I have no idea what that green stuff is called — ground cover? Ornamental? Whatever, it was there when we got here and we don’t do anything to it.
Most certainly we do not plant squashes smack dab in the middle of it.
In a summer full of oddities, that squash plant bloomed. With every loading into and out of the cars, trips to the yard and to feed the chickens and get the mail we watched the thick, flat leaves unfurl and wondered whether it would actually have the temerity to produce a vegetable of some sort.
That very complicated summer began with a dream come true.
Mary has always loved to dance, and it was always the best part of watching her. When she had a pot-belly and Julie Andrews haircut (her request), she danced by throwing her arms pell-mell into the air, a leg in each direction in an impossibility of physiology and aerodynamics, and I don’t mean in a Misa Kuranaga kind-of-way.
It was great to watch.
Mary performed in her first professional ballet on the Boston Opera House stage in the 2010 Nutcracker.
She was led on stage in a long string of seven year-olds, posed under the Christmas tree, and then carried off by a mouse. The entire thing lasted 17 seconds and I can probably still hum the music for you.
It’s a good thing I liked watching her, Mary said, because she was going to be a professional ballet dancer. She learned to make her bun, carried a dance bag with enough gear to storm Normandy and did extra situps whenever she could because did she mention she was going to be a professional ballet dancer?
“No, she isn’t,” a ballet teacher told me when Mary was nine.
Mary is too short. Too stubby. Bad turn out, bad feet. Don’t get us wrong, she’s darling — and oh the enthusiasm! But she’s not a dancer. Not a ballet dancer, anyway. Have you looked into jazz?
By the time she was in sixth grade, Mary was dancing 15 hours per week. All those things they tell you you have to give up? She did it. No extra curriculars. Never learned to ride a bike. Few friends. Dinner in the car or on the floor outside the studio. Awake until 11:00 every night finishing homework.
She transferred to a small pre-professional ballet studio and celebrated her fifth Nutcracker season by dancing the role of Clara.
Still short, still with the stubby feet and hands. Turnout nothing special. But oh my, the enthusiasm of her childhood had quietly morphed into artistry.
I will tell you that girl couldn’t organize a gathering of the dead in a cemetery. She takes everything way too personally, has zero competency at anything involving a ball, a moving vehicle or sitting still for more than thirteen seconds.
“I knew she was good,” a friend told me at intermission. “But I had no idea she was that good.”
I was filming Mary as I delivered the news that she had been accepted to the pre-professional summer intensive in New York, so I have it for all posterity that her reply was, “What the hell? You’re lying!”
Nope. You and your stubby feet are headed for the Big Apple.
She took the top bunk in a dorm room the size of berthing aboard a submarine. Mary delighted in her tiny grey window overlooking a quintessential Manhattan courtyard.
Her Dad hung a Red Sox pennant over her bed and left.
In three weeks, here is what I learned: The cupcake ATM is nowhere near as close to the dorm as it was supposed to be. 8 hours of ballet a day will wear out pointe shoes at the rate of two pair per week. Broadway is even more wonderful than we thought, and using iCloud in Boston to set off the alarm on her phone in New York if she was so much as a millisecond late texting me just might be the most fun I’ve had as a mother.
The one night I accidentally silenced my own phone was followed by the morning I woke up to three missed calls and three texts — not from Mary, but from the dorm chaperone.
“I don’t think her jaw is broken. But she is going to need stitches. And her finger is definitely broken.”
Mary had been sound asleep when she rolled out of the bunk bed. Nobody knew when it happened, she was confused and there was blood and vomit on the floor where she landed and in the bathroom where she tried to clean herself up.
By the time I was halfway through Connecticut, the CT scan had ruled out a serious brain injury. Her jaw wasn’t broken, but the middle finger on her left hand definitely was.
(But doc, we’re from Massachusetts, she can’t get a driver’s license without that! — God I hate it when I’m funny and no one thinks I’m funny.)
Mary’s teeth had sliced open the inside of her mouth, puncturing a hole in the flesh below the lip. When I finally arrived at her bedside behind a curtain in a crowded Manhattan emergency department, she was sipping water and trying to squirt it out of the hole in her face.
A plastic surgeon stitched her up, and then I took her to a hotel room, rubbed her back, watched her sleep. The city darkened and quieted and then was kissed by sun and stirred again. (It’s a lie: the city totally sleeps, I saw it.)
We went back to the dorm. Her sweetheart of a roommate had washed her sheets and remade the bed, and housekeeping had cleaned the floor where she landed. I took a stab at scrubbing blood stains out of the bathroom grout, but it was permanent — my daughter’s mark on the city that left its mark on her.
