By Mandy Tirrell
I tried to keep bullets out of their conversations for as long as possible. But eventually they asked. Most children do. Does Dad have to shoot a gun? Does he have to kill people?
The truth is, I didn’t even want to answer these questions for myself. So I didn't. Parents are good at diverting attention.
Every Tuesday we drove to Friendly’s. We had the same waitress each week. I tried to tip her well because she was a single mom, and she told me her life was hard. I believed her. I took the kids to play dates, to their grandparents’ houses, to the theater, to my gym, and reluctantly back home again, with just enough time for Seuss before bed. I took them away from their reality, which at the time, was a life without a dad. The uncertainty of our future became an obsession for me.
Sometimes I believed, with every ounce of rational thought, that our family would always be without a father. After all, Jeremiah was killed on the 51st day of deployment. An IED exploded and sent his truck tumbling off the side of a bridge. I should have sent his wife a card, but I didn’t. Instead, I made dinner and planned my next diversion. We just needed some fresh air.
The next day, the cold chilled the bones of our ancient home. Even the walls shivered. Frost settled in the corners of the windows. We were only warm when we stood near the wood stove. Despite this, I bundled my children to go outside. I covered their bodies, leaving only their round cheeks and wide eyes peeking above their itchy scarves. It was New England bitter out there.
Reeghan tugged on my sleeve. “Mom, is Aidan going to cry? He always cries when we take walks.” Cully smirked and rested her head against the wall.
“I won't cry,” is all Aidan could muster from the depths of his scarf.
Brushing a wispy blonde piece of hair from Reeghan's face, I told her not to worry. “The snow’s not so deep. We’ll walk to the ruins and sled along the way.”
The ruins, an old three-sided stone foundation, was my family’s Terabithia. Just more than a mile down the road, off the haggard path of a logging trail, over an earthen bridge, this remnant of time stood. We only occasionally visited it. One mile is ten for children. My husband told them the infrequent visits helped preserve the magic.
It’s funny how lying to children comes so naturally. It even feels right sometimes.
When we stepped outside, the wind caught the dusting of snow on the driveway and swirled it around. I tried to ignore the instant freeze inside my nose, to convince myself that the freezing air was fresher. We hadn't played outside for days. A warm sun, fresh air, and exercise—in the winter, New Englanders pack these things away like swimsuits and lawn chairs. Suddenly, breathing outside of our walls became necessary.
The walk to the start of the trail was short. We broke the dead winter silence with the scuffing of our Sorrels. Reeghan asked if there was snow where Daddy was. Cully scoffed, “There’s no snow in the desert.” Aidan continued to pick up dirty balls of crusted road ice and fling them into the woods. Each ball left an indelible impression in the fluff of fresh snow, vapid and weightless until pressed to a will. I thought about how innocent their conversation was. Then I thought about weapons of mass destruction as I encouraged them to keep up.
There is something very ambiguous about a New England winter. The quiet is deafening. Blanketed in white, the world seems peaceful and impregnable, but the stark contrast of the naked, black and twisted trees, glorifies eerie in the most extreme way.
We made it to what I hoped would be a good spot to sled, but the snow was too deep. Cully clambered into the sled and sunk inches below, allowing snow to tumble in over the sides. She rocked back and forth, willing the sled to move. After several attempts to pack down the snow, I gave up and urged my children to keep moving.
Many times I wanted to turn around, as I watched Aidan struggling to pull his boots back out of the snow, as Reeghan's cheeks began to redden, as Cully kept looking back to count the distance. But smiles still graced their faces, mittens were still in place covering their tender wrists, and they continued to chatter like squirrels in a fall oak. Their voices painted the silence. Without walls to imprison worries, our steps were lighter and quicker.
We arrived at the bridge. From here, peering into the woods, we could see the snow-dusted stones of the ruins, the rocky remains of a life. Two fallen trees crisscrossed over the top of the structure. The branches swept to the ground like webbed curtains, delineating rooms inside the granite walls. “Let’s go, Mom. Come on!” My children ambled their puffy bundled bodies through the trees, little splashes of color laboring in the stark snow.
The foundation was built into the earth on the back side, allowing weeks of melting and freezing to form frozen waterfalls down the inside of the walls. The kids took turns standing at the top of the foundation like kings and queens with their hands on their hips and faces staring down at each other. “Aid, Reegh, pretend I am the ruler and I tell you we have to go to the river.” I paused, waiting to hear sibling protests, but none ensued.
