It happened again. I have settled into a cradle I once thought was strange and prickly. Now I don’t want to leave.
Last Monday the chancellor of schools made an unexpected announcement that some elementary school kids could start going back on November 9. I immediately thought of how I would miss walking down the hall and seeing Diana working at her desk, lamplight outlining her pug nose, pixie hair slanting forward, feet dangling from the swivel chair.
How I’d miss seeing my pre-teen son Mark reading on the couch on a Wednesday morning, looking at me with wonder when, for the first time, the cat had lain purring on his lap.
I’ll miss waking from a nap to the sound of feet pounding down the stairs, when dad’s car rolling onto the gravel driveway signals the end of quiet time.
Last week for a schoolday screen break, Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were bored of everything — bike riding, soccer, scootering — so we took a walk around the block. “This is so boring,” Luke said. I know, I said, but this is what we can do. And that was when we heard meowing in our neighbor’s yard. A black cat looked stuck, but when he jumped the fence like a horse over a hogsback, I realized he was probably Nick, the cat that is occasionally discussed on the neighborhood listserv — is he lost? Do his owners know where he is?
We watched him trot across the street, slide under a fence to another yard, and another, places we couldn’t go. Watching him from the sidewalk, wondering what he’d do next, hoping we could be friends.
He jumped on pillars, he chewed on grass, he crawled under bushes, he let me pick him up, purring and spreading his paw-toes and eating the cat treats out of our hands that Diana ran home to get. Before he wanted to get down, and we followed him across the alley to a parked car where he retired, I felt the muscles in his back and pondered his adventurous days, his lone strength.
This Saturday I helped clean up the city park on the corner. The kids wanted to go with me. We put on blue plastic gloves and picked up candy wrappers and plastic forks. The homeless man who had made an exuberant living space here was gone. All that seemed to be left of his decorations were paint swirls on the tree trunk and zig-zag flourishes along the benches.
“Look what I found!” Diana said. She held a gold and teal iridescent pom-pom the size of a pea between her thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know how to tell her whose it was; I didn’t know how to express both relief to not see him here and sadness that he was gone.
He was caught on neighborhood security cameras draped with plastic necklaces and pushing around a baby buggy and it was debated whether he was a thief or a charity case. He must be mentally ill, people said, but it seemed perfectly sane to me to scatter glitter everywhere when the world you inhabit feels bleak and forbidding.
When I was depressed in my mid-20s, I would collect ordinary things at thrift stores and bedazzle them with jewels and sequins until nothing dull was left. I gave them out as gifts, thinking I was spreading sparks of light.
When I thought I had found all the trash, even skinny little glucose test strips, vape pens, and cigarette butts, I kept seeing copper-colored confetti disks and assorted beads among the October leaves, and I wondered, where did he go? Is he happy now? Is he safe, is he warm? Does he have a place where he can spread sparkle? A place of his own.
On schoolday screen breaks, our new activity became looking for Nick. In a high voice I would call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!” the same way I called my childhood pet Pepper, when most cats were outdoor cats. To adopt a cat these days, you have to promise that you won’t let it out. The out of doors is like a deathwish — vicious dogs and tomcat fights, ticks and fleas, fast cars and feline AIDS.
We couldn’t find Nick anywhere. We wandered the streets, thinking there would be nothing else worth seeing, but at the Armenian church we stopped to admire zinnias in shades of coral and hot pink and persimmon. Then we noticed the bees. Dozens of carpenter bees climbing over mounds of Durango red marigolds. There were big bees and “little kid” bees, as Diana called them, with one black dot on their fuzzy yellow backs, plates of black armor covering their abdomens. They let us watch and watch them, not minding how close we got, not caring about us at all.
Diana lay in bed with me today, touching my face, massaging my scalp, patting my nose, gazing at my eyes until I opened them.
She kissed me three times — left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. “That’s the Italian way of greeting,” she said. “And mama, elephants greet each other by holding their trunks like this,” showing me her arms intertwined at the elbows.
