Anna walked into her daughter’s room and sighed. She had to tiptoe over the bowl of hardened rice, scattered playing cards, two barbie dolls sans clothes, and a pile of crinkled papers. The room felt stifling, with blankets tucked around the windows, meant to keep the cold Lake Erie wind from piercing the inner sanctum, and suffocating from the clutter filling in the pockets of every inch of the space. Her baby girl, now ten years old, had gone from a little neat freak, washing off non-existent dirt from her own tiny fingers, to a mass of mess, with the clutter and dirt and disorder following her where ever she went. Anna retrieved what she was looking for, the empty clothes basket Kali had been using as a space ship last week while she was supposed to be cleaning her room.
Anna snuck back out and found her way down the hallway to the laundry room and began to dig through the mountains of dirty clothes, pulling out all of the darks and throwing them into the ancient washer. She figured that if she could wash at least two loads of laundry a day, then she might just keep ahead of the clothing that her family wore each week. If she ever missed even one day, the mountain of clothes would spill out onto the kitchen floor in a sudden and unexpected avalanche. Twice when this had happened, one of the children had tripped and wound up face first in the dog dish that hovered just outside the laundry room door.
Just as she was about to add the detergent, specially priced fifty percent higher than its competitor simply because it didn’t have added chemicals that made two of her three children itch like a bunch of kids with chicken pox, she heard Elton cry out from his crib. Apparently quiet time was over. She sighed once more. This was the only time during the entire day when she could get any peace from the constant needs and wants of her family. From six in the morning until nap time, and then the end of nap time until the last of their tired bodies finally fell fitfully to sleep somewhere after nine in the evening, she seemed to be at their beck and call. Why had she wanted children so much? It had seemed like such a good idea just a few short years ago. Now she was ready to climb the walls and hit the nearest emergency exit switch. Only there wasn’t one.
Elton had slobber down his chin, and snot dribbling over his upper lip. His blonde hair was plastered to his sweaty head. Except for his messy face, and his tearful wails, he really was a cute little guy. She couldn’t help but smile at him and blubber on about what a good little boy he was, going on and on until he finally stopped crying. By then, they were standing at his bedroom window, looking out at the birds fluttering around, flapping and tweeting their way through a chorus all the more beautiful because it seemed so random and meaningless. For some reason, she just loved listening and watching birds. Elton smiled and laughed at the birds, his own personal amusement at their existence. He babbled back to them, seeming to speak to them using words only he or maybe they understood.
When it was just her and Kali, life somehow seemed so much easier. She had Kali when she was only twenty-two, just four months after she finished her teaching degree. It seemed like an entire lifetime ago. And maybe it was.
Now with the addition of Cleo and Elton, she felt overwhelmed. Like there just wasn’t enough hours in the day, not enough moments to appreciate or ponder, not enough seconds to count away as she watched their lives pass her by. Somehow, she had thought that it would be something else. She had imagined a life far different from the one that she now led. She had hated having to work when Kali was little. She had always felt that it was unfair to both of them, that if she could only have been able to stay home with Kali that she would have been a better mother. She imagined teaching her children their ABCs and baking cookies and having a sparkling kitchen full of delicious foods and homemade breads, and beds covered with homemade quilts. She had wanted gardens surrounding her home, and maybe even finding the time to learn to play the guitar.
She laughed at that impossible image in her head, long ago shattered by the reality of what her life really was. And then Elton spit up all over her blue t-shirt. She groaned inside.
“Well, Elton, thanks.” She felt her face redden with irritation and she placed him back into his crib. She handed him a couple of toys and went back to her bedroom to find a clean shirt. More laundry.
She spent the next two hours playing with blocks on the living room floor, which made her feel guilty because there was house work to do, while folding laundry and unloading the dishwasher, which made her feel guilty for ignoring Elton. And then they occupied their time with boats in the bathtub after Elton threw up again, this time in his own hair and all over the carpeting. She briefly wondered where her minutes and hours and days and weeks went. She was scrubbing the carpet when the girls got home from school.
“Mom!” Kali called.
Cleo followed one step behind, red-faced and angry-looking. “She’s lying! I didn’t trip her! She just fell over my bookbag when she was getting off of the bus!” Cleo stomped her left food and slammed her bookbag onto the floor, leaving a dusting of black dirt evenly across the just swept linoleum.
“Nu-uh!” Kali began. “She tripped me on purpose! She does it all of the time!”
The two girls started shoving one another, each trying to yell louder than the other, both causing a squeal of terror and anger from the living room. Anna turned on her heels, taking deep breaths as she marched across the carpet and lifted the source of the angry screams. She babbled to Elton until he quietly looked up at her with big fat tears on his cheeks. The screaming from the kitchen had not ceased. She felt like a bad mother for wanting to walk in there and smack both of them. And for choosing to pick up Elton instead of intervening. She didn’t do it for his sake, but for her own. She just couldn’t stand the constant fighting. It never ended.
“You two are going to make me end up in a padded room!” Her voice was angrier and louder than she meant it to be, and it scared Elton, making him cry again. She sighed, sent Cleo to her room to clean up and Kali to the laundry to take the clothes out of the dryer. At least they would be in separate locations. She told herself that it was only two hours until Adam came home from work. Maybe she would suggest that they find a sitter for Elton so she could go back to work. Her husband was against the idea, but maybe if he saw, again, how frazzled she was after dealing with all three kids, maybe it wouldn’t seem like such a bad idea to him. He wasn’t exactly against it. She thought that he mostly felt like a failure for her having to work, especially since she had always talked about staying home with the children so longingly when they were first together.
