We make music in our house, though none of us are particularly gifted. We sing each other to sleep and plink on children’s tiny pianos. We pick at guitars made of shoeboxes and rubber bands. The word that comes to mind is caterwauling. We dance in our house too. Frequent, uncoordinated ranges of motion can be glimpsed through our windows on any given weeknight. One of the first songs both of my children loved to dance to was “Ring around the Rosie.” We would twirl together, breathless in a circle, over and over again. The words becoming rushed and jumbled in an effort to get to the part where we all fell down. Ashes, ashes weallfall DOWN! Squeals reaching a fever pitch, then the three of us collapsing together, with me in the middle trying to protect heads from crashing against the floor and soft parts from being jabbed by knobby knees, pointy elbows.
For a long time, I had it in my head that this particular nursery rhyme was about the Black Plague, and that the all fall down part was about people dying in the streets. I envisioned a mother’s fingers circling her child’s wrist, foreheads damp with sweat and sick. I’m not sure when or how this urban legend entered my mind. I know I’ve marveled at it since, my thoughts mired in its morbid origins while my kids sang and giggled. Wondered at the fragility of everything. Thought about those doctors with the long, bird-like masks stuffed with herbs to cover the smell of death and decay wafting through the cobblestone streets around them. Mothers lining their children’s pinafores with roses before they went to the market. See, this will protect you. This will keep you safe.
It was only recently that I discovered the truth: that the posies weren’t about the plague at all. “Ring around the Rosie” is simply a children’s tune, a plaything that evolved and changed over time, until we arrived at the one we know today. Everyone loves a good story, and the intrigue of possible mass extinction breathes ever still, carrying with it grim speculation about what the next one might be. Documentaries about missing women. News articles flitting from contagious superbugs to melting ice, malicious governing bodies to Real Housewives and burning koala bears.
There is always a thing to be afraid of. Motherhood, with its endless worry and overwhelming responsibility, in collusion with an endless news cycle, has left me even more attuned to the multitude of ways available for us to harm each other. Nazi slogans on homemade protest signs, civilians with automatic weapons storming the capital, the lynching of a young black man out for a jog. This list will never be current. Is it any wonder that, in the face of this terror, the uncertainty, we grasp at charms? A lucky something, summoned in a beleaguered effort to grow up beyond the fray? The care that is demanded of us before we all fall down is too much for this world. No wonder we look for help in mysterious places. Hang hope on our rear-view mirrors and fumble rosary beads, murmur incantations into the folds of our children’s hair. See, this will protect you. This will keep you safe.
* * *
When I was a girl, my mother carried the remnants of a flattened nickel on her keychain. After my father left us, we’d gone from living in a sensible ranch-style brick home, where I had my own toy room, to a decrepit farmhouse with holes in the floor. At the time, my mom had just started pursuing a teaching degree at a local community college. She continued with school but couldn’t support us with her meager paying job as a classroom assistant. So she quit her job in order to earn a higher wage at a construction site off Route 19 near Lovelady, Texas, a town founded by the Great Northern Railroad.
She says she was driving by one day, noticed they were building up the highway, and stopped to ask if they needed help. She secured a position weighing gravel trucks for the construction crew. Her workday was spent in a small, portable building with one window that looked up into the cabs of the big trucks. She would chat to the drivers as she took down their trucks’ measurements and send them on their way with a load of rock. I was 3, maybe 4 years old, so my memories are vague. Everything seemed grey, the building, the walls, the crumbling linoleum floor. I remember a whiff of danger, eighteen-wheelers rumbling past louder than thunder.
My mama trained a mouse to sit on the desk in her makeshift workspace. I wasn’t often at work with her, but there was a time, I must have been ill and away from daycare, that I sat in the office on an aluminum folding chair, and she showed me how when she put saltine crackers on the edge of the desk, the little brown thing, no bigger than my palm, would come out of a hole near the base of the drywall, scale the towering leg of furniture, and perch cautiously, ears on a swivel, whiskers twitching, belly soft and grey, moving to an invisible bellows. Then it’d reach out its tiny, human-like hands, grasping at the cracker while it chewed. I held my breath, my mother and I quieter than the hands of a clock, as it finished and scurried away. Our silence so heavy, we could hear the skittering of tiny paws across the floor.
