The Mother

This story is dedicated to my sister, who has always had a mother’s heart.

Papers slid into a folder before Allie secured them in her bag. The assignment she’d given her students always took forever to finish grading, but she loved reading the stories of their mothers. At home, she’d make a few comments on each story; the kids liked that. The rest of the week, they’d work on the handmade gifts. This year, she’d chosen paper flowers in paper mache vases. Each story would be copied to a small scroll and hung with ribbon on a painted vase.

She stepped through the classroom door to the outdoor walkways they called halls. The emptiness of the school, eerie to some, always brought her comfort. Laughter and smiled filled them during the day. Designed with outdoor entrances, sunshine brightened each room, and nothing darkened the halls she walked now, not with the echoes of life lingering so close.

Pushing a graying hair behind her ear, she studied the ground. Home was different.

Within a few minutes of leaving work, she opened the door to her small house and slipped off her shoes. Tension relaxed in her shoulders as her toes wiggled from their pinched positions. Quickly piling a few cookies on a plate and pouring a glass of milk, Allie settled down on the couch with the thirty stories.

Erik’s story fit him perfectly. A day spent racing dirt bikes through the sand. Every time his mom wobbled on her bike, he zoomed over and helped steady her. Allie smiled and attached a dirt bike sticker to the top. She’d spent days searching for those stickers after realizing how much he loved dirt bikes. Encouraging him to learn with dirt bike word problems had made a difference too. Once behind, his work in every subject now showed promise others said he’d never achieve.

A few minutes later, she swallowed some milk, barely containing a snorting giggle. In class, Allie had explained that some children didn’t live with their mothers. Some lived with grandmothers, aunts, foster moms, or their dads. Shelly was one of those kids. After losing his wife, Shelly’s dad continued to raise her alone. Shelly’s story included a lavish tea party where her dad dressed up in a skirt and boa. She took special care to roll curlers in his hair and call him Mrs. Smootsworth.

As she continued to read, her emotions flooded through her as she thought of each student. People tended to think a room full of kids meant someone getting left behind, but not in her classroom. At least she hoped not! With no children of her own, she had to dote on someone.

Sometimes the process left a hole in her heart. Parents sent teacher appreciation gifts, and students drew her pictures and left her notes. But none of that was the same as being a mother. Not this week. This week she prepared all of her students to recognize their own mothers. And they should. After all, Mother’s Day was Sunday. Still, she had never gathered her own baby in her arms in the middle of the night for a feeding. And when she visited the park, no child ran to her crying because they fell. No one called her mama, mommy, or mom. It stung.

Standing to carry her plate and glass back to the kitchen, she stopped when a soft knock sounded at the door. Who could that be?

On her tiptoes, she peeked through the peephole, glad she’d remembered to turn on the porch light. Wendy?

“Well, hello? How’s my favorite niece and grand nephew?”

Tears fell from Wendy’s swollen eyes as she carried a young baby in a carrier through the open door. “Aunt Allie…”

The flustered mother fell into her arms, sobbing as she tried to speak. Only incoherent mumbles reached Allie’s ears, and she wrapped her arms around her niece and walked her to the couch.

Wendy and Allie had a special bond. One they’d developed when Allie opened her home to her sister, Ruth, years ago. For three years they’d lived in the same house. During those years Allie often played with Wendy and her brother after work. Though she never disciplined the children outside of her authority as homeowner, she did had fond memories of late-night conversations and lots of ice cream bars.

“You take that cute little boy out of that seat and curl up on the couch. I’ll get the ice cream bars.”

The corners of Wendy’s mouth rounded up slightly with a grateful sigh.

“Don’t leave me waiting. What brought you to my porch this late at night.” Allie asked. “I thought you were coming Saturday morning.”

“I was. I am,” Wendy stuttered, then bowed her head. “Matt’s out of town on business and…”

Tears filled her eyes again as she accepted the ice cream bar from Allie.

“And?”

Wendy’s chin quivered as she struggled to blink back the tears, staring at the baby. Adam. “He just cries.”