After dinner she didn’t get a chance to even bring up her working. She had been too busy breaking up the fighting and finishing another load of laundry. It irked her that she sat beside him on the couch folding clothes, while he sat watching television. It irked her more when she got up and put dinner away and ran the dishwasher again for the second time that day, as he sat laughing at some dumb sitcom. That was another good reason to go back to work. He always told her that it was her responsibility to do this stuff because he worked all day. He often commented that it was her job. It was a major point of contention in their relationship. He didn’t go so far as to say that it was women’s work, but she knew how his father talked and what he thought, and she knew that those ideas were lurking somewhere deep inside her own husband’s head. Sometimes, when she wasn’t exhausted and angry, it almost made sense that she do the housework because she really was home all day. Almost. But in practice, she realized that it was an impossibility. There was never enough time. And what was the sense in having children if you never enjoyed them?
And that was her state of mind when her best friend called the next afternoon inviting her for a girls’ night out. She was both reluctant to leave her husband in charge of the house for the entire evening, a little afraid that he would object himself, and completely excited. So she agreed. But the closer to the suggested evening she came, the more her sense of trepidation grew. What if the girls hurt each other again, like they did last summer when she ran into town on a Saturday afternoon to do errands? Adam had called her cell and told her to meet him in the emergency room. Cleo had a thick gash in her forehead from where Kali had smacked her head off of the bathroom wall. Kali was terrified of the blood, and Cleo was terrified of getting stitches. And Anna hadn’t been there to hold either. She had been in a mad panic when she had arrived at the hospital ER, fearing the absolute worst. But the doctor put some kind of medical glue in the cut and sent them home. She hadn’t left anyone else in charge of her babies since. Could she do it again?
She called Gail on Friday afternoon.
“Gail, I can’t go.”
“What?” her friend exclaimed, making Anna feel guilty for abandoning her friend. After a few minutes of begging, Gail telling her to make an exception, just this once, Anna felt her resolve slipping.
“Please don’t back out at the last minute, I was really looking forward to having some time to myself,” her friend implored.
And Gail got her way, as she always did.
It wasn’t too long after that Anna regretted not trusting her gut feeling.
They were standing outside of the only bar in town known as the “gay bar”, known mostly because it was the only one that couldn’t quite be considered a “redneck” bar, listening to Gail and Monica argue over whether or not they had time to make a quick trip down to a different bar that was serving margaritas at half price. Anna wondered if her kids were asleep yet. When she was with them, she longed to be somewhere else, and when she was somewhere else, she longed to be with them. She waited quietly while they decided, and then they headed down the street to have a half priced, half quality margarita. She ordered one that was bright red, wondered what type of food coloring was responsible for its particular glow, and tried to enjoy herself.
By the end of the evening they were laughing so hard that she was a little worried that she might wet herself, a problem after having her second child. And she wondered if her children had enough to eat for dinner. And then she worried more that something bad might happen simply because she wasn’t there to ward it off.
The feeling became so pronounced, that she finally, about midnight, suggested that they call it a night. Gail seemed disappointed, but Monica looked a little relieved. It was a good night, but she just wanted to get home to her babies. She was sure that most of the alcohol was out of her system, after they had sat there for over an hour since she had her last sip of margarita.
The car felt cold, the steering wheel particularly so, and she could only tolerate contacting it through a pair of woolen gloves left carelessly on the seat. The road home was dark and a little creepy driving alone. On either side of the road were corn fields and hay fields, only interrupted by the scattered forest every mile or so. The year was passing so quickly. Fall had always been her favorite time of year, not too hot like summer, but still enough warm days before the snow began. Already, it was cold enough that any precipitation would fall as snow and not rain. But she felt happy as she drove, looking forward to kissing her babies before she would finally fall into bed herself.
Her ebullience instantly vanished and her brain jumped into hyper-mode. A deer raced out in front of her. She slammed on the breaks, sending her Explorer into a spin that ended just short of a fifteen foot ravine. Gravel ground beneath her tires as she skidded to a sudden stop. Half a second later her heart picked up the pace and thudded in her chest.
The deer was gone before she even had a chance to look for it, but the rushing in her ears didn’t let her forget how close she had come to hitting it. She just sat there, heart pounding, waiting for a sense of calm to return. She glanced around herself, at the swamp that surrounded her, saw no cars, and slowly put the car into reverse. She backed out into the road and made a u-turn back into the right direction in the middle of the dark road. She was too far out of town for there to be any street lights, and not even any house lights were visible. She was all alone. She drove slowly down the road, along her original path, but much slower. Her life hadn’t quite passed before her eyes, the whole thing happening too fast. Suddenly her bad feeling was worse, knowing that she might have hit the deer or rolled her car. What if she hadn’t missed it? The thought made her stomach hurt.
When she got home, she peeked into each bedroom, eyeing the prize inside of each, giving each a kiss on the forehead, feeling their warmth and energy radiating off of their perfect heads, and then went straight into the bathroom for a quick shower. She couldn’t stand the lingering cigarette smoke that clung to her from the bars. She was so thankful for making it home in one piece, and she promised herself that she wouldn’t let the little things get to her anymore.
But the next morning, as Cleo and Elton fought over an old Big Bird doll that she had picked up for Kali at a yard sale when she was about two years old, Anna forgot her promise to herself. She found herself yelling at Cleo, instantly regretting it but too angry to stop. Cleo went to school pouting, angry at her for yelling. It always made Anna feel upset when one of them left angry with the other.
And then as she washed the pots and pans from dinner, not already done because she wasn’t there to do them, she had the strangest urge. She found herself wanting to make a doll. The funny thing was, she had never made a doll before. She remembered watching her grandmother make dolls for her or her cousins. She would sew on the little eyes and noses and mouths, put each yarn hair through the little scalp, and make belly buttons and knees and fingers and toes.
Later that day she found herself wondering if she could even make a doll. It didn’t really seem that hard. She could sew, after all, she had taken home ec in junior high. They had been required to sew a pair of gym shorts and a pillow. She still had the pillow, a green frog with one big white eye that sat on Kali’s bed. But she put the idea out of her head, she had far too many things to do to make a dumb doll.
