Mud & My Runaway Mom Fantasy – by Abby Braithwaite

The road rolls out ahead of me on these rainy afternoons, and I think about where I could be by dark, where I might wake up in the morning. I know, this little fantasy is about as trite as it gets. Mom of two misses freeway exit, leaving long-suffering husband and innocent if enervating children to fend for themselves.

Trite, yes, but so seductive.

 

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In the beginning there was mud. Not the biblical mud—not the clay from which life was formed according to some far away, long ago legend. No, nothing so sinister.

This was the mud at the bottom of the cow pasture that slipped down the hill at the edge of my front lawn, the mud that dirtied my bare knees as I crawled through the culvert that carried the little stream under the road to bounce over the hummocks of grass and buttercups. There was one spot, just below a miniature waterfall, where the mud was smooth and silky and made for squishing. Down here at the bottom of the pasture I was alone, just me and my stories, with no big brothers to come along and tell me only crazy people talk to themselves, no baby sister to worry about. While my parents stacked firewood, worked in the garden, tended to my sister or attempted to intercede in my brothers’ violent battles over a Ping-Pong game gone bad, I slipped my tow-headed six-year-old self under the bottom strand of barbed-wire and made my way down to the brook to toss rocks, float sticks, weave rafts from grass and send dandelions and buttercups plummeting over falls. Water striders cast their shadows on the sandy bottom and most days, I ended up in the mud, the silty silkiness squeezing up between my toes. There in the mud at the bottom of the pasture I passed small eternities as the lone protagonist in my invented universe.

*

I continued to inhabit a world of my own making well into my twenties. It was easy then to throw conventions aside, and I found balance in a haphazardly calibrated mix of work and play.  Study a little here, travel a little there, get a job and fill the coffers, rinse and repeat. June knees muddied from the nursery business, December fingers black with the grime of Brooklyn after a few weeks of selling Christmas trees to city dwellers, I kept myself close to the earth. I also moved.

Beholden to no one’s agenda but my own, my life contained in my green and black Mountainsmith backpack, I crossed the country three times by car, twice by train. I rumbled on a refurbished school bus from Vermont to Nicaragua not once but twice, and back again that last time; covered the eastern seaboard a half dozen times at least, and the Pacific coast once or twice for good measure. Going somewhere was what I did. Sometimes solo, sometimes with company, sometimes knowing exactly where I was headed, sometimes not so much. But always going.

After a decade, this life, comfortable as an old sweater, began to lose its appeal; frayed and worn at the elbows, it was no longer enough. I started to feel the tinge of loneliness, or at least the absence of companionship. I started to wonder about slowing down, staying put, being still. As I drove across the country for the third time in as many years, I found myself at peace in the vast emptiness of the Great Plains, open wide to the expanse and possibility. But then, achingly lonely as I headed into the mountains, a knot of loneliness tightening in my chest as I climbed toward the Continental Divide, and made my way down the other side. Something so mind-stoppingly beautiful was built to be shared, and there was no one in my passenger seat, no one to call, even. I pulled off at a scenic overlook coming down into Coeur d’Alene, knelt on the side of the road and sifted sand through my fingers, unable to drive through the dense cloud of loneliness that gripped me.

Conveniently, at the end of my drive was an old friend in Portland, a hot tub, a few bottles of beer and the timing was right. It took a few years for the universe, the persistent old friend, the whims of Internet to convince me that this was the right thing, the right time, the right person. After one last stint of seasonal work in Vermont, after countless letters crisscrossing the country, after that one fateful internet glitch that delivered an email without any text into David’s inbox—the email that would have released him from waiting for me, that would have let me continue to spiral my way through life on my own—after all this, I went west one last time.

This time I had someone in the seat next to me, someone to stop and ski those mountain vistas with, and we drove into Portland at the tail end of a blizzard. Within weeks, the weather returned to Pacific Northwest normal. The trails through Forest Park that we skied my first weekend in town turned to mud, I found a job and settled in to a domesticity, a partnership, a lifestyle I had never known. After growing up in a large family, with all the compromise and combat that entails, after four years in a boarding school big on community, after a decade of making my own way with no commitments to anyone else, I had never known steady, calm companionship, didn’t know how to be with someone, how to be wanted, much less needed.

