Letting It Be

My daughters are bingeing on ‘Game of Thrones’ on the screened-in porch, trying to finish the entire 8 seasons before Sofia goes off to college. Mark, Luke, and Diana are playing badminton in the dwindling August twilight. 

After dinner we rode bikes down to the convenience store on Route 50 to buy a gallon of milk. I strapped the last gallon they had to the back of my bike and rode home with Juicy Drop Pops and Reeses cups in a Par Mar Stores bag hanging from the handlebars.

The kids bat at the birdie with rackets too long for them on a span of grass a thousand times larger than the patch of weeds behind our house in D.C., and I want them to play as long as they can, to soak up this freedom until they’re full, because in a few days, they’ll be back to a city playground, and school will start on a computer screen, and for a minute I worry that they don’t have enough.

Somewhere beyond the pasture, a conch-shell sun lights up a mass of clouds that plods across the sky like an ocean liner. When I stay right here where I am, in this moment, in this Ohio countryside, there is no problem. I am not in pain. No one is mad at me, I am not late, I am not wrong. There is nothing I am supposed to do, nowhere I need to go.

How long can I stay here, encapsulated in this moment, like an unbroken bubble, a piece of taffy that stretches and stretches, a smooth highway that never ends, before my mind breaks off and goes somewhere else? The explosion in Beirut, the upcoming election, the email with no response, the virus spiking in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia —

If I begin spinning intricate adult coloring books in my mind, who is inhabiting the life that is already colored in right here?


From my armchair inside the cottage, I hear crickets making long dashes in chirring morse code. The children are now meowing in the basement pretending to be adopted kittens who don’t know how to brush their teeth. The clouds have made a blue surfboard and a shaving cream spume against a sky of cotton candy and butter. The trees are navy green silhouettes and the black fences are disappearing into the fuzzy green pasture.

This stillness I feel when I pay attention to my life right now — this awareness, this in-ness — is where answers will come from. I look elsewhere, but if I would just be, the wisdom, the knowing, the right thing would come to me. 

‘Chock, chock’ goes the clock on the wall. The shadow under my 12-year-old’s chin, the freckle there, the way my 10-year-old looks into my eyes when I really see him. The 6-year-old sucking her thumb, wet hair on the pillow, saying she is grateful for ping-pong.

When I am inserted into this life, I am connected with everything that is here and the knowing that pervades it all. The cicadas who know what year to crawl out of the ground and how to call a mate, the grass that knows when to start growing — the moon how to orbit the earth, the dog where to give birth, the tomato seed how to make another tomato, the horse how to die. 

Photo by Amy Suardi

There’s a place on every staircase where the notes of the lullaby amplify and round and deepen. I sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with ‘du-du-du’s instead of words as I stand on the stairs up from the children’s darkened room, and I wonder what they look like in their beds. Are they sad, are they disappointed, have I done enough?

If I could live my life one full-bodied moment to the next, I wouldn’t need to worry about what’s going to happen, to practice what to say, fuss over what I’ve messed up. If I weren’t interrupting life all the time, trying to rearrange it, I would take each challenge as it came.

If there were more escapes like this one in the country, more eddies in the river of life, where I could sleep when I feel tired, be alone when I need space, let sadness rest in me when it comes. If I could shut off the wind turbine so all my thoughts would flutter to the ground and I could see for a while.

Because in this clearness, I know that I wouldn’t need to worry so much. I wouldn’t need to try so hard. In this stillness, I would know when to cut, when to mend, when to run, when to embrace, when to apologize, when to be silent, when to act, and when to let it be.

The Spooky Lower Pasture

To get to the lower pasture, you have to descend through a tunnel of trees, a darkened archway that takes some faith to enter. Shadows deepen as you leave the world of fields, barns, and sunlight, and enter this shadowy crescent of land between the creek and the wooded ridge. 

Down here you can no longer see the house or the cottage. The only signs of civilization are a couple of plastic Adirondack chairs overturned near a circle of rocks where we sometimes have bonfires, and a metal target my dad uses for shooting practice.

