Lightening

Lightening

Lightening 1080 810 Jenna B. Morgan

Mother,
During those early, dearest days
I did not dream that you had
A large life which included me,
For I had a life
Which was only you.

— Maya Angelou, “Mother”

 

I’m naked in the half-renovated, unairconditioned upstairs bathroom and my maternity bathing suit is officially too small.

My body is unrecognizable in the mirror — my midsection a pale moon patterned with stretch marks instead of craters.

I am huge and I am hot and I am going swimming.

With some Cirque-de-Soleil level contortions, I wrestle into last summer’s bikini.

I am too pregnant to wear it out of this bathroom much less out in public, but I am also too pregnant to give a damn.

Because my husband is a very smart man with a strong sense of self-preservation, Josh doesn’t say a word when I come down the stairs. He just grabs the beach towel and follows me out the back door.

We go down to the lake every night after he gets home from work. He plays lifeguard —watches me waddle down the beach and wade into the still-chill July water.

When I’m in deep enough, I push off the bottom and all at once I’m not sweating and nothing aches and I am myself. I could be eight or fourteen or twenty-two. It could be any half-aquatic summer of my life. The water obliterates the constant loop of staticky panic that has been running through my head all day every day since I peed on that stick — I don’t know how to apply diaper cream or burp a baby or knit a bootie or make baby food; I dont know how to French braid or how to make a Halloween costume or how to play pattycake; Ive never made chocolate chip cookies from scratch or kissed a boo boo all better or checked anyones homework or read a picture book aloud; Ive never taught anyone how to cross the street or say please or count to ten or stand up to a bully; I dont know the Heimlich maneuver; I havent spoken to my own mother in almost a year.

With my ears submerged, there’s nothing but the whoosh of my heartbeat echoing like waves in an empty seashell.

“Good swim, my burgeoning bride?” Josh asks as he hands me a beach towel half an hour later.

I’m panting from my short walk up the beach and gasp out: “If by burgeoning you mean rotund.”

“I mean ripe and curvaceous.”

“Ripe like a state-fair-prize-winning watermelon.”

“A sexy watermelon.”

“You have to say that because it’s your fault I look like a manatee.”

“The legends about mermaids are actually based on sightings of manatees. So, in fact, manatees are the sexiest sea creatures.”

“So I’d look good to a randy, hallucinating sailor is what you’re telling me?”

“And to me.”

We start to walk back to the house. It is so humid I have to breathe with my mouth open.

“Tell me again about Lake Michigan winters. Slowly,” I order.

“Winter starts so early I had to wear a snowsuit under my Halloween costume. And it lasts so long my sisters had to wear long johns under their Easter dresses.”

“Keep going.”

“A quick trip to the mailbox and you’ll have icicles hanging from your nose.”

“Don’t stop.”

“You’ll need boots with soles like tire treads. And snow chains for your tires.”

“Oh my God, yes.”

“It’ll get down to fifteen below before you even factor in wind chill.”

It’s better than porn.

***

Two months ago, I sat in Josh’s parents’ living room besieged by dozens of his female relatives — all four of his sisters, cousins, aunts, grandmothers. All these women loved Josh, had known him his whole life. And they already loved his baby snug in my belly, and would know her the same way they know him — celebrating every milestone, recounting every embarrassing childhood story.

But me? Most had met me exactly twice: the bridal shower and the wedding last year.

I didn’t have any of my own cousins or aunts or grandmothers to invite. It had always been just me and Mom. And I didn’t mail her shower invitation; I just shoved it in the desk drawer with all the other letters.

So there I was, an incubator surrounded by strangers.

The room was too small and too hot. The sherbet was reduced to neon scum in everyone’s punch cups. I’d been opening presents for what felt like hours. “Oh, thank you so much!” I said as I pulled another pack of onesies from another beribboned gift bag. Finally, I came to the very last gift: a tiny box, like the kind jewelry comes in.

“From Uncle Charlie,” I read the tag aloud. I remembered him vaguely from the wedding. Nice old guy, wild white hair like that picture of Einstein.

Inside the box was a key. Everyone started talking at once:

“He didn’t!” Josh’s mom Paula gasped.

“That place is huge!”

“It’s practically falling down.”

“Lakefront property.”

“Josh was always his favorite.”

“A carseat is a baby gift! A crib is a baby gift!” Paula’s voice cuts through the cacophony. “A house is not a baby gift!”

When I was a kid, I got off the bus every day and let myself into an empty apartment. I’d make my own snack and watch Boy Meets World and Step by Step and Full House, coveting all the golden retrievers and backyard swing sets and neighbors who brought over casseroles. And I made plans. Someday I’d have my own house, paint the kitchen robin’s egg blue, plant a garden full of flowers, get a dog. I’d make lasagna every Sunday and take the best dessert to the block party. I’d hand out the good candy at Halloween, string up a thousand twinkly lights at Christmas. I’d do in real life all the things I’d only seen on TV.

