Mother’s Day Kindness

Mother’s Day Kindness

Art Grocery bag

By Jill Christman

We are due to arrive at the baseball-themed birthday party for our six-year-old friend Spencer at 4:00 p.m., but it’s already 2:05 by the time my kids get their shoes on for an emergency trip to the grocery store to buy cupcake supplies. I know the precise time because nine-year-old Ella has chosen today to take notes on my every move and utterance in a pocket-sized spiral notebook like a reporter on her beat—or a really obvious Harriet the Spy. When I grab up cloth bags, my purse, and the keys, and lacking a free hand, use my knee to give 5-year-old Henry a nudge toward the door, Ella peers in from the front porch, cocks what looks to me like a judgmental eyebrow, and scratches a note.

“Is this for that economics unit at school or something?” I ask.

“No,” she explains, “I’m just making observations about you. About what happens when you go to the grocery store—because you don’t think you’re a good shopper. That’s my first observation.” Scratch, scratch.

Finally out of the house and in the driveway, I see a Paul’s Flowers van blocking us from a swift departure. This is a good thing and a bad thing. “Get in the car, kids,” I say. Of course, they don’t. They want to get a look at Paul. Where the hell is Paul?

“But Mom,” Ella says, pointing out the obvious, “are we still supposed to get into the car when there’s a Paul’s Flower truck behind us?” Then she flashes a sly smile, revealing she’s in on this secret. I should mention here that the children’s father is out of town, playing disc golf in Peoria, Illinois, despite the fact that in the thirty-six hours prior to his departure he’d been vomiting and feverish, muttering “I’m in hell, I’m in hell,” while I—having been required to come off my own cruise on the norovirus ship early in order to keep our children alive—well, kept our children alive. So the first time he was able to get up, he choked down a piece of dry toast and a spoonful of chicken soup, packed a bag of plastic discs and Gatorade, each in a rainbow of colors, and headed off down the road with his buddies.

At some point in his preparations—or maybe from the road—he’d rallied the good sense and wherewithal to dial up the flower shop. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

At long last—what was he doing in there? picking the flowers?—the man whom I assume to be Paul himself emerges from the van carrying an admittedly lovely Asian-inspired display with creamy yellow cala lilies emerging from a bed of orange roses. “It’s a little tippy,” the man says by way of introduction, and more than a little sheepishly, propping up a stick of bamboo with his finger. I’d need to confirm this with Ella, but by now, it must be 2:13. “Yeah, yeah,” Paul continues. “Sorry about that. You know, just as I was turning onto the road, I get a call from my buddy and I’m just turning on the road, just about to your driveway, and I pick it up and he says he’s looking for a new deep freeze, but I tell him I’m out on delivery and I can’t talk about deep freezes, but he found one he thought might be a good deal. . .”

I smile a baby’s breath sweet smile and attempt to pry the display from his thick fingers. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Taking a backwards step toward the door, still in a game of tug-o-flowers with Paul, I look at my roaming children and annunciate in clear eye-flash, head-flick, mother speak: Get In The Car.

“Yeah, yeah,” Paul says, taking another shot at the tipping bamboo with his finger. Refusing to relinquish his grip on his side of the arrangement and parting the roses, he directs my gaze to a layer of thick green foam sprouting flower stems like a bad hair transplant. “See there? See? If you just keep that foam damp they’ll stay fresh for you. Nice and fresh.” Close up like this, I notice the orange roses are a little brown around the edges of the petals.

“Great. I’ll do that,” I say. I give a sudden pull on my side and Paul’s big hands fall away. The flowers are mine. “Thank you so much. Have a great day. Kids, jump in the car now, please.” Even though I’ve already used the remote key to unlock the car, multiple times, I press the button again, for the punctuating effect of the muted beeping. The Car is Now Unlocked. Get Into the Car. Please. Now.

Paul takes a call on his cell, and then—praise heaven—his much-anticipated leave. I deposit the tipping, browning flowers inside the front door, snatch the mail from the box, and throw myself down into the station wagon. As I’m putting the key in the ignition with one hand, I flip through the mail with the other—Teavana tea catalog, two invitations to join the Poetry Society, one for me and one for my husband, something from the hospital, and another something from the IRS. I open the one from the IRS first. My attention is required, I read. If I fail to respond within 20 days, I read, bad things might happen. I needn’t resend a paper copy of my full return. In fact, doing so may result in a delay of the processing of my return. There is a form and some bolded telephone numbers.

From the back seat, Ella taps her pen on her notebook. “Mom. What are you doing?”

Henry pipes up. “Yeah. Daddy’s not here. What are you waiting for?”

“Daddy’s not here,” I repeat flatly. We’re not exactly being audited, I don’t think, but we’re not exactly not being audited either. Crap. I tear open the other envelope, from the hospital. It’s from the imaging center where I had my screening mammogram four days prior—crawling from my flu bed to watch in nauseating satisfaction as a whirring machine smashed my breasts between the glass plates while I wondered What kind of bra will hold them up after this devastation? There’s a problem with my left breast and I’m being called in for a return “diagnostic mammogram and/or ultrasound.” Again, the news is muddy. There’s a density. I should make my return appointment without delay.

“Mom!” Henry yells from the back seat. “I’m BORED.”

Bored? Oh, to be bored. I toss the mail on the pile of debris in the passenger’s seat, turn the key, and pull the stick into reverse. One word repeats itself in my brain on the one-mile stretch down to the grocery story: shit. In my head, I hear the mildly explicative stutter of a cold engine trying to start in winter. Shitshitshitshitshit. Shitshitshit.


When we get to the store Ella has a question. Are you going to need your iPhone in the store, Mom? Because I need a timer.”

“A timer?”

“Yeah, it’s one of my observations.”

My thumb presses the button on the front of my phone and it lights up, an image of my bright-faced children with a time-stamp on their heads. “It’s 2:27″—Fuck! 2:27! In what world am I going to get the shopping done, get home to frost the baseball-mitt-and-ball cupcakes, cut the strawberries and the grapes into the fruit salad, get the kids to finish the card, feed the dog. . . and get to the party by 4? “Not this world,” I say out loud.

“Not this what?” Ella asks.

“Never mind,” I say. “Come on. Unbuckle.”

Before we can even make it into the store, I am happy—truly happy—to see that our grocery store has beautiful, 3-gallon azalea pots in full bloom. Spencer’s mother’s cat has just died and I want to get her a memorial perennial. This is perfect. I hoist one with magenta blossoms, and some mud trickles down my shirt.

Ella is a thoughtful, slow-moving child on a good day, but on this day, recording my every move, she is yet slower. “What’s that?” she asks.

“An azalea bush.”

“Was that on your list?”

“Well, no, but it was on my mind to get something for Jackie to plant for Maya.”

“But it wasn’t on your list?”

“No. Not on my list. C’mon. Keep up.”

We’re in the store now and moving at a decent clip for a mud-smeared forty-something who may or may not have something wrong in the left breast she is now palpating surreptitiously under the inadequate cover of a pyramid of oranges and may or may not be in the initial stages of the audit she has always dreaded, not because she cheats—she doesn’t, let the record show—but because, shit, what a pain, and with two writers and two home offices, she always knew it was a risk. I realize I’m narrating this sad story about myself in third person as I scoop up my last item from produce—asparagus, on sale.

“Was that on the list?”

“No, but something for tomorrow night’s dinner was on the list, and now I think we’ll have asparagus and pizza.”

“Yum,” Ella says approvingly, jotting something down. “What time is it? How many minutes have we been in here so far?”

In the back corner of the store, behind produce, is the alcohol. I should mention here because Henry isn’t getting much air time that this is one of those days he wants to push the cart, veering off towards Bakery and randomly back toward the pita chips, so in the name of desperate efficiency, I’m doing that thing where I kind of hunch over the top of him like some kind of grocery cart beast to keep us on course. In this fashion, we careen into Wine.

