1. A middle-aged woman sitting at a kitchen table.
She has given up on wiping the sweat from her face — above her lip, round her nose. Her armpits stink. She is embracing the heat.
She has just watched a long film with her teenage daughter, “Call Me By Your Name.” It is the kind of film that evokes nostalgia, longing, the slow languid tension of sensuality and sexuality emerging.
As she watched, the woman remembered her own most potent moments of awakening. She was 18. Then she was 36. Never before had she realized these numbers, the ages, both representative in Jewish numerology — gematria, a mystical system she has always wanted to study — of life. Chai.
Naturally, he mind jumps ahead. What’s next? Fifty-four. That is a decade from now. Where will she be sitting in ten years? Will her wife be in the next room? Her daughter will be 25 then, having surely experienced her own moments of falling, coming into herself, loss, and hopefully good love.
She is wistful. Old enough to know that nostalgia is not a place to live, nor is regret. Young enough to imagine a future. Her daughter wanders into the room looking bothered by the heat and ridiculously cute in a bandanna and short, cut-off shirt with a black and white checkered design that reminds the woman of a flag at a race-car track.
“Slow down!” She wants to say to her, but she knows better. The girl, barely a girl yet still a girl, will grow at her own pace. She looks ready for the world — sitting on the floor against the fridge. The woman sees herself and not herself. They are not the same, and yet they have an understanding. Maybe someday, they will tell each other all of the stories.
2. For now, they will remain mother and daughter.
Sometimes friends, yes, but the woman believes the girl needs a mother, too. A guide, a mountain. A mountain guide.
The next night, they go for a ride just before sunset to get ice cream — mother and stepmom, daughter, and puppy. Instead of just the drive-through as they’d planned, they wind up going to the farm, where the ice cream is made on site, with milk from the cows the puppy is scared of.
It quietly thrills the woman to have this kind of together time, where all three of them are oohing and aahing over the light, pulling over to take pictures of old milk trucks and barns in the setting light. The heat has broken just enough tonight that they can ride with the windows down, enjoying a bit of a breeze.
She notices something: How often she longs for the very thing she has. As they drive home, continuing to marvel at the cloud formations and reflection of the last of the sunset against the hundreds of windows of the tall university library building, she experiences one of those moments when she can see it for what it is: Freedom. A blessing.
Why freedom? Because to have access to a vehicle and gasoline to power that vehicle, a set of keys all her own, is freedom. To have a woman whose ring she wears on her left hand — freedom. To be raising a daughter to follow and trust her own path — freedom.
Perhaps the longing is, then, the anticipation of loss. Loss due to the inevitable, which is that everything changes. And loss threatened by more violent forces — a government who would strike her family unit down, deny her children rights, take away health insurance subsidized by the state.
She knows others have been living this far longer than she has. And she’s determined not to mix up outrage with the primal drive to protect her own privileges. Her freedom to drive on this night with her wife and daughter is inextricable from everyone’s freedom. She feels messy in this. And there is also a clarity to it.
3. There often is — a clarity inside of a mess.
In fact, as soon as the woman saw these, she really SAW it. A mess is a swirl of confusion, perhaps, too many pieces, or a cloud. She pictures the Peanuts character — what was his name again? Pigpen? Something like that. The one with the cloud of dust always around his head. He is a mess. But he’s in there.
She realizes that perhaps the only thing of value she can pass along to her daughter is this: Sitting still, with a hand over your heart, is sometimes the most powerful action there is. It’s not passivity, no. Quite the opposite, as it requires presence and intention. Nonaction is sometimes the only way to let the dust settle, literally, so as to be able to see the clarity of what it’s occluding.
She scoffs for a moment at her own vocabulary. Who uses words like “occluding,” anyway? She resists the urge to look it up, to learn its roots. It seems like one of those words that would surely have an interesting etymology.
But she doesn’t. Looking up the roots of words, while entertaining, is sometimes a form of avoidance. Back to the cloud of confusion, she wants to tell her daughter something: When you don’t know what to do, wait and do nothing. Or, when you don’t know what to do, follow Anne Sexton’s lead and put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard. Or, when you don’t know what to do, trust yourself. Sit. Be still. Let the dust settle, no matter how urgent things feel. (Unless they are urgent, she wants to add, in the immediate sense, i.e. you are in imminent danger — in that case, do whatever you need to do to get safe.)
She pauses to take a deep breath. Is this too much, she wonders, or not enough? A quiver of panic shoots through her — she knows there is only so much time and soon her daughter will be all the way grown.
4. She sits in the cold of the air-conditioned living room.
She’s considering the moment earlier in the day, when she asked her daughter if she’d make the calls they’d agreed about. Calls to colleges the woman would never be able to afford, but on which her daughter had set her sights nonetheless. Calls to ask how the admissions people would view an applicant who had essentially skipped high school and gone on to get an Associate’s degree from a community college instead.
She got her haircut that day, for the first time in years. Not short, just a trim to clean up the neglected ends. How often is it that ends are neglected, she wondered, as she sat in the faux leather swivel chair, enjoying the time to be cared for by another woman, the owner of the salon, a woman named Frankie.
If you neglect the ends, you don’t get a complete story. Her mind goes back to the hour-long show, Nanette, by an Australian comic named Hannah Gadsby. She’d been hearing about it from others nonstop and finally convinced her wife to watch it together.
She — Hannah — talks about endings. About how comedy is all about creating tension and then relieving tension. All about the beginning and the middle of a story. Being so good at her job for so long, as a comedienne, had essentially trapped her in the most traumatic middle of her own story, without an opportunity to have an ending, to tell the whole thing, to let herself grow and heal.
We need to take care of our endings. What did this have to do with parenting in this moment? She pondered for a moment, looking up at the room as if an answer might materialize out of thin air.
She needed to let her children have their own stories.
5. Would you believe the heat wave had broken?
Now she sat in the kitchen, the same green chair where she’d begun this story days before. She could hear the puppy snoring under the coffee table in the next room, where her wife was reading.
Two days earlier, she’d spent the day with her own mother and her daughter — three generations. It had been her mother’s idea, the “spa day” that turned out to be a couples massage for the 44-year old and the teen, followed by a delightful discovery of the best falafel this side of Israel and some thrift store and window shopping. They didn’t buy anything, though the grandmother oohed and aaahed her way through a store packed to the gills with buttons and fabrics.
Outside the store, the woman chuckled to her daughter: “Seeing your Baba ooh and aah over buttons isn’t something you’ll soon forget.”
She felt herself relax over the course of their hours, moving away from tricky topics like gender pronouns and easing into the kind of wandering in a small town that can lower a person’s blood pressure if they let it.
She let her mom do the 45-minute drive home and closed her eyes in the passenger seat, while the teen listened to music on headphones in the back.
“Reminds me of the old days, when we used to vacation together,” said the grandmother. The woman nodded, pushing the lever that leaned the leather seat further back. She remembered. She remembered being a child on those vacations, and she remembered her own child being young on still later ones.
They’d likely not vacation together again, for more reasons than the woman would get into now. Needless to say, a day was just right. They stopped for ice cream before returning home, letting the summer day run long. She remembered how she used to have such a hard time saying goodbye, letting go. She still did.
But it would get easier. She would let her daughter, and her son for that matter, have their own stories. She would let them grow up. And she would always be there, when they needed her. This much she knew.
* * *
I wrote “Picture This” as part of the July Pop-Up Microstory group. Watch for the next one in the fall!
Here’s the microstory I wrote in May: