"Fruits and vegetables that are grown without chemicals are called organic," I call to my 5-year-old son, nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, relaxing in his car seat. We are driving to the vet for our cat's annual check-up, talking over his plaintive mewing. "I worked at an organic farm for two weeks once, before I married my first husband."
Then, I realize that I've never told KFP that I was married to someone before his father. "We only stayed together a year," I tell him. "We wanted different things in life. That was long before I met your daddy."
Silence, as KFP processes this new information. I wait for him to ask me a question, but he has none.
"What does the word 'organic' remind you of?" I ask him.
"Lightning McQueen uses organic fuel," he says. "He gets it from the van, who sells fuel." A retelling of the second half of "Cars" follows.
Recently, we finally persuaded KFP to watch the movie, after assuring him many times that it would not be scary. A sensitive child, he rarely sits through any movie without tears. We considered it a victory that he enjoyed "Cars" so much that he wants to see it again. I am delighted that now he knows the origin of the characters that decorate his pajamas, cars, backpack, coloring book and more.
I don't tell him that our experience at the farm turned out odd. We stayed there for two weeks in exchange for helping to work the farm, during the time period between our State College lease ending and our wedding in my hometown. Why didn't we just stay with my Mom or my Dad? In those days my Mom was dating someone who made it clear we weren't welcome to just "mooch off" my Mom for long periods of time, and my Dad was years away from putting together a real guest room at his apartment over his doctor's office.
Plus, I worried that spending that much time around my parents would make it harder to hide the signs of mental illness in my future husband, The Seeker, which ranged from endearing, such as compulsively singing our names to the stars each night, to embarrassing, such as engaging in abrupt, reflexive behavior -- like tossing a hat out a moving car window.
At the farm, they gave us a mattress in the attic, but the first night, a cloud of white fog stomped up the steps, made a loud slamming sound like someone dropping a pile of books, and then growled like an angry animal. The Seeker steeled himself and ran the few steps to the only light, a bare bulb in the middle of the room. Nothing was at the top of the stairs. Not even a pile of knocked-over books. We took our stuff downstairs, got some sage and smudged the door to the attic steps, and spent the rest of our time there sleeping in the living room. I had waking dreams of figures in hooded black robes creeping by the house, looking in the windows.
I loved their children, though. The boy had long blonde hair and a very bohemian name: Arrow. The daughter, a chubby toddler, barely made a sound, like her painfully shy mother. While I was there, we played with magnetic letters on the refrigerator. The little girl repeated the letter sounds back to me. The mother gave me a disapproving frown.
Nothing we did was good enough. We spent a day just going back over the same plot of tomatoes, as the farmer directed us to add more mulch to plants we'd already mulched. When we finally drifted away, two weeks later, I was as grateful to leave as I imagine they were to see us (and our bad juju?) go.
"OK, what about void?" I say to KFP. "A void is the absence of things. Like the part of space that has no stars or planets. We call it the void of space. Does that make you think of anything?"
After a brief moment, he says, "No."
"Are you devoid of ideas?" I joke. He laughs.
I don't tell him about another meaning for void. That some people think of death that way. When my mother died just before Thanksgiving, I told KFP that many people believe that after death we go to a place called Heaven. "Where God lives?" he asked. I nodded. I told him we don't really know what happens, but that maybe that's where Grandma had gone. I didn't say that some people think that everything just ends. Nothing. Blackness. Void.
Lately, I've been watching the second season of "Torchwood," just because of the occasional cross-overs with "Dr. Who." In the "Torchwood" universe, more than one character makes it clear that nothing exists after death but blackness.
But my mom appears in my dreams, painting. Once, she popped into a store while I was dress shopping. "I'm just visiting," she told me. Another time, she described a new garden she was working on, with bright flowers in triangular planters. "It will be beautiful."
Today, to make room for my son's Winter Gala concert tomorrow afternoon, I erased three years' worth of videos from my video camera. First, though, I downloaded all the videos onto my computer, so that I can go through them later to determine which ones I've already copied onto storage disks. I spot-checked each one, many of them videos from Christmases. My Mom, smiling and singing, and reading to KFP one of his favorite books, a compendium of construction trucks. Digital impressions from the past, little dots of light. A pointillistic portrait. She lives on.