I usually only go down here to get to the creek, where I used to play when I was little, making names for sandbars like Cuttlefish Land, and finding odd bits of someone else’s life along the banks — an iron, a chandelier frame, a boot.

We have returned to this place in the Ohio countryside because — with 38 states off-limits due to rising coronavirus cases, and every vacation rental booked within a 4-state radius — we knew the cottage was empty, and even though we visited last month, my parents said, Come!

I walk down the path my dad has mowed along the creek. The creek is still now, its sloping banks dry and silent. It’s dusk, almost dark, and mosquitoes whine around my neck. Flying things keep getting caught in my hair. The trees are so loud with the razz of cicadas it seems that they are made of cymbals instead of leaves. 

It’s our first night in the country, having driven 7 hours from D.C. to get here, to this house which has been in my family since 1862. After a welcome dinner of grilled hamburgers, my mom’s baked beans and potato salad, and Dairy Hut ice cream with peaches and blueberries, I have taken a walk, and since my daughter took the upper path around the soybean fields, I took the lower one.

Here in the lower pasture, it’s nothing like the land above with its brick terraces, bedspreads, and wi-fi. Where redbuds are groomed and swings are tied around oaks. The only purposeful trees down here are a few deformed walnuts getting strangled by vines. Spider silks break across my torso, and I get the feeling I’m trespassing.

I walk beside the band of walnut and tulip trees that separates upper from lower pasture. They lurch out, as if wanting to take back the land that was cleared for cows and corn. I peer into the thicket. It’s not deep but so dark, and I see why the first European settlers to North America, arriving in a place where trees took the sun, suffered from a depression called ‘green gloom.’ 

I mustn’t wander from my father’s mowed path of clover and wild violet. An army of young poison ivy plants has marched right up to the edge. They glow a florescent green in the falling light, and rising above the dull grasses with their forked leaves of three, they look like vampires ready to attack.

Nature is always just about to win in the country. You can repair a fence, patch a leak, trim a hedge, but the wild always returns. You can get the flying ants out, and then swarms of ladybugs will infiltrate. You can shore up the creek bank with boulders, but the water will take your land farther down. Seal up snake holes in the foundation, and bats get in through the chimney.

I pick up a bit of brown lace on the ground. A poplar leaf whose flesh has been completely devoured by caterpillars who don’t care for the veins, leaving behind an intricate skeleton, a tragedy so beautiful it might be found on the cutting room floors of a Parisian fashion house. The earth caves in as I walk and I imagine the elaborate tunnel works that moles and groundhogs have made under my feet.

Beyond the creosote post-and-rail fence at the end of the pasture, pickup trucks sail over Route 50. Their tires spin over the pavement at 55 miles per hour, barely slowing through the no-stop-light town that sits at the edge of our farm.

Where the creek goes under the highway, it joins up with the bigger one where my grandmother’s brother drowned when he was only 10 years old. A strange odor rises from the banks, and it smells sweet and rotten like boiled milk and decomposing crawdads.

It’s time to get back, and tuck in the kids. Clumps of ironweed chirp as I walk by. My grandfather used to bushhog the thistles and ironweed when there were cows in this pasture. Now there are no cows, and my parents are the grandparents.

I have to walk through the tunnel of trees up the hill once more to get home. Lightning bugs, harbingers of summer magic in the world above, blink an eerie green down here, as if signaling a witches spell.

When I emerge onto the smooth flat plain, the sky opens big over me and I feel washed with an ocean of dove-blue light. The land is an outstretched palm holding me up to the heavens. In the distance, there is Comfer’s barn where it always has been, and a band of the day’s last light hangs over the distant blue hills. The houses pour yellow light from every window, calling me home.

Math

Helping my son figure out 
equations and linear functions,
I remember how in math
I was always about to get lost.

Limits and derivatives, 
sine and cosine,
coefficients and constants.

All it took was a blink,
a glance away 
from the blackboard,
and I was in a forest:
trees with no tops, rare noises, 
and a mounting darkness.

Even if I learned a new concept,
it was like arriving in a foreign country 
in the middle of the night
and only knowing how to say,
“Hello” or “Where’s the bathroom?” 

