Weekly Featured Essay
Can a nursery rhyme hold the secrets to how we can find strength in uncertainty? Can it hold wisdom for going against the flow and finding our own way as we undergo change?
by Emma Berndt
Once upon a time I sat in a miniature chair in a parent-tot class and became smitten with ‘the lady with the alligator purse.’ Remember her from the playground rhyme “Ms. Lucy had a baby” that children sing while playing hand clapping games? If not then here’s a refresher. A baby by the name of Tiny Tim drinks all the bathwater and then tries to swallow the tub itself. Understandably he doesn’t feel so great afterward. Ms. Lucy calls the doctor, who calls the nurse, who calls the lady with the alligator purse. The doctor looks at Tiny Tim and declares he’s sick with measles and the nurse says it’s the mumps. But, in the version read at parent-tot that day, the lady with the alligator purse declares the doctor’s and nurse’s assessment of the situation nonsense. She says there is nothing wrong with Tiny Tim and then she orders pizza for everyone. That’s the end. And, listening to the story that day I was struck with the feeling that I’d spent time as a mom to first one and then two small children desperately needing more of her wisdom. Could I get her number?
After my second son was born, I left the workforce with no immediate plans to return. At the time, I had trained myself over nearly two decades of climbing the ranks in the working world to spend a large portion of my day in a state that I now refer to in my head as “robot.” In “robot” mode, every email that popped into my inbox would cause my heart rate to speed up and a small surge of adrenaline to course through my body. I prided myself on how quickly I could dispatch various tasks and the sheer volume of work I could process. I wanted to excel in my job, and like many people I know, a lot of my very identity was wrapped up in my work.
by Karen Foster
My father and I have a schedule: I pour the cereal into each child’s bowl, and he adds the strawberries, defrosted from the night before. I put clothes in the washer, and he moves them to the dryer, initiating a truce between us. If he bathes the kids, I dry them and put them in pajamas. He hands me the baton as he leaves for work, and I run my leg of the course until I go to school or work and then give it back to him.
Everyone in town knows the shocking story of how our mother abandoned us, her flight from our lives bringing an end to a kind of chaos she seemed to cherish and initiating the schedule by which my father and I managed our own negotiations. The day of her departure was the happiest of my life. I was sixteen and she had been keeping me home from school since I was six.
“I just can’t get her to go to school,” Mummy tells my third-grade teacher. No one would believe me if I said she keeps me at home, that she gives me her pills, that she lies.
Leaving Mum Behind ~ 1967 – 1968
by Deborah Burghardt
Dad, self-appointed ambulance driver, strangled the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands. His jaw clenched, he looked as frantic as I felt. Mum lay comatose on the pillow-laden back seat. My sister, Merri, and I squeezed in the front. We had rushed off from my paternal grandparents’ home in Massachusetts to get to a hospital in Pennsylvania—our second twelve-hour road trip in a matter of days.
“Check on your mother,” Dad said in a voice, shaky, like her last steps.
My stomach twisted. Mum’s face had paled to the white of crushed shells. I touched her still warm forehead. Her breathing labored with almost imperceptible inhales. Her exhales—specks of air released sporadically like in childhood Hold-Your-Breath contests.
“How’s she doing?” Dad said, sweat trickling down his temples.
I pressed a cup to Mum’s lips, only to watch the water dribble down her chin. “She swallowed a little.” I lied. “I’m taking care of her. Don’t worry.” Why upset him with the truth? We had no choice but to keep driving and keep hoping—hoping Dr. McKelvey could undo what Dad had done.
The Reporter and the Reporter’s Mother
by J. Malcolm Garcia
The reporter sat in the living room and waited for the coroner to arrive and pick up his mother’s body. A hospice nurse had checked her blood pressure and listened to her heart just forty-eight hours earlier and had told him she was fine. One-twenty over eighty, the nurse had said. She then asked his mother if she knew the day’s date. His mother stared across the room at the pink clay tiles of the patio, upended by burrowing chipmunks and now barely discernible in the overcast evening, and the look on her face reminded the reporter of a moment in sixth grade when he had not done his math homework and his teacher, Miss Fowler, asked him questions he could not answer and gave him an F. After a long silence, his mother replied, February 19, 1917, her birthday. I’m ninety-eight, old, old, old, she said. No, the nurse replied, it’s November 24, 2015. The reporter’s mother said nothing. Do you know where you are? The street you live on? Home, his mother answered, I’m home, her voice flat and distant, a fearful look in her eyes as if she knew this, too, was incorrect.