How rich I am — even in this poverty of human contact and touch — I have all these human beings around me, hugging me, lying on me, kissing me and looking into my eyes. I think about how I need this touch to survive, and then I think about the man who used to live in the park. Does anyone touch his arm, his face? Does anyone touch him at all?
“It’s Nick!” Luke yelled one morning after having gone out on the porch to eat his bowl of breakfast cereal.
Diana and Mark ran outside too. When they came back, I asked, “What was he doing?” wanting to picture a cat with no collar or curfews. He meowed and liked to be scratched, they said, and he walked around everyone’s yard and smelled things.
In our old life, this cat would have offered nothing more than a passing curiosity. Now that we are confined to a restricted radius and barred from our normal diversions, finding him has been like discovering a wild pony.
But were we really free when we had everything? Were we really free with all those parties and meetings, appointments and dinners, ceremonies and plays and sports?
Maybe it is not he who we are really looking for, but a part of ourselves. A part that is forever roaming. A part that is strong and lean, that doesn’t need a collar or a tag, doesn’t need doors or fences. That knows where to go and how to get back home. A part of ourselves that is, and always has been, free.
For our 20th wedding anniversary dinner on Saturday night, I put on a sequined top and the rhinestone earrings I bought in a Chicago vintage shop. “Please note that the temperature on the rooftop,” the restaurant wrote, “can be much cooler than at street level,” so we pulled out the wool blankets from storage and my husband threw them on the backseat.
Just a few days before, we had a full moon. My yoga leader told me that this is a special time when innocence and wisdom are in perfect balance, when old wounds are brought up from the deep, beauty and abundance are awakened, and a new understanding can be forged.
When we walked onto the top of the 32-story high-rise in downtown Arlington, we could see the Washington Monument lit up like a sword. The dome of the Capitol glowed softly like a basilica in Rome. But the moon was the brightest of all. It lit up my husband’s sweet face, his flute of Prosecco sparkling like alfalfa honey, and the ball of buffalo mozzarella we ordered to start, so creamy it tasted like it had been airlifted from Sorrento.
The first time I did a Zoom meeting with other parents at the college where our daughter just started, we all went around the screen and introduced ourselves. When it came to the man with the long beard, he said he was from the part of Kentucky that is famous for moonbows, the kind of rainbow you can see when the moon shines on Cumberland Falls and the water droplets reflect all the colors.
This summer our youngest did a yoga camp on Zoom in her room by herself. She and 5 other little girls wrote in journals and colored mandalas and skipped rope with cords we picked up from the yoga studio in a goody bag.
One day she wrote a guided meditation, dedicated to me:
Imagine, you are at the beach, and then, appears a rainbow, and then a bird swoops down and is waiting for you to get on it. So then, you walk to the bird, and say, “May you please take me up to that rainbow?” And the bird replies, “Yes I may.” And the bird takes you up to the rainbow and drops you on the rainbow and you feel how soft it is.
My husband and I shared a blanket in the black night, sitting side by side on cushioned chairs. “Is there a rainbow around the moon?” my husband asked in Italian as he looked up at the sky. I didn’t see it, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t there. I still remember the summer in Puglia, swimming off the rocky Ionian coast, when he swam into the coldest part of a famed grotto, and a blue light made a halo around him and followed him as he swam away.
“Forse sono i miei occhiali,” Maybe it’s my glasses, he said, still looking up at the moon. “Si erano appannati.” They were steamed up, he said about his breath and the mask and his lenses. The tiny droplets of water making rainbows.
I remember one evening this summer when the air smelled of thunderclouds and wet sidewalks. Then all of a sudden the world was bathed in a peach light. Trees looked like black felt cut-outs against the white sky. The storm had lumbered away, spilling behind it a bucket of white soapy water that was being tinted with watercolors — yellow, peach, pink. When the sky turned to fuchsia and lavender, I began to understand I had been under a cloud rainbow.
