My mother tells us, “There was a bird on the lamb.”
We’re thinking, Why was a bird hiding from the authorities? What did he do? Or maybe a bird was hitching a ride on an actual lamb, suddenly innocent and childish. She glances out the window, throws her hands in the air. She starts to laugh, so we do too. Either scenario is funny, really. Until she accuses us of laughing at her and her frustration becomes palpable. In half a minute, Limb. Oh. There was a bird on the limb.
It was spring’s first robber, she says.
Here we go again.
A wasp emerges from my mothers mouth. I hear its wings flutter against her palate, then chatter against her teeth as she tries to hold it in, knowing it is wrong. Its pointy feet walk across her tongue and she must say it. The thin crepe of ancient skin covering her arms, like a wasp’s paper nest, foreshadowed its emergence. A wisp was what she wanted, a whisper. The soft relay of a granddaughter’s wish, not pointy feet. Not the lawless discourse of old age. Not the involuntary sputtering of random words.
I point out that 90 percent of her words are ones she intended. Citing statistics is not helpful. Logic is out of her reach. She only hears what she did not intend to say. Most of the letters are usually right, I say. Still she is irked and beaten in equal measure.
One morning, when I was 3 years old, I awoke to a horrible smell. It is my earliest memory. In a rented house at the Jersey shore, the only vacation we ever took, I called and she came. What is that smell? Oh dear. It was me. All those blueberries I’d eaten while we watched the crabs spar on the bluestone patio, reappeared in my pants in the morning. I was hosed down and the blueberries were off limits. Crab I could eat, but no more blueberries. Mom’s request that I, “Take the garbage to the crab” dredges up that memory. She looks defeated.
My words. I can’t find my words. I talk nonsense.
It’s okay. We can usually figure out what you mean. And even if we can’t, you say it right a few minutes later and we all have a good laugh. Your becoming a comedian in your old age! Don’t let the wrong word stop you – you’ll be a teller of fantastical stories!
Don’t sit on the beetle!
I freeze in mid squat. A second later comes, Needle! Needle!
I don’t want to sit on a beetle or a knitting needle so its all good, I tell her.
When I was 5 we made a snowman on the picnic table. Just she and I. I was special. It was delightful.
When I was 7 she marched me down the street and made me apologize to another child for something I didn’t do. I still haven’t forgiven her.
When I was 11 she helped me complete my epic science project, a bench-scale desalinization plant, decades before the term climate change was coined, well before it would occur to anyone why you might need to desalinate sea water. We finished at 2 a.m. on a school night. I recall it being fun, but as a parent I can’t imagine how that memory could possibly be right.
When I was 20 she left me alone to become myself. Like all parents should.
She always said just the right thing, using all the right words (except of course during “the apology incident” noted above). A golden rule I learned from her, which has served me well: If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.
I figure I have about 35 years before a wasp flies out of my mouth unintended. Or maybe a beetle will emerge, prying open my lips with its long proboscis, like my mother’s shiny gold knitting needle. It will evade the first robber of spring, who would surely try to snatch its iridescent wings. The beetle and the blue crab, fast friends in search of a blueberry patch, will meet a whispering wasp on a lamb on the lamb!
When my random words start to fly I will tell the best stories.