No matter what country they live in or how many figures they make a year, there seems to be one universal truth that moms and dads everywhere know; that at some point, their children will want to hear the same bedtime story every night for an extended period of time. For my five-year-old son Thaddeus, it’s currently Blueberries for Sal. For others, it’s one of those monosyllabic “this is dog” monstrosities that make parents wish pernicious diseases on the author. But when I was a child, my favorite bedtime story couldn’t be found in a bookstore, as it was the tale of how I got my name. Legend has it that my father had picked “Alison” while listening to Elvis Costello as he was driving around downtown Boston with my mother, who was so heavily pregnant with me that she could barely put her seatbelt on. She didn’t wear it, and if he ever had to slam on the brakes – which happened pretty often due to the fantastic driving skills of other Massachusetts natives – he thrust out his right arm to keep her (and me) from hitting the dashboard. I loved hearing that story and would ask both of my parents to tell it again and again, wrapping myself up in this warm quilt of history that I never knew; an era when my father’s devotion to us burned bright.
My parents split up when I was nine after years of clinging to a worn stuffed animal of a marriage. I lived primarily with my mother from then on, but the divorce didn’t hit me quite as hard as it should have, probably because my father had been a complete enigma to me long before that. Unlike him, my mother seemed to have all the do’s and don’ts of managing family life stored in her marrow, but she was always there to put a Band-Aid on whatever chaos he created no matter how frustrated he made her – possibly more for herself than for me. “Artists are known for their tempers,” she said when he erupted on me for not immediately understanding multiplication when he tried to explain it to me; “It probably slipped his mind,” she said whenever he forgot to do something important for her; “He always has to be on the go,” she said one time during the summer of my first grade year when he picked me up from day camp and I’d overheard him – upon being told that I was still changing out of my swimsuit and would be out in five minutes – tell the camp counselor in charge that he was leaving and would come back later. After I burst out of the bathroom crying with my swimsuit around my ankles (which prompted the counselor to chase me back in), he took me out for ice cream as a peace offering and then drove me home, awkwardness permeating the car. On the way, we saw a family of rabbits grazing on a playground.
“New England Cottontail.” He pointed at the bunnies, which quickly became brown blurs in my window as the car sped down the road. “Most common type of rabbit here.”
Though I was still upset, I nodded, stirring the runny remnants of my cup of chocolate ice cream with my spoon. Odd as it was, this was his way of squeezing me into his world; although a potter by profession, my father had been fascinated by animals ever since childhood and had successfully imparted that love of them to me.
“It says here that lions usually let the lionesses do most of the work when it comes to raising the cubs.” He said to me one evening, as we sat together on the bed I slept in at his house flipping through an issue of Zoobooks.
“Why?” I asked, and he was clearly troubled by my question, as I could see him rummaging through his mind for an answer that would both satisfy me and unburden him.
“Maybe they get scared.” He finally replied and shrugged.
“Of other lions!” He cried out hurriedly after a long pause, then pretended to lunge at me as a lion would and threw the covers over both of our heads. After some joyful squealing and roaring, we settled down, but I didn’t feel intellectually satisfied by that mini-conversation.
“But why?” I asked again, and as he searched for an answer, apprehension thick enough to touch emanated from him.
“That’s just the way they are.” He finally muttered and sat motionless for a few minutes before leaving the room.
Piquing my interest in animals turned out to be the best thing he ever did for me, because I later studied marine biology in college and went on to work at the New England Aquarium. My daily commute to and from work required taking three trains, and at four o’clock, as I stepped out of the aquarium and zoomed past slow-moving throngs to get to the first of my three train stations, my phone began to buzz. There were only about three people in the universe who ever texted me, and around this time of day, it was usually my father. After we both got cell phones, it became easier to catch him, and due to possible remorse or delayed wisdom, he had lately started trying to catch me. Sometimes, he would simply send a greeting, other times he would send a funny meme or a childhood picture of me dug up from drowned years. Today, it was a picture of me, aged 10 or 11, in tears after I had tried unsuccessfully to use his then-girlfriend Sandy’s curling iron by myself. I had twisted all the hair on the right side of my head to the point that I had created a soft tornado on my scalp and given myself a miniscule first-degree burn on my forehead. I didn’t remember much about that day – except for the drumbeats of pain in my forehead and the stern talking-to I got from Sandy as she put ice on it for me – but I did remember that picture, which my dad had pulled out a few times during holidays or my visits with him whenever he and whatever guests were over wanted a laugh. I had found it funny at the time, but as I grew older, the fact that he had chosen to whip out his camera at that moment started to bother me. “Einstein’s daughter, 1999,” he had written on the white part of the Polaroid photograph. Einstein had been a father himself; if one of his children had found themselves in such a predicament, would he have rushed over to help? Would he have wrestled the hot iron from the tangled mess and iced his daughter’s injury? For a second, I considered typing out the questions I had that begged to be set free, but didn’t.
