(Did you know that there is a separate formula for preemies? Who would’ve thought?)
The baby was an ugly, wrinkled thing that was born a month too early. When the nurse showed her to me, I thought that I would feel something—be it joy or love. I felt nothing.
I felt nothing when I saw the alien-looking thing in an incubator, struggling to breathe on her own. There must have been something wrong with me, right? I mean, what kind of mother was I, to look at her child like she was nothing more than a misplaced object? Was I a bad person?
I was going to get rid of it. After all, I was only twenty, a young, single woman who had a part time job at the local convenience store. I couldn’t afford it, nor did I want to give up my life for something that would just drain me. And, I was all alone. The father was nowhere to be found and my mother blamed this on me. Well, I was complicit in the crime too. But then, I went to the gynecologist’s office one day. I learned that ‘it’ was a she and things just got more difficult from there.
So—nine months later—I found myself in the greatest agony I’d ever found myself in. It was worse than menstrual cramps, stubbing my toe, and being told by my own mother that I was a disappointment. The baby came and ripped through me like paper. Or, that’s what it felt like, at least. Since she was premature, I’m sure it could have felt worse. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if mothers of babies born to term felt more pain than I did. Perhaps, I was lucky?
The baby was whisked away to a small incubated bed. She didn’t have a name so her chart read, “No-Name Murphy”. It was a little funny—and sad. No-name was small and frail and stuck with me as a mom, at least until I decided if I wanted to give her up. The thought kept entering my mind and I kept dismissing it indignantly. This baby, she was a part of me. Could I just give her away, knowing that I would never see her again? Then again, would I even give her the care she needed? When I drove home from the hospital a few days after giving birth, there was a heavy storm brewing on the horizon. Fitting.
No-name stayed in the hospital for a few weeks until she was a healthy weight. I would have liked to say that I was diligent in seeing her every day, but I would’ve been lying. No, I stayed away for a week, giving myself the excuse that I needed to work. Really, there was no excuse and my meagre attempts at justifying my actions failed to even convince me.
I limped into the NICU. Who would have thought that birthing a child would leave you so sore afterwards?
No-name was still where I’d left her. Only this time, she was a little longer than I remembered her, a little more alert. She even grabbed my finger with her tiny little hand and she rested her head on my chest as I fed her from a bottle. I felt something then—a weird mix of affection and loneliness. But, it felt better than feeling nothing.
I continued to feed her, trying to make awkward small talk. Though, I was already bad at starting conversations and I learned that I was especially bad at making conversation with children. Eventually, my visiting time was up, so I wished No-Name a friendly farewell.
Outside, the air was freezing and she was in dire need of a coat. Near the hospital were some willow trees, the branches twirling in the wind. I’d always thought that there was something beautiful and mysterious about them. Willow; it was a lovely name.
The next afternoon, No-Name became Willow, my ugly, wrinkled child that I would raise on my own.
(Chamomile tea is made from crushed daisy-like flowers. It’s a folk remedy passed down—generation to generation. I’ll probably introduce it to my own daughter when she’s old enough.)
Willow was a good baby, barely crying, eating all of her food. She even started to smile and laugh at my poor attempts at baby talk. Eventually, I just spoke to her like she was another tiny adult. Still, she smiled.
Somehow, I’d managed two jobs and to find child care; inside, I felt like I was finally winning. It was now March and Willow was three months old. I had just returned home from my afternoon shift and picked her up from my neighbor’s apartment when I received a phone call from my aunt Mia.
“Hey Charlie, how are you?”
“I’m good…” I trailed off. I hadn’t spoken to her—or any of my family—for a few years now. I couldn’t imagine a reason for her to reach out other than to tell me that someone died.
“I have some bad news,” she said. Her voice lowered. “Your grand-mamma had a stroke a few days ago and passed this morning. We’re having a funeral for her next week. The wake is Friday and the funeral itself is Saturday. You know we can’t be having stuff on Sunday. We have church… You’re welcome to stay till then.”
I spoke too soon.
“You still there, baby?”
“Yeah, yeah. I just- I just don’t know how to feel.”
Willow squealed in her chair and I hushed her.
