It only takes the snag of one thread to unravel the tapestry of a seemingly perfect life. You never know what event will cause that snag to happen, when the illusion of the public façade you’ve carefully built crumbles, and you are forced to see your world stripped bare and with fresh eyes.
The unraveling of our lives began with a phone call from the event coordinator, Marcy, desperate to fill a last-minute volunteer opportunity at my daughter’s Catholic high school. St. Augustine’s always hosted the Annual Show Choir Showcase for eight schools in the Minneapolis suburbs we’d lived in for the last four years. When the first email call for volunteers landed in my inbox, I was expressly forbidden by my daughter to sign up.
“It’s so embarrassing when you come running up to school to volunteer every chance you get,” Wren grumbled. “Why can’t you get a real job like Sammie’s mom?”
“I have a job,” I’d remind her, “taking care of my family,” while I folded John’s white t-shirts into perfect squares. “But it would be nice if my coworkers would try to make it a little easier on me,” I teased her, and she rolled her eyes and stormed away. Discounting traditional roles of womanhood was as easy as casting off dirty socks in the corner for her. I knew I was a dinosaur, about as far away from a card-carrying feminist as possible, and in Wren’s judgmental teenage eyes, this fact was offensive. It diminished my value. Until she was hungry, and then my love for cooking, baking, and homemaking became palatable qualities.
Now that she was sixteen, Wren was painfully aware of my presence and had started loathing my penchant for volunteering at her school functions. Not wanting to rock the boat, I gave in. Sure, it stung when she was so vocal about blocking my participation, but I chalked it up to the inevitable growth cycle of all teenage girls united in their shared mortification of their mothers. I remember mocking my own mother for her fashion choices and inferior make-up application techniques, and now Wren was doing the exact same thing to me. It was the circle of life.
During the first twelve years of our marriage, we moved seven times. We were an Army family, and her father was frequently deployed for long stretches of time, climbing the ranks to Master Sergeant. While he was away, I was Wren’s constant companion. I was the chef and the taxi and the playmate. I was the confidant and the giver of hugs and the trusted advisor.
Then, around thirteen, our relationship shifted when Wren’s coltish first steps toward adulthood carried her further away from me. She delegated me to the sidelines, where I gazed at her with my eyes brimming with hope and longing for an engraved invitation to slip back into her life. I probably should have insisted and interjected myself into her life more, but it wasn’t my way.
It was a challenge, but I tried not to hover, instead branching out in the community and volunteering at our church. Making friends as an introverted adult is brutal. I’d rather be at home infusing bone broth and figuring out ways to sneak it into Wren’s diet. Or gardening or reading, anything that didn’t require wearing lipstick or pants with an actual zipper. When John retired and we first moved to Eden Prairie, for Wren’s sake, I decided to put myself out there more. After the initial awkwardness and my social anxiety lessened, I had to admit it was starting to feel like home. A real home for the first time in our marriage.
Home was a weighty, elusive concept while we lived the nomadic life imposed upon us by the military. I was enmeshed in the duty of motherhood so fully I didn’t realize what was missing until we moved to Eden Prairie, and I felt peace envelop me for the first time. There is a stillness in your heart where tranquility grows in the fertile soil of stability. It was a resounding steadiness and baseline contentment that let me breathe deeper and relax more fully, and in record time, Eden Prairie became our own little Garden of Eden.
With the thrill of fresh purpose unfurling in my belly, I ran up the stairs humming a jaunty “When the Saints Go Marching In” and threw on some bedazzled Converse sneakers I’d found at a garage sale. From a hanger, I pulled on the maroon St. Auggie’s Show Choir t-shirt I had purchased at the beginning of the season over high-waisted mom jeans that covered a multitude of sins. A little soft in all the wrong places, I made peace with my body that enjoyed chocolate caramels a little too much and a little too often.
God bless the first designer who introduced spandex to denim. You, sir, are a saint.
