This is a Halloween essay from 2011.
This weekend, at Jessica’s behest, we decorated the house for Halloween. Now, at your house, Halloween may be all black and orange and eerie music, but at our house, it is quite pink and sparkly. The witch’s broom glitters, and the pumpkin has a cheerful smile, and we had to put out a sign that says “spooky” so that people who might not otherwise realize it would know that the house is, in fact, spooky.
She pronounced herself satisfied with our efforts once we added the black cat to the mix.
“It is a ceramic cat,” she tells me, “which means it is breakable and starts with an s.”
I untangle that and say gently, “Ceramic starts with a c, although it certainly does sound like an s.”
“It is a ceramic cat with a c,” she says, her index finger writing in the sky in the way that means she is trying to remember something, always an unreliable and inefficient process for her.
“Do you like the ceramic cat with a c?” she asks.
“I love the ceramic cat with a c,” I say.
“And why is that?” Her idea of a conversation is to impersonate an investigative reporter and pepper me with questions. Sometimes she writes her questions down in a notebook so she will not forget them.
“Well,” I say, “I like the ceramic cat because it reminds me of Halloween. And it is very pretty. And you picked it out, and I always like the things you pick out.”
She nods graciously, a queen accepting the praise that is due her. “What would you do if the cat spoke to you?”
“If the ceramic cat spoke to me?” I ask. “I would definitely be startled.”
She giggles. The idea of mama being startled appeals to her. “What if it said, ‘Hello, Jennifer’?”
