As I walked into the office, my co-worker, Gail, looked up from her desk in surprise. “What are you doing here?” she said. “I thought you were going to school with Casey today.”
My heart sank. How could this happen? Each morning, my head spun with lists and to-do’s from the first touch of bare feet to floor, and my daily trip to work was so automatic that I had simply forgotten. Holding back tears, I raced to my car for the ten-mile drive back to my daughter’s school. “I’m coming, sweetie. I’m coming,” I murmured. Tears spilled down my cheeks, as I pictured Casey, forlorn and alone, amidst a happy babble of children and parents bent head-to-head over art projects.
Along Highland Road, up Broadside, across Senate Street to the intersection at Route 135. Red light. For god’s sake, change! And then the long haul up Morehouse Parkway, past the golf course, through two stop signs. Endless. Endless. Oh Casey, I’m on my way.
I swerved into the school lot, parked the car and ran through the front door, down the corridor, my heart pounding, my feet pounding, into the art room.
Watercolors of lions, horses, and houses with apple trees adorned the walls. Wooden easels, their supports splotched with reds, blues, and smeared purples running to muddy brown, stood like scarecrows at haphazard angles about the room. Racks of glass jars bristled with paintbrushes. Lumpy clay animals, pots and figurines crowded the counters. Around long, low tables, parents squeezed on under-sized chairs leaned close to their children, their fingers stained rust-red with terra cotta clay. And Casey sat next to an empty chair - empty because I’d forgotten this special invitation – head bowed over her project.
Fifty years have passed since that mad rush from work to art room and still I cannot think of that day without tears. For my parental sins did not end with forgetting.
“Mommy!” Casey beamed as I scooted into that empty chair. Without a hint of reproach in her almond eyes, she hugged me, then brushed her long brown hair away from her face with her wrist and explained the day’s project. “See those boxes of stuff in the middle of the table? You can use whatever you want. You stick ‘em in the clay to make a design! See mine?”
Mrs. Alderman, the art teacher, said hello and handed me a flat circle of clay about the size of a lunch plate. It was smooth and yielding, rich with the earth-scent I loved during my own school years spent rolling and pinching and shaping to produce a frog, an owl, or an ashtray. And I remember the satisfaction, the predictability, in knowing that the clay would be dry and ready to paint by the next class, another hour of quiet concentration spent dipping a brush into syrupy colors and dabbing a face to life, a flower to brilliance. Unlike a meal, a neat room, or a pile of folded laundry, clay figures lasted.
I studied the blank circle before me, perused the box of buttons, dried flowers, feathers and twigs, and planned. I selected a few items and began.
It was fun: the feeling of my fingers damp with moist clay, the scene I’d envisioned emerging before me, my daughter bustling cheerfully beside me.
“There! I’m done,” Casey announced. “D’you like it?”
“It’s beautiful, sweetie,” I crooned. “I love the way you made the grass.” She’d had a head start and I was not finished yet, so I turned back to my clay, my pine needles and feathers.
“Can I help you with yours?” Casey said.
I remember glancing at the teacher with a quick smile. What kind of smile? Did I have the sense to be sheepish? I can only imagine her reaction as I said to my daughter, “Mm. You made yours just the way you wanted and I think I’ll finish mine by myself.”
At age eight, Casey was content with my answer; it was, after all, a response an eight year old could relate to. And my daughter seems to have suffered little from my poor behavior that morning. I have apologized many times and at age ten, fifteen, eighteen and twenty, her reaction has been the same: a roll of her eyes and an exasperated release of breath. “Mom, relax. I don’t even remember any of this. Get over it!”
But I can’t. Because I want to re-wind. I want my younger self to inch over with a welcoming smile and make room for Casey’s clay-stained fingers touching my own.
In the years following, I have tried to make decisions based on what might create a meaningful memory. Do I want to remember that I attended a meeting or that I drove up to my son’s school with my husband to take photographs before prom night? Do I want to remember (or will I remember at all) that I cleaned the kitchen cupboards or that I accepted the spontaneous invitation for dinner with friends? Do I want a clay plaque that I made all by myself or do I want a messier, more precious, version that Casey and I made together? Oh, how I want that do-over.
Too often, I can’t find my purse, my glasses, a favorite necklace or my car keys, but I know exactly where those two medallions are now. They are buried beneath layers of off-season clothes at the bottom of a red wooden chest that belonged to my father when he was a boy. It is painful to look at the reddish clay discs, but I’ll never throw them away.
In order to write this, I dug them out and realized they are almost a match. One, crafted by Casey, age eight, the other by Lea, age thirty-nine. Both are imprinted with a border of circlets, a spray of pine needles to represent grass, and a twig to convey a sparse tree. The only real difference is in mood. Mine appears wintry, while Casey’s has warmth, for she added the sun, its rays drawn in deep, straight lines.