“He’s not crying now.”

“He will.” She twisted her fingers around each other in a continuous movement. “I haven’t slept in days, not really, and I can’t do it alone anymore. Can we stay here tonight?”

“Is that all!”

Allie reached for Adam, whose little body pulled into a tight ball before letting out a wailing scream. Wendy’s eyes glazed over, but Allie never slowed, easing her hands under his head and pulling him close.

“Grab yourself some cotton to plug your years, then get yourself to bed,” Allie said.

“I can’t leave him with you.”

“I won’t hurt him.”

Wendy stared at Allie, who shooed her away as she bounced Adam in her arms.

Allie stared at her great nephew. “Your mama needs to sleep. What have you been doing keeping her up all night?”

He continued crying, and she swaddled him in a blanket, binding his arms and legs.

“I know, life if hard. God plops us here on Earth and everything’s different. Bright then dark. Bodies that hurt. And you’re so little, you don’t understand any of it, do you? Well, you just sit here with me, and we’ll figure it out together.”

A couple of hours later, Allie slid between the sheets she’d laid out on the couch, a sleeping Adam next to her in his carrier. Any crying from a hallway or bedroom promised to wake up Wendy, and Allie would not have that.

The next morning, she scrabbled some eggs and fed Adam a bottle before knocking lightly on Wendy’s door. Her groggy niece opened the door, looking better rested.

“I see you got some sleep. Eggs are on the stove, and Adam’s been fed. You can stay as long as you’d like, but I think your mom might like a visit.”

Wendy pulled a face, her nose crinkling. “Yeah. I wasn’t ready to listen to her nagging.”

“Nagging.” Allie shook her head. “Your mother doesn’t nag, she worries.”

“Worries about what?”

“About you. About Matt and Adam. She’d have done the same thing I did last night.” Her voice softened as she smiled. “I’m glad you came here, though.”

Wendy’s shoulders lowered, the tension leaving. “Me too.”

When Allie returned that evening, Wendy was gone. She ambled through the lonely house to the kitchen and ate a cookie, then cracked open a book. It had been a while since she’d had time to read, and she planned to enjoy it, especially after the day in the classroom.

Billy’s vase broke into a crumpling paper mache heap, similar to his sad, crumpled face. Jane called for her to examine her work’s progress every few minutes, reveling in the praise. On top of that were the usual behaviors, an unintentional pencil stabbing, a couple of scraped knees, and three gabbing girls.

Saturday passed quicker than Allie had hoped, and once again, she woke up to Mother’s Day. After dressing for church, she walked into the building and sat in her chair where she smiled at the people walking past. Some mothers wore corsages, others boasted about breakfast in bed, while more whispered scathingly about how their family never did anything for them.

No one knew how much she wanted children. They didn’t understand that her dreams of a family had never been realized. How could they?

The sermon revolved around motherhood. A godly purpose. At the end of the service, children handed out small potted plants to all of the women. Each bloom emphasized the idea that every woman was a mother in her own right. Even if she had no children, she helped raise others.

Hogwash.

At home, Allie placed the plant on the mantle and snuggled onto the couch with her book. Sentences floated through her mind as she read the words, but Mother’s Day had stolen her focus. Was there something wrong with her? No chance of marriage. No children. Is that what God thought of her, that she wasn’t good enough? That she wasn’t worthy of such love? The thoughts stung, and the burning in her eyes increased. Why not her? Had she not given enough? What had she done wrong?

A knock at the door brought her head up. She turned the knob and found Wendy holding a bouquet of flowers. “Happy Mother’s Day!”

This time Allie scoffed.

“Aunt Allie?”

“Have you had a good day?” Allie asked.

“Matt got home last night and made me pancakes this morning. It’s been nice.” She studied her aunt’s face. “How about you?”

“Normal, I guess. I get all the gifts and appreciation, but none of the children. Win-win, right?”

Wendy ignored the comment and scanned the kitchen cabinets for a vase. Once the ends of the flowers were trimmed and the flowers brightened the table, she pulled Allie to the couch.

