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(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
The wind had picked a bit up the night before, sweeping through the tall pine trees, taking with it loose branches and needles, dropping them to the grass below.
I noticed something else in the litter on the lawn and as I got closer I could see it was a small bird’s nest, still intact after its long fall. I picked it up and studied the way it was made. I have never seen a nest that isn’t, in some way, beautiful. A marvel, really. But this one was exceptionally so.
Made almost entirely of long strands of dried grass woven around what appeared to be wool or even dryer lint, the inside was lined with a soft, golden, feathery material. At first I thought it might be the bird’s own feathers but then I realized it was a layer of shredded cattail blooms, the tall plant that grows in ponds and marshes and bends and dances in the breeze. The compact bloom had been pulled apart and separated into downy fibers.
I held the nest for a long time, thinking about what an engineering and artistic accomplishment it was. And to what lengths the birds had gone to to create it.
Grass and lint are all around us. That could have come from any house nearby. But the cattail had to have come from the park down the hill, several blocks away. It would have been no small feat to bring home, bit by bit, enough of the fibers to fill even such a petite shelter. What compelled her to use that particular plant? Surely there must have been some easier way.
I carried the nest home and set it on the mantel in my living room. For days, every time I walked by, I would stop for a closer look. One afternoon I sat down on the sofa—a piece with a new slipcover, sewn by a friend who does beautiful work. I searched and searched for just the right fabric before settling on the natural cotton and now every time I look at the sofa, it pleases me.
Still cradling the fragile thing in my hand, still puzzling over the curiosity of it, I reached behind me to adjust the cushion at my back and felt the fine weave of the soft linen pillow cover under my fingertips. Immediately, I remembered the day I’d purchased it in a small shop in Estonia. I’d spent an hour pulling out cover after cover until I found a pair that were exactly right.
I glanced at the curtains hanging at the window and recalled discovering them in a second-hand store in Reyjkavik. I hadn’t given a thought to how I would get the four panels home, I just had to have them. The eight yards of material had stretched my already-full luggage to its limits and when I got to the airport I was told it was overweight. The gate agent listened as I told him how I’d found the curtains. How they were old and soft and the color was perfect and that I would never again find such beautiful fabric. Still looking at me, without saying a word, he tagged my heavy bag and sent it away without charging me the extra fee.
I turned to look at the small Native American rug behind the glass doors of the secretary standing in the corner. I’d spotted it in a weaver’s studio outside of Chimayo, New Mexico, picking it up and putting it down twice before committing. I tried to be practical, but I simply had to have it.
My own nest is filled with soft things from unlikely places. Things which, although I stumbled onto them at the time I was, in some sense, seeking. Who am I to question a bird’s choice? After all, exposed to the elements, at the mercy of wind and rain and sly predators, she had fragile eggs to protect and tender fledgelings to care for. I have four sturdy walls and a roof over my head.
The delicate nest is still on the mantel. I think I will keep it there as a reminder that the real difference in a shelter and a home is what surrounds us when we are there.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap can be reached at email@example.com
(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
My son has been on a boat out on the Pacific for weeks now and every so often a few lines arrive by email.
“This has been a great trip,” he writes “The hurricane turned so the seas are not so rough now,” he writes. “Work is going well,” he writes. “Saw some whales today,” he writes.
I see one word: Hurricane!
I’d just settled into my usual routine of vague worry and superstitious bargaining with fate when, and, as usual, it was the last thing I expected, my daughter—the brand new geologist—was assigned to a job on a boat off the coast of Greenland. (Wait, isn’t Greenland melting?)
Already living 200 miles away from me, with less than a day to prepare, she packed and flew away without my being able to see her face or hold her close. Now I’m left to wonder how two little land-locked children could grow up to sail so far away. At the same time.
My friends point out I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t I fly over oceans every chance I get? Why would I expect any less of my children, especially these two adventurers? Stop worrying so much, they tell me.
Of course, I have an answer ready. I’m not green. I’m not confident like my son. If anything, I’m overly cautious and too careful. I’m not young and beautiful and vulnerable like my daughter. I’m just another middle-aged woman on a train or in an airport, hugging her purse and keeping one eye on her luggage.
