She stands gazing at the can of yellow paint in her spare bedroom while crunching on raisin toast. The can is filled with the color of daffodils, the color of the sun submerged just below a milky surface. Yesterday after work, studying the paint samples at the home improvement store, she felt torn over whether to buy a softer or brighter hue. Now, crouching above the paint can, she feels relieved it’s not filled with canary yellow or some harsher substitute. She wants her baby to be entirely comfortable in this room.
Painting will be the first step to transforming the spare bedroom into a nursery. She’s delayed starting because any day the girls at work will throw her a shower. Still, she knows she should get started and not leave too much to do to the end.
She reaches for the flat-head screwdriver near the paint can and begins prying off the top. Lifting the lid, she is pleased by the soft yellow liquid, lying in wait, undisturbed. She stands, surveying the white walls of the bedroom. It houses nothing other than paint supplies. The bedroom stood bare all these years; she never turned it into a guest room or a home office. And now there’s nothing to undo or to cover. It is a blank slate upon which she will create something special.
She leaves the room and returns dressed in corduroy overalls. After reaching for the stirring stick, she blends the paint and pours some into the aluminum tray, struck by how much her life has changed since that night six months ago.
Sitting in the dark. A made-for-tv movie cast ever-moving shadows on the wall, disappearing, leaving her on the couch, alone. The screen darkened. Then that woman, so serious, appeared and started talking, gazing at her, concerned.
“You want what’s best for your child. You’re like me. I know you do. That’s why you should feed your child Taste of Goodness for breakfast. This whole-grain cereal is fortified with 32 vitamins and minerals. My mother fed it to me, and now I feed it to my kids.”
A warm smile. Tiny arms wrapping around that woman, three kids by her side. Everyone together, huddled in her kitchen. “Each time you feed them Taste of Goodness, you’re showing them a mother’s love.”
The darkened screen, except that woman was still gazing at her, talking to her, “What’s best for your child.” Your child. That woman knew. That woman knew she was pregnant.
And months later she is gliding a roller down the wall in her baby girl’s nursery. Getting pregnant has been the best thing to happen to her. It’s so different living in this apartment now that she knows she’s pregnant. She never really feels like she’s here alone anymore. Now there’s this other presence, filling up her life.
She watches a stripe of yellow paint appear, smiling to herself. How eager she felt to tell Avery the news. Over lunch, the next day, seated across from each other. At Wendy’s where they often ate on their break from work, just the two of them. And Avery—she should have guessed—would broach the subject before she had a chance, guided by her mother’s instinct, Avery, her closest friend from work who already has two children of her own.
“A stuffed baked potato and a sandwich. Both today?” Avery asked.
“It’s a lot, I know.” Pressing on the roller, she mouths. “But I’m eating for two.”
She liked the way Avery’s eyes widened, but she couldn’t have been that surprised. She waited for Avery to sip her soda then reply.
She explained that she just found out, that she was just starting to tell people.
“Ok, but how? When were you with a man, Nola?”
She pauses, her hand gripping the roller. Why did Avery have to ask her that? She recalled that man at the bar reaching out to touch her and cringing. A mother wouldn’t let just any man touch her. Why couldn’t Avery just accept they would both be mothers?
“I just am,” she said. “I am.”
Avery nodded. She’s sure she nodded.
She didn’t tell Avery that she would be a mother without having had a mother, not that she didn’t wish for one. All her hopes were on display in the last picture taken for her file at the state adoption agency from years ago. Inside the flap, she posed, wearing her only dress, sitting straight, smiling but not too wide because she didn’t want prospective parents to think she was wild. At ten, she was no one’s daughter. At thirteen, no one’s. At eighteen, an adult, never to come from a family of her own.
She dips the roller in the paint, pulling it the length of the tray to moisten the felt. As the roller touches the wall, she hears the question she never wants to be asked: What kind of mother do motherless girls make? The girls she knew growing up didn’t talk about having children. It was simple. No one wanted them so why would they want something that no one wanted. Instead, they talked about turning eighteen, leaving the group home, and starting a new life. At eighteen, she left, ready to start her new life, except she saw no vision of how that life would be. So she waited, watching as the people around her seemed to live so fully they didn’t notice anyone else. And still nothing happened. She started to think that all the good lives were taken. She started to think that waiting for her life to get better was a waste. She started to think she would pack up and leave for the next place. But before she could, that woman appeared, looking out at her from the tv screen, sharing the good news. She realized what was missing from her life, what the girls at the group home rejected without ever fully imagining.
Sliding a soft bristle brush along the baseboard, she sees a new life for herself for the first time. But she knows motherless girls do not grow up to be good mothers automatically. So she’s started to prepare. She’s spent hours watching mothers at the playground, grocery store, library and work. She learned about favorite toys, sippy cups, time out and sandbox germs. She learned there are all sorts of mothers—strict mothers, gentle mothers, kind mothers.
