For My Daughter
In first grade everyone wanted to be the line leader. Mrs. Zwick would swing her blonde curls over her shoulder and smile to her favorite student that day. Everyone wanted to be her favorite. We were still young enough to see every woman as a mom; we were just aware enough to know she wasn’t.
The day Jimmy called her “mom” his face flushed redder than his hair. He had apple cheeks, and he buried his face in his favorite Toy Story t-shirt until snack time. We had apples.
The day I called Mrs .Zwick “mom”, I meant it. I wanted it. I wanted her to scoop me up into her arms and let me bury my face in her curls. My mom had curls. They were thick and brown.
Mrs. Zwick smiled and ran her hand down the back of my head and gave me grape juice instead of apple. I didn’t even have to ask. Amanda looked at me, peeking from under her bangs, expectant. She was waiting for my face to change. She was waiting for me to realize what I had done. We didn’t know how to say what we felt. Amanda just wanted to see my face flush because it would be the third time she had ever seen someone embarrassed, but I didn’t do it. I picked up my juice with both hands and drank enough to be sure it wouldn’t spill when I put it back down. I put it back down and she filled it up again.
Amanda’s eyes got big and her mouth opened all at once. I thought for a second she was going to say something. It took both closed hands to hold her bangs out of her face, even though they fell right back down. No one gets two cups of juice.
Amanda was my best friend. Amanda’s house was the first house I ever went to without my parents. I slept there once, the night mom went away. It was nothing like mine. Her kitchen smelled like stale cinnamon and Tropicana fruit punch. The tiles were old and patterned with flowers in pink vases that hid all the spills. The cabinets, dishwasher and refrigerator were all white; they matched the chairs and dining room table. I had more sugar in that house than I did for the rest of my childhood. Amanda had a TV in her kitchen so we could watch Rugrats and eat Pull and Peel Twizzlers while the water was boiling. We had macaroni and cheese from a box. I had never had it like that before, but I liked the big blue bowl and it smelled good. I didn’t eat much, I didn’t feel much like eating. We watched “Grease” and talked about who was on our soccer team and who was the nicest boy in our class. I stayed up all night on her floor too scared to move because her shadows looked different than mine.
The next night I slept in my little sister’s room. When the cars made the monsters against my wall move, I forgot the word for mom. I yelled teaspoon. Dad came in. I couldn’t fall asleep in his arms.
I looked back to Amanda, her eyes now focused on her drawing, red crayon inside the lines. She was good at coloring inside the lines, but it was a duck. I bet her mom was good at it too. Amanda was the only one who knew my mom went away.
Mrs. Zwick took us all outside for recess everyday. She surveyed the room with a quiet approval of all of us, even if we had been on the time-out stool that day. She loved us. Tommy’s swishy pants were swishing. We all started to fidget when Mrs. Zwick stood up and started to call our names. The line leader was always first. As she opened her mouth the room became a vacuum. Everyone held their breath until…
“Amelia, come to the doorway. Don’t forget to push your chair in and throw out your cup.”
Me. It was me. Today. Today it was me. She called my name. Today she called my name, it was me today, I was her favorite. Me. The line leader.
I glided across the room, beaming, with my cup in hand. I tossed my trash into the bin across the room and then turned to walk to the door. Mrs. Zwick was waiting, already beginning to bend at her knees. I had never seen her eyes so close to mine. She hadn’t called any more names. She gestured for me to come and then stepped to the side of the doorway, so all I could see were yellow-tiled walls. Suddenly my heart sank and I pulled my arms into my sweatshirt to hold myself, or hug myself, or so I wouldn’t fall apart right there next to our watercolor paintings of endangered animals.
At the doorway I breathed in hard, hoping that I could float away. Mrs. Zwick’s eyes were level with mine when I turned. Green and brown, like a whole forest in a look.
“How’re you doin’, Amelia?”
I felt like I was choking, like there was no more room for me and her in this moment. Suddenly I hated her teeth, they looked sharp and dangerous. I wanted to leave. I shrugged my shoulders and turned to get back to Amanda and her crayons, she should probably know that ducks are yellow not red anyway, and I’m her best friend so I can tell her.
“Amelia, your dad called the school. Is there anything you need?”
“No, I’m okay.” She isn’t asking for me. Dad told her to. I’m not her favorite.