“Is that a baby? You didn’t tell nobody that you were pregnant!”
“Yeah. Um, she’s three months old today.”
She didn’t answer at first, leaving a silence so thick that you would shatter your hand trying to break it.
“Well, I look forward to meeting her,” she whispered over the receiver. I didn’t know what was more awkward, her learning about my baby born out of wedlock, or me learning about my grandmother’s funeral.
Willow was unaware of the situation in that delightful way babies are. She lifted her spoon, slamming it against the tray table. I needed to stop her before it fell out of her hand. After all, I wasn’t raising a delinquent.
She was so chubby. If I had just met her that day, I never would have known that she was born premature.
“You, my lady, have made astounding progress,” I said, twirling her around in my arms. Willow just giggled, as if the very statement was hilarious. Maybe, she was just laughing in the face of the struggle that she had overcome. But then, I remembered that she was just a baby and had no concept of what it meant to be her own person yet.
I thanked God that she was such an easygoing child; she fell asleep without protest and I took a moment to heat up water for tea. The air was becoming warmer to the point where wearing a sweater was similar to wearing thick fur, but I always had time for chamomile. It was one of the things I remembered about my grandmother. She claimed it relieved any ailment, from stomach aches to heartbreak. I just thought it tasted nice. I would drink it on her porch during long summer nights, as I watched the fireflies. But, my mom moved us to Texarkana, Texas, and I never got to see my grandma much after that. Their relationship was strained, just as the relationship between me and my mom. I suppose it was just another case of the children inheriting the curses of the parents. I hoped that Willow and I wouldn’t grow apart like that.
My train of thought was interrupted by the whistle of the kettle and I poured myself a cup of chamomile. I wasn’t sure how else to deal with the loss of a loved one, so I just sat on my lumpy couch and browsed through the internet until I felt my eyes grow heavy and I went to bed at around two in the morning.
I allowed myself around six hours of sleep before I left my bed to feed Willow. When she was content to be alone in her crib, I began to plan for the fifteen-hour drive to Virginia. I didn’t know where I would stay or how I could afford to be off work for the week. Perhaps, I could just leave Thursday, arrive Friday, but something inside just urged me to go for the week.
So, I called in to both jobs, resigned to the fact that I would probably have to make up so many hours, took my daughter and just drove. I didn’t stop often—only to feed Willow, eat, and use the bathroom. Eventually, the hills became mountains, their gentle peaks like a rolling green ocean.
“Look, Willow. Isn’t it pretty out here?” I asked as I held her. I had pulled over at a lonely rest stop to stretch my legs.
“Ah—ah,” she cooed in response.
“You’re right. We’re in the Appalachian Mountains. You’re such a smart girl, you know? Already making me proud!”
My phone vibrated in my pocket and I shuffled Willow so that she was perched in one of my arms. I reached around, pulling my phone from my back pocket, my fingers sliding against the tiny cracks on the screen. It was an address.
“You’re welcome to stay here while you’re in town. Looking forward to seeing you again.”
I nearly cried from relief at my aunt’s text, happy that I wouldn’t have to stay in some seedy motel in the middle of nowhere.
The sun was beginning to set by the time I reached my grandmother’s house, an old wooden building that had been in the family since the 1800s. My great-great grandfather—a freed slave—built it with his own two hands.
There was already a car out there, a shiny black Buick that I didn’t recognize. As soon as I got Willow from her car seat and closed the door I heard footsteps descending the front steps.
“Charlie, is that you?”
My aunt approached and gave me a warm side hug and I felt like I was at home.
“This is Willow.”
“She’s so beautiful! Can I hold her?”
I gave her the baby, who had a confused smile on her face. Who was this strange new woman?
I followed her into the house and I was struck by all of the memories. Breakfast in the dining room, Monopoly in the living room, playing hide-and-seek with my cousins. Had everyone grown without me? Were they in school? Did they have careers that paid well? And, was I the only one who had a baby at twenty? I felt almost cheated, like my mom stole this away from me when we moved away.
“Janine, get your behind off that game and say hi to your cousin!”