With dainty features, a smattering of freckles across my nose and cheeks, and big brown eyes, I was labeled cute as a child, a descriptor that I never shook. I didn’t think it was terrible company to be in. After all, puppies and babies are cute. I raked my fingers through my shoulder-length, brown hair, noticing a few glittery white strands catching the light from the fixture above the bathroom mirror. Trying to smooth them down with water a couple of times, I gave up after they stubbornly popped right back up.
I tugged the gold St. Christopher’s medal I always wore to free it from catching on my sports bra—I was convinced underwire was a torture instrument of the devil—and centered it on the chain around my neck. I liked to keep my jewelry simple and utilitarian.
Who has the time to swap out earrings to match their outfits? God knows I don’t.
I always wore the simple gold band John presented to me a month before he got called for active duty in Iraq, and on my ears, the conservative diamond studs he splurged on when he returned. They were a complete surprise gift to soften the rock-hard edges he developed from living in a war-torn country without us for nearly two years. I wasn’t fussy, or someone who spent money or time on handbags or shoes. I was practical and prided myself on my frugalities. Where it was hard to buy myself a new pair of jeans unless the ones I was wearing developed significant holes, I doted on Wren, whose closet was bursting at the seams with jeans and sundresses. Many of them still with tags on.
Why is it so easy to spend money on your children, but infinitely harder to spend it on yourself?
Guilt colored most of my decisions my entire life. I was steeped in it. I know I shouldn’t speak ill of my own religion, but even as a little girl wearing a plaid skirt at my own Catholic elementary school, I remember its source of origin. Guilt and Catholicism go hand in hand and travel together. I’m pretty sure it was the first official pairing to cross the gangplank on Noah’s Ark.
Glancing at the stainless-steel watch that ringed my wrist, I had to hustle. My shift was starting in twenty-five minutes. I hesitated briefly, thinking I should probably send Wren an obligatory text to fill her in on the change of plans, but my desire to be punctual, and by punctual I mean ten minutes early, outweighed the need to inform her of the change.
Ten minutes later, I was guiding my sedan into a lucky open parking spot next to the wall of yellow school buses emblazoned with local school names. With a grin, I pulled the gold medal to my lips and kissed it, acknowledging my good fortune. The lot was packed, but I’d scored a spot only a few feet from the door.
St. Christopher for the win again.
St Auggie’s was a typical school built in the eighties, olive green and drab with a bricked façade. A blanket of fresh snow covered the old roof that our parish priest disclosed we were going to have to replace next year at the last elder’s meeting. Inside, ancient painted radiators tucked between the rows of lockers clanged and burned the dust, leaving a charred earthy smell behind. St. Auggie’s Catholic School was an old girl—a clean building, showing her age, but lovingly cared for by the shoestring staff. We didn’t have the influx of property tax income the public schools did to pay for shiny upgrades and the latest technology. The school and church were supported by the tithes collected every Sunday in the gold church plate that was passed from aisle to aisle by our balding ushers.
Not even stopping to glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror, I hoisted my enormous black leather purse to a shoulder and hurried to the entrance. Peaceful snow floated to the ground as I navigated thick tracks of slushy trails in front of the entrance in an attempt to keep my feet dry. Once inside, I unbuttoned my coat, shook off the flakes like a dog coming in from the rain, and hurried toward the source of the sound, the rubber soles of my shoes squeaking on the speckled epoxy floors. Pop music pumped through the PA, and the roar of cheering and singing intensified with each step I took. At the entrance, the metal doors of the gym were a mouth gaping open wide as I merged into the controlled chaos, waving at acquaintances every few steps. The gym was packed wall to wall with people—parents relegated to the stands and teenagers sprawled across chairs and standing in rows closest to the makeshift stage. I picked my way through the crowd and up the wiggling bleachers to find a seat hidden in the mass of humanity that filled the maroon vinyl seats. Scanning the room, I searched for Wren’s thin frame and long, dark blonde hair.
