I’m waiting to know you far away
Send up the balloon, says, “Write to see me soon.”
I’m waiting to know you far away
Set up to the pier, wait till you get here
“I’m Waiting to Know You” - the Fiery Furnaces
I was not afraid to begin seventh grade. I walked to Percy Julian Junior High on a morning late in August of 1988 not excited, not bold, but with a curious, albeit nervous interest in what would be next. I knew change was coming, and I was expectant.
That first morning, it was grey and sticky. Perhaps the weather was foreshadowing the upcoming year, perhaps it was the humidity coming to fight the inevitable—the loss of childhood, naiveté; assured confidence that tulle dresses and black patent shoes will one day be in style.
And what would I have done had I picked up on this element of storytelling? Turned around and gone home? Gone back to elementary school? The first chapter in any story must have a main character who is launched into a world, a situation—junior high—and she cannot go back to the way things were. Kindergarten was a first chapter. Learning to ride a bike was a first chapter. And so too, was junior high.
I walked onto the blacktop of my school, and was thrilled to see a familiar face. She was a girl I’d know in 3rd grade and adored. I will call her Maggie, and it’s not that we were great friends, but there was something different about her, something mysterious, maybe. She was quiet, like me, and like me she was not in the “Academically Advanced” class that all my friends flocked to in the afternoons, and that I never tested into. But I saw her worksheets, all neat and organized and with stickers and stars on them, and as far as I was concerned, she was smart. So maybe I was, too. I never told any of this to Maggie. In fact, I don’t remember saying much to her at all. I just remember enjoying her company, and on that first day of junior high, I was happy for the memory.
The happy memory made me confident, and I bounced like Tigger over to where she was and greeted her in much the same overbearing manner Tigger greets everyone.
What happened next is so utterly cliché any female reading this could write a version of it: Maggie looked at me with a dull vacancy, stopping on my shoes—knock off Keds my mom bought at Venture because you could get about “five pairs of the exact same shoe” for the price of one pair of Keds and, “I’m not paying for the blue rectangle on the back of a shoe, Callie.”
“Oh,” Maggie said to my shoes. Then, without a lift of the chin, she raised her glance to me and said, “Hi.” And then, she turned around.
Maggie was standing with a girl who would eventually be in a famous band. I’m pretty sure she sang on “The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and not in a lip-sync contest. I’d known her since we were five, and if our preschool teacher had said during circle time, “Little Mariah is going to grow up to be in a band,” I would’ve believed it. Even then, she was cool. I have no recollection of her playing hopscotch, or with Playdoh, or in the kitchen making pretend chocolate chip cookies with the rest of us. She was probably writing song lyrics.
Anyway, Maggie was standing with her. Maggie was with the band and I, very clearly, was not.
But that was one moment—an unpopped corn kernel in a giant bowl of buttery, salted popcorn. There would be friends—and a best friend—eventually I did own Keds, and I was in a band, too. Granted, it was the Percy Julian Junior High band, but we were good. I think.
I rarely thought about it, except this summer, the one before Hadley began 7th grade, the memory popped—no longer a kernel—it was the entire bucket of popcorn and I held onto that bucket and devoured that memory, letting it seep into my soul while I watched Hadley as though she was in a horror movie and I was waiting, terrified, for her to be next.
Is the rejection of an almost friend comparable to getting clawed to death by Freddy Krueger? Does the year thirteen have a similar vibe as that of being chased by a maniac with a chainsaw? No. These are not the same thing.
Still, something of me was put away that day. Something was let go. It was a painful moment and I’ve been reliving it—like some sort of twisted liturgy. I have turned it into a nightmare as realistic as a burned man with knives for fingers and a strange attachment to a top hat and rugby shirt. Somehow, I have turned the truth of a 30 second exchange into something definitive—a foundation as solid as the blacktop I was standing on when Maggie and the band pivoted and walked away from me.
Around this same time, my mom had started a job at the Main Branch Library in Oak Park. I used to wonder why she didn’t just work at the one right next door to our house. It was probably because the Main Branch was the library she was assigned to, the one that had an open position. Now though, I am considering whether the library she worked in held no memories of Story Time, of taking her toddler children to pick out stacks of books, or reading those books to us at small tables while Geoff and I fought to sit on her lap, always squirming for more of her than she had. Maybe the branch she worked in was far enough away so that my mom could make some new memories, and see what else she was made of, while Geoff and I did the same thing.