When we were waiting for the first course, I went to the railing and looked over the city, scanning the blurry black and the dripping light, thinking how the president is on this same patch of land too. Reading about him in the paper and seeing him on the screen, I forget his orbit is only 5 miles away from my everyday life. Occasional red and blue flashing lights around the city scene remind me that he was in the hospital, and I wonder if I can see Walter Reed from here.
When you’re up this high, you feel closer to everything. I had wished this disease on him, thinking it was the only way out of this misery. But now that it’s happened, I don’t feel that way. Nothing can be solved when you become blackened and hard.
Everything looks so small — the White House, Memorial Bridge, even the Potomac, a line of glue in a diorama. Uncaught from my cage, released from my circle in the dirt, I have become a bird in the sky.
You have to go through the night to get to the moonbow. The storm must be borne to see a rainbow. Water is so clear that light shines through; may I become like water too.
Outside the Neiman Marcus department store, guys in hoodies and jeans were loading metal racks and leather lounge chairs into black pickup trucks. Hand-written signs taped to the door said, “Auction Winners Only.”
“All the stores have closed, except for TJMaxx and Sak’s,” my friend said about Mazza Gallerie, the 4-story mall where my family and I used to go to the movies on Saturday nights. “The whole mall was sold,” she said. “I heard they got a really good price because it was in foreclosure.”
We walked through the darkened hallways past all the gutted stores, because I wanted to go inside and look at the corpse, and when we opened the back door, there was the Lord & Taylor building across the way with a huge yellow banner spanning the entire top floor saying, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. EVERYTHING MUST GO.”
My friend and I used to be writing partners, meeting for lunch, exchanging chapters, working on novels together at the library. She tells me that they’re thinking of moving. Her husband has been working long hours for his law firm in their basement since March. “Why stay here,” she said, “when you can work from anywhere?”
We pause at the corner to say ‘see you later’ through our masks. Across the street, four 123JUNK trucks are being filled to the top with desks, wooden tables, and cabinets from an office building on Wisconsin. I think of all the offices downtown that no one is going to, and the places that are dying without them: suit shops, sandwich joints, gyms, even the Metro.
We part ways without touching each other at all, and I have the feeling of being in a place where the sand is shifting underneath me.
This fall, the kids — now in 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 12th grade — are schooling in an enclosed world, a circuit of screen, headphone and wire, where I am largely not needed except to adjust the connection, to drag them into the sun, to instigate something that resembles recess.
It’s been half a year since schools closed on March 13, a week after D.C.’s first covid case was confirmed. Everyone thought the kids would go back in 2 weeks, but the re-open date kept getting pushed back as the virus ripped into cities and hospitals around the world like a real-life horror show.
What seemed to be an unsurmountable challenge then — managing my grief and terror while trying to project an aura of calm for the kids, mapping the foreign landscape of remote learning at 3 different schools, navigating capsized social norms and nebulous lockdown rules — now feels like a hurricane that has dissipated into light rain.
I acutely feel the presence of my children’s teachers in my life, even though I’ve never been so far away from them. Doctors and nurses, grocery store workers, mail carriers and garbagemen are as essential and appreciated as ever, but for me, teachers are the new foot soldiers — protecting us, carrying my children, holding this world together.
I have heard the patience in their voices, and felt the difficulty. I know about the sadness, but I feel the love. I see how they band together in the pixelated quilts of Teams meetings, supporting classes that are not their own, gathering every child in this strange new container, persevering. They have become my teachers too.
When the pandemic hit, magnolias were exploding into obscene shows of magenta and rose, daffodils were blanketing the ground with newborn yellow, and cherry trees were unfurling sinful layers of crinoline and lace. Nature was creating an extravagant backdrop for an opera about loss.
When the air softened and the days became lighter, the kids and I found new purpose in the garden that had once seemed dull compared to cross-country or novel-writing or high school musicals. We dug up the weeds by the street and planted sunflowers, bee balm, and crayon-colored zinnias. One morning we woke to find 2 tomato plants on our stoop, and just as we were saying we needed basil for our herb garden, the lady across the street walked over with handfuls of sprouts, and we watered them until they grew big enough to make pesto to ladle over slippery hot linguine.
