Standing on the hardwood floors backstage of her elementary school theater, Clara wondered if her mom would be present. She was nine years old, clad in nothing more than a thin, pale pink tutu and her little legs were cold. She was standing huddled with twelve other girls, but she felt alone.
Ms. Gravel was whispering some final instructions to them before they were to scurry on stage for their performance. The ballerinas were the last act before intermission and Clara could already feel the building dread of the break, when all the other girls would run into their mommies’ and daddies’ arms. Clara knew she would look around, hoping to find her mom, but not see her anywhere. Granted, she wanted this time to be different—her mom had said she would try to ask for time off work—but she knew better than to get her hopes up.
The ballet routine they had practiced for the Spring Talent Ensemble was not impossible but it was challenging and she had only managed to complete it without a mistake twice before. Every girl in the group struggled with one part or another but the way in which many of her peers would return from the weekend with a cleaner routine clued her in that they must be getting support and practice at home. Someone was watching their run-throughs. Someone was going so far as to learn the steps themselves in order to show the other girls the best way to execute a specific move. Clara longed for a someone in her life.
She had been told by many people—some who deserved to have an opinion and some, perhaps, not—that she shouldn’t judge her mother nor give less credit where credit was due. As a child, she barely understood what it was that people meant when they used expressions like those but she got the gist of it. Her mother was different. Her father was not around and so Mama had to play the role of two parents; she had to work the hours of two parents and something had to give in that process.
It was confusing to Clara, though, because the reason given for it was always so that Clara would have everything she needed, but what Clara needed and wanted most was time with her mom. That’s the one thing she never got. So, even that day, shivering a bit in the crisp air of the backstage, Clara knew to not want her mommy there too badly. Not wanting that which she most longed for in order to stave off disappointment was a coping mechanism Clara had learned when she was very young.
As the crowd applauded and the motley crew of clarinets, trumpets, and flutes exited stage right the young girls started to squirm and prattle a bit more with nerves. Ms. Gravel warmly hushed and calmed them. While their principal thanked the musicians and primed the crowd for the next performance Clara couldn’t hear anything over the pounding of her heart. There was a subdued eruption of applause and it was only when she saw the other girls begin to scamper onto stage that Clara realized that she should, too.
She joined them onstage as the spotlights steadied back down on the ballerinas. Due to the blinding effect of the hot lights, it was impossible to discern if her mom was there or not, but she attempted to scan the crowd, in vain, anyways. The music started and she instinctively switched to focusing on the task at hand—not slipping up in the middle of their big performance.
Clara pirouette-ed and plié-ed across the stage in imperfect synchronicity with the other dancers. She twisted and turned with the beat of the music and only faltered slightly on one landing. She ended the dance in the exact spot she was meant to, which gave her confidence and reassurance that her performance had been on-point. The crowd applauded much more loudly than when they had emerged and Clara allowed herself to smile timidly as a result.
She had done it! All her hard work over the past semester had paid off. If only her mommy or grandma had been able to see it. With Kim working what seemed like twenty-four hours a day, Clara often took consolation in her grandma, Annette’s, company instead. Gran was feisty and full of life—a great asset to the Moore family home—but she was also crippled with arthritis, which made it nearly impossible for her to move about.
When Clara was younger, Gran had worked at an important office building, but those days were over. Within the confines of their tiny two-bedroom apartment, Annette managed alright but the outside world was simply not constructed in a way that would allow her to successfully get to things like work or little Clara’s ballet recital, at least not alone. It was as hard for Gran to accept as it was for Clara.
The young girls were coaxed off the stage by a beaming Ms. Gravel. As soon as they began to pitter patter off, the curtains closed and the auditorium lights brightened to signal intermission. Most of the girls were beside themselves, barely listening to what Ms. Gavel had to say and, instead, straining their necks to see the family members waiting for them just down the stairs. When they heard the final word, it was like a herd being released.
Little girl legs shuffled in every direction and many of them were scooped right off the floor in exaltation. Clara allowed everyone else to run out in front of her. Realistically, she knew no one would be there waiting for her, but she had to keep that sliver of hope alive and so she slowly walked towards the backstage exit. She could hear mommies saying “That was wonderful, sweetie!” and daddies exclaiming “Oh boy, you were great!” She closed her eyes momentarily and imagined one of the comments were directed towards her.
As she stood there quietly, with her eyes pulled shut and a smile on her lips, Ms. Gravel tapped her on the shoulder. “Clara?” she could tell the little girl was lost in thought and didn’t want to spook her. However, it seemed that she was used to being pulled out of such a state as her eyes slowly batted open and her exuberant smile settled into a content one when she found it was Ms. Gavel smiling at her.
