An excerpt from the prologue of my memoir-in-progress, The Body Is a Storehouse (an early memory of my mother):
Then, there is this memory, too. A memory from before Bones, when it was only the three of us: me, Mom, and Ken. The tone of this memory is different, almost happy, with only a hint of clouds.
She is giving out free airplane rides. This doesn’t happen often, so we travelers, my brother Ken and I, are greedy and come back and back and back as if Mom is an unending, all-you-care-to-take buffet. But I know (because she has said recently and more than once) that we, at three and five, are getting too big for her to launch. So we want more, knowing it will soon end and that we will always want more of her, more of her happiness with, for, and among us. We soak her in, her and her laughter. We are camels at an oasis unsure of when we will drink again.
She lowers Ken to the ground, he guffawing his belly laugh, breaking free of her tractor beam and initiating his own kind of ride, twisting and twisting, arms stretched wide, a human helicopter, his motor humming. Unable to gain altitude, he drops into a dizzy heap, his little-boy body rocking because it doesn’t know stillness apart from sleep.
In a holding pattern, I run circles around the two of them, awaiting my third departure. Mom releases her legs to the ground, gives them a shake, refuels. I take less effort for take-off because I’m littler, so even if Mom is tired and even though it is getting close to our bedtime, she’ll give me the last flight out and I am happy for it.
She smiles at me, the sun in my eyes.
I radio in, “Affirmative,” with a smile and nod. Ready for take-off, tower. She, twenty-three or twenty-four and hardly beyond her own childhood, lies on her curled back, tilts forward, reaches her arms toward me, and spreads wide her long fingers. I stand in front of her, reach my fingers between hers. We lock hands as she positions her bare feet squarely on my chest.
“Ready?” She asks again. “One. Two.” She counts slowly so that I can hardly wait and bounce my own legs up and down.
On three, she lifts me into the air above her, her legs stretched straight up as she lies flat. And as she looks at me from the floor, I look down at her and take in the sights. She tries to release my hands, disengage the landing gear, but I hold tight.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I won’t drop you.”
I know she won’t—I trust her—but the hardest part for me is the letting go, balanced precariously on her tiny feet. I dare not move too far in either direction or I’ll crash land. And while she’s not a tall woman, five feet and five inches, the height of her legs to my three years might as well be 30,000 feet in the atmosphere. Ken, watching from below, will let go of her hands immediately once he’s in the air, both of them steadying each other precisely. He’s fearless. He tells me that if I let go, it will be fun.
“Who loves you, Baby,” she asks me then.
“You do, Mommy,” and I let go, spread my arms, and fly.
Once she lands me I can tell that she is tired from being our airplane. She announces our bed time. We try to ignore her and Ken lies on the floor, ready to fly me.
“C’mon,” he says, gesturing at me to position myself in front of him.
It’s not the same when Kenny does it, but I won’t pass up another chance in the air. I prop myself against his feet and we grab hands. He’s wobbly but he lifts me. He tells me to let go, but I won’t because I know I will fall. He’s not as strong as our mother. He calls me a baby, and I ignore him and yell at no one in particular, “Who loves you, Baby!” We hear our mother from across the room tell us one more time: Mommy does.
“C’mere. Give me a hug,” she says.
We are satellites, settling into her orbit. We tell her we love her again, afraid that maybe she didn’t hear us the first time. “I know,” she says, and there’s a sudden sadness in her voice that I cannot decipher. Is it sadness? Maybe. I only know that she is different from a moment ago. How could she be sad? Only minutes ago she had laughed with us. So I tell her I love her again, hoping it will change things for her. “I know, Jenni,” she says. I want her to say it, to tell me she loves me again because this melancholy has engulfed her and I think that if she speaks love it will inoculate her from all sadness. But the shadow that has passed over her passes through me and as much as I want her to tell me again that she loves me, as much as I want her to pull me in for a hug, I am silent.
She tells us that Ken and I need to love each other because, when she is gone, all we will have in the world is each other. I look at my brother; he keeps his eyes on our mother. The seed of fear, the size of a tiny BB, sprouts in my belly. Without her, we would be adrift, attached to nothing, drawn to no one. She pulls us in for one last squeeze before letting go and setting us on our way to bed by patting our bottoms. We are too young to understand how we might make it better for her.