Teachers kept pushing me deeper and deeper —
Algebra, Calculus, Trigonometry.
It felt like riding a train up a jagged mountain,
but why?

I would like to live in a world of words.
I would like to swim through them like summer water,
do backflips, underwater high-fives, twirling torpedoes.

With words, I could build imaginary trees into the sky, 
wooden rollercoasters, and labyrinths of roses.

Daria Ustiugova/Shutterstock

I would like to follow a winding road of language
to places where I don’t mind getting lost,
where I can be free
and disappear.

It’s a Teardown

My grandfather loved to tell me that he was as tall as Abraham Lincoln and wore the same shoe size as George Washington. When I would come to visit, he would turn off the news, and sitting in his favorite armchair in front of the TV, he’d tell me again the story of when he left home to make his way in the world, and his dad simply said, “Be honest.”

He would tell me that when he was promoted from stock boy to cashier, he once rode his bike a mile and a half to return a dime to a customer he had overcharged. Or he might pull down a maroon leather book from the shelves and read me the poem, ‘I Am Old Glory’:

“So long as men love liberty more than life itself, so long as the principles of truth, justice and charity for all remain deeply rooted in human hearts, I shall continue to be the enduring banner of the United States of America,” of the finest country in the world.

Year after year of those sessions, of me sitting there on the living room couch, the one whose arms were always covered with plastic sleeves, while we waited for my grandmother to call “lunch,” I began to wrap that pride around my young body like a flag of bulletproof gems.  

As I got older, it was easy to find appeal in sayings I heard in high school like “Russia sucks,” because enemies were anyone or anything that threatened the superpower status which gave us — me — an inflated sense of self-worth, that lifted me above and away from the dread inside, the fear that I was nothing.

Before my grandfather died, he wrote a letter to his grandchildren and one of the things he said was, “Our freedom and all the good things we enjoy must be defended constantly, every day of our lives. Always remember that a nation can be destroyed from forces within.”


“What do we want?”

“Justice!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

“If we don’t get it?”

“Shut it down!”

The kids and I yelled these chants until our voices were hoarse down the streets of Georgetown during a Black Lives Matter march this June. “What are we shutting down?” asked Mark, 12, as we walked by stone houses that looked like Southern mansions, a few with white people standing in front waving.

“The system,” I tell him, but even I can’t picture it — the police, the government, the everything? I don’t know how one shuts it down or what would happen if we did. 

George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer finally shook us into reckoning that something is terribly wrong with our system — it’s rotting from within. What is festering inside our country is a caste system. This I was stunned to read in The New York Times magazine from July 5 that I had folded and saved on top of my stack of half-finished books. 

The formal structure that originally defined caste was abolished with laws and civil rights acts, but the race-based hierarchy still lives on, writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her profound and elegant article, America’s Enduring Caste System.

“A caste system is … a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits,” Wilkerson writes, “traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste, whose forebears designed it.”

Having caste as our society’s hidden structure puts us, the world’s greatest democracy, the shining beacon of freedom, in company with India and its ancient intractable system and Nazi Germany. Invisibility, says Wilkerson, is what gives caste its power and endurance.

Wilkerson likens a caste system to the hidden structure of a house. “America is an old house,” she says, and it was built 400 years ago on a flawed foundation, a two-tiered hierarchy with those identifying as white at the top and Blacks at the bottom, while immigrants from non-European countries find a place somewhere the middle, and Native Americans are exiled completely.

As anyone who has lived in an old house knows, problems like sagging joists or water leaking into the basement don’t just go away. Sometimes we learn to live with the smell of mold and the slanted floors, and then “the awkward becomes acceptable,” says Wilkerson, “and the unacceptable become merely inconvenient. Live with it long enough, and the unthinkable becomes normal.”

A house built on a crooked foundation cannot be fixed with patches and paint. When we focus on racism as the problem, it shape-shifts, it mutates, but the invisible lines remain because, Wilkerson says, the hidden structure has not been exposed and dismantled.