But, truth be told, I finally had to admit to myself that what’s bothering me as much as worry, is guilt. I’m consumed with guilt. I can’t shake the feeling I’m not holding up my end of the bargain. I’d already booked a work-related trip to Alaska before I knew my children were going to be traveling; not that it even occurred to me to ask. And now, thanks to me, we’ll all be scattered across the globe. How will they reach me if they need me?
Children are meant to fly, some tiny voice inside me whispers, mothers are not. It’s our job to be home base, the place our children come back to. If I am not here, what will become of us? What kind of home base goes to Alaska where cell phones and computers don’t work? The swallows only return to Capistrano because it’s there waiting for them.
Before my children came along, even after I was married, I came and went as I pleased. I bought plane tickets and train tickets at the drop of a hat. But after the babies, when the occasional chance to travel solo came along, I usually let the opportunity pass.
Occasionally, when I would mention some place I’d been or adventure I’d had before they were born, they would look at me, confused, trying to imagine me anywhere else.
“Well, Mommy wasn’t always Mommy,” I would tell them, laughing at their confusion. “I used to be another girl.”
But if I'm honest, what held me back was that I couldn’t bear the idea of leaving them. Overwhelmed with love and responsibility, I wasn’t just afraid of something happening to my children. I was terrified something would happen to me. How would they survive without me? Who else knew them so completely? If something happened to me and they asked their father or grandparents ( or their new mother!) for a Sadie Sally story, no one would know the world I’d created for them in my head. No one would know that Johnny was the little boy who kept a dragon named Jimbo or that Sadie was the sister who always discovered magic dust in her pocket just when it was most needed or that a road divided the enchanted forest and one side was a wonderful, magical, place but the other was dark and frightening and no matter how hard they tried something always lured Sadie, Sally and Johnny into that dark place where they had to rely on their wits and the dragon and a little magic to escape. Who else could tell Sadie Sally stories? Nobody but me.
Only I knew who preferred her milk warmed. Who was afraid of the dark. Who liked to talk about dreams first thing in the morning. Who needed an extra kiss and glass of water before bed. I knew them on a cellular level. After all, each had peeled away from me, physically dividing us at birth. We were, at least in the beginning, two parts of one.
Imagining the possibility of not being there for my children unhinged me. Just thinking about it, I whimpered and paced like an animal separated from her young. I didn’t put my traveling shoes back on until the three oldest were out of the house and on their own and the youngest showed an independent streak I wanted to encourage.
I thought I’d left all that worry and guilt behind me, but again they’ve exposed me for who I really am.
Mommy is always Mommy.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet and Treasure Hunting columns and blogs and her CAMera: Travel and Photo blog, her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Without turning on the light I tiptoed into her room, careful to step over the gaping backpack spilling its cargo of papers, gym clothes and books; over DVDs and laundry and other indistinguishable shapes strewn across the floor. When I got to the bed I felt my way across the comforter, past the dog who was trying to be invisible so as not to be scolded and sent away, past the mountain of pillows she swears she needs to sleep, until my hands found what I was looking for. I leaned over and kissed my daughter’s cheek.
Taking advantage of the fact that she was only half awake and couldn’t rally the usual adolescent rebuff, I buried my face in her hair and kissed her again.
“I’m off to the airport,” I whispered, breathing in the scent of a sleeping child. “I’ll miss you so much.”
“Well,” she replied in a reasonable tone, her voice muffled by the pillow, “Why do you go then?”
I laughed softly. “That’s a very good question.” I kissed her one more time, two more times, and tiptoed out.
Even as I checked my baggage, boarded my flight and and texted one last goodbye before I thumbed through the in-flight magazine, her question rolled around the corners of my mind.
When school schedules, work commitments and the budget allows, we travel as a family. Occasionally, I’ll take a trip with a girlfriend. But other times, usually lured by a low fare, irresistible hotel bargain or simply the desire to see a place I’ve never seen before, I set out on my own.
I don’t have to travel. I could do the bulk of my work without ever leaving town. But travel feeds my mind. And my mind feeds my work. But the most honest answer to my daughter’s question is that I go because I can. I go because it would be a shame not to.
I go because we live in an amazing time. For all our gripes about fare increases, security, occasional delays and crowded flights, right now, like no other time in our history, the world is open to anyone, even a middle-aged mother of four who sometimes likes to pick a place on a map and just fly away.
It’s not like I’m leaving infants to fend for themselves. Three of my children are off on their own. Only the sleepyhead - the teenage “baby” - is left behind with Dad for a few days. And, like I said, we all travel together whenever we can.
