Letters To My Daughter
Jennifer Stewart Miller
I. Pressing Leaves
Fall is here. It’s chilly most mornings now. Little leaf-animals scuttle across the road in gusts, while a few timid ones still cling to their branches. The birch is quietly turning gold. Acorns drop now and then on the deck. Waiting for a good wind, the thistles have burst open into tufts of white fluff, while dry grasses bow down with the weight of their seeds. Things are getting ready to leave.
Fall is a season of leaving for us, too. I left home one fall. And next fall, off you will go, my oldest, my only daughter. I have pictures of so many first days of school—hurried snapshots of impatient children wearing new clothes and fresh haircuts. The photographs are never quite perfect—there are lunch boxes and back packs caught at the edges of photos, cowlicks of hair, always one of you making a face, or looking off somewhere else. Foolish, this trying to make children be still.
Where I grew up, in Vermont, September and October were months of leaf fireworks—silent explosions of red, orange, yellow, brown, green. The hills flared up with color almost too bright to bear. It seems now as if the birches in their luminous yellow stayed lit deep into dusk. Our forests got us used to beauty, even as the leaves fell. And then November would come, stripped down. The ground would go so hard with cold that if we walked along our dirt road in the darkness that fell too early, the tapping of our own feet became too loud. Anything out there could hear us. Leaves, brown and stiff, gathered thick in the ditches, and muttered in the wind. Still, in this starkness before snow, another kind of beauty was exposed— the skeletal elegance of trees, the weeds along our road arched over in their slow falling.
This year, it was months before I realized that the photograph I had taken on the first day of school was the last of these for the three of you together. I try to think of you when you were little, but it’s like looking up and seeing the trees in glorious color, and then trying to imagine them just leafing out in spring, in that delicate, new green. I think I remember. But it’s a dry thing, like the hull of a cicada. It will be awhile yet. You still linger in the kitchen in the evenings, and we laugh over ordinary things—the seventh, simple-minded political phone message of the evening, the way Daisy the dog is lolling about on her back, or the latest complaint of our neighbors because the dog barked for three seconds at a rabbit this morning. I still get mad at you for small things, like your mess in the kitchen, and you flare back but the arguments don’t last. You stomp off; after an almost-indecently short interval, you come out of your room and nonchalantly ask, “So— how was your afternoon?”
And your room is still yours. You undress like a tree: clothes float down, fall where they may, carpet the floor in a riot of color, get kicked into deep piles. Once a week, you gather the fallen clothes into your arms and deliver them—clean or dirty—to the washing machine. For a few hours, the floor is bare and tidy, like the lawn after the leaves have been raked up. Then the wind blows, and leaves float down, and things get back to looking the way they should, for the season.
Now that you have left us, your room is clean. The floor is bare, which is a disappointment to the dog—there are no clothes to run off with, no flip flops to gnaw, no bras to chomp through the straps. Any remaining clothes are packed away in boxes or drawers. A few pictures of you—with a group of girl scouts, with your little brother at the beach, with the principal in your graduation robes, you as a baby in your father’s arms— are neatly arranged on your desk. It’s almost a barren plain now. Your Trojan horse and all the wooden soldiers with their shields and fierce toothpick spears have room now for a still and tidy battle on the white expanse of desk. The cork board, pinned with years of odds and ends—ticket stubs, a sketch you drew, a ribbon of girl scout achievements—I’ve hung it on the wall at last. All your books are neatly shelved. The miniature stuffed bunnies sit on their haunches in their candy box nest. Perched on the top of the book shelves, your stuffed Griffin keeps watch. Your dresser, too, is tidy—clock, lamp, three commemorative stuffed bears, a couple of candles, a glass paperweight. There is nothing under your bed— no cookie wrappers, no tennis bag, no balled up and inside out sweatshirts. There is space in your closet, and plenty of hangers off to one side.
The late-summer heat wave headed east days ago. Towards you—it will see you before I do. I can leave the door to your room open now. The wastebasket is empty, although Daisy keeps checking it for old lunches.
So many times a day, I see your absence. The desk is neat. The soldiers are still. The pictures are stiff, like pressed leaves. It’s lovely, and I think of you, and how short the time is, which makes me think of Keats and urns. I smile to myself then at this urge to make a still life of you, because if it looked like this and you lived here, I would worry.
