I MAKE COFFEE, I MAKE FIRE by Jessica Pulver

To rouse the kids, I raise their shades and if I have it in me, I sing a line or two of their old nursing song, a country song from my own childhood, to soften the crash of the slumbers I’ve ruined.

“Oh I likes to rise when the sun she rises

Ear-lay in the mo-orning!

And I likes to hear them small birds singin’

Merrily upon their lay-land…”

They know it is a song I sang while I breastfed them in New Hampshire, but of course they don’t remember. They don’t remember that I sang it to steal my spirits at the crack of dawn when I crammed my dripping nipple into the desperate mouth of my first baby, Leo. How he would writhe in my lap, his body rarely at rest. The second baby, the third baby – Piper, Sal – all their crying, all the liquid being expressed by our family, the milk, the tears, the snot, the salty saliva of our sobs.

They don’t remember, but I do. That is one more thing as a mother I hold, memories. For them the day is new, but in the liminal light of dawn in their bedrooms, I can see their infant bodies curled inside their big kid bones – six, nine, eleven years old. I can tell they are still larval underneath their quilts, still unfurling, and I know that somewhere inside them, the trauma from those early days lives on. How will it move them to suffer sometime in their future? Has the good I have made, layering day upon day, been enough to send them into the world okay?

The three of them stir and moan as the sun streams in, and I move between their bedrooms, from Leo and Piper’s bunk bed to Sal’s old blue metal trundle. I tousle their hair, thick and long all, and peel back their covers. Minutes pass and I sense my tenderness shift into frustration at their reluctance to get out of bed.

“C’mon, guys! It’s getting late.”

I say this every morning. It has completely lost its effect. They must only hear their mother’s voice, a constant tone of urgency tinged with love. Love tinged with urgency. Which do they hear?

“We know, Mama!”

This from Piper. He often speaks for Leo, who is less likely to push back.

Meanwhile I pick out their clothes and lay them on the floor. I know they’re getting old for this but they don’t seem to mind, and it is a ritual I savor, the choosing of their outfits. Their clothes are soft and colorful, with stars and bears and flowers. I love to rifle through their drawers, matching a pair of green corduroys with a fuzzy striped sweater. I remember sweatpants for gym days. Mondays for Leo, Thursdays for Sal, Fridays for Pie. Sometimes what I forget is their school’s occasional PJ & Stuffy Day or Crazy Hat Day and this is one of the regrets I hold onto. Because it was a chance for playfulness I wanted them to have amidst the demands of the day.

By now at least the boys are upright and so I slump downstairs to the kitchen. To rouse myself, I make coffee. I fill the electric kettle, it replies with its satisfying click and reassuring blue light. Next I press the button on the grinder and listen to the whir of the tiny machine working to provide the right amount of coffee, ground to just the right size. The whole process is dialed in reliably – it’s almost as if it’s taking care of me. I fit the filter loosely in the glass flask. I tap in the grounds. I close my eyes to inhale more deeply and feel briefly intoxicated, even dizzy, by the sense of something powerful and ancient in the air.

This doesn’t happen every day. Often it smells weak and dusty or I forget to pause at all. But this morning I perceive the miracle in the humble brown hill of this powdered plant I am converting into energy. I pour hot water from the kettle over the peak of the hill and watch the landslide. I look at all the rainbows that the kitchen window sun makes in the dark wet grounds. For a moment, I am mesmerized, and I forget the hassle of the routine and the kids upstairs and the pressure of the time on the microwave clock.

This March, Maine has retained its frigid morning air, and the stove I banked with wood before bed last night has burned to ash hours ago. When I open the door, the hinge squeaks so piercingly it finishes waking Sal, slowest of the three, and youngest. Most prone to protest.

I hear her strong bright voice from upstairs:

“You took away my beautiful dream and now I can never ever have it back!”

I chuckle to myself and roll my eyes. This is the sort of outburst some parents lament as premature teen drama from their little girls. I disagree. My daughter is so spirited!