I suppose, in a way, this penchant of mine to catch the occasional plane - solo - helps us both be more independent. I sample tiny bites of life with an empty nest. She makes do without the mother who will drop everything to deliver a forgotten lunch or can be talked into a banana-split as an after-school snack.
I tell myself I want to set an example, to leave my children with a sense of adventure and the sure and certain knowledge that it’s OK to wander as long as you always come back home. But really, who’s kidding who? There is another reason I go. Teenagers are hard to catch and harder to hold. If I have to get up before the sun now and then to show a little love, then that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com
More than 20 years ago, for reasons now unclear, I decided to have a baby. Derek and I had been married three years, and I guess it seemed natural to want to expand our family. Of course, we could have bought a dog, but we didn’t. Truthfully, I’ve always wanted to be a mom. As a child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up my standard answer was, “Flight attendant, actress, librarian and mother”/Cindy Hval, Washington Voices. More here. Also by Cindy:
Question: What’s the best/worst thing about being a parent.
I got a call from a friend the other night. One of those late-night calls women make when they have a moment to themselves.
She was alone in a quiet house full of sleeping children and a husband who was softly snoring in front of the television. She was desperately tired. After all, she’d spent the day caring for her three small children. She’d packed lunches, driven the morning carpool, played with the toddler who was still home all day, shuttled to after-school activities, made dinner, helped with homework, refereed baths, read a bed-time story, fetched one more glass of water and finally, finally, turned out the light.
Then, when she could have gone straight to bed to catch up on some much-needed sleep, she did what mothers do all the time. She got busy.
Sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by her boxes of beads and stones and all the tools and findings she uses to make the beautiful necklaces and earrings she gives as gifts to friends and family, she let her mind wander as her fingers worked. She felt the tension slip away. For a few minutes she wasn’t Mommy. She was herself again. That’s when she picked up the phone to call me.
While we talked, I thought back to my life when my children were still small. I spent the day doing all the things stay-at-home mothers do. At night I spent hours answering a powerful creative urge.
This seems to happen to many of us when our children are born. We get crafty.
I see young mothers experiencing this all the time. Women who were once busy professionals with pressured careers now sew baby dresses or construct elaborate scrapbooks and photo albums. They revel in this new side of themselves, gathering with others who are experiencing the same delight in handcrafting.
I think it has something to do with the way we change after the babies come along. Suddenly, we are no longer the carefree women we were before. Our minds are never still. We’re listening, watching, weighing and evaluating. We fret. We forecast the future and regret the past. Mothering is all-consuming. There are few moments when our children aren’t foremost in our thoughts.
Creativity is a way to slip out of the confines of being the responsible party. It is a way to open and explore the child who still lives within us.
My days were consumed by the work and worry of four young children. Goodness knows, I had plenty to keep me busy. But every night, even when I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, I sat down to create. Like my friend, I went through my beading phase. I strung freshwater pears into ropes, adding antique charms and other found objects to make one-of-a-kind necklaces and earrings. I sold these to a boutique in the area and soon began to notice my work on women at the children’s schools and around town. That spurred me on to stay up later and make more.
After that, I spent long hours making hats, steaming and blocking the fabric, stitching silk roses and velvet leaves onto the felt and straw. These went to the same boutique. Again, I began to see my hats on women at the mall or at church.
Later, I polished and cut old silverware and bent the handles into earrings, rings, key rings and necklaces. These went to local gift shops and to antiques and craft shows.
I took black-and-white photographs of children and families and then delicately hand-tinted the photos, adding small touches of color to give the portraits a vintage look.
I packaged gift trays using and vintage china, silver and lace and shipped them across the country to be opened by grateful strangers.
I smocked dresses and rompers for my daughters and my son, sometimes finding myself nodding over my needle.
Most of this was done at night. When I should have been sleeping. When I should have been too tired to do anything more than close my eyes and rest up for the coming day.
But, like my friend, like so many women, I crafted into the wee hours. I made things with my hands. Letting my mind play while my fingers worked.
After a while I realized that my newfound passion for crafting was nothing new. I was just one more in a long history. Middle-class Victorian women, gifted with time by the household innovations of the industrial revolution, wove accessories from the hair of loved ones or painted delicate watercolors.
