My four-year-old daughter has just started preschool full-time, leaving me home alone during the day with her eight-month-old sister. It is Obama’s first year in office. He was elected the year before while I was pregnant, my blurred optimism reflected in the baby’s name, Mira Soleil, which roughly translates to “look to the sun.”
Around 2:30 p.m., Mira wakes from her afternoon nap and I nestle her into her carseat, her body still warm with sleep, then drive two miles to pick up her sister. The preschool is located in a mid-century brick building with a sign out front quoting John Dewey above a silhouette of a boy and girl holding hands and picking flowers. It backs into a nature preserve, a lowland marsh ringed by wooded trails where my daughter’s teacher leads them on fairy hunts, pointing out the differences between gingkoes and maples, moths and butterflies.
It all seems so idyllic. I thought we would love it here; but instead, I’m painfully lonely. Fall is my husband’s busiest travel season, and we’re new to this Michigan town, having moved here recently for his job. With no family or friends nearby, I spend my days mired in the language of early childhood, connecting farm animals to their utterances. I’d hoped motherhood would become less lonely once my daughter started school, but it’s only more so.
The problem is, I don’t know how to talk to the other mothers. I’ve fallen out of conversational practice, lost the flow of language. Even when I find the words, we don’t jibe. There is a chilly confidence about them. While I’m recovering from postpartum depression, struggling to climb the bottom rung of Maslow’s pyramid, they manage to ferment their own yogurt and sew their own bedding and pick berries at no-spray farms. I’m generalizing here, though several do those things. Others have no time or inclination for homesteading, especially the ones who work full-time. Yet the working mothers are even harder to befriend, probably because of how I see myself reflected their eyes: a breeder with spit-up on her cardigan. Probably not very bright.
Mira grunts “ennnng!” She jabs a chubby finger to the swing set. I carry her past the mothers stationed at the picnic tables making breezy conversation and lift her into the plastic baby swing, squeezing her legs through the holes, grateful for the excuse she provides. Without her, I’d have to mash my thoughts into acceptable bits, puree them like I puree her carrots, making them digestible. None of my thoughts are digestible. I’m shit company.
A few years later we’ll enroll our daughters in a different school. I’ll start sleeping for longer stretches, eating off my own plate. Slowly I will reenter the current of language, turning my face toward the sun.
The last time the preschool mothers and I are all together is at a funeral almost two years ago. One of the few mothers I’d remained in close contact with over the years had lost her husband to a sudden heart attack, leaving her widowed with two sons. During the service, her brother stands up and tearfully wags his finger at us. If we really want to honor her late husband, he says, “Just be kind, okay? Take care of each other. Promise. You’ll. Do it.”
Afterwards we file chastened into the vestibule, where the mothers and I make gentle small talk. It is Trump’s first year in office, all of us aged around the eyes. There are still the old divisions, less burdensome now that something has imperceptibly shifted while we’ve been making dinners and returning to work. When did we go from being mothers birthing humans to mothers burying them?
Thanks to our kids, conversation flows easier that day than it did in September 2009. Those chipmunk-cheeked rascals who trudged together on so many long-ago fairy hunts are middle-schoolers now, laughing and cutting up beside the punch bowl, ignoring the rules of funeral etiquette. The mothers and I can’t stop gazing at them, awed by their coltish limbs, their bodies fluid and unfurling, their beauty a language all its own, one each of us is just starting to learn.
Sarah Curtis’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, River Teeth, Salon, The American Literary Review, Assay, Chaleur, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. Her work has been noted in 2018 Best American Essays, nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and is forthcoming in an anthology marking the best of the first twenty years of River Teeth. She holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Michigan with her family.
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