“Yes?” she responded dreamily.
“Honey, I’m so sorry, but your gran called earlier and said your mom wouldn’t be able to make it tonight—terribly busy at work and just couldn’t get away.” Clara nodded along; she knew the drill. “Unfortunately she won’t be getting off until late so she won’t even be able to pick you up. Gran asked if you could get a ride with a classmate’s family instead.”
The look of sheer panic on Clara’s face was unmissable; both of them knew Clara didn’t exactly have close friends in her class or the ballet program and that this could raise unnecessary stress. “But, not to worry, I told Gran I would be more than happy to take you home myself.”
The relief washed across Clara like a wave. Thank God for Ms. Gravel! It was one thing that the other girls might notice she was parentless at the recital but to have to endure a car ride home with whoever felt most sorry for her was something she just could not bear, not again. Ms. Gravel seemed to have a lot more compassion than some of her teachers and coaches in the past.
“Thank you,” Clara responded sincerely.
Her teacher patted her on the shoulder and said “Of course!” then she leaned in mischievously to tell her a secret. “We’ve got some cookies and lemonade set up out in the corridor. Why don’t you go grab yourself some before I announce it to the others?” Clara nodded with excitement. Even though she didn’t have any family present, at least she got first dibs on the sweets.
After the Spring Talent Ensemble finished, Ms. Gravel mulled around for another half hour with the other organizers. She answered parents’ questions, provided pamphlets on the organized events and classes for the summer, and graciously accepted praise for a job well-done. It was after about twenty minutes that Clara realized there was a family lurking, like she was, without approaching any of the staff. There was a girl around her age, a toddler, and a daddy. As she took notice of them, the daddy smiled and waved, then the trio made their way over to her.
“Are you Clara?” the daddy asked. She instantly became timid, staring down at her feet. She wasn’t supposed to give her name to strangers. “I’m terribly sorry. How inconsiderate of me! I’m Adam Gravel, Ms. Gravel’s husband. This is Tommy…” he said, gesturing to the toddler holding his hand.
“And I’m Tabitha!” the girl announced with zeal. All three smiled pristinely. “Ms. Gravel’s my mom,” Tabitha added, as Clara appeared to be having difficulty connecting the dots. It was not that Clara had trouble understanding family relations; it was simply that she had always imagined Ms. Gravel was single. All of the other lady teachers who were married used “Mrs.”—like Mrs. White, Mrs. Krunk, and Mrs. Carnegie—and so Clara had assumed that Ms. Gravel didn’t have a husband and, especially, that she didn’t have any children!
“Oh, okay. I’m Clara,” she tried to carry on the conversation with as little shock in her voice as possible. “Ms. Gravel’s my teacher and after-school ballet instructor.”
Adam smiled widely and added, “Yes, it seems she is! And she’s told us you’re a very bright student, Clara.” He waited for the pride to spread across her face as he made the statement.
“Yes, of course! And a talented ballerina, too. Will you be continuing with Ballet II this summer?” It was an innocent enough question, but Clara immediately felt cornered. She didn’t want to say no and sound like she was disregarding the high praise she had just gotten, but she also didn’t feel comfortable saying yes. She didn’t usually participate in summer programs; there didn’t tend to be money left for them.
“Umm, well, I don’t kn—” Ms. Gravel popped up at that moment and saved her from really needing to answer.
“Alrighty! Sorry about that. I see you’ve all gotten acquainted?” The entire Gravel family—even Tommy—nodded with enthusiasm and so Clara joined in as well. “Excellent!”
“I’ll go get the car and pull it round,” Adam offered as he seamlessly handed Tommy’s hand over to his wife. Clara wasn’t used to having anyone to “pull the car round.” she always had to go out to it with her mommy, however far away it was. It seemed it was nice to have a daddy for these things. They all stood in the entryway and awaited their carriage.
During the car ride, Ms. Gravel engaged everyone in discussion, much like she did in the classroom—although everyone in the car that evening was much more receptive than the children in Clara’s class. They all laughed along with the jokes—even Tommy!—and seemed genuinely happy. When Tabitha pointed out that her favorite ice cream shop had opened up for the season, Adam made a U-turn at the next intersection and they all sprinted inside to get a generous scoop. Even Clara was treated to her first cone from Mr. Frosty’s.
After the ice cream, Clara sat in the seat behind the driver in a bit of a sugar coma. She imagined she had just gained insight into one of Tabitha’s best family memories and her mind lazily began to wander to her own such memories. However, she was quickly reminded that none of them were as sweet as Mr. Frosty’s.