“Got your notebook ready?” I say to Ella. “Mommy’s about to go off-list.” A lady in Cheese raises an eyebrow and gives me a strange look. Henry crashes the cart into an end cap of shiraz, but no damage is done—not this time, not yet—and I steer him away. “Stay right here,” I command. “Don’t move a muscle.” (For once in her life, Ella doesn’t add, “If I don’t move a muscle, I won’t be able to breathe, Mom.”) They wait while I pick out a nice pinot grigio. Ella makes a respectfully quiet note.


Powdered sugar (for the vegan frosting I haven’t made) and coffee (for the rest of my life) are both definitely on list, gaining me efficiency points with Ella, but losing me time in Coffee because a sweet elderly man wants to talk to me about coffee beans. He has questions about light, medium, and dark roasts and caffeine content that I simply cannot entertain even as I appreciate his curiosity about a very important food group. Wait. Is he hitting on me? Doesn’t matter. I feign oblivion (ahhh, sweet oblivion) and push on towards milk, the final item on the list, kicking myself for not just running in for the powdered sugar and fruit, and then coming back after the party for anything we didn’t need before the party, but we’re in it now.

“Time?” I say to Ella, now juggling both notebook and phone.

“2:53.” Scratch scratch.

Okay, okay. I’ve got this. We’ve got this. I’ve frosted approximately a million kid-party cupcakes in my mom tenure, and seriously, I can’t feel any kind of lump. I really can’t. One hand still fondling (could this have been what had attracted the questions from the old man in Coffee?) and the other guiding the Henry-powered cart monster, I steer toward the farthest corner of the store where the organic dairy products are kept segregated from the hormone- and preservative-pumped dairy products, because God forbid that milk could be with milk. Rounding the final corner with some difficulty, I stop in front of the bank of coolers where the organic milk has always been. For years. No milk. Every conceivable variety of juice and lemonade—strawberry, raspberry, peach—but not a single ounce of milk. My body drops into what feels more like a position for hunting prey on the savannah than one necessary for finding milk in a glass-fronted case: legs apart, knees bent and loose, both arms up, head and eyes scanning. Also, I’m mumbling to myself: “Milk, milk, milk. . . I know the milk is here. Where’s the bleeping milk?” I think my nose might even be twitching, as if I’m going to smell the milk and hunt it down where it hides. Honestly, at this point I’ve forgotten all about both children, but I feel certain Ella has extensive notes on this hysterical interlude. Mommy really isn’t a very good grocery shopper. She can’t even find the milk.


I straighten up, drop my hands to my sides, and try to look a little less crazy as I turn to face a grocery store employee in a red vest. He has a kind face and glasses.

“Ma’am? Can I help you find something?”

“Yes! I mean, yes. Yes, please. I mean, I’m a notoriously bad grocery shopper. Actually. . . “—I point a thumb out at Ella—”she’s taking notes on how bad I am, and it’s true. I know it’s true.” I feel a kind of genuine shame. I am a bad grocery shopper. There are just so many choices, and things are organized so strangely. My new grocer friend is really very patient and nice. He’s just waiting for me to finish. “Anyway, I’m looking for the organic milk. I could have sworn it was here in this case.”

He smiles sympathetically, and dare I say, in a validating way? “You’re right. It was here. We just moved it. Now the organic milk is over in Dairy with the milk.” Crazy. He gestures for us to follow and starts off around the corner, so he’s about ten feet ahead of us when the accident happens.


What happens next really isn’t Henry’s fault, and it’s not really mine either. Henry’s still pushing, providing necessary velocity, although maybe somewhat erratically, and I’m trying to guide the cart with one hand from the front, keeping an eye on the bobbing red vest. In the same moment that I notice our path is blocked by a 12-pack display of Corona, an island of blue, gold, and cream—La Cerveza Mas Fina—rising up between Frozen Foods and Dairy like a new land mass, an oasis beckoning those who want to slice a lime and imagine it’s time to hit the party boat, Henry kicks in with a burst of acceleration. I try to correct with a yank on the front of the cart, but I’m not fast enough. We take out the front corner of Beer Island, and it sinks into the sea with a tremendous clanking crash. Henry, Ella, me, the bespectacled Marsh employee in the red vest, all freeze.

We stand frozen in Frozen and we watch the island fall.

The Corona is contained in cardboard cases, so we don’t know how bad it is until the movement stops and we watch the urine colored beer seeping from the gaps in the corners, so much like sea foam, really, rolling across the smooth tiles.

I am the first to speak. “Oh no. I’m so sorry. Oh.” I am fixated by the spreading foam. How many bottles are broken? There’s no way to know. “Can I pay for these?”

The Marsh employee speaks next. His voice is so. . kind. “No, no, no. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He is already pushing the foaming crates of the main aisle with his feet.

Henry is third. He grabs the seat of his pants and yells, “Poopy! Poop! I have to POOP!”

Ella says nothing and makes no notation. She looks pale and mortified. She’s at just the wrong age for the scene we are making.

In this moment, the nicest Marsh employee who has ever walked the aisles and I share a truly human look. He is not judging me. He wants to help me.

“Umm,” I begin. “Is there a restroom in here?”

He looks troubled and points. “It’s on the other side of the store. The opposite corner.” Of course it is.

“Thank you,” I say again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he says gently. “It’s really okay.”

We start to run for it, Henry still holding a fistful of fabric right at the center of his butt. I am the only one pushing. The man straightens from the oozing pile of Coronas and shouts after us. “Happy Mother’s Day!”


Henry makes it. All the way from the other side of the store. He makes it! In the car, Ella asks for the time. “Three eighteen,” I say, “but it’s okay. We’re fine. We’ll be fine.” And then I start to laugh. I can’t stop laughing. The IRS, the scary mammogram, the foaming Corona—it’s all hilarious to me. That sweet, sweet man. Happy Mother’s Day to me. That’s right.

Ella and Henry both look worried, as if they always knew this day would come. Daddy’s out of town and Mom has cracked. “Here’s the thing, kids,” I say, starting the car, pulling myself together, and smiling back at their stunned faces in the rearview mirror. “I could be crying right now. This could be a totally different moment. If that man in the store had been mean to me when we crashed into that beer, or mad, or even just annoyed, that might have been it. I could be crying right now. But that’s not what he did. He helped us, and then he said Happy Mother’s Day. This whole moment could be totally different, but that man was so nice, right? You know what I mean?”

I take a breath. We’re going to a birthday party with our best friends! All the stress has left my body—the kindness, the sprint to the bathroom, the laughing fit. I hear how teachable-moment my mini car lecture sounds, but I don’t care. This is important.

Kindness changes everything. Kindness is a choice.


The next morning is actually Mother’s Day and as a treat to myself, I take to my bed with a cup of coffee and my laptop to write down some notes about kindness. Naturally, both kids are drawn in by the relative quiet. Nature abhors a vacuum. Henry comes armed with a punch balloon and starts thwacking it in the general direction of the sleeping dog. Ella crawls right up beside me to peek at the screen. She kisses my hair and wishes me a happy Mother’s Day. I am writing the scene in Produce and she reminds me about the asparagus.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if you put in there that while you’re writing this your five-year-old is using a punch balloon right by your head and your daughter is reading over your shoulder offering her critique?” I consider taking a moment to explain the term “meta,” but I want to get down the off-list asparagus. I keep typing. Ella’s not done. “Do you want me to type up my notes to include with your story? Wouldn’t that be cool? I could follow you around with a notebook and then you could publish your stories along with my notes!”

I go ahead and explain meta.

Ella presses her cheek against my shoulder and sighs. “I guess you’d better like writing if you’re going to do it for an hour every day.”

