I Looked Away and She Was Gone
By Janelle Hanchett
My daughter, she’s eleven. She’ll be twelve in November. She grew up one day a couple months ago.
We were going to a town about an hour away, in California’s Napa Valley, to hear my friend’s sister sing in a rock-n-roll band. We were going to have dinner first.
My daughter put on a dress, boots, hat, elbow-length gloves, and five years.
She wore them like a loose veil across cheek bones I never noticed, on the poise of squared shoulders, soft over eyes that knew something, something more than me, something adults know, or almost know, if they could remember.
She nearly stopped my heart when I saw her in that get-up, so beautiful she snatched my breath and words. I looked at her and looked harder and harder to see it clearly.
The second I saw it, it vanished, and there stood again my little one, my first one, who played in the sand and still does sometimes.
My Ava. She was born when I was 22-years-old. I thought having her would be a cool new thing to do. Like going to Mexico or backpacking around Europe. We got her name from a magazine article about Ava Gardner. It wasn’t popular then. I thought it was the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.
“Mama, I hate you!” She screams and runs off.
I stir the meat in the pan and heat like the cast iron before me. I think “How dare she speak to me that way.” I AM THE MOTHER. I think about storming down the hall and demanding better treatment. HOW DARE YOU. Who do you think you are?
Well I’m a girl, growing up, and it sucks sometimes.A victim of biology.
Screw biology, hormones, and nature.
For taking my girl from me, even if it’s only in moments still, so young. A victim of a uterus and ovaries a decade or two before she even needs them. I have no idea how to stand near this child. I have no idea what to say or where to reach as I watch her slip away, only in moments still, of beauty or rage.
So damn young.
But always moving away, or so it seems, until she tells me that she wants to hear my voice to feel better, and I want to cling to today for dear life. I want to weave her back into my skin and hold her there like it was and it’s always been.
Except that it isn’t. Not anymore.
And I cannot.
Except sometimes, like a couple weeks ago, when we went camping in Mendocino, along the heaven coastline of California, where the cold and redwoods meet. The fog sits soft on jagged black rocks, waves crash against them in bursts beautiful and deadly, and it’s clear. Clear that you’ve got nothing here and never will. Against this ocean, the relentless pull of time, moons and earth and water, a speck of sand on misty beach. You put on your sweatshirt and enjoy your nothingness. Breathe the gray serenity of something you know or knew once.
On the day we arrived it was sunny.
And through our campsite ran a little creek. It was my friend, pregnant, and her toddler daughter, and my own three kids. Our husbands not here yet.
I guess something about the place made my oldest one feel like the littlest one, or one of the little ones. Maybe it was having her own mama and another mama and just little kids around. Maybe it was the sun filling up our spot among the ferns and trees or the fog that rolled in, or the ocean cove across the street.
Whatever it was, I looked over and she was 8 again or 7 or 6 or 3.
She wore a bathing suit bottom and a t-shirt and she was gathering materials to build a fairy house, proudly running over to show me the couch, the walls, the shell vase.
She stomped around the little brook, building a dam, of course. She got filthy, put a banana slug across her nose.
She spent hours rigging up a chipmunk trap, sure the damn thing would come any moment now.
I watched her like the best movie in the world, one that plays only once, each scene sacred: each time she squatted down without a lick of self-consciousness, acted a little too young for a girl her size, each time she wanted my appraisal of the effectiveness of the trap, or how to make the couch stay together, weave together the leaves. Look at the moss she found. “Won’t it make a great bed?”
“Isn’t this great, Mama?” And I almost couldn’t contain it all, being that person again to her, the one to praise her childish constructions. I was her for so many years. I only get moments now.
And she wasn’t the girl yelling “I hate you,” then. She wasn’t the kid losing her mind about something, irrational, full of rage, hormonal. She wasn’t the kid flipping out about whatever drama is happening at school.
And she wasn’t in that dress that made her like the waves. So utterly beautiful and terrifying I can’t figure out if I’m in love or want to run away, from the power of it all. It’s almost too much…
“I HATE YOU!” the words sting my core because they’re true, for a moment, and maybe I hate her too. Because how can I do anything different with this pain taunting me, dangling in my face? I know it’s coming. It’s right there.
I’m losing her.
Nah, I don’t hate her, not even for a moment, but I dislike her sometimes in a way that’s shocking and new, like I dislike adults on occasion. It hurts my stomach to have that feeling toward my child.
They say she’ll come back, after the teenage years. That she’ll just seem gone.
They say it’s so wonderful again, after those years.
They say supportive things.
But what I see is that my daughter is growing up, and it’s all exactly as it should be, except that this is not a change a human can stomach. How can I take it? How can I accept it?
TELL ME WORLD, how can I let go? When all I want is one more day and one more after that of our little family and the oldest child still a child and she’s going.
I can only let go, and yet I cannot.
Once again, here I am. A mother. The Mother.
I stir the meat a little longer and remember eleven and twelve and sixteen and how I couldn’t see myself in myself sometimes, and I didn’t know either. “Who do you think you are?”
I have no clue, mom.
So I walk down the hall a few minutes later and open her door. She’s weeping into her pillow. I sit by her and say nothing, look at the trinkets and the papers and stuffed animals. I look at the jewelry and the books and treasures. I touch her arm. The clutter, the mess, the thousands of things on the walls. The notes from friends and things from second, third, fourth grade.
The little girl beneath a towering world.
Her little haven in an untouchable world begging her to join it, her place in my home, her home, all I can offer beyond what I am in all my broken form: a mother, her mother, a new mother I guess, to a new form of child.
I see again it’s all just a series of being reborn. It’s all just a series of recreation, of being tweaked and carved into something new, as I kick and scream and weep for the old.
Just when I was sure it would never end.
Just when I thought I knew what tomorrow would hold.
Janelle Hanchett is a mother of questionable disposition to three children aged 11, 7, and 2. She lives in northern California with her kids and a husband who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. If you want, you can join her in the fight against helpful parenting advice at her blog, Renegade Mothering (www.renegademothering.com).