After the stay-at-home order was lifted at the end of May, restaurants were allowed to serve people outdoors, and over the summer the familiar sounds of people laughing and communing returned. Tables spilled onto sidewalks, squares, parking lanes, alleys, and even streets, creating pockets of joviality in this now subdued city.
But while anxiety about the outbreak has declined from a raging blaze to a crackling fire, other problems have flamed up. The run-up to the presidential election has heightened the feeling of living in two Americas, as if we’ve clung to opposite ends of a schooner, certain that if the other side wins, we’re all going down. Wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington state have burned through millions of acres of forests and neighborhoods, turning skies in San Francisco and Portland from blue to orange, and creating smoke clouds so massive they have traveled all the way to us on the East Coast. And recent violent acts against Black people have cut deep gashes, exposing a race-based hierarchy so intransigent that it will take a complete teardown of American society to build it back right.
The sunflowers that once brought smiles to people passing by the sidewalk are now headless stalks and the basil is bitter, and I feel the imminent loss of the handful of social interactions that have been made possible by the open air, one of the few things that prevent us from infecting each other. Fall has always brought with it a dose of melancholy, but this year in particular, I see my world getting smaller, like the tightening aperture in a mirrorless camera.
During a particularly difficult week of distance learning last spring, a friend brought over a puppy and a playmate for Diana. Another day I found a bouquet of red tulips and a Russian novel on my porch. Six months later I am still reading that novel.
“All the old ways of doing things were abandoned,” the main character tells his daughter about how it was to live through the communist revolution. “But the new ways of doing things had yet to be established.” I wanted to tell him through the pages, through time, through imagination and space, I have been there too. In the pliant dark between one place and another.
September 19, 2020. How many times I wrote those numbers this weekend, signing my name on snowy sheets of paper and crystalline e-documents. Buying a new car for the first time made me feel both like a grown-up and a child.
I remember how our car looked with the tree on its back, leaves everywhere, glass on the blacktop. It had been waiting there to take us home. All the other cars got driven away that afternoon, and then even we — after taking our tissue boxes and maps and DVDs — left it there to get picked over for parts. I wish I had said good-bye.
“Let’s see — you had a Honda Pilot…” the guy at the rental agency said a few days later as he looked at his computer. “The only thing we have left with 8 seats is a minivan. I’m sorry — with Labor Day coming up, we’re all booked. But I’ll try to upgrade you on Tuesday.”
When Virginia, 16, climbed into the rental minivan in a sequined see-through dress and string bikini, she said, “Why don’t we just get this one?”
“Yeah, there’s so much space!” Mark, 12, said climbing in and playing with the sliding doors.
“Whoa, these seats are so comfortable,” said Luke, 10, from the back, sitting with his arms spread over the seatbacks as if it were a sofa. “The seats in our old car were so hard!” he said, and I thought of all the road trips we’d taken in that hard-seated but cool car.
“Sometimes it’s better to look good than to feel good,” I used to say when someone asked why I was wearing 4-inch heels to go to dancing all night, both defending and acknowledging the ridiculousness of my choices. That was 25 years ago — have I come very far?
In the days that we waited for the insurance company, I decided black was my minivan gateway color. Black, the color of absence, the shade of night.
Lately I have had the urge to disappear. The same urge I had in high school and college that drew me to the chemical compounds in alcohol. I don’t let myself drink anymore, because I saw how I wanted to dissolve, one molecule at a time, detaching from myself until I had tunneled so far into the darkness that no one knew me, not even me.
I found a black 2016 Toyota Sienna on Cars.com at an auto mall in Chantilly. It had 85,000 miles on it, but the price was right and there was a DVD player for the kids.
The first time I saw a TV playing in a car, it was nighttime and a neighboring car on the highway slowly floated past us, even though we were all going 60 miles per hour. Inside there was a lighted slab full of moving pictures. It looked like candy being spun at a fair.