But the idea stuck with her until finally on the following Saturday, as Elton slept peacefully in his crib and Cleo watched a video beside her, Anna found herself cutting out a round little head. It was about the size of her hand. She took a needle and thread and pieced the two sides together. Then she turned the material right side out. It could be a head. She cut out pieces for the arms and legs and tummy. Her stitching on the legs was a little shoddy, the thread was quite visible, and the material pulled apart in one place. She ran the thread around the tiny hole, leaving a little scar-like line.
Elton woke up and she had to stop. But she found herself back at doll as he played on the floor with some blocks. Cleo even cooperated and didn’t fight with him or steal any of his toys. She just let him knock down tower after tower that she built. Anna turned the pieces right side out and stuffed them with filling from an old pillow. Then she used red and blue and green and black and orange thread to make the nose and mouth and eyes. Elton laughed as Cleo put the laundry basket over her head and paraded around the living room, choo- chooing as she went. Anna looked down at her doll. The mouth was a little crooked, but it almost made it a little cuter. She stitched the body together and began to sew the stuffed appendages onto the little body.
She fell into the rhythm of in and out, in and out, in and out, as she made her way up the underarm. It was a more soothing rhythm than the one of her daily life and she appreciated its simplicity, and finally understood her grandmother’s love of making dolls. With the arm tucked inside the fabric, she continued up over the appendage, sewing it into the fabric of the belly. In and out, in and out, babble and coo from Elton, laugh from Cleo, in and out, in and out. She began to hum the children’s song, then sing it out loud with Cleo after her own little angel began singing it to her. “Cleo, Cleo, why do you cry so? Mommy, mommy really does not know,” they sang together. “Oh, Cleo, Cleo, why do you cry so?” Cleo smiled as she sang out, “Well, Mommy, Mommy, I really don’t know.” They laughed together and Elton laughed with them. “Elty, Elty, what’s the matter with you? Cuz babies, babies should laugh and coo.” The song worked equally well for all of her children’s names. Cleo tickled Elton’s belly with the last line and he howled out loud with laughter. The kids loved the songs that she sang to them, especially the ones that she had made up herself. She interjected their names and pieces of their lives into the lyrics, making them all the more special.
They continued singing and humming and laughing and playing. Their little rhythm continued as she sewed up and around the shoulder and across the neck, which was safely tucked into the top of the torso. In and out, in and out, in and out, coo and laugh, in and out, in and out, until she accidentally drove the needle into her left thumb, which had been carelessly laid over top of the material.
Instinctually sucking her thumb, she flipped the doll over to examine the damage. The only indication was a small red dot at the base of her neck, easily hidden by her yellow embroidery thread hair that tumbled down from the top of her head. So Anna stitched in the belly button and butt and elbow and knees and digits. Anna finished her task and studied her work. It wasn’t as perfect and beautiful as one of her grandmother’s dolls, but it had a certain charm.
When Kali got home from her friend’s house at six that night, Anna was sitting staring at the little doll.
“Who’s the doll?” Kali asked.
Cleo answered, “Mom made it.” Kali looked skeptical.
Cleo went on, “It’s name is Anna, like mommy.” Anna looked up, wondering why Cleo would name the doll Anna. By this time, Elton was slobbering on the doll’s hand. Kali took it from him, making him cry.
“Why would you let him have it?” Kali asked, clearly offended. Anna suspected it was more about Elton having something than about concern for the doll.
Kali studied the doll, not seeming particularly impressed, but carried it to her room just the same. Anna didn’t give the doll another thought. The urge was out of her system, and life went on.
A week later, she was struggling to clear the yard enough that she could mow the lawn. She was beginning to wish that it would snow, so at least she wouldn’t have to mow the lawn any more. She had wanted to leave it go, but it had been looking pretty shabby for about two weeks. She picked up the garden hose from the front yard, seething with anger. She had asked him repeatedly to attach the hose holder to the wall of the garage, but it still lay against the far wall where she had placed it when she brought the thing home from the gardening store. Two weeks ago, sick of waiting for him to do it, she had attempted to attach it herself, but the wall was cement and she just didn’t know how to do it. And without the holder, the hose just laid in the front yard or driveway, waiting to get chopped up by the lawn mower or ran over by the cars. Probably more irksome was the fact that it made the house look unkempt. It wasn’t so much that she cared what the neighbors thought, maybe she did a little, but more that she hated the way it looked. She wanted to be able to sit down and rest and enjoy the day, but instead all she saw was a million things that needed to be done. She couldn’t relax knowing that the lawn needed mowed and the garage needed cleaned, the laundry needed to be done, and the kitchen needed to be cleaned and the floors swept. And worse, she couldn’t understand why Adam didn’t seem to mind any of this or why he thought that she should be able to do it all herself.
Their biggest argument had been over mowing the lawn. It began soon after Cleo was born. She was staying home with her and Adam didn’t understand why she couldn’t just do all of the house and yard work. They had fought venomously about it, until eventually she had moved out when Elton was two years old. He was still insisting that she mow the lawn, but she had objected that it was impossible with two small children. It wasn’t like she could carry them both on the mower with her, and she couldn’t leave them in the house alone. She had even tried doing it while they slept, but it never worked because the sound of the mower would wake them up.
So Anna had moved into the trailer that her mother rented out on her own parents’ old farm. Her mother also rented out the fields to two local farmers, so that they could use the land to make hay for their cattle. It kept the land up and gave her a little bit of extra income so she could stay in her own house even though the money from her social security and daddy’s pension wasn’t enough to pay all of her bills. But with Anna staying in the trailer, it cut down her mother’s income enough that she had to move back in a few months later.
But that break from Adam had made a huge difference in their relationship. It didn’t really change any of their arguments, just the ferocity of the fighting. She tried to hold her tongue, and had learned to just let it slide. She realized that the difference was her ability to let it go and her attempts at controlling her reaction to her own frustration. And it also helped that her neighbor, also a stay-at-home mother, began trading afternoons with each other’s children in order to complete some work around their homes without the interference of little fingers and imaginations.
Right now though, it was particularly difficult to do. Sometimes she worried that she was a ticking time bomb and some day she would just explode. But she wound the hose around her left arm and laid it back in the corner between the house and the garage, where she had laid it last time she had used it. She hurried through the lawn work, wanting to pick up Elton before his nap was over.
