Tag Archives: Family

Take It With You: Exploring Transition

hartwellScenario: You’re moving from the bell-towered historical building, Hartwell, which is haunted, and is named after the first president of the university you attended for six years and now teach at, to a shiny new building acronymed LAB, a term meant for scientists, but stands for Liberal Arts Building. You are an adjunct instructor of English and sometimes teach composition, and sometimes teach creative writing, and always become attached to students.

Do you pack your computer?

It’s not really yours, though you type this blog post from it as a farewell to the building you’ve become irrationally attached to, as you become irrationally attached to everything–a house you outgrew in just five years, the Steve Madden boots that trudged you through grad school, failed nuances of siblings and friend and exes (that can never quite achieve what reality did), or a coffee mug at a diner. Some people think you are crazy. You’ll pack it, a Dell, though you worry it might not boot up when you plug it in again. You spend the entire blog post wondering if there are instructions somewhere on how to pack a computer. Some items are scary to pack– you remember from when you moved last fall–like the antique lamp your mother gave you. You make a note to look, again, for the bronze lamp you fear you left behind.

Do you sneak something with you?

You’re not talking about something that’s specifically yours or specifically not yours, but that belongs to the building: a window pane, a brick, a light fixture (no: they were all replaced during a renovation in the 1990s, and are fluorescent and tick constantly and when you type for longer than ten minutes, because typing hardly registers any motion–your brain moves more than your body, the light turns off and it’s not the ghost, and you have to wave frantically to have light again).  You were instructed to pack the phone.  You pack the phone, and when you unplug it, wonder if anyone will call. You wish you could keep your key. You’ll pick up a small rock from the garden outside the building on your way out.

Do you cry?

No. Because that would be irrational, and you’ve considered turning over a new leaf, taking on the role of quiet neighbor and silent sister and wondering who you’ve become.  Last night, you read an article on your news feed, which is so full you feel like you could live for days on just water (you can’t even remember which publication the article was from), but it mentions the five regrets people have on their deathbeds, and one regret of the dying was that they wish they’d stood up more, spoken out more, and lived their lives the way they wanted without regard to money or other people’s emotions (what’s wrong with stirring emotions?), and you know you are on a good track because you have stacks of student loans and degrees and are a part-time faculty member at a school you are irrationally attached to, and you have or will upset more than a few people in the next few days.  You swear you just now heard a knock at the door to the office, and when you back up, you hit a huge empty box that you have been told is a good size for your computer, and when you manage to crane your neck to see who’s there, there is no one at the door.

Do you remember?

Bringing your nieces in for a tour of the building, telling them ghost stories about how there once was a pool, and people still sometimes heard splashing, and how a man had died in the cistern, and how the previous Collegiate Building had burned, and how the first Principal, back when it was a “normal school,” had a heart attack at the age of 35 in his office, and how ghosts were everywhere.  You had been their favorite aunt, scaring the wits out of them, and when the heavy wooden door closed just behind the three of you on your way down the stairwell, they shrieked, and you did too.

Remember your mother, who has just retired, at the café downstairs, having lunch with her at the tables, sitting with her on the benches outside the building while she smoked, how she fed your boys chocolate milk and bagels and huge cookies whenever you brought them in for a visit.

The time you hid under a desk one cubicle over because you mis-heard the PA announcement: “Active shooter in room 31” and thought you were on the brink of your death, grateful your son was at daycare and your husband at work, but the shooter, actually, was on Route 31, where you lived at the time, and the man with the gun was not in Hartwell–not just a room or floor away–but had been your neighbor, and your house stood small and proud in the news pictures while you were in Hartwell, safely away, and your family, too, and you laughed because you’d called your parents in what you thought were your last moments, under the desk, sitting next to this very computer, but then it became more horrific when you realized the man with the gun had been just houses down from your son when he slept last night.

Do you leave?