Instead, I scrolled through the camera roll in my phone and selected a picture I had taken recently of a particularly overweight and lethargic seal sprawled out on a rock in our seal exhibit and typed, “You after lunch.” Why not? I thought, He scribbled all these IOU’s in the sands of time and is making good on them, albeit a little late; his boomerang should at least come back. After punctuating the message with a few smiley face emojis, I pressed “send,” my doubts dulling to a whisper.
Later that night, I Skyped with my mother, as I had promised I would. Thaddeus, warm and damp from the shower I’d just given him, sat on my lap animatedly showing off what he had learned of sign language in school to his grandmother.
“This is how you spell ‘Nana.’” He alternated between spelling “n” and “a” with his short fingers.
“How do you spell ‘Thaddeus’?” My mother asked, blowing into the mug of tea she was holding.
“I can’t. It’s too long.”
“Too long?” I chuckled. “You’re gonna have to learn how to spell it eventually.”
“Just show me ‘T’.” My mother said. “Do you know ‘T’?”
Thaddeus did, and when he continued chatting away and demonstrating finger spelling, I glowed with motherly pride, a huge contrast to how I’d felt about him not too long before. Both of us were still feeling the aftershocks of his latest tantrum, which had been the by-product of a nasty mood he brought home from school after fighting with a classmate. I had lost my temper – called him ““whiny” and refused to engage with him – but I later apologized, hugged him and spent half an hour worrying that I’d permanently messed him up. But I didn’t have to be too hard on myself, according to the various social media posts I’d seen from friends who were also parents, which either featured one-liners written in flowery colors (“I would die for my kids, but some days I want to die because of them”) and images of tired mothers in dirty sweats and ponytails that could lubricate wheels with encouraging captions at the bottom (“Mouthwash only burns when it’s working, Mama; if it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong!”). It’s okay to not be okay; don’t worry about any collateral damage! I reassured myself, as I rested my head on his wet front bangs.
“How did your day go, Ali?” My mother adjusted her tortoise shell glasses and cocked her head towards me.
“I had to explain how penguins mate to a bunch of middle schoolers, so you can guess how it went.”
“What’s ‘mate’, Mommy?” Thaddeus piped up.
“It’s when animals decide they love each other.”
“How do they do that?”
Just as I was trying to formulate an answer that would be suitable for a preschooler, I could see my husband Nick creeping up behind Thaddeus and I from my webcam, dressed in his paramedic’s uniform and holding a thermos of coffee, his fuel for a grueling 12 hours of saving lives all over Essex County.
“Oh, there’s Daddy!” I cried, as he playfully stuck his head between us.
“That’s probably a question for another time, Mr. T.” He ruffled Thaddeus’ hair. “You need to go to bed.”
“But I’m not tired.”
“I am.” I kissed Thaddeus quickly on the head and helped him down from my lap. “Say goodnight to Nana.”
“No!” He screeched, and I could feel my blood pressure creeping into medically dangerous territory.
“Thaddeus!” Nick snapped, and our son was immediately subdued. “If I have to tell you one more time, you’ll lose your TV privileges for tomorrow.”
That did it. With an indignant grunt (and a wave to his grandmother prompted by Nick), Thaddeus trudged back to his room. I gave my husband a look of thanks: as parents, we were on different ends of the Earth – I was the wind that galloped through our child’s sails and Nick was the one who steered him on course – but there was usually nothing but harmony between us. Sometimes, I felt guilty that he always picked up my slack and laid down the law when I didn’t, and even envied his skills in this area, but I remembered that even the many books I’d read about animal behavior extolled the benefits of riding in tandem; after all, crab spiders allow algae to live on their backs in exchange for the camouflage they provide, and plovers clean the meat out of crocodiles’ teeth and then eat it. I kissed Nick goodbye, and breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that science was on my side.
When Thaddeus and Nick left, the room was silent, and my mother, noticing that I was rubbing my temples, pointed to me on the screen.
“Lavender oil. Helps with stress.”
“How did I know you were going to suggest that?” I grinned. My mother had an assortment of essential oils at her house which rivaled that of Whole Foods and was a walking encyclopedia of all their benefits.
“I use it a lot at work. Went through a whole bottle last month.” She laughed; it was now May, and being a tax accountant, April was never an easy month for her. Suddenly, she gasped.
“Oh! Speaking of stress; you’re going to your father’s grand opening, right?”
