ACT I, SCENE I
I don’t play the part of “normal mom” very well, nor do I play it often. My daughters Saoirse and Ula have been trained to sleep in, to afford me as many quiet pre-dawn silent work hours as possible. If they step into my office before 7:30 in the morning, they are met with a snarling beast. I expect them to make their own breakfasts. I refuse to drive them to ballet class or music lessons.
The director emailed me a copy of the script, and we’d be in touch so I could help Ula practice.
But once a year, I dig out my prepaid cellphone and charge it up. For one week in July, Saoirse and Ula are each allowed to attend one week of a summer camp, where they can experience some of the things our farm life doesn’t allow. I cancel my morning writing sessions, ignore the farm as much as possible, and keep a calendar and clock in front of my nose at all times.
Then, so they can feel like real children on real schedules, I walk upstairs with my biggest steel bowl and bang on it with a wooden spoon at 6 a.m. while singing Irving Berlin’s “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” until they drag their weary bodies out of bed. Then we race over the back roads and I deliver my children to their respective camps. On time.
This year, Saoirse went to spend a week practicing 19th century homesteading skills at The Farmers Museum. Ula, who has been dreaming of the stage for years now, chose a local theater camp, where the children would put on a production of “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock.”
ACT I, SCENE 2
On Tuesday, camp was still fine for Saoirse. But when I retrieved Ula, the musical director met me at the sign-out sheet. “So we were wondering if Ula would be willing to play the part of Anansi in our play,” she whispered. “She has great stage presence…”
From what I could tell, Ula was one of the youngest children in the group. My “normal mom” heart thumped with pride, and I said yes. We agreed that the director would email me a copy of the script, and we’d be in touch over the week so I could help Ula practice at home.
On the way back, we stopped at the gas station (an almost-daily occurrence during normal parenting week). There, we met our friend Matt. I rolled down the window to let Ula announce with joy her starring role. “We’ll be at the show!” Matt called before pulling away.
When we got home, I sent an email to our neighbors, relatives, and friends. “Friday night, 6 p.m.,” they were all told.
I dutifully printed off the script, and brought the rehearsal CD into the kitchen. Once the supper dishes were cleared, Ula and I practiced. She loved every minute of it, and threw her body and soul into rehearsing her solo. At 11 p.m. I put the script down and refused to let her continue.
“You must sleep!” I told her.
ACT I, SCENE 3
On Wednesday, the director emailed me a list of songs and lines that Ula was having trouble with. It was disturbingly long. That evening, my friend Alicia managed to leave three of her five children with her husband and came over for a girls’ night.
Propping herself up on a stool in the kitchen, she poured herself a glass of wine, took a sip, and savored the taste. She smiled at me as I pulled the silk from some ears of sweet corn. But I kept my eyes on the clock as I tried to figure out when I was supposed to find the time to review Ula’s lines before the next morning.
“Bet you’re wishing she didn’t get the part of Anansi,” Alicia said. She was right. At this point, I was wishing Ula could play the moss-covered rock.
“I’m out of my league,” I confessed. “She’s too young to learn all this stuff and the show is in two days!”
A normal mom would have done a better job rehearsing with her children, I told myself.
“Yup.” She gave me a knowing nod. “It’s a little extra work for the kid and a lot extra work for the mom.”
To his credit, Bob was actually the one left to do the rehearsing that time. On Thursday, he brought Ula home from camp in the farm truck.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
“I got stuff wrong,” she said quietly. Her eyes were wide with fear. “I almost cried in front of everyone.”
That night, she couldn’t practice her part. I sat with her while she wept. How were we going to get through this? What did normal parents do?
Ula and I left early on Friday, and I put the rehearsal CD on the car stereo. “Why aren’t you singing?” I asked as she gazed at me through the rear-view mirror.
“I want you to sing it with me.”
“But the show is tonight! You need to be able to do it on your own!”
“Please? Will you just do it with me?”
I skipped to the part where she had the most difficult lines. “I’ll say the part of the bush deer,” I told her. “You say your Anansi lines.”
We practiced, but she was quiet and hesitant. And her rehearsal didn’t go much better. It was four hours before the show and the prompter had to feed her every line. My brave and brazen child suddenly couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper. A normal mom would have done a better job rehearsing with her children, I told myself. A good mom wouldn’t have let her daughter get in over her head.
But here we were. Over our heads. And there was nothing to be done about it. The rehearsal ended and all the children ran outside to play. I was helping to clean up when the director spoke.
“Well, your being here may have helped,” she began.
