By: Sheila Vaccaro
On a quiet, damp morning in Southeast Pennsylvania, a mother and her young son visit a two-block park at the edge of town. It is a hazy, earthy smelling square. Through the center of the park, tall pines reach high above while a marsh surrounded stream trickles below. It is the perfect setting for a tiny, adventurous explorer.
Much of the park is soggy grass, gently interrupted by curving brick walkways and a few off-level benches. Nestled towards the south side of the square are two play areas; one intended for young children, the other an ever-evolving circle of more serious play equipment. In the evenings, occasional teens sulk between the play equipment and an oversized, graffiti riddled gazebo that straddles the banks of the stream.
This morning, Mother watches carefully as her young son stands at the center of a dark, grass rimmed puddle. He smashes his rubber shoes deep into the mud. Dark dried splatters cling to the boy’s fine hair, smears of mud crisscross his arms and clothes. As their eyes meet, he pauses, but only for a moment. The boy’s mud-work is the all-consuming kind and he quickly returns. A silent smile seeps across mother’s face as she absorbs her son’s earnest devotion.
This is how Mother, and Son spend many mornings. Especially Thursdays, as today is, when their morning walk follows a half block behind the recycling truck. They both enjoy observing, from a cautious distance, as strong murky men swoop down from their colossal jerky vehicle. The ruff men scoop up clanking buckets and smash debris inside their mechanical beast. Occasional piles of crushed glass sputter out to glitter in the sun. The mounds, like dangerous piles of enchanted dung, mark the way along their alley path.
The young boy enjoys these engaging walks. He refuses to ride in strollers. If wheels are involved in his day, he is going to master them. Mother had resigned herself to walking with him, rather than pushing him, after one too many frustration-filled confrontations.
Mother is comfortable with staying close to home. She had contracted her existence, allowing the child his own free form, child size experience. This morning, on their way to the park, the boy skitters along the alley edges like a squirrel, exploring and absorbing odd bits of the universe. The child knows his safe distance behind the truck and Mother relaxes her way of walking.
Today is an early spring morning. The cool wet ground keeps most neighbors inside, but not the boy and his mother. For the moment, they have no worries beyond the immediate. Mother walks quietly, as not to interrupt the boy’s exploration of the grimy edges. It is easier for Mother to clean rather than corral this curious child.
The small boy walks at a herkie jerky pace, and Mother echoes accordingly. The boy’s devout interest makes it all worthwhile to the mother. She is an adult, she does have adult responsibilities beyond his world.
At the park, the boy darts along the paths and then veers sharply towards the deepest section of puddle. He has known this spot for months, but each visit reveals newfound wonders. Mother situates herself at a tidy distance, able to observe while keeping clear of the splatters. The mud play is one of his many favorites and she gladly encourages him to devote hours experiencing the thick, cool, wetness.
As he rhythmically smashes his foot into the mud, her phone rings loudly. Her ring is always set to the highest volume. Her daily life is too boisterous to notice gentle buzzes. Interruptions of both the mundane and life threatening are her norm. There is no harm in this type of interruption. The call is a souvenir of a life once lived.
Turning her attention to the adult world, she must turn away from her child. She has trouble splitting between the two worlds. If she keeps her eyes on the boy, she will struggle to understand the words over the phone. The boy is safe, and content in his puddle. She is sure his attention is occupied. She comfortably turns away.
The boy knows Mother is there if he needs her, but for a few moments he also understands that her attention is distracted. Mother’s attention is hard for him to shake, but on occasion the phone rings, life demands attention, or an email comes in that pulls her away. He likes these moments; these are his times.
The boy might discover a salamander and further determine what one tastes like if licked. Sometimes he likes to cover himself with a Hosta to feel what a snail might, clinging to the bottom of the large outstretched leaves. This time, they are in the park and the boy’s mind races, seeking an experience here.
The boy’s eyes skim over the mud and the rocks. He considers the play equipment at both play areas. He quickly dismisses these options. The sun filters through the pine needles and he watches as a mosquito dives past. And then his eyes catch, directly beside his mother, a very tall pine tree with low branches tickling the grass.
Mother’s proximity combines with her inattention to create a resolve of silent encouragement. This he decides is a good place to explore. His mother chatters in the grownup voice that she reserves for phone conversations. The mud pulls at his shoes and he obliges.
His feet slip out of the shoes. He notes his mother’s phone giggle. The tight, tin laughter means she does not like the person on the other end of the line very much. With him she is clear, but she is not always that way with grownups. He walks quietly towards her. She notes his presence but is trapped in a grownup bind of idle conversation.
The boy silently moves past her and slips beneath the broom branches of the pine. A moment before he disappears, she notes his naked feet. He darts in and out of the pine branch cover a few times and then closes in towards the trunk.
