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“Three Generations of Sonder” by Chanel Earl

Jane – 1959

We rented a small basement apartment next to the University, so John could come home for lunch if he wanted to. But he often didn’t, which left us alone for ten, twelve, even sixteen hours on some days. And although we hadn’t planned on having another child while he was in school—I didn’t think I could handle a third—Linda was born the year after we moved in, small and screaming.

She was louder than our other children, but more delicate, and when I first saw her, I wondered if she had sensed that she was coming to a mother who felt as small and helpless as she looked. Life was a busy mess with three small children at home. Every day I woke up to cries from the next room. Then I fed, clothed, carried, played with, taught, cleaned, entertained, conversed with, and kept alive three small children until bedtime—when I climbed into a hole underneath my quilts and listened to John snore, waiting for morning.

Time passed. When Linda was over a year old my melancholy began to lift. My husband kept going to school, my kids kept crying and making messes, but my soul started to open up to moments of joy. The kids splashing in the bathtub or bringing me bouquets of dandelions. Classical music on the radio. Chocolate. Rain. Creating the perfect Baked Alaska.

And then—in what I expected to be a completely ordinary moment—shortly before her second birthday, during a weekday lunch hour, Linda grabbed my face between her two little hands and pulled it close to hers. She had strawberry jam on her fingers, and I wanted to pull away, but I could tell she had something important to say. She was born of me, but was more than just an extension of her mother. She was a real person, with desires and opinions of her own.

“Jam!” she screamed excitedly. Then she let go, and I wiped my smiling face, while she took a bite of her sandwich.

Linda – 1968

I don’t understand exactly why it hit me at that time. I remember thinking that my life, and the world around me were both falling apart. My parents had decided to get divorced, my uncle had just returned—injured—from Vietnam, my older siblings were pushing forcefully against every boundary, trying to find out what they could get away with.

And I—nine years old—felt like I was beginning to vanish, like I was evaporating into an atmosphere of violence and contention, slowly floating away, alone.

Then, although I neither expected nor sought to be, I was enlightened. I remember the very moment.

It was during primary. I was sitting next to the window, looking out at the parking lot, watching the wind and rain come down in sheets. It swirled around in the gutters and disappeared into large grates near the sidewalk. I was feeling sorry for myself, almost crying, and I noticed the other children laughing all around me. The teacher was telling a story.

I turned back to the window. Outside, a woman got out of her car and headed into the building. She didn’t have a jacket, just a dress that flipped around her legs with the wind. She raised her hands to protect her face and ran to the building.

I was warm and dry. And then I did start crying, to myself, as I turned back to class to listen.

Jessica – 1996

I was fifteen. Mom was driving to the grocery store. I was sitting in the passenger seat listening to “Piano Man” on the radio for the first time.

“I thought this was a happy song,” I said. “It’s called ‘Piano Man.’ I thought it was about, like, a happy man that played the piano for kids or something.”

She didn’t look at me because her eyes were on the road, but she responded by singing along with the music.

I always liked mom’s voice, even though I would have been so embarrassed if she sang like that in front of my friends. I probably should like her voice though, she was the person who sang me to sleep at night when I was a baby, not that I had any memory of it. Today she sang louder than usual, her alto fit right in with the voice on the radio, and it seemed like she had been waiting for a chance to sing this song for years. She knew it really well, and I wondered why I had never heard it before.

“He’s happy.” She said during a harmonica solo, “and he’s playing the piano for people, even if they’re not kids.”

I rolled my eyes at her, thinking she probably just liked the song because it was as old as she was. “Yeah, but they’re all sad. This song is depressing.”

I turned it down as we hit the corner of University and Fourth, next to the Walmart. Mom tapped the steering wheel as the next song came on, whatever it was. I just looked out the window at the cars—then at the people in the cars. It seemed like every car had one person in it. They were all waiting at the light, looking bored. Some of them played with their hands. One lady looked at herself in the mirror and picked at her teeth. A teenage boy was either singing or monologuing. A college student, probably only a few years older than me, crouched low over the steering wheel. She looked tired, and I wondered what kind of day she was going through.

“I’m not the center of the universe.” I thought. “All of these people have places to go and things to do and none of them have anything to do with me.”

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