dear son/daughter

Nonfiction / Melissa Matthewson

On an evening flush with stone skies, I watch children play on a limestone court: one, a boy with rubber boots, nearly too big and substantial as to overwhelm his tiny frame; two, a girl with pink bibs soaked to her knees, no shoes. The boy chased a ball. The girl pounced a puddle. Both children clocking their own tempo to the aftermath of a summer storm. The air clear and humming with insects. As I watched them, I lamented this: they don’t know their future pain and I can’t save them from what they don’t know. All that mattered were the simple things they sought: splash and puddle, catch and mitt, that place, that time. These children, this play, everything about this moment, makes me think of you, how I might try to protect you from the world’s inevitable sting.

If I could, I might explain something of this life by picking a handful of chamomile from the hard dirt out back where the pigs live, crumple the buds in my hand so I can smell the earth, place them in a copper bowl, watch the flowers dry and break over days that run. I could bring you to the bowl, show you how the world grows and dies this way, the alloys eroding a patina of emerald and salt over our fingers as we touch the stems, creating an architecture of color that will rinse away only in the tub. So much color that will always leave us. I’d say, I remember a house in the mountains where I lived as a girl, where the devil hid in a rock pile, where the river fell down like a furious puppet whose strings had broken free, bringing pieces of cooled basalt to where I stood at a juncture of earth and river. How I wanted to remain there in a long station of awe.

There’s this too: all of my wanting, which has always been too much, even since the occasion of wonder on that big river, so many wants collected into me like a trough too full to carry. Do I tell you a story of betrayal then? Of searching for approval in a man not my husband, a man who walked me under the moon, held my whiskey glass. We didn’t have a blanket, just a gravel road we took up into the hills, on which we shared stories of Christmas trees, graffiti, poker. All subjects were new. I imagined fire as my hair then, instead of the sand that it is. A pair of carnelian stones hung from my ears, a brush of crimson on my neck, like bits of iron and chalcedony suspended, fixed by my own careful hands, for all that’s related to touch. I imagined what I’d ever tell you of this time, if anything.

Maybe this: There’s a mountain of stone near where we live, a matrix of feldspar, quartz. Your father and I climbed this peak on a day warm. We could see in all directions the mountains of California, the volcanoes, the valleys too. On that mountain, a heaviness lifted from his chest. He wrote in the summit book, “I fucking hate hiking, but I love my wife.” A slice of reconciliation then, after months of separation, after abandonment. Campion, ragwort, goldenweed, saxifrage, all bloomed wild on the pastured hills. The red cedar, too, with all of its history. I sensed you there, my children, pockets full of pebbles, your lovely hair and eyes hazel like his. You would have learned from the stone, the hills, discovered the landscape with curiosity, something we always said we wanted for you.

Or even this: I know how it feels to look up, hope for the stars to suggest a story. Constellations are recognizable, yet not, their burn displayed over the earth, their riddle a part of their beauty.

To you I’d say: we can only wonder what mastery their patterns might unveil. And too, there’s a bear I see in the mountains. She tumbles to the road from the dark woods, exposed on the pavement, staring down the space between us. The bear, she offers no resolution or promise of understanding. Only a reminder: it all keeps burning on and on—the patient sky, the determined stars, our urgent questions.

Melissa Matthewson is a writer and organic farmer in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Guernica, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Kindred, Sweet, and Defunct among other publications. She’s currently finishing a lyric memoir-in-essays about desire, marriage, farming, and freedom.