- On our summer vacation, my sweetheart’s mom gave us three books that were hers: Ox-Cart Man, The Cow Who Fell Into the Canal, and The Two Little Gardeners.
- She grew up to be a farmer, drives a 1998 Jeep Wrangler to an outlying town, packing and sorting organic vegetables, rain or shine. Her rubber boots crack and her fingers bleed. Comes home with wrists full of rubber bands; I pull bits of irrigation out of her pockets when I do laundry.
- We read Oxcart Man in our Airbnb, the late Midwestern sun through the rich man’s windows, to our son, who just turned six but is, to us, relatively new. He was enchanted by the illustrations, the cartoon man who spent each winter building a new ox cart, only to sell it in the fall after a ten day walk to town.
- I’d like to live like that, my sweetheart says. Where you’re always busy doing little important things. Maybe that’s not what she said exactly. I said they probably had three children who’d died in infancy, from diarrhea.
[Where is the line between hating our past and romanticizing it?]
- In church, a fat, blond baby squirms on his beautiful mother’s lap. She has long limbs and the bony glow of someone who’s having the fat sucked out of her by breastfeeding, and loving it. Loving motherhood. She has big white teeth. A fancy baby carrier dangles from her body. I have a deep, sick pang inside me. That we didn’t get to hold our son when he was a baby. We don’t know who did, or if he was loved. We have to assume he was.
- Why my head is like this? He asked me, touching a flat spot on the back of his head. It may be nothing. Our heads are all different, after all. Maybe you laid in a crib a lot when you were a baby. That can make babies’ heads flat.
[Adoption demands a different relationship to the past.]
- I have so many regrets about how I treated others in the past. Still, though, this beautiful glow around fall 2001 and spring 2002. I felt like my life was starting. I wrote long stories in wide rule notebooks about AIDS and eating disorders, teen pregnancy, all the horrible things that did not happen to me. Everything was significant. I met people—a person—I couldn’t stop thinking about. It took me all day to get up the courage to ask for a ride home.
- If I tried even a little I could find my ninth grade poetry project. The poem I wrote about walking with my friend, to her car, and Mrs. Ward’s comments, in perfect cursive. Once during a literary analysis assignment she told me to leave—my heart faltered—and go straight to 12th
- The box where all those things are, though, is in the shed, which is not weatherproofed, which means everything is probably moldering. Mouse beds. I’m so tired. The box full of fibers, probably decaying, and what else is in there. All that pulp, all that mass.
- My romanticism reaches forward—the golden glow that will surround, say, Adoption Day or my second book. The art/art therapy studio I dream of.
- Then I look into the past, where all the awards and scholarships are, the praise, all the way back to pre-school and the IQ assessment where I correctly identified which way the sun rose, despite having a 103 degree fever, in an windowless office with wood paneling—and I feel—nothing.
- This essay, like the past—won’t stay—still.
- That word that means cozy inside while it’s storming outside.
- We are driving back to kindergarten from therapy. I have ten dogs, he says, at [previous family’s] house and I miss them all. Oh, that’s sad. What are their names? Cocoa was one—he looks out the window—one was Tree, one was Fence, one was Truck, one as Pole, one was Car, one was Sidewalk. I visualize his little fingers, counting by touching each other. Kids are creative, resilient—as people say—and at these weird moments, transparent.
- I used to love Little House on the Prairie with a weird fervor. I wasn’t the only suburban kid who wanted to feel the wagon rock as the oxen forded the river, the wheels rising off the mud bottom as it got to the deep middle and was nearly swept away. The combination of coziness and adventure. There was no space for nightmares in a one-room cabin, there were no shadows inside, under the bed or inside your father’s clothes. The real Ingalls family, though, skipped town in the nights, backtracked, no straight line to destiny as grown Laura remembered. Her Pa was no saint.
- Is there any wonder why this would appeal to kids from dysfunctional families—the fantasy that all the adults were in charge and all the danger was outside?
- I still don’t believe in God, although I would like to. At church a woman talks about eating watermelon and running through the sprinklers, in the days before central air; another man told about hiking with his teenage son and looking down into a canyon that looked like “God had just made it.” I’m crying looking at the baby in front of me, smelling my sweetheart’s arm and not listening.
- Was it really as lovely as they remember it, the broken down car, the cottage and the farmstand? The view and the weight of their packs and their exhausted bodies? Did they recognize while it was happening: wow, this is nice. Click—a mental snapshot, or in the moment were they itchy or annoyed or full of longing like a hot knife?
- It’s hard to live in the moment and capture joy, when you are waiting, as they say, for the other shoe to drop. When you feel (are) chronically unsafe or hold the memories of being chronically unsafe in your joints and bones, muscles and reflexes.
- I saw an old friend this summer and we talked about a mutual bad time, a dark winter. She tells me it’s cell memory. She started to get sad before she remembered why.
- When you don’t trust your memories or maybe you don’t remember anything or maybe you just think you do.
- I wrote a book about memory and then I became a mother and now I don’t remember anything.
- What happens when you live in a state of longing and then you get what you wanted (a child—a family) when you arrive at what was longed for, and it’s harder than you imagined—what do you reach for—then?
Paintings from Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall.