~This essay originally appeared in Quiddity (2012).
Bounty and Burden
In those days, when my parents were still married and we lived in the white colonial on a tree-lined street, I began curling my shoulders forward, wrapping my body so that my chest sagged and became a hollow. Once, when I was four, I wore a candy necklace—an elastic round punctuated by pastel beads that I could crack with my baby teeth. My father’s best friend bought the necklace at the grocery when he and my father escaped from their wives long enough to buy more beer on a muggy Saturday afternoon. Long after the candy was gone, the adults still emptied the cans.
In yoga, much work is done to open the chest. Note the breath as it enters the lungs. Lift the chest to the sky during sun salutations, in standing poses. I breathe space into my upper body and feel my breastbone rise as my shoulders ratchet open, tugging against the years of internal rotation.
Lighter than most pendants, the round key barely registers a weight on my chest. The ivory letter “R” floats in an ebony circle. A typewriter key unfastened from a broken machine, uncoupled from its original function. I slide my index finger into its concave curve, where other fingers have pressed to imprint a black “R” on a crisp white page. To build a word, a sentence, a sentiment. My finger rests in that pleasing hollow, lingers in the slight depression.
Attending a conference, I was alone for the first time since the birth of my daughter seven months before. Each night, I talked with friends in the lobby and sipped Manhattans, welcoming the intoxication of independence. Did I miss her? everyone inquired. I fingered the pendant while I considered how easily I acclimated to her absence.
I feed my daughter Ruby after seven days away. With eyes closed, she raises one hand in search of my hair, but she finds the dangling key instead. She pulls on the chain; I remove the necklace. With her conception, my pelvis became a bowl she would fill with her growing body. I had not realized I would continue to bear her weight after her birth. Now, pinned to this chair, I want to flee to the lobby, to find my glass and my mind brimming. But I will be hunched over her, for twenty minutes at least, as she sucks and squirms and slides around my lap. I will stay with her until she is sated.
I watch Ruby play with her hair. At first, she grabs at the wisps, tugging against her scalp, but her gestures turn tender as she tires. At the end of a strand, her dimpled hand floats, impervious to gravity, to sleep. At last, it drops to my lap.
Feeling the weight of Ruby’s sleeping body against mine, I am always surprised by her complete surrender. And by how I eventually yield, nourished by the bounty of this burden.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
The essay began as an exercise in my final graduate school workshop: write about a small, treasured object. That day I was wearing the typewriter key pendant, the letter “R” for my daughter Ruby, who was seven months old. A full-time mother, I felt wrenched, like the key, from the function of my former life as I struggled to find time and energy to write. Symbolizing both writing and my daughter, the key was a perfect vehicle to explore what I then considered my opposing desires to be a present, devoted mother and to pursue a writing career.
I love the brief essay because, within its miniature form, lies great potential for tension. Through compression of time and images, I strived to use the tiny pendant to explore the monumental topics of motherhood and my ambivalence towards the role. As the essay developed, I was impressed by all of the concavity, that haunting notion of negative space signifying what had been lost when it was suddenly filled with something else. And that seemed to lead to the idea of balance, of two opposing forces in concert for one moment.
My graduate residency brought my two identities into conflict. Suddenly, my infant daughter was present and needing me in a world where I had previously been only a writer. But the essay, the act of writing through those ambivalent feelings, helped bring mother and writer into a functional relationship, and and I could begin to see how each role could enlighten the other.
ABOUT KELLY MARTINEAU
Kelly Martineau’s essays have appeared in The Licking River Review, Barely South Review, and Quiddity. She holds an MFA from Spalding University. Her essay “Bounty and Burden” won the 2011 Teresa A. White Literary Award and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Kelly lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. For more information: www.kellymartineau.com.