Below the tree is a magical place, a secret structure unrealized from the outside. His head slowly spins, examining the shadow and light and branches and ground. He slides his bare feet along the pine needle earth, moving backwards, slowly inching towards the center of the tree.
When his back presses against the rough trunk bark, he can see mothers back turn towards him. Once More, her eyes point away. She is a momentary hostage trapped in an adult obligation he may never understand.
On either side of him, like new companions offering friendship, are three healthy branches. Turning to examine the largest, he strokes the bark. He feels both slick and rough textures against his young smooth skin. His hands pull on the branch to see if it will bend or brake or, if by chance it will hold his weight.
Through trial and error, he discovers that although the branches are very flexible, if he remains close to the trunk, they barely dip beneath him. He grips with both hands and pulls his tiny body away from the ground. He hugs this new branch friend first with both hands, then both arms, both legs and finally both feet.
His body squiggles and edges up the trunk, inching into an upright position. Now, he feels steady. He decides to climb. His mother’s voice chatters on, raising and lowering in her sing song way. The boy loved when his mother sang, especially when she would dance too. He did not like to sing, but he loved to watch her.
He could lean back against a big pillow or a rock and watch Mother sing for an exceedingly long time. Whenever she came to a stop, he would demand more. He would push her to sing more and more until he drove her to dance and swoop her body around his, pulling him into her twirling arms and whirling songs.
Climbing was like that, but better. This he could do himself. Reaching for branch after branch, he was rising higher and higher. She could twirl and swing and lift him high, but he was strong, and he could climb higher and higher all alone.
Lifting above the ground, he imagines he is flying. His mind focuses on his circumstances, his teeth clench, and he becomes aware. He is an insect. Insects climb high. Their bodies are tiny and yet he has seen them so far above. His body is small, and this tree is so wonderfully long and so very tall.
The boy has watched ants climb like this, one march step after another. He is climbing and seeing himself as the ant, tiny but steady and always moving. He is reaching heights beyond his regular, earth-bound vision. He wonders if he comes upon an obstacle, will he be able to move aside like the ants?
His naked feet cup the branches and he stays tight against the trunk. An image of a sloth springs to mind. Now he is the sloth, painfully slow and incredibly strong. He pauses and his pace shifts, but the new momentum feels unsteady. He pushes on. Again, he is the ant.
He can hear his mother’s chattering drawing to its inevitable conclusion. She would be so proud of him. He had climbed so high. Now the branches stunted and drooped at severe angles. He can feel the warm sunshine glowing on his back. How long had he been climbing? It may have been hours or days; he was not sure. It is almost as if time can be erased or re-written when the circumstances are just so. When he sees his mother again, he must remember to tell her.
His mother’s attention trickles back to her surroundings as she ebbs and chatters her final farewells. Worthless conversations were just that. Worthless. The boy’s shoes had been discarded and so she bends down. With her final goodbye, she scoops the shoes from the mush with her left hand.
This would be a good time for a stroller, she thought. Strollers make good carts. Instead, she must decide; carry the mud filled shoes or rinse them in the stream. She knew he would not squeeze his muddy feet back into filled shoes. That was a struggle she would not fight.
Her mind flickered and her eyes lifted from where the shoes had been lodged.
Where was he?
She turns to the playground, then back to the puddles.
She turns her face toward the street, a sinking sensation in her stomach, but still no child.
Where was her boy?
Panic, nausea . . . more panic.
Her eyes skim the grass and the rocks, between the trees and around the play equipment. Her maternal senses feverishly erase anything not immediately necessary. The phone call vanishes, any unfulfilled promises evaporate, all her efforts, all of her being, fixate completely on finding him.
Don’t move. Stay here. Lost children come back; be here for him, stay here.
Her eyes dart as she slowly rotates, taking mechanical scans of her surroundings. Her ears acutely aware of every motion within her immediate vicinity. The squirrels, the blue jay, the water is all where it should be. Even the gentle breeze is expected, but, where was he?
The little voice floods her chest with momentary relief, but before she can turn her body, her mind begins. The dread sets in heavy like cinderblocks layered with steel weights against her chest.
The voice is above her.
Everything is wrong.
How could she be so stupid and self-absorbed?
The world spins rapidly, but the weight of this probable calamity makes it feel as if she is struggling to turn in a thick soup of wet concrete and imminent failure. Where was her boy?
“Mamma” the tiny voice from above trickles down to her hears again. Her gaze shoots up, focused and furious. Eyes search out his voice, narrowing in on tiny glints of sunlight gleaming from his mud splattered hair. Her brain calculates the distance between their bodies. He is so far out of reach. Her stomach falls somewhere between her legs.
Stay calm, keep your voice steady, show only pride, the voice in her head is flat and demanding. If he falls now it is your fault, your fear will kill him.