She knows what sort of mother Avery is, the gentle sort. She didn’t scold little Laurel when she dropped the glass on the kitchen floor but swooped her away from the shards, confessing “I just couldn’t punish her after that.”
And she’s the fun sort. She, her husband, and the kids go for pizza and ice cream. Other times they go bowling or play putt-putt. They always seem to be doing something new, just the family, always just the four of them. She’s already learned a lot about being a mother from Avery. She doesn’t know if she’ll be as gentle and fun, but she’s glad to have Avery as her friend. She’s such a good mother and is sure to give her sound advice.
She lowers the roller, admiring the coat of even paint across the first wall. Avery’s not the only mother she knows. Almost all the girls at work are mothers who love their boys and girls. Before she became pregnant, she felt different around them. But lately, they’ve started to smile and to wave almost furtively. She nods to herself. Avery must have told them.
Just last week, some of these girls were whispering as she walked towards them by the elevator. When she arrived, they started giggling, crowding together. She glanced at them, placing her hand on her swollen belly. They giggled louder, and she began to feel her cheeks redden. Then, she heard someone whisper, “Sure.” She doesn’t mind if they talk about her being pregnant. She’s glad they know because now they are all alike.
She pauses, noticing the white square that remains amid the stripes of yellow. It is the shape of a box, the shape of a present. Any day now they will throw her a shower. All the expecting moms at work are thrown showers. Cassie, Jasmine, Lucinda, Teresa. They receive everything they need to be good mothers. She knows the shower for her was approaching because of what Avery said on the way to their cars.
“This weekend? I’m planning to paint the nursery,” Nola replied.
Avery paused then said, “Why don’t you take yourself out to a movie instead?”
Nola likes that Avery suggests fun things for her to do. That shows she cares. But being a good mother comes so easily for her. She must not realize how much Nola has to try.
“Too much to do” she replied, “before the shower.”
Avery halted, then turned towards her. “We talked about this Nola. Once you start showing, then we’ll throw you a shower. We need to really see you’re pregnant. Understand?”
She lowers the roller and brings her hand to her belly. Sliding her hand up and over a bump she believes is there, she knows that soon she will have her shower. Then she will fill the room with all the gifts from the girls at work.
She is glad that her daughter will have her own room filled with her own things. As a child, she always shared a room with three or four girls. Her few possessions filled a space drawn with ever shifting lines. Most of the things she used she put back in the communal closet.
But her child will have her own things. Together, they will stamp her name on all her belongings, so they’ll never be confused with someone else’s.
She pauses near a corner, realizing it’s the right spot for a rocking chair. When her daughter wakes crying in the night, she can rock her back to sleep, softly singing “Hush Little Baby.” She recalls the little girl at the mall in a rocking chair near the fountain. She sat with a baby doll swathed in a pink blanket cradled in her tiny arms. Back and forth she rocked, bending towards the doll, kissing her on the cheek. Nola sees herself in a rocking chair in the corner of this room cradling her daughter who is the same size as the little girl’s doll, Nola’s daughter who is more real than any plastic, synthetic-haired baby doll, however true-to-life she may seem.
Some little girls like to play with dolls. Nola wonders how many dolls that little girl at the mall had and how many is too many and if certain kinds are actually bad. She knows that her daughter will want what she cannot have, and as her mother she will make mistakes. She will give her too much or too little, scold instead of forgive, grow irritable and impatient when she changes her mind. She wonders how many mistakes a good mother can make. How many mistakes did her mother make before she gave her up? If she goes over that limit, will her daughter no longer want her as a mother? And Avery? How many mistakes? And the other mothers at work? She glances at the two walls left to paint and then at the empty space yet to fill. There’s still a lot more to do, but soon she will be just like them.
There’s the bassinet to buy. She saw a tan wicker one on sale at the department store. And her six-month check-up. She should call her Ob/Gyn again to schedule the appointment, insisting this time on getting in if the receptionist says, “There are no more openings.” Also, she needs to reserve a seat in Lamaze class before they are all taken. And diapers. New mothers can never have too many diapers. She’ll buy enough for the dispenser on her gift registry and store the remaining ones in the linen closet. Announcements. She forgot all about announcements. Next week, she will make a trip to the stationary store and…
About the Author
Moriah Hampton received her Ph.D. in Modernist Literature from SUNY-Buffalo. Her fiction, poetry, and photography have appeared in Hamilton Stone Review, Entropy, Rune Literary Collection, The Sonder Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches in the Writing and Critical Inquiry Program at SUNY-Albany.
Moriah Hampton’s art, Time Worn I, Time Worn II, and Time Worn III, are published in this issue of Wordgathering.