The next time we needed a car, we got one with a TV that opened from the ceiling. It made me feel like a child at Christmas to be with my family cradled in a car at night listening to Burl Ives telling the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as we flew over the hills, knowing good things were to come.
On Thursday, I left four kids at home with their online writing workshops and U.S. Government classes to check out the used car. As I test-drove it up and down Pleasant Valley Road, I became aware of an odor that made my stomach queasy, and I thought about the CarFax report, the high mileage, and the Jersey City owner, picturing an Uber driver in Manhattan carting around toddlers wielding cups of milk, and bachelorette parties like the ones I was once a part of where someone always threw up in the back seat.
This is partly how we ended up inside the new car showroom of a Honda dealership. Red, white, and blue balloons hung in bunches from the ceiling over a handful of cars whose coats looked like freshly painted nail polish. Songs from the ‘80s — You Give Love a Bad Name, Glory of Love, and Every Rose Has its Thorn — played over the sound system hour after hour without a truce as we sat at faux wood desks, waiting for salesmen and credit checks and staring out at a cloudless sky over Lee Highway.
“This is my dream car,” Luke said, when we took the 2020 Odyssey for a spin around Cherrydale, and he discovered the headphones stowed in a fancy compartment and how the back row could recline like a first-class seat on a 747. Back at the dealership we let the kids have choco-milk from the coffee machine while we talked with salesmen about incentives and warranties and interest rates for this car from 2020, a year that has been so destructive, so full of chaos and pain.
It will be a souvenir from the year of broken ties and broken promises, faces disappearing and re-constituting pixel by pixel. A year of disillusion and glimmering hope, the kind that shines through the cracks, the kind you don’t see when the day is bright and everyone is full.
A second cup of choco-milk spilled during a scuffle over the Boogie board, so I sent the kids outside. The longer we sat in that glass office, the more the numbers mounted, and when I stopped and looked up, I felt like I’d climbed too high on a rock face. In one of the pauses when my husband and I wondered if we should just walk away even though we had already spent almost 5 hours there, little Diana said in her prairie dog voice, “Let’s get the car.”
I thought buying a new car would be exciting, I thought I would feel happy. That would come days later when the car was touched up and ready to drive home. When Mark would play my favorite songs ‘kind-of softly’ as we drove out of Arlington, when Luke would tell me that the rear screen says ‘how long ’til we get there,’ when the sun was setting and the world was beautiful and I pulled into the driveway without even scratching our brand-new car.
But I couldn’t shrug off the lingering feeling of myself as a child. Recognizing that I am both helpless against some events and liable for others to great responsibility. A deep setting in of both weighty duty and profound ignorance.
How can I tell the way things will turn out, how long this will last, if we’ve done the right thing? It’s impossible, and yet sometimes you find yourself picking up a pen, signing your name, and beginning again.
I’m afraid of losing my voice. I’m afraid it will vanish in the rush of the world turned back on.
I’m afraid of entering society’s maze again. Maybe I’ll shrink back into a titmouse, when for a time I felt as explosive as a volcano, as wild as a dragon, solid as a pyramid, serene as a falcon.
I’m afraid we will return to chit-chat and patter talk, and it will be hard to know anyone’s soul when the expected response to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Fine.’ It’s so hard to get a foothold, I feel like I’m just clinging on.
When I was growing up, before I started thinking my body wasn’t skinny enough, I would spend all summer at the pool.
I remember how quiet it was under the water. When you are completely surrounded by blue, everything is connected. The water presses into you — heavy and complete — bending the sun into rippling diamonds, making waves every time someone would jump in, scattering crystalline bubbles everywhere.
We graduate to the world of air. It’s easier to get things accomplished here. Easier to move around, so light and transparent, but hard to feel the waves that connect me and you.
I’ve been so cradled in our shelter that I am not afraid of the virus anymore, I’m afraid of people. I’d like to add in one friend at a time. I’d like to vet people for trustworthiness and sensitivity.