You’re tired from this tour you’ve taken and have one last thing to pack, though you’re still not sure it’s yours to pack, though you know you will need a computer in the LAB, and if you don’t, will it stay behind with all of your files? Then you stop for a minute because the sun shines through the window, and too much more comes to you, like how you and your husband spent hours reading in the Writers Forum office when you had been just friends and then the classes you’d taken with professors you now call friends, but you go too far back, and so everything turns into something else, and before you know it, time is nothing.

 

 

 

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10 Reasons You Fear Your Son Will Become a Writer

desk1. While you’re at residency in Vermont, your son tells his Kindergarten teacher that his sister died in the army. Your husband texts you a photo of the note Mrs. C sent home.  Primary colors don’t ease the word “died.”

You turn to your fellow writers, and say, “Oh no.  He’s going to be a liar.”

You imagine his future will become filled with therapy sessions, or his friends will abandon him when he lies about his favorite movie–or worse, his marriage will fail when he loses his job after his employer realizes he falsified the degree on his application.  Of course, you’d never say this out loud.

“Oh, a fiction-writer,” they say.

2.  At the age of three, your son tells you that before he was born, he was an old man who built houses.  There are whole descriptions of who he was before he was born– a gray hat, a red hammer–and then, he tells you how he died when the tornado came through.  

3. While you and your spouse discuss something boring in the kitchen–like the state of your finances or travel arrangements to Vermont, you catch just the tips of your son’s fingers peeking from behind the refrigerator.  When you call his name, he giggles.  Eavesdropping.  You wonder how he knows all your tricks.

4. When you were younger, you wrote stories about babysitters who went missing.  You read book after book of scary stories–or just a few books, over and over: Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories that Go Bump in the Night,  and Shirley Cox Husted’s Valley of the Ghosts.  And now your son proclaims, “I’m going to write a comic book–a scary chipmunk book!  I just need you to draw the cover and write all the words,” and you realize he means it.  He works on this book, which he turns into a solo venture, every day.  He talks about it fleetingly and sporadically, as though the story is always on his mind, “Oh! An idea!” he’ll say, or “I’ll put a volcano on the next page!”  He sits on the couch next to you with the book in his lap and the colored pencils at his side.  He is serious.  

5.  When he doesn’t know the truth, what reality is, the hard stuff that you’re thankful he doesn’t ask you about (well, not always, anyway), he makes it up.  When his school bus drives down the dead-end street in the afternoon, he tells the kids on his bus that his great-grandmother went to the High Street Cemetery to die.  A detail you steal for one of your stories.

6.  He spends hours writing words that make no sense, and you begin to wonder if he’s been watching you in the middle of the day at your keyboard.  He writes the letters K-B-I-V-A-P-W, and asks, “What does that spell?”  You could probably find that same word typed somewhere in your manuscript.

7.  When you drive by the house you moved from last fall, he recalls things about it you don’t remember–that once, he built a fort in the bathroom, and after you pass the house, his voice breaks and he says, “I really miss that house.  I’m sad.” It’s the kind of emotion whole novels are built on.

8.   In the summer, when you walk to Main Street for ice cream, he gives a tour of the town, relaying the setting in a  narrative history.  “This,” he says, gesturing toward the brick house on State Street, “is where a plane crashed and a boy died.”  He revels in details, and you make a note that he is always listening.

9.  While reading Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing, you see your son’s face during her descriptions of a writer’s childhood.  How a curious child clings to the parts of life they don’t know (the scary, the threatening, the unknowable), and then mulls those parts over and over until that focus resides alongside memory and lived-life, and so the mind has somehow forged its own recollection.

10.  His nightmares–the kind of dreams a creative mind spins wildly while the dreamer should be resting.  His mind never stops.  When he wakes up, he narrates every movement that he’s slept.  He tells you his dreams as though he’s lived them, and there are times when he cries at their dark premises–his new friend turned into a lizard by a monster.  You tell him these things aren’t real, and when he calms down, with his head on your shoulder, you wonder what you can tell him that you know, for sure, is true.


