By Elizabeth Newdom
Do trees feel pain when their leaves change color?
I am looking out the temporary window of our newly rented townhouse. The glass is cloudy from tiny fingerprints, distilling the courtyard maple tree into some rustic, romantic image, like a printed postcard you’d find in a gift shop, the ones that sell tiny snow globes with the word “Atlanta” or “Savannah” anchored to the bottom, snow swooshing and tumbling all around the word.
I am gone now. Down the southern highway indelibly paved in my mind, to the house on Burden Street. I didn’t believe in haunted houses until I knew the love for a home. Now I understand how even the bright light of heaven couldn’t steal you away.
I can’t imagine anyone wanting to spend their afterlife here. Maybe it would help if we unpacked the trinket boxes, the ones that require a true commitment. Moving is difficult for everyone, I know. But this time around, I am in a new state with a toddler and a husband working almost an hour away. Settling in hasn’t exactly been easy. I feel temporary, alone, a forgotten light fixture waiting for placement.
Despite my grievances, the universe or God or some mystical being, transplanted us in the nick of time. The Southern moss was beginning to strangle, like something from Maleficent’s garden. We were two months away from either joining or running our cars through the local Methodist Church. Three, from irreparable Southern drawls. But I do miss the blanketing heat, the constant lullaby of an Atlanta summer. And of course, Burden Street.
My son lets out a whimper from upstairs as he stirs in his sleep. A rush of adrenaline washes through me, but my feet remain planted in front of the window. Beneath my gaze, a bunny hops across the small plot of yard.
I took Asher to the indoor playground at our new mall last week. He spent an hour trying to climb up on giant plastic frogs and ladybugs, a trippy scene plucked from the pages of Alice in Wonderland. I watched him try to pull and push his way onto each creature, determined and tenacious in his attempts to reach the top. Until, eventually, like a benevolent deity, I gave him a boost.
Other kids ran around at my feet, screaming and laughing, while their moms sat on the lime green cushiony bench that surrounded “Alice’s garden.” A few ladies sat in pairs, caught up in easy conversation, exchanging raised eyebrows and knowing nods, probably offering the latest parenting advice from BabyCenter. I watched with envy, as if through glass, my fingerprints leaving smudge marks, my breath a hot mist. Wondering where to purchase tickets for this new life. Where to find the magical shrinking tea.
Just then, Asher’s whimper grows into a low cry. My vision comes into focus again on the maple, stuck between red and green, and I feel a twinge of pain. How do I expect to fit in here when I didn’t fit in there? Maybe I am destined to always be other, to be in-between colors, caught with one hand out and one hand in this eternally shedding skin.
Skin molting didn’t always feel so itchy and slow. That first time we stepped up to the river-stone door knocker, we were ready to move in. Sure, the street name was unfortunate: Burden Street. But there was the old cotton mill down the road. And the standing brick fireplace centered in the living room.
My husband and I used to drive 20 minutes through winding streets and two dozen traffic lights just to sit on the front porch swing, counting down the days until the lease was officially in our name. After we moved in, I swore I could feel the presence of past lives lived within those walls. There was this beautifully eerie stillness in every room, and erratic clinking noises from the dilapidated cellar furnace.
It was a home you fall into easily. Where mantles and bookshelves seem to have been waiting for your unique things—your favorite authors, your grandfather’s paintings. It was also the first home we shared, back when we sopped up each other’s words and ideas like biscuits in gravy, always eager for the next morsel. Back when getting full on each other took months, maybe years. When serenades and candlelit evenings were weekly occurrences. When having a child seemed remote.
The memories shatter as Asher’s cry turns a shade darker; he is like a gull, giving off an early warning to the approaching storm. Will this ever be home, I wonder? A place of belonging. He begins calling for “ma ma,” eagerly and intently, between sobs. “I am coming, bubba!”
Filled with new purpose, I begin quick, deliberate steps up the stairs, looking toward the bright afternoon sun peeking in through the blinds of his bedroom window. His crying is louder, almost desperate. The pitch in the word, “ma ma,” growing shriller. But my limbs are steady. I know my destination, and I have come to expect the outcome of my arrival.
An easy grin washes across my face as I anticipate that moment when he will see me enter the doorway. He will see my face, and his tears will cease. The silent deity of his world will have arrived. I belong to him, and he to me. Forever and ever. Amen.
Elizabeth Newdom is an adjunct English professor at a community college in Frederick, MD. She lives with her wonderful son and amazing husband and is often found writing or reading during moments of free time. Her personal blog is Memos from the Nightstand.