She packed her orange book bag with the same things each morning of her summer vacation. (It was the orange corduroy bag her mother had made for her 5 years earlier when she had to go to the hospital. Her first book in that bag was “The Little China Pig.” She read it over and over to the crying girl in the bed next to her. )
Inside the bag were two thermoses. Her brother had made them in shop class. They were glass jars covered in styrofoam. They were hers now that her brother had gone into the service. The service – that’s what they called it then. It seemed so harmless. It was long before 9/11 – when September just meant “back to school.” There was no threat of war. She never thought about war. She never thought about lonely. Or love.
She had painted the two thermoses to differentiate. Inside the thermos painted with stripes was ice water. Inside the solid black thermos was Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. She brought a spoon. One book from her Laura Ingalls Wilder series. A pencil. A stack of paper. A handful of chocolate chips, if there was a bag open in the top cupboard. She left every morning around 9am and was rarely gone for more than thirty minutes.
She walked along the field behind her house. It was farmed by Hugo. Hugo grew a field of golden wheat. When the wind blew it brushed against the nearness of her legs. Legs now released from long winter pants. Legs that tingled in the freshness, set free into the Minnesota summer. Legs that longed to disappear in a golden blaze. With a gentle whisper of wheat against her shoulder, her waist, her knee… she was reassured from the field , this tender field, that whatever was to come, everything was going to be ok.
She normally finished her soup at home, hours later. She washed her thermoses and read her book on the swing in the backyard.
Her mother came home about 4:30. Her father came home around 6. Their timing was always just a little off. In the years to follow, their timing grew further apart, as well as their hearts, and their lives.
But for a minute, she and her mother lived in the brown house alone. It was their third house on VanDyke road, behind Hugo’s field. Her mother kept a bottle of sleeping pills beside her bed. Each night she counted them when her mother wasn’t looking. Each night she prayed the bottle would remain full.
Some nights, in a dream, or the thoughts that come just before sleep, she imagined the golden fields. She imagined the wheat so high you could stand in the middle and disappear. She thought about the sleeping pills. She thought of her mother’s hurt and desperation. How she had asked them to just put her in the hospital for a week so she could rest, recover. She imagined the wheat around her mother, so high now that she couldn’t see her face. She imagined Hugo in his combine harvester. Was it a combine? The large machine that cut the hay? A thrasher? What did they call it? She wanted to yell out to warn her mother, but she couldn’t remember the name. She knew her mother could hear it. Why didn’t she move? She was so tired and so sad. She just stood there. It got closer and she yelled to her mother in her silent dream voice. The wheat thrashed! She jumped out of her bed. Ran to her mother’s room and recounted the pills. All still there. They wouldn’t put her in the hospital. She had to stay visible, present, above the wheat.
They lived in the brown house briefly. One day, when she came home from school, a sign was posted in the front lawn. Sold. She walked the path beside the field one last time. They moved again. This time into town. Who was watching the fields? Was someone supposed to watch the fields?
She learned to love the city. Her mother slept with no substances. And they grew strong, and happy and golden, just as the field had promised.
It’s hard to imagine now. These memories are mostly just flashes of color. Flashes of a different life. She didn’t feel bad when they passed through her. She felt strong. And proud. Of herself. And her mother. To keep your head above the wheat is something. To never give up. This is something, she thought, really something, and she drifted off to sleep.