One day after lunch, when my daughter Nellie was two, she started crying in front of her doodle pad and markers, so I picked up a pen, drew a circle face and two eyes with tears coming out, and she stopped.
“Girl crying,” she said, and grinned.
And then for the rest of the afternoon, she’d come to me with a mischievous expression and ask me to “draw girl crying,” which escalated into “draw man crying, draw boy crying, draw lady crying,” and then just, “draw crying.” Soon we had a sheet full of circles with down-turned mouths and streaming tears, and Nellie, too, looked like she might cry again. And I wondered, as I turned the page and drew happy faces to undo the sad ones, what was so fascinating about sorrow.
And then in the evening, after she’d gone to bed, I stood outside with my husband, at the edge of our garden. It was October, not yet one year since we’d taken possession of our house, and this was our first garden, a small patch in a west-end Toronto neighbourhood. It was covered with interlocking brick when we moved in, but we took that up and planted perennials, as well as cosmos and sunflowers that grew so large they leaned over into the neighbour’s property. But what astonished us most were the morning glories we hadn’t planted. They had been blooming and winding around the porch railings and twisting up to the eaves trough for some sixty years. They crept out of the cracks in the sidewalk, and wound around the maple tree, a city tree placed rigidly in the centre of the brick front yard. The woman who planted the morning glories died in our house, when it was still her home. On the shelves in our bathroom, just above the tub, are the fossil-like stains from her bobby pins, which I stole from her and incorporated into a short story. Though I’ve never seen her, I can imagine her pulling the pins from her hair and sighing as she slides down into a warm bath. She had two children here, and decades ago, one of them must have stood on the kitchen counter to scratch a figure into the window. The etching is only visible at certain angles: a round head, a triangle dress, and stick arms and legs, like the girls Nellie draws. My husband noticed it, and took a photograph, because when the old window is replaced, the figure will be gone. It seems strange that a family can live in a house for so many years and leave so few traces behind.
But back outside – we were admiring the yard that night because there is something beautiful about a garden in autumn, when the burnt look of late summer has passed, and the plants relax and form their seedpods. It was not yet eight o’clock, and the light was going. We were talking about our daughter. Across the street we saw a woman walking hand-in-hand with her son, and we could hear him chattering – not the words he was saying, just the happy up-and-down of them. He must have been about five years old, and wore those white sneakers with red lights that flash along the sole with each step. My husband and I smiled. We were imagining Nellie in flashing shoes, and how much they might delight her, when the boy’s mother – more than twice his height and rail-thin – suddenly stooped and pressed her face close to his.
“I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
And just as quickly she stood again, and lifted the phone we hadn’t noticed back to her ear, and pulled him along the street behind her.
Before having a baby, I didn’t expect my life would change so dramatically with motherhood. I write during nap times, which leaves me in an almost constant state of unfinished-ness, of fear that I’m not doing either job well.
My daughter’s existence has brought the things I want to write about into sharper focus, and also made me wonder why I write at all. Once I thought I was doing something important, but now it seems at times frivolous, or even cruel, to write about loss or betrayal when there is so much of it all around. After witnessing the mother yell at her son, I thought about that moment often, and realized that part of the reason it bothered me so much was that I recognized the scene as one I might invent to include in a book or a story, and I knew the satisfaction I would feel in laying out the details and finding the right balance between drama and restraint. But something has changed with motherhood. That wall of objectivity has had some layers peeled away. I keep asking myself, how do I make truth out of something that isn’t true? And why do I need to?
About a block down from where we saw the woman and her son, there is a small park dedicated to a murdered ten-year-old child. We had lived here for weeks before we walked in that direction and noticed the portrait that hangs on the fence beside a basketball court. We both remembered the news stories of the girl – how she had been taken while walking home from a friend’s house, and was raped, murdered, and dismembered – but the story changed, for us, when Nellie pointed to the picture and said, “Whoozat?”
The little park underwent a transformation over a period of weeks in the spring, as the anniversary of her death approached. Cartoon butterflies were tacked to the fence beside her portrait, and someone began to plant a butterfly garden. Along a ledge, people expressed their sympathy in the form of little statues and flowers and beads and stones, and on the anniversary of her disappearance, a large group walked the girl’s memory home by candlelight. There seemed something unfortunate but also necessary about the white vans and the lights and the television crews that came to record the event for that night’s news. Two pairs of running shoes hung swinging from the hydro wires and a tree branch held onto a dirty plastic bag.
In summer, the park filled up with chocolate bar wrappers, flattened pop cans and dog shit, and every once in a while a mysterious someone collected all the garbage by moonlight, when no one was looking. On Canada Day, kids exploded fireworks in the planters at the edge of the park, and the next morning, the street and sidewalks were strewn with wilted yellow pansies. My anger at that was so strong that I had to pick up the flowers to make it go away. As I gathered and replanted them, Nellie ran in circles on the grass in front of the young girl’s picture.
I walk up and down the street with my daughter, and snails must pass us once and then again on their way home because we travel so slowly. We often see another mother and daughter ambling at similar speed. The girl, about thirteen, I would guess, uses a walker and seems unable to speak. I remember the first time Nellie really noticed her, and understood something was wrong. The two had filed past us, and Nellie turned to watch them. When they got to their house, not far from ours, the girl lifted her hand in a still wave, and Nellie returned the gesture in just the same way. It was a slow, lovely moment, and the mother and I smiled.
My daughter needs to look at everything, and then go back and look again. She needs to touch her ear when she listens to a plane passing, and she needs to say what she’s doing – “Listen!” – as she does it. By osmosis her need to see and hear moves into my own eyes and ears. I collect images and sounds as she picks up pebbles. It’s something I’ve always done, but before she arrived, I transferred them to paper more quickly. Now there is less time for that – the writing – and more for the distillation.
Like a dream I remember the first few months of her life, when her need for me was so constant that I never slept for more than three hours at a time. I was almost delirious with fatigue. And I spent so much time looking into her face that I began to see some part of her in every face – the cashier at the corner store; Peter Mansbridge on the news; the old Italian woman who lived next door. Sometimes I would sit transfixed, thinking, God, who does that person look like? And then it would come to me: Nellie. The realization made everyone unbearably human, and the weight of my responsibility for just one little person seemed impossible to carry.
But every day she moves away from me. “Mommy don’t! I will do it!” In small waves, my own time is returning, but my certainty of how to use it is still recovering. I wonder if there isn’t some sort of arrogance in putting words on paper. This is how I see things. This image is so beautiful. The last chapter will make you cry. And yet I see a connection in Nellie’s “draw crying” command, and recognize that a child’s need to explore emotion doesn’t go away, but only moves to a different level with age and experience. I know that people need stories, because I need them too – if not to make sense of things like a child’s murder, or the fate of the boy with flashing shoes, then at least to acknowledge the sorts of things that happen all around us; to say we have seen.
“Draw Crying” first appeared in The New Quarterly.