motherhood

Saints of the Lost

hello there, friend

There’s a handful of saints every Catholic schoolchild learns about and never really forgets. You might not remember the Act of Contrition you’re supposed to recite before confession or your scripture memory verses from middle school, but those saints stick.

One of these is St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. You learn about him early in your school days. Catholic teachers take any case of misplaced homework or mitten gone astray as an opportunity to remind you that St. Anthony is there, waiting to help you in your frantic search for whatever trivial item you’ve lost track of.

The prayer to St. Anthony is simple: “Dear St. Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and it cannot be found.” This is what I silently chant on a Friday afternoon as I overturn our house in search of Chuckie.

Chuckie—full name being Chuck the Buck—is a deer-shaped blanket buddy who has been the chosen lovey of my three-year-old since she was an infant.

Chuck had been missing since Thursday morning. More than twenty-four hours without her beloved Chuck had left my daughter Hadley distraught, so I promised to look for him while she and her sister were gone at Nana’s house that Friday.

My search is punctuated by annoyance, my prayer to St. Anthony interrupted with thoughts like, ’I could be getting so much work done right now,’ and ’She needs to start taking more responsibility for her things.’ Still, I remember what it feels like to irrationally miss a stuffed animal, so I comb through the house for a full twenty minutes.

I check the couch cushions (beige) where the deer in question (also beige) so often likes to hide. I dig through three toy bins full of blocks and baby dolls. I pay special attention to the bottom of the kids’ hamper and beneath the mattress of our bed, both places where Chuck has inexplicably turned up in the past.

Despite my repeated prayers, Chuck isn’t anywhere. When I break the news to Hadley that evening, I think I’m more upset than she is. Her chin quivers and she sniffs a few times, but she contents herself with a substitute stuffed animal during bedtime that night.

I, on the other hand, am something of a wreck. I find myself tearing up during still moments over the weekend. I keep looking all the places we’ve already looked. I retrace our steps. I think of St. Anthony. I really lose it when Monday brings a fifty-degree chill and nonstop rain. Maybe I’ve seen Toy Story too many times, but I can’t stop picturing Chuck cold and wet, wondering why his favorite kid has abandoned him.

I pack the kids into the car and retrace our usual walking route through the neighborhood, driving five miles an hour so I can scan the waterlogged leaves piled into the gutter for any sign of a worn-out deer peeking through. We drive to Target, where I creep along through the parking lot in case Chuck fell out of the car unnoticed. We check the park, deserted and soggy, though I’m sure we weren’t there on the day of Chuck’s disappearance.

Nearly two weeks after we lost Chuck, Hadley has all but forgotten about him. I’m still opening random drawers and chanting my prayer. Her adjustment to life without him is even more tragic to me than the thought of him laying in the gutter somewhere. It means she’s accepted my failure to find the thing she loves most in this world. If I don’t find this deer, I have failed my daughter.

I’m getting desperate, and St. Anthony isn’t helping. I start thinking I’ve been targeting the wrong saint. Perhaps St. Anthony is so overwhelmed with the pleas of late-for-work adults who have lost their keys and panicked kids who can’t find their math textbooks that he doesn’t have time to point the way toward a bedraggled, beloved deer.

Google tells me about a saint that slipped through the cracks of my Catholic education: St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, impossible situations, and hopeless cases.

That sounds about right. Finding Chuck after two weeks is probably a lost cause. Or maybe the lost cause is me.

Lost is exactly what I’ve been feeling lately. What kind of mother lets her three-year-old lose her favorite toy, then snaps at the end of a long day that it’s her fault for not paying attention to her things? How am I supposed to protect my kids if I can’t even protect a stuffed animal? The signs that I’m failing at motherhood are piling up fast, and I’ve accepted Chuck’s disappearance as another item to add to the list.

Not all lost things can find their way home. But then, some things can.

It’s 5 p.m. on a weeknight. I’m surrounded by the usual dinnertime cacophony: the oven beeping that it’s time to put the casserole in, the one-year-old shrieking because I have to set her down while I open the oven door, the cat yowling because I’ve let the clock tick one minute past his dinnertime, a forgotten podcast humming in the background.

I shout over the noise, asking Hadley to feed the cat. She sits down to drag the container of cat food from the pantry, pulling it all the way out rather than just reaching in like I usually do.

Suddenly she is shouting, a joyous yelp layered above the chaos. “Chuckie!”

My visions of a sad, cold Chuck left out in the rain had been for nothing. During our seventeen days of searching, Chuck had been tucked snugly behind the cat food in the back corner of the pantry floor, a Sam’s Club size container of instant oats on one side, a forty-pound bag of wheat on the other.

St. Jude came through for Chuck. He took a lost cause, a hopeless case, an impossible situation, and made it right again. For once, I get to shorten my mental list of parental failings. If there’s hope for a lost stuffed deer, there’s hope for the hopeless mother who prayed for his return.