“Have you never paid attention to all the children you have?”

Allie rolled her eyes. “Students are not the same thing.”

“Maybe not, but you helped raise me. How old was I when we lived with you?”

“Nine.”

“As I recall, you made me lunch, took me to school, hugged me when I struggled, and listened when I needed to talk. That’s a mother. When I think about raising my children, you’re as much an example as Mom.”

“What else was I going to do. Ignore you while you lived in my house?”

“Aunt Allie, you did so much more, or I wouldn’t have come here earlier this week. I love Mom, but I needed you and your mothering. Can’t you see that?”

Allie shrugged.

“Maybe God didn’t give you children because he knew how much the rest of us needed you.”

Allie reached over and patted Wendy’s knee. “Never looked at it that way before.”

“Well, I have, because I continue to need you.” She grinned at her aunt.

“Motherhood doesn’t determine who you are. You determine what motherhood is.”

Allie lifted herself to her feet. “Stay for lunch. I think I’d like to hear more about Adam while we enjoy our much-needed break.”

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Flash Fiction: A Crib for Jesus

Martin’s arm hung around Kate’s shoulders. “You need something to take your mind off it. Pull the decorations out and start decorating.”

“I don’t feel like decorating this year.” Kate brushed a tear from her eye and laid her head against the couch.

He rose from the floor where he’d been kneeling. “I’m gettibg the boxes down anyway; you might change your mind.”

“Whatever.”

Nothing could cure the emptiness she felt. Her body betrayed her, taking away the one thing she’d yearned for for so long. How could anyone recover from such a loss? Sinking lower into the cushions, she curled into a ball, sobs racked her body once again. Grabbing the blanket near her feet, she brought it up to her neck, clinging to it, praying for comfort to come. It didn’t. It couldn’t.

Four stacked tubs soon towered near the couch, and faint noises polluted the air from the corner. With eyes shut, Kate knew Martin worked to set up the tree. She always set up the tree, fluffing each branch. She clenched her eyes tighter and rubbed her belly.

“Which skirt thingy do you put around the bottom of the tree?”

“I don’t care.” She imagined Martin’s soft smile as he stood still, waiting. “The gold.”

“You sure you don’t want to help?”

“Positive.”

“You’ll like it better your way.”

She curled tighter. “I don’t care.”

The crinkling of plastic and newspaper announced the unwrapping of various hand-painted Santa Claus figurines, elves, reindeer, angels, and stars. Kate cracked an eye and watched as Martin placed them around the room. “You forgot the lights.”

“Lights? Where are they?”

“In the other tub. They go on the shelves and table.”

“I better get those.”

Slowly easing her way to a sitting position, Kate started to give her husband instructions for each decoration. Every time she did, his smile grew. When the room sparkled from top to bottom, he looked at her.

“There’re still two more bins.”

“Those go in the other room.”

Martin picked up the tubs and carried them into the front room.

“The other tree is in the closet upstairs,” Kate said.

As Martin walked up the stairs, Kate carefully opened one of the bins. She spread a cloth across the piano and set a few stuffed snowmen on the floor. Trembling, she sank to her knees, clutching an ornament in her hand that read First Christmas—a tiny baby in the arms of a mother worshipping a babe in a manger.

Setting down the smaller tree, Martin picked Kate up and carried her to the couch. “What happened?”

She handed him the ornament and peered at him as a single tear escaped his eye.

Years of wanting children, more of fertility treatments, and when they’d finally given up, news of her pregnancy came, lighting their lives. That night they’d gone to the store and purchased the crib she’d dreamed of since their wedding day. The next week they purchased a swing. The tradition continued through the five-month pregnancy, each week buying one item for their unborn baby. Tiny flutters joyfully interrupted one shopping trip. Kate and Martin celebrated with Orange Julius, hoping for a longer show. And after the big ultrasound, the couple purchased a beautiful, white suit for the son Kate carried.

Martin took her hand. “Help me. We can decorate together.”

“I can’t.”

“You can. What’s left?”

Kate scanned the room and her eyes fell on the remaining tub. Her chin trembled. “Nativities.”