I walk barefoot whenever I can these days. When the soles of my feet make contact with dirt, with bricks, with grass or even cement, I feel solid, right, part of it all.

My daughter Virginia tells me that walking barefoot on the earth is called grounding. There is something about being in touch with the ground that is healing. They say the earth’s subtle electrical charge neutralizes free radicals, acting like one giant antioxidant, and regulates our autonomic nervous system. Keeps our circadian rhythms.  

Houses separate us from nature, from each other.  Houses are meant to shelter us, but when some people are relegated to the basement, it may look like a dwelling from the outside but from the inside, it’s a prison to some. When the people who are kept down try to escape the place of no light, low ceilings, and toxic fumes, they are spotted immediately by their appearance. In a caste based on physical features, no amount of education, resumé heft, or hard work will set you free, because you can’t change the color of your skin.

By the laws of nature, or the universe, or what you might call God, no species is better than another. It’s one big amalgam, one mysterious overflowing swirl of life. In the animal and plant and mineral world, there are no levels of greater or lesser rainbows, adequate or inadequate sunflowers, worthy or unworthy elephants. As a native of India once told anti-slavery leader Charles Sumner, “Caste makes distinctions among creatures where God has made none.” 

When my grandfather said all those wonderful things about America, I felt that I was being conferred a new sparkly costume, simply for the random involuntary act of being born on a certain patch of land. A glowing coat of beauty and power.

I must have been old enough by then to have lost that feeling I had as a child, the sense of unfettered connection with everything and everyone. I had already begun to separate myself out — good or bad, weak or strong, smart or not — judging myself with the standards and expectations that make some people into idols, others into nobodies.

I felt ashamed for my grandfather to know that I wasn’t the American that he admired and always strived to be — magnanimous, noble, fair, and true. So I took that spangled cloak and pretended I was. 

MaxyM/Shutterstock

I don’t know how we can take down piece by piece a structure that contains all of us. I don’t know when we will have the courage to step down, to live without shelter, to join the wild unknown of nature, to get rid of our shoes, our buildings, our foundations.

But it helps to shine an infra-red light onto the structure we live in and ask, How much longer can we stay here before the whole thing falls down?

Stubborn Wishes

“The whole reason that there are so many dandelions is because of the wish thing,” Mark, 12, tells me.  Diana, 6, gets off her bike, lets it thunk to the ground, and bends down to pick two blowballs from a patch of grass — one for me, one for her brother.

“Thank you,” I say, and look with admiration and repulsion at this perfect sphere, this geodesic dome built of fluff, the bane of gardeners everywhere. I blow mine, feeling like a vandal, wishing the seeds will float to the street, not to innocent yards behind me.

When I try to pull one up in my garden, gathering all its arms and legs and yanking it by the neck, its body remains in the earth and soon will grow a new head like some kind of mythological monster.

Mostly I’ve given up, now just popping off the flower heads when they’re young and yellow and leaving the rest, as if accepting a colony of stray cats as long as they don’t make babies.

Whose wish is growing between the bricks by the Lilies of the Valley? Who planted the desire in between the sidewalk and our front gate?

Are the dandelions in our gravel driveway proof that my children had dreams? And I, thinking only of neatness and order, behead them on my way to accomplishing something else. Sometimes I stuff the heads in my pocket, for lack of a place to dispose of them, then find them again, drawn up and clean, in a freshly laundered pair of jeans.

They don’t want to be yanked out of the earth. They do everything they can to stay anchored there, shooting their tap roots down like arrows, saying ‘I belong here!’ They could survive the worst drought, flood, or heat wave, when the basil I coddle in a pampered plot will die if not offered a drink of water on a hot day.

Is it because those untold wishes are more tenacious than anything you can buy or plan? My mom used to drop her wedding ring around a candle on her birthday cake before blowing out the flames to make her wish come true.

Today Diana asked if she could pick our first cherry tomato, the only one this season that has made the journey from yellow star to rosy globe while escaping the catbird’s eye.  