This morning, just two days after the nurse’s visit, the reporter’s mother had felt nauseated and a home healthcare assistant, Cathy, helped her into a wheelchair and took her to the bathroom. Once there, she said she’d like to lie down and Cathy helped her to her room. She got into bed and fell instantly to sleep. Her breathing became labored and Cathy called the reporter, who had been reading in another room. He hurried in and Cathy suggested he call the nurse and when he got off the phone he saw his mother had stopped breathing. He swallowed and the noise in his throat sounded very loud and he just stared at her and called her name three times and Cathy started crying. When the nurse arrived, the reporter told her his mother was gone and she followed him to the bedroom with its flowered wallpaper and faded photographs of New York and Puerto Rico and pressed a stethoscope against her chest. Tree branches clattered against a window by a rocking chair. She’s gone, the nurse said as if the reporter had not told her.
On Want and Need
by Susannah Q. Pratt
It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement. — Abraham Harold Maslow
“Oh,” say people who hear about our decision to refrain from shopping for a year. “How great. So, like, you’ll just be buying the things you need.”
Yes, it would seem. Though I am no longer sure.
by Patricia Feeney
I was seven when I learned I had an older sister, a girl who didn’t belong to my mother.
The secret sister orbited on the margins of my 1950s world. She appeared at family gatherings, trailing behind my paternal grandparents. She hung quietly on the perimeter of our crowded family, her spectral presence enveloping my childhood. I didn’t concern myself with who Karen was. I only took note of her interest in my grandmother, whose attention I hoarded.
“Ain’t that something?” my grandmother would say with raised eyebrows if a neighbor complained the mail was late or the man down the street was caught picking through trash cans in the alley. She thought most people were petty, stupid, or both. I was delighted with her irreverent comments and always agreed with her.
When I visited her, we feasted on potato chips and daytime soap operas that played in black and white on her Motorola TV. I couldn’t follow the plot lines of Guiding Light and The Secret Storm, but I snuggled against my grandmother, who extended an arm across my lap and let me flick its flabby triceps, the cool, white flesh slapping back and forth. I was mesmerized.
Karen was two years older than Billy, my oldest brother, four years older than Tommy, my second brother, and five years older than I. She was so much older than my other siblings, they have no memory of her visits. Occasionally, Karen’s arrival to our home led to a sleepover; she slept with me in a narrow top bunk in the room I shared with my two older brothers. Our bungalow in Glasgow Village, MO, had not an inch to spare for Karen’s comfort. The three tiny bedrooms brimmed with seven bodies, and we all competed to use the single bathroom.
by Gabriel Sage
From my back, lying on the only corner of the rug not pinned under the burden of furniture legs, I realize I have stopped writing in past tense. At first the idea seems weightless, an accidental thought hovering without meaning—the chance product of my afterhours-brain meandering promiscuously through late-night thoughts. But then it gains effect and gravity, sits full bore on the forefront of my mind, taps me enigmatically with a reflex hammer. I look up to try and bring the thought into focus, but there is only the dense stillness of the house and the thick inky darkness of unlit morning sticking to the outside of the window. I take a quick mental inventory of my recent writing to test the idea: I find no was or were, only is and are. Frowning, I wonder if there is undiscovered significance here and roll onto my stomach, pressing up onto my elbows. Below me, an indentation of matted fibers is recessed from where my body had just been.
To my right, a messy stack of records leans against a small metal rack that is home to a turntable. The record playing is Either/Or by Elliott Smith. A black spiraling chord reaches from behind the console and connects to bulky headphones pressed over my ears. I am enveloped in haunting vulnerability and whispering melodies that tear with candor from the stark but ethereal music. I listen carefully to the reverberating tones until the last chord of the song decays into a gentle hum. A soft looping click, not unlike the whir of moving water, signals that it is time to flip the record. I obey, lift the opaque plastic cover, carefully handle the vinyl by its edges, and lower the crystal stylus softly back into the thin spiral of grooves.
Modesty and Other Provocations
by Amy Roost
Frustrated, yet disciplined, I throw back the covers and rise from the warmth of my bed. I make coffee, feed my confused cats their treats, open my laptop at the dining room table and begin taking dictation on the intrusive thoughts that have kept me tossing and turning all night. Although I’m a night owl by nature, early morning is my favorite time of day to write. The apartment is peaceful, interruptions are few, and there’s the reward of the soft light at dawn that makes anything seem possible.
I chose writing as my second career because I wanted to ‘be the change’ by shining a light on social injustice. The hours are long and the pay sucks, but it feels like I’m finally making a difference in the world instead of merely collecting a paycheck. I spend three hours getting good work done before reluctantly heeding the “time to stand” notification my iWatch keeps sending me. Thinking of Einstein’s advice on the importance of doing nothing as a way to generate creative ideas, I go out for a walk. It’s a crisp October day and I head toward the harbor. A gentle onshore breeze combs my skin and I feel the burden of multiple deadlines begin to lift. At the two-mile mark I stand before the rippling sails of The Star of India, an old clipper ship that graces San Diego’s bayfront. I take in several deep breaths of briny air before turning around and heading for home, and more work.
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Encounters features fifteen eclectic essays originally appearing in bioStories magazine, all focused on some of those chance encounters that can transform our lives.