Several days passed, and life continued as it had since Elton was born, housework and diaper changes, dinners and dishes, nap time and arguments over who had done what to whom. Anna felt more hopeless. Would she ever be a good mother like her children deserved? She felt so inadequate. She sat watching her husband watching television.
“Elton has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning,” she said to him.
“Uh-huh,” he agreed, not looking up from the television. What would they do without her? Probably starve. She got up and went into the kitchen and put the last of the dinner dishes in the dishwasher.
“Honey, we need a new dishwasher. This one keeps leaving streaks of food on all of the dishes.” She sighed.
“What?” he asked as he passed her on the way to the bathroom.
“We need a new dishwasher,” she said again. It was the millionth time she had told him this.
As he walked back through the kitchen, he picked up a banana and began to peel it. The kids were asleep in their beds and the house felt calm.
“Just wash the dishes by hand. It’s faster that way anyways,” he responded.
She had heard this argument before. She just turned her back on him, seething inside. If it was so much easier, why didn’t he just wash them? Don’t let the little things get to you, she told herself. She wanted to yell at him and call him an idiot. If only his mother hadn’t loved doing the dishes. And of course he thought it was easier. He never did the dishes. He always told her that it didn’t take any longer. How would he know? She doubted he had ever washed a dish in his life. His mother had never thought it right that he have to do any housework. Sometimes she wished that he would have to do some of the stuff that she always seemed to do for him.
Then next morning, she left a few minutes early so she didn’t have to rush. Elton’s appointment was at quarter to nine, and she always liked to be there fifteen minutes early just in case. You never knew what would happen, what could make you late. She arrived at the intersection just as the light turned red. She sat patiently, waiting for her turn to go, Elton babbling in the back seat. She had just turned his seat around so he was facing front. She had hated not being able to see his face in his rear-facing car seat. He was sucking on a pretzel, part of it spread across his little chin. When the light turned green, she coasted up to the turn and began to cross under the stop light. A car pulled up to the middle of the driveway to the doctor’s office, blocking her path. She muttered to herself and veered around it.
* * *
Anna again tried to remember where she was. It was kind of dark and she felt herself on her belly, unable to sit up. What was happening to her? After trying to move and finding herself stuck, she began to panic. Where was she? How had she gotten there? Her body felt slackened and her mind foggy. Where was she?
Finally the question of where was answered when the light came on and she saw Kali walk into the room and throw her coat onto the floor. She seemed angry.
Anna found that she couldn’t talk. She couldn’t lift her arms either. She wasn’t sure which was scarier.
Cleo walked in and yelled at her sister, something about being a jerk and ran back out. Kali ran after her and Anna could hear them fighting in the hallway.
* * *
Everything seemed fuzzy. It took her a minute to figure out where she was. Then she remembered waking up and seeing the girls arguing. Where were they now? The room felt cold, too cold for an October day. She trained her eyes on the window and realized that the pane was covered with a thin layer of ice and snow. When had it snowed?
Kali finally came into the room, carrying her clarinet case. Her eyes were sad and her mouth puckered. She put the case under her bed and went back out of the room.
* * *
The coldness woke her again, only this time it was dark out the window, obviously nighttime. Then Anna realized that a sound had woken her. It was the sound of someone crying. Kali. Her heart broke hearing her baby girl sobbing. What could be so bad that she cried so? But then she became conscious of why.
Something had happened. Something had happened to her. Where was she? It made no sense to her, but the sobbing continued and no one came in to hold her baby and for some reason that she just couldn’t understand, she wasn’t able to do it herself. Kali sobbed on and on, and on until the sun light peeked into the window. There was still snow on the window pane.
* * *
And then there were lights. She didn’t know when she first noticed them. And then she realized what it was. Christmas. She was missing Christmas. But then, she wasn’t. Because she was seeing it from her perch on the far end of Kali’s bedroom. The mess had grown, not having anyone to tidy it in her absence.
At first, she found her existence unbearable. Not only did she want to move, not only did the confusion send her into fits of rage and terror, but she was overwhelmed by her sense of loss over not being there for her children. She considered every possibility. Maybe she was in a coma and this was a never-ending nightmare. Maybe it was hell. This possibility seemed like a likely result of her being such a terrible mother to her own children. Now all of those days and hours and moments that she had wasted in her anger and resentment over what she had to do for them seemed irresponsible and idiotic, and it made her feel like such a failure as their mother that she found herself believing that she deserved whatever punishment she received. And so she began to accept her captivity.
But then, somehow, that all changed too. She began to enjoy the little moments with her baby girl, her first born. She relished every moment that she received. And she spend most of her time reliving the moments that she had had before this all came to pass. She greatly enjoyed thinking about the days when it was just the two of them, before the addition of Adam and Cleo and Elton. It wasn’t that she didn’t love them or that she wished for them to not exist, only her fondness for the close relationship that the two of them had shared. She realized that it was the highlight of her life.
And other times she would reminisce about the mornings that she spent with her Elton, even with the numerous times he’d spit up on her. Constantly washing the mess up no longer seemed so terrible. How had she been so annoyed with it all?
And at still other times, she thought about her little Cleo. She was such a doll. Her beautiful blue eyes and perfect cherub cheeks, she was such an amazing child. Every so often she would dance into Kali’s room, singing a nonsense song. Sometimes she would sneak in and play with Kali’s clarinet, a definite no-no, or the little make-up kit that was definitely off limits in Kali’s mind. Anna reveled in the sound her singing. It brought such joy to her heart that she felt certain that it would surely burst.
The feeling of panic that she had first felt was somehow gone. Calm had punctured the fear, and eventually had completely replaced it. She didn’t exactly feel good or even okay with her new life, but it wasn’t all together awful. She guessed that someone could get used to anything.