***

We drove out to the house the very next day — me and Josh and Paula. She wouldn’t take no for an answer; she was coming with us and giving her two cents and that was that.

We pulled down the long gravel drive and past the last of the tall pines blocking the view.

“Oh my God.” Paula sounded horrified.

“Oh my God,” I echoed, delighted.

It wasn’t just a house, it was a dream house: a rambling Victorian with a wrap-around veranda and a princess turret and a view of Lake Michigan stretching to the horizon.

“That damage cannot be fixed with a patch job.” Paula pointed. “You’ll have to spend thousands on a new roof. And all these trees up by the house… One big blow and you’ll have a thirty foot pine in the dining room!”

Before Josh and I could even get out of the car, Paula was on the porch shaking loose railings and stomping warped boards.

When I unlocked the front door, she blew right past us.

“These floors are absolutely unsalvageable!”

“Don’t listen to her,” Josh told me. “If you love it, there’s nothing here we can’t fix.”

“This stove is older than you are!” Paula called from deep inside the house. “Try to light it, I dare you! You might as well light a stick of dynamite!”

“I’ll deal with her. Look around,” Josh prompted.

“And a stick of dynamite is just what this heap needs!” Paula shouted.

I wandered from dining room to kitchen to sitting room and Paula’s tirade faded to the disembodied wah-wah-wah of the teacher in Peanuts. I found half a dozen bedrooms upstairs. Finally, Josh found me in the smallest one.

“Crib over there?” Josh pointed.

I nodded. “And a rocking chair by the window.”

“You absolutely, positively cannot live in this deathtrap!” Paula yodeled up the stairs.

We both grinned.

“You have to break it to your mother,” I told him.

***

I’m assembling what passes for dinner these days — ham and cheese sandwiches and cantaloupe slices on paper plates — when Josh comes through the front door. Instead of calling out buxom or fruitful or abundant, he’s quiet until he gets to the kitchen.

“What’s wrong?”

“Don’t be mad,” he says.

“About?”

“Just try not to be, okay?” he hedges. “I thought… But I made a mistake.”

Someone else bangs through the front door.

“Molly Anne Stevens, you are in so much trouble!”

I might as well be sixteen again and sneaking in after curfew.

“Molly Franklin,” I say as she enters the kitchen.

“What?”

“My name is Molly Franklin. I’m a grown woman and this is my home and you cannot just barge in here uninvited and —”

“He invited me.” She points at Josh.

He won’t even look me in the eye. “I thought if I sent your letters… I didn’t read them, I knew you were writing to your mom, though, and —”

“Which letters?”

“All of them!” Mom whips a sheaf of papers from her purse.

And it really is. All the letters I wrote and shoved in the desk drawer. They were diary entries, not correspondence.

Mom,

Im pregnant.
Molly

 

Mom,

Im pregnant. But unlike you, I did it on purpose.

Molly

 

Mom,

Josh and I are expecting. We hope you can be happy for us.

Molly

 

Mom,

Youre going to be a grandmother. And if you dont have anything nice to say about it, dont say anything at all.

Molly

 

Mom,

Its been over a year but Im still angry. It was my wedding day! But this letter isnt about that. This letter is about me having a baby. A daughter. If you cant be happy for me, lets just go on the way we have been, not speaking.

Molly

 

Mom,

Im thirty-two weeks pregnant. I was too mad to tell you. And afraid. Given what you said at the wedding, what might you say now? I might have been a mistake, but this baby isnt.

Molly

 

Mom,

Im pregnant and Im terrified that youre right. What if, not knowing any better, I do repeat all your mistakes? What if she ends up hating me the same way I hate you?

Molly

 

“You just wait and see! Twenty-five years from now you’ll be standing in my shoes, and your progeny will have done some idiotic —”

“Having a baby is not idiotic! Jesus, who says something like that —”

“Not having a baby! Being pregnant and not even telling your own mother! This is the wedding all over again!”

“Gee, Mom, I can’t imagine why I wasn’t eager to share the happy news!”

She points at my belly. “Someday your daughter will say you were a horrible mother! You’ll see how it feels!”

I barrel past her and Josh and up the stairs.

***

I was just trying to fix my hair. My updo was collapsing and I just wanted to look good in the going away photos. The car was already waiting out front, Just Married scrawled across the rear windshield.

“I don’t see why you and Josh had to sit at your own table while I was stranded with strangers.”

“They aren’t strangers, Mom, they’re Josh’s family.”

“What a family! Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters, assorted cousins. And all of them about as interesting as unbuttered toast. How many of these people are there anyway? What are they Amish or something?”

“I like big families.”

“So being an only child was just terrible, huh?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You meant it, though. Josh has a mom and dad and sisters — you think he’s got the right kind of family. And now you do too.”

“You’re just bitter.”