On Research–Writing the Gaps in the History of Unwed Mothers

Our Lady of Victory Basilica

Our Lady of Victory Basilica (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Village of Brockport, where I live, is just an hour away from the site of Father Baker’s Home for Unwed Mothers in Lackawanna, NY.   For as close as I live to this building, I knew little about it when I began.

This became a topic of ongoing research for my newest story, a novella, which describes a 15-year-old’s experience in a home for unwed mothers during the late 1960s.

To say I’m not superstitious would be a lie, but I’m not superstitious when it comes to talking about a story while I’m writing it.  In fact, I think it’s a necessity.  It’s an important part of research–it’s part of the writer’s responsibility to gauge the many facets of the topic they write on.  At AWP, Bret Anthony Johnston said something about it being “irresponsible” to require a student to write a story and not also require that student to conduct research while writing that story.

For research, I read The Girls Who Went Away, by Ann Fessler, conducted interviews of my own, and dug up some news articles to get public perception on this phenomenon.  Young girls whisked away from their families during perhaps the most vulnerable time in their lives, only to have their own babies whisked away from them.

Part of this was the culture of the time.  Parents sent their pregnant daughters away to protect them.  Or to protect their families, which proved backwards and harrowing for the mothers.  As treacherous as society can be for marginalized groups today, the same went for unwed mothers in the 50s-60s.   I didn’t quite understand this on an emotional level, this sending away of daughters, but as a mother of two boys in 2013, I can only grasp it in a far-off, detached manner.  But that type of grasp is not the type of grasp a writer has to have, and it only worked until I actually started writing the scenes.

The problem was, these girls only knew part of their stories.  They knew what happened to them, but what happened that made this phenomenon possible?  Questions like, What did these babies cost?  Where did the money go?  And what they have all been asking since it happened, Why?  Why?  Why?

There are many shadows surrounding these homes, and I crept around in them–well, in the texts of them–while I researched.  There were articles by sources that felt not quite reputable, claiming the nuns “stole” the children.  And while this language is inflammatory and inciting, could it be true?  The level-headed part of me wants to know why this has not become a more investigated, legitimate issue, why I can’t find some source to give me information I can put stock in?

Anne Fessler’s oral history of this issue brought up many emotional questions on the part of the unwed mothers.  That helped quite a bit, but still, what happened as I was reading was exactly what happened as the birth mothers told their stories–the gaps frustrated the information.  Sure, what the mothers endured–the shame, the guilt, the work in the nurseries, the drugging so that they would sign their just-born for release–all presented fine, but both the mothers and the readers, on different levels, have gaps to fill.  This is, perhaps, the most gut-wrenching part of the story.  The unknowable.

Who were these nuns?  Have any stepped forward to tell their stories?  How were they instructed to coerce these women into adoption?  I’ve read few comments from nuns themselves, in old newspapers, and the potential for that has dwindled with time.  I’ve read vague articles commending the many existing institutions for their charity, but no oral history of the nuns who counseled these young women.   Maybe few of them felt they were in the business of “stealing” babies?  Or was it the culture that masked this?

That’s where writing comes in, in part.  I imagine who my character, Sister Josephine, was.   What if she wasn’t completely bound to the Catholic Charity’s mission?  What if Sister Josephine had a secret of her own?  Were there renegade sisters or nuns?  Likely.  Would they ever tell their stories?  Not likely.

So, for me, in this story, there is the writing–there is the voice to give.  What makes writing so hard–that these are potholes, the fallen bridges, the trap doors we fall into.


What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


A Letter to my Grandmother Regarding Feminism on Her Birthday

Dear Grandma,

I start this letter on your birthday.