I tinted photographs and strung tiny pearls. Now, I write. I still sit down and write late into the night the way my friend works with chunky gemstones and glass beads.
Some mothers sew. They crochet or knit. They bake. They refinish furniture. The commonality, just as it always has been, is the desire to create. To construct and produce and, each in our own way, to provide proof beyond our most precious contribution - the children that own us so completely - that we were here. That deep inside there was a spark, a gift, a source of happiness that was completely handmade.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Slipping into a parking spot across the street from the high school, I
turned off the engine and waited for my daughter to come out the
Enjoying the quiet of the car, a welcome respite from
the noise of a busy day, lulled by the warm sun made even warmer by the
window, I relaxed as I watched the students as they gathered outside.
Some were waiting for rides others were just socializing, happy to be
I noticed a pair on the corner, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have
been more than freshmen. They still had the fresh, slightly awkward look
of of a pair of leggy, yearling colts.
They were standing close
together, and I could see that they were both focusing on something in
the boy’s hands. Then, I noticed the cord dangling from their ears and I
realized they were sharing the earphones for the boy’s iPod. His music
was hers. While she studied the screen of the music player, the boy
studied her. When she glanced up, he looked away, embarrassed to be
caught. Occasionally she risked a peek at him, through her lashes, quick
and surreptitious. It was a dance of glances.
He kept looking out at the street, scanning the cars going by,
watching for his ride. He must have seen it coming because he quickly
said something to the girl and reclaimed the earphone, coiling it and
stuffing it into his pocket. Then, a bit stiffly, he leaned over and
wrapped his arms around the girl. She returned the embrace.
They looked like a couple stepping out onto the dance floor for a
first slow dance. There was a bit of hesitation, a slight distance
between their bodies that hinted of first kisses and sweaty palms. When
his mother pulled up to the curb he hurried to the car and they drove
The girl, clutching her books to her chest in the way of schoolgirls
in the movies and romance novels, turned to walk down the hill. As she
hurried toward her own ride, for a moment, she forgot herself and
skipped one little skipping step, like the little girl she had been not
so very long ago. She got into her mother’s car and away they went.
Watching my own daughter make her way to me I thought about the
scene I had just watched. About the way the pair had been tethered,
sharing a single pulse of music, shoulder to shoulder sneaking peeks at
one another, before joining their mothers.
I thought about the women who were even at that moment asking “How
was your day?” and “What did you do today?” and getting only shrugs and
noncommittal grunts in return.
I glanced over at my own child as she grunted and shrugged at my questions.
I realized then that each of us, the three women in a crowd of
parents driving home with our silent, precious, adolescent cargo, on
some level, still believes that the cord that bound us to our offspring
is still intact. A spider’s silk umbilicus of love and worry and pride.
But what we haven’t thought about is who might be replacing us at
the other end of that thread. A girl. A boy. A new love. A new song.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for the Spokesman-Review. She is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons and can be reached at email@example.com
I like to read articles from newspapers outside the United States just to get a different perspective now and then. Yesterday, I ran across this story — “Yummy mummies fashion dark underbelly” — in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Unlike previous eras, pregnant women no longer have to stay indoors and hide their big bellies “beneath capacious smocks,” wrote Sue Goodwin and Kate Huppatz, who teach in the field of education and social work. Pregnant women are now viewed as beautiful and sometimes sexually attractive, they wrote.
“It is now more acceptable for women to invest more time in themselves. Martyrdom is not as chic as it used to be. It’s OK to take time out for a manicure, a spa treatment, shopping or an exercise class. All of this means that women do not necessarily lose their former selves upon having children - motherhood is no longer only about being devoted to your family.”
But there’s a negative to all this, they pointed out. Some women, as a result, now suffer from “pregorexia,” the desire to stay thin during pregnancy. Some mothers also feel compelled to undergo cosmetic surgery to get rid of stretch marks and other effects of pregnancy.
“Both of these trends demonstrate how the idealisation of youthfulness has crossed into the maternal realm - women are expected to appear skinny and toned whatever their age and whether they’ve had children or not,” the authors wrote.
As liberated as I try to be from all the social pressures out there, I remember how horrified I was to gain 50 pounds during both my pregnancies. It wasn’t just because I was uncomfortable; I also was sad about looking like a blob.
Moms: Did you feel this pressure during pregnancy or soon after? Can you at all relate to the “Yummy Mummy” syndrome?