But mourning can’t last. Indeed, your room is under siege already. A farmer may want to keep a meadow a meadow, but that is not an easy thing. Succession is patient. It waits at the edge of every clearing. Your little brother went into your room one day and closed the door. There was a battle between the Greeks and the Trojans. When he came out, there was carnage on the plain, soldiers lying everywhere. Then, one night a week or so ago, he wanted to sleep upstairs in our bed, but I said no. He persisted. It was a school night, and late, and he gave me his most hopeful grin. I offered him your bed and he took it. He brought up clothes for the next day from downstairs, then two loads of his special stuffed animals, wrapped up in his white fleece blanket. He arranged them all around the pillows until there was hardly enough room for him.
The next night, as I came home late your father shushed me quiet, because the door was open and your brother was in there just going to sleep. He has slept there every night since. Each night, he goes downstairs, gets his clothes for the next morning, and leaves them there beside your bed. I’ve warned him that he won’t be able to stay, that you will be coming home and will want your own bed. But he is a sturdy little sapling about these things. Last night, he emptied his pockets and put all his special rocks and other precious things in a sprawling pile on your dresser—a chunk of petrified wood, his counterfeit money detector, loose change, three rubber bracelets, two beads, a cup or two of acorns, and a few other rocks. Today, he left behind the acorns. There is also a small pile of his books beside them, and a pair of his shoes on the floor. Your drawers are so far empty.
I shut the door today, after the living dog ran off with a stuffed dog for the third time. I chased her about, retrieved the damp lump from her mouth. Even the closed door, though, with its poster for your choir concert in Budapest years ago, makes me think of you. With the door closed, it does not feel like you are gone. But it does not feel like fall will be here soon, either. I imagine that where you are, the leaves are turning and beginning to fall, and maybe it is already glorious. Still, you should not stay away too long.
III. The End of Autumn
Thanksgiving is over, and you have left us again. Your room is clean. The low November sun shines in through the last leaves on the Japanese maple outside your window, and warms your gold comforter. Daisy has curled up there to sleep this afternoon. Having you home for five days, I felt like that dog curled up in her patch of sun, content. Things were back to normal. And yet, already, there were things I missed.
You managed straight away to un-domesticate your room. Although your suitcase went somewhere else for two days, you made due with the clothes on your back and a small box of packed-away clothes. Your shoes, pajamas, t-shirt, and back pack were quickly scattered on the floor, bed left unmade, homework and computer tumbled on the desk, books piled up to be read, candy wrappers dropped near the wastebasket, a couple of bags of gifts, stacked. And then your suitcase arrived, in all its fruitfulness.
I noticed the noisiness, too. You rolled about on the floor with the dog, you sang and played piano with your brother, hollered for me to help you chase down Daisy when she ran off with something else. You and your brothers played games, the three of you laughing and arguing over important matters like whose turn it was. There was a bustle in the house. We had grown un-used to this. You were happy to help make pies, and didn’t mind when I read aloud very interesting bits from the newspaper, and talked about the stars and how Orion was above the horizon so early now. You are my only female child, and in your coming home, I felt your loss acutely. You have always been a late sleeper. In the mornings, we needed to be quiet again—no running the dog up and down the hall outside your door, lots of shushing of your brother, no piano practice until you were awake. We tried.
The night before you were to leave first thing in the morning, there you were, curled up in your bed—your room in chaos, your suitcase not yet packed. You claimed that you were taking a nap. Certain that you had a book there under your blankets, I laughed. And then you laughed. You’ve changed, only you’re the same.
Now you are gone. But you left some reminders. Your drawers aren’t empty anymore. Two are stuffed with the summer clothes you brought home. Another is filled with all the clothes you didn’t mean to leave behind—five pairs of underpants, three pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, and the new black bra that the dog ran off with so many times. I put the tennis shoes you forgot in your closet, and worried about how you were going to play any more matches. But never mind—it’s snowing where you are, and it’s not long until Christmas.
Your room waits in the afternoon sun. This time, it will only be for a few weeks. You will come home; your room will go feral again, although only for awhile. I am easier with that--things are more beautiful when they can change. Now that the leaves are falling, and the trees are going bare, I will see what I have not seen.
About the author:
Jennifer Stewart Miller grew up in Vermont and California, and now lives in Bronxville, NY. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and a J.D. from Columbia University. In past lives, she’s practiced law, served as a court-appointed advocate for a boy in foster care, dated clay tobacco pipes, fought forest fires, and been a waitress. She writes both non-fiction and poetry, and this is her debut in non-fiction.