“I’m sorry to intrude on your day,” I said. “Ula was just so frightened.”
“Well, I’m sorry too.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “She acts so mature. We just didn’t realize how young she was.”
“Maybe it will all change tonight,” I said. “Maybe she just needs to feel what it is like to have an audience.”
“Things usually go better than I expect them to,” she said.
She must not be expecting much, I thought.
ACT II, SCENE I
I didn’t care if she sang beautifully. I didn’t care if she forgot her lines. Just let her feel happy and fulfilled.
Ula and I got in the car to leave. I turned the ignition and the rehearsal CD began to play.
“Please, Mom! I can’t!” Tears were coming down her face.
“But you’ve got to know it for tonight.”
She stared out the window and half-heartedly mouthed the words as we drove. She was feeling like a failure. But in truth, I had failed her. I should have had her rehearse more, should have seen that she was too young for the part.
Every year, during this one week of camp, I see other families on the run, watch other mothers with their children, fill my gas tank three or more times in five days. It always brings us to the brink. All the driving. All the scheduling and coordinating. All the packed lunches. And now, all the rehearsing we should have done. I try to understand how other people do it. But here we were, three and a half hours before a play, and my kid was going to ruin the show for everyone owing to my ineptitude as a normal mother.
To hell with it, I decided. Time to do things my own way. I turned off the stereo and swung the car over to the side of the road, then down to the park along the creek.
“What are we doing, Mom?”
“Magic,” I answered. “We’re doing magic.” I thought about Dumbo’s feather, the one the crow gave him that was supposed to be magical and give him the power to fly. Ula unbuckled her car seat while I ran around opening all the doors, digging under seats and scrounging through the trunk, finding anything I could to make magic for my 7-year-old.
I found a lollipop from our last trip to the bank in the glove compartment. I found a container of salt in my lunch bag. I dug out half of an organic, fair trade bar of dark chocolate.
“I don’t care what they think. We need magic. Let’s go.”
As I searched, I wracked through my mental rolodex of deities we could pray to. The Christian God? No, too hierarchical. The Virgin Mary? No, too unfamiliar. The Greek god Zeus? No, too much thunder and drama. Fairies? No, too prone to play tricks.
I tried a focus on the time of year. My Aunt Kimmie is Wiccan and once mailed me a hand-written letter where she wrote out the Eight-Spoked Wheel of the Year, outlining all the festival days. We were at the end of July. Just this morning I had picked that letter off the top of my desk clutter, and I remembered that this was the time of Lughnasadh, the Celtic Fire Festival that marked the beginning of the harvest. It was a time to honor the God Lugh, the Celtic deity of many skills. That could work.
I grabbed Ula by the hand and led her down to the creek bank. I handed her the chocolate bar.
“Here. Break this up and throw it into the creek!”
“But Mommy, this is your favorite chocolate!”
“Rituals require sacrifice,” I assured her. With glee, she broke up the chocolate and tossed it across the flowing water. I joined her in the dispersal.
“We offer this gift for the god Lugh!” I called out.
“We offer this gift,” she repeated, “for the god … Lou?” She turned to me. “Who’s Lou?”
Confidence mattered more than than anything else. “Lugh is the Irish god of many skills,” I said with as much authority as I could muster. “You need many skills tonight, and—lucky for us—this is the time of his festival so he’s extra strong right now.”
“We offer this gift to the god Lugh,” she said.
“Now stand still!” I told her. “It’s time to make you a protective circle!”
A few boys were fishing a little ways down stream.
“Mommy? Are those boys watching us?”
“What are they thinking?”
“I don’t care what they think. We need magic. Let’s go.”
Ula closed her eyes and stood still. I opened my vial of salt and made a circle around her. “I make this circle of salt so that you may feel protected and safe,” I said.
“But I can’t stay in this circle all night. We have a play.”
“The circle is symbolic,” I said. “The protection will follow you even when you step out of it.”
The answer seemed to suffice. She closed her eyes and let me proceed.
“And on this day, we pray to the god Lugh,” I continued. “And we ask for his gifts this night. For courage, for imagination….”
She repeated each phrase after me. There should be at least three things, I thought to myself.
It wasn’t just Ula’s first time going through this. It was my first time through, as a parent.
“For joy!” I shouted.
“For joy!” she said, with the fullest voice I’d heard thus far.
“Now Ula,” I instructed her. “Step outside your circle, and know that its protection follows you.” Cautiously, she stepped outside and looked at me. Normal moms would be going over lines and rehearsing songs, I thought. Maybe later.