Clara was almost five years old the first time she had a taste of ice cream. It was back in the days when she used to spend the afternoons at her friend Vicky Thompson’s house at the end of the block. Vicky’s mom provided childcare for a number of families in the neighborhood and Clara wasn’t officially one of the kids she looked after. However, they would always play together at the park and Clara seemed to have so much fun spending time with the big group. Mrs. Thompson eventually just included Clara in the group without a word of payment to her mother or grandma. She knew the family wasn’t exactly affluent.
Then came that unforgettable day in May. Clara was sat down at the dining room table with eleven other kids and each was served one large spoonful of chocolate ice cream. Strawberries and bananas were cut up on a plate with sugar cookies in the middle of the table but one taste of the ice cream and Clara forgot about everything else. It was like heaven the way it melted so slowly on her tongue. It was rich and sugary but playfully cold; she had never before experienced anything like it.
She instantly wanted to request more, but had been taught that it was impolite to do so. She waited in an agitated state of anticipation until Mrs. Thompson took notice and asked if she was alright. “Oh, yes, ma’am. That was so good!” The mother seemed to momentarily consider offering Clara more but must have reasoned her way out of it, foreseeing that each and every other child would then ask for the same. Instead, she smiled and said, “I’m so glad. Why don’t you have some strawberries and bananas to finish off?”
Clara understood why things needed to be rationed with so many mouths to feed around the table at the Thompsons, but surely it would be a different story in her own home. That night, she gushed to Gran and Mama about the delicious ice cream she had had at Vicky’s house. “It was so good! Have you ever tried it, Mama?” The young girl didn’t notice her mother’s face go pale, but Gran did.
“Yes, once or twice,” she fibbed.
“Well, don’t you love it? What about you, Gran? Do you like ice cream, too?” Annette smiled and nodded her head ever so slightly. “Well why don’t we have more around here!?” Clara got lost in her own excitement, naively unaware that ice cream was an expensive, non-essential grocery item.
Her mom needed to be strategic about what she purchased to make sure her small paycheck could span the entire week of groceries and other needs. A carton of ice cream was the equivalent of eggs or two pounds of vegetables. Those items were essential and there simply wasn’t enough to go around.
“Well, we’ll see,” was all Mama could manage as a response. She didn’t want to get her daughter’s hopes up, but she hated saying no.
“Oh please, Mama, please! I love it so much!”
After that conversation, Clara waited hopefully for two weeks—four whole bags of groceries—but each and every time there was no ice cream to be found. She was so frustrated and disappointed. She’d sulk off to her room each time, ignoring her mom’s offers of yogurt or crackers instead. Those snacks were just not the same; she wanted ice cream!
Finally, on the fifth shopping trip, Kim caved. By that point, Clara had given up hope and didn’t even come running out of her room to check the groceries as she had during the weeks previous. Kim had to call her in to help and the five-year-old reluctantly appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.
Clara had such a sullen look on her face, until she noticed what had been removed from the brown paper bag. “Oh my gosh! Is that ice cream?” she was immediately turning over the carton in her hands. “It is! But it looks like a different flavor…van-il-uh. Is van-il-uh good, Mama?”
“Oh of course! Vanilla is the original,” Mama built it up with a wink.
“Wow! Can we have some right now?”
“No, no, it’s almost dinner time. We wouldn’t want to spoil our appetites now would we?” Personally, young Clara couldn’t care less but she decided to agree and wait out the hour or two until ice cream time. When it came, she was ever so excited, as were Kim and Annette who had also been missing out on ice cream for the last few years.
When Clara took her first spoonful, her face immediately turned sour. “What is that?” she shouted, puckering her lips. “It’s like they forgot to put the flavor in. Mama, is it right?” Mother and grandmother both dug into their dessert and confirmed that it was perfectly good vanilla ice cream.
“Yuck!” was all Clara could say after trying another spoonful. She took a big sip of water and wiped her mouth the way she would after icky peas or broccoli. Then she pushed the bowl away and announced, “It’s gross.” She could see Mama looked disappointed, so she halted her negative review there. Still, she couldn’t help but feel it was so unfair that she’d had to wait all that time and yet, when she got the ice cream, it was the grossest flavor imaginable. She had never felt more betrayed in her life.