Words by Ashley Brooks.

 

Dreams, Chickens, and a Whole Lot of Love

hello there, friend

“We bought some chicks today,” my son tells me over the phone one night.

“Is your condo even all packed up?” I ask.

“No, but we have the keys and are staying at the new house tonight, so we thought, why not.”  I can hear the excitement in his voice.

A few days later, my husband and I head up to help my son and his wife with the final move. I am anxious to see the house, which sits on five wooded acres a couple of hours north of us. I take it all in as we open the gate to the driveway. Native rhododendrons, some which are just starting to bloom, line the long gravel road up to the house. We are hardly out of the car before we are being given the grand tour of the property. Being an avid gardener my eyes hone in on the well-maintained flower beds, along with the fruit trees and berry bushes. There is even a fenced garden plot. Behind the pond out back, I wander the moss-covered trails that meander through the forest. Dappled light finds its way through the canopy of trees overhead.

“It’s perfect timing,” I tell them both. “You will get to watch your yard unfold – a new discovery every day!”

I walk up to the house, which is full of labeled boxes, and greet their three black pugs with treats from my pocket as I head inside. They are excited to see me and require my full attention. But soon, I hear the chicks and can’t resist the peeping coming from the spare room. In the closet, a light bulb hangs from the clothing rod and below it frolic five baby chicks, curious and cozy in a cardboard box. Each is different: each one a tiny puff of feathers, beaks, and cuteness. The pugs are inquisitive and a bit meddlesome, trying to get their smashed little noses close enough to get a good sniff of these busy critters who now share their new home.

Throughout the day the house is filled with family and friends, all ready to help unpack. We all go about our tasks and, finally, when everything is unloaded, we gather close and crack open some champagne to celebrate their dream come true. “Cheers!” we say as we click glasses, tired and so excited for them. We order pizza and call it a day.

Later that night, my daughter-in-law finds sheets for the extra bed, and my husband and I climb in, tired and happy.

“This is going to be a lot of work,” I whisper to him in the dark.

“Yep,” he says, “I hope they know what they are doing.”

“Do any of us really know?” I reply, recalling the stacks of how-to books on raising chickens and goats I often found on the table in their condo. I am elated they never lost sight of their dream.

Come morning, I wake to the sound of peeping. Quietly, I slip out of bed and tiptoe across the hall to greet the chicks. They are wide awake and busy, looking for food, running amuck. The bag of mealy worms sits nearby, and I offer them a few from my hand and laugh at how their tiny beaks tickle. I become particularly smitten with the black and white one, and later that day I ask if I can name her.

We visit often over the next few months and, each time, I eagerly head into the chick’s room and greet Amelia and her sisters. Hers is the only name I can remember, and only because I named her. They seem to grow before my eyes, going from that cute chick stage to awkward adolescence, where they are all legs and necks. They soon learn to jump out of their makeshift home, spread their wings, and make a bit of a mess. The kids buy them a bright blue child’s wading pool, but it is not long before they have to get a coop.

The next time I visit, Amelia has doubled in size, and seems less interested in me now that she has ample space to explore and scratch in. She pecks at the dirt and eats overripe strawberries. I kneel down, trying to pet her and feed her a bit of grain.

“Ouch,” I say to her and learn quickly that what used to feel like tickling now stings a bit. She is far more interested in my rings than the grain I hold out to her in my palm.

Over the next several weeks my son calls with chicken stories: they got out of their run and one roosted on the roof, another in a tree. No, they are not laying yet. They all sleep in the same nesting box. They need a different run because they are eating the strawberry plants.

I laugh and decide I love chickens.

One morning, I wake to see a photo on Instagram of their first two eggs nestled in my son’s hand. “Who laid them?” I eagerly type. He is not sure. I imagine my son and his wife sharing the eggs, and my heart overflows with tenderness. I think to myself, It is just an egg. But I can’t help it, somehow it seems like so much more.

Today, the girls are full grown. Each one different, each one a puff of feathers and beauty. They have their own unique personalities, but they still stick together. If one suddenly takes off running, the rest follow. They make a mess of their food, spilling it all over, and can pick a watermelon clean. They take turns in that one nesting box, laying their eggs one after another. Before they lay they are very affectionate and allow me to pet them, even hold them. Each time, I am surprised at how they are mostly feathers and how I can feel all the parts of the feather when I stroke them.

I think about what it is about these chickens that brings me such joy and see that they are part of a long-held dream, a glimpse into my son and his wife’s marriage that fills my heart to the brim. I see what they have built and worked on together, over their eight years of marriage: the deep love they share and the dreams they didn’t lose sight of, including these chickens. This home, and the land it sits on, opens the door to many possibilities. I can’t help but be thankful.