“I love it.” Thwack, thwack, thwack. What a good dog.

“Do you love it better when I’m not talking and there’s no punch ball?”

“A little.” We both smile. She gets me.


So were we late to the party? Yup. But not too late, nobody cared. I’d taken extra time to make cool red frosting stitching on the cupcake baseball. And my breast? First, never Google the term “nipple shadow.” It won’t make you feel better. But my breast is fine. The density was nothing to worry about, not even really a density.

The audit? Well. It turns out the government was under the impression they owed me $30,000 because of the large amount of money they believed I’d paid in advance taxes. Alas, I had paid no advance taxes. That must have been a different Jill Christman living a different life in an entirely different financial relationship with the federal government. I thought about all the things we could do with a $30,000 windfall—a trip to Italy, a new patio, a serious cash injection into the kids’ college funds. Then I wrote the IRS a note on their form and told them the truth. I dialed the bolded number and told the live-human-being IRS employee who picked up that line the truth also. I tried to make him see the humor in the situation, maybe make him laugh or smile a smile I couldn’t see, but he seemed not to be in the mood. That was okay. The IRS kept the $30,000 or located the right Jill Christman to whom the money belonged. I’m rooting for the latter.

Then, more than a year later, I was shopping in Marsh—back in Frozen, actually, looking for a vegan pizza for Ella, in no particular hurry—and I saw the man in the red vest, straightening up from a freezer case with his glasses askew, the lenses fogged.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, and then quickly, “can I help you with something?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you something.” Ella wasn’t there to record my shopping deficiencies, but this moment was off-list. The barrier I was breaching, so small and necessary, felt off-kilter, out of whack, not a line to cross in the quotidian grocery store equation of human relations. Who brings up old business with strangers? Suddenly, I felt shy and foolish, an overly sentimental character in an essay of my own making, but I’d already stepped over. I pushed on: “You probably don’t remember, but over a year ago, I was in here with my kids—it was Mother’s Day weekend, actually—and we knocked over a stack of beer, some of them broke, it was a huge mess, and you were so nice. You were just really nice. You said Happy Mother’s Day. We still talk about how nice you were and I’ve always wanted to see you and say thank you. So thank you.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose. The lenses were clear now and I could see his eyes. Blue. Clear blue behind his clear lenses. Giving no indication of whether he remembered me or any details of our shared milk-beer-poop debacle, he smiled. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Yeah. You’re welcome. I like doing nice things for people.”

I don’t know how else to describe his face—so nondescript in resting position, the kid in the corner of Algebra class who wasn’t a jock, but wasn’t a nerd or a burn-out either, the kid everyone found it easy to overlook, but grown up now, late thirties and still skinny—but in this moment, everything about his face was clear, open and shining.


Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely.


Author Q&A: Jill Christman

Author Q&A: Jill Christman

smiley_color_cropJIll Christman is the author of the essay Leading the Children out of Town, which appeared in our October 2015 issue. We connected with her about the writing process. Here are her answers.

What inspired you to write this essay?

The interaction with the running-loose baby, his silent father, and my own non-judgmental mother that day in the street wouldn’t let me go. Images from that afternoon persisted in spinning through my mind, so I took a hint, and wrote down everything I could remember, but I still couldn’t figure out why that moment nagged me or what felt so complicated. That’s where most of my essays begin: with something I can’t figure out.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

This essay took years to finish—in and out of the proverbial drawer—primarily because I couldn’t put my pencil on what the essay was about. Now that I know the baby-alone-in-the-street scene was fluting me toward the dark cave of my own childhood abuse, I realize why this essay was such a challenge: it was leading me to a place I didn’t want to go—not so much the abuse itself, but my mother’s failure to protect me. As I say in the essay, I have long forgiven my mother, but being a mother has forced me to reconsider many of the questions I thought I’d put to bed.

How do your children inform your writing?

I teach and write literary nonfiction of all kinds, and while having children has indeed affected the way I write, I would argue that rather than being an obstacle to writing, my children—and by extension, all children—are the reason I write. Here is a question I ask of my students and their writing, over and over, day after day: What’s at stake in this essay? Why does it matter? For me, the urgency behind nearly everything I write can be traced back to the kids, the world we will leave them, and the preparation we are giving them to make their own journeys. My mother once sewed a wall hanging with this beautiful line by an unknown author embroidered into the cloth: Children are the message we send to a future we will never see. When I parent, and when I write, I look hard toward that future message.

In a recent presentation, I was speaking to MFA students about our necessity as writers to stay engaged with the world around us, the absolute imperative to really look. I showed a slide of my then five-year-old son, Henry, in that easy squat position of small children, poking his finger along the waterline at the beach. Think about the last time you saw a child arrive on a beach. Or in the woods. Or the edge of his own backyard. What did he do? Children drop to their knees, I told my students. That’s what I want you to do when you write. I want you to go out into the world and drop to your knees.

How do you balance writing and motherhood/fatherhood?

On a pragmatic level, having children has changed my writing habits. I don’t waste time, because there is no time to waste. I no longer require the smooth expanse of clean desk, the perfect cup of tea, and a matching set of impeccably sharpened pencils. I schedule time to write and I stick with that schedule. If I can grab an extra moment, I take that, too—even in the days when I had to balance my notebook on the head of a nursing baby, or now, when I steal a few minutes during tennis or tap class. (And, yes, sometimes I take on nursing or dance as my subjects, as well as my opportunity. This is my motto: love the one you’re with. And I do.)

As a mother and a teacher, I already have two full-time jobs before I sit down to write, but writing is the only way I know how to live in this world—with my children and for my children. My job as a writer is to pay attention to our complicated world—as my children do—and to interpret that world on the page, to make some sense of it all by locating patterns and connections through my work with scene, character, metaphor, image, and language.

Do you share any of your writing with your children (if they are old enough of course)

I’ve thought a lot about the question of writing my children, and in fact, published a whole essay on the subject’—”Chewing Band-Aids: One Memoirists Take on Telling the Truth”—in Joy Castro’s fantastic edited collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (University of Nebraska Press, 2013). The answer to your specific question is absolutely yes—I let both my children (eleven and seven) read my work (in fact, they often help)—but I don’t let them read everything. Yet. The bigger question you’re asking here might be answered by a quotation from “Chewing Band-Aids”:

This might be the most important thing I know to be true: secrets help no one. Maybe it’s because I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and I know the danger of a well-kept secret. I saw how the secrets of my childhood mutated, dividing and growing into malignant cells of shame and isolation, multiplying until I had the choice to cut them out or be consumed.

Writing Darkroom [my first memoir] was healing for me, and to a lesser degree for my entire family. I’m finished with secrets, and I know my determination to live in the light of full exposure has led me not only to the writing of nonfiction, but to my children themselves.

Return to the October 2015 Issue



Leading the Children out of Town

Leading the Children out of Town

Child silhouetteBy Jill Christman

When, lo, as they reached the mountain-side, A wondrous portal opened wide, As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed; And the Piper advanced and the children followed, And when all were in to the very last, The door in the mountain-side shut fast.

            ~ The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning

On a bluff above Lake Roosevelt, the streets in my mother’s tiny northeastern Washington town are named after apples—Rome Beauty, Northern Spy, Delicious, and so on. One summer afternoon, we tucked my one-year old daughter, Ella, into her stroller and headed out for a walk. A quarter mile down the road we passed a yard containing a ride-on toy and a car seat cast by the driveway like a beetle on its back.

The house looked like a place where a child used to live, but then a kid Ella’s age, maybe a tad younger, tumbled out across the stubbly grass wearing gray fleece pajamas and filthy socks. I stopped the stroller, resisting the urge to block this sweet-faced boy from touching my shiny daughter with his grubby hands. He veered to the left, grabbed his rolling toy with both hands and careened down the sidewalk and into the road.