“I get home three hours before you,” I said to David one day a few weeks into my new job at a school for troubled kids. “So I get some time to myself every day. You never get to be alone in your own house—do you need me to be out a couple nights a week, so you can have some time to yourself?”

“No,” he said, a quizzical look in his eye, “I like having you here.”

“Yes, but ALL the time?”

“Yes.”

This would take some getting used to. In the meantime, I enjoyed my daily dose of solitude, digging into the packed earth of his backyard to plant a garden, put down some roots.

*

Things moved so quickly then. We talked about adventuring together, moving somewhere neither of us had ever been, making a go at creating a new and novel life, but suddenly we were married, making babies, moving to his ancestral farm where he slowly took over management from his dad and I found mud once again.

I found myself up to my ankles in the dirt of this place, anchored by the weight of David’s family legacy. I was five months pregnant when I decided to build a clay oven in the back yard one blue-skied August day. I had helped build a few as a child, working with the local radical puppet theater, and the silky clay on the banks of the Lewis River begged to be turned into an outdoor oven. As it happened, we didn’t dig clay from the side of the river, there was plenty in the hole David dug in the garden to put in a standpipe. Five months pregnant, feet of clay, I mixed backyard mud with straw in a wheelbarrow while my three year old gave herself and her doll a mud bath in a bucket. Around a dome of wet sand, sloppy handful by sloppy handful, I built an oven from old bricks and backyard mud, I baked bread, I set down a foundation that got left behind when we left that little rental house on the edge of the pasture and moved a half mile up the road to this cliff dwelling that overlooks it all.

We still have plenty of mud here, our dirt driveway pocked with puddles all winter, good for splashing, for riding bikes through, for dropping things into on the way in from the car, arms overloaded with lunch boxes, jackets, backpacks, groceries.

*

Sometimes, driving home with the back of my car full of groceries, I think about just not going home. I spend my life in the car, a thousand miles a month or more, and I’m right back on my own damn doorstep by the end of it, never getting anywhere. Just up and down the freeway, nifty carpool triangles, across the bridge to work, and once in a blue moon a day to myself in the city, but mostly just back and forth, north and south, wheels to road.

The road rolls out ahead of me on these rainy afternoons, and I think about where I could be by dark, where I might wake up in the morning. I know, this little fantasy is about as trite as it gets. Mom of two misses freeway exit, leaving long-suffering husband and innocent if enervating children to fend for themselves.

Trite, yes, but so seductive. With food enough for a few days in the trunk, gas in the tank, I lean back into my seat, contoured over the past 170,000 miles to fit just so, reach into the glove compartment for that battered old Lucinda Williams CD, her tortured loneliness and poetry pulling me back in time to the days when no one would notice if I didn’t come back.

At the end of the road, a one-woman bungalow with just enough space for a little loneliness, in a small town somewhere, mountains coming down to my backyard, a steaming mug of coffee on the small table on the back porch, bright orange cantaloupe sliced on a cutting board, sourdough bread toasted crunchy with the butter melting in.

*

My fantasies about the one-person house started long before I had children, before I was married even. Within months of moving into David’s farmhouse in SE Portland, I started to point out the little bungalows we passed on our nightly dog walks.

“Look at them, they’re just right for one person,” I would say, pointing out a sweet little stoop, three steps up, a perfectly proportioned window on either side of the door, an arbor of wisteria, perhaps, to keep things a little haphazard, keep too much orderliness at bay. David would laugh a little nervously, agreeing with an edge of concern, worried that I was a little too strenuous in my admiration for these little houses, but knowing better than to worry aloud, for fear my fantasy would turn into a plan. He’d call Akela—fluffy smiling golden retriever of his bachelor days—back to his side, the cat would dodge out of the bush where he’d been waiting for us, and we’d round the corner back to his house, our house, up the steps and inside to settle into the evening together.

