Chores aren’t much fun. Even my four-year-old knows this and challenges me on it.
While having a conversation about making them more exciting, I expounded upon how I often pretended I was cleaning up after the entire household as a child. Like a servant.
The memory I’d conjured was one where I’d been burning paper waste (we lived on a farm). I’d recently learned about indentured servants in school and my imagination took me on a wild story (you’re shocked, right?) where I was paying off my ticket to America doing hard labor for a vile master who had the decency to keep me clothed and fed but made me stand in the cold burning his trash.
I, of course, condensed the story for my toddler who asked, “Like Cinderella?”
“Yes,” I replied, trying to keep it simple. Without the fairy godmother, the fancy ball, nor the lost shoe (who really loses one shoe?).
My toddler thought a moment, her beautiful blue eyes—eyes so much like her dad’s—searching my face. Then she cocked her head to the side and asked, “Who was the wicked stepmother?”
I know what you’re thinking. This blog is another cute toddler story.
I wish that I wrote those pieces. Those light, beautiful pieces destined for Chicken Noddle Soup for the Soul. I’ve tried. I promise I have. What starts out as a light project always becomes much deeper for me. Even in my novels.
Plus, I had an answer for my toddler. One I couldn’t share with a four-year-old who sees the world in beautiful brightness, sings almost every word that comes out of her mouth, loves dance, her daddy, and her best friends at school. I pray she never fully understands what a wicked stepmother is because they come in all forms. They develop in situations where no one stood up and dared tell them their actions were wrong. Or maybe someone did, but their voice(s) were too small. They are men and women alike.
Meanwhile, my daughter is waiting for me. Waiting for the answer she expects. And I’m reminded as I sit in the middle of her playroom, drowning in the dolls we were playing with—or supposed to be cleaning up—that it wasn’t all bad.
Living a strange blended family life—I say strange because I had no technical stepmother. When my parents divorced, my mother moved herself and the six of us kids in with her younger sister, her sister’s husband, and their two children. It had its moments.
Like the time we went camping to endure one nice day amongst terrible weather, tornados, and a bad case of lice that had us ending the trip early and doing laundry for days. The time we moved out of town to a piece of land we referred to as “The Land” and had our separate space with only a walkway connecting my mother’s trailer to her sister’s. I remember chasing my brother down the hallway, losing my footing, and sliding into the wall at the end of it, my left knee suddenly swallowed by the cheap material.
The time my brother Ralph and I choreographed an entire play called The Runaways about two boys who’d escaped from a foster home and decided to disguise themselves as girls to evade the law—kids who were just looking for that forever home.
The times we’d visit my dad and he’d have us all in his fifth-wheel camper jumping around, filled to the gills with Sam’s Club pre-popped popcorn and up late watching A Goofy Movie or Mrs. Doubtfire on his little nine inch TV with a built-in VCR. He’d come stomping out, red-faced and tell us to be quiet while threatening the loss of said TV if we couldn’t follow the rules. But it was the weekend. One of only two that he got with us each month and we knew.
We knew he’d never take that time from us. We knew the next morning he’d pack us up for church and we’d struggle to be quiet in those creaky pews. The youngest would inevitably need a diaper change, which would leave me in charge for a minute—good and bad all at once. And then before he’d bring us home to my aunt’s house, we’d stop at Dairy Queen. There would be cones or malts or whatever he’d decided we were all getting to make life a little easier, but still very special. He’d stomp his foot to Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, or Waylon Jennings and say words I’d chastise him for in my brilliance of being a tween. And he’d just keep on singing and remind me that he was the father and he’d say whatever he pleased and continue being a grumpy old man.
There were times when we were all together and times when we weren’t. Years punctuated by scheduled drop offs at the YMCA—the only brightness in those moments the climbing walls or swimming pools we didn’t normally have access to.
When my mother let her sister tear our family apart—long after it had already been broken.
When she picked her sister over her children.
When I refused to see my father based on dishonest facts I’d heard about his character. When I, too, clung to something that wasn’t real. That wasn’t whole. That wasn’t good for me because I didn’t know anything else—no one had shown me.
I was a kid. I was a kid struggling to reach the surface.
So when my daughter asks about the story between the sentences I’m giving her—stories I never thought I’d share in any manner, whether good or bad—I’m flabbergasted. I can’t tell her that, yes, it wasn’t all bad. I had a roof over my head. I had clothes. I had food. I had memories that made the world seem like sunshine and roses.
Because then I’d have to tell her I also had the monsters in the middle of the night. She’ll see between my words. She already does. Ten years ago, that would have scared me. Would’ve put me smack dab in the middle of the past. Barely able to breathe.
Searching for a way to fake normal as I did in my youth.
Today, when I smile and reply to her wicked stepmother question with a, “Nobody.” I can feel the realization in those words and know that nobody means exactly that. The past is in the past. And those funny, silly, and sometimes annoying stories can come to light—come alive for my daughter because grace is right there urging a smile—my daughter highlighting the lack of brokenness. Bringing humor to the forefront of a colorless childhood and relighting all the hidden beauty.
Reminding me I’m free to be the woman God made me. The wife and lover to my husband—the husband He put in my path at just the right moment in time. The mother of our child—the child that drives me crazy with her smiles and stories, and her bedtime antics (no, you can’t have ice cream at bedtime, I don’t care if Sarah and Duck had some!).
I can be me. Sometimes that means I’m Cinderella. Sometimes it means I’m an indentured servant. Sometimes that means I’m a crazy mom and wife whom my family is sure aliens have taken over.
This is who I am.
Rachel Trautmiller writes irresistible fiction and characters with kick. She lives in sunny California with her military husband and is kept infinitely busy by her too-cute-for-her-own-good toddler who makes sure she never runs out of stories to tell. Once upon a time she dreamed of being a doctor, a counselor, an actor, and a writer. Today, writing takes her wherever her imagination can go.
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