There are things your mother will do for you that no one else will: cut crusts off your bread, sew together two soft scraps of cloth to make a blanket for your bed. She will allow you to stay home in the house when you get older because she likes having you around. Mothers want you to be close to them. They buy you gifts, a rabbit that you think is female at first but then turns out to male, a cross necklace for your first communion, a music box with a ballerina on a spring that twists in circle when you wind it up. There is a time in your life when anything is possible and then later on a time when nothing is. Eventually the music box stops playing music, and one of your rabbits disappears. And then you lose track of the box completely; the barbed wire cage becomes home to another rabbit that your parents buy to make you feel better. And then eventually the replacement rabbit disappears and there is just an empty cage, a few tufts of fur in the yard after the dogs run away.
You can still feel the past, the ways it holds you in its mouth, locks you in its jaws, keeps you from running out of the backyard past the cages that once securely held you close to home. I remember my brother’s words I think he got away, after he found Cuddles’ leg on the hill that led into our neighbor’s yard. I told him this year while drinking a beer on his deck that I had seen it too, the bloody foot attached to nothing, what was left behind after the dogs tore open the barbed wire hutch. But for years I lived in that fantasy—he got away. I remembered how small he was, how his fur was a unique shade of blue-grey that was so soft, how he was the one of the litter I chose to keep. The past is like that rabbit that almost got away. You come back to it, hold it in your lap even it does not want to be held, and it bites you. You pet its soft fur repeatedly when you’re nervous.
The past weighs heavy on your tongue, sticks in your throat so you cannot speak. You still long for it, the way you long for routines, for the simple things that fit together perfectly like two slices of bread. Every day for lunch my mother made me a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Every morning, she would slice a grapefruit in half; one bitter sweet half for her and one for me. She would use a serrated spoon to pull out each juicy pink triangle individually, and squeeze all of the leftover juice from the skins into small glass bowls. Then she would take the yellow peel in her hands, pretend it was puppet, and make it talk to me. I would laugh until I could not breathe, until my stomach ached. I would drink that sour juice that made my throat raw. After breakfast, she would divide my hair into two perfect pony tails with a comb. I would complain whenever the comb hit a snarl, and she would tighten her grip on my hair. She would pin my hair up with a lace and ribbon barrette she made herself. She would ignore my complaints and tell me to sit still.
Now, I let the cereal sit in my bowl until it turns to mush. I don’t eat enough fruit or drink sweet juice from a small glass. Sometimes, I forget to comb my hair or lose my hairbrush for days. In the morning, I watch cooking shows, an Italian woman with a syrupy voice talking about how to make the perfect meal. There is something soothing about someone measuring out ingredients, imagining that life really is that simple. But now, I do not know what I want. When my husband asks me to make dinner, I stare at the canned goods in confusion. I can’t think of how to put these things together—it will never be perfect because we don’t have all the ingredients. I imagine my mother standing behind me in the kitchen telling me what to do, or saying that I need to clean up my mess because I am always spilling something.
When I was younger, my mother believed I could be perfect. I clearly was not perfect. I was distracted and insecure; I had cataracts and too many teeth for my mouth. I spent my afternoons in dentist chairs. My gums were shot with Novocain till I could no longer feel anything, till I drooled out of the corners of my mouth without noticing. My mother took me to appointments, where orthodontists clamped open my mouth while they worked till my jaw ached and clicked. They would tighten my braces until my teeth hurt. My mother would make me banana shakes in a blender to make me feel better. I hated attending those appointments, but every night I obediently wore my clear plastic retainer. I hated the men who pulled out my teeth, the men who found so many flaws in my open mouth. I grew up loving ice cream that tasted like bananas that had gone too ripe.
I have dreams that things are dissolving. Sometimes, it’s my teeth, and my tongue licks inside my mouth and feels nothing but gums. I feel guilty for the money my mother spent. Now, I have so many cavities, so many dark places that need to be drilled away. Sometimes, in the dreams it’s a memory that’s dissolving. One minute I’m bathing rabbits in the sink, and then suddenly they are shrinking, going down the drain. My mother says she has dreams that she has forgotten to feed the rabbits and they have starved to death. Sometimes our dreams overlap. We used to try to give our rabbits baths before we knew better in small plastic tubs, till we learned they could get sick that way. I do not have any pets anymore, nothing to take care of, nothing to breed, no babies that fit in the palm of my hand, small as rats. My mother does not have any either. The cages have been taken out of the backyard. The trees that used to shade them have been cut down.
This essay appeared in Indiana Review 34.2, Winter 2012.
Maggie Su (Fiction Editor): In Anne Owen Shea’s tightly-wound lyric essay, rabbits disappear from their cages and teeth dissolve. But like all great magic tricks, the piece unravels and transforms—becoming a powerful meditation on memory and possibility.
Anne Owen Shea grew up in Rochester, Minnesota and received her bachelor’s degree in English: Writing from Winona State University. She has taught English at several universities including Iowa State University, University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, as well as several community colleges and at the high school level. She currently teaches writing at Winona State University. Anne received a M.A in English from Iowa State University and an M.F.A in Creative Writing from University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign. Her writing has appeared in Blue Earth Review, Memoir, and Indiana Review. She recently received first place in Blue Earth Review’s flash nonfiction contest. She currently is working on a collection of nonfiction essays and stories. In her free-time, Anne enjoys reading, singing karaoke renditions of pop songs, attending concerts, running, and enjoying time with her husband and family.