She cradles it in her hand and says, “Let’s do a ‘sermony’ or whatever you call it,” and I know she means the way we take the garden’s first fruit, a single blackberry or strawberry or sugar snap pea, and place it on a sliver plate until dinnertime when everyone is seated, and after presenting the specimen, slice it into as many sections as people around the table, placing the morsel on our tongues, tasting all at once the watering, the weeding, the coaxing, the staking, the shooing, the clearing, the sunlight, the rain, the worms, and the wishing.

“Feel it,” Diana holds out the little ball. It’s plump and firm, round and warm.

“It’s like a wedding ring,” she says and runs inside, climbs onto the hutch and reaches up to get a small white bowl, placing the orange globe in the center by itself, like a ring of gold that seals a pact of love.

Later this morning Luke will celebrate his 10th birthday with one friend, one present, one pizza, and one scoop of salted caramel gelato in a paper cup. No candle, perhaps because of that article in the newspaper that asked whether it was dangerous to blow germs all over a dessert. 

He will be upstairs putting together the Star Wars Black Ace imperial Lego spaceship he just unwrapped when his dad will come home from work, take the ragged mass of keys out of his pocket and his wedding ring off his finger, and drop them, Ching-a-ling!, into the silver tray on the counter, and then pop the single cherry tomato in the little white bowl into his mouth. 

There is no ceremony when we blow off the globe of downy hair from a dandelion puffball until the seedhead is completely bald, plucked and pock-marked like an unfeathered chicken. No ceremony except for the long in-breath and the closing of eyes and the fantasy spinning into color. No ceremony except for the parachute seeds dispersed into the wind, onto the rolling lawns and sidewalk cracks, over the blue spruce hedges and under buckling blacktop driveways. Secret wishes that won’t let go.

Summer Morning Sadness

The first time we went to the pool this summer, we could only stay 20 minutes. Mark had math class on the living room computer, and I thought we’d hop in the car right after and make it for most of our slot, but he had a quiz and said it was going to take him a long time, but we said, of course we’ll wait. 

Luke and Diana and I sat on the porch in our bathing suits with sunscreen on, listening to the crows caw and distant lawnmowers rove, and after a while we opened up the pool bag and looked at the hotdogs all wrapped in foil, and then we unwrapped them one by one and the mustard was so tangy, the buns so soft, and then we opened the box of carrots, and then the container of potato chips, and when Mark came out, he looked white and said there was no point, but we piled in the car and got there just in time.

But this morning Mark doesn’t have math, and we got a 2-hour reservation, and the water is sparkling like turquoise gold. The kids throw off their shorts and pull on their goggles and fast-walk to the deep end, and they’re so happy, and Sofia is coming home today, and everything is fine. So why do I feel like sitting on this vinyl lounge chair and crying?

Was it the email that came in this morning declining the invitation to celebrate Luke’s 10th birthday at an amusement park, or the shame I felt for having even asked? Is it because the thing he really wants is a bike and I can’t find a single 24-inch bike in stock to give him?

Maybe it’s because of all the money we lost on the canceled trip to Florida, or that yesterday the mayor was supposed to announce how schools would re-open but then called off the press conference, and Houston and Atlanta and L.A. and Montgomery County have already announced that school will be online this fall.

Or was it that when Virginia said she didn’t mind if her senior year was all virtual because she’s over high school, I saw a black computer screen replace her life and my redemption, my last chance to be the mom she wanted me to be, to trust her, to let her do more when high school was still high school and kids still loitered around the convenience store and rode buses and bought dresses for dances and roamed around looking for parties after football games.

“When are you going to get in?” the kids ask me, the tips of their noses dripping, their eyelashes like star points, and I tell them, “Later, I’m not hot enough yet,” but what I really mean is I’m not happy enough.

Maybe it’s because today is the day we would have flown back from Italy, bleary from too many nights out and visits to cousins and early morning cappuccinos and our suitcases would be jammed with stained sink-washed clothing and plastic bags of shells, brochures, and tiny bottles of Italian shampoo swiped from hotels.

Is it because my children have each other, but I spend my days alone, and even though I am consuming this solitude like one wide-open mouth, I feel that somewhere people are hugging and laughing and locking eyes and I’m here caught in a wind tunnel of air, so much air, fresh non-human air.