I get overwhelmed by all the messages: the facial expressions, the look in the eyes, the tones of voice, and sleights of phrase. My mind gets noisier and noisier until its motor overheats with the task of interpreting it all, running over and over that it’s all my fault.
I’ve had emotional breakdowns over how I handled children’s party invitations. I’ve based my self-esteem on whether a handful of people I don’t know likes me. I’ve emptied myself trying to smooth out the rough parts until I was hollow.
Outside the bedroom that Mark, Luke, and Diana cuddle up in every night, I sing lullabies into the hallway. The floorboards of heart pine shimmer from the light of the neighbor’s window across the way.
I see the squared doorframes, the slanted lines of light, and each room looks separate. One door is closed, one room is open, one space holds clothing and one holds a bath, one room is suffused with lamplight and one is dark.
They seem separate, but they’re all attached. To the same hall, the same story. They’re part of the same house, built by the same man for his one family.
The notes of Edelweiss — E-G-C-B-G — travel through the air whether someone is listening or not. And even if that musical alphabet means nothing, I am still connected to my children, whether they are awake or asleep, in the house or on the street, pleasing me or making me angry.
When everyone seems scattered, I want to be the glue. Melting into the cracks, filling in the empty spaces, supplying the missing notes.
I need to remember how to be the swimmer, instead of the water. To dive in and play, no matter what my body looks like, where the lanes markings are, or what anyone else is doing. Plunging and swirling and flipping upside down, until I’m tired and it’s time to ride my bike back home.
School started last week — every public school, every grade, every ward and surrounding county in D.C. — all online.
On the first day, we did not rush out of the house with clean backpacks, lunches assembled in a line, and shopping bags laden with boxes of tissues and crayons. At 8:30 a.m., Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were brushing their teeth while the principal beamed the morning announcements from a hand-me-down iPad.
Homeroom meetings began like animated quilts, heads bobbing in 20 different frames, stitched together by an invisible thread — the teacher’s voice. A voice that, in this new phase of headphones with mics, only my children can hear. Mark, 12, shooed me away when I peeked in at his living room gym class, and Virginia, 16, came downstairs for breakfast and then closed the door to the guest room for Environmental Science on Microsoft Teams. Sofia, 18, started her first day of college 366 miles away.
Over the past few weeks I had been collecting the elements recommended for good study spaces: desks, office chairs, clocks, and lists of logins. Mugs of colored pencils and stacks of marble composition notebooks sat on every desk, and taped to the wall: a different daily schedule for each child, with every slot from 8:30 to 3 filled in.
Last spring when schools closed in a rush, the kids were in charge of making a big lunch every day and we ate around the table every noon like a farming family. Technology tangles and sibling bickering forced school’s end by late morning when we busted outside to gasp for air, to run and bike and dig and bounce off the heaviness.
We clung together away from the storm, but the danger that has kept schools closed this year feels amorphous and distant, even purposeless. And even though the kids and I are still always together, I feel newly alone. I seem to be caught between the gift of this quiet at-home school life, and not knowing what to do with it.
I have always loved the way textbooks crack when you open them for the first time, the pulpy bleachy smell of spiral notebooks, the spectrums of new marker sets. The sound of children singing together, racing to the playground at recess, lining up at the ice cream truck after 3. Fall has been about reconvening after summer’s vagaries, banding together to throw block parties or fall picnics, and venturing to make fresh alliances, to find new gurus.
When I peek into Diana’s writing workshop or Mark’s history class or Luke’s homeroom scavenger hunt, I am humbled by the patience and calm of their teachers, the compassion, their grace. The way they succeeded in creating a warm environment even though it’s not what they wanted, even though they couldn’t make it with anything you can touch.
Sometimes the tears of awe and gratitude merge into another feeling that I can’t describe. Grief . . . loneliness . . . despair? Like a ghost who has claimed an old house, this feeling haunts.
Another school week begins and the melancholy starts building again. But then I ask myself: is it possible that I have not lost anything, nothing but the past and the future?
What is the past anyway, but a memory, a re-enactment that my mind plays out? And the future a projection, a fantasy that I color in while I’m waiting for the real thing to happen.