“Would you like to stay outside and start the line?”
“Okay,” I said.
I don’t know what this feeling is but I don’t like it. I don’t like being the favorite because I’m not the favorite. I feel like I’m cheating. I don’t belong at the front of the line ‘cause Dad told her to.
The class pushed their chairs in and dropped off their cups, I stood against the wall and stared at my shoes as the rest of the class filed out. I tried to remember where I got them, or why I picked purple instead of red sneakers, but all I could remember was Mom. Her hands running across the laces, and slipping them over my heels. Her smile and gentle encouragement as I learned to make bunny ears and cross them under and over and pull it was suddenly the only thing I could see.
My mom’s favorite shirt was purple. If I squinted real hard, my shoes looked like the same velvet. Her hugs were like velvet-covered clouds, or marshmallows, or marshmallow clouds. I used to fall asleep there. I wonder if I’ll ever sleep like that again.
When I looked up the whole class was looking at me. They were ready to go play kickball and tag and sit in the grass talking about what club they could and couldn’t be in because of the secret password. They could run as fast as they could because if they fell, their scraped knee would get a kiss and an appropriately themed bandaid.
“Amelia are you ready?”
I kept my head down. I didn’t want to lead the line anymore. I didn’t want Mrs. Zwick to see my features curling down around my eyes and corners of my lips. She would see the cry rising in my throat. If I said yes, I couldn’t hold it in. So instead I just kept looking down.
Mom used to say that instead of yelling she would count to ten, and then keep her voice real low and say everything she wanted to say. One. Two. Three. Four.
“Amelia, let’s go.”
Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Mrs. Zwick knelt down beside me again. I felt my chest weighted down to my ankles. She spoke softly.
“Amelia, what’s wrong?”
“I..” The words came to my throat like tiny pineapples, prickly and indescribable. “I don’t want to be the line leader anymore.”
For a minute I thought she was going to be angry. Her eyebrows came together slowly and pulled themselves up towards her curls. Dad does that when I can’t finish the food I order at diners. Then she stood up. She took my hand and walked me to the back and tapped Amanda on the shoulder. Amanda’s eyes got wide again when she whispered into her ear, I thought maybe Mrs. Zwick told her that ducks are yellow or brown, not red. But then Amanda walked up to the front of the line and looked back at me, smiling like she was the one who got two cups of juice. She started walking down the hallway and the class followed.
Mrs. Zwick’s hand was soft and warm on mine. She held my hand like she told us to hold the class hamster. She told us to cradle him, make him warm and welcome. She still hadn’t let go even when we got to the back of the line. We walked the whole way to the back door like that, right until we got outside.
I was never a kid who played with bugs and magnifying glasses. I cried whenever an earthworm stopped moving. The first time I saw one laying in a puddle, I carried it in my hands back to my mother’s lap and asked her to fix it. Instead, she told me we should let it go home. She put my hand in the dirt and asked me to let go. I did, because she told me to.
That day outside was one of those spring days after the rain, when the concrete smells like flowers and flowers smell a little bit like pennies in a jar. On days like that, it’s hard not to find an earthworm in a puddle.
I spent my recess picking up flowers and worms to bury in the grass, the way Mom taught me to. I was proud to bring them home that way. Amanda walked over once I had a pile of flowers that you could see from across the baseball field. She didn’t ask me what I was doing, she just started picking flowers like mine. Jimmy came over next, he brought two dandelions. Mary was after that, she picked the white ones from the fence that almost always had bees around them. I walked away to the puddle next to second base, crouching in the mud to see if there were any more worms to be brought home. By the time I turned around Julie, Andrew, Scott, Tess, Dylan and Matt were all bringing worms too. I don’t remember much else.
It’s been about twenty-five years now since first grade. I don’t remember my classmate’s last names, or faces, or who was the line leader when we went back inside. All I remember is that pile of flowers and all the empty puddles that suddenly didn’t look so sad. It’s strange to think that at six years old my classmates never asked a question, like what were doing or why. That impromptu funeral is still the closest I’ve come to making sense of my mother’s surrender to cancer. I started writing this story the day my daughter was born, suddenly dreading the explanation that no one ever gave me, of where my mother had gone and why. I figure that maybe if she ever is to be without me, maybe she’ll leave earthworms in the grass, and know that I’ve gone home.