Sometimes I’d watch my mom work, and if you know my mom you know that she speaks fluent body language. You can hear what mood she’s in loud and clear, and she hasn’t so much as inhaled. Watching my mom work brought up a long ago memory of watching her water ski. I was standing on the pier, watching her shove her feet into skis and bobbing in the water while the boat’s motor chugged. She gave the rope a fierce shake to let the driver know she was ready. The boat’s motor revved and my mom rose effortlessly from the water in one shot—proud, tall, strong. My stomach lurched —not from fear or jealousy—but pride. Watching her ski was the first time I saw my mom, not as something more than my mom, but as something other. That’s what it was like watching my mom work in the library, and watching her wordlessly move through the world with confidence and joy, was something I wanted for myself.
It is a school day morning in September and about the only thing the weather has right as it transitions to fall is the late rising sun. It is still hot and humid. This must be summer’s belligerent way of saying it doesn’t want to go. I understand. I don’t want to go through the turmoil of beginning.
Hadley shuffles into the kitchen wearing a variation of the outfit she wears everyday: a hoodie, cut offs, white socks that go up to her shins, and Birkenstocks. She grabs what I understand is “not a legit Hyrdorflask” and that has 200 stickers on it, along with an equal amount of friendship bracelets tied to its lid.
“Good morning,” I say as she fills up her not legit Hydroflask that I bought because I could get two for the price of one of the legit kind, and “I’m not paying for the logo,” I told her the day I bought it.
“G’morning,’” Hadley mumbles and rests her head on my shoulder. We stay that way, watching the world outside as her bottle fills. The sky is orange and blue and black and white all at once. It looks like a nasty bruise.
Hadley twists the cap tight and sets the bottle on the counter next to her lunch bag. She fixes herself breakfast, and takes it into the dining room. She sits down. I pull carrots from the fridge and begin to rinse them off for her lunch.
“I finished Divergent last night,” she tells me.
“Yeah? What’d you think?” I found a copy of the book in a used bookstore in Boone, North Carolina over the summer, and bought it for Hadley because I loved the story, and hoped she would, too.
“It was so good,” she tells me, stirring her cereal. She scoops up some Cheerios then puts her spoon into the bowl and looks at me. “The ending is so sad, though.”
“I know,” I return. The mother dies moments after revealing something about herself to her daughter Beatrice, the main character. Beatrice has the same make-up, but her mother doesn’t want her to cover it up, as she was told for years to do. “Be brave,” are Beatrice’s mother’s last words to her. The chapter ends with Beatrice running—literally—toward her future, and telling herself, I am brave.
It’s not so much the mother’s death that makes me sad, it is her decision to finally reveal who she is minutes before she dies. Too much worry, too much fear, too much obligation led her to believe that what she was would be better—safer—hidden.
It shouldn’t be that tragic to cultivate yourself into being. It shouldn’t be that difficult to help cultivate a daughter into being. She shouldn’t always have to run toward bravery.
Sometimes, she can walk.
It is time for Hadley to catch the bus, so I ask her if she’s brushed her teeth, put on deodorant, and the face lotion with the SPF in it.
“Yes, Mama,” she says hoisting her backpack onto her shoulders.
She has so much to carry, I think, but don’t say it. I hate it when people say similar things to me. Instead, I open the door for her so she can step outside.
Hadley says goodbye, but her eyes are set beyond our backyard fence and to the walk ahead.
She walks, and I think of the sentiment many mothers use when describing how it feels when their children experience the world without them. “My heart is walking around outside of me,” we say. Today, I am not finding it helpful. Or accurate.
Hadley has her own heart. For a time, she and I were joined together, housed in my body so hers could grow, but I suppose the heartbreak and miracle of science is that we become too large for what our mothers can carry. We must leave—first her body, then her arms, then her lap because we are too big for her to hold us. It is time for us to let her stand up, and take new first steps, and it is time for us to take ours.
It is a foggy, murky morning, and it looks like Hadley is swallowed up by the fog as I keep watch. I know though, that it’s clear enough for her to keep taking steps—that the fog only looks intimidating from far away. Up close, it’s almost mysteriously playful—could almost be movie-star smoke—that Hadley parts as she makes her way into the world. No matter who she is, and who she will become, the fog will lift.
I am expectant.