There were more occurrences with ice cream later in her life, although that was the last time her mom had tried buying it for the family home. The following September, Clara was all set to start school—a big day that they had all been looking forward to. The Friday before, Mama got offered a second job working on a production line that she was desperate to take. Unfortunately, she would need to be in training workshops during Clara’s first day. This job had early hours—originally an advantage that meant she could continue working her afternoon job at the store. Suddenly, it felt like a drawback, as there was no way she could sneak away at eight o’clock to accompany Clara on the big day.
Gran would have loved to take her to school, but her hip was acting up and Mama was too nervous that it’d get worse if she attempted to waddle all the way to the elementary school and back. As they were discussing the dilemma—Clara was off in her bedroom, hiding her disappointment and pretending she couldn’t hear—the doorbell rang. It was Edwina, the mailwoman, with a package. Mama immediately got an idea.
Mama had gone to high school with Edwina and known her for years; she also already happened to pass by their house each day around 8 am! Mama asked if she would be willing to take the ten minute break to accompany Clara to school and she professed she would be honored. “Oh, you’ve really saved the day, Edi!” Mama sounded absolutely comforted by the solution, but Clara was not.
She knew Edwina was one of Mama’s close friends, but Clara didn’t really know her. She was just the mailwoman, just some random lady—why should she take her to her first day of school? Wasn’t this important enough for her mommy to take off of work? Apparently it was not.
When the big day arrived, Edi was at their apartment a full twenty minutes before she needed to be walked to school. Gran was very pleased and invited her to a cup of fresh-brewed coffee; Clara was less impressed. The day had already been ruined by Mama having to leave for work so early that she wished her a “good first day of school” the night before when she tucked her into bed. Now she’d have to put up with random Edwina for longer than expected.
Clara tried to stay positive, reminding herself that no one else at school would know that Edi was her mailwoman, not her mommy. She repeated this rationalization to herself as she walked to school, awkwardly holding Edwina’s hand each time they crossed the street. When they arrived, it was clear from all the hugs, kisses, and tears that everyone else was there with their parents.
Edi did her best to play along. As they approached the big yellow doors of the kindergarten entrance, she got down on one knee to be at Clara’s level and asked her, “Are you ready?” She nodded along. “Well it’s a very big day and we’re all very proud of you!” Clara wrinkled her nose a bit at the use of the collective “we”—“we” should not include Edwina, she was not family and had no reason to care that it was her first day of school. Then again, it’s not like she had anyone else there to say it, so she accepted her delivery of the sentiment. She gave Clara a kiss on the head and said “Go get ’em, tiger!”
Tiger!? What a weirdo, Clara thought. She was thankful that, even though her mommy couldn’t be there to send her off, at least she could expect her that afternoon when school got out as Mama had a break between her two jobs. It was better that way, actually, as she could tell Mama all about her first day, which she wouldn’t care to do with Edwina. She took that solace with her throughout the day and looked forward to finding Mama’s face four hours later.
When the first big day drew to an end, she ran alongside her new classmates to their cubbies to gather up their sweaters and backpacks, then filed out the door in a not-so-organized line to reunite with their parents. Boys and girls ran this way and that, shouting and squealing as they shot into long embraces with their parents. Clara was just as excited and expectant as the rest of them.
At first, she couldn’t locate Mama, but she didn’t worry—she must just be behind someone or running late. It wasn’t until she spotted the dreaded mailwoman outfit in the crowd that her hopes were dashed. Argh! What’s Edwina doing here, again!? Clara wondered.
Once they’d mutually located each other, Edi came jogging towards her with a huge grin on her face. Clara didn’t return the smile. Instead, she crossed her arms, narrowed her eyes, and said, “Where’s my mommy?”
Edi squatted down in front of her and, with as much enthusiasm and cheer as she could muster, explained, “I’m really sorry, but your mommy needed to stay downtown to work early. I guess something came up at the store and her boss asked her to cover someone else’s shift at noon.” It was by no means the first time she had gotten news like that, but it was the first time on her first day of school and it stung.
“So she had to?” she asked meekly.
“Afraid so, tiger…BUT look what I brought you!” At that moment Edi pulled into view the hand she had kept behind her back to reveal an ice cream bar. It wasn’t exactly the same as having Mama pick her up, as had been planned, but at least she knew to choose chocolate. Clara gave her a weak smile and said “thanks.”
Clara whirled out of her memories and returned to her presence in the Gravel family car. It was strange, she thought to herself, that ice cream was something she so deeply enjoyed and yet it had been wrapped into so many hurtful moments in her life, too. Times when she was let down, times when she felt betrayed. It was as if the goodness of ice cream came topped with misery.
She couldn’t help but notice that, although she had considered the most recent trip to Mr. Frosty’s a real treat, she would remember it as the time she was abandoned at the Spring Talent Ensemble. She and ice cream just didn’t have a good track record.