“look at you” her words spring out quietly, unintended, but clear enough. Her shaking fear is hard to notice, she thinks, she hopes. Where is he now? Her eyes had had him. Not as good as her arms, but a start. She had had him!
Again, he was gone. Now she had lost him. She had failed. For a flash, her body froze, stiff and confused.
Where is he? She wanted to scream out, but that is useless. Her energy must focus now. Find your child. He needs you NOW. Her inner self has no room for self-indulgent desperation.
This time the panic was stronger and stranger. If she could not see him, he could not see her. Is he scared? He needs her! She starts around the tree, at first walking, eyes in all directions, then running. Eyes scanning up and down the tree, slow to start but soon faster and faster.
“where are you?” her happiest voice calls out as bile perches at the back of her throat. The sweet questioning surprises her ears. She hadn’t realized what a liar she is. Her arms reach helplessly at the tree. Was she angry at the tree? Did it matter? Where is he?
“Mamma?” He senses her confusion. This time, the voice is below her. Uncertainty grips in her gut, twists at her throat. She looks down.
The child’s precious face is at the base of the tree looking up at her.
He is dead. The bile in her stomach lurches.
Her knees buckle and hit hard on the springy earth. Her eyelids slide down, they are the body part to console her soul. Like arms reaching around a beloved child, her eyelids momentarily suspend reality and hold her from awareness. Then slowly, knowing she is an adult, they pull open, aware she must face whatever is in front of her.
He is dead repeats in her mind, but she had heard his voice. She is suspended, unsure which voice is reliable. Neither expression is trustworthy; one is negative self-talk and the other a possibly imagined voice of her child. Her eyes scan the ground where she is sure his face had been. Grasping reality is difficult in these exhausted, early stages of motherhood. A brother secretly grows inside her womb sucking energy from her body and clarity from her mind, but she must push ahead. There is no other option.
She scans her surroundings. And still, he is not visible. He is gone. Not in the “gone to heaven” sense but not there, not where she is.
Her body collapses toward where she had seen him. Had she imagined him? Had her fear manifested an imaginary child?
The soft resilient pine soil giggles as she pointlessly scratches the earth. Her knees press into the buoyant rot. Her chin tucks as her right-hand firmly explores the earth where she had seen his face. Her left-hand clings resolutely to the tiny mud filled shoes.
A small dirty hand dashes from nowhere, “Mamma . . . come”, grabbing at her right wrist and pulling hard. Her head spins. Too much anxiety, too much love. Overwhelming uncertainty swallows her whole. She lets her entire being, her body, her soul, herself follow her child’s pull. Imaginary or real it did not matter. She will never leave him.
And then she is inside the tree. Muddy shoes held tight in her left hand. Her hair catches at the edges of the tree opening where she has slipped between roots.
A silent pause.
The park outside is lost and the panic melts into quiet acceptance, but also a keen awareness of unknowing.
Then, as if a dam has burst, laughter, pushing hard against her chest gushes out. She grabs at her very real son tightly. Arms and kisses and elation pour in every direction and swirl around them, filling the strange void.
She sputters between kisses and laughter, “Where are we?” He is laughing now too.
“In the tree!” his confused merriment mirroring hers. “I was climbing, I made it to the top! His pride visibly enlarging his chest. “I fell, but it did not hurt because look where I am!” His arms stretch wide, presenting his mother with his newly found reality.
She looks at her son’s face to make sure he is real, then around the space assessing the danger. Light seems to enter from nowhere. Everything is soft and spongy and earthy. The gentle scent of pine drifts on an orange glow, cordially surrounding them with enchantment and relief. It is unreal, but somehow, they are here. Glints of dust float past, catching on the fantastic rays of light.
Peace settles in her chest, quickly followed by a tsunami wave of exhaustion. The turmoil is over. Calm. It is time, she thinks, to head home. Her job would never complete, but there were moments of quiet rest. She strokes the boy’s muddy hair, careful not to tug at the dry dirt bits. She watches as he takes in their surroundings, noting the scrapes at his elbow and the bloody scuffs along his shin. The boy basks quietly in his prideful state.
His tiny face and muddy perfection are beautiful beyond anything she could have imagined in her earlier life. “Ready to go home?” she quietly suggests as she gently pulls her son closer.
“Ok” he agrees. “but I don’t want shoes” He tenderly pushes at her left hand, readying himself for a barefoot journey home.
They head home together, out of the tree, beyond the park, back through the alleys, past the piles of crushed glittering glass. Her left arm juts out stiff, holding the muddy shoes away from her pants. His eyes scan the ground, as he bravely hurdles any threatening shards of glass along their route. She considers lunch options and medicine cabinet inventories as he absorbs his surroundings. He reaches out to slip his fingers into her right hand. She smiles and for this moment they walk hand in hand, towards home.