PASTEL PINK SKIRT, H&M, SPRINGFIELD, IL GOODWILL, $3.99
Cheap valentine lace among my grading flannels, high school keg party blush among my half-marathon spandex, crumpled tissue paper among my writing day cotton, I don’t want to love her.
Still I’m smitten with her vague roses, her July weight. She is net and confection, a cappuccino’s froth, her thin layers whispering my thighs as we come to you, new man who I’m trying to trust.
Once, I would have rushed to arm us with a bike chain choker, combat boots, and a shot of whiskey. I would have mocked her frippery, her fragility, named her unlike the woman I’d become.
But it’s too late tonight for such demonstrations. Take us in your fingers. See us streaming with thick, fibers of text, webbed in the life we’ve chosen. See us coming unhushed, woven and unwoven.
SHADOW BOX, HOMEMADE, SPRINGFIELD, IL GOODWILL, $2.96
I’ve always hated their dark, claustrophobic compartments, their stale, feminine folksiness, the heaviness of their frames. Yet there she hangs above my writing desk, a stranger’s shadow box. She is pine cones that might have fallen from my childhood fur, scrolls of cinnamon like those that flavor my oatmeal, a walnut I might have pocketed from a friend’s farm in Tennessee. In her top left room, pasted to the wall, a pink scallop shell I might have collected as a girl, walking a Long Island beach with my mother, with whom I rarely speak.
According to naval folklore, the shadow box originated as a way for sailors to ward off bad luck. On your last voyage, if your shadow crossed land before your body, ill-fortune would follow. So your colleagues would construct a physical shadow of you, a trunk of the finest wood filled with your mementos from various ports. They’d keep it on board until you stepped, one foot, then the other, safe and whole, onto the shore.
In the nineties, my mother filled her own cedar grid. My best friend’s mother had one too. Their house felt curated as an Ethan Allen catalogue, but ours was muddied cleats, an untrained springer spaniel who pissed on the rugs, books piled on the stairs, a collapsing marriage. Still, my mother cultivated small bastions of still beauty: the navy reading room with a wine red couch, a glass lamp filled with shells, and her shadow box, each miniature set in its place. I remember it hanging in the front entry way, glinting with blue glass bottles she bought from a flea market upstate.
On the military websites, veterans and their families are told to display insignia, patches, medals, triangles of flag, an official photograph of the uniformed soldier. There are references to traditional practice, which color felt goes with which branch. On craft store websites, on Pinterest, the model boxes hold cheerleader uniforms, graduation regalia, prom roses, baby shoes. Capture the memories, the descriptions read.
I know little of my mother’s childhood beyond the mean nuns at the Catholic school, the loving, yet brisk mother she once compared to Betty Draper, the drinker father who worked in advertising, spent Saturdays listening to opera and making red sauce, the tall brothers who I imagine teased her for her height. Like me, my mother has always been short. Yet when we fight we fill every corner of the room we’re in, our voices flames charring the walls. When we fight, I am a girl again, running for the backyard woods, for a car, a plane, a separate time zone. When we fight, I want to call her life a stuffy shadowbox, can’t breathe until I’m back in the Midwest enclosure that half feels like home.
The bottom left room of the stranger’s shadow box is the largest, holds a conjured prairie: a delft windmill, wisps of wheatgrass, a yellowed clutch of baby’s breath. In the background, the author glued a black and white photograph of a young girl in a white dress. She is thick stockinged, unsmiling, a giant white bow on top of her head. Maybe the girl became the woman who made the shadow box. Or maybe the author made the box for the woman who was the girl? Was the author wishing her friend, or herself, some kind of safe passage?
I never want to have children, a choice my mother struggled to accept. And if I have my way, I’ll never fight in any war. I spend my mornings arranging words, live and flapping, into boxes that sometimes heighten, sometimes confine. I ask questions of another woman’s shadow box: Perhaps the delft references were ancestors from Amsterdam? Perhaps the baby’s breath was pulled from a dance recital bouquet? Perhaps the shell reminded her of some coastal journey, and perhaps, in her landlocked life, she looked at it, now and then, with longing?
On my desk, at the school where I teach, I keep my mother’s shell lamp. And in my jewelry box, her shadow-box-sized objects float: a green stone she bought in Ireland at eighteen (Why was she there?), clay beads she wore in college, in the seventies (Who were her teachers? Her friends?). I’ve glassed her shadow self, the questions I should ask tapping my chest late at night, pressing like wheat grass. When I wake, I wish us both safe journeys.