“I want you to think,” I went on, “think about each of your fears. And I want you to pick up one stone for each fear. Call it out, then throw it away into the water.”
She stared down at the ground, then selected two stones. Looking out over the widest part of Fox Creek, she wound her arm behind her, then bellowed out “Fear of failure!” and pitched it as far as she could.
“That fear is now washed away,” I said.
She wound up with the second stone. “Embarrassment!” she yelled. And she threw.
My eyes were filled with tears. “Your embarrassment is washed away,” I said.
I handed her the bits of crumbled up lemon lollipop. “Now give him this.”
“Isn’t that littering?”
She watched the water a little longer. I looked around at the ground in search of something to give her in a medicine bundle. Someone had dropped three beads from a fishing lure. “Here,” I called her attention to them. “Hold these in your hand until we can get home and find you a medicine bag.”
“They are gifts from Lugh to remind you that he’s helping you tonight.”
“It looks like litter.”
“But there are three? See? This one is for courage,” she held her palm open to receive it. “And this one is for imagination, and this one,” I dropped the last into her hand, “is for joy. So you will have fun tonight.”
I spoke with conviction, but my mama’s heart was rattled with fear on her behalf. “Time to go,” I said, pointing her in the direction of the car. As she scuttled off I turned back to the creek.
“Please,” I whispered. I didn’t care if she sang beautifully. I didn’t care if she forgot her lines.
“Just let her feel happy and fulfilled,” I asked. And there was nothing more I could do.
ACT II, SCENE II
I was pacing about outside the theater when Bob came in. I shook my head when he gazed at me with questioning eyes. “It doesn’t look good,” I said when Ula was safely out of earshot.
“Crap,” he muttered.
“I think she needs to see familiar faces.” Bethany, another friend whose daughter was in the cast, walked up to me. “Why are you looking so nervous?” she asked, cool and calm in the face of the performance.
“Ula’s ready to throw up,” I said. “And therefore, so am I.”
She hugged me. “It’s a rite of passage,” she said. “This is a big night for her.”
We nosed and nudged our way to the front of the line, then charged into the theater, grabbing the front row for ourselves. A few minutes later, in came Grammie and Pop Pop. And then her Aunt Erin, Uncle Matt, and her cousins, Evie and Tick. Following them was Matt from the gas station, along with his wife Nancy. I peered around the dark room. It was filled with the faces of people who love my little girl.
The lights came up. Children came out singing, holding puppet monkeys, lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, and zebras. Then the stage fell quiet. All the children looked to the back corner and waited. And then she came around the corner. Around her neck I could see the yarn that held her hidden medicine bundle. Her eyes searched the audience and found mine. We locked gazes, and she smiled broadly. Then she began creeping across the stage like Anansi, the spider.
Ula backstage after her performance. Photo by the author.
And then it was time for her solo.
And she froze.
The prompter fed her the first line.
And the second line.
She chimed in a bit on the third line. Then a bit more on the fourth.
She sang the next verse by herself, then pretended to fall asleep, just as she was supposed to do, according to the script. And the audience—nearly half of which was her friends and family by this point—burst into applause.
I watched her body tremble in response. She looked up from her slumber in surprise and shock. That was real applause. For her.
And that was it. She became Anansi the spider. Sure, she forgot lines. She forgot where on the stage she was supposed to be. She needed quite a few reminders from the prompter. A few times, she crossed her legs and grabbed herself as though maybe she needed to pee. But the tears poured down my eyes every second of that 25-minute production. Not because she was making mistakes … but because she was loving every minute of it. And the applause never stopped coming.
ACT II, SCENE III
Bethany had been correct; the experience was a rite of passage. Ula couldn’t stop smiling when the play was done. She was smothered with hugs, decorated with flowers, showered with kisses. But just before those lights came up for the play, she’d had her darkest hour. And by forcing herself to confront that, she was now basking in light.
But it wasn’t just Ula’s first time going through this. It was my first time through, as a parent. I don’t suppose praying to Celtic gods and sprinkling lollipops and chocolate into creeks count as normal coping mechanisms, but I consider it a gift from the gods that all of Ula’s friends and family came out to surround her during that dark hour. I consider it a gift from the gods that they filled the room with smiles and applause, sending her the courage and joy that she needed to face her fears.
“She came through!” The director sang out as we cleaned up after the show. “You were right! She just needed to feel that audience!”
She turned to Ula. “How was that?” she asked.
“Piece of cake,” Ula said, waving her hand in dismissal. “Mommy? Can we sign up for theater camp next week too?”
One week in the life of normal is enough for me.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.