“I guess.” I replied, feeling myself stiffen. After decades of working and teaching private lessons out of his basement, my dad decided to open up his own pottery and painting studio in a huge building not far from his home in Gloucester. I would have rather gone to see a public execution, but on some level, I felt I owed him my presence on what would be a defining day in his professional life.
“Why are you even going, Mom?”
“Because we were married for 15 years, that’s why.”
“And I support his career.”
“You do now.” I said, remembering all the times she had sarcastically called him “Michaelangelo” and said he was oblivious to everything going on outside his own head.
“I never didn’t support it. It’s just…a little easier to dive into that pool headfirst now that we’re older and you’re older.” She was addressing me, but it was clear that she was really talking to herself.
“I mean, I’ll go, but I don’t know why he would want me to come.”
“He would take a bullet for you, Alison.”
“Yeah. He would take a bullet, put it in a gun, and -”
“Alison.” My mother tried to sound austere, but a giggle threatened to escape her lips.
“Don’t laugh; he wasn’t fit to take care of a pet rock.” I bit my lip, completely out of my funny mode. “You knew that.”
My mother paused, burying her right hand in her mess of gray curls. Her mouth was closed, but I could practically hear the rationalizations that were positively bouncing around in her brain: He loves you! He named you while listening to Elvis Costello and threw his arm out to keep both of us from getting killed! His idiosyncrasies only became problematic after baby made three! I’m glad I don’t have to clean up his messes anymore, but we’ve shared too much to throw away; spontaneous trips to the beach, pillow talk sessions spent getting lost in his sleepless city of a brain, impromptu wheel throwing lessons, moonlit love making, a daughter named after a hit song. Yes, he was a termite for the psyche, but at one point he was hot cocoa for the soul; fifty bucks says I’m more hurt than you are. Finally, she took a deep breath.
“Didn’t your father always say that when two angelfish fall in love, their bodies become one?”
“Right, anglerfish.” She took a sip of her tea. “But humans are technically animals.”
“Yes, and across species, mothers generally try to destroy anything that threatens their offspring.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.” She waved her hands as if to brush the subject away. I saw how pained she looked but didn’t regret opening my mouth.
“Can’t help it. It’s a Pisces thing.”
“That’s right.” I smirked. “Key someone’s car when you’re mad at them? ‘Oh, I’m a Libra. I’m impulsive.’ Don’t pay back a loan? ‘I’m a Virgo. I’m frugal.’”
“You Capricorns and your sharp tongues.” My mother wagged her finger at me in jest, and I couldn’t help but crack a sad smile, wanting to jump through cyberspace so she could hold me just as she used to when I was Thaddeus’ age so we could grieve for the things that lay in another dimension, the phenomena that not even nature could vouch for.
On the day of my father’s grand opening, Thaddeus woke up oozing mucus and coughing profusely. As I sat on the edge of his bed, teaching him how to blow his nose, Nick walked into the room holding a thermometer.
“Let me get this one.” He volunteered. “This is an important day.”
“Are you sure?” While I felt some sort of primal magnet pulling me towards Thaddeus, I actually wanted nothing more than an excuse to have the day to myself. I felt I was entitled to it; after all, due to Nick’s unpredictable work schedule, it was I who had seen Thaddeus through most of the illnesses that had knocked him down in the last five years.
Nick put his hands on my shoulders, quietly giving me his blessing. Leaving our sick child for a day felt less wrong when he condoned it, but it still didn’t feel right.
“Run him a warm bath and put a few drops of eucalyptus oil in the water.” With my hand, I shook an imaginary small bottle. “I have some in the medicine cabinet.”
“Is that a remedy from the Watertown witch doctor?” Nick rolled his eyes, but his tone was affectionate.
“You wanna hold him down to give him cough syrup for the second time today?”
“No, ma’am. You can do that later.” He comically shuddered, and it was my turn to roll my eyes. I poked my head into Thaddeus’ room, where he lay listless in bed among a field of used tissues.
“Bye, love.” I blew him a kiss.
“Bye, Mama.” He croaked, and I could feel my spirit ripping as I fast-walked out the door. In a couple of hours, I would be admiring my father’s creations while my five-year-old hacked up his respiratory system. Though I did feel that this break was well-deserved, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to take an endless nap in the ground.
The event was a huge success; it seemed as if half the state had come out to see Jimmy K Studios take its first breath. After my father, looking uncharacteristically sophisticated in a collared shirt and blazer he had bought especially for the occasion, gave a quick speech and cut the ribbon, it was time for mingling and refreshments. While I was debating which kind of mini-quiche I should select from the food table, my father stepped into the main area, leading around an elderly couple and my mom as he nodded towards the shelves of bone-white plaster sculptures that waited for customers to paint them. When I saw them coming my way, I picked a stagnant, excessively chatty group of attendees to melt into. Too late; my mother turned her head, and lit up when she saw me. She whispered to my father, and suddenly all four pairs of eyes were on me.