“I’m not going home,” she said.
“Ok,” I said, washing my hands.
“I didn’t come this far to quit because I fell out of a bed.” (Only, she had eight stitches in her mouth so it sounded more like, “I fidn’t come dis fah to quit …”)
“Let me run and get you some groceries. Like. Liquids.”
I bolted out into to the land of steaming concrete, found some ironic New York City stoop to sit on and sobbed myself senseless.
I hated that city and that room and the grout and I hated ballet and I hated myself for letting it all get this far, letting her grow up too fast. I hated the idea of letting her stay in New York just slightly less than I hated the idea of her hard work ending in blood and vomit on a dormitory floor.
“Can you come?” I texted. “She’s ok. She’s staying. She’s so tough. But I’m not ok. Someone needs to come so I can leave.”
“I’m in a cab,” came the reply.
Ten minutes later Valerie was in the lobby, impossibly beautiful in a linen shift and vibrant headscarf, her face as golden and soft as when I had last seen it grinning from under her mortarboard at our college graduation. She had come to rescue me and my daughter, and she had come without condition.
“I love you,” was all I could manage.
“I love you, too.”
“How is that possible when we haven’t seen each other in seventeen years?”
“That’s love, baby,” she grinned.
And that is how I left my broken and bruised child in New York City in the care of someone I had not seen since since I wore mini-skirts and Doc Martens. I stocked the fridge with protein shakes, gave the kid a kiss and went to retrieve the mini-van from the hospital parking lot so I could make the four-hour drive home.
“Took her for soup,” Valerie texted several hours later. “She is very funny.”
“Tucked her in,” she texted just as the highway passing beneath my tires morphed into the familiar turns of home. “I put the new bed rail on. She is ok.”
Mary went back to work the next day, and I did, too.
I returned to New York the following week to observe her final classes.
She was different. Exhausted, obviously. Skinny and muscled. And her stubby feet were looking rather amazing all of a sudden.
But what struck me was a new hardness and softness all at once. Like she wasn’t ever going to let anybody tell her she couldn’t do it, not ever again.
We packed up and left the city for Briar Haven, the lakeside camp where she has spent her childhood summers. We stopped in a motel and watched 9 to 5 on Netflix, laughed, ate chocolate and got an early start the next morning.
“Off you go, babe,” I said, releasing her into the woods. She scampered and was gone.
It was on the return ride from Briar Haven two weeks later that she said:
“What if I don’t want to do ballet any more?”
The trees were passing the windows in stripes as they had for so many miles that summer. My leg was stiff from pressing the accelerator, and I was sipping at a coffee that had long gone cold.
“I feel like I’d be letting everyone down. Like I’ve wasted everyone’s time.”
In the past ten years and however many dollars and hours, I had wondered a lot what the point was, and had never really been able to answer myself. Was she gifted? Or just over-scheduled?
Weirdly, there in the mini-van on whatever mile we were on, I knew for the first time what the point of it all was.
“How could you have ever known whether it was for you without getting there? And how could you get there without fighting for it? And what could be more valuable than learning how to fight for something? You don’t owe anybody anything. You earned this. It’s yours. Do with it as you please.”
After two more weeks of thinking it over, trying the idea on, she decided that what pleased her was to learn to ride a bike.
Her very first day to come home from school with no ballet class to rush to, Mary strapped on a helmet, dragged an old bike out of the barn and wheeled it to the grassy stretch we call “Clover Hill.” She got a running start and aimed for the septic tank cover.
Just as she had hoped, she caught air. For three glorious seconds she was totally and utterly free.
Then we were headed to the emergency room.
Broken wrist. Good news is it’s the other hand from the broken finger. And the scar on her face is healing nicely, so the overall look is way better than it could be.
She showers with a garbage bag, reads for fun after school, is thinking of joining the robotics club. Our family has happily rolled into fall like everyone else.
This week, the squash plant produced an actual honest-to-God little pumpkin, green and lemony with thick buttery stripes.
Then I remembered: Last fall, Eden had brought home one of those little white pumpkins, lovingly drenched in tempera paint and Halloween stickers. She had placed it on the step as a decoration. When the pumpkin went soft and mushy I couldn’t deal with the tears so I had quietly kicked it into the undergrowth of the ground cover/ornamental/whatever.
The winter had come, all eight feet of it pressing down on absolutely everything. Somehow or other one seed from that pumpkin had dug in, and with no fertilizer or fussing, no watering or tending or care whatsoever, it produced a single, perfect little pumpkin.
It is the first pumpkin I ever succeeded in growing, and it grew in the damnedest way.