As the months passed, knowable only by the changing season outside of the window, Anna even became content with herself. All of the inadequacies seemed less permanent and less important. And then one day, she had a glimmer of what she had become. Cleo had come into Kali’s room again, as she had been doing more and more often, and she had come right over to where Anna sat. And the Cleo picked her up. It was such a shock that she couldn’t think of anything for quite a while. But as Cleo spun them around and around, Anna caught a glimpse of Cleo in the mirror, and there in her arms was the little doll. Only she was held tightly in Cleo’s arms just as Anna was. And then she finally understood it, she was somehow that little doll.
When Anna heard Kali’s voice in the hallway, Cleo quickly put her back on the shelf and ran from the room. Anna sat there, unable to move and stunned by what she suddenly understood, completely unable to think or digest it all.
But this too faded.
Whenever Anna heard her baby girl crying, it broke her heart, but when Kali or Cleo would pick her up, it didn’t seem so bad. Whenever Anna found herself wishing to be able to hold one of her babies, wondering where Elton was, it somehow would be better when Cleo or Kali would come into the room. And from her little perch at the far end of the room, she watched them grow. Somehow, not just months had passed, but then years. And then one day she realized that Kali was a teenager. Anna suddenly couldn’t remember the last time that Kali had picked her up or even looked at her. She still sometimes cried herself to sleep, but it was often about a boy or something at school. Anna sensed that it was not so much about her missing having a mother. Somehow, Anna had been replaced by Kali’s life.
And Cleo had become quite grown up as well. Yet she still came into Kali’s room and snuck Anna off of the shelf, until one day, she just took Anna with her. And Kali didn’t seem to notice. Her baby girl didn’t need her anymore. But Cleo did.
As there was no strange woman wandering around her home, Anna was pretty sure that Adam hadn’t remarried, yet. She imagined that he would, he had never been particularly good at being alone. She wondered who was cooking them dinner or washing their clothes. Her mother and her mother-in-law every once in a while would
meander into the room and put some clothing on the dresser for Kali to put away. But neither was around enough that Anna thought that it could be either, or even the combination of both. Who was caring for her children?
Her leg itched, driving her crazy for days on end, with nothing else to think about. She realized that the itch was located at the exact spot where she had stitched over a small hole that had been forming along the seam of her thigh.
And then one day a surprising thing happened. Kali, so grown up herself, was sitting on her bed talking on the phone. Anna didn’t know who was on the other end, but Kali was telling them how the dinner her father had made last night was actually good. Adam was cooking. And apparently, from the conversation, he had been doing it for a while. Adam was caring for her children. Their children.
And, although she first felt envious and guilty over this discovery, over time it too faded. She spent her days remembering her life, thinking about all of the good, and occasionally about the bad, and every once in a while not thinking at all. After a while, she realized that days, weeks, maybe even months passed without her even noticing it. It was like lying in bed being unsure of whether or not you had actually slept, but also knowing that many hours had past either way.
But the more time passed, the less the girls seemed to notice her at all. She was of no consequence.
She sat on the shelf feeling miserable. She was so close to her babies, but she couldn’t reach out and touch them, or comfort them, or be able to tell them that everything would be okay. Her skin, stretching fabric the color of a pale peach, ached and itched to be able to make contact with one of them.
And then one day, she realized that years must have passed. She couldn’t remember the last time that either Kali or Cleo had picked her up. She missed being spun around or patted or even noticed. She could feel the dust in her fabric.
Why hadn’t she appreciated her family more?
She was saddened to think of all of the moments that she had squandered, of all of those days that she had been filled with frustration and anger over the little things, or the big things, but either way, it had been instead of being filled with love and joy and wonder at her children’s very presence.
And so that was what she set out to feel. And she did. That was exactly what she felt, once she decided that it was what she wanted to feel. It wasn’t as hard as she had once imagined. Just wanting to feel something, somehow made it so. Oh sure, sometimes she still felt cheated by her place in their live, that she was missing out on so much. And she still felt guilty whenever she witnessed one of them crying or sad.
Then one day, Kali spent the afternoon in her bedroom, reading some novel with a picture of young blonde girl on the front. Anna enjoyed these days, the sound of the rain on the tin roof, the warmth of the room, and most of all, her Cleo’s presence. Every so often Kali would wander in, to ask Cleo a question or just to see what her sister was doing. Just after the sun had set, Kali came back in, studying the dolls on the shelf where Anna sat, and then reached up and took Anna down. Kali studied her intently.
Then Cleo asked, “Kali, where did this doll come from?”
Kai looked up, seeming a little sad. “Mom made it.” She squeezed Anna intently.
Cleo nodded her head but said, “I don’t remember that.” Her almost teen face looked back up, “Why don’t I remember that?” This realization seemed to make her sad. Anna wanted to give her little girl a hug and tell her that she was still here. Because she really was. It made her heart ache knowing that she couldn’t reach out and touch her child. She hadn’t ached so much in a very long time. It was almost like she was fading away. And feeling this now was bittersweet. It hurt so very much, but at least she was feeling something. And it ached so terribly, that she almost wished that she didn’t feel anything at all. And this thought made her ache all the more.
Kali stood next to Cleo and said, “You were really little when she died. It’s okay. She died right after she made that doll.”
Cleo nodded her head, but said nothing. Anna noticed a tear running down Cleo’s cheek.
Kali, her voice sounding unusually thick, said, “I was only ten when they died.”
Cleo asked, “What was she like?”
Kali nodded her head in thought, and then said, “She was always singing.” As soon as Kali said it, Anna knew that it was true. She was always singing. She didn’t remember this, or hadn’t thought about it that way. Kali continued, “Remember the rocking song?” And then Kali began to sing, “I like to rock, I like to rock back and forth, back and forth.”
Cleo sang along with Kali, as Anna sang along in her own head, “I like to say, “anh, anh. I like my mommy, I like my mommy and my sissy, and I like to rock.” Both girls giggled. It was a great memory. Anna felt the happiest she ever remembered feeling. They had sang all of the time. She really had been there all through their growing up. Even for Kali, even though she had had to work. Maybe she wasn’t such a bad mother after all.