I squat down for a good look in the back of the stove. Ashes are building up from a cold week when I never let the fire die long enough to clean them out. I rake them forward and they emit a glow of distant galaxies. I loosely ball a page of our unread newspaper and balance a cone of twigs around it on top of the floor of ash. Then I light a confident one-match fire. I smile at the burst of light, the eager hunger of the flame. The fire seems to grin back and I am warmed. I throw in some wood from the stack.

Piper is downstairs first. He is always fast and therefore can be overlooked. What I try not to do is focus on him only to pile on tasks. But I do it anyway because it comes out of my mouth before I can weigh it.

“Since you have extra time, you can start unloading the dishwasher.”

He produces an oversized sigh.

Try again, I remind myself. What else can I do with a few extra moments alone with only one kid? My brain thinks, ask about something he cares about. Zelda Breath of the Wild, his all-time favorite video game. Ceramics class. What type of dog he wishes for most.

“What are you doing in school?” is what my mouth decides to say.

Piper meets my question with another sigh.

I reach for my coffee. I try to be grateful. I try to wake up. I try to find myself.

Soon, all three kids are seated, swerving in stools at the kitchen island, eating bagels with cream cheese and sliced apples. I pack three different lunches according to their preferences for smooth peanut butter, nutella, or jelly. I gather their backpacks, sort their take-home folders, check their homework, sign their permission slips, fill up their water bottles, mate their pairs of shoes and mittens. I braid Sal’s hair and put watermelon and pineapple clips in the sides to keep her stray hairs back. I check the weather on my phone to make sure they don’t need raincoats. I reply to the email from Leo’s teacher, and the text about a playdate for Piper after school. Each task is small but together they feel frenetic, disjointed. I can feel my mind slipping from its mooring, becoming hassled and bobbed by the onslaught of micro-responsibilities.

I pour them all more milk. Then I tear them squares of paper towel to wipe their lips. As I do, a glimmer of memory: infant Piper in my arms in the glider, purple burp cloth over my shoulder, wiping my breastmilk from around his little rosebud mouth. Was it simpler back then, when the kids were all small? I am the keeper of memories, but I can’t remember. I have been doing this work every morning for so long. It keeps changing with the seasons and the years, and it also stays so much the same. One moment infused with beauty, the next with drudgery. The coffee has halfway disappeared from my mug and I haven’t actually tasted any of it. But I feel hot anyway, very hot actually, and I realize the fire is roaring with unbridled ferocity – I have forgotten to close the damper. How quickly things get ruined! Most of the logs have turned to embers, so I start the process over again. Nest up some tinder, balance the sticks, then carefully lean in a few larger logs and watch until the flames burn with purpose. By now, my eyes itch from smoke and when I stand from my long squat, my knees give a snap of protest. If there is magic in the making of fire, there is certainly tedium in the re-making.

“Hurry up, you guys! It’s getting late.”

I am repeating myself, I know. This is a labor of repetition. But they need to get out the door and up the driveway for the bus.

Somehow we always get there. As the kids begin to climb aboard, I gather them one at a time for a hug. After all the bustle, I want to slow the moment down. These are my children, the actual humans I created and grew. I am lucky if I remember that. In this fragmented morning, it is so easy not to notice, but it’s incredible: I made life! I made fire! I made coffee! I ought to be able to feel as alive as can be, but I also feel exhausted, distracted, defeated. I know this is only human too. I kiss their cheeks goodbye. Sal’s is of course the softest. I think to myself that I need to hold onto this softness because it is drifting away.

Back in the kitchen, the fire is thriving, the stove pipe ticking away contentedly. All my coffee has seeped into me. The dishwasher churns with my mug inside. I stand by the window, gaze out at the snow retreating obediently to the edge of the field. Spring is coming and we won’t be needing fires much longer. Mornings will be a little easier. I look at the clock, it has been an hour and a half since my alarm went off. I have done my best to make something of that time. I have held so much together, so fleetingly.


Jess Pulver is a mother, therapist, and writer living near Portland, Maine. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Good Life Review, Waccamaw, Kaleidoscope, and Literary Mama.

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