Behind the station ran a long line of rail track, upon which my mother placed the nickel one day when the train was running through. I imagine the maddening whistle reaching her ears, the whoosh of a sustained wind as boxcars blew by her, scattering discarded plastic Walmart bags and paper Coke cups, bending errant thistles and dandelions flush against the red dirt. Her long hair pulled out of her ponytail like wisps of golden spun Christmas tinsel. When she picked the nickel up off the track afterwards, I imagine it was still warm. She put a hole through it with a hammer and nail, and then it lived on her keychain. Growing up, I’d worry my fingers across it whenever I got the opportunity, the cool metal slowly warming to my touch. She told me it was lucky. We would marvel together at what the strength of force could do. How the nickel had been stretched wider than a quarter, almost as thin as paper and smooth like a flattened stone you’d find in a creek bed.
She carried this small charm with her through the years. She married again. She became a cowgirl. A stay-at-home mother. A teacher. Now retired, she lives by a lake, plants flowers in her garden outside a house you’d look at from the outside, never able to picture in a million years that glass booth, the eighteen-wheelers, the small feral mouse and its worried nibbling. The nickel, though, has disappeared. Over time, the hole at the top wore clean through until it was lost, maybe in a parking lot somewhere. Maybe on a gravel road laced by the shadows of pecan trees at twilight. Wasn’t its job done by then, though? I think the luck on it must have worn through, too. Maybe it was time to go back to the earth. Maybe a nickel is just a nickel.
* * *
My children and I have spent the last two summers at our home in Abu Dhabi. I think the weather here must be akin to Siberia or Antarctica in the winter, except instead of blowing snow and frozen tundra, sand blasts into your eyelashes and eyes, and the heat is oppressive enough to melt the tar on the highways. Like a lot of people in Abu Dhabi, we don’t have any grass. Instead, palm trees sway outside in large concrete planters. When the wind blows, they drop dates onto our marble porch and their shaking leaves sound like the ocean.
Our terrace is brimming with a plethora of potted plants I’ve chosen because they remind me of the places I’ve called home. Gardenias for my Nana in Texas, who passed of Alzheimer’s. Morning glories for that salty smell they give off, like the Gulf in Grand Isle, Louisiana, where I spent summers catching blue crabs with my cousins when I was a girl. There’s a big green lemon tree for New Orleans, because when I moved back to my apartment there, the January after Hurricane Katrina, there were lemons growing on a tree in the neutral ground. A saltwater line of dead brown leaves marked the tree’s lower half, and I remember being surprised the plant was still alive. How happy I felt to be there, then. That bright fruit, yellow as a lucky sun.
During the long summer months in the Gulf, when everything in Abu Dhabi seems filtered by a dim, wavering mustard-gas haze, my housekeeper, Chathu, and I work together to keep the plants alive. She waters them in the mornings, giving them a deep soak down into the roots, and I in the evenings, after the sun has gone down. Our porch doesn’t have a water spigot, so we are without a water hose. Instead, I fill up a big, 2-gallon, forest-green plastic pitcher in the bathroom, then lug it outside so I can stand on a wobbly patio chair and pour water down from above. Thick droplets splatter onto our paved porch, catching the sun like fat marbles, and I hope I have tricked my greenery into thinking this is rain.
This past summer, when we were all away, I hired someone to come water the plants, and my gardenia just about died. Upon my return, staring at the plant’s woody, leafless twigs, I was surprised at the magnitude of my anger towards our house sitter. I knew that I would never hire him again. It took me a while of sitting with that anger, months of trying to figure it out, before I could identify it, finally, the following February. The winter air in Abu Dhabi is clear, a balmy seventy degrees, the sky blue like the most vivaciously blooming hydrangea. White-cheeked bulbuls sing out bright chirps from the palm trees. It was only when the mean pettiness of the hot summer subsided that I could recognize the source of the bur in my mind.
I had thought, for a while, that my anger had to do with my Nana, how our house sitter almost killed the thing that reminds me of her the most. The plant I’d bought because she died when my daughter was 6 months old, two months after my husband’s job unexpectedly moved us from New Orleans to Abu Dhabi. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to embark on another 24 hours of straight travel time to get back to the United States with my still-nursing baby, the flip-flop of our days becoming our nights, the exhaustion, I couldn’t bring myself to attend my grandmother’s funeral. Instead, I planted a flower, one unsuited to the desert, one that I have to tend to, and fuss over, and keep living. It blooms once a year here, late January through mid-April. I choose the best cuttings for a mason jar on my nightstand, and the smell of just a few flowers can fill our entire bedroom so that when I walk in, I am almost taken aback by how much this feels like home. I hope that somehow those flowers will guide her, that maybe with them there, my Nana may come visit me in my dreams.
Layered in with that sense of betrayal about my Nana, though, I found myself harboring a strange, deeply engraved feeling of an assault to my core. There is a secret mantra that hums in my bones, underneath the chorus of my children’s petty squabbles while I cook dinner, the basket of clothes that, even with help, somehow still sits like a toad in the recesses of the laundry room, our couch perpetually covered with cheerios and milk stains: Things grow here. If I were to hang a sign on our front door, design a coat of arms for my children’s cotton T-shirts, it would read: Things grow here.
