Origin Stories

by Talia Watrous


“I remember dropping you off at the carpool line when you were three. You didn't want to get out of the car and would cry. Your teacher would open the door, pull you out and walk you in.  I would drive away with my heart breaking. After four days of this, your teacher said, "Talia cried a lot today. Let's give it one more day, and if she doesn't do well, we’ll wait and try again when she is a bit older." I reluctantly brought you back the next day to try one last time. You climbed out of the car by yourself with no coaxing, and your teacher returned you to me with a smile at 11:30. You never had trouble going to school again. What happened that made you okay?”

My mother tells this story often. I laugh and groan, watching her cook in her expert yet chaotic way—a flurry of carrots, onions, and celery into the pot. She lets them simmer, milking their flavor, while answering emails, swaying to music, and doing the dishes. I cannot smell garlic without thinking of her. A strand of auburn hair falls into the soup. The strays never bother me, though they agonize my brother and father.

I think she uses the story as a sort of proverb whenever I’m scared to do something. I was a fearful child. At night, I would lose sleep imagining rats and lurking hands under my bed; I’d bounce onto it in case someone underneath wanted to grab my feet. When Dad told me I should never let other people give me drugs, I sat up all night clutching my six-year-old body waiting for someone to come shove those drugs down my throat.

I imagine that I was just as scared going to preschool, leaving Mom—her warm food and funny theatrics. I was not big on facing my fears, even when Dad bribed me with a 50 cent piece for going off the diving board. The coin’s stern face doing little to calm my terror filled one. But Dad has always thrown me in the pool before I could swim. I remember that too, arms flailing, choking on water. Scared of sharks? Dad would take me snorkeling. Fear of men? The next day, I would be in Karate.

But for Mom, my fear is like pulling hair from a sensitive scalp. I feel her bristle whenever she senses any emotional pain from her children.

She pops a raw carrot into her mouth.

I remember you running along the beach at age four, long hair blowing in the wind with a huge pot. Stopping every now and then to throw spaghetti up to the seagulls that were trailing you in a flock. The sun was setting. It was warm, you were in a swimsuit.

I can tell Mom thinks of this memory often. That and the one from the eve of my fourth birthday. Mom broke down and cried about me getting older. Apparently, I just stroked her cinnamon hair and told her she can still love me when I am four.

I glance at my body. I cannot fathom running for sheer joy. My head would start to pound, my eyes would lose focus, and I would fall. I would much more likely to lay down among the Texas seaweed and snooze after eating the whole pot of pasta. Forget sharing with the seagulls. 

I rest my head on the kitchen counter. Mom hovers before pouring the broth in. I sit up and smile.

That day, the love of my life, my seventh grade English teacher destroyed me. He had lazily tossed my study questions back and announced that the teacher’s pet was ‘degenerating.’ Now, I do not know would tell a middle schooler that she is degenerating, especially a young girl who would stay and talk after class about every book and every idea. I had hung onto his lectures asking intellectual, tough questions about what the good life is. His side comment only tightened my grip.

After that incident, I put my full effort into impressing the man with the perfect trimmed beard and the perfect low roaring voice and the perfect literary mind. My obsession was so great that my mom sat me down and warned me about the dangers of marrying an older man. My simpering demeanor and hard work never came to fruition. That year my best friend won the Middle School English Award. It was the first time I experienced two of the seven deadly sins simultaneously: envy and rage.  Interestingly enough, I got that award four years later for high school graduation. The plaque was delivered by my new favorite English teacher; he was nearing seventy years old, a lover of yoga, and a modern Milton. His silvery wise head presented me with a beautiful book of poetry which became a new favorite. But the award lies dry and forgotten in some corner of a room I no longer live in.

Mom sleeps in that room now. It’s where she reads, goes to get some quiet, and finds rest.

Mom once told me to never write about our family.

My half-opened eyes turn away from the weak light from the vined window, illuminating a room in degenerate disarray. A mass of dirty and clean clothes, college essays worse than ones from seventh grade, condom wrappers, and rotten food serve as my decoration.  In college it is not acceptable to run home crying after the first five days, so I tell Mom I love her and hang up. Our hair is already too thin; we can’t lose any more. I still don’t know why I stopped crying on the 5th day of preschool. Maybe I got used to my teacher? Maybe I made a friend? My best guess is I pulled it together because I saw I was hurting my mother.