Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Going South

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You drive south for sun and for luck, mile markers adding and subtracting infinite amounts of hope and doubt. The house in Tampa is the color of key lime pie with white trim, the yard full of trees filled with oranges and grapefruits. You are there to get it ready for living, to clean and mow grass and hang curtains, to make it new.

Your mother cleans all day. It is hot and humid, and she is pregnant with your brother. You sit on the floor and read books until it is time to eat. For lunch, you have peanut butter and dill pickle sandwiches and chips. You share a glass of lukewarm strawberry Kool-Aid. She goes back to cleaning, and you walk around the yard, picking up fruit that has fallen and trying to reach the ones that haven’t. You discover a banana tree, but the bananas are still hard and deep green.

On your tenth birthday, she orders pizza and together you watch Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days on the couch, your brother swimming around in her belly. After dinner, she gives you a new swimsuit with pink and green stripes. You celebrate with vanilla ice cream, and she surprises you with chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles and whipped cream. She cuts up bananas and pineapple too and, for good luck, an orange from your own yard. You name them “Lucky Florida Sundaes,” and she lets you eat as much as you want.

Your lives go on like this, peaceful and clear. Some days she cleans, working from room to room, washing walls and windows, and making little lists on scraps of paper of the things she needs. Some days you sit together on the bench swing in the yard, counting the number of lizards that run around you, or take early morning walks around the neighborhood, admiring the shades of yellows and corals and blues, which are brighter before the humidity covers everything with its familiar haze.

She takes you to the ocean and sits on the new beach towels, belly bulging over the top of her bikini bottoms. Her strawberry-blond ponytail and oversized, white-rimmed sunglasses give her the appearance of a teenager. She is quiet and closes her eyes, not asleep, but dreaming, while you play in the calm, shallow water and build sandcastles and watch seagulls fly over your heads, cutting across the blue sky then landing and searching for food between the makeshift camps of beachgoers.

One day she gets a call early in the morning. You hear the phone ring, but her voice is barely audible. You pad out to the couch to sit beside her, leaning your head against her. Her eyes are red, her face pale despite the sunburn from the day before. You recognize your father’s voice on the other end. He is crying too. Your mother listens, murmuring occasionally when he asks if she is still there. He says that he didn’t mean to hurt her. That the other woman is gone now. That he will do better. You can see your brother wiggling around under the taunt skin of her stomach, and you reach out to touch him.

They stay on the phone for a long time, and when the call is over, she goes outside to the swing in the backyard. At lunch, you bring her a peanut butter and dill pickle sandwich. She smiles at you but doesn’t talk. After dinner, you make her a Lucky Florida Sundae and together you sit under the palm trees, rocking and listening to the night settle in around you. We’re going back, she says softly. You lean into her. She leans into you too, then walks to the house to begin packing.

Before leaving, you drive to the beach one last time. You stand on the shoreline, just after the waves curl and break, and feel the sand underneath you pulling away, going back to the ocean. You try to hold on to the sand, and the sand tries to hold on to you, but it can’t resist the inevitability of impermanence. Sometimes, though, the waves don’t crash as hard, and the sand feels as permanent as cement underneath you. You know you can lie down in the warm water and not be swept away, but instead be cradled by an infinite number of hands keeping you afloat.

Robin Littell lives with her daughter in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and teaches English composition and literature courses at Antioch College. Her work has also appeared in Tin House, Gravel Magazine, NoiseMedium, Visual Verse, and Found Polaroids.

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