A Daughter in the House

By Jenifer Jensen

Living Room:  January 1984

Our long-awaited daughter is ten days old and asleep on the sofa. She’s on her tummy (we were allowed to do that back then) with her legs scrunched up underneath her. Tiny round toes peek out from beneath her sleep gown. Mom walks by, looks at her for a minute, then flicks her finger sharply against Kimberly’s small foot. Kimberly jerks and snuffles. “Mom!” I scold.

She shrugs and looks away. “Just checking.”

I’m puzzled for a moment, then remember my little brother, Andrew, who was four months old when he died from SIDS.

Nursery:  August 1984

It’s eleven in the morning, and there’s not a sound from Kimberly’s room. No shifting of the crib. No babbling of “angel talk.” I haven’t heard a peep since last night. If she’s sleeping and I peek in, she’ll wake up with the opening of the door. But if something’s wrong …

My breath catches. I pace up and down the hall. I wash dishes. I return to her door to listen to the silence, as I have done for the last two hours. I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t wait any longer. I have to know.

I go back to the kitchen and stare for a long moment at the floor. Its black and white squares blur to gray, and my hand shakes as I pick up the phone. I punch my neighbor’s number. “Nancy, it’s Jen. I haven’t heard the baby this morning. I’m going to check on her. If I don’t call you back in five minutes, please come over. Just in case.”

An escaped dust bunny floats ahead of me as I walk down the hall in slow motion. I open the door to the sunlight.

Family Room:  1988

How many other four-year-olds can grasp the concepts Kimberly does?

She puts puzzle pieces in a basket as we clean up her morning’s mess. “So Nana is your mommy like you’re my mommy?” she asks.

I nod. “And Pop-Pop is my daddy, like Daddy is your daddy.” I point to a book.

She picks up Little Bear and reads from the first page. “’What will Little Bear Wear?’ Did you read Little Bear when you were four, Mommy? Did Nana?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Now the Legos.”

She hands me the book and gathers the brightly colored pieces. “And Nana has a mommy too? And her mommy has a mommy? How come they don’t come over?”

“They died a long time ago,” I say.

She hands me the box of Legos. “But we’ll see them again someday, right?” She climbs on the couch, her signal that she’s done as much cleaning as she feels like.

She’s been cooperative, and I love the talk we’re having, so I let her be. “We’ll all live together in heaven,” I say, gathering the remaining Legos.

She’s hanging her head over the edge now, with her feet reaching up the back of the couch. “And Pop-Pop’s mommy and daddy will be there, and their mommies and daddies, and we’ll all be with Heavenly Father and Jesus. Won’t that be neat?”

Kimberly is silent for a moment, then, “Mommy?”

“Yes, Sweetie?” She’s truly understanding the concept of generations and eternal life, and I wonder what her next deep question will be.

“Did you know everything looks different upside down?”

Bathroom:  1990

Nicole, our neighbor’s daughter, is here for the weekend while her parents are out of town. At six, she and Kimberly are still young enough to bathe together. They’re happily splashing and giggling while I feed the baby. I even have time to tidy the living room, smiling as I listen to their fun. Then silence.

My mother-radar kicks in and I stealthily open the door. “What’s up?”

Kimberly’s mouth is a wide, guilty “O” before she looks down. After a moment, she slowly holds up a Barbie, now covered in violent rainbow shades. Nicole pulls a chartreuse Skipper from behind her own back.

“Hmm. What markers did you use?”

Still silent, Kimberly holds up her own markers, which are the washable kind.

“Okay,” I say. “Have fun.”

They’re stunned and silent as I leave, but the shock of permission gives way to shrieks and laughter before I reach the family room.

Kitchen:  1999

My boys beg and plead when they want something, but Kim is a negotiator. She wants to be a cheerleader, but I think it costs too much in too many ways. I tell her the budget is too tight, we can’t afford the money for camp, for uniforms, for travel expenses.

Her body sags and she returns to her room. Fifteen minutes later:  “I’ll save my babysitting money for it, and I won’t try out for the travel team.”

