It’s Mother Words time again at Cribsheet. Each year, we run the best personal essays from Kate Hopper’s writing class. As regular Cribsheeters know, Kate teaches writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. This year, for her Mother Words seminar, Kate broadened her reach by offering the class online. As a result, we have essays from as far away as San Francisco and New York and even Ascot, England. Keep checking back and reading a new essay each day this week. Enjoy!
Family Pictures - Cecilia
I remember the time my four year-old son took to drawing family portraits, half-stick, half-balloon figures of himself, his father, and me. My favorite is his roller-skating series, pictures of the three of us holding hands and smiling while strapped in roller skates. In all these pictures, Fred strategically places himself in the center so that Mommy and Daddy are securing him tightly. In one memorable portrait, he has us donning not only skates but our own signature t-shirts. On his shirt Fred drew a dinosaur with long teeth; on his father’s shirt, the “Obama flag;” on mine, an L encased in a heart.
“What is this L?” I asked.
“It’s your computer.”
“Why did you draw a computer inside a heart?”
“Because you love to work.”
Airplanes, the solar system, Hawaii – they were all part of Fred’s growing preschool portfolio. His rains were as varied as his young moods and he pelted gentle spring showers one day while he swirled charcoal grey storms on another. As Fred’s drawings took on likenesses that became more and more recognizable, I began to look at his masterpieces to not only satisfy my maternal pride but to understand the emotional world he was inhabiting.
The fall that I began “reading” Fred’s drawings, my husband and I were going through a particularly rough patch. We had met when I moved to Japan on a traveling fellowship, and after eight years together we decided to raise Fred in the United States, my home country. Our “mutual” decision nonetheless brought on seismic shifts in culture, language, and our familiar but no longer relevant spousal roles. Many of our days were marked by shouting while many of our evenings were marked by silence. Mommy and Daddy sometimes didn’t sleep together, eat together, or talk together. Fred drew a lot of pictures then.
“What’s this here in your picture, sweetie?” I was looking at a drawing Fred had brought home from school one day. It was huge, with a house drawn so big that it almost ran off the paper. Two smiling faces attached to miniature bodies were floating near the left side of the house. His trademark candy ribbon sun was shining. Stubby sticks of grass swayed in the breeze.
“That’s me and you playing outside,” he said.
“Yes, you made me so pretty. What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a pair of scarlet triangles sitting on my likeness’s head.
“That’s your bow.”
“Where’s Daddy?” I had become careful during those months to always look for Daddy.
Fred tilted his head, his attention caught now. He looked closely at the drawing, his eyes shifting and searching all around, over the house, over the grass, past him and past Mommy.
“He’s inside the house. He’s making dinner.” He nodded, satisfied.
“Oh, I see.” We studied the picture some more. Inside, my heart ached.
“No, I mean,” he continued on second thought. “He’s not inside the house. I ran out of space.”
“Really? But there’s some space here,” I said, pointing to the one inch margin that was still visible on the left, and to the blank space beneath the house.
“Didn’t you want to draw Daddy out here, maybe, even just watching us play?” I found myself in the uncomfortably familiar position of begging him to draw our full family portrait.
“No, I ran out of space.” He looked up from the drawing now, searching for something else to do.
“But you’re always running out of space!” I felt like I needed my son to hold our marriage together, to stop crowding Daddy out of his pictures.
“I said, I ran out of space.” Fred put his drawing down and started leafing through a picture book. “I love you both. I just ran out of space.”
My husband and I made it through our rough patch by doing what we had been so good at doing in the early years of our marriage: we talked. And when we couldn’t talk without our emotions escalating unproductively, we sought the help of a counselor. Through her we spoke the fears and resentments that we had withheld from each other. It didn’t take long to realize that we both wanted the same thing – the intimacy we shared before we had a baby and then uprooted our lives – and that understanding, plus time and continued talking, healed us.
Fred is now going on seven years old. His love for art has only intensified, though his drawings now accompany another growing interest: words. He keeps a journal where he draws and writes about those events that have left the greatest marks on him. I continue to love looking at his pictures, but now I do it with less of a magnifying glass. I ask questions or snuggle with him in those quiet minutes before he drifts off to sleep, and I listen to the emotions and thoughts that slide with courage out of their walls. Though he sometimes struggles to find the right words, I am proud of the efforts he makes to take me inside his world, and I am proud each day of the little boy that I discover.
Cecilia is the mother of a 6 year-old boy, and she and her husband work from home as educational consultants. She is a first generation Chinese-American from Peru and has in the last year started writing and exploring her personal stories of motherhood, marriage, childhood and heritage. She blogs at http://onlyoublog.wordpress.com.