Cleo said, “This doll has a hole in her leg. Can we fix it?”
Kali picked the doll up and examined Anna’s leg. “I think so.” And she disappeared.
A few moments later, she was back with something in her left hand. It was a needle and a spool of thread. Kali threaded the needle and tied a knot into the end.
“Mom taught me how to sew when you were little, probably just a baby. She was always making things.” She began dragging the needle and thread through and around the hole in Anna’s leg. It wasn’t painful at all.
Cleo asked, “Like what?”
Kali looked up, kindness in her soft face. “Well, like that quilt,” she answered, pointing to her bed. Anna had made the quilt the summer that she had been pregnant for Cleo. She was off from school for summer break and she had been too tired to do much else besides sit and sew.
Kali looked back down at her work, continuing to pull the thread in and out. Soon the hole was completely gone. Kali handed the doll back to Cleo.
“Oh,” Cleo said, nodding her head up and down. “Was she nice?”
If Anna had needed oxygen to breathe, she would have held her breath.
Kali nodded her head. “Yeah.” Then she laughed, “She used to get really mad at dad. You probably don’t remember it, but he never used to make dinner or wash the dishes. Mom always did those things, but she always wanted him to help.”
Cleo looked at her sister, clearly not believing her. “But daddy’s a really good cook!” It actually made Anna’s heart glow, feeling a great sense of fondness for her husband.
“What else did mommy do?” Cleo seemed to be trying to hide her enthusiasm.
“Well, she made the best pizza ever. She made the dough and everything. And she made really good chicken noodle soup, with real homemade noodles. And she always held us when we were sick. She’d even sleep beside us on the bathroom floor when we were throwing up.” Anna remembered. She really had done and been those things.
“I miss her,” Cleo said, clearly envious of her sister’s memory. “What was Elton like?” she asked, more softly.
Kali looked down at Anna’s leg, pretending to study it. “He was just a baby. He wasn’t anything at all, just a baby.”
Cleo asked, “Why doesn’t daddy want us to talk about him?” She suddenly seemed much younger than she had just a few moments ago.
“I think it makes him too sad,” Kali answered, her words sounding very wise, as if someone much older had said them. Anna realized that her baby girl was almost grown, nearly an adult. Maybe Cleo was even a teenager. Anna studied both girls, wondering how many years had really passed.
Cleo questioned, “How did they die?”
Kali looked back at her sister, “Don’t you know?” But without actually waiting for Cleo to answer she said, “Some guy hit them at a stop light. Mom was taking Elton to his baby doctor visit. We were at school.” She continued, looking out the window at the rain, “When I got home, when the bus pulled up at our house, I thought, I thought that we must being having a party or something. I never thought,” she swiped at her eyes, still refusing to cry. She had always tried to be such a tough like girl, so much like Anna’s own mother.
“Can we make a quilt, like mommy?” Cleo asked, sounding hopeful.
“I don’t know. Mom showed me how to sew. And I remember helping her to make a couple of quilts for the auction, the one at grandma’s church, you know? But I don’t really know how to do it.”
“But couldn’t we try?” Cleo insisted.
“I guess we could try. Mom’s sewing machine is still in the back room. It probably still works.” A few moments later, Kali came back into the room, carrying Anna’s sewing machine. She set it on her desk, right on top of her books and papers for school. She spent many nights at that desk. It made Anna so proud. But somehow, this made her even more proud. Cleo came skipping in, carrying an armful of fabric. It was the same fabric that Anna had kept in a plastic tote in the corner cabinet. There were many colors and patterns, but there was lots of blues and purples and greens. They laid the fabric out and began mixing and matching the different pieces. Then they both left, and soon came back with armfuls of fabric and two pairs of scissors and a piece of cardboard. Kali laid a piece of green fabric, the same one that Anna had used to make Kali’s Halloween costume when she had wanted to be Tinker Bell. Kali must have been about four that year. Kali took a ruler off of her desk and measured a perfect square onto the cardboard, and then marked off the sides with a red pen onto the fabric, using the ruler to measure and the square to be sure it was right. Then she cut it out, telling Cleo, “Mom said that it was most important to make sure that all of the pieces are the same size, or the right size to match each other.”
Kali showed Cleo how to measure and cut each piece. They took turns using the ruler and the red square on the cardboard. And they each cut out pieces of fabric. They matched the pieces up with other colors of fabrics as they arranged a large nine-square patch. The fabrics were remnants of things that Anna had made for all of them, even for Elton. There were other remnants from Halloween costumes, Elton’s baby blanket that he came home from the hospital with. And there were even a couple of remnants from dresses that she had made for Christmases and weddings, her wedding to Adam when Kali was just a little girl herself, and then the wedding of her brother Sam. There were pieces from Kali’s quilt, and the for the one that she had made for Cleo, when she had been pregnant for Elton. It was both a happy and a sad moment. She relished their time together and all of the memories from the fabric. And she felt a little sad that she had never finished Elton’s quilt. She hadn’t had time.
“Wait,” Kali said as she stood up. Then she ran from the room and quickly came back. In her hands was something that surprised Anna. It was the quilt that she had begun for Elton. “We forgot this,” Kali said. They must have measured the pieces because the ones that they were cutting were about the same size as the ones in Elton’s quilt. Anna thought her heart might actually burst.
The girls worked long into the evening, cutting the pieces and sorting them out. Eventually, Adam came to the doorway and said, “Girls, lights out.”
“Ah!” Cleo whined. “We’re making something.”
Adam smiled, “And you can finish it tomorrow. It’s Saturday, remember?”
“But can’t we stay up a little longer?” Kali asked.
Adam check his watch, “It’s already 11 o’clock. You have stayed up late.” He looked older than she remembered, but not exactly old, just different in a kind of mature way. His hair was styled a little different, maybe a little neater.