The plants in my garden, the two homeless cats who laze on our porch, the butterfly cocoons we have placed carefully in a vase next to the television. I labor under the pretense that if I can find a place and way to make the things around me grow, then I somehow have become a shelter that can’t be lost. I become the good luck charm my children will sing in their heads and carry on their key chains. One day, when she’s grown, my daughter will lean into the sweet peach scent of a blooming gardenia, inhale deeply, smile, and say, “Oh, this reminds me of my Mama.” My son, far in the future, will think of me on a day at the beach when that sticky breeze blows up from the Gulf, waves as gentle in their crashing as a newborn lullaby, and maybe he’ll give me a call. Maybe just knowing they will think of me is enough. More than enough. Maybe it’s everything.
* * *
In the 1980s, children carried death on their key chains. It was for luck. Myself and many of my friends carried shriveled up, dead rabbits’ feet. They lived on our belt loops, affixed to our backpacks. Mine was originally white, but dyed a faded green, the nails tiny and tucked into folds of soft fur. I won it at the skating rink arcade by guiding Pac-Man through enough ghost mazes or tossing enough heavy plastic balls up the Skee-Ball ramp, making paper tickets stream out of the games’ mouths like perforated waterfalls. I would run my thumb over the brittle bones of the shriveled foot, its pelt softer than the long cotton skirts that hung in my mother’s closet, and feel soothed. I often slept with it under my pillow, cradled it in my palm as I was drifting to sleep.
The legend of the luck of the rabbit’s foot started long before the 1980s. History dates the practice all the way back to the Celtic people in 600 BC. Various folklore instructs that, for the luck to run true, the rabbit must meet its demise in a particular way. Firstly, it must be the left hind foot, and secondly, the animal must be murdered over a wicked person’s grave at midnight. Legend has it that Grover Cleveland, 22nd and 24th president of the United States, carried with him a foot, taken from a hapless rabbit, who was shot on the grave of the outlaw Jesse James. I imagine one of those bad guys from old movies about the west. Beside him is a bucket of bunnies, twitching still, but made immobile by twine, a burlap rope. He takes one out. Places it gently on Jesse James’ tombstone. Walks back 20 paces. Sights his pistol. Thunder echoes across the cemetery’s whispering alfalfa grass.
Cleveland’s first term in office was relatively free of scandal or shame, but in his second term, The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing depression caught the United States in the talons of the worst financial crisis the country had yet seen. Railroads went bankrupt, the stock market crashed, family farms closed, people starved to death. I wonder now, during which term did Cleveland carry his rabbit’s foot for luck? Was it his first, when everything was prosperous and green? Or was it in a fit of despair during his second when everything was falling down around him? Maybe, instead of procuring it from a sharpshooter, he was given it by a mother, on a day when he was shaking hands or making speeches. Maybe it was her last lucky thing. Maybe she slipped it into Cleveland’s palm. Pressed it into his hand and told him to take it because she hoped the luck hadn’t yet run out of it. The depression of 1893 ended with the Yukon Gold Rush in 1897. Maybe the rabbit’s foot did that. Brought us a bunch of heavy shining bars that the earth had grown just for us to look at. Just so we could trade it, cradle it, jingle it in our pockets like a prosperous tune.
By the time I got my rabbit’s foot in the ’80s, I think the luck of the thing had probably faded away. Mine certainly wasn’t from Jesse James’ grave. It was probably from a factory. A warehouse of bunnies kept in cages on top of each other. Rabbits scream like newborns when they’re dying. First, we take the meat, then we snip the feet. With time, my rabbit’s foot was lost. In its place, I remember frequently consulting a Magic 8 Ball that I would shake mightily, looking for answers out of the swirling blue. Will Mathew Gill give me a Valentine? Better not tell you now. Will my chickens win a ribbon at the fair? Outlook good. Will I live forever? Reply hazy try again.
My Magic 8 Ball is gone now, too. Like most things, you can find one on the internet, though. I could buy a physical one, but the one I generally consult is on a website, blinking its coded lines for nostalgic ’80s babies who still need a bit of luck now and then. I use it sometimes for a future I find hard to fathom. I type my queries into a search bar at the top, but instead of the triangle, appearing with an answer out of the blue, it’s only text now. Will my children be happy? Ask again later.