“Bitter? As if I ever wanted any of that. Or any of this.” She gestured toward me, flipping her hand to include the half-wilted bouquets stacked on the side table, the half-eaten plates of hors d’oeuvres, the frothy white wedding gown.

But I knew what she really meant was me. I was the thing she never wanted.

***

I lock the door to the nursery behind me. It’s the only room in the whole house that’s really finished. The walls are the color of fresh butter, and the crib is already made up, the sheets patterned with cartoon ducks. There are white eyelet curtains hanging above the window unit we’ll take down eventually. Josh has promised we’ll get the central air working again before next summer.

I sit down in the rocking chair and try to breathe. The inhales and exhales aren’t the Lamaze I’ve practiced, but instead the familiar rhythm of long-distance swimming: long exhale through my nose, quick inhale through my mouth, and again, and again.

I don’t how how to talk to my own mother, much less forgive her. I dont know how to be a good daughter any more than she knows how to be a good mother. If I had no model, how can I learn? And what will I be modeling for my own daughter? A cheap imitation of sitcom motherhood? How to be the kind of daughter who doesnt speak to her own mother?

The breathing doesn’t do anything to slow this new panic metastasizing inside my head.

There’s a knock.

“God, Molly. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it would be like this.”

I’m silent, still breathing. If I start to speak, I don’t know what I’ll say.

“She won’t leave,” Josh says through the locked door. “She’s sitting at the kitchen table and says she won’t go until you talk to her.”

Another deep breath and I eke out: “I won’t.”

“She knew you’d say that. So she told me to say that she’s the one in the kitchen and you’ll come out when you get hungry enough.”

He waits, quiet for a long time.

My mouth is clamped shut.

I can hear his steps creaking down the stairs. Will he go sit with her? Try to get her to leave? Will he call his mom? Jesus, the last thing we need is Paula sticking her nose in.

I get up and move, open the drawers of the changing table, the door to the closet. These past few weeks, I’ve gone through all the motions, done all the things the expectant mothers on TV do: refold the baby clothes, rearrange the nursery, recheck the hospital bag.

I circle the room again, pick up the baby monitor, put it down, stroke the baby blanket some aunt crocheted, run my finger down the spines of the chunky board books on the shelf. Somehow, they’re all the same books I had as a child: Goodnight Moon and Madeline and Corduroy. I know I owned them, but I have no memories of Mom reading them to me.

I pick up The Very Hungry Caterpillar, flip the pages.

One apple on Monday. Two pears on Tuesday. But Eric Carle left out the revolting part: once the very hungry caterpillar builds her cocoon, she’s not done eating. Before she can become a butterfly, she breaks down completely, liquifies into caterpillar soup and digests herself.

I’m soup.

I’m metabolizing myself away to nothing.

Once my daughter emerges, I won’t be her home anymore. I’ll be shredded, translucent, an empty chrysalis. I’ll be the same kind of stranger as that angry woman at my kitchen table.

***

At 4:00 am, she finds me in the upstairs bathroom. I’m gripping the edge of the counter with my teeth clenched so tight I can’t even tell her to go away. Without asking, she starts to rub my back in slow circles the way she used to when I was sick.

I hate that it helps.

When the contraction stops, I unclench and arch my back. “I’m still mad at you.”

“Ditto, kid. But that can wait. Where’s Josh?”

I shrug. “I’m not talking to him.”

“Deal with that later. You don’t want to go through labor alone. Trust me on this.”

“I think they’re just Braxton Hicks. I’ve had them before.”

Mom sits down on the closed toilet lid. “I had those, the last few weeks with you. The only thing that helped was getting in the bathtub.”

“The water’s cut off up here while we renovate. And even if it wasn’t, I’m too big for the damn bathtub.”

“So put this on.” She pulls down the damp bikini slung over the shower rod. “You’re not too big for the lake.”

I hesitate.

“You can’t be so mad that you’d actually prefer the pain.”

“I can’t go in by myself.”

“Who taught you never to swim alone? I’m coming with you.”

We meet by the kitchen door, and once we step outside the glow of the back porch light, she reaches for my hand. I let her take it.

We shuffle down the sandy strip and into the water, Mom still in her pajamas. With every step, we move deeper. The water erases the heaviness in my legs, eases the downward pull of my gravid middle. My body is lifting, lightening,

Still, I have every muscle tensed, waiting for the next wave of pain to drag me under. I try to float, but flounder.

Mom puts her hands on my back.

“I’ve got you. Lean back.”

So I do.

And as huge as I am, I am weightless. And I remember exactly this.

I was tiny, maybe three years old when she taught me to swim. My small head fit perfectly in the curve of her shoulder. I was a boneless starfish, trusting her hands to hold me up.

I can see the stars over Lake Michigan. I can breathe long and slow and hear the strong and regular thump of my own heart.

We are buoyant and we are safe.

Header photography © Liz Baronofsky.

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