This is the essay I wrote in response to the “Toys Falling” prompt curator and artist IlaSahai Prouty assigned a group of artists and writers last spring. Saturday night was a performance of the show’s written works. The show is up through September, but keep an eye on Flatrocks Gallery. Make a point to visit it anytime. Interesting things are happening in this northwest corner of Cape Ann.
When the young mothers first arrive they are always confused that everyone considers them the most delicate cases. Grief here looks like purple and blue Himalayan peaks, millions of years of it stacked in layers like fossil fuels into craggy ranges.
So, the mothers of young children are surprised to be considered different, immediately treated with such pointed concern. No one passes them without pausing to whisper, “How are you doing?” Just a few minutes ago an old woman touched my hair – or that’s the feeling of it. Everything here is done and not really done; it’s done in the memory of what was once done. So to experience the woman touching my hair feels like remembering what it was like to have someone touch the bottom of my hair, to give it a feathery sweep.
“Just like my Valerie’s,” the older woman said softly, and then, “Are you ok?”
They give us distance. We are allowed a special area that’s even more calming than the grand views of sky and rock. Our area is more intimate, almost a nursery complete with painted clouds on the ceiling like the ones some of the mothers left behind, only these clouds are real. Everyone seems to know that while being here separates you forever from the touch, the voices, the breath of loved ones, it’s the mothers taken from their small children for whom the pain is never less dull than hair-ripping, knife cutting, boiling water on skin. We never stop hearing babies crying, toddlers waking scared in the night, seven-year-old’s feverish whimpers. We’ve been taken from the sides of cribs, baby carriers, playpens, car seats, classrooms of tiny chairs, crumpled leotards and miniature backpacks.
Famine, disease, cancer, drugs, violence, bad genes. These are the chauffeurs who drove us here. But now, here, people save seats for us, hold open doors, never let us carry a thing. Even the mothers of older children say their grief is another grade. The amber older mothers are preserved in is the color of their children arguing, testing, breaking rules, talking back, beginning to feel their own selves. They were taken when their children could ride bikes to school, drive, even be parents themselves. They are moms, even grandmothers, but not mama, mamica, mamae, aiti, maman, and mommy anymore. The older mothers wither when they look at us.
When it’s really bad, particularly when it’s close to a child’s birthday, we move silently to the special area where the sky is always patches of blue flecked with wisps of cottony clouds, and pray.
In our prayers we build toys for our children, magnificent large expensive toys we could never afford when we were with them. We build everything our children ever dreamed of, beautiful dolls once coveted in a catalogue, race cars with elaborately coiling tracks, even the video games and x-boxes we once disapproved of. We will give our children anything, because the only relief we have from the anguish is remembering the light in our children’s eyes when the paper is pulled away from the present, when delight and faith electrified their small bodies, rippling through them so hard the children could barely be themselves anymore. They jumped up and down; ran around a dining room table; their entire selves filled with the magic of something beautiful appearing because they wished it. Remembering that look in our children’s eyes briefly closes the open wounds of our anguish. Our prayers look like the aisles of Toys R Us.
And when it’s too much, the mothers find an edge, and push the toys off. I myself have shoved off Groovy Girls, American Girl Dolls, Star Wars helmets, Lego Space Shuttles and Playmobile pirate ships. The toys fall slowly, at first. I can still see them after a full minute, they fall so slowly. The women lean over and watch – a line of mothers bent over the edge of heaven the way our children leaned over the edge of the giant fish tank at the New England Aquarium. We lean over watching the toys fall, straining our eyes. The toys fall faster the closer they get to earth, and they get smaller. They begin to spin, and the women can no longer distinguish one from another. The toys look like a blur at one point, because they are so far away. They mix together like a big, moving blurry cloud.
And then, a child will come to the window. Every once in a few years a young mother sees it. A child comes to a window, looks up, and there is the light in their eyes, the wonder, the joy.
“Snow,” the child whispers, before running away from the window. Then the women can barely hear the shouting, “IT’S SNOWING!” but we remember the gentle rumble of a child’s bare feet racing through the house to wake up a brother or sister. “IT’S SNOWING!” they are shouting now; “IT’S SNOWING!”