Sweet Caroline cued up on the PA system, and the crowd began to sing in unison. The notes bounced off the wooden floors with such intensity my heart thrummed and the bleachers I was sitting on began to vibrate. It was a song I knew by heart and had sung to Wren to calm her down when she was a colicky baby. I’d dip and dance around the pale green nursery, crooning into her ear with the perfect pitch singing voice I was blessed with and had passed down to Wren.
My heart ached to return to those sweet, heady, exhausting days where nothing mattered except keeping a tiny human alive. When you are in it, deep in the trenches of motherhood, sleep-deprived, and with hours passing without accomplishing anything tangible, people will tell you to hang on, it will get better. I never understood why they said that. Sure, I’d have sold my soul for four hours of sleep in one stretch, but I savored every moment. Wren even had the dreaded colic, unable to get comfortable in the evenings, her tiny belly distended and red. The inconsolable screaming didn’t even phase me; it actually gave me purpose. I’d buckle her in the car seat and drive until she’d finally give in and sleep would overcome her. Her long, curled eyelashes and fat baby cheeks finally still, her mouth slack and then sucking a phantom nipple, then slacking again as she finally relaxed, as I drove down dark streets, warm and snug in the car with my sleeping babe.
John and I decided together when Wren was on the way that I would be a stay-at-home mom. It was a title I adored. I didn’t shrink from it or feel unfulfilled like the talk shows always told me I should feel. I took my job of shaping this tiny life seriously. The days converged and melded from one into the next, her babyhood a mashup of library story hours and lazy afternoons at the park where I’d push her for hours in the baby swing. The wind rushing into her face would make her giggle and her eyelashes flutter from the breeze. Kicking her chubby legs in unison as she got closer, I’d sing out, “Wheeeeeee!” and grab her baby toes to tickle them while laughter bubbled up over us both. She’d ricochet back up into the air, looking like she was an angel baby floating in the clouds, only to return to me. I cherished the time spent holding her in my arms in the spring when the lilacs were in bloom. The heady, sweet scent of them filled my lungs as she reached a chubby arm out to grab onto a stalk, her eyes crossed in concentration.
“Pretty,” I said, talking to her like an adult, naming her world and taking great pride when her squeaky little voice repeated back a discernible, “T-t.” Those days passed in a blink and seemed so far away now as I sat on the bleachers.
“Bah, Bah, Bahhhh,” I sang out from my perch on the bleachers in the throng of parents I was cocooned in. Rocking from side to side to the music, my singing voice was strong and steady, using my diaphragm to project it cleanly out into the chorus. Singing was an activity I enjoyed and a gift I felt compelled to share as one of the musical worship leaders at St. Auggie’s. I occasionally made a little extra pocket money singing for weddings and funerals. It was squirreled away into the college fund I created for Wren before she was born, and I took pride in seeing that number grow a little each month and knowing it would give Wren options. I never went to college, but gosh darn it, my daughter would.
Singing the words loud and proud, I stood on my tiptoes and scanned the crowd, my eyes searching for the face it always craved—the beautiful face of my daughter. The one I lived and breathed for. The truth was I knew there were only two years left. She would go on to do great things, taking the world by storm, while I was left behind wondering how the heck the time went so fast. I’d then wait for her to grace us with her presence, accompanied by the expected loads of dirty laundry hauled from her dorm.
I loved being a mom. You could say I was made for it, begging for dolls for Christmas since I could speak. I always dreamed of being surrounded by a large, rambunctious family. Being raised Catholic, it is a fate almost expected of you, that and the result of relying on the rhythm method as the standard of birth control.
Motherhood is an exquisite study in contrast. While pregnant, you are biologically fused together with your child, but every single day outside the warm cocoon of your womb, there is a subtle tearing away. Even though the pull to separate is natural and part of the journey, it still hurts like all get out, this bittersweet symphony of life.
Every stage of childhood had something great to love about it, but then, before you could settle in or get used to the way things were, they would shift and change again. Leaving you forever grappling with figuring out where you fit in. Scrambling to establish your value again to this new version of your child. Parenthood is a million tiny endings to grieve. The day the crib and baby swing leave your house after sitting idle for a few months while you denied that you didn’t need them anymore. Every day in tiny, almost immeasurable increments, your child is leaving you and embracing their autonomy. They are becoming their own independent being.