When they arrived at her apartment building, Clara thanked them all for the ride and said she could find her own way up, but Ms. Gravel insisted on accompanying her to the door. A long pause after they rang the doorbell, Gran made her way across the living room to answer it and grinned with pride and appreciation when she saw her tutu-ed granddaughter standing there next to her kind coach. Gran thanked Ms. Gravel profusely and Clara squirmed uncomfortably when Gran winked at her after hearing about the ice cream outing.
Once the Gravels and her tight tutu were long gone, Clara reemerged from her bedroom in her PJs and climbed up onto the mushy couch next to her grandma. Gran had heated up a glass of milk for her in the microwave and so she drank it slowly, curled up and resting her head on Gran’s large bosom as they watched a rerun of some old show. The two of them said little; Gran could tell Clara wasn’t in the mood to talk about the evening’s events and so they sat together in silence through nearly two full reruns.
At the end of the second episode, Gran ceremoniously clicked the TV off and said, “Well, I think it’s time for bed, little one!” Clara begged to stay up until Mama came home, but Gran insisted, “I wasn’t lying when I told your Ms. Gravel she was gonna be late! I may even fall asleep before she gets home. Now, you need to rest up—tomorrow’s a school day.”
It took Clara ages to fall asleep. When she finally did drift off it was past eleven o’clock and yet still another hour until Kim quietly returned home. Annette had attempted to wait up, but was dozing on the couch when her daughter tiptoed in. Kim observed her guiltily and crept over to Clara’s bedroom.
Inside, her little angel was breathing deeply, the expensive tutu cast aside under her dressing chair. One ballet slipper was tossed on top of it and the other seemed to be lying under the bed. Kim sighed, picked up the tutu, and draped it over the back of the chair.
She peered down at her lovely daughter. She pulled the sheets higher over Clara’s shoulders and brushed her hair away from her face. She sighed again as she thought about how many—many!—times she had had to make an impossible decision like the one she had made today. It was certainly not the first time she was made to sacrifice what she knew her daughter wanted in the moment for what she needed in the long run.
Today, it was obliging her unforgiving boss and missing Clara’s recital. There were always so many extra shifts she was expected to take, which led her to missing Clara’s first day of school, countless field trips, and even Clara’s entire sixth birthday party—which she had saved for and slaved over for weeks. And yet, even after all those sacrifices, there was still the incessant risk factor of losing it all and no longer being able to provide for little Clara, her mother, and herself.
Everyone was counting on Kim to carry the weight of a three-person family on a single earner’s salary. It had been much easier back when her mom worked but, since the arthritis had gotten bad, she had needed to take on two, sometimes three jobs at a time.
Without fail, it seemed the best paying one always had the worse boss, the boss who couldn’t care less that she had family commitments and that her daughter needed her there. She was always reminded that she was highly replaceable. “Anyone can do your job, Kim. And we’ll happily get in the next person tomorrow if you can’t take this shift.” She was always cornered into that impossible position.
She shook her head at herself in the darkness of the tiny room. She didn’t want to make excuses for her choices; she wanted to be the kind of mother Clara deserved. She wanted to be there, each and every time her daughter had an important event. She simply couldn’t figure out how to make it happen.
Taking on the extra work she did felt like the only available solution. She didn’t have a degree—and certainly didn’t have the time or money to pursue one—so she was essentially forced to do work that paid by the hour. The only way to increase their income was to be at work longer hours. For Kim, there was no alternative.
She sat there stroking her daughter’s arm up and down as all her worst memories played in her mind. She was forever ashamed of the way in which her daughter had to go without the luxuries and joys of childhood, like sugary cereals and cookies. Clara had even been introduced to ice cream in someone else’s home! Kim had always hoped there would come a day when she could splurge and surprise her daughter with her first taste of ice cream, but it never happened. They always needed healthy foods, medicine, or the random odds and ends for around the house.
Kim would never be able to erase that fateful day in May from her mind—when Clara came back from the Thompson’s bouncing with joy at the discovery of the sweet treat. Her daughter had finally tried ice cream and she had missed it. Oh, how she had racked her brain, pinched every penny to save up enough to purchase more for little Clara, desperate to share in her enjoyment. It was difficult; the extra change was just never there.
But Kim had been determined. She saved up the extra twenty cents here and fifty cents there. Finally, a couple of weeks later, there was a sale on the store’s generic ice cream and she could make it happen! There was only vanilla ice cream left but plain ice cream was better than no ice cream, she decided. Kim was bursting with joy when she brought it home. Her daughter looked so excited; Kim felt like a good parent, for once. She did the right motherly thing by making her wait until after dinner—even though she secretly wanted to dig in right then and there, too.