"Hmm. The next one is interesting," I tell KFP. "Pupa. Do you know what that means?" At his silence, I tell him, "It's the life stage of an insect. Can you think of any insect that goes through a pupal stage?"
He thought and then exclaimed. "A butterfly!"
"That's right," I said, and explained that the caterpillar is the larval stage, the cocoon is the pupal stage, and the butterfly is the adult stage.
KFP knows butterflies. He has been fascinated with them since we walked through a butterfly garden at the Baltimore Aquarium when he was just a toddler. We borrowed library books about the butterfly's life cycle, and he asked me to read them again and again. Those books first introduced the idea of transitioning from birth to adulthood to death, all leading to a purpose, all looping back upon itself so that a new egg begins the cycle again.
One day he came home from preschool with a question. One of his classmates had touched a caterpillar too hard on the playground, and his teacher told them it was dead. "What does 'dead' mean?" he asked.
I'd explained that death was the natural end of life and that every living being would one day die. "When you're dead, you can't move or breathe or feel anything," I told him. "You can't come back to life."
For days, he gave me updates on the dead caterpillar -- still not moving -- until one day he couldn't find it any more. I told him it would go back to the earth. The frank discussion came in handy later that year, when my sister's dog died. And of course, now.
"You could also think of a pupal stage when it comes to ideas," I posit to KFP. "You learn information, and that's like a larval stage, and then you make sense of that information in something like a pupal stage. Maybe I could do something like that."
"I'd write about butterflies," he says.
"Mm-hmm. I know you would. Well, the final word is... waffles!"
KFP giggles. "I like waffles," he says.
"I used to like them, too." Of course, I can no longer eat them, having developed a gluten intolerance while pregnant with KFP. It makes life more challenging, but I honestly would rather not eat waffles than to have swollen fingers, a bloated belly, and a fuzzy brain.
"Daddy makes waffles," KFP tells me, and I think about the gluten-free waffles my loving husband, The Gryphon, made me about a year ago. He was dissatisfied with the texture, but I found them light, crispy and delicious.
I continue: "Waffles have another meaning. If you waffle about a decision, it means you can't decide what you want to do."
The Seeker suffered from a pathological form of indecision. More than once, we had been seated at a restaurant when he insisted he no longer wanted to eat there. A month before our wedding, he wanted to call it off. We spent a day apart thinking about it, and when we reconvened, he told me that he'd prayed to the gods and would go through the wedding after all. I wasn't really surprised when he reversed his decision a year later, just after we'd shared our stale, freezer-burned wedding cake. Just after I'd had a biopsy for an abnormal pap smear which would turn out to be nothing. However, by the time I had those comforting results, he was long gone.
I don't tell my son, either, about the time I sat in a Waffle House in Memphis with the guy I dated after my marriage broke up, the guy I eventually dubbed The Luser. We got together because we both liked David Bowie, and he reminded me of a guy I'd once crushed on, who was also a Bowie fan. But The Luser was like Spike on "Buffy," but without any of the good qualities: a soul-sucking low-life street punk who would steal from his own mother (and did, in fact, steal a video camera from her, which he then told me she'd given him as a gift).
That day, we were sweaty and exhausted, heading back to Pennsylvania after a fruitless effort for him to reconnect with his father. Upon arrival, The Luser had introduced me as his "friend." His father cleaned fish in the yard while The Luser talked to him, and I made small talk with his stepmother in a cream-colored room with framed butterflies on the walls. Then, The Luser stormed in. "We're leaving," he said, and his stepmother gave me a sympathetic look as we climbed back into my rusting red Ford Ranger, dubbed Red Arrow.
The Waffle House waitress, perhaps making note of my blousy blue shirt, my overweight bloat, asked me when I was due. I snorted.
Not knowing any of this, KFP says, "You should write about waffles."
I wait for the ideas to finish crawling their way into their cocoon. "Maybe I will."