Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
In Harm’s Way

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A pearl-colored streak blurred across the road. From under my minivan came a thump. A small animal flashed to the other side of the street and off into the bushes, its tail the shape of a question mark. Clenching the steering wheel, I slowed and stared at the empty street, stunned. I'd hit a cat.

I pulled into a church's empty parking lot, got out of the van, and walked across a field toward the thicket. My pulse pushed up my throat and into my ears.

Just thirty minutes earlier, I'd sipped coffee with other moms, all of us venting about our unappreciative, unruly teens, and reassuring ourselves that we were good mothers. After waving goodbye and motoring into the morning, I pondered teenage drama, and tried to convince myself that my kids were navigating typical adolescent angst. But I couldn't. My grievances about my children had been a cover-up. A shiver prickled my skin as I saw the dark, thorny heart of a truth: I'd been a shitty mother.

This realization backdropped my thoughts as I paced the hedges looking for the cat. “C'mere, kitty,” I called. I had to get it to a vet. But if I tried to lift its limp, wounded body, would I injure it further? Imagining it might claw and fang me, I shuddered. Surveying the area I prayed that I'd find and also that I'd not find the animal.

I was a shitty mother who'd hit a cat.

After my own mother left Dad and me, when I was four, I swore that one day I'd be the perfect mom—wipe my children's tears, dab their scraped knees with soft gauze.

“Kitty!” I stooped to peer at the base of each boxwood.

How had it come to this? I read my babies Where the Wild Things Are. Sang them lullabies. But as they outgrew highchairs and cartoons, my son's Legos lost, my daughters' Barbies neglected and naked, I became the kind of parent I swore I'd never be.

I became my father.

Dad read me bedtime stories and held my hand as we walked to synagogue, but when I tipped a tumbler of milk or slipped a spatula into the wrong drawer, he narrowed his eyes and shook his head as if to say, “Stupid jerk!” When the bubblegum I tossed into a wastebasket made a thud, Dad yelled, “Idiot!” and I ran up to my bedroom sobbing, wishing I could collapse into myself like a black hole. As the narrative of my childhood etched into my memory, happier times faded, blurred into the background. What took root was shame.

My children played soccer, sang in choir, and made honor roll. But when one of them left a spot on the table un-wiped, or placed a plate in the dishwasher skewed, a switch in me flipped. Under my breath the words, “You idiot!” sprang from my mouth like a switchblade. Now my teens avoided me, corralled themselves in their rooms. My anger had hammered at their sense of well-being. When they took the initiative to fold a pile of laundry, instead of, “Thanks for helping!” I said, “You didn’t smooth out these shirts. Now I’m going to have to iron them.” They cleaned up after making cookies and I said, “Did you even try to clean the butter off the kitchen table?” Over and over they had tried to please me, and they had failed.

I pictured the feline curled up somewhere, breathing shallowly, confused. In pain. As I doubled back to look a second time, a soft-fingered breeze carried the fragrance of cut grass. The astonishing beauty of the sky, kaleidoscope blue, seemed to mock my predicament. I couldn’t find the cat.

I crossed the parking lot and got into my van. As I slid the key into the ignition, my breath caught. I was about to drive away, abandon a suffering animal.

My kids would soon be home. They'd grab a snack and disappear behind their closed bedroom doors. I'd given mothering my best effort, but I hadn’t been able to impart to my children the fundamental lesson that they are precious, that their tender souls glow like jewels held to the sun, the light fierce and lovely.

That night I'd go upstairs to talk to them. I imagined holding up my fist, about to knock on their closed bedroom doors.

What would I say? A chill felt like a spider under my ribs. I had no idea.


Susan Lerner is a student in Butler’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, JMWW, Bluestem, and The Believer Logger. Susan lives in Indianapolis with her husband, three teenagers, and dog, Mischief. In her spare time she posts book reviews at http://booklerner.blogspot.com.


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I read it all the way to the end (that bears saying because I frequently don't do that with things). And I'm so glad I did. I love the ending.
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