If this kid had been a dog, I would have, at this point, started to look around for his owner. The house he must have run out of was set far back from the road, maybe thirty yards or so, and the curtains were drawn tight.

Gape-mouthed, my mother and I stared at the tumbling baby in the road. He couldn’t keep up with the spinning blue wheels and every six feet or so he tripped on the black scraps of sock dangling at the end of his toes and skidded forward onto his face, but he never cried.

“Be-bee,” Ella commented, pointing. “Be-bee.”

“Yup,” I said. “That’s a baby alright. A little baby playing in the street.”

We stood there for a while, prepared to run into the street and stop oncoming traffic—Marcus boasts a population of just 160 people, but there is some traffic, often teenagers in giant trucks—but no caretaker emerged. The baby made another run at the blue-wheeled toy and lost it again. Again, no tears.

We waited. Ten minutes passed. My mother is quick to defend “different methods,” like the parents I’d criticized when they pulled up next to our parked car at the laundromat with a toddler and an infant strapped into the back seat, windows rolled up without a crack, both of them smoking. In fact, the smoke was so thick I didn’t even see the babies until the two adults opened their doors, crushed out their cigarettes and walked, both of them, into the laundromat. “Maybe she needed to get her laundry and she knew it would be easier if the kids waited in the car,” my mother said later.

“Mom,” I had countered, “there were two adults. One of them could have stayed in the car. They were babies.

“Well-ll,” my mother said, with toe-curling inflection, and ended the conversation. We let it rest with a difference of opinion.

But this time, even my mother was stymied. Here was a toddler, a barely toddling toddler, playing alone in the street. We weren’t sure what to do. I suggested we stroll ever so slowly up and down the sidewalk, watching for cars, of course, and always keeping the wordless, running kid close. The baby pushed along behind us with his toy, eyeing Ella.

What I wanted to do was march up to the house with the baby in my arms and bang on the door: “Hello? Is this your baby? We found him running in the street. We didn’t want him to get hit by a car. . .” At this point, the baby had been alone—or, rather, with us, the strange strolling ladies and their own well-padded baby—for fifteen minutes. Then a man with scraggly hair, glasses, and a flannel shirt appeared. He loped out of the house, scowling, and scooped up the kid without a word to us.

This is when I surprised myself. What should I have done? What would you have done? Should I have yelled? You irresponsible freak! You let your kid, your baby, play alone in the street? But I didn’t. The moment was so uncomfortable, so weird, a kind of joke came out of my mouth, an excuse for this poor excuse of a father. I laughed, I laughed, and I said, “I guess we were kind of like the Pied Piper, leading the children out of town!”

The man didn’t answer. He didn’t make eye contact. Instead, he swung around and strode back to the house with the kid hanging in his arms like a load of firewood. Maybe he didn’t hear me. Maybe he was ashamed. Maybe he didn’t know who the fuck the crazy lady with the fancy stroller was talking about. The Pied friggin’ Piper? What the hell.

Ella lunged forward to get a better look at the disappearing pair and I checked the five-point safety harness—again—not sure whether to feel responsible, self-righteous, or sad. Pushing Ella away, I thought about the way I care for my daughter, locking locks and buckling buckles, and how different it is from the way kids are raised where I come from—the way I was raised. For reasons I can’t quite pin down, this disconnect pisses me off. Is it because in the hormonal flush of my own cautious parenting I reject this laissez faire approach as nothing short of neglect? Maybe. Or is it because the last I will see of this baby boy—ever—are his feet disappearing into the dark house before the door slams shut, those blackened socks swinging from the end of his toes like storm-beaten pirate flags.

I know what can happen when kids are left behind, and this knowledge wounds like a cutlass to the heart.

I remember my first Halloween on the mountain when I was a thirteen. A trio of men in the holiday spirit piled hay bales and about ten of us kids in the bed of a pickup and bounced us around the mountain to trick-or-treat caramel apples and homemade hot chocolate from far-flung homesteads; when the beer cans of our escorts were empty, they tossed them in the back with the kids and the hay. It was a blast. Back then, I owned a thick-coated quarter horse named Moona and rode bareback to school on frigid winter days. In the summer, she carried me down to the river, hooves clicking on the shale-covered slopes, and we spent long days alone with the other teenagers and their horses. Sometimes I took Moona right into the river and clung to her mane, laughing and scared, when she started to swim and the current pushed my thighs up and away from her heaving muscles.

We mountain kids fended for ourselves, and maybe we’re better people for it. Self-sufficient, my mother says. Full of character. Resourceful.

Trust me: these are not parenting strategies I recommend. It’s amazing you survived, my mother says defensively, and I snort in derisive agreement. And yet, most of us did survive. Just like most of the kids on my middle-class street in Muncie, Indiana survive.

“You think you’re better than they are,” my husband says, calling me out.

Do I? Do I tell my Pied Piper story because it makes me feel superior, more confident in the parenting decisions I make every day? Okay, so I fed my kid a hotdog (cut into teeny tiny pieces) for lunch two days in a row, or I plunked her down in front of an extra thirty minutes of Sesame Street so I could finish grading a stack of papers. Probably not ideal choices, and yet I can direct attention to this let-the-toddler-play-in-the-street man, and say: Look. Look at him. That’s bad, right?

Goodie for me. Mother of the year.

The man was long gone before I knew what I wanted to tell him, so I would have told my mother instead but she would have said I was exaggerating as usual, being over sensitive, and I didn’t need the denigration, the rejection of my rejection. Why am I so intolerant? So judgmental?

I said nothing. After the silent man disappeared into the house with the dirty baby, I gripped the padded bar of Ella’s stroller and we walked on. There was nothing to see once the door slammed shut. We turned on Minter, and then strolled down Jonathan. In the park in the middle of town, ravens complained to us from the tops of the Douglas firs and chipmunks scattered like tossed pennies into wild rose bushes. Ella was asleep before we reached Rome Beauty, and home.

In truth, I had nothing more ready to say to the man or my mother. “You know,” I could have shouted, “in the original Pied Piper, the villagers never saw their children again. They never came out of the cave. They followed him in and they never came out.”

The Pied Piper wasn’t the playful, musical clown our cleaned-up editions might suggest. Folklorists date the story’s roots as far back as the 13th Century and the core tale casts the colorfully dressed Pied Piper as a rat-catcher. In many versions, the Piper leads the rats down to the river where they drown, but the villagers renege on his full payment and the Piper returns for the children in retaliation. Sometimes the children are drowned, sometimes led into the cave to be either held captive or killed.


Trust me: these are not parenting strategies I recommend. It’s amazing you survived, my mother says defensively, and I snort in derisive agreement. And yet, most of us did survive. Just like most of the kids on my middle-class street in Muncie, Indiana survive.


The Pied Piper narrative was constructed to explain something, to use storytelling to find meaning; in this case, a large population of children disappeared in Hamelin, Germany. Nobody knows why. A natural disaster (landslide?), famine, or plague may have wiped them out, and here, the Piper is a figure of death—all fluting metaphor. Or perhaps he is a remaking of a real person, a character who led a kind of Children’s Crusade and took the young ones away in a mass emigration.

In my research, I find a linguistic note with the unsettling information that some psychologists have a term to describe the capacity of some pedophiles to relate with and seduce children: the Pied Piper effect. This gives me the chills. The reckless freedoms of my own childhood came too soon, and I know this is why part of me is still mad.

As usual, I’m afraid, the story of the careless flannel-shirted man with my Pied Piper framing is really a story about my mother. Not because she was there with me when we found the unsupervised baby, but because she did not always protect me when I was a kid.