It’s not just the solitude or the quiet of the one-person house that appeals to me. The last time I lived alone- the only time – the house was as full as often as not. That little New Hampshire ski-cabin turned cheap rental house, long and lean like a trailer, leggy geraniums stacked on cinder blocks in front of the sliding glass door, was such a people house that it was full even when I was not there; I would come home from a weekend away to discover beer bottles left scattered on the counters, a Newcastle label adhered to the door above the geraniums. Once I came back to a new built-in counter top, scavenged from Mike’s mom’s basement, installed by Mike and Ian while Elsa and I were on shift at work.

No, it wasn’t the solitude. Perhaps it was the containment. The one-person house was the perfect extension of that battered old backpack, not so mobile, of course (though I confess to crawling around underneath it looking for a chassis or a trailer hitch, any sign the house had once upon a time been on the road), but contained.  I could be gone for a week and come home to my magazine opened just to the page I left it on, the same cd in the stereo. It was all there, I was all there, and I couldn’t be lonely because there wasn’t room for any more.

*

And now? Just-turned-forty, sprawling my way across 4,000 square feet of midcentury ranch, every room full to bursting with us—the husband, the kids, the dogs, the useless cat. Outside, blackberry vines as big around as the front leg of the Chihuahua that just invited herself into our family clamber over lawn and garden, up the side of the chimney, into the tractor-tire fort, sprout through the cracks of the old concrete patio. Inside there is a project waiting in every room—get those bags of giveaways into the car, finish painting the kitchen, fix the leaky faucet in the bathroom, the plugged drain in the downstairs shower, get rid of the baby toys. Sort the mail, put away the dishes, clean the dog crate, tear down that wall so some of this blessed light can make its way to me in the kitchen when I am making dinner, or up at 5:30 baking gluten-free, dairy-free, potato-free, ingredient-free pizza crust before school so my daughter doesn’t get left out of pizza day. Legos leak out of the Lego room, farm dirt and dog hair make their way into every crevice, coffee grounds litter the floor next to the compost bucket. No, nothing here is contained, except, perhaps, me.

 

I used to mercilessly mock people who lived in houses this big, such excess, such supposed grandeur. But here I sit, gazing out at a view of lake and trees and pasture so exquisite even my kids pull up short on their laps through the house, call for me, “Mom, come! Come mom, quick!” And when I lay down the knife and wipe off my hands to come, they point breathlessly to the sun slipping away behind the coast range, to a trio of eagles dancing over the lake, to a flock of dozens – hundreds? thousands?—of sandhill cranes or trumpeter swans swooping in for a landing. Yes, this place is exquisite, these people my heart.

*

I sneak out to the garden when I can, to get my hands in the earth, plant the peas too early once again, seduced by the February sun and my neighbor’s adage to “Get your peas in by Presidents’ Day.”

But then, “Mom! Look at the worm!”  “Mom, why does the plant grow sideways like that?” “Mom, can I eat this mushroom?” “Mom I have to pee.”  “Mom, she pushed me….”

Torn from my reverie, I think once again about somewhere else, but I am so tired I am unable to bear the disappointed faces when I announce even a weekend away, and my thoughts go to that little girl down in the mud by the brook, alone, uninterrupted, sending little yellow flowers downstream to bob their way to whatever lies around the bend.

 

Abby lives in Southwest Washington State with her husband and two young children. She enjoys the country life, and gets outside with the eagles and cranes when she can. When she is not at home, she can be found trying quietly to make the world a better place for all children to grow up in.

4 Comments

on “Mud & My Runaway Mom Fantasy – by Abby Braithwaite
4 Comments on “Mud & My Runaway Mom Fantasy – by Abby Braithwaite
  1. This is so deliciously beautiful. Written with a gentle but eagle-eyed self-awareness. “Nothing here is contained, except me.” That line almost killed me.

  2. Beautiful writing Abby!

    After 20 years of breakfast, lunch and dinner, every day, domestic joys and sorrows around the same wooden farm table with my husband and kids, fate has led me to live now by myself for the first time in my life. My little 1870 carpenter’s Gothic cottage is, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, “A house of my own.” It may be temporary, maybe not… but it is delicious and wonderful….a magical change…. and my family can always visit me when they want to :)

  3. I loved your piece and the discrepancy between your love of your family and need for independence. I get it – 14 y o son, world traveller, married, artist, writer – balancing act….
    Keep writing!

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