When you were younger, you lost a sister to a milk truck.  I know nothing of her.  I tried to look it up in the news archives and I couldn’t find it.  Her name is Bernice, and her short life becomes a thread now, a dwindling string from a threadbare shirt that you wore and washed and took off and put on and grew tired of and passed on.  I can’t find the article in any newspaper, though I watched her name disappear from the census records.  I know her name because it is your middle name.  I wrote a story loosely based on that pain.  You were smoking cigarettes on a porch with a husband who loved you like Grandpa did, with the kind of love that left him whimpering, in a way that he didn’t even realize he was doing, after you passed.  In the story, you and I are one.  You moved a lot Grandma, but I hate moving.  Your character cries hard for the death of her sister every day, and I am there, in you, crying over losing a house.  The silly things that matter to me.

Had I cared enough at all about these things while you were still breathing, I would have asked you about Bernice during that round of Apples to Apples–the first and only I would ever play with you–but, instead, we talked in code about Hilary Clinton, who, you lamented, shared your first daughter’s name.

I find in this way that I love people much more after they’re dead, and that’s just not fair of me to do.  Last night, Grandma, I spent two hours on the “Find A Grave” website, trying to corroborate a mother and child’s graves with a news article from January of 1861.  The mother was murdered by her husband when she was very pregnant.  The story disappeared after that, and in the following issues of The Brockport Republic, I can’t find a single article that discusses identity, tells who this poor woman and her forgotten child is.  I tried to look them up by death date, but then I wondered:  About the baby, can it have a death date if it was never born?  Can I call it a “forgotten” child if it was never known?

I know you went to college for biology.  You starred in plays.  You had a director’s chair with your name–Jody–on it that has been lost in piles of bankers lamps, and old paintings and crackled glass.  You died on New Year’s Eve.  My father jokes that he cried harder when he lost Buddy, his first golden retriever, but that was a one-time cry, Grandma.  He cries for you every time he breathes whether he knows it or not.

I found out I was pregnant with my first son, John (named after your second son), two months after you died.  I debated telling anyone I was pregnant at first because it was my sister’s birthday, and she already shares her birthday with her son, so I didn’t want to steal it away from her.  But, Grandma, what I wish I could have talked to you about, was this hard thing called motherhood, that pregnancy comes with this guilt that any thing you do for yourself is somehow not good for your children.  I am getting my MFA and spend a lot of time writing.  I spend a lot of time in stories set in tumultuous times when women hid their bodies away from public while they were pregnant.  Back in the day, you didn’t have Ted Talks to tell you how to interpret the responsibility of bearing life.  You did have a bible, but Grandma, how do you know the right answers to a text that has as many interpretations as words?  Is that why you majored in biology, Grandma?  I hate science.

So, I guess what I want to say is this.  This space of being a woman.  For having odds of 1 in 2 to be a woman, why do I still feel like being a woman is something strange?  Something that needs to be managed?  Handled with birth control and anti-depressants and coffee and credit cards?  No matter how far you came Grandma, and you saw so much of it, women still have work to do–mostly amongst themselves.  My mother is the only woman I don’t have an inherent competition with, the only woman I have unbridled admiration of, the only woman who I know, without one doubt in my mind, feels the same way about me.  Mothers are special things.

Women don’t love each other the way they should.  There are fights between sisters and friends and mother-in-laws and what happens is that we’re left in this lonely place.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.  I wish I would have asked you these things sooner.  I know you fought long and hard with your sister.  We hear from her less now.  We are afraid to visit her because we all wonder if she wants to be left alone, or if her house is dirty, or if she’s become a werewolf.  I should be asking her things that I will regret not asking her later.  I am writing to you, instead.

I want a daughter, Grandma.  I feel so guilty typing that, so I backspace it, or I add this in front: “I love my sons, but…” I took that part out because that should go without saying.  Who would ever think a mother would not love her sons with every part of her?  We all worry about this, though.  We all struggle to show how much we love.

I look at your pictures and see my eye color there,  and something else too, but I can’t be sure because I never knew to ask.

When I had my sons baptized, Aunt Hilary and Aunt Jill gave me an old bible of yours.  The Mother’s Prayer had fallen out and was so worn that I could hold it to my face like cotton.  I did.  You had taped it in the middle.  You used it often, and I wonder if it was the act of looking at it that gave you peace or actually reading what it said?  I am a pro at analyzing texts, but I need your help.  I love that where the prayer says: “teach them to love God alone,” you have covered the word ‘alone’ with a thick line of lead.  This, Grandma, tells me more than the prayer itself.