I have long forgiven her. I may also have come to understand why she did what she did when she was raising my brother and me—mostly alone: money was tight, she needed to work, and there was nothing left over for a babysitter even if she’d thought such a precaution was necessary. After all, wasn’t my brother around if I wanted something cooked in the oven? It was a different time, she tells me. We weren’t so aware.

I know it’s bad form to throw this bomb from the margins near the end of the essay, and I didn’t set out to mention it, but here it is: before we moved to the mountain in Washington when I was thirteen, I was sexually abused by a neighbor, starting when I was just six or seven. I have healed. I can love and be loved. As a teenager, I was pretty messed up, but now I am better—mostly.

My daughter Ella, the baby in this story, just turned seven. I look at her perfect forty-eight pound body, stretched out in sleep, lightly concealed by thin white ballerina pajamas dotted with tiny pink hearts, and I can’t imagine. The horror. Ella is the reason I keep returning to the story of the running child. She is so beautiful. When I tiptoe into her room at night to check on her and see her sleeping in the crack of light that shines out of her closet to help her feel safe at night—she has never liked complete darkness—her innocence stops my breath. The Pied Piper story, in the end, reminds me of the girl in me who never made it out of the cave. She’s back there still. When she was set loose in the street in her dirty socks, no well-meaning strangers happened upon her to block the random chance of an approaching truck. Her mother is at work, she’s on the top bunk of her bed, and there’s a much older boy slipping his rough hands under the covers to touch her. She doesn’t speak. He does what he will do and she keeps their shared secret.

Rejecting the tyranny of silence, I have told the story of this abuse. The secret is out. My mother knows and she is sorry. She is terribly, terribly sorry. She laments that she cannot go back and change this scene.

What would I have my mother do? I guess I want her to agree with me about the babies left alone in the smoky car at the laundromat. I want her to point a judgmental finger at the flannel-shirted father of the baby in the street. I don’t want her to accept these displays of neglect as different methods. I need her to join me in my righteous anger.

But that’s not the kind of woman my mother is, and anyway, maybe there’s nothing to be done. Maybe this is something my mother and I live with between us, with my anger rising up unbidden and randomly, like a sharp thistle in the garden of our deep affection. I guess that’s okay. And maybe the girl in the cave is not so much a whole girl, but a ghost girl, a simulacrum still gritting her angry teeth.

Maybe I can’t scoop the girl I was out of the dark cave with all her living parts any more than my mother can make that trip back in time to save her before it’s too late, but I can let her and all the children like her know that I remember. I can use her story to protect my own sweet Ella and others I find along the way who might need someone big to stand between them and danger, and maybe, if I keep telling and telling, I can use her story to pry open the side of that sealed-up mountainside, releasing the lost children into the light.

Author’s Note: I write nonfiction to figure out what I don’t know or can’t see. Working with language, scene, and character, I try to locate patterns and make connections that might help me figure something out. The genesis of this essay was in fact the first scene: the dirty-socked baby playing in the street. I wrote down this bizarre interaction that very day because I was so upset and worried, but for years, I had nothing to say in the essay beyond the generally accepted opinion that we shouldn’t let our babies play alone in the street. As my own daughter grew up, shifting into a new kind of vulnerability, I started pulling on the thread of the strange and creepy Pied Piper tale (I really had alluded to the Piper in that moment on the street—but why?) and I ended up—seven years later—writing an essay about the dangers of my own childhood. I didn’t intend to go back to the cave, but the story led me there.

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely.

Return to the October 2015 Issue


October 2015 Issue

October 2015 Issue

Oct 15 Cover FINAL

Rebecca Muscat
The Autumn Tree, My Mother & I, 2014.


Table of Contents


Editor’s Letter: How Are We Doing?

Essay: Cities of My Body, by Liz Rognes

I began to cry softly, afraid that my choice to do a line of blow had jeopardized this life I had with him—this beautiful distance from the darkness of drug use, this life of books and mornings and dog walks, this life of music and love and happiness. My past and my present were polar opposites, two cities that could not be any more different or further apart, but that night they had appeared in the same room. Two versions of me had inhabited my body.

Essay: Leading the Children out of Town, by Jill Christman

This is when I surprised myself. What should I have done? What would you have done? Should I have yelled? You irresponsible freak! You let your kid, your baby, play alone in the street? But I didn’t. The moment was so uncomfortable, so weird, a kind of joke came out of my mouth, an excuse for this poor excuse of a father. I laughed, I laughed, and I said, “I guess we were kind of like the Pied Piper, leading the children out of town!”

Essay: Fisheye View, by Jody Keisner

The fish were the first living things we had brought into our home, under our care, since the winter day almost four years earlier we had brought Lily home. The feeling of new-mother anxiety rushed back at me; I inhaled sharply. I couldn’t bear to let anything die in her room: plant, fish, or other. Especially the other.

Essay: Bear Country, by BJ Hollars

I worked my way down the dark hall—bypassing the dog and my infant daughter, Ellie, until arriving at my three-year-old son Henry’s room. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I noticed my wife’s silhouette alongside him, her body filling in the space where his Berenstain Bears books weren’t.

Backtalk: Our readers answer the question: If you could do it again, what would you tell your new mother self?

“Skip the parenting books for the first two years.” – S. Pilman

Fiction: The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy by Mai Wang

The Chinese residents of the Big Yard called Mama “Lucky Hands” because she drew the winning hand in their late night poker games week after week.

Poetry: What No One Ever Told You by Rebecca L’Bahy

There is a bird in your throat, a rock in your ribs.

Poetry: Lessons by Laura Lassor

Motherwit: Child Psychology 101 by Sue Sanders

Author Q&A: Brain, Child writers Jill Christman, Liz Rognes, BJ Hollars, Jody Keisner, and Mai Wang, discuss writing and parenthood.


The Googly Eye

The Googly Eye

By Jill Christman

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 5.24.35 PMElla was not quite three on the afternoon of the googly eye. My husband, Mark, had gone to work, and Ella and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating avocado sandwiches.

Laying a finger aside of her nose, Santa-style, Ella looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy. My nose hurts.” She paused. “I have a googly eye in my nose.”

A “googly eye,” in our family lexicon, is a three-dimensional white eyeball containing a shiny black disc that jiggles around behind a transparent plastic cornea. That’s what makes it googly. (I Googled “googly eyes” and learned they’re also called “wiggle eyes” or “moveable paste-on eyes.”) Googly eyes are flat on one side—the paper side, the side used for gluing eyeballs of various sizes to paper, shells, and upside-down egg cartons to make monsters, crabs, and silly caterpillars. The other side, the googly side, is convex, like the surface of a real eyeball. The googly eyes Ella’s babysitter had brought over to stick onto funny monkey faces a few days earlier were big ones, at least half an inch across—not the kind of thing you’d want to have in your nose, especially if you were three and in possession of such a small nose.

I considered all this as I chewed a suddenly over-large mouthful of bread that had turned hard and dry between my teeth. Washing it down with a gulp of lemonade, I studied Ella’s face, her miniature button nose. How would a half-inch googly eye fit in that itsy bitsy nose? Pulse quickening, I mustered all my parenting skills to keep my voice level and calm. As with most circumstances involving human error, I began with denial. “What, honey? What did you say?”

She was watching me as carefully as I was watching her. Ella knew I had heard exactly what she’d said.

“Oh, Mommy,” she said, reading the panic under my act. She tossed her hair back in mock hilarity. “No! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! Ha ha ha! I don’t. I was just kidding you around, Mommy.”

I didn’t know what to do. How did she even think to say a thing like that? I have a googly eye in my nose.

“Honey,” I said. “Do you have a googly eye in your nose?”

“No,” she said, glaring now. “I said I was kidding you around!”

I let it rest. Maybe together we could pretend this one out of existence. And really, how could Ella have a googly eye up her nose? That would be nuts. That would be a medical emergency. And furthermore, how would it have gotten there? Ella’s a smart girl. She wouldn’t be foolish enough to insert a googly eye into her nostril.