Janine walked into the front room almost silent on her sock-clad feet. One look, and she launched herself into my arms.
“Charlie! I haven’t seen you in so long! Where have you been all this time?”
“I’ve been working a lot. And… I have a baby now-“
“What- really? Where is he? She?”
My aunt came back from wherever she went, Willow still smiling. Janine gasped.
“Aw, she’s such a bean! I love her already!” she cooed. Janine spent a moment rocking Willow in her arms and then we unloaded the car. By the end of the night, the four of us sat in the living room catching up, until my aunt remembered something.
“Your grandma put together a will,” my aunt said.
“She did? I didn’t know that,” I replied.
“It was only recently, when she… When she started not doing so good.”
Though we were all so happy to see each other, we all remembered why we were there. Janine sniffled and looked away. I could tell her eyes were watering.
“But!” my aunt continued. “She left you a portion of her estate. She left you the house.”
At a loss for words, I absently played with Willow’s curls.
“Yep,” my aunt smiled, though there were tears threatening to spill over. “Originally, she was going to hand over the deed to your mama but I warned her against that. You know your mama. She’d probably just sell the house and then use it to buy alcohol. Mama wouldn’t want that. She felt that you’d take better care of it.”
“You didn’t want it?”
“Nah. Girl, I’m happy with the money she left me.”
“And, I’m happy with the jewelry that she let me keep,” Janine cut in.
“Then,” I asked. “What does my mom get?”
Janine and my aunt glanced at each other and Janine grimaced.
“She’s, um… She’s not getting anything.”
“Nothing at all? Besides, where is Mom, anyway? Doesn’t she know about the funeral?”
My aunt snorted.
“You know how hard it is to get ‘hold of her.”
A look close to sympathy crossed her face. Sympathy for me, not so much my mother.
“You know how she is. She gets some money, and then she goes and spends it on some bullshit-“
My aunt sighed.
“Anyway, Mama wanted you to have a nice place for yourself. And, now you can have a good place to raise your baby. Please, please, consider it.”
I looked down at Willow, who had fallen asleep. She had the tiniest little snores. I did what any mother would have done if she realized that she could give something good to her child. I said yes.
(Apple juice is the superior fruit juice. Don’t ‘at’ me.)
The funeral had gone off without a hitch—well, as far as funerals are concerned. Mom didn’t come. I don’t know if I was surprised, or expecting as much from the woman. I felt tiny tendrils of indignation rise in me for a short moment, before I recovered, thinking that it may have been a good thing that she didn’t show. After all, my aunt didn’t think highly of her. What would happen when the two of them were in the same room? There was also the small detail of the will, and how my mom was written completely out of it.
When I returned to Texarkana the next week, things returned to normal, except for the anticipation I felt making our moving arrangements. There was very little sadness; I didn’t have many friends, and Willow’s dad? I tried not to think about him very much. I had a new house that most likely didn’t have any mold—literally—with my name on it.
Three more months passed and I quit my jobs and loaded what remained of our belongings—I had sold much of my old things—into my old, faithful truck. Texarkana was just an afterthought as I drove the one thousand miles to Virginia.
The air was spicy, laced with humidity and a side of mosquitoes. I suppose that it was just Texas, but on the east coast.
Mia and Janine were already at the house, waiting for us. When I opened the driver’s door, Mia frowned at my lack of things.
“I sold a lot of it,” I explained to her. Though, I didn’t understand why. Grandma had left me all of the furniture too.
“Bah, bah,” Willow said. Luckily, that was enough for me to evade her questions for now.
It took us a little over thirty minutes to unload the truck, but all three of us were already dripping with sweat five minutes in. Smugly, I thought that Mia was probably glad that I didn’t have a lot of things.
Soon after that, Mia and Janine left me and Willow in our house—Janine had work and she didn’t have her license yet. There was something about moving into this place that was so familiar I knew its layout with my eyes closed. Yet, its essence had ceased to make it what it once was. I half expected my grandmother to appear from the kitchen after making the weekly Sunday lunch, but it was just me and my child.
I needed to distract myself from this place that was too empty, too quiet, so I walked Willow around, showing her the room that would become hers.
