A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Given the circumstances, I couldn’t be happier.
It’s autumn in this rented house, the wood stove is humming, the kids are playing with a hat in the yard, and I’m in the kitchen making pumpkin chowder: simmer the onions, sprinkle in a touch of cinnamon, add pumpkin and stock, and let it cook down. This food declares that we are comfortable and home, even though this tiny house is not where any of us imagined we would be a year ago.
The sky is gray, the air brisk, the leaves long gone from apple trees and woods. Alex is supposed to be wearing the hat he and his sister Annie are tossing around. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but they’re both pink cheeked and squealing. I am hoping we can make it here in this new arrangement. Every breath I take feels like an experiment. Each night at bedtime I do what I’ve always done: pajamas and stories and tucking in. And each night as I close the door to the kids’ room, I find I’m crying: we’ve made it through another day.
A few weeks ago they were still in the house they’d always lived in, but their dad and I were never both home at once; we took turns living there and caring for them. Maybe, we thought, the kids wouldn’t notice the change. But now there’s no disguising it. Now their dad is my ex-husband, across the highway and down the road, in the house that used to be ours. Maybe one day we’ll all understand just what happened to our family, how something fell away, how we lost the map. Maybe one day, but not today.
Today we have pumpkin chowder, but I would feed these kids my own marrow if it would keep them from taking in any of my emptiness and fear. I’ve been advised to “fake it until you make it.” I have no faith that this will work, but it’s all I have. Either I fake it, or we don’t make it.
But the chowder is real, and the kids’ enthusiasm for this day is real, and I am borrowing strength from both. I stir the soup and look at the sky and see how the wind shakes the trees outside the window. Seven-year-old Annie is running across the yard toward the house, her mouth open. “Alex fell in the —” she is screeching, and over her last word there is an even louder and higher-pitched sound, my five-year-old son making a noise I have never heard him make. “He fell in the old well,” Annie says, panting. “He jumped off the stone wall and —”
I fly across the yard and over tumbled rocks that border the woods. An old, ground-level stone well lies in wait on the other side. In its depths, leaf covered but filled with dark, murkish water, I can see Alex’s red hair far below me. I slam down belly first onto the cold earth. He is so far down that it seems he’s gone into an enveloping darkness that would take him away from me.
Alex does not swim. Water has been a problem for him since the beginning, when he slipped out of my womb with a lung full of fluid that left no room for air. He began to turn blue, and they whisked him away to the city hospital, his father following behind in the family car, leaving me staring out the window of the rural hospital room, holding on to my flabby belly lest anything else fall out and disappear.
But Alex did not disappear. And he did not disappear on any of the nights that I dreamt he was falling into the river that flowed along the edge of our land, because every time in my dream I was able to reach down and grab his hand and save him. And he did not disappear on the summer day when he was three years old and slid quietly into the deep water of the swimming hole while the adults sunbathed. There he was, just like in my dream, dropping down in the coppery depths while his face looked up toward the surface in mild surprise. And there I was diving down to catch his little hand.
Although the well is not big around, Alex’s arms are not long enough to touch the sides. He’s wailing and flapping and reaching out to find nothing. I’m reaching too and saying, “It’s OK, sweetie. We’re getting you out of there,” mostly to convince myself that we will get him out of there and it will be OK.
Hanging my arms in is useless. He’s grabbing for me, but we can’t make our hands touch. I will jump into this damn well if I have to. If he’s going, I’m going too.
I tell Annie to lie on my legs, and she thumps down on them with her warm body, her earnestness more than her weight holding me in place. I throw myself over the side until I am dangling from my hips and tell Alex to grab my hand, and he does. His fingers are slippery, his wrist small and wet, but I take hold like a vise and pull him up from the darkness and the decay and the cold of the well until all three of us are in a wet pile on the ground.
Alex is hardly aware that he’s safe now, he is so terrified of the putrid stench still clinging to him. He smells like death. I swing him into my arms and press his body close and nuzzle his throat and carry him to the house. Before we go in, I peel off his clothing and leave it in a heap on the deck.
He is so small in the bath, folded over on himself. He is white, the tub is white, the water is clear. After a long time he uncurls an arm, a leg, his spine, like a newborn emerging into the safety of just the right amount of water. I sing. He lets his arms and legs float and does not allow me to leave the room.
When all we can smell is soap, and Alex has climbed into a soft towel and then into pajamas and is sitting by the wood stove with a book, I call my ex-husband, who hangs up fast and is at the door in minutes.
Alex lies quiet across his dad’s chest in the kitchen rocking chair, which squeaks, goes quiet, then squeaks again. The light outside softens as evening falls. I long for this man’s arms, for his chest against my frightened ear. My stomach twists with the memory of his eyes when they loved me most. But his chest, his arms, are for Alex now, not for me. I stir the chowder, serve it in four small red bowls, set them on the table.
For a moment I can imagine that nothing has changed, that the divorce never happened and we are sitting here in the warm kitchen on a cloudless night, a real family. Together we would have made of this day a heroic epic: Annie would be quick and smart. Alex would be brave. Their dad would be a steady, comforting presence. And I would be the one who did not let go, ever.
We are still something, but we are not what we were. Their dad has nothing to say to me now. Alex has nothing to say to anyone. He said it all in that eerie wail from another world. Even Annie is quiet. The chair squeaks. The house is warm. I smell failure all around us, and pumpkin, and cinnamon.
In the last paragraph of her essay “Fall” [April 2012] Nancy Coleman alludes to “failure all around us.” Yet that afternoon she pulled her endangered son to safety and courageously recruited her ex-husband to comfort her children in a time of crisis. She has apparently established a manageable life in a new household where love abounds.
If she listens carefully, she may hear the walls of her house whispering, “Success.”