And then the long-awaited moment came, her first time enjoying ice cream with her daughter—such a monumental occasion. She served up two big scoops per bowl, there was no reason to skimp now. She waited eagerly as Clara dug in for her first spoonful. She told herself she could always remember this as her daughter’s first taste. With time, the Thompson ice cream memory would fade.
In that moment, Kim was perfectly prepared for a huge smile and full-body contentment from her daughter. Instead, what she received was a furrowed brow, accompanied by a resolute frown. Clara was disgusted. Kim could tell her daughter hated the ice cream she had bought her.
The only thing that came close to the disappointment Kim felt in that moment were the multiple times over the next few weeks that she offered the vanilla ice cream to Clara, each time with the promise of something else sweet and delicious to accompany it. “You’ll love it this way!” she’d promise.
“No I won’t. That ice cream was icky.” Kim couldn’t help but feel that it was somehow about so much more than ice cream. The Thompson’s ice cream was better, but so was their home, their mother, their everything. Kim was ashamed she couldn’t provide for her daughter the high quality she experienced elsewhere.
As if that memory wasn’t demoralizing enough, then the conversation she had to have with Edi all those year ago resurfaced in her mind. Edwina had been happy to help at first, but grew concerned that Clara just wasn’t satisfied with her company on the way to and from school. “You should have seen her face when I picked her up, Kim. She looked destroyed. I’d thought to bring her an ice cream sandwich that day—you know, to smooth the roughness of it over—but I just can’t imagine bribing her with an ice cream sandwich every day is the right approach… Is there someone else she’d be more comfortable with? I feel like I’m letting you down.”
Kim fought back her tears. She had imagined such a look on Clara’s face but, from Edwina’s description, she could now see it. She had cried herself to sleep the night before Clara’s first day, miserable with herself for having to wish her daughter a good first day of school a full twelve hours before the actual event. She knew Edi wasn’t the one letting anyone down—it was her.
It had been hard enough to bear missing that first day. She had never planned to rely on Edi every day, but the training lasted all week long and the co-worker she had to cover at the store that first day had quit. The result was that she was meant to step up and cover all her shifts—or face the risk of being fired.
It was by no means ideal to leave the house each day at half past five in the morning and not return until after eight in the evening but it was what was asked of her and she hoped it would set her up for the managerial position and a raise. Once she got a raise, she could cut back on hours and be more present in Clara’s life. It was only a temporary sacrifice, she tried to convince herself. She thanked Edwina for all of her help and promised she would find someone else to take Clara to and from school instead.
It took all the strength she had to call Rhonda Thompson and ask her to pick up Clara on the way to school with Vicky. She hated having to admit her shortcomings to other moms, especially ones like Rhonda who managed not only to provide everything for her own children but to do so for the other kids in the neighborhood, too. But it was the necessary thing to do. She couldn’t put her friend or her daughter in an uncomfortable position any longer. Yet again, she needed to ask someone else to step in, even for the smallest of mother-daughter moments.
Kim continued to watch her baby sleeping. She couldn’t believe her daughter would soon be ten years old—and how many of those ten years have I missed? She couldn’t help but wonder if all the times she had told herself it was “just a temporary situation” had compounded into a totally absent motherhood. She had always kept Clara as her top priority; she had always tried to do what she believed was best for her daughter. And yet…looking around the room, she felt like it was a testament to all of the important moments she had missed.
The cast aside tutu was only the newest relic of childhood achievement Clara had on display for Kim to survey. There were also shin pads and a deflated ball from when she had played on the after-school soccer team. There were achievement awards pinned up, lopsided, on her bulletin boards. There were tiny plastic trophies for this activity and that; Kim was certain she hadn’t been able to attend any of those awards ceremonies.
The piece that cut into her heart the most, of course, was the family picture Clara had drawn a few years ago in an after-school program. Clara was front and center, holding some toy or book in her hand. Gran was not far off—but separate from her—, depicted on their lumpy old couch. And Kim was drawn in the corner of the page, inside a thick green box.
When Clara had shown her the image the night she brought it home she asked what it meant and her daughter had responded, without batting an eyelash, “You’re at work, Mama. Teacher told us to draw what we usually do with our family, so I did. You’re usually at work while I play.” Kim had had no idea what to say. She wanted to deny it, to fight her daughter’s unforgiving assessment, but she had a point. Kim didn’t like it, but it was the truth.
