A week before Ash Wednesday, Harper and her friend Rachel are standing in our kitchen considering what to give up for Lent.
“I’m thinking of giving up candy,” Rachel tells her, but then, after some thinking asks, “Are Red Vines considered candy?” We have a giant bucket of them on our counter—a Valentine’s present for me from Jesse. He knows I prefer those to Twizzlers.
“I think Red Vines are candy,” Harper says after some consideration.
“Shoot,” Rachel says. “What about fruit snacks? Like Welches?” she tries.
“Oh, those aren’t candy,” Harper confirms. “They’re like, 10% fruit.”
Satisfied, Rachel decides she can give up candy as long as she can have fruit snacks.
“What about you, Harper? What are you going to give up for Lent?”
Harper lifts a Red Vine from the bucket and leans against the kitchen counter. She takes a bite, then says, “I think I’m gonna give up fiction.”
I have a standing date with these two. Every Thursday, I pick them up from school, and take them to our house where they change into their dance gear, have a snack, and then we drive downtown to their back-to-back ballet, jazz, and hip-hop classes. On the afternoon leading up to Ash Wednesday, the girls discuss Misty Copeland and Lady Gaga. They talk about the dance outfits they get to wear for performances, how to put their hair in a perfect ballet bun, which kind of dance is the most difficult (they both agree it’s ballet).
They are quiet for a moment, and then Rachel asks, “What happens if you don’t make it?”
“Make what?” I ask.
“Make it through the Lent challenge?”
“Nothing,” I tell her. I say it fast, like a sneeze, and I wonder if I should feel guilty. After all, I’m a Calvinist. Oh, sure, I know all about that “by grace we’ve been saved” bit, but we all know it’s the works—what we do once that grace smacks us in the face—that gets our foot through the pearly gates.
I don’t want Rachel to worry, though. She’s too young to consider her salvation through the perspective of whether or not she has a Blow Pop. What I’d rather her know about is how much joy she’s brought to Harper; that the two of them have a special friendship because they both moved to Ann Arbor the same year, and they know what it feels like to be the new kid, what it feels like to be afraid, and how sweet the giggles are that come from sharing those stories with each other.
Also, I really don’t want Harper to give up fiction for Lent. In the depths of my being, I don’t think Jesus would want that, either.
Later that evening, I’ve just sat down and turned on “Gossip Girl,” my show of choice when Jesse’s out of town. (Go on and roll your eyes—Downton Abbey is the exact story except it feels classy because of Maggie Smith and the British accents.) Harper comes downstairs with a look of concern on her face. She tells me about the Momo Challenge. I guess a scary bird-lady thing pops up on social media apps and YouTube and tells kids to do harmful things to themselves and others.
I don’t think I have many Mama Bear instincts, but something about this narrative makes me want to hunt this Momo chick down and punch her in the face.
“Well, that’s not true,” I tell Harper, but I don’t say it as fast as I told Rachel nothing happens to her if she doesn’t stick to her Lenten fast. I also don’t say, “It’s just a story,” because Harper and I both fully know there’s no such thing as “just” a story. We know the impact stories have on us. We know their power over us—both good and bad—when we believe.
“It’s not true,” I say again.
Harper heads to bed, and I press play on the episode I was watching—something about Gossip Girl spreading secrets through the Upper East side elites’ Blackberrys that will certainly destroy all of them. That is, if they don’t destroy each other first.
I consider Googling the Momo Challenge, but I’m too afraid of what I’ll find out.
The next morning, I call Jesse, who is in Quebec. He can barely get out “Bonjour,” when I tell him about Momo.
“She’s telling kids to hurt themselves!” I scream into the phone.
I don’t get the reaction I am hoping for from him, so I continue. “She shows up on shows like ‘Peppa Pig’ and tells kids to stick their toes in the snow.”
“Our kids aren’t watching ‘Peppa Pig,’” Jesse says. He’s trying to joke, but I can tell he’s tired. He goes to Quebec frequently, always trying to manage water, as he did when he traveled to New Orleans, the Outer Banks, and Tybee Island. Different part of the world, same project. What do we do with what is both vital to, and can destroy the world? How do we tame it?