“Your favorite.”

“Not this year.”

Martin sank to his knees next to the couch. “Why not?”

“God abandoned us, our baby.”

His brows furrowed, and except for the Christmas music, the room fell silent. Away in a Manger.

Martin disappeared, and Kate listened as noise echoed from the room she’d chosen for the baby. As the minutes passed her curiosity peaked. Easing to her feet, she stepped to the hall where Martin pushed the collapsed crib through the door and toward the living room.

“No. What are you doing?”

Martin never answered. Instead, he moved the table where Kate usually placed several nativities and pushed the crib into its place. Within a few minutes, the crib was whole again. He immediately picked up the table and retreated down the hall.

“Martin, stop.”

Ignoring Kate, he returned to the room carrying the gorgeous suit they’d purchased for their son and the soft blue blanket Kate found the week before. Soon the lamb-shaped lamp came out. Martin spread the blanket across the mattress and set the lamp in the corner. He held the suit out to Kate.

“What are you doing?” Tears ran down her face. “These are our baby’s.”

“We can’t give our baby a place to sleep, dress him, or keep him warm. We can’t light his room, but we can do that for another baby, one that never had those things.”

He shook the suit gently, urging Kate to take it in her hands. Shuffling forward, she allowed her fingers to skim across the soft silk. So many of the suits in the stores used rough synthesized fabrics. She refused them, searching longer and paying more for a soft natural fiber.

“He abandoned us, Martin.”

“Did He?”

“We’ll never hold our child, we won’t see him smile or laugh. He’ll never run or play or get in trouble. None of it, because he died. He died before he could live. A single breath. God took our baby and left me with nothing.”

Martin held Kate’s crumpled body in his arms, letting the tears sink into his shirt. Silence passed between them. Kate tried to avoid the truth, but it pricked at her heart, begging to be heard.

She turned away and reached into the last tub, removing the pieces of her favorite nativity set. One by one, she placed each piece. The shepherds. The wise men. The sheep and cattle. The last three pieces she clung to. Her pain lifted, if only for a moment, as she considered that family’s story. A loving man accepted the Son of God as his own. With no bed, a mother gave birth in a barn and laid her son in a manger. Years later, that same mother watched her son give his life for all of mankind.

The pain of losing her child might always be there, but she wasn’t alone.

With stronger hands than she’d had in weeks, she placed the three remaining pieces of the nativity and hung her son’s suit on the back of the crib—a simple symbol of her love for the boy who lay in the manger and made it possible for her to see her son again. Anguish receding, she reached for her husband’s hand giving it a squeeze she hoped said I can do this.

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Flash Fiction: A Normal Day For Joy

 

Sometimes listening is better than reading. If you think so, enjoy this audio version.

 

Joy balanced Nate on her left hip, his legs resting at odd angles around her swollen belly as she rushed to her phone, answering it. The dial tone sounded in her ear. She placed Nate, sopping wet on the couch, his tears mixing with the water seeping into the stained cushion, then redialed her husband Connor.

“Hello.”

“Sorry, Nate plugged the tub and turned it on without me knowing. I was mopping up the hall.”

“The carpet?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna grab the fan out of the closet in a minute. What’s up?”

A tapping sound echoed over the phone line, and Joy waited for her husband to answer.

“How’s your day been?”

“Pretty normal. Nate knocked his cereal onto the floor again, ripped up a book I planned on reading, and flooded the house.”

“Yeah.” Joy listened as Connor drew air through his teeth. “Martin invited me to go to the game tonight.”

“Oh! And?”

“I’d like to go. I’ll make it up to you.”

“You will, huh? How?”

“What would you like?”

“A clean house and a flat belly,” she said as she walked down the hall to the linen closet.

“How about a foot rub? The belly thing will sort itself out soon. One more month.”

“A month. Don’t remind me.”

Silence.

“So, what do you think?”

“I think you should decide.”

“Well, I’d really like to go.”

“I got that.” She wrapped the towel she’d gotten from the closet around Nate, whose whimpers increased. “When will you be home?”