*   *   *

An hour later, I tiptoed into her room to check on her during her nap. She was snoring like a piglet. I put my face right up to her face as she lay on her pillow, cheeks pink, blond hair sticking every which way, cherubic as all get up. The snore really was more squeal than snore—and, was I imagining this?—the sound seemed to be coming from just one nostril. The right nostril. Yes. A kind of whistling wheeze.

While Ella slept and sang, I consulted a book. Foreign objects, Nostril. The book said to not, under any circumstances, attempt to remove the object at home using a pair of tweezers. Tweezers! I thought. Of course! What a good idea! I read on. The removal process was a delicate one and not only could a hapless, panicky parent with a pair of tweezers damage the delicate nasal tissue, she could also make matters worse by a) lodging the object more deeply in the nose, or b) actually pushing the object into the throat, which could cause choking. The thing to do, the book said, was to call the doctor. I considered a plan of action, contemplating the possibility that this was all in my mind, and waited for Ella to wake up. I leaned over her face and studied her nose. Was that a lump on the right side?

Meanwhile, Mark was still at work at the University. Talking about poetry.

*   *   *

When Ella woke up, I was waiting. She sat up and rubbed her nose. She whimpered and repeated her confession: “My nose hurts.”

I pulled a book light from a shelf and sat on the edge of her bed. “Okay, honey. I’m just going to look up your nose and see what I see.”

As I moved in with the light, I heard echoes of that fierce child from William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force”— the flushed and feverish girl the country doctor has to hold down, using a big silver spoon to pry open her teeth so he can see her throat. It’s not quite that bad, but Ella fights it. Just as the wild-haired, blue-eyed Mathilda refuses to reveal, and thus confirm, her diagnosis—diphtheria—Ella wants to hide her own disaster. “No, Mommy! I was kidding you around! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! I don’t, I don’t…”

Swinging a leg over her little body, I pinned her forehead to the pillow with my left hand. Gently. Then I angled the thin beam of the book light up into her right nostril.

How do I describe what it was to look up into my preschooler’s nose and see an eye, a googly eye, staring back at me? Accumulating mucus had slicked the surface, giving the eye a shining, evil glint. Ella twisted under my hold and let out a squeaky cry. In this sudden burst of air, the eye shifted and the dark pupil rattled with a menacing shimmy. I wanted to scream. Holy shit. But good, calm, handling-things mothers don’t scream when they shine lights into their children’s noses, do they? Even if there’s someone there, staring them down? I blinked, and looked again. Crap.

I flicked off the light and released my grip on Ella’s forehead.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Okay, sweetie, there is a googly eye in your nose.”

*   *   *

I wanted to grab the tweezers and get the eyeball the hell out of Ella’s nose. But I restrained myself and walked steadily to the phone. I am no good in a crisis. I have friends and relations, quite a few actually, who work as nurses and doctors in emergency rooms. This is what they choose to do. Not me. I simply don’t possess the disposition.

I dialed Ella’s pediatrician. It was 4:00 p.m. Of course it was. The nurse explained that because it was so late in the afternoon, there was no time to squeeze Ella in, but she reminded me that the after-hours emergency pediatric care, PrimeTime, would be opening in an hour. If we got there early to check in, we might be able to avoid a long wait. “Don’t try to get it out your- self,” she said before I hung up. “Really. Don’t.”

I was so tempted. This whole ordeal could be over in 30 seconds. By the time Mark got home, it could be a funny story instead of a medical emergency. We would eat dinner. I would finish grading that stack of essays.

Lining up all the tweezers I had in the bathroom, I chose a pair with a satisfyingly tapered and blunted tip. What could it hurt? I turned them over in my fingertips. Glint. How tempted we humans are to follow one misstep with another. I could fix this, I thought. Yes, mistakes were made, but if I do this right, I could get us all out of this mess. In an instant, everything could be okay.

*   *   *

Tweezers in hand, I checked my watch and called Mark, who was just then getting out of class.

“She has a what in her nose?”

“A googly eye,” I repeated, and then I broached the plan with the blunt-tipped tweezers.

“No,” Mark said. “Jill. No.”

Now, at least, I had someone to be mad at for this mess. Now, thanks to Mark, the risk was too great, and I would not be able to make it all better. Plus, where had he been in our hour of need? “Fine,” I snapped. “Just come home then. We’ll be ready to go by the time you get here.”

With Ella, I remained upbeat. “Sweetheart! Come to Mommy so I can give you a nice hairdo!” My inflection was cloying, way off. Ella eyed me suspiciously and I imagined her third eye, rattling, sharing her disapproval. My own mother calls me “sweetheart” when she is feeling one of two emotions: annoyance or helplessness. Here, the false-ringing endearment contained nuances of both.

*   *   *

At PrimeTime, I answered all the receptionist’s questions with a straight face.

“Reason for visit?”
“She has a googly eye in her nose.”
“You know, a googly eye. Those little plastic eyes you can glue on to make faces? A googly eye. I don’t know how long it’s been in there. And it’s pretty big.”

I wrote it that way on the form she slid across the counter to me: googly eye in nose. Later, on the bill, I noticed my description had been modified: foreign object/nasal cavity. Whatever.

*   *   *

The doctor’s name was unpronounceable, but the nurse recognized this and told Ella she could call him “Dr. Rock.” Dr. Rock was not a man of great humor, and so I tried to sit back and let the man do his work without too much intervention on my part, but his gravitas made me edgy. He shone his special nose light up into Ella’s nose. I can only imagine he saw the same thing I did. He flinched a tiny bit, mumbled something about taking a minute, and left the room. Dr. Rock didn’t come back. Long minutes ticked by.

“He’s looking it up,” I whispered to Mark. “He doesn’t know what to do.”

We read the same Sesame Street board book over and over, and Dr. Rock remained gone.

*   *   *

When he finally returned, two nurses flanked him. Shit, I thought, It’s going to take three of them? What are they going to do to her? What does he think is going to happen here? Can’t he just pull it out with a pair of tweezers?

Indeed, he had a pair of tweezers, albeit super-long ones with an astounding slanting beak. The nurses were giggling a bit. One of them asked Ella why she did it. “Did you think you were going to be able to see up your own nose?”


Ella didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking. Sensing the fear in the room, she sat in my lap as rigid as a stone.

*   *   *

The actual extraction was scary. First, Dr. Rock gave Ella a tissue and tried to get her to blow out the googly eye, but in my limited observation, nose-blowing is a skill that develops wondrously late in children. Even at almost three, Ella always sucked in instead of blowing out. Besides, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to follow instructions. Dr. Rock glided in on his wheeled stool. He was verrrrry deliberate and careful with his long tweezers, but they let me hold her. They never made me hand her over to the grinning nurses. That would have really freaked her out. It took way longer than I thought it should. It was not over in an instant. There were many missed attempts. Dr. Rock had to wriggle the beak over the top of the googly eye and pull it down. This was a delicate operation.

Finally, out it came. The googly eye.
“Ugh,” I said, “it’s even bigger than I remembered it.”

Dr. Rock held the googly eye aloft in his needle beak, both for the benefit of the nurses and his own consideration. He looked at Ella. “So now you know that we never put anything in our noses or our ears.” I waited for the “smaller than your elbow” bit, but it never came. He plunked the googly eye onto a tissue and handed it to me. Ella, still snuffling, asked if she could take it home for her memory box. I agreed that was a good idea, and with the anxiety of our own situation abated, I quizzed Dr. Rock about the kinds of things he pulls out of kids’ noses. I thought he was going to tell me that he extracts something from a nose every week or so, but in fact, he said the things-in-noses visits averaged three or four a year.

“I would have thought it would be more,” I said. “What kinds of things do kids put in their noses?”

