The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows. If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.
In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions. All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot. Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling. They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it. But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air. If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around. She will never be happier than on this walk. She and the woods speak a common language.
I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor. If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath. Yet I know what lies under them. I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works. Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?
My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter. We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again. We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain. She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying. The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.
When a parent dies, they leave a child. The age of the child does not matter. When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown. In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again. I thought I knew my past. But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit. The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.
On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument. This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear. We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other. Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs. We are on the bed and in the kitchen. Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.
Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it. I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come. It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy. The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.
On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen. The noise is tremendous. I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last. Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something. Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.
I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum. I stop only to hold him because he is crying. We are children parenting ourselves and our love. He fears we cannot find our way back. I think we’re halfway there.
As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground. I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home. And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep. It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.
The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain. No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles. My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.
When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen. There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again. We will walk away the next time. We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.
Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew. It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it. Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface. I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air. She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.
In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing. Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort. I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.
She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods. I knew it because she knew it. We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end. We step close, but not too close.
The other end is called the deep end. Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale. It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water. I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.
If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface. But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves. If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.