Right now, in this moment, is there anything that is wrong? Pink crepe myrtle blossoms brush against a cloudless blue sky. Acorns go ‘tic’ as they fall against the blacktop. The sun hums over my skin.
Can I live this life without remembering what was and what might be? Can I accept this time for everything that it is, without tallying the gains and losses? Because some day I might just look back on it, and say, “How sweet it was.”
A giant tree limb fell on our car yesterday. The car’s back looked like it was broken: roof crushed, rear end bent, tires kneeling to the ground. Black glass was spattered everywhere.
It didn’t look like I’d ever drive it again.
That night Diana asked if she could give me a face massage and a hand massage and a foot massage after I tucked her in. She touched my eyelids and my eyebrows, pressed her tiny finger pads into my forehead, along my cheeks, the whole length of my lips. Everywhere she touched, a prickly metallic layer under my skin melted away.
It’s just a car, I had said when we saw it there. We have insurance, shielded as we are from the buffeting winds of misfortune by our position, our color, our nest egg.
Diana asked if she could hum when she was massaging my hands, and “Is it okay if it’s just a made-up song?” She stroked the tendons on the backs of my hands, squeezed the tips, intertwined her fingers in mine and wiggled the forgotten crooks. She squeezed the fleshy parts — the heel, the ball — parts of a body that work without being acknowledged.
It’s just a car, but it was the car that Sofia and I had just driven to her first semester at college. The car that had taken us on 5 Thanksgiving trips when all the kids were living at home, summer visits to the grandparents, Christmas pilgrimages, missions to Dutch Wonderland.
Diana takes my feet. Having my feet touched has always felt like being in the hands of Jesus. It touches someplace deeper, more sensitive, a place both loving and needy.
We were at the pool when the limb broke. I had wanted to give the kids something more than riding bikes around the block, and it would be closing soon. The rains come almost every day now, the cone flowers have all turned black, and every last day lily has bloomed.
Something is dying in me too: a hope, a brightness. An opening is closing. When will I be able to bear this? When will I know that this is what happens when something else needs to be born?
“Why does it feel so good to be touched?” Diana asks. We are part of a whole, I say, and touching makes us feel less separate. Touching someone else is like touching our own selves.
The broken car, schools closing, summer waning, blossoms fading — they are all here to show me, again, that nothing lasts. And everything is special.
Diana asks if I could give her a face massage. I run the pads of my thumbs over her plump cheeks, around the backs of her ears, and over her scalp and behind her neck.
There’s something different about this type of touch. Unlike a hug or a kiss, it does not need to do the work of communicating. It conducts something that we can’t control, that we don’t need to control, that will flow whether we do anything or not. Touch recognizes what is in each of us and allows it, unfettered.
I say to myself that I’m okay with this loneliness, this quiet, solitary life. But the tension builds, the silent grief, the continual battering of what used to be, the howling of what needs to die but won’t. And the pain sits there in a parking lot, keys hidden under the mat, until a tow truck comes to take it away.
The last time I saw the car, an orange caterpillar was inching up the curve of the wheel. I wonder if it felt lost, or if it knew it was just finding another way.
I had never been to the college our daughter had chosen. Sofia had visited Kenyon with my parents, and I knew that my grandfather and uncle had gone there, but my April visit was canceled due to the outbreak. So when it was time to go on August 26, I wasn’t sure where she was leading me.
The route we normally take to Ohio got us only halfway, then we had to turn north toward Uniontown. We climbed the jagged mountains of Pennsylvania past historic battlefields, pre-colonial stone houses, and painted images of young George Washington in his ruffles and blue velvet, and I felt the same rush of awe and drama that I did when I went to college in New England. The East, with its founding history, plaques and pedigree, felt majestic and weighty. I instead felt like any girl from the cornfields of flyover country.
Kenyon told kids to pack light in case they had to move to a quarantine dorm, so the car was only half-full: a full-length mirror, a fan and a lamp, an area rug and a duffle bag of clothes, plus some photos to decorate the double Sofia would occupy by herself on a campus populated with only freshmen and sophomores.
