed my lipstick from my purse and kissed the glass Poppy Red. But this photo? I’ve taped a piece of white paper to the back of the chair, and you’ve created circles and swirls on the small canvas, a bit on the chair, bright smudges on your stomach, your fingernails impossibly blue. You also liked to paint in the bath. I remember buying those colored crayons for the water, red and blue and yellow, orange and green, and you’d decorate the white tile until I told you it was time to get out. I have a painting in my office from those years, one that reminds me of Kandinsky’s “Squares with Concentric Circles.” Unlike the reds and oranges and yellows of his, your painting offers more purples, a color you love, even now. You don’t paint anymore, your art the trombone, those notes you play a swirl of colors.
When I came home from my artists residency in Virginia, I found the dirty clothes rising up from the basement floor to the ceiling. This is a story I’ve wanted to tell for a while, the story of what awaited me when I returned, the story of what happened while I was away. Even though we had our own washer and dryer, simple enough for you to operate much less your father, no one had done the wash while I was gone. You must have worn your socks and underwear for days because you didn’t have enough to carry you through for the month I was away. That’s right, I was gone for a month.
Even now the length of my time away seems outlandish. After years of listening to other writers talk about their residencies and being encouraged to apply myself, I finally did. Friends said you were sufficiently grown and independent to be left with your father and that Dad was sufficiently competent to be left in charge. What was I thinking? It struck me as supremely selfish to go off to a place designed to take care of me and give me the freedom to write. Me, Me, Me! Did I deserve such a thing? Did anyone deserve such a thing? After all, I had been juggling children, household, animals, a job as a professor in the English Department at Michigan State, and being a writer for a long time. What I wrote in my application was true—I was desirous of being released for a period of time from all of that to focus single-mindedly on my writing, something I had never really done.
I didn’t lie on my application about wanting this opportunity but what I didn’t say was that I was anxious I might fritter my time away; I worried that I would be homesick and that no one would tell me when things went wrong because they didn’t want to ruin my grand time away. Once there, I discovered I missed the feeling of having everyone in my brood under the same roof, tucked into their beds, the cats distributed among the blankets, the dogs on the floor. I learned that at least for me my best writing comes out of my daily, crowded, ordinary life. It isn’t that I wasn’t productive on the residency, I was, and I enjoyed meeting other artists, sharing work and stories, walking the trails on our breaks. There wasn’t anything lacking in the experience the residency provided except the life I had made and left behind.
The laundry wasn’t the only thing that greeted me upon return. Larry, our golden retriever waddled towards me, a much larger and slower dog than when I left. Like so much else, I had been in charge of his care and feeding. Dad read my instructions incorrectly—2 cans a day—and thought he was to be given 2 cans of food twice a day, doubling the amount I gave him for a month. And there seemed to be a broken window in the stairwell going up to the second floor that cardboard was taped over. It hadn’t gotten fixed even though it had been broken a few days after my departure. A couch had been moved from the basement up to what had been David’s bedroom and in carrying it up the stairs, it had gone through the window breaking it. The worse part, though, that greeted me was you. You pulled me aside the first night I was home, I remember it well, we were standing in the kitchen waiting for a dinner Dad was making for my return, and you said you had to tell me something, that it couldn’t wait. I had no idea what I was going to hear. You had been skipping school, you said. You’d leave in the morning as if you were headed to school, but you didn’t go. Instead you went to someone’s house until you’d return home at the usual time. Your father never sensed anything amiss.
I no longer remember the details. I just remember walking through the house surveying the damage and marveling how much could unravel in one month’s time—the house itself seemed a miracle to still be standing. And I remember you resting your head onto my shoulder and saying Thank God, you’re home. And while I publicly bemoaned the rack and ruin I found upon my return, I was secretly happy to roll up my sleeves and begin to set things to rights as only I could.
In Oklahoma, where you started Kindergarten, we planted periwinkles below our front window, and when the cold weather came, you pressed pumpkin seeds into the soil, sure the orange would one day surface. I still see you darting to the piles of dirt you made on the sidewalk, your blonde hair a bob, the fingernails I painted blue chipped from digging. We unearthed bottle caps and pull tabs, a playing card, a key or two, several coins. If we get back to that corner duplex, let’s go see if the stones still frame the garden, if a periwinkle shimmers, a pumpkin swells.
The year you turned twelve, the year you grew taller than I, we took nightly walks around our block in Chicago. I remember spring, when you picked tulips—red-pink petals, black anthers—from a wild patch around a fire hydrant and put them in a mason jar on my nightstand. The next night, you asked if you could pick some for yourself. And because they were on an island not attached to any home, I said sure. You ran back in the dark, back to me. We wandered the sidewalk while you picked the petals, one after another, and we stepped between their sinking. The next morning, the streets dark with leftover rain, I turned a corner to find the sharp relief of those red petals scattered before me like a ceremony, like a gift.
The year you turned sixteen, Gramma died, and before the house sold, I planted flowers around the pool in the backyard. Each time I drove the hour to the house, I dragged the hose around the backyard, watering the beds, the planters, the crepe myrtles, back and forth over the bushes. I came home from one of those trips to find two hanging baskets, pink periwinkles, one on each end of our balcony. A gift, you told me. I’ll never forget how long they lasted, long into October, their heavy blooms arcing and spilling over, cascading.
Remember the last night we spent at Gramma’s house? When we went out to swim? We tread water and talked while the blooms of the crepe myrtles spilled into the water like a fountain, their pink, paper-like petals bunching in one curve of the deep end. We spooned them out with our hands and onto the deck. The moon on the water like a thousand camera flashes.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her writing has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized in The Best American Essays.
Marcia Aldrich is the author of the memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton. Companion to an Untold Story won the 2011 AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is the editor of Waveform: Twenty-First- Century Essays by Women published by The University of Georgia Press. Her essays have been featured twice in Best American Essays (2003 and 2013) and published widely.