“It’s a hoax,” he tells me. “It’s not real.”
I know Jesse’s right, that no bird woman is going to threaten my kids. I know this just as I know I will never live in Manhattan in a penthouse, throw lavish parties terribly disguised as charity events, only snack on fresh strawberries, have weekly manicures, and sit on the steps of the Met with the likes of Blair Waldorf. I know this, and yet when Jesse flies away, when the kids are in bed, I get out my Sally Hansen gel manicure nail polish, turn on “Gossip Girl,” and I have no trouble stepping into this world.
I know good and well I’d not survive 30 minutes, but watching those clips of fancy parties, the shots of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, those high heels, and high fashion, I admit I’d like to accept the challenge. Accepting it would ruin me. I know I’d never be invited. And so, the fantasy.
Before bed, I read to Hadley and Harper. These days, we are reading Anne of Green Gables. Frankly, Anne gets on my nerves. I think she talks too much, and probably some kind of drinking game could be played every time she begins her sentences with, “Oh,” or uses the word, “imagination.”
I chose the book because of its first sentence—at least 100 words, two semi-colons, three commas—it’s a sentence filled with rich description, character development, foreshadowing, and metaphor. I suppose the choice was in part a selfish one—perhaps I’d grow as a writer while I read to my children. But it was also a nostalgic choice. I’d never read L.M. Montgomery, and while I could pick the book up myself, as much as I don’t want to admit it, I wonder if my evenings reading to Hadley and Harper are numbered. It doesn’t seem right to end this ritual without giving the girls Anne and Diana, Marilla and Matthew, and of course, Gilbert Blythe.
I’m just not sure the story captures us the way I was hoping for it to.
One night though, Marilla tells Anne to head to Mrs. Barry’s home to get an apron pattern she’d like to sew. Anne says no, that she can’t go tonight, but will head that way tomorrow, when it’s light out. Because now, at twilight, the woods Anne must go through to get to the Barry’s home is haunted. There’s a lady who walks along the brook wringing her hands and wailing. There’s a ghost of a murdered child who’s apparently taken up residence among the spruce trees. There’s a headless man and also lots of skeletons. Anne tells Marilla she absolutely will not head that way because all sorts of things could snatch her up. It’s basically the Momo Challenge set in Canada in 1908.
What’s more, Anne admits she and Diana made the whole thing up because, “all the places here are so—so—commonplace.” The two best friends made up the haunted woods because they were bored.
Hadley has an arm on my shoulder so she can lean in closer to the story, making sure she (or I) won’t miss a word, as she did when she was younger. Harper has folded her legs so her chin rests on her knees. She looks straight ahead, almost as though she can see these things I am reading about.
All three of us are smiling. We are totally captivated and entertained by Anne’s haunted tale. We are scared in the most delicious way.
Marilla, in all her stern glory, “marched the shrinking ghost-seer down to the spring and ordered her to proceed straightway over the bridge and into the dusky retreats of wailing ladies and headless specters beyond.”
“I’ll cure you of imagining ghosts into places,” Marilla tells Anne. “March, now.”
Perhaps the reason Anne gets on my nerves is because my imagination is just as big as hers. My willingness, my need, to step into a story is probably my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. It is unclear whether this gift will redeem me or be my greatest downfall. What I do know is that it is not going away. I latch on to stories like they’re oxygen.
This is probably why I don’t want Harper to give up fiction for Lent. I want both her and Hadley to take a risk on their imagination; to let it run wild, to step into a story and see what it is they are capable of.
It is not enough for me to repeat Jesse’s statement—that Momo is a hoax—because something about her story is real.
I have imagined ghosts into places, and I cannot un-imagine them.
So I look to Marilla Cuthbert. I pretend I am Anne, confessing what it is I’ve imagined, what it is I am terrified of. Marilla sends me right back into the story.
Into the woods we go, armed with nothing but our imagination and Marilla’s minimalist commencement address—go forth into the dark, and see what else you can see besides what scares you.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.