We strive for this as parents. We pray and work hard at modeling and teaching them values and then suddenly, in a blink of an eye, we release them into the big world, praying we did enough.

These girls, they are my proof. They are my affirmation that we did something right along the way. I know there will be new chickens in the coop over the next several years. I know that I probably will grow accustomed to gathering fresh eggs when I visit and take some off their hands because their fridge is overflowing. But these five, they will always be my favorites.

Words and photograph by Cathy Sly.

The Photos That Cheer Us Up

hello there, friend

On my refrigerator is a photograph I took of my daughter Lily right before she turned two. A few months ago, while my husband Adam was cleaning out the basement, he found it and handed it to me, a big smile on his face.

“Do you remember this?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” I said, taking the photo in my hand. “I took this at that restaurant on the Causeway. We were sitting outside, but they made us move in because it was too windy and the umbrellas were almost bending in half.” I looked closer at my daughter’s toothy little smile. “But we left and ended up going somewhere else. I can’t remember where.”

“I don’t remember that,” he said. He stood at the sink washing his hands, and I placed the photo on the fridge under a magnet.

“We were only there for, like, five minutes,” I went on, examining the photo again. “And look at this light. Look at the sun in her curls.” I sighed.

The photograph is a portrait of my daughter. She’s smiling with her big blue eyes and chubby cheeks, perfectly content and used to having the camera in her face often. Behind her, the sun is glowing, the light glinting off the wispy curls of baby hair she’d have snipped away a year or so later.

What I remember about that day is we had driven across the bay to the beach and walked along the sand. We were just looking for something to do, and I had off-handedly suggested a little adventure. I had packed two cameras – one digital and one film – because I could never make up my mind beforehand about which one I’d want.

I’d often take a photo with my digital camera, then try it again on film just to feel the difference. The digital camera was bulky and heavy, but film felt light. The lens I had was manual, so I took care to focus precisely, twisting the ring left and then right. I realized I liked the way it slowed me down, like an old friend tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to pay attention.

I looked more closely at the photo on the fridge. “It’s like I had it in me all along,” I said.

“What’s that?” Adam asked.

“A knack for this stuff,” I said. “That was such a hard time, but this – this was here all along.”

My urge to take pictures came from a place of observation. I wanted so badly to love my life. I’d keep my camera nearby in the house, I carried it with me when I went out. I was constantly hunting for something beautiful, even in the most ordinary of places. I took photos of whatever interested me – sometimes my little daughter, sometimes something else.

What I knew was that the process of taking a photo made me feel something, and at that time in my life, I needed to feel something good. I didn’t care about perfect light or composition; I cared about moments and what I could see.

One afternoon, while I was still very pregnant with my son, Lily climbed up on the bed with me after her nap, her blond curls longer by then, spilling over her shoulders. I had spent all of nap time lying down, trying to rest but instead sorting through my feelings about bringing another person into our family.

I asked her how she felt about the new baby coming, but she was three years old and ambivalent to anything not directly in front of her. I grabbed the computer from the other room, and flipped it open on the bed. “Let’s look at photos of you when you were a baby,” I said.

A friend of mine had suggested that, on particularly bad days, I look through old photographs to cheer myself up. She insisted it works even if the photos aren’t very good. They bring back all those good feelings, she said, because you rarely take a photo of something you don’t want to remember.

I sat with my daughter, browsing through picture after picture. There were more than I remembered, but each one called me back to the moment I pressed the shutter: the time we went to the park and laid on the blanket I made, my husband holding our baby while he studied for his paramedic exam at the dining room table, going to the pumpkin patch or the beach for the first time. It all came flooding back, crashing over me and washing away the overwhelm.

Everything was going to be okay.

It’s a late afternoon in October, and I take my kids to a park by the lake. The sun will be going down within the hour, the golden hour when the sun is soft and low as it nears the horizon. I have no clue what to expect – we’ve never been to this park before and, though I’ve shot my camera at golden hour hundreds of times before, I want to try something new.

The edge of the park, near the water, is filled with smooth, flat rocks. Both kids stand there, throwing rock after rock, giggling as they kerplop into the water. I snap photo after photo, the light behind them, to the left of the frame. Lily’s hair blows back from her face and lights up, gold in the sun.

“Mom,” she calls, waving me over. “Come here!”

I walk toward her and she puts out her hands. “Look, it’s a heart,” she says, and she shows me a pink and gray rock with a dimple at the top. “Take a picture,” she insists.

I take more photos. I put my kids in the pretty light and sit back and watch. For a moment, I think of that photo on the fridge. I can still see that little girl in the big girl my daughter is becoming – the blue eyes the same, the golden hair, the smile. She is taller now, and slender, but that little girl is still inside her, standing in the same light. And I’m still here with my camera, taking photos that will someday cheer us up.

 

Words and photograph by Lindsay Crandall.