“There you are!” My mom practically ran over and enveloped me in a hug. “I couldn’t see you in the crowd.”
“I’ve been here the whole time.” I murmured into her armpit, which smelled of orange-oil scented deodorant. All the while, my father loomed over us, like a shy teenager at a party waiting to dance with someone.
“Don’t kill her, Sona.” The man of the couple joked as my mother broke off her suffocating embrace. My mother turned me towards them admiringly, as if I was one of my dad’s pieces.
“This is Jimmy’s greatest work.” She then tapped her own shoulder. “Well, he had some help.”
“Jimmy, you never told me you had a daughter!” The older lady looked at my father in surprise.
“We just moved to your father’s neighborhood last year. We’ve never seen you.” The man told me as he moved his finger to his wife and himself, and waited for me to find a way to justify going almost 10 months without seeing the man to whom I owed my existence.
“She’s beautiful.” The woman smiled. “And she looks like you, Jimmy.”
“That’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it, Janet?” My father chuckled, and my mother lovingly swatted his hand, which killed the slight amusement I felt from his comment.
“Oh, come on, now.” She laughed at him and gave me one final hug.
“I’ll leave you two to speak.” She gave my father a peck on the lips and left to show my father’s neighbors a glass mosaic display that he had made and hung in the studio’s front window. For a few minutes, both my father and I waited for the other to make a move. Eventually, I stepped forward, and we brought our arms around each other with the grace of two marionettes. I thought the gesture would give both of us some comfort, but that only came when we both pulled away.
“Well, what do you think?” He giggled nervously. “Huge step up from a musty old basement.”
“Yeah, it is.” I agreed, feeling an overwhelming desire to both fatten up the air and get him to stop talking at the same time.
“I remember when I was teaching you how to throw clay on the wheel and it got out of control and splattered all over us and the room.”
“Oh, my God.” I laughed. I had inherited none of his pottery skills and that had been the first sign.
“You still owe me money for fixing up the house.” He joked. “Well, actually, I have been fixing up the house – but not ‘cause of that, obviously.”
“Really?” This time I was genuinely curious. I knew from past conversations that he had been painting his house’s exterior, but was unaware that he was doing anything to the interior. “What have you been doing?”
“Eh, you know…” Now, he sounded like he was trying to hide something, but knew he couldn’t avoid it when he saw my face.
“Is my room the same?”
“Oh, yeah. Ah…..”
He scrolled on his phone for a picture, and when he found one, I grabbed the phone from him, hoping that he had at least kept some of my old toys and Tiger Beat posters and not touched the hot pink walls I had painted years ago with his help. Instead, I found myself looking at a space that was more drab than a hospital room. Any breath of me had been exterminated, all without my permission or knowledge; the walls were painted a sterile white, and my polka-dotted comforter had been traded in for crisply folded gray sheets. None of my possessions were there, and I had no clue what he did with them. Next to the bed was a wooden desk that was bare except for a Mac and a printer.
“It’s an office that doubles as a guest room.” He said sheepishly. “You know, I thought that…it’s been empty for a while…”
“Uh-huh.” I replied, with plastic politeness. He wasn’t dating anyone, as far as I knew, and didn’t have anybody else in his life I knew of who would have a need to stay at his house. Whenever I brought Thaddeus to see his grandfather, he always gravitated to my childhood room, and we spent many fun-filled hours playing with my old stuffed animals and dolls – some of which he took home to keep -, and now my father took all that away. This excuse, like all his others, would just be another Hail Mary echoing in a box.
“I mean, you’re welcome to stop by…”
“We’ll see.” I said and promised myself with a stubborn child’s conviction that I would make a museum exhibit out of Thaddeus’ bedroom and keep it that way until I died. In 40 years, he could come back home, with a half-grown kid or two of his own – a few grays sticking out of his scalp, driving lessons and first dates chiseling lines into his cheeks – and his train set and teddy bears would remain in the same place they had been in the day he gave them up.
With no plan in mind, I left the studio and got into my car. I backed out of the parking lot, thinking of anglerfish dissolving into each other, plovers picking their dinners out of crocodiles’ mouths, and lions who sat quietly by as others pumped life into their legacies – the apparent handbook for how biology was supposed to run, full of doctors’ notes for not-so-original sins. I mentally flipped through it all as I drove down my old neighborhood, past all the old paint-chipped houses and gentle hammocks of power lines that had watched me grow only half the time.