Every night, I cover Sammy, who was born the day after Grandpa died, with an angel quilt that Aunt Hilary made for the boys out of your shirts.

Grandma, now it’s two days after your birthday, and I am many years too late asking these questions.

Love,

Sarah


How Children, and Fiction, Grow.

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a...

Auerbach covered the Lindbergh Kidnapping as a reporter/photographer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I’m writing right now is my worst fear: a story, born from fact, of a woman who loses her son in the Erie Canal, drowned by a really large puppy.  This actually happened, though the particulars are fictionalized.

Stalled, and re-started, and re-stalled on this story, I figured what I need is
actually more emotion because I tend to avoid emotional avalanche in my fiction.

I’ve read conflicting accounts of the story from national newspapers, local newspapers, anecdotal histories, and then corroborated with Ancestry.com, obituaries, and yes, sometimes I feel like a stalker.  I mull through histories that aren’t mine, like shopping at an estate sale, buying photographs with unnamed faces and features that aren’t mine, so I last night, before I fell asleep, I imagined it to be mine.

I listened to the late-summer bugs and scared myself with thoughts about how vulnerable my children were.  My oldest son’s fingers were twitching with sleep, his mouth slightly open, and he was sweating in the humid air, refusing before bedtime to remove his Disney comforter for some sort of security.

Lately, before bed, he’s been asking about monsters and ghosts and something called the “silly silly gumbo” from a cartoon, and THAT scares the business out of him.  He drapes his arms around me, having asked for a hug, and his grip is tight because he’s not letting go.  I refuse to pull away and leave him with his arms open and empty, so I just sit there, waiting for him to say something like, “You know, mommy?  Superheroes protect us.”  And then I say, “Yes, but policemen do, too.  And so do the walls of our house, and Molly, and Mommy and Daddy do, too.”  And then he asks where the naughty guys live, and I tell him they live far far away.  And he says, “In the woods?”  And I think hard, because everything matters, and there are woods around our house, so I say, “No, not around here.  I’ve never seen a naughty guy.”  And I lie like that until he feels safe enough to loosen his grip, to give me his kiss.

God.  And he’s just three.

So my husband was snoring beside me last night, and I thought, what if I were Mabel, the mother from my story?  It is something I hesitated to think, but my mind had already gone there.  What would I miss most?  Mabel is consumed with the Lindbergh baby, and so my mind wandered to that, how the family was unaware their child had been kidnapped from his bedroom window.  When I hear on the news that that’s happened, I turn skeptical, imagine the parents are neglectful, drunk, or involved somehow.

My mind reeled around the conversation I had with Johnny before bed, and then Sammy, my other boy, who’s just learning to sit still while I read him bedtime stories about fireflies, that his thick fingers turn the cardboard pages for me.   How, when he curls up to go to sleep, he still pushes his butt high up in the air with his knees underneath.  For security.

Every night, before my husband and I go to sleep, he peeks in on the boys and latches their doors closed.

I got out of bed before I could stop myself, and tip-toed down the hall to see for myself that everything I’d imagined about my boys asleep was true, that they were there.  And they were.

I left their bedroom doors open, not worried about noise, wanting to hear everything that happened in their rooms, every breath even.


Backyard Casualties


That day was so bright I wore sunglasses to avoid laugh lines at the crook of my eyes, but then removed them for fear of round tan lines from my forehead to my cheeks.
I watched my son, Johnny, regardless of shades.
How could I not?  He approached everything with curiosity and lush.  However I stepped, he stomped. What I said, he yelled.  If I cried, he wailed.  


Before Johnny, I used to drink a glass of pinot grigio on the bench by the pond in my backyard, where I waited for my husband, Cory, to come home.  Then, after only four years, I was at a loss for that blanket of sun, my feet tapping the crisp leaves, the calm of the koi fish lulling in the water, without my worry that I had become responsible for them.


