by rob mclennan
when memory attacks
bring breath back
one thousand times
Stacy Szymaszek, austerity measures
When she informed him that she had accumulated a list of names, he presumed it had been exclusively created for potential future offspring, and immediately felt uncomfortable. Only you could see a list as threatening, she said. Originally compiled when she was thirteen years old, she had copied and adapted her collection through twenty subsequent years of bound notebooks: as new names added, others replaced. Created not exclusively for the potential of future offspring, but for the names themselves.
Moira had long been fascinated by names, and how we fit into them. How could anyone manage to shape themselves into such a small vessel. A name the body alters to fit.
A core of some twenty remained constant, including Amy, Samuel, Finn, Findley, Margaret, Grey, Andrew, Rose, Rosalind and Duncan, as well as three variations on Catherine.
Her list of sixty-odd names was originally created, in part, for the possibilities of short fiction, during a period when she filled lined yellow foolscap with her science fiction and fantasy stories.
Moira, whose name rang like a bell. She could not be called anything but what she had been named.
And stop telling people, she said. You make me sound like a crazy person.
Moira. Her mother, attends. A step over threshold.
Their Amelia Catherine was six months old.
During pregnancy, they had discussed the name Zelda. Little Zel. Moira’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. Besides, the only Zelda anyone knew might have been poor Zelda Fitzgerald. Either that, or the worry that some would presume they’d named their daughter after a video game.
Before Amelia was born, Moira’s mother repeated a single name: Annie. Why was she pushing so hard? Mother, they clenched. Given our daughter will most likely be a curly-haired redhead, there is no way in hell we’re calling her Annie.
I just like the name, she said, punctuating. Annie.
As they suspected: curly-haired, like her mother. Amelia licks at the banana mush her mother spoons, and swallows.
Dialogue, dialogue. A character crosses the room.
Moira noticed the tendency for friends and strangers alike to gravitate towards the baby and attempt to touch her skin. Moira likened this to disbelief, the possibility that anyone could produce a child. Or if this was specific to her? Everyone in the vicinity concurrently asking, how is this possible? The small, sleeping human you’ve built. I want to touch her. And in response, Moira recoils, attempts to re-absorb swaddled infant.
The internet provides little salve and few answers. Did this response help you?
Newton’s First Law of Motion: a body in motion tends to remain in motion. Let every sleeping baby lie.
Every morning she wakes, and attends to Amelia. Days and nights shapeless, blurred nocturnal stretches of street-lit front room hours in rocking chair. Constantly nursing.
She sinks deep, into the carpet. Moira, who once scored game-winning goals on her high school rugby team, who saw the sparrows return to Capistrano, who held track and field records in university. She, half-awake in the dark.
Moira reaches into her chest, wraps hand around heart, and squeezes.
Amelia, serene in her crib. For Moira, it was the lack of sleep that surprised her most. Endless, continuous exhaustion. Nights in the living room sitting with wide-awake infant. From their living room window, she witnessed the sunrise, and newspaper delivery. A car streaking by like a comet.
As her husband slept, their bedroom door closed. He had work in the morning.
As her pregnancy grew, Moira read dozens of books on the subject. Vitamins, exercise, dietary suggestions, and how her body would stretch. Internal organs pushed aside. How to pinpoint a flutter of heartbeat.
The tendency to nest: she felt it pull like a magnet. Blankets wrapped up over legs, and her space on the couch from which she rarely moved. Laptop, stack of baby and pregnancy titles, and television remote.
Before they knew anything of weddings or babies, the two met for brunch. The first patio weekend of summer in the Byward Market. All sunglasses, and cool. As they settled and sat, an older English gentleman appeared and began reciting the first page of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Given she’d read the novel as a teenager, she was familiar enough to recognize it. It felt far too strange for either of them to consider it creepy.
During the same summer, she sent a postcard home to her mother: I am the frozen shores of Lake Ontario.
During midwife sessions, realizing: she did not know her blood type. It had never occurred to inquire, or bother.
On the train home, she sketched out parts of a crossword that she later abandoned, mid-way. She had begun to come up against the responses that couldn’t possibly be right, and wouldn’t match up with what else was possible.
The single regret I’ve had about not birthing children, her aunt once admitted, was the possibility of naming another human being.
What a responsibility. And what if she were to get it wrong?
Norma Jean had to change her name to Marilyn, so that she could become her. Only then, did the distance seem possible.
Amelia. The name as light as a feather, able to rest on the surface of water. Amelia, meet pond.
Moira’s husband suggested an alternative. We grow into our names, he said. To fill, like a container.
She eases the stroller down sidewalks, slowly memorizing their neighbourhood. Over the five years they’d lived in that house, neither of them had explored the area on foot. She discovers a series of infill houses to the east, and the park at the edge of the greenspace, just down the block. She feels herself open. In turns, Amelia stares, coos, floats back to sleep, occasionally slips out a bowel movement. This too, she learns. Naturally.
During their naps, Moira has begun to dream of domestic matters. She sinks deeper; dreams of making beds, baking bread, laundry cycles, vacuuming, preparing soup in the slow cooker. Her dreams loop: endlessly chopping the same carrots and celery.
Eight months into maternity leave, she feels acclimatized. Moira didn’t want to return to work. The job specifics wouldn’t have mattered. She did not want to go.
Her days were hard candy: continuous, slow and sweet, but eroding.
What country is it that allows five years of maternity leave? Holland, most likely. Her own mother, three months before she was required to return to work. This seemed inhuman.
Television oddities: reruns of Secret Agent Man morphing into The Prisoner. Sometimes she feels she is turning invisible. Able to infiltrate any operation, sink through walls, and disappear.
Crumbs and scattered toys. Domestic patter of homemade pastry, stews and baby food. A new language of children’s programs, cookbooks and nursery rhymes. Hair clumps stitched to the living room carpet. Was there a name for this, too?
She said: Let me start over. Let me start over.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.