I shake my head, and counter with the fact that she won’t have time. She’s already taking difficult classes, singing in choir, playing volleyball.

She goes away and comes back again. “I’ll only do football season, so volleyball won’t matter.”

I remind her that the pre-season volleyball practices will still conflict.

“I won’t watch TV or anything. I’ll be able to do it, Mom, I know I can.”

She’s smart, capable and determined. She probably could do it. But what keeps running through my mind is that when I was in high school, every member of the sophomore cheerleading squad got pregnant by the end of the year.

Dining Room:  October, 2001

Kim sits cross-legged on the floor next to a shaky tower of college catalogs. She pores over her three favorites: Macalester, Scripps, and Denison, all small liberal arts colleges. She wants to go away for school, is willing to work to pay for any tuition not covered by financial aid.

We’ve already driven to Denison in Ohio, but the others require plane trips. Fall break starts tomorrow, and we’ll be flying to Minneapolis to visit Macalester.

I smile. “Can’t wait, huh?”

She beams. “It’s gonna be so cool!”  She pauses, looks down, strokes the edge of the Macalester catalog. “Mom?” she asks. “It’ll be okay, right?”

It’s been five weeks and two days since 9/11. She hovered close to home for the first few days after the terrorist attacks, then threw herself back into her busy schedule. She hasn’t mentioned it in several weeks.

I hunker down and brush soft curls away from her face. “All my prayers leave me with a feeling of comfort, Honey. All we can do is move forward and trust God.”

She lets go a breath and smiles. “Okay then. I better go pack.”

The next morning, she bounds to the car, through the airport, onto the plane. It’s me who clutches my arm rest, praying through the rumble and shudder of take-off.

Master Bedroom, March 2002

I stop and stare, changing clothes after church, and finally realize what’s out of place: Kim’s bulging backpack is on my bathroom floor, with her curling iron sticking out the top. I hop into jeans and dash downstairs to her basement bedroom.

Her bed is gone, along with most of her clothes and half her books.

Kim had finished all her high school credits at the end of the winter trimester and announced her new plans a week later. She wanted to get an apartment with her friend, Eileen.

I had pointed out the obvious argument:  she needed to save money, not spend it. Her father had been laid off several months earlier, with no end in sight, and we wouldn’t be able to contribute the family portion of her financial aid plan at Scrips.

Kim turned negotiator, laying out her budget:  work hours, rent, food, gas. I kept shaking my head, and she kept trying to convince.

Then Elaine backed out – her father had threatened to take her car away – but Kim still wanted the apartment.

I said she couldn’t afford it without a roommate, and the truth came out. The original plan hadn’t been just the girls, it also included a guy named John. And now she’d just room with John instead.

It went against everything I believed, but unlike Elaine’s father, I had nothing to take away. Kim had paid for her car, was paying for her own college, and was already eighteen and graduated. I had nothing to stop her with, except my words.

I cut off her assurances that John wasn’t her boyfriend, that sex wasn’t involved. If they weren’t romantic now, they soon would be, I said. She had always said she’d wait for marriage, and this wasn’t the way to do that. Besides, she was going away to college in six months – it wasn’t the time to make major life changes.

She didn’t come home from work that night, didn’t answer her phone. I had worried through the dark hours, hoping she was at Elaine’s where she had gone once before, and had struggled to set it aside in the morning.

Now her backpack is in my bathroom, her bedroom is empty, and I don’t even know which apartment number is on her new door.

I spend the afternoon picking up the phone and putting it down again. I know she’s safe, not missing, but have no idea what to say if she answers.

When she finally calls, I work hard to keep my voice light, to ask questions about her new place, to not preach. She’s trying hard, too, talking about work the night before, how hard the floor was in her sleeping bag, the high school friend with the truck who helped her move. I wonder how her voice can sound so grown-up in just a day.

We finally hang up, relationship intact, and I’ve managed to keep most of the tears out of my voice. Part of me hopes she’ll come back to the nest. Part of me hopes she soars.

 

[She said she will email her biography once she returns to the United States, which should be sometime this week]

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