Previous Challenge Entry (EDITOR'S CHOICE)
Topic: Autumn/Fall( 08/27/09)
Could've Been a Contender
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At the whirring of the garage door, I crane my neck around to see who’s going where. These days, someone’s always going somewhere. Then there are those who are left behind to rake and cook and keep up with the mundane tasks of living.
Oh, boy—wouldn’t I make a formidable contender for Martyr of the Year?
“Hey, Kendall,” I call to my daughter. She waves—not looking at me. I love her casual look of rolled-up jeans, sweatshirt, and a bandana wrapped around her head, ponytail swinging. Her vibrancy makes my stomach loop.
“What are you looking for?” I ask.
“Stuff for helping with the homecoming float.” She yanks open one steel cabinet after another.
Ah, homecoming. “Check the drawers—you’ll find duct tape and wire coat hangers—all anyone needs to make anything. Just ask your father.”
I drop the rake in the grass and pick up a maroon leaf—so smooth of surface. It’s freshly fallen, perfect for ironing between sheets of wax paper to hang at the windows for decoration. The kids used to love making crafts.
I hear the plunk of her tossing items into a cardboard box. Normally, I’d get up and help her, but today, I just don’t feel like it.
“Do we have any leftover paint?” she asks.
“On the shelf in the back.” From the questions she frequently asks, you’d think she grew up in a different household. Yet her tapered fingers and romanesque nose suggest she’s all mine—or at least half mine. I close the leaf into my hand, then immediately open it wide, palm flat. The leaf takes its time reshaping, just like my collagen-deprived face does after a scrunched sleep. “Who do you think will be homecoming queen?” I wonder aloud.
“Bethany Trueben—and she’s prancing around like she’s already won.” Kendall pops the trunk of my Camry. “Okay if I use the car?”
Like I could say no now. I pinch the stem off the leaf.
What nags at me is that she couldn’t care less about being queen herself, and though she has her faults, she also possesses more character than I ever did when I was seventeen. Why didn't I get serious about life earlier? I rip the leaf in two and immediately feel myself getting weepy.
At the slamming of the trunk, I jump. “I’m outta here,” Kendall calls, but then, instead of getting into the car, she runs over toward me, stoops down, and plants a kiss on the top of my head.
Why’d she have to go and do that?
“What’s wrong, Mom?” she asks, laying a hand on my quivering back.
“Tree mold—allergies,” I manage to say, pointing to the replacement maple.
I’m torn just like the leaf at my clogs. Half of me wants to indulge in an all-out blubberfest. But the other half won’t put that weight onto her shoulders, the shoulders with the graceful line. She didn’t get that from me.
“You wanna come help?” She kisses me again, this time softly. “I mean it.”
I wave my arm elaborately, keeping my back to her. “Go, get—I’ve got my own things to do.”
“I love you,” she says, standing up. There’s hollowness where her hand was.
“And I like you in my own way,” I joke.
My other children are oblivious, but with Kendall I feel relatively certain that she gets it: the depth to which I gave my family the parts that had been missing from my own childhood. Isn’t that what every parent does? And, God knows, I wouldn’t change anything, but now I’m asking: What if I’ve waited too long to pursue my other dreams? Do I even remember what they were?
When the Camry finally turns the corner, I wipe my eyes with the tail of my flannel shirt. The leaves gradually come back into focus, and I remember something one of the kids learned in science: During the spring and summer, the chlorophyll gives leaves their green hues, but those aren’t their true colors. We don’t see those till the autumn when the shorter days reveal what was hidden inside all along.
And that thought gives me enormous comfort.
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