“Look Willow, this is your place. Don’t let anyone take your space from you.”
Did babies have any concept of personal space, anyway? I had no idea. Willow fell asleep before I could ask her.
“You’re going to have to learn to hang if you want to make me proud,” I said as I placed her in her pop-up crib.
Pouring myself a cup of apple juice, I then continued my exploration of the house, not spending too long in any one room. Both my mom and Mia’s rooms were mostly plain and a look through the drawers didn’t yield anything exciting. So, I opened the old, wooden door to my grandmother’s room. I felt a pang in my chest when I noticed that there was a layer of dust covering every surface. I half expected myself to start crying, but my eyes remained painfully dry even as I dusted off picture frames and the dresser. I didn’t stay in there for very long.
Instead, I took a large gulp from my glass of apple juice. It was nice and chilly, and brought back fond memories of the sun peaking its face over the hilly landscape.
There was one place in the house that I didn’t visit that often: the attic. I was always kept out by the many cobwebs and insects that made their home up there. But, if I was to live in this house, it was only a matter of time before I needed to go up there. The stairs to the attic were hidden behind a door at the end of the hall, spiderwebs stuck to little nooks and crannies in the aged wood. I shuddered as I did my best to keep my feet from brushing them.
There was yet another door at the top and past that, the attic room. There was box upon box of things, some of which that may have belonged to even my great-grandparents. Even thicker cobwebs hung from the ceiling and my skin seemed to crawl. However, I soldiered on, trying my best to ignore the spiders. At the far end of the attic, a small circular window let in a sliver of light. Absently, I thought that the attic could make a good extra bedroom, if I could even get it clean.
I decided to snoop through the boxes that were closest to the door; it would minimize my contact with any unwelcome guests but still sate my curiosity for the time being. I lifted a random box as well as I could without hurting my back, but I felt a small twinge in my left leg as I carried it back downstairs. I grunted as I nearly dropped it on the hardwood floor of my new room, which was still undecorated. A musty smell assaulted my nose as I lifted open the box’s flaps. There were some photos, books, trinkets, but the one thing that caught my attention was a simple leather book with the word, “Journal” printed on the front. I carefully flipped through the yellowing pages, afraid that I might accidentally tear them out.
There was some writing a few pages in. I could make out my grandma’s name written in neat cursive.
“Mary Murphy, Journal Gifted: December 25, 1960.”
Grandma never told me that she had a diary, but I supposed that she had written in this one so many years ago that she must have forgotten or didn’t think it was important. Still, I was curious about the secrets it held, the stories it told.
Right then, Willow decided that she was fully awake—and hungry. Her cries were soft, but my instincts seemed to have become so attuned to her needs that any disturbance in her demeanor caught my attention. I could hear her all the way from my room. I put the diary back in the box that I found it in, but I knew that it would bother me until I had a chance to read it again.
Italian Cream Soda
(A dreamy concoction of heavy cream and club soda. If I’m being honest, it tastes the best with strawberry flavoring. Then again, I might be biased.)
“If you want something refreshing, you should try an Italian cream soda,” Janine said. “It’s really just some club soda mixed with whipping cream and whatever flavor you want.”
“Hm, I’ll try it, if you think it’s good. Can you add strawberry?”
I paid for my drink and found a table for Willow and me, grabbing a booster chair for her and strapping her securely to it so she didn’t slide out while my attention was away. While I ordered for myself, the soft drizzle had become a downpour and my view of the street was obscured by the water running down the wide window.
Willow’s small hand slapped the window, as if she was trying to catch some of it. Then, she looked at her hands, confused that none of the mysterious substance was in her grasp. I laughed and handed Willow her bottle, watching as she was able to hold it on her own.
Willow seemed entertained with the crayons and paper I brought, so I pulled my old laptop from my backpack and connected to the internet so that I could begin my job search. Sure, I had enough money to last for a while, but it would be better if I could save some for a rainy day. Maybe I could put some away for Willow’s college education.
College, I thought. I should probably think about that.
“One Italian cream soda!” Janine appeared with the drink and a cookie that I didn’t remember ordering.