A female voice, one Anna had learned to recognize as Charlotte, said from the hallway, “Girls, your dad won’t let me stay over ever again if you don’t listen when I do.” The woman walked into the room. She was pretty, with short brown hair and big blue eyes. Anna tried to remember if she had ever seen her before. Or maybe heard her voice in the house. But she didn’t remember the woman. She wasn’t jealous, a little surprised maybe. But then, she had always expected that Adam would find someone else. He never was very good at being alone.
The next two days were wonderful. The girls worked together, sewing the pieces together, and then cutting out more as they needed them. Af first, Kali hadn’t been able to make the sewing machine work. Anna felt helpless, not being able to do anything. But then the woman, named Charlotte had come into the room and showed them how to thread the machine. Kali and Cleo sewed and sewed, first piecing the smaller pieces together, then the bigger sections.
Over the next couple of weeks, the girls worked diligently on the quilt. Or rather, on the two quilts. They had enough fabric to make a quilt for each of them. Charlotte helped when they asked, but she either wasn’t always there or was simply willing to give them space. This fact comforted Anna. And it made her very happy to see her girls working together. But she was glad that Charlotte was there. Even thought she felt a little envious over Charlotte being a real, live person and herself just a doll, Anna was still glad that the girls had someone. They weren’t completely motherless. They had both Adam and Charlotte.
And then a couple of weeks after they began, Anna realized something else. She had taught Kali how to sew, and had her help make some quilts with her. And now Kali was teaching what she knew to Cleo. It was almost as if Anna was teaching Cleo. This knowledge made her very happy.
* * *
Anna never figured out exactly what happened to her little Elton, she could assume from the girls’ conversation, but it wasn’t real, not until one day when Cleo had left her in the living room. Anna was watching Adam’s new wife move around the living room, dancing with her own little boy. Adam came home just then and sadly looked at the two of them. Charlotte, sensing his unhappiness, had stopped and asked if he was okay. And he had told her that seeing his new little boy made him sad sometimes because it reminded him of Elton. And then Anna knew. Elton must have died as well.
This was the hardest thing for her to accept. She should have known from what the girls had said. But maybe she hadn’t really wanted to know. She was certain that it must have been an accident. And the last thing she remembered doing was driving Elton to the pediatrician. It was her fault.
For a long time after this realization, she had a difficult time seeing or hearing this new little boy. But as her appreciation of her husband grew, with all of his faults, her confusion and doubt had lessen and eventually disappeared, and so did the pain that she felt with being around this new little boy. Adam. She even grew to love to watch him toddle and play, and then walk and run. She saw him riding his first tricycle, then his very own bicycle. Sometimes it caused an ache the size of Montana in her chest, her little doll chest, knowing that it should have been, could have been, her own little Elton. She spent entire days wondering what he would have been like as a preschooler, how he would have looked riding his own bike.
And then she became angry. Where was he? Why wasn’t he here with her? And this anger consumed her. For days. Then weeks. And months. But this pain lessened. It never totally went away. But eventually, she came to believe that he was in a better place. She couldn’t believe that he didn’t really exist anymore. Certainly he was in a heaven or reborn as someone else’s little boy. If she was here, then what was heaven and hell? Did they even exist? She just couldn’t make the pieces fit. If life after death was her as a doll, then Elton had to be somewhere as well, but no matter how she considered it, it just didn’t make any sense.
She even entertained the idea of Adam being her Elton. And from that point forward, she studied this little boy, looking for evidence that it might really be her own Elton. Every time he came into Cleo’s room, Anna watched him. She knew that it wasn’t. She understood that the passage of time was wrong, that he couldn’t be so young while the girls was so much older. But she could accept this possibility. The alternative was just too painful for her to believe. And since it made her happy to believe that he wasn’t just gone, she believed it. And so she began to relish his achievements as well.
Not too long after, Cleo asked Kali if they could make another doll. Kali was home from college, now staying in Cleo’s room. Anna imagined that they needed Kali’s room for little Adam. She was glad that they were in one room together. It let her watch them both.
And thankfully, Kali had said yes, they could make a doll. They pieced it together. Kali used her paints to make the eyes and then showed Cleo how to make a little nose and a smiling mouth. The girls laughed together as they made the little doll. And they talked about what life had been like when they were small. It was their own private little world, with days and moments and people only the two of them knew. It made Anna sad and happy all at once. But it didn’t have the same sting as before. She just sat on the shelf, enjoying the view.
When the doll was finished, they both studied it. It wasn’t as well constructed as the dolls that her grandmother used to make, but it was absolutely perfect.
“His name is Elton,” Cleo said as they looked him over. Kali just nodded her head. It was Anna’s little Elton. When they placed him beside her, with his little legs over her own, she felt such a sense of joy that she had never felt before. They were all together once again. Oh, she knew that it wasn’t really her Elton. But it made her feel like her family was once again complete.
And then somehow, Anna happy on her little perch at the edge of their lives, not always even aware of the world around her, the girls were both grown. Kali no longer came home from time to time, and not even at Christmas. Anna was no one’s doll now. She just sat on the shelf. Sure, once in a great while, one of the girls would take her off the shelf, maybe when they were feeling sad. It made Anna happy that she could at least be there in some small way when they were feeling down. But neither was around very much. Even little Adam had become a young man, probably in high school.
And then one day, Cleo was there in front of Anna. She resembled Anna very much and she appeared to be about the age Anna had been when Cleo was first born. Cleo was taking things from the room, no longer her own. It was mostly used for guests, but still held bits and pieces of both Cleo and Kali. But Anna was still there on the shelf, next to her Elton doll and the dolls that her grandmother had made so long ago. Cleo seemed to be packing things up into a box. A little sliver of fear edged through Anna as Cleo lifted her off of the wall shelf and placed her into the box. Next came little Elton, and then her grandmother’s dolls.
The box shifted and vibrated, and finally was picked back up and opened. Anna was in a new room. She could see a yellow ceiling and bright blue walls, but nothing else. She was relieved that she was taken somewhere else and not just thrown away. Being an observer of her children was one thing, but to be completely disposed of was entirely unbearable. Cleo came to stand over the box, looking down at the lot of them. The dolls seemed to be the only things left of Anna and her mother and her grandmother. Anna hadn’t even seem any of the quits that she had once made, or the two that the girls had made so long ago.