My eyes finally landed on the recognizable long, thick shock of curly blonde hair. Show Choir demanded the female performers’ hair be styled identically in order to participate. Part of the uniform, it was required to be pulled back from your face and curled into long ringlets that cascaded down your back. It paired perfectly with the sparkly, floor-length, flared dresses each girl was asked to wear with heels. The overall look was cohesive, embracing the feminine, and every time I saw Wren in costume on stage in full hair and make-up, my heart swelled with pride. She was growing into her beauty, the awkwardness of the pre-teen years fading away to uncover the beautiful woman she would soon become.
Curling her hair for competitions was one of my favorite rituals. Spending the hour before the event with Wren held captive, perched on the edge of one of our sturdy dining room chairs while I got to work sectioning her satiny hair into even chunks. She had such thick hair it always took over an hour to curl it. I was proud she took after her father in the hair department and had successfully avoided the genetic weakness of my own limp, darker locks. Wren’s delicate features and upturned nose paired with the layers of beautifully curled hair made her look angelic.
Today, my eyes landed on her with a smile that rapidly morphed into embarrassed confusion. A prickle of irritation needled up my ribs, watching her carousing with my best friend’s daughter, Sammie, without a care in the world, oblivious to everyone around her.
She knows better than to sit on someone’s lap at a school function. It is completely inappropriate. What will people think?
I glanced quickly around the crowd, feeling exposed as the first sliver of parental shame walked up my spine. I felt a flush of warmth rush up my cheeks and rubbed them with the palms of my hands. This latest stage of development had a willful Wren pushing boundaries and buttons harder and faster the closer she got to adulthood.
I made a mental note to discuss it with her on the way home, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the interaction. Just a few feet from the stage, Wren was singing and swaying in the throng of teenagers. Her skinny arm, all elbow, was slung around Sammie’s thicker shoulders. I saw Sammie’s arms wrap around her waist, pulling her in tighter as a faint alarm sounded. In complete denial yet unable to look away, time slowed as I continued to study them from afar.
Wren’s thick, curly hair fell forward as she leaned in closer to whisper something to Sammie that made them both laugh. It was a brazen act that my intuition understood and cataloged instantly. The exchange was intimate, unveiling a shocking affection that formed a lump in my throat and made my mouth an instant desert. My breath quickened and I felt myself flush again with shameful warmth. I looked down, giving myself an internal pep talk.
You’re crazy. Wren would die if she knew you were thinking like this.
I forced my eyes back up, and they landed on Megan Stonewell. Her eyes narrowed and her head tipped and tilted toward Wren in such a tiny, nearly imperceptible movement I initially thought my mind was playing tricks on me. When her lips settled into a scowl, I couldn’t deny her disgust. I pried my eyes from hers and wrenched them back to Wren, studying the interaction with Sammie, not wanting to rush to judgment. Wren was laughing and carrying on in a massive audience of her friends and peers, completely unaware that I was watching from my perch on the bleachers. Lately, she had been hostile and sullen, hiding in her room under the pretense of studying for her upcoming SATs. Here, she was lighter and carefree, smiling widely and energetically engaged. The song ended, and Wren jumped to her feet with the rest of the audience, clapping and cheering along with the entire gymnasium.
The crowd rose around me as I sat stunned for a long second, unable to move. Panic and fear surged through me as I grappled to accept what my eyes had seen. Going through the motions, I finally found my feet and applauded, knowing it was what was expected of me, but internally, my mind churned. Reliving the last five minutes over and over in slow excruciating detail, I shook it off. As the crowd dispersed, I walked to my post at the coat check and busied myself with the task at hand, glad to have something else to focus on. There was a tingle of truth I refused to acknowledge. I stuffed it down along with the anxieties and worries that come with raising a child in this day and age.
She’s just cutting loose, just having fun. You are losing your mind.