At the diving boards, kids line up to do can-openers and back dives, and I feel like a traitor, dry and motionless on my chair. I don’t know what to do with this sadness. It makes me feel soft, rich, babylike. To mourn the loss of things that others have never held.

But how does it help to not let myself cry? I become a steel drum with a welded top, my precious dangerous stuff kept in. And everyone else kept out.

After the whistle blows the long looping whine that means “get out,” lifeguards block the main entrance and masked bathers file out of the side exit by the chain link fence. I too am wet — the kids convinced me to stop wrestling with my sorrow and jump in. Near the snack bar, an enormous stack of pool chairs has been constructed, hundreds of different types and sizes that once made this a place to gather have been fitted together into one giant mass, as if ready to make a bonfire. 

The remaining few set sparsely around the pool. So I couldn’t sit near anyone and pretend that I was happy. Spaced apart so that the air would fill with silence instead of chatter. So that sadness had a way to spill out and join with the rest and finally be washed away.

Pinned Down

I press play on a 30-minute yoga class and the teacher tells me to lie down on my back. It’s 7:15 in the morning, the kids are still in bed, and the cat has been fed. 

“Release the weight of your bones,” the teacher says through the TV, “and feel the support of the earth under them.” The cool damp ground is not far away here in the basement.

The cat climbs on my belly and starts kneading and purring, the cat who I finally banned from our bedroom after years of paying for bedtime cuddles with 4 a.m. wakeup calls. I stretch my arms out, the last instruction from the yoga teacher that I am able to follow, and the cat’s warm heaviness pins me down, his purrs vibrate through my core. I let the video keep going, unable to even reach the remote, all the while the teacher keeps telling me to push up into cow pose and downward-facing dog.

Lying here on the ground, instead of making my body into shapes of stars and pyramids, in the deepest part of our house, I think of the murder of crows that will be squawking and honking among the trees and roofs in my neighborhood, beeping and cawing every afternoon now, so loud and cranky, busy and athletic. I see their black shadows slash back and forth as they fly here and then there, and I wonder what conference they are organizing, what controversies they must be arguing. 

I am not like them. I let myself be weighed down by cats, children, possessive husbands. I like the feeling of tightness, of not being able to move. It’s swaddling. It’s the heavy blanket in summer. It’s the bear hug from humans twice my size.

This is not the feeling of feet lifting off the ground, light and free, knowing that I could go anywhere, somewhere I don’t recognize, where no one knows me, no one loves me, and the sky is so suffused with light that I could just disappear.

The geometric lines of the digital clock in the basement change formations. In the sunlit world above, sparrows chatter away in a jazzy piccolo orchestra, and soon my son will come down for his pre-summer school workout and see me here.

The cat rearranges his position again, from a rotisserie chicken to an oil spill, his arms stretching into the gulley between my legs. Where our bodies meet, it feels like darkness, the darkness that we descend into when our eyes close and we near the oblivion of sleep.

I crave this blackness. This kind of dark is necessary for life. It may seem that I’m dead, but really I’m just taking pleasure in being tied down.

Uncoupling

Today I dropped off my 18-year-old daughter Sofia and three friends at a cabin in the woods. They had been planning this trip for months. Which way to divide up the cooking and buy the groceries, how they would get tested twice and quarantine for two weeks before (and some for two weeks after), who could drive and who had a car or a brother with a license, if they would bring bikes or charcoal, jugs of water or a filter, and who would bring the sunscreen, the bug spray, and the fire starter.

They played oldies from 2015 during the drive into the Shenandoah mountains, and bounced in their seats and laughed, the conversation always tripping along with the energy of an adventure beginning.

“I’ve been doing hella driving since I got my learner’s.”

“I had to do a U-turn in front of a sno-cone truck!”

“28 out of 30. I got the one wrong about how to pass a streetcar.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a streetcar.”