We drained the pond for my fear of Johnny drowning, and Cory's dismay at maintaining its cleanliness, the “balance” of algae and bacteria in the water for the koi.  It was some kind of science.  After, though, we had a hole of tarp, dying lily plants, and occasional puddles for bugs to wade in.
Because of the pond that had once burrowed into our dirt, Johnny had a high number of snails and toads to marvel at.  The creature’s displacement was pretty evident.  These nomads hopped and slugged around our yard, searching for some place to live.
Finally I had bought a yard-plaything to attract Johnny from the pond wreckage and the edges of our yard—rows of trees and poison ivy, gatherings of mosquitoes and gnats.  For forty dollars at a garage sale, I bought a large plastic jungle gym, with holes like swiss cheese, and a slide faded to pastel green from someone else’s heavy afternoon sun.
Johnny was apprehensive at first, as he sized up the height of the slide, circled around the gym, peered in the holes under the platform.  Finally, he giggled and crawled through into the shade and out again.
“Johnny,” I said. “Try the slide.”
“Yeah,” he said and walked over, anxious to climb up its incline.  There were two snails lazing in the very middle, having claimed their resting place.  “Mommy,” he said. “Look!”  He plucked the snails up between the chub of his fingers and threw them down.  Then he stomped on one, and laughed.
“No,” I said.  That’s it, I thought.  I’ve raised a snail-killer.  “Don’t hurt them.”
He stepped on the other snail and delighted in its crunch.  When I squealed again, he hung a finger from the corner of his mouth, and stared up at me.

“Why?”  Johnny asked when I told him not to stomp the snails.
“Because,” I said. “That snail has a mommy and daddy snail.  They will look for him.”
“Oh,” Johnny said.


More than two years before, when we still had the pond, I saw my first blue heron--at least the first that made any impression on me.  Its wing span flapped prehistorically, and at first, its size frightened me.  It would take flight as I pulled in the driveway, having perched at our pond hunting our expensive koi pets.  Cory draped orange plastic netting over the length of pond after we found the heron nipping at our large gold koi one morning.  I admired the heron from the kitchen window, and was sad that we were being unfriendly.  It was the gap of scales and flesh the heron's beak tore from our largest fish, as he lost grip of the heavy meal, that made him my enemy.  Cory took the weighty fish out of the pond since the front of his face (do fish have faces?) was missing.  I tugged at the sides of my skirt, and gritted my teeth to keep from crying over a pet I hadn't even named.  Cory's long arm threw the fish, still floundering about, to the ditch next to our yard.  I swore the other fish never swam the same after.  

The summer after Johnny's snail stomping, we played with the toads, since his touch was gentler, and more precise.  He had a creature cage for caught insects or toads.  This way, Johnny could poke and prod and scrunch his nose at the things.  He sometimes jerked his head back if they darted against its sides too hard.  Like everything, even hot dogs, toads lost their appeal to Johnny.  I set the cage down on a chair and ran after him while he slapped wildly at his Spiderman ball, rolling it through the grass. 

The next week, I told Johnny we couldn't close the toads in the cage, so he threw a tantrum, pounded at the ground.  I debated showing him the perished toad I had mistakenly imprisoned since the last time we played in the yard, how it had starved probably some time around Wednesday.  I kept that secret to myself, and let him scream at the grass beneath him so all the ants could hear.  

Later that afternoon, Johnny was gathering the snails from the walkway parallel to our back door.  There were four of them spaced out over ten feet of cracked field-stone.  Meticulously, he lined them up, similar to how he lined up his matchbox cars on the windowsill. 

"Johnny, whatcha doing?"

"The snail family wants to be together," he said.  The tips of Johnny's nails were little brown grins, bobbing up and down as he picked the snails up and moved each forward, and forward, and forward, his own version of checkers. 

"They are going for a walk," he said.