She took one last look at her little girl and decided to give into her exhaustion. She had another very long day of work starting in six hours’ time and she really ought to get some sleep. She tried to clear her mind as she laid in bed that night, but she couldn’t get the thick crayon-drawn box out of her mind.
The next day at work was arduous, much like every one that had come before it. Kim couldn’t help but wonder if she was getting too old to work such long hours on just five hours of sleep. It didn’t matter what the answer was; she needed to continue doing it anyway—just for now. She was in a bit of daze as she fed the mold into the heavy duty machinery in her corner of the production line.
When it got jammed, she leaned over and, without noticing, her pant leg got caught on a hidden lever near the floor. As soon as she released the plastic and the machine started up again, the lever pulled her leg with it, resulting in great pain until her ankle was wedged between the lever and machine enough to jam and stop it again. She called out in agony. Her co-workers hurried to her side and called an ambulance once they saw her condition. She was rushed to the hospital and thankfully the doctors were able to receive her before she had lost too much blood.
Her foot had been twisted into such an unnatural state that the ankle needed to be broken and reset. Gran got the call from a nurse at the hospital just before Rhonda Thompson came over to pick up Clara for school. Not knowing any better solution, she talked to the kind women and explained the situation. It would be too much of a hassle to try to get Gran there herself, but could Rhonda make sure Clara made it there safely?
Annette knew it was unconventional to send a nine-year-old alone to a hospital, but she didn’t have anyone else to ask and she knew someone should be there for Kim. Rhonda was understanding and helpful. She couldn’t bring herself to leave a child alone at the hospital but she quickly called home and got her nineteen-year-old daughter, Jane, to accompany her.
Clara had no idea the gravity of the situation and supposed the worst. In her young mind, anything could happen and so she waited for what felt like days in the hospital waiting room with the oldest Thompson girl, who she barely knew. She worried she might be told her mom had died. She had no idea how she would survive without Mama; she wished she had just had more time with her. As tears began to stream down Clara’s face, she made sure to turn away from Jane, she didn’t want this stranger to see her weakness.
Much to Clara’s relief, not five hours later, Kim was released. They were reunited and somehow maneuvered themselves into a taxi to take her home. She was overwhelmed with the new circumstances of Mama hobbling around on crutches, but relieved to have her back, alive!
The following weeks with Mama at home were some of the happiest of Clara’s life. Kim’s morning job, where she had been injured, was going above and beyond to provide compensation while she was off work—they were likely nervous about a work injury lawsuit—but her longer-standing, higher-paying job at the store was not as helpful. It was not their fault that she was not fit to work and they needed someone to cover her shifts. When she told them she would need a minimum of six weeks off, she received an empty apology and notice that they would be terminating her contract in order to hire someone new.
On the inside, Kim was terrified about what would happen. She knew the income from just one paycheck wasn’t enough to keep them going long. However, she hated to bring it up in front of Clara and even felt guilty confiding her fears to her mother, who could do little to ease them. She tried to put on a strong face and simply enjoy the time with her daughter. Although the financial woes remained on her mind, it was easy to get lost in the moment with Clara—she was so full of joy.
She finally got to have long conversations with her daughter. She finally got to know every detail of what had happened each day at school. She finally got to know every facet of Clara’s personality—and there were many! Her daughter was a brilliant, complex soul. She reminded herself daily not to focus on the guilt of having missed this for so long, but to instead focus on savoring the opportunity she had in front of her. Clara seemed so genuinely happy and so Kim allowed herself to be happy, too.
As the six weeks came to an end, Kim had her first physical therapy session. It was excruciating. Her therapist told her it was normal, but it did not feel normal to have such intense pain over putting tiny amounts of pressure onto her toes. In that first session, she didn’t even attempt to put weight onto the sole of her foot. As terrifying as the price tag of physical therapy was, the more terrifying part was the realization that she’d never be able to walk again without it.
Up until that day, Kim had allowed herself to be deluded with the hope that she might not need physical therapy—or would only need it a handful of times. She had fantasized about being able to return to work just six weeks after the accident. She would get her company to increase her hours or she would find a new second job quickly. She had enough contacts in the retail world; it wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, she was confronted with the reality that being up on her feet to do the sort of work she was used to doing was not going to happen for a long while.
She needed an alternative solution—there was no way their family would survive much longer with so little money, especially if she would need to be paying for physical therapy as well. As she emerged from the building with all these thoughts running through her mind she didn’t even see Stacy Cox waving to her from across the street.