“It’s on the house,” she said, once she saw my confused look.
“Is that okay?”
“Yeah, it was from my paycheck.”
She didn’t answer at first, instead taking time to poke Willow’s cheek.
“Like I said, it’s all good. Anyway, what are you up to?”
I sighed, stretching my back until I heard a satisfying crack. I smirked at the cringe Janine threw my way.
“Looking for a job, and a daycare that Willow can stay at while I’m at said job.”
I sipped at my drink and was delighted at the rich, bubbly taste. I gave Janine a thumbs up as I continued to chug.
“I can ask my boss if she can hire you, but don’t be too hopeful. We just finished hiring our summer staff.”
By the time Janine returned with her boss—an older, plump woman—I’d already applied to about twenty jobs, some of them retail, some of them easy office jobs. I rose to shake the woman’s hand.
“Hi there! I’m Cherry. And you are…”
“Charlie. And this is Willow.” The baby was currently crumpling a piece of paper in an attempt to draw… something. Cherry smiled warmly at her. Then, she looked back at me, her smile slightly more strained.
“Janine told me that you were looking for a job.”
I nodded, but there was a gnawing in my stomach.
“I’m really sorry! I wish I could help you, but we’ve already hired for the season. If you want… you could try at the beginning of fall?”
“It’s okay, I understand.”
“But, I can recommend a few places in the area, if you want!”
“Yes, that would be perfect!” I replied. I handed her a spare piece of paper and a pen, and she wrote down a list of places and their addresses. There were at least five or six and I ended up visiting all of them but one before Willow started having a fit in her stroller. It was a little past her naptime, so I ended up going back home. And, my spirit was crushed after a string of rejections. I figured that a nap would be good for me too.
When I woke up, an hour and a half later, the rain was coming down in sheets and lightning flashed across the sky. I was afraid that the thunder would wake Willow from her nap, but she was still fast asleep in her crib. There was another crack of thunder, even louder this time, and the primal human within me stood on edge. I didn’t remember thunder being this loud back in Texas.
It was the perfect time for tea, specifically, chamomile. Covered in my blanket, I went to brew some, but out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my grandmother’s journal, sitting unopened. Now was just as good a time as any to read it.
A while later, I sat on my couch, gingerly holding the hot mug and I finally opened the old, leather book.
December 27, 1959
Today, it snowed. I wish it could’ve snowed on Christmas, but this is good too. This is the first time I’m writing in here. I’ve never had a diary before so I don’t know what to write. What do other girls write about in their diaries? Dolls? I don’t really like girly things like dolls and the other girls are always picking at me. I should like boys and makeup, but I like to read books and study the stars. Mama said that I can like books, but I also have to learn how to do womanly things as well, if I want a husband. Men are nasty and rough though, and they never do any work around the house. I don’t know if I want to get married after all.
I chuckled. Grandma was ahead of her time, in a way. I turned to the next entry, which was written at least two weeks later.
January 11, 1960
I started going back to school today. I wish we had better things. All of our books are really old and we don’t have a lot in the first place. I always get really bored during our lessons and I wish I had something more. But our teachers say that the state doesn’t give them enough funding. They don’t say it straight out, but it’s probably because we’re a colored school, isn’t it?
Mary, a girl bored out of her mind.”
January 17, 1960
Today, we went to church. We sang some good songs and people were running around the church. It was because of the Holy Spirit. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. I always wondered why people did that. I never shout or run around the church like the church mothers do, but I feel the Holy Spirit all the same. Is my way of worship not as good as theirs? It’s confusing to me. After church we went back to the house and had lunch. A lot of people always come and they don’t leave until the sun goes down. Luckily, Mama let me excuse myself early so I could go read up in the attic.
I was about to flip to the next entry, but I heard Willow’s hungry cries from her room. The diary would have to wait for now. I fed Willow, deep in thought, wondering what other secrets I would find in the diary. And, in a way, I felt closer to my grandmother in a way I never had an opportunity to experience after I moved away. She wasn’t exactly there, but it was better than nothing, and I was able to go to sleep that night able to wrap my head around her absence. At least, a little bit.
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