A short distance away, a small icy brook flowed. Water coursed over rocks and fallen branches, churning under small deposits of crusted snow. During warmer months, the kids would stand on the bridge and throw leaves over one side then race to the other to watch their botanical sacrifice float by. As they tramped over to the brook, I suddenly felt a need to beat them there. Images of soggy dripping Sorrels flashed through my mind. “Wait up. If you get wet, we’re in trouble.”
They sat impatiently on a big rock, as snow flurries began to flutter around their heads. I looked to the sky through the overlapping bare branches, a fractured puzzle of darkening gray. Lately, I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the news, pick up a newspaper, or peruse the internet. I captured my updates in filtered snippets. The weather never seemed to make the docket. Scolding myself for not checking before we left, I sounded the verbal alarm. “We have a little time to throw stuff into the brook, but it looks like it’s going to storm.” To erase the pouty faces that inevitably follow a time-to-leave notice, I looked around for something to toss into the brook. Whatever I could find, I launched. My tosses turned deliberate. Pine cones, rocks I had to pull from the ground, sticks, broken pine branches from above my head, they were missiles. I volleyed them. I heaved them high and far, not pausing to hear the splashdown. My children watched me. Their eyes tracked the objects leaving my hand. Cully, unsure, picked up a rock and plopped it into the brook. Suddenly, all four of us, in a frenzy, began to launch woodland waste and wreckage into the water. Our arms were catapults. Only pausing to scour the ground for more ammunition, and for an occasional triumphant yelp. We became automated. Search. Bend. Grasp. Lift. Aim. Launch. Repeat.
The floating flurries quickly turned to a wet spluttering kind of snow. Every now and then the wind picked up and whipped the tops of the trees back and forth. “Kiddos, we have to go. Now!” I like winter storms when tucked safely within the walls of our ancient house, wood stove crackling away, hot drinks in hand, and an occasional ping ping on the window reminding us our home is a shelter. But the thought of being caught in a squall with three young kids in tow made me panic. I pictured one of them getting too tired to footslog another step and planting their rear end in a snowbank. I envisioned tears freezing on cheeks, wails of protests, and deep utter despair. Promising them that we would come back, I herded them toward the bridge.
Aidan held my hand as we worked to get back out to the trail. I held my other hand out to Reeghan and let Cully lead the way. She set the pace, steady but slow. It felt like we were miles from home. The wind was no longer an exhale; it assaulted us. The snow had transformed into tiny ice pellets, sharp and stinging. Despite our winter gear, the icy rounds found their way into the spaces between our scarves and necks. Before long, it was difficult to see, as the wetness drove into our eyes. Again, I berated myself for not checking the weather.
We continued on, taking frequent breaks. The kids' eyelashes were frosted white and their faces shone red under streams of melting snow. Every time we stopped, I pulled my sweatshirt out from the bottom of my coat to wipe their eyes. A small white circle appeared at the bottom of Cully’s left cheek and thoughts of frostbite seized me. I closely inspected Reeghan’s cheeks, then Aidan’s, wondering if a pale circle on red skin really is a sign of frostbite.
The kids walked on silently, head down, one foot in front of the other. We no longer held hands. They walked ahead of me, single file, even Aidan, his little body faltering and steadying, faltering and steadying.
I wanted one of them to ask me to carry them, to make their journey easier. That’s all I wanted at that moment. I waited for tears, but none fell. A whimper, a whine, a lace to be tied, a nose to wipe, something. Anything for me to tend to would have made the walk home more tolerable for me; but they were sure and stoic, focusing only on their own small feet carrying them home. Without thinking, I began to chant The Ants Go Marching. Soon their voices rang out with mine, small but immutable, once again breaking the winter silence. In the distance, I could make out the dark silhouette of our mailbox, a marker for home.
Mandy Tirrell is a mother, high school English teacher, and wife. She lives in rural NH and can be found in her classroom or sitting by the lake with a journal balanced on her lap. Mandy is inspired by both the beautiful and challenging moments of her ordinary life. “A Mother’s Storm” explores the uncertainty of motherhood as a mom embarks on a walk with her three young children. They get caught in the middle of the woods in a snowstorm. The uncertainty and fear are intensified by the recent deployment of the father and the constant shadow of the war he’s fighting.