“Mostly vegetables,” he said. “Beans, peas, things like that. Also, little stones.”

He finished writing on the billing report and handed it to me.

“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever pulled out of someone’s nose?”

Dr. Rock thought for a moment and then said, “A high-heeled shoe.”

I gasped. “A shoe?!”

“Belonging to a Barbie,” he clarified, raising his substantial eyebrows. Still, he didn’t smile. Silly, hysterical mother who doesn’t supervise her kid well enough to prevent the introduction of foreign objects to the nasal cavity. Then he shook our hands and left the room.

For her trouble, Ella got a purple Care Bear sticker, which she stuck in the bag with the sticky eye—the googliness of which seemed intensified, or maybe, somehow animated for the time it had spent in a living body. Eek.

*   *   *

The next morning at breakfast, I asked Ella why she did it. What, I wanted to know, compelled her to stick that googly eye in her nose?

“I thought it would be different,” she said, looking sad.

Oh, I thought, yes! That’s it. Ella’s assessment explained a lifetime of my own biggest mistakes. I thought it would be different.

As a kid, when I jumped off the roof of the house with a garbage bag as a parachute, I thought it would be different. In high school, when I signed up for that course in trigonometry, I thought it would be different. Still in high school, when I climbed into the Jeep with the way-too-old-for-me boy who’d been drinking Blue Hawaiians out of a milk jug, I thought it would be different. Having survived and made it to college, when I stuck out my tongue and accepted the proffered tab of LSD at the Oregon Country Fair, I thought it would be different. Later, in graduate school, and certainly old enough to know better, when I traipsed after my girlfriend in the steaming, snake-infested Alabama woods at midnight to find a skinny-dipping hole, I thought it would be different. When I was laboring with Ella and I refused to let the nurse find a vein and put in a heplock, I thought it would be different.

*   *   *

In all of these unfortunate circumstances, before I stepped forward and entered my own mistake, too deep to extract my- self without feeling the pain or embarrassment or both of my own bad choice, I thought it would be different. I neglected to consider how hard the ground, how unfathomable the function, how drunk the driver, how potent and troubling the drug, how thick the underbrush, and how much a woman can bleed. What, then, had I wanted? How had I thought it would be different? Well. I thought the bag might catch the air and carry me, like a paratrooper or a butterfly, gently to the ground; I thought my mastery of sines, cosines, and tangents—Some Old Hippie Caught Another Hippie Tripping On Acid—might elevate me to another level of intellectual superiority in my high school; I thought the boy in the Jeep might think me adventurous and cool, and in return, would love me; I thought the LSD might take me somewhere beautiful, away from the stinking port-a-potties and patchouli of the dusty fair to a place of pure happiness; I thought the swimming hole would be right down the road, just five minutes, and that the Alabama moon shining on the water would illuminate everything; and I thought I would give my baby safe and natural passage into this world without drugs or intervention. On this last one, thank God, I got what I wanted—sort of—but I did have to receive a blood transfusion to counter what my doctors surely considered a grave misjudgment.

I thought it would be different. Of course. I wondered what Ella had wanted when she stuck that eye up into her nostril. What had her desired outcome, that different ending, looked like to her? “Different how?” I asked, watching her listlessly skewer a piece of waffle with a toothpick.

She couldn’t say. “I thought it would be different,” she repeated, as if that were all I needed to know, all I deserved to know. Maybe she thought the big googly eye wouldn’t slide so easily into her nostril, but would dangle humorously from the end of her nose and make everybody laugh. Maybe she thought she could stick things all over her face, as she and her babysitter had done to the monkey faces, and in this way become a kind of living craft project. Or maybe the giggling nurses were on to something. Maybe she thought if she stuck an eye up her nose she would be able to see the inside of her body.

Whatever the answer, Ella either didn’t know or she wasn’t telling, but what struck me as I watched her crunch down her apple slices was what she already knew about what we humans do when we mess up. Not even three, and Ella had known she shouldn’t tell. Her mistake would be her secret. How did she know that? Had we already modeled concealment for her? I gripped my coffee cup like a talisman, holding onto the lesson of the googly eye. I knew if I let that instinct for cover-up stick in my daughter, and deepen, the next big error would be mine to regret.

“Can I play now?” Ella asked. I nodded and she slid down from her booster seat, dutifully parroting Dr. Rock’s good ad- vice, using the not-so-royal “we” of adults talking to children. We NEVER put anything in our ears or noses.


But then, what if we could stick googly eyes in our noses to see the dark secrets of our bodies? How cool would that be?

Author’s Note: Seven years have passed since the googly-eye incident, and Ella is now a sophisticated ten-year-old with a six-year-old brother to keep an eye on. She has never forgotten Dr. Rock’s admonition about all that we must never, never put in our noses. (In fact, apparently she’s still peeved about his tone. “I was three,” she says now. “And Dr. Rock was talking to me as if I’d just committed some terrible crime. I was three! I didn’t know!”)

Jill Christman‘s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies.She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at


Weaning Ella

Weaning Ella

By Jill Christman

spring2007_christmanMy daughter Ella was just over two on the morning of her last breastfeeding. She’d stumbled in from her own room around five a.m., as usual, scrambled up into our bed, and latched on. Humming and suckling, she slipped into sweet sleep. Most mornings, this was the method by which my husband and I got to be those rare parents who sleep until eight.

This morning was different because I needed to catch a flight, without Ella, to interview job candidates for three days at the Modern Languages Association Conference in Washington, D.C. I’d never been away from Ella for a night. Not ever. I lay awake and watched Ella nurse, feeling sick with love and the specter of our separation, touching the tiny droplets of sweat on her soft temple, watching her jaw pumping out the rhythm of our bodies together.

My husband Mark and I had decided that this forced separation would be the perfect weaning window, and I knew chances were good that this would be the last time she and I would lie together like this: cuddled, content, sleepy and sleeping. I must have drowsed off myself because the next thing I knew the morning news was mumbling in my ear and the clock glowed six thirty. In that alarm clock moment I did what I had always done when I needed to get up without Ella: I slipped my finger between her lips and my nipple to break the suction, held a gentle pressure under her chin until her sucking wound down and her mouth relaxed. And then I got out of the bed.

In the dark, on the way across the room to the shower, I realized what I had done. I had failed to mark the last time as the last time. Standing frozen in the warm stream of the shower, I felt as if that moment should have been something more. What should she and I have done? Lit a candle? Whispered a prayer? Shared a promise?

Think of all your last times in love. Did you know they were endings? The end? This time, so rare, I had known, and I had let it slip away.

*   *   *

On the plane to D.C., my heart was breaking and my seat belt was broken. The buckle clicked, but when I leaned forward, the whole mechanism slid easily along the nylon strap. No resistance. No help at all in a crash, but then again, who are we kidding? Nonetheless, I notified the flight attendant, who couldn’t get the darn thing to clamp either, and then there we were, a whole plane waiting on the tarmac because of my seat belt. I dismantled the thing and put it back together. It worked! The mechanics were cancelled, we took off on schedule, and the flight attendant offered me a free drink for my heroism.

I didn’t want to be on that plane. I wanted to see my baby. I ordered a Jack and Coke. Why the hell not? I wasn’t nursing, after all. I wanted this high-noon cocktail to feel liberating. Instead, I deplaned with a big, fat headache.

*   *   *

We met with the job candidates in my gloomy hotel room. By day, I dressed in a loose jacket to hide breasts that grew larger with every interview, and at night, when all of the candidates had gone, I peeled off my professor clothes and climbed naked, a mother again, into the shower. I needed to express milk—enough so I’d fit into my clothes, not enough to encourage production. She’s not here, I told my body. Give it up.