* * *
I grew up like a tumbleweed blown across the great expanse of a poor, rural, countryside. Farms and ranchland across Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and back again. The mass of knowledge I accumulated isn’t common to most. I know that alligators chirp like baby birds when they’re about to hatch from their eggs. That a mother cow will charge if she thinks you’re going for her calf. That, most of the time, you’ll hear the rattle before you see the snake. Hardly any of this knowledge is useful to me in the life I live now. Instead, it hums around my head and comes up in anecdotes at dinner parties, where I can parade it out under the guise of being interesting. These are my charms.
When I was a child, in addition to the rabbits’ feet and Magic 8 Balls of my schoolmates, I also possessed a collection unique to my station: rattlesnake rattlers given to me by cowboys, smooth pebbles plucked from the creek bed behind our house, the long prickly beard of a wild turkey my stepfather killed one Thanksgiving. All gone now. I still have a lucky horseshoe, though, dug from the dirt of a pasture in Texas, old and rusted with nails hanging through where it was once affixed to a hoof. The thing has been sitting on my bookshelf or hanging over my door since I left home for college. It travels with me from room to room, house to house, and my children have never asked about its origins. What it is. Why it’s there. It’s simply a part of our home. It still makes me feel lucky, though. Like maybe without it, the possibility of our ruination may come riding out of the dream with its guns blazing, looking for a fight.
My son has been collecting talismans lately, too, in our new home. Blue tiles from the bottom of a swimming pool. White quartz rocks that sparkle like they were painted with glitter in the sun. The dried out remains of a scarab beetle, who got caught by the heat while walking across a large spot of cement and baked clean through before finding a patch of shade. I bought Abel a shadow box from IKEA, and all his lucky things hang out there. They sit on top of the bookshelf in his room so we can gaze upon them at night before we read bedtime stories.
The day is fast approaching when my children will not play “Ring around the Rosie.” For a long time, that song will lie dormant in their minds. There will be days upon weeks, reaching into years, that my stomach will learn to forget the sharp stick of their knobby knees. When my son will cease to bring me swimming pool tiles and grasshoppers. When he will see a scarab beetle with a great horn sitting motionless on the sidewalk and will not think to pick it up.
When the inevitable specter of calamity, the loss of that particular innocence, keeps me awake in the dark, the wind blowing off the desert and scattering sand against our windows, I think of my Mama, training that little mouse when everything around her had gone dark. A house with no heat in the middle of winter. Living paycheck to paycheck and coming up short. The worries she must have had for her children when the great disaster of the world seemed to be knocking down her door. Things grow here, she must have thought. In spite of this mess, things still grow here. Was this the impetus that drove her to the rail track? To carry that dull nickel, in the late fall sun? Was she trying to summon more luck our way? Or did she hope her sacrifice would keep what little we had from slipping?
I hope that when the time comes in the glimmering dawn of adulthood, sometime in that yawning space before new children are born and love is unrequited, gained, often lost again, that my children will have a lucky thing to cling to. A space carved into their exoskeleton, that shell of a home. A wonder they can turn to for comfort. A few charms to ease them gently from their tiny selves and into the new crashing selves of self-doubt.
I dream of being one of those lucky things they never lose, though odds are my horseshoe will go on in this world long past my time. It is with great effort, often failing, that I try to focus on them and not elsewhere, not on my phone and its incessant calls to alarm, righteous though they may be. But instead on the morning glories, my gardenia, the way my daughter’s hair springs into the most perfect, alarmingly messy, golden curls. How is it that my daughter’s skin sometimes smells like my Nana? That in my son’s hair, underneath the changing, the sweat, the dirt, there still lingers the soft baby scent I came to know in our first days together? Whatever talismans we grasp at, in the melee, the hush, the storm, will we reach for that charm? Our belief in the little curiosities we worry over our fingertips may be tenuous amongst all this mess, but couldn’t the posies in our pockets be true? Palms cradle the scarab beetle. Mouths move with the rhyme. Things grow here.
Leah Richards recently settled in Houston, Texas, after living in Abu Dhabi, UAE, for the past several years. While living abroad, she wrote and published the children’s book, Fatima Flamingo Visits Abu Dhabi. Her nonfiction work has appeared in The Nasiona, Nailed Magazine, and Mothers Always Write. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New York University and is in the process of completing a memoir in essay form, of which this essay is a part. She currently teaches workshops and mentors students with Writers in the Schools in Houston.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Carol VanHook/Flickr Creative Commons
Love the intertwining of universal human experience and different subcultures. Very well done!
I love this essay and all the beautiful places you take us! May many things grow from here.
Thank you, Eva! Xx
Awesome read…extremely talented!
Incredibly written, Leah. Beautiful.
Thank you! xx
Beautiful thoughts! Thank you!
Thank you! xx