Cleo was humming a little song, the tune so familiar, but Anna’s mind was fuzzy and slow to remember. Cleo lifted Anna and Elton out of the box, studying them both. She traced her hands down the back of Anna’s head. And then Anna noticed something, the soft swell of Cleo’s belly. She was pregnant. It brought joy to her stuffy little head. Cleo then placed both dolls inside of a curio cabinet. They were sitting on a pillow just the right size for both of them. The fabric seemed very familiar to her.
Anna looked out at her little girl. She was a lovely woman now. A man that Anna did not recognize walked up behind Cleo, smiling down at her. He kissed her gently on the forehead and then wrapped his arms around her belly. They both stared at Anna and Elton. And then they both smiled.
“So that is the famous doll that your mother made,” the man replied.
Cleo smiled up at him, “Yep. And that’s the little Elton doll that Kali and I made when I was still in high school.”
“Jesse is going to wanna play with the dolls,” the man said, warningly.
“That’s okay. That’s what they’re for,” Cleo said. She walked back over to the box and took out several more dolls and placed them in the cabinet with Anna and Elton. And then a little girl with soft blonde curls wandered into the room.
“Dolly?” she asked. Cleo nodded and showed one of Anna’s grandmother’s dolls to her. The little girls squealed with delight.
“My dolly!” the little girl cried out happily. She danced around, spinning the doll with her. Anna liked her new perch. She might be on the sidelines, but at least she was there.
The man cautioned the little girl, “Now Jesse, you have to be careful with the dolls, okay?”
“Yes, daddy,” Jesse replied.
“David, did you get the other box out of the trunk?” Cleo asked. “Kali will be here in a few minutes.”
“Yeah, it’s in the kitchen. I’ll get it.” David walked out of the room and came back with a cardboard box. He placed it on an end table and lifted the tabs. Cleo pulled out some fabric. Anna suddenly remembered why the pillow fabric seemed familiar. It was made from pieces of the fabric held in Cleo’s hands now. It had been her fabric. Anna thought about the quilts her girls had made so long ago.
“I can’t wait to make a doll with Jesse,” Cleo smiled up at David.
Then she said, “Maybe we should take the sewing machine out of the box too. Kali will be really excited to see it.” She smiled happily.
Anna just sat in her new cabinet, intently watching the golden-haired little girl. She was quite beautiful and reminded Anna so very much of her little girls. She felt happy and calm. Life had really come full circle.
Not too long after, Kali arrived. Two little heads bobbed along behind her. Kali called them AnnaMae and Julian. They too were beautiful. The eldest, AnnaMae, was quite a handful. She wasn’t bad, just willful, and a little rough with the younger ones.
Kali chastised AnnaMae for pushing Julian and told the little girl to go play with Jesse.
AnnaMae replied, “Jesse’s just a baby.” She sounded so much like Kali had.
When the little girl wandered off, with Jesse and Julian right behind, Kali and Cleo sat down on the sofa, laughing at something one had said, drinking coffee, and holding one another’s arms. Anna was glad that they got along so well now.
“I can’t believe how much the two of them fight!” Kali remarked, clearly in disbelief.
Cleo nodded her head, and said, “But probably not any worse than we fought, huh?”
Kali shook her head, “I can’t imagine. I remember fighting, but now, it just makes me think that I am going to go crazy! I don’t know how dad put up with it.”
Cleo nodded again. “We were quite a handful.” She smiled, remembering.
Kali said, “When I come home at night, after spending the whole day teaching other people’s children, sometimes, I just don’t have the patience for my own. It makes me feel guilty.” She put her coffee cup down. “But then I think of mom, and I try to just be glad that I am able to be with them at all.”
Cleo asked, “Does it work?”
“Not often. They still drive me nuts!” Kali laughed as she spoke. Then she said, “But I remind myself that I have such a short time with them. You know, I only have twelve more years with AnnaMae. That puts it into perspective for me.”
Cleo groaned, “I hope mine don’t fight.” Then she laughed, “Probably just wishful thinking.”
Kali nodded, smiling. Then she looked a little sad. “Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if mom hadn’t died?” She looked thoughtfully out the window.
Cleo said softly, “Sometimes. But you know, I don’t really remember her that much.”
Kali nodded sadly. She looked up at Anna’s curio cabinet. Then she smiled. “You finally got mom’s dolls.”
Cleo nodded, and they both stood up and walked over to Anna and the dolls. Cleo responded, “I wanted to have a place all ready for them.” She touched the outside of the cabinet, running her fingers down the side. “Are you happy with our compromise?”
“Yeah, I’ll probably get more use out of mom’s sewing machine than you will,” Kali answered, smiling.
“Probably,” Cleo agreed.
Then Kali said, “Sometimes, when I would hold that doll,” pointing to Anna, “it almost felt like mom was there with me.”
Cleo just nodded. Then they both smiled. And they began discussing their lives, Kali and her job at an elementary school and Cleo running a craft store. They seemed to be content with their lives, maybe a little frazzled here and there, at deadlines and parents or customers, feeling like they should do more as mothers, but happy nonetheless. Anna understood their frustrations. She remembered feeling exactly the same way, not so long ago. And she remembered her own feelings of guilt at doing too little, and their happiness in moments. Time was slipping away. Anna could accept her life as an observer. It was better than no place at all. Her girls laughed and talked all afternoon; telling stories of sick kids and fights with their husbands, Kali missing Julian’s first steps because she was at work, Cleo feeling guilty that she couldn’t spend more time with Jesse. David and another man, Kali’s husband Mark, came and went, chasing after the children and getting the girls more coffee. Anna enjoyed watching them all. And she felt lucky to have such a view.
Copyright 2014 Sionainn Gealach/ Shannon Moon/ Shannon Motter