When we exited onto a two-lane ribbony country road, it started raining and they checked the weather on their phones, and it came down so hard all the colors washed into white, and we drove through farms clinging to the slopes and under a freight train standing still on a ridge above us, and then we turned onto a one-lane gravel road, then a muddy drive, and when we got to the steepest part, we thought the car wouldn’t make it.

“Dada sad, but a little glad,” my husband had said when he hugged Sofia goodbye before she left the house, and as we backed out, he stood in the street to make sure no one was coming. I had ordered groceries that morning, but when I deleted the frozen fruit Sofia wouldn’t be needing for her morning smoothies, I felt like I was deleting her from my life.

She wouldn’t be coming down in her yoga clothes every morning, hair braided down the back. She wouldn’t be making her weekly dinners with yogurt dill sauces or her roasted summer vegetables. We wouldn’t do driving practice on Tuesday afternoon, and she wouldn’t be there to remind Luke to put his napkin on his lap, or help Mark with his summer math homework, or ask the kids so I don’t have to, “Why aren’t you in quiet time?”

“Is that everything?” I call back to the girls who are now checking out the cabin bedrooms and the valley view from the hot tub deck, as I look into the empty car, and then I remember the firewood in the secret trunk compartment. I set the wood down next to the little wood stove and start trying to figure out how it works, and I realize I have already done too much. 

Sofia gives me a big hug, and she is happier than she has been in a long time, and I walk through the fiberglass door with the beveled glass window and close it, leaving me on the other side, and I get into the car and tell Google Maps to take me home.

She will not be home for dinner tonight, but she will also not be on that living room couch watching YouTube videos — she will be so far from her family that she will feel herself expanding, she will fill a space open and free, not criss-crossed by expectations and demands, underground hopes and invisible canopies. She will feel the chemistry of friendships alchemizing, conversations that go on for 48 hours, figuring out how she likes to do things, how she likes to run a house, set a table, organize her day, follow her heart.

As I wind down the mountain, the sun is coming back out and steam rises off the pavement. I drive past poultry farms and grazing cows and junk yards with piles of tires in front, and the road curves in and up, down and around, like a hammock swinging.

And then through a break in the trees, I see that freight train moving across a high trestle between two peaks, and I start humming that country gospel song I don’t know why I love, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” The train must have stopped in the downpour, but it’s moving now. Black tank cars, yellow boxcars, well cars stacked with shipping containers, graffiti decorating each one, including the word “HOME” spray painted in all caps.

The road winds around gasps of mist hanging beside the mountains, past the Skyline Caverns with its rainbow waterfall and enchanted dragon, and then there it is again churning along the tracks on a ridge, and I want to stay there and hear the steel rolling over steel, watch the cars clicking by one by one over the rails, being pulled along, simply holding what they were given, because somewhere ahead an engineer has his hand on the throttle, watching the curves, the fills, and tunnels.

When I get home, I send pictures of the girls and the cabin to the other moms and I think that I might not hear from my daughter for five days. And this is practice for a real leaving. A leaving she has been preparing for her whole life. An uncoupling. And I will feel the sudden loss of the weight behind me, like a railcar being unhitched from another after a long journey, and not being able to look back to see where the other is headed.

It Was Worth the Poison Ivy

After a week in the country, we are covered in mosquito bites, sunburns, and poison ivy.  The kids’ bathing suits are rust stained with well water, sneakers are sifting creek sand, and white shirts are splattered with mustard.

I didn’t grow up in the country, but that farmstead in southern Ohio is where I go “back home.” A no-stoplight town where, at the one-room post office, we slow down to take a right and then climb up the gravel driveway, tires crunching the hill to the house where my parents have retired, and where I got married and my mom got married and so did her mom and her mom.

Summers and weekends growing up, I would fall asleep to the rumble of tractors heading home from the fields at dusk, or semi-trucks shimmying through this hamlet of run-down clapboard houses with a single gas station, once a bustling settler village. When I’m here, the whine of hot tires on pavement and wind whooshing through metal is just as sweet as the coo of doves, at this farmhouse built at the corner of Route 50 and county road 9. 

