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A School of Daughters (Chapter One)

September 30

She called them a school of daughters.

I assume Mom came up with that later because it doesn't seem like something a six-year-old would think up. Then again, maybe it's exactly the kind of observation a precocious six-year-old puts into words, unrealizing the truth she airs. I haven't thought about the daughters in years, not since the last time Mom told me her story. I'm thinking about them now because of that awful woman I met this morning at the Garden Center. Her off-the-cuff confession woke a sleeping memory and I fled that woman the way a cottontail flees a coyote. It’s crazy how the past floats up. So, I'm back a dozen years to the last carefree visit with my mother, when she rode her bike every day and grew her own salads, and her hair was thick and sunny. On this particular day, Brian was mowing her lawn. We were visiting from Alaska and there wasn't a lot to do, and without any prompting from me, Brian asked if he could cut the grass for her. Mom normally hired a neighborhood kid with his dad’s riding mower, but she seemed to appreciate my husband’s offer. Pointing Brian in the direction of her shed, she let him have at it. Which was no small feat. Her lawn was a rolling half-acre scattered with oaks, and her mower was prehistoric, and it was August in Southern Illinois.

I can't remember the last time Brian had mowed a lawn and I know he hasn't mowed one since. But he was out there, shirt off, flexed and pumped…a suburban gladiator, glistening with sweat, wrestling that beast of a mower and giving my imagination an invigorating workout. The rattling baritone of the old mower swelled and faded. I glimpsed Brian through the kitchen slider as he passed and passed again, and I couldn't have loved him more. Men think women love them for the expensive stuff—the houses, the cars, the diamonds. But it's the everyday priceless moments that make our hearts go pitter-pat, that keep us wanting him. That night felt like high school again, in my old room, locked in secret passion, with every word, every breath, every moan choked into silence so we wouldn’t wake my mother who slept across the hall. And at the same time being completely lost in everything us; a velvet ache of heart for flesh that feels like the sensuous drizzle of a James Last sax and has me imagining the bayou and slatted shutters and a lazy ceiling fan.

And after, the two of us tangled in sleep, dreaming as one. It all comes back sometimes, from just a glance, that split second when our eyes lock and Brian smiles as if he knows. Some moments you want to stay in forever. But hours before I knew that would be one of them, while Brian mowed the lawn, Mom and I were in her kitchen peeling apples at the ceramic-top table I once needed the Sears catalogue to reach. Together, we made my favorite Dutch apple pie using a recipe with how-to photos she had cut from the Chicago Tribune in 1948 when she was a wife but not yet a mother. Aged the color of brown sugar, that clipping is folded into a manageable square and tucked inside the cover of her tired and stained Woman's Home Companion Cook Book, now residing in my kitchen cupboard. I haven't made that apple pie in maybe two years, not since the last time Brian's sister and brother-in-law visited. But I'm making it for Brian's dessert tonight even though he still has Rocky Road in the freezer. Unfortunately, I'm the one who'll eventually eat most of the pie since Brian's sweet tooth is not the nag mine is, but at least apple pie has the redeeming quality of being apples. As long as I don't dwell on all the ingredients that make apples a pie, life is good. At eighteen and a college sophomore, I was Princess Red Delicious, and first runner-up in the Apple Queen Pageant held during the county Harvest Festival.

Last year, I had my first facelift. And this is how one thought spawns another until they swim in your head like so many fish in a pond, impossible to follow one specific. Today is Brian's and my anniversary...twenty-two years...and for the first time in twenty-two years, Brian has forgotten. No, he won’t surprise me later. Right now, he's finishing eighteen holes. Then he'll sit at the bar with the guys and have a couple of beers. Three hours from now, the garage door will rumble. From the garage, he comes through the laundry room and into the hall where he pets Molly, who is forty pounds of frenzied adoration. Then it's my turn. His kiss is convincing. He tells me something smells good as he peeks inside the oven. While making a Manhattan, Brian talks about his game—complaining about his putt—then he asks about my day. With drink in hand, he’ll retreat to the couch, change my channel, and wait for dinner. After roast duck, and warm apple pie with a cheddar slice, when I give him his card and a pair of Lucchese boots, he'll have nothing for me. So, I’m thinking…maybe I should ignore our anniversary. Simply say nothing and treat this day like every other. In a few days it might hit him. But if not, Christmas will be here soon enough. I can change the wrapping and put his boots under the tree. Wouldn't you know, I don't have a frozen pie shell. I finger through my mom's cookbook. Crust isn't hard to make; it's the fluted edge I'm dismal at. Mom would gently plant the sides of her thumbs in the dough, squeeze together, and twist two ticks. Her crust was a golden crown of peaks and valleys. Mine is thumbprints. I begin peeling a tart Granny Smith and I'm in Mom's kitchen again, the drone of the mower in the background, flicking my eyes on Brian as he passes. Mom and I are chatting as we compete for the longest spiral, when something catches her attention—like that woman’s confession caught mine—and trips a memory I know like my own. But I listen, as I always do, and the years drift away until my mother is an adorable little girl in her favorite bright green dress—with starched pleats and a scalloped collar—and wearing the brown, button-up shoes passed down through two older brothers. Mom presses against her mother, who cradles my aunt Kate, as they board the crowded sampan. In one small fist are a few inches of her mother's skirt; in the other is a coin to give to the boatman who powers their ride with the push of his pole. Mom has returned to Hunan Province, to the banks of the Yuan River, and to the city of Changde. Here, in this ancient port of temples and cobblestone streets, she was born and for eight years lived, the first daughter of Christian missionary parents. As the bow of the sampan ripples the water, Mom peers over the side. Innocently searching the shallows, she follows darting fishes...and comes face to face with the unfathomable. I watch my mother who forever remembers these perfect babies...rocked by gentle wakes... their umbilical cords floating like severed lifelines...and I see the dead who haunt her still, seventy years past. Barely a toe-dip into life after nine months of promise then returned to their maker, like a bad purchase, because of one fatal flaw. Trying to purge what she cannot, Mom searches for understanding. She asks me again how someone drowns a baby, let alone their baby, and I know she's not questioning the mechanics…

A perfect spiral hangs from my naked apple. One final cut and the peel collapses on the counter. I take my knife to the green collar surrounding the stem. do you drown your baby daughter?

Do you put her in a burlap sack like an unwanted litter of kittens and sink her to the bottom with a rock?

Do you hold her beneath the surface until she is limp in your hands?

Or, do you simply drop her in the water and walk away…

Molly jingles past the kitchen as I start a new curl.

Molly jingles past the kitchen? But, the duck’s not in the oven yet.

Nevertheless, that dog can hear cheese.

I peer around the corner.

Molly is in the carpeted hall outside the laundry room where she always waits—ears pricked, eyes focused on the door into the garage, wagging her tail, and starting to dance.

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