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All In

It’s 9:30 on a summer morning and I have wandered in and out of my kitchen no less than four times. I’m puttering, really. Lifting cereal bowls and dumping the residual milk down the drain. Brushing Cheerios dust from the counter top. Looking out the window at the giant tree that blocks my view of the sky. It’s an oak. Or a maple. Or an elm. I don’t actually know. I stare at it every morning, and I don’t even know what it is.

My children are happily distracted in the living room. On summer break they get to watch television until I shoo them down the steps and out into the yard to get properly covered in dirt and grass stains.

There are three jelly jars on my window sill, each with dandelions and wild flowers in varying states of wiltedness – the treasures that I’ve accumulated in the recent days of their outdoor adventures.

During my own childhood summers, we rented a cottage on Squam Lake. My siblings and I would walk barefooted down the mossy pathway to the well to pump water into empty milk jugs. The cool, damp earth squished between our toes and there was always the scent of petunias, rising from our neighbor’s patio.

The cottage itself was both soft and worn. It stood quietly, four walls and a porch that held decades of lake life, and countless stories from years of sharing itself with families, the rotation of wet towels and sandy flip flops, hamburgers and hot dogs and soggy bottomed children sitting in their swimsuits and sloshing lemonade from plastic cups onto it’s sagging steps.

The cottage looked outward to the water, resigned, like it was as in need of what it gave to others. Rest.  

My parents friends would come to visit, to swim out to the distant raft or sit on the porch with the radio blasting and drink and laugh. There was a big, bear-like, friend who would lift children into the air, tossing them up so high, I remember fearing that they might land on a pine branch or be lost out into the lake. I ran from him, coyly, as he would duck around trees and call me chicken.

I’m not a chicken. I’m Melanie!

It was defiance. It was both a weapon and a shield, my name.

I shouted it, over and over.

It’s July and we’re all swimming in this balmy, mercilessly humid air. We’re all drowning just a bit, here. My sons are fighting over every small thing. Between loading the dishwasher and making my bed, I’m refereeing arguments, pointing out (over and over and over)  I don’t care who’s right, I care who’s kind. Meanwhile, my daughters are circling around me, waiting for me to have a moment to do girl-things, like paint nails or go for frozen yogurt. But, I can’t, because I have clients work to edit and I have a calendar to try and book for next year and meals to cook, and, and, and…

I send the kids outside and retreat to the basement, to run.

Just as motherhood has, in many ways, made me, it has also stolen me away. Motherhood was the inspiration behind the first story I ever published, and it gave me beautiful subjects that led to the launching of my photography business. But, it also has taken me, further and further away from who I was, and in many ways, from who I wanted to be.

Much like how “mommy-brain” happens and we forget things, like, coffee mugs in the microwave or when we last washed the sheets, or which kid’s name we’re trying to say in the heat of the moment – there’s a sort of “mommy-brain” fog that has slowly been swirling over and masking pieces of me for the past twelve years. What was it that I wanted to do with my life again? What am I passionate about? I can’t quite remember. Wait, when’s Lila’s next orthodontic appointment? Does chicken for dinner sound good?

The kids burst into the basement, soaked from the hose and slithering down the giant slip and slide that has taken over ⅓ of our yard. They need towels and want to know if they can have a snack.

Upstairs, with an armful of towels for the kids, completely spent from working out and dripping with sweat, I catch a brief glimpse of myself in the mirror and say, I’m Melanie.

And it’s like a shot of light, cutting through the fog.

I wasn’t prepared for a summer of hard introspection and growth, but if it leads me back to a place where I remember myself – as both a shield and a weapon, as a voice with words worth saying – I’m all in.

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