Still-Life As Mommy

Tracey Watts Working Parent

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Once upon a time, my life belonged to me.

I write the words and am troubled not so much by the truth of them, but by the way that they hint that my “someday” fantasy is already behind me. I am not the pink-cheeked princess angling for her deepest desire, but merely the one who sleeps – the Snow White locked in her coffin, the Sleeping Beauty bound by the sleep of one hundred years. The sleep is thick, like wool in the mouth. It lasts so long.

The years are short, they say, but the days are long. Indeed. They are long with stomping and wheedling and tears. They are long with laundry, homework, and uninspired meals. They are long with the wish to be better than my own status quo.

Sometimes the years are long as well. Sometimes I browse the websites of agencies that arrange adventure travel in Iceland. “See the world of the Vikings,” they read. Sometimes I read tour descriptions for vacations in Belize. “We could go cave tubing,” I say to my husband. But he looks at me quizzically, and we look at our children, four and six, who still like to crash their bodies into the couch cushions, who consider that activity a sport. There is no zip-lining in my immediate future, no trek to Macchu Picchu, no dogsledding, no Bright Angel trail.

Some days, I resign myself to dreaming my way through my children’s bookshelf, though I frown a little when I finger the series of DK books we have amassed. In these books we dream together of rainforests, islands, the Artic, sun-kissed mesas, the land. I shape their dreams in tandem with mine. Still, their favorite adventure is the hour-long drive to Waveland, Mississippi, where the Gulf water is only brown and tiptoes lengthily to shore, never very wild or deep.

I dream of doing more. Before we had a mortgage and salaried jobs, my husband and I were young and only intermittently employed. We bought a Volkswagen bus for two thousand dollars and drove it to Nova Scotia. I never meant to come home. But six months later, my husband-to-be had cut his hair and was working an entry-level job in New Orleans sampling groundwater and labeling vials of dirt. Today he co-owns an environmental consulting firm, and I teach writing at a liberal arts university.

By most standards, we are doing well. But I long for our freedom, and the sleep till we wake to it again is so long. Still, sometimes I think of Snow White and remember that the poison was only an apple. I realize that it can be spit out.

Last year, I tried to spit. I drove from New Orleans to Colorado on a whim. My husband waved me off, and I brought along my childless cousin for good measure. We brought my children too.

I rented a VRBO for us in Fort Collins and signed my son up for week-long summer camps he could never experience in Louisiana – bicycle maintenance and trail riding, build-your-own-AM-radio. We listened to Brains On! podcasts all through Texas and thrilled when we passed a dormant volcano in New Mexico. We tromped through Garden of the Gods as we drove north, and eventually we landed. A few days later, we drove up to Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming and spent the day winding among the rocks. Bliss.

But I was also afraid. For weeks before we left, I had dreams of careening off a mountain as we wound around a curve, and I barely let my cousin drive the car. At one point, we drove over a reservoir outside of Fort Collins, and I couldn’t push the speedometer past 25, paralyzed by the sight of steep drop-offs into the water. At night, I was waking every hour. The day before my cousin’s flight, we learned that a serial sniper was at large in the area. She tried to remind me why I had come. “You needed this, remember?” she prodded. I shook my head, yes or no, maybe. I remembered the need. I wasn’t sure anymore if it was legit.

My husband was scheduled to come two weeks later to meet us and drive back home. The negotiations that brought him up three days later were embarrassingly brief. When he arrived, I was relieved to see him. Still, I didn’t want to be saved.

Because he had to leave his business on such short notice, we condensed our planned two-week drive home into a five-day tour. I tried to buoy myself up, advising myself with lines like, “You came up here. That’s the win. You planned and executed. You yipped at prairie dogs with your kids. You stomped in waterfalls together. So you went home early. So what?”

The self-talk was lengthy and effusive. It didn’t necessarily work.

Meanwhile, my husband avoided the subject of my failure. He re-arranged our route home with a gusto that mildly annoyed me. At one point, he proposed that we explore an abandoned strip mine in southern Colorado that another geologist had once described to him. The rocks jutting from the cliff sides would sparkle with crystal, he promised. But the drive would involve long stretches of unpaved road toward a spot he could only guess at on the map.

I thought of our children who still bounced on couches. I couldn’t sign on. “Too remote,” I complained, “too dangerous. You don’t even know where we’re going.” He grumbled, and I grumbled back, inwardly, that I couldn’t do it.

That afternoon, I cancelled the summer camps I had planned for my son. We went for ice cream and packed up the car. It was not the trip I had in mind.

My husband proposed a route home that would take us through Great Sand Dunes National Park. I let him drive us there. He was able to spot the purple outline of the dunes rising from the horizon miles before we arrived. I didn’t want to believe he had identified the shapes correctly from so far away, but he had.

Although it was late afternoon, we pulled up to the entry station and requested one of the park’s first-come, first-served camping spots. I half-heartedly hoped the sites would be sold out, but the ranger remarked that the group camp was unoccupied. I remember thinking that he looked bored. Black flies were swarming us, and he waved them away as he spoke, his voice dreary and monotone.

It was impossible not to stare at the dunes on the drive to the campsite. They were eerie, misplaced in a ring of mountains. A thunderhead had formed in the distance, purposeful and ominous, but my children were eager to explore, and my husband was confident that we could get a decent hike in before rain or sunset, whichever came first.

I followed their eager steps up the first dune. The sand was coarse, coarser than the sand that lines the Gulf beaches. It was hard, packed solid beneath our feet. I was struck with the sense that we were pretenders in an alien environment. I wanted to relay this idea on film. I composed photographs of my son, who had run far ahead of us, and I deliberately left the mountains out of the frame. From far away, he looked like a stick figure in a sea of sand.

He soon changed direction, and we could see him aiming toward a woman with a sheet of cardboard that she was using to ride down the mountain. “She’s snowboarding!” my daughter cried out. My husband took her hand and marched in their direction. I sat down, dug my hands beneath a layer of sand, and watched them go.

Neither my husband nor son had reached them when the woman fell. She reached down to catch herself as she crumbled, but when her arm hit the sand, a wail rose up from her direction and echoed over the dunes. It rose again. And again. The children stopped their running, but my husband picked up speed, moving toward her.

I rose to my feet and hesitated. The woman had obviously broken a bone, and I knew my husband would stay with her until someone brought back help. My children were standing alone, frightened and uncertain in the sand, and I didn’t know who to help. I called their names, but my voice was lost among the long stretches of air and the woman’s wailing.

My feet were heavy as I moved toward them, but I eventually caught their hands in mine. The sand had scratched my hands, and their skin felt new and cool against my skin. We barely spoke. When we scaled the last rise before we would descend back to ground level, I looked back for my husband one last time. I could barely see his form. I realized that he had the car keys. Though the thunderhead looked fuller, hurrying was pointless. We were all in this together, bound by a common direction called home.

That night I woke and listened to the rain as it came down heavy over our tent. My husband and children slept. There was more sleep ahead of me, but I didn’t reach for it, even though the waking was fraught. The thunder was too close, and the tent fabric billowed restlessly, even when the rain subsided. I lay there anyway, listening for something familiar, wondering where we were going, wondering what it was that I feared, wondering what it was that I loved.


About the Author

Tracey Watts

Tracey Watts teaches writing at Loyola University in New Orleans, where she is raising two spirited children.

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March 2016 – ASPIRE
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