Time ago in these suburbs, I was waiting for my firstborn to return home from school. The bold yellow bus dropped her off right out front back then, and she would dash wildly across the street--glad to be home. So much of what I do as a mother always has involved this sense of waiting, but it was different with that first child. Waiting anxiously for the bus to take her from me, waiting for it to bring her back over icy winter streets or with anonymous substitute drivers at the wheel. I wanted to know if her little school on the hill had security measures in place to keep her from harm's way when I couldn't. I learned all about pesticides in her food and mercury in her vaccines...devoured books on reforms in gifted education and how to fund private school tuition. Her foot would touch the street and my skin would split, maternal instincts in overdrive--just waiting for a car to whip around the curve, exhale lodged in my throat until she stumbled up onto the sidewalk again. Whole days passed in this way, a slight cast of anticipation and worry over each moment.
This is why when I recently sat down and read the novel Once Upon A Day by Lisa Tucker, I immediately felt a sympathetic pang for the father character, Charles Keenan, though he was disturbed and extreme and just so obviously wrong. After a tragic experience, Charles' hypervigilence concerning his children reaches a critical breaking point. Instead of sinking in and battling through his fears about how to raise them in a broken complex world, he retreats to the New Mexico wilds with them and promptly disappears. That I can find any resonance with a character who ultimately inflicts such damage upon those he claims to love speaks to the fullness of Tucker's portrayal of each one. Told in alternating perspectives between mother, father, and daughter--Once Upon a Day gives readers access to the inner-workings of the key characters. (Though I would have loved to have seen the brother, Jimmy's, thoughts as well while he encountered the fallout from his history in a completely different way.) The book hinges on seemingly random moments that take on unexpected significance, "charming coincidences", and pivotal transitions--a young woman trying to make her way out of a difficult past in the fairytale-esque L.A. film world, a man traveling to the heart of his own fears and isolation, a son on a mission to find out the truth about the watered-down version of reality he's been given, a naive daughter setting out to rescue her wayward brother from his wandering, a cab driver who is navigating his way through grief and loss--and the places where each of these journeys intersect and divide again. This book is a highly readable, "page-turner"--even as it mines some darker subterranean territory of psychological responses to trauma, fear, and the unforeseeable fortunes affecting us all.
Years have passed since I first watched my oldest come and go on the anonymous yellow bus, heart slippery and lurching through me. I wanted to tuck her close into my pocket. But, as sweet as she was even then, she was not a girl for tight seams and neat stitches. Her eyes have always been fixed on some distant point on the horizon...and I understood that she would never be contented with the walls I set up for her, that she believed the whole world had her name on it. Being open to take chances will carry her out of my sphere of influence, as it already has. Her siblings have also deviated widely from the path I'd neatly charted out for them and from the trail she kindly blazed just ahead. Unlike the Charles Keenan character, I've accepted that I need to learn about letting go. Now, with adolescence rapidly approaching, the lines have blurred even more. I mean it when I tell her to go out and explore...I send her into the neighborhood where I no longer can control every single aspect of her environment as I could when she was an infant. But then, there are still these moments where I stand in the doorway, watching her steady feet carry her away from me to catch a solid yellow bus--and it is all I can do not to call out to her...
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