“Probably by nine. I love you.”

“Love you, too. Have fun.”

Slumping next to Nate, Joy pulled him onto her disappearing lap. “If Daddy’s going to a football game, we can ignore cooking a real dinner. How about macaroni and cheese?”

Wisps of dried blond hair glided into the air and gently fell back to Nate’s head as he turned around and smiled at her. “Cheese,” he said with a smile.

“Yup, cheese.”

Sliding out from under her son, Joy waddled back to the flooded hall. She laid another towel on the wet carpet and knelt down, applying pressure to it as hard as she could. The idea of stepping on the towels seemed great until her sciatic nerve acted up. Kneeling was better. As the towel absorbed the last bit of puddling from the floor, Joy prepared to stand up. One foot worked its way underneath her, and she used it along with the wall to try and stand.

Sudden tremors took over her body as piercing pain tangled the muscles from her back to her feet. Rolling to her side and then to her back, Joy lay on the damp floor, until the pain subsided. How on earth would she get up now? She scooted her body to the bathroom threshold as the nerve screamed at her again. A twist to the left, and Joy no longer wondered how whales beached themselves. Seconds later, knees bent underneath her supporting her belly as she rested, before placing her hands on the molding of the doorway.

With both hands in place, she lifted herself from the floor, but before she recovered, a startling sound from the kitchen knocked her back down to her knees. Her time now limited by the unknown actions of her misera…terribl…active toddler, she pushed herself through the jolting pain. Each foot moved an inch at a time as she leaned against the wall, shuffling toward the kitchen. The pain slowly receded.

A deep breath led Joy around the corner, her eyes settled on the open fridge and her son’s wet backside. “Nathan, what are you doing?” He turned and stared at her, a wide smile across his face. A glob of deep yellow and clear goop landing on the floor. “No, no, no, no, no, no, not the eggs. Nate, not the eggs!”

Her beach ball-sized belly beat the rest of her to the latest destruction. Egg splattered the shelf, oozed into the drawer, and down to the floor, a dozen cracked eggshells floating lazily down a yellow-splotched river. “Oh, Nate.”

Knowing she should take a picture to laugh at later, she stood frozen, then decided a mental picture was enough. She brushed the hair off her forehead and forgot to smile as Nate reached his arms up to greet her. “This is not good, little man.” He protested as she strapped him into the high chair and washed the egg off him with wipes. The prospect of going near the bathtub…shivers ran down her spine.

“Football game, he had to go to the football game,” she muttered the words under her breath as she studied the mess, determining the best way to deal with it. “Ugh. Nate, buddy, next time go for the bread, or a banana, okay?”

Her thoughts returned to her latest dilemma. If she removed the shelf, she could reach everything else a little easier. Condiments found their way to other shelves, and she mopped up most of the egg from the shelf before removing it and placing it in the sink. Next, the drawer and the floor received a new shine as Joy scrubbed at the egg. Pushing the hair off her forehead again, she carefully gripped the fridge, ready to stand. It moved. Of course, it moved. Why wouldn’t it move? She shuffled her body over to the counter and heaved herself up from the floor, then waited for the rise and fall of her breathing to slow before stepping to the sink to clean the shelf.

Moments later, the shelf sparkled. Joy carried it, sliding one foot an inch across the tile, then the other. Her body jolted into the shelf, which crashed to the floor. Pebbled safety glass covered the kitchen. Groaning, she turned to the broom closet only to hear a loud explosion. Soda, from an unretrieved can, glued the glass to the floor and the food in the freezer to the shelves.

Her phone beeped. A text message.

I forgot my soda in the freezer this morning.

The broom fell to the floor. She pulled Nate out of the high chair. “Let’s go get dinner and play on the toys at McDonald’s.” Smiling at her son, she contemplated the situation out loud. “I think nine-thirty will be an excellent bedtime tonight.”

Before leaving, she texted Connor: You like explosions, right?

Download your FREE copy of Sometimes A Bird Has to Fly: my favorite flash fiction piece.

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