By Emily Myers
The rental apartment in San Francisco was sparse. Spring sunshine bleached the walls and the linoleum was warm under my feet. My newborn was asleep in my arms and I had the phone wedged between my shoulder and jaw.
I missed my mum and told her so.
“I miss you too,” she said, and the phone crackled as it always did when she moved away from the window. The line between us stretched from damp, rural England to blistering California. Interference was expected. I pictured her in the cottage at the cove, its squat granite walls and small square windows, in a narrow valley spilling out to the sea. I could hear her moving, sitting down. I imagined her in those wing-back chairs, facing the fire, logs burning in the grate, spitting and popping. Dad would be out with the dogs.
“I wish you were still here. If only you were here, I could nip over and help you.” She sounded baffled. “What are you doing over there?”
I swayed, looking down at Max, three weeks old, his lips blistered from nursing. My whole body ached.
“Dom got a job, remember?”
I wanted to say it felt like I was standing alone in the middle of a rainstorm. I could see the water making rivulets all around me, my feet in the mud. The water was moving with such speed, and yet surrounded by this torrent of rain, it felt like nothing would ever change. I would always be here, watching this kind of water, on this kind of river bank. What I wanted to say was I missed the geography of my childhood, its familiarity, and that a nostalgia for it had crept in uninvited and was sitting heavily on my chest.
My mother told me about squabbles in the valley. There was a dispute about who should get the firewood from a fallen tree. Dad and Francis were going head to head with their camellias in the Penzance flower show. Eamon was back in hospital and Penny and her three grown daughters were up at The Nook with Val, who was now bedridden. “You know how close that family is,” she said.
I waited for my personal rainstorm to pass, slowly piecing together the jigsaw of my child, pulling genes from here and there; the dimples, the turn of his mouth and the curve of his nose, trying to make sense of things.
“It feels like you’ve been away thirty years,” said my mother during one of our long-distance calls.
“A lot has happened,” I said.
I wanted to say that my love for my child felt like a giant peony had bloomed in my throat and sometimes it was hard to breathe.
Max’s head got heavier and his eyes brightened, and he chuckled and sought me out. Every day the picture of my child, the character, became a little fuller. I knew the eczema on his thumb and the milk spots under his chin. I knew the smell of formula on his breath and how his eyelashes had grown. I knew how he hiccupped when he laughed. He loved his bath, I found out, and I noticed his feet were the length of my thumb. I saw how he pulled his socks off and sucked them and looked startled when he rolled himself over, and how he marveled at his hands and gripped my hair when I leaned into his crib. I knew the feeling of his cold fingers and sharp nails on my chest, and how he’d sleep in broad daylight, tolerating the fact that I hadn’t put up curtains in his room. I found that the rainstorm had created a river. Familiarity just took time.
My mother came to visit. She came alone because Dad didn’t like leaving the cove. There was no one to look after the dogs or the chickens, he said. Mum made it clear she had come to see me, that I was the priority. She meant it with love, but it felt like another kind of suffocation. The line between us should have been clear, but still it crackled.
“She is your mummy,” she said to Max who was, by then, a toddler, “But she is also my child.” She hugged me awkwardly with one arm. Max ran off, squealing.
“You’re not coming back,” she said when she left. She looked exhausted. We were both tired by then. And perhaps she was right. By now, I was pregnant with my second child.
I have always thought of the cove as the sediment of my being… something about the permanence of the granite, gray-pink and flecked with quartz. I loved the story of Great-Granny Favell seeing the valley for the first time, scorched with daffodils. She came from Sheffield with her sickly husband and bought the one-story stone house by the river. Slowly she acquired farmland and outhouses and became a plump matriarch, dogs at her heels. The war brought her daughters and a daughter-in-law back into the cupped hands of the cove, where grandchildren ran to the slip and played in the tide pools. A safe haven. Now, men lean on their boats and talk of the past. When the old lady died, she handed the valley to the National Trust to preserve its torpid beauty and her descendants hang on to what was left. Nothing changes now. No one wants that. It is wonderful and stifling, like another peony blooming in my throat.
After my mother went home, we resumed our weekly phone calls. It was hard for her to find reference points.
“How is that lady we met in the park?” she’d ask.
“Oh, I haven’t seen her again.”
“And Max’s soccer games?”
I’d recently befriended someone with a son the same age as Max, but to tell my mother would make me seem sadder and lonelier than I was. I was pulling away, finally coursing my own river. The storm had broken, letting me take big gulps of air. But when I spoke to my mother, I was pulled back to a place that didn’t allow for change. We fell back into what we were both missing: each other. In the end, it seemed easier not to call.
My mother had her own interpretation for my silence. “I can’t bear to think of you being unhappy,” she said.
“I’m not unhappy,” I said. “I need you to support me.” My words felt urgent. “Dom and I are together. We have healthy children. These are things to celebrate.” What would she prefer, I wanted to say, me sleeping on their couch?
She was slow to reply. “Yes, I get it.”
Later, she called it her “Rubicon.” Perhaps it was mine too. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed a watershed called The Rubicon and committed himself to war. I like to think that in our case, the territory was emotional and put us on a path to peace.
Emily Myers is happiest working out life’s complexities with her three sons. She has worked for the BBC in London and for the arts education group, A Little Culture, in San Francisco. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York.