Ba ba is our family word for breastmilk. Months before I found myself in that dim hotel shower, wet and weeping, I read a sidebar in a parenting magazine that had made me smile. A recent study out of Australia reported that nursing toddlers say their mothers’ milk is “as good as chocolate” and “better than ice cream.” No wonder Ella was crazy for ba ba. Sweet goodness and a cuddle with mom. That’s some soda fountain.

Standing under the warm stream, I lifted my hands up under my breasts and they felt like full IV bags, liquid heft. What a waste to squeeze it all away, I thought, but I did. I did.

*   *   *

After three days in D.C., I was afraid to go home. What would we be now?

On the plane, I obsessed over our reunion, and all the possibilities scared me. Maybe she would run towards me, short arms flailing, demanding to be nursed. My husband and I had discussed this, of course, and he had been firm. He knows my weaknesses.

“You will say no,” he told me on the phone. “You weren’t here. It was hard. We’re not going to do this to her again.”

This made sense. But I wondered about the other end of the spectrum. What if she’s mad? What if she feels abandoned? What if she doesn’t want to see me?

When I pulled up in the car, Ella was waiting at the glass storm door, leaping intermittently. I watched her press her face and both palms against the glass and jump, a haze of breath and nose smear. From the driveway, I could see she didn’t plan to punish me for going away. Instead, she was all over me with hugs and stories. In those first happy hours, she said nothing of ba ba. I was enough.

But there was a bedtime ritual yet to be performed, and part of it was going to be missing.

After a bath with four rubber ducks, I dried her in the frog towel and got her into footie pajamas. My heart was in my throat. Ba ba time. “Hold me,” Ella said. “Mommy, hold me.”

“How about a book?” I said with forced cheer. “Do you want to read a book with Mommy on the couch? And then Daddy will read you some more books in the big girl bed?” I heard the false notes ringing from my lips, and I knew she could too. Ella’s two, but she’s no fool.

The book-reading on the couch went fine: My Opposites. Mis Op-puestos. “Ooh,” I said. “Look! The green snake is lo-o-ong. En español, largo. Can you say largo?” Her pronunciation was surprisingly good. I sounded like a parody of a bedtime parent. When the book was over, we headed back to the bedroom. I was as cheerful as Christmas morning, but Ella was onto me. She dug her heels into the area rug beneath the dining room table.

“I want some ba ba,” she said. Mark and I made eye contact. This is what we’d been waiting for. “I want some ba ba.”

I threw my head back and laughed (a friend of a friend had mentioned this technique and in this moment I had nothing better). “Oh no,” I said, still laughing, “You don’t want ba ba. You’re a big girl!”

Mark repeated my message, smiling at Ella, and then directed his expression to me and hissed, “Redirect! Redirect! Don’t come in the bedroom. You’d better just stay out.”

By now, Ella was on the floor, sobbing. “But I needba ba,” she countered. “But I needba ba.” At this point, nobody was saying anything just once.

I walked to a part of the house where I could not hear the screams. My breasts were aching. By the time I returned, maybe ten minutes later, the sounds were muffled. Reading sounds.

Mark appeared triumphant about an hour later, rubbing his eyes.

*   *   *

At seven the next morning, Ella scrambled up into our bed. She flopped on her belly and turned her face toward me, breathing softly. Her breath smelled like sweet corn. I fluffed a pillow to keep her head up with my head, not in the habitual place, breastside. I rubbed her back and hummed. This seemed to make her happy. But then she flopped around. “I need you to change my diaper,” she said. “And then it will be seeping time.”

I did. It was not sleeping time.

“I need Something,” she said, capitalizing the something A. A. Milne-style.

Mark watched us through a cracked eye and chose this moment to intervene. “Do you want some water? In your sippie cup? Are you thirsty? Here you go.” If he hadn’t been supervising, would I have folded? Would it have been our little secret? I still wonder who was weaning whom.

Ella slapped the cup away. “No. I need Something Else.” Amazing. She couldn’t seem to remember what she wanted. She couldn’t seem to remember what those dark, early morning moments had been for throughout the first two years of her life. But we could see her mind working. Redirect. Redirect.

“I need Something Else.”

Mark gave options. Juice, soy milk, Kix.

She rejected them all and turned to me, half-remembering. “Roll over,” she demanded. “Roll over.”

Since I was facing her, I started to roll away, obediently, a woman without a plan.

“Noooooooooooooooooooo! Roll over! You need to open up the ba bas.” She pulled on my heavy black shirt. “You need to open them up!”

*   *   *

And so it went—a cycle of remembering and forgetting until time did its work and made nursing a vestige of babyhood, an artifact, something that happened “last night”—Ella’s umbrella term for all things gone by.

Later on the first full day of my return, Ella had seemingly forgotten about nursing again, and we made oatmeal cookies. After the margarine and the sugars, I reached up to turn on the KitchenAid, and without being told, Ella put her hands flat on the countertop and said dutifully, “Only Mommy or Daddy can touch that machine.” I wondered: If she can forget breastfeeding, the nearest and dearest thing she has known, after only five days, how can she remember anything at all? How can she hang onto something I’ve told her maybe twice about a mixer, and not be cognizant of the soft keystone of her young life?

In the weeks after D.C., even though I could reach out and touch her whenever I wanted, I missed Ella. I missed my baby. The relationship changed—it had to—once the nursing was over. I cuddled her, and she let me, but it wasn’t the same. I had nothing to offer her that was mine and mine alone to give.

That can’t be true, can it? It felt true.

We held back from each other, doing a kind of dance to avoid physical closeness that might remind us of what we once shared. I keep trying to figure out what this feeling was like—this stage on the letting-go continuum between giving birth and dropping her off for her first day of school—but since Ella is my first child, I can only compare this shift in intimacy to the end of a romantic relationship. Not a messy, dirty breakup, but the kind born of time and change—the kind you both know has to come. Okay, so you talk and talk and talk. It’s over. This is it. This is the best thing for everyone. But his stuff is still in your apartment, the hide-a-bed couch is a back-breaker. This is a time of transition. You agree he can stay for three more weeks until the lease starts on his new place. He can even sleep on his side of the bed, but he can’t roll over onto your side.

But you know how many moles he has on his back. You know how he likes a swirl of honey in his coffee, but not the whole spoonful. You know he’ll never replace the cap on the toothpaste, even if it’s a flip top designed for recalcitrants like him. You know everything. But you can’t touch him when he’s feeling sad about leaving. You can’t, because if you do, well, there you go, you’re back in it, and you’ll both have to begin the separation all over again.

This is how Ella and I felt, and I know her well enough that I can speak for her, too. Here’s the difference: She wasn’t leaving. Not yet. For now, she’s not going anywhere, and we need to figure out what our new intimacy is going to look like. We need to figure out what replaces what we’ve lost, what we’ve grown beyond. This can be exhausting.

A week after my return, this involved a turkey and hummus sandwich with the crusts cut off at 3:30 a.m. A picnic. The next day, I sighed and said to Ella’s babysitter, “I don’t want her to think that this is what we do—we wake up in the middle of the night and have picnics! But she was hungry. She ate the whole sandwich. I can’t just let her be hungry.”

The babysitter laughed. “Well, she was having midnight picnics before, wasn’t she? It was just a different caterer.”

In nursing, Ella and I had located each other. Seconds after the doctor tossed her onto my belly, she rooted around and found what she needed. Knowing nothing but what I’d read in books, I followed her lead. Here you go, Baby. Here you go. Shhhh. Since then, we had known no other way of being.

But motherhood is about letting go—first from our bodies, then our arms, then our sight, then our homes—and then? Weaning falls hard on this spectrum, forcing me to see the life Ella will live far beyond me, where she will learn to find her own sustenance, her own comfort.

I have never seen a child of mine grow up. I am starting to see what it looks like.

Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at

Brain, Child (Spring 2007)

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