As she hobbled to the bus stop, the tall curvy women approached her saying, “Kim, is that you?” in the cautious way one does when approaching someone from their past. She hadn’t seen Stacy in years, but would recognize that voice anywhere. It was such a lovely voice and she told her so much in the moment. “Funny you say so, I basically live off this voice now!” Stacy said with a laugh.
It was an off-handed comment, but Kim was eager to know how she could possibly be making money with just her voice. “I’m a voiceover actress!” she explained. Apparently, Stacy was making good money from the comfort of her home reading and recording scripts for commercials, movies, and educational content around the world. Kim was immediately intrigued; the career sounded perfect—and even more so for someone who couldn’t walk at the moment.
“So you really don’t have to go into an office at all?”
“Not at all! My sister even runs the company from home! I talk with my clients over the phone or via email—but, honestly, that’s not even all that often. And I get to choose which projects I work on too so. If it’s already a busy week, I take on the small stuff. If I’m eager—or, let’s be honest, in real need of the cash—I commit to the bigger projects. It’s so flexible; I love it!”
“Wow, that sounds amazing,” Kim replied. Stacy could see the wheels turning in her old friend’s head.
“Say, what are you doing these days? I can’t imagine you’ve still got your job at the store in this condition.” Stacy gestured down at Kim’s crutches as she said so.
“I don’t, they dropped me sooner than I could say six weeks’ recovery. It was infuriating, after all those years! But, thank God, I’m still getting paid from the production line—where I got injured. I’d kill for some more work though. I could really use the mental stimulation, and the paycheck wouldn’t hurt either.” Kim had once been very close to Stacy, but she was too proud to admit how dire her financial situation was.
“Well, the company is usually quite particular that the voice actors they hire have a lot of experience, but I know the kind of dedicated work you do—and I can vouch for how quickly you’d pick it up. I’ll pass along your details to my sister if you’d like?”
Kim’s face lit up with appreciation. “Oh my God, that would be amazing!”
“Of course. It’s the least I can do after all the years we worked together, you always had my back and made sure the work got done on time. Girl, I have no qualms at all about recommending you!”
A few days later, everything was settled. Kim couldn’t believe how quickly she heard back from Stacy’s sister and how well-received her lack of experience was. It seemed that Stacy’s word about her character and work ethic really mattered; it seemed that being a good person and a hard worker had finally paid off.
And, what’s even more, if she worked the same amount of hours she had been putting in at the store she could earn nearly double the salary! At last, Kim could truly believe that all those years of toiling, long hours had made a difference.
Stuck at home, still partially disabled, she felt confident she could easily put in the same hours as before. What else did she have to do? She had to make up for lost time (and lost money) as it was. Although she was mentally working out the maximum number of hours she could put in each day, her thoughts shifted immediately when Clara came running into the room.
“Mama, Mama! I had the best day at school! I got cast in the play! And not just any role, Mama, no—I’m gonna play Juliet!” Both Kim and Annette clasped their hands together, applauded, and cooed over Clara’s good fortune. She must be very talented to be selected for the part of Juliet, they told her. She would have to work very hard, but they were so proud of her, and they sure hoped she knew it.
“And Mama, the play’s at the end of the month. You won’t be back to work yet, will you? You can come, right?” Her big brown eyes were filled with hope and expectation. Kim was overcome with memories of the many times they had looked at her, just like this, and she had had to let them down. Not today, not anymore. She silently pledged to herself in that moment that she would work hard, but she would never again work through important moments.
They needed the money, but Clara needed her mommy more. Kim smiled and said, “Well, I have big news, too. You see, I got a new job today!” Conditioned to know that work meant missing important moments, Clara’s eyes lost their sparkle and her head turned down. She sighed, then resolved to be mature and returned her gaze to her mother. “That’s good news,” she said in the most monotone, detached voice possible.
Kim reached out to lift her chin, smiling widely. “It is! It’s especially good news because I can work from home. So I’ll always be here for you, before and after school”—an eagerness spread across Clara’s face—“and I’ll always be there for things like your play.” Clara’s smile burst so big that a giggle erupted with it.
“Really?!” she shouted as she leapt into the air. Kim would have jumped up and down with her, if she had two good feet to do so. But, as the thought crossed her mind, she chose not to feel pity over her injury or anything that had happened over the last seven weeks. They had led her to this moment and the most perfect solution she could have ever imagined. Sometimes silver linings really do shine bright.
Clara was an excellent Juliet—everyone said so. But it didn’t matter to her what anyone else said, the only opinion that mattered was that of the women with the medical boot seated in the front row. That women was her mommy, and she attended every one of her plays for the rest of her life.