When I went away to college, the kids I met who grew up in cities along the coast were worldly and impressive. It was easy for me to go from a silent admiration of Manhattan, Boston, Exeter or Choate to a full summation of the associated person as intelligent, powerful, even heroic.
As Sofia and I drove over the National Turnpike, American flags flapped around historic inns and famous taverns and I pictured revolutionaries in ragtag uniforms 300 years ago mapping attacks against the British. On this day, much of the red, white, and blue was supplied by yard signs and flags emblazoned with “Trump-Pence 2020.”
The problem with sanctifying people is that everything else becomes profane. My idols shone so brightly there was no choice for me but to be dull. Destined to chase after them, waiting for benediction.
After Sofia and I crossed the Ohio River into my home state, I felt the let-down of the Shoe Carnival strip mall where we stopped to get coffee. The freeway we took, bland and monument-less, was wet from a storm, but I couldn’t help notice how the water streaming over the concrete shimmered like platinum in the late afternoon sun.
An hour later we would slow down at a college campus of Gothic Revival sandstone that tapered into a row of clapboard markets, Victorian houses converted into academic departments, and a post office with a weathervane cupola.
But before that — when we first bumped onto a 2-lane country road and I knew we were getting close — I rolled down the windows. The air smelled like watermelon and hay, wet fields and crickets. The road tossed us up then held us tight, like a swing at the elementary school playground. We drove past velvety blue soybean fields and tin roof silos, barns taken back into the earth by vines and houses with their paint all rained off, piles of wild honeysuckle and fences fashioned of hay rolls.
Here was the Ohio countryside I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was so beautiful, in the quiet way that home is. Something I wouldn’t have recognized back then, even if it were right in the mirror in front of me.
On a day that started with covid self-testing in an athletic center but had no departure deadline, I didn’t know how long to stay. Sofia didn’t seem to need me to leave — except for when I walked too slow or the time I said “micr-o-wave.” There were so many things to do: hang up mirrors and smooth on sheets, unwrap new duvets and take ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. I wanted to buy her everything that was missing — a phone charger, a box of tissues, the books she hadn’t ordered yet — as if currency would cease to exist when I left.
Then her Reebok’s came unglued, the only warm shoes she had brought, and there was still time after eating General Tso’s tofu from the dining hall on a secluded spot on the lawn to drive out to Lowe’s for contact cement (and another fan for her room).
When that too was assembled, and I could see that the new lightbulbs made her room a little cozier in the darkening evening, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll get going now.”
She gave me a long, long hug, and said, “Thank you so much for helping me get everything all set up.” She insisted on walking me to the car and, in that moment I became unsure of who was leaving who.
As I drove away toward the hotel, shirred clouds of peach and rose and amber glowed against a sea blue sky. It felt like traveling inside a conch shell. Was launching an 18-year-old like spiraling deeper into life or opening outward?
I thought about how delicate she seemed: her slight frame, her porcelain skin, her detailed and careful ways. I wanted to cradle her and deliver her to the next person who would take care of her. But as she had watched me drive away, she was calm, contained. She didn’t look like she was searching for idols.
It was a quiet freedom that she was getting, a sober one. Not the wild one of my college days when I expected a pinnacle, lashing out against life if it didn’t deliver. It was a freedom that we were aware could be taken away at any point. I had the feeling that she would take every day gently in her hands.
I tried to take pictures of the sunset outside the hotel, but the camera only captured the telephone poles and the taillights of a car driving away. The sun went down and the fountain kept tinkling and pickup trucks kept rumbling around the square as if nothing had happened that night.
On the drive home, sadness did not come in a flooded rush. It was more like a thread, a thread that had to stretch so far it would always be tight.
Like a spider’s silk, it is only visible in certain lights, when it shines like a sliver blade. You feel it when you’re trying to go somewhere and you get all tangled up. But even if no one else senses it or sees it, I know it is there. It is always there.