Even though the ruffled sheer curtains still hang in the bedroom that was once my grandparents’ and the entry is still papered with cabbage roses, every time I come back, something is different. A washhouse has been torn down, a cottage has gone up. Corn crops one year, soybeans the next. The barbed wire fence has slid into the creek, the cottonwood in the lower pasture was hit by lightning.

Or my mother has borrowed a pickup truck full of bikes or a box of action figures for the kids. My dad has made a ping-pong table or roped a swing around a branch. Every day we are here something new appears — a badminton net, a puzzle book, a croquet set — up until the last night when my mom pulls bottle rockets and sparklers out of the garage like it was Mary Poppins’ suitcase, and they don’t come to life until my dad torches them with a flamethrower.

This year wheat berries bake in the sun beyond the barn, in fields alive with crickets chirring, where we would sometimes spot a deer, its head and rump rocking above the sea of wheat as it bounded away.

A harvester with a 300-gallon fuel tank and tires taller than a 12-year-old arrived one day to take it all away, eating 40 rows at a time, leaving behind a wake of chaff, and pouring floods of grain into open semi trucks parked along the county road. The air filled with golden dust and the smell of starch, my shoes with bits of straw. 

Another afternoon I saw a groundhog moving through the tall weeds like a canoe among the cattails. After my dad’s ride-on mower has trimmed a swath of pasture, it leaves a milky way of white clover balls for me to walk over. And in the evening, lightning bugs on the lawn look like steam rising off a pond.

The boys got to shoot targets with my dad’s 1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle, and it gave so much kick-back their shoulders were sore at dinner. Whizz, pop, sparkle, bang — fireworks go off in the village below. The flower umbels of Queen Anne’s lace that grows along the fields look like bursts of ignited gunpowder.

Now, back in the city, I burrow into my to-do lists like that groundhog, ruffling up the smooth lawn with rude tracks so that others can see how hard it is to do my job. I reach under my blouse to scratch the poison ivy, the same movement that must have caused those slashes of rash all over my torso, and I remember the burnt marshmallow goo stuck in Diana’s hair, the inflatable pool swaying with well water, grass and bugs, and how the teens in bikinis and bellybutton rhinestones played “Blueberry Faygo” so loud, windows rolled down, flying down the highway, that it made my chest boom.

And I know it was all worth it.

Celebrating Like It’s 2019

We pile the kids into the car and drive through the dusk in this midwestern farmland, old quilts and bug spray and camping chairs in the trunk, grandparents at the big house, telling us to go ahead.

Virginia plays songs by Randy Travis and Jhené Aiko about longing and love from her cracked iPhone 7 as we sail along Route 50 into the night.

At the Jiffy Lube we slow down to make a left turn and see a half dozen cars tailgating in the Shoe Mart parking lot, waiting for the same fireworks that we have come to watch, except we will see them atop a perfect golf green, and I feel a mix of pride and shame.

Cars are parked on the shoulder of the club’s driveway like beads lined up to make a necklace. We find plenty of spaces near the pool and head toward the noise.

It’s near dark now and kids are playing corn hole and ring toss, rounds of people are laughing at patio tables spread with white tablecloths, and on an outdoor dance floor flashing with strobe lights, heads are bouncing to Miley Cyrus singing “We Can’t Stop.”

We don’t know anyone, so we weave past hands carrying cups so thin the sides cave in when full of whiskey sour, through exhales scented of gin & tonic, past a group of teenage girls with hope in their eyes who rush up to a guy at the patio fence then careen off toward the dance floor.

We spread out our blankets along the edge of the viewing area. The Black Eyed Peas are singing “I Gotta Feeling” that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night, and kids with sparklers run over the fairway, and the back door of the clubhouse bangs open and closed as people stream in and out.

It’s a 4th of July party like any other, and yet this summer is not another. When we are home in D.C., camps and birthday parties happen online, and passing an acquaintance is like spotting a celebrity. I love this party, but it feels like a pitcher of rum punch pouring over me and knowing that something in this drink could be poisonous.

There have only been 113 cases of the virus in this entire rural Ohio county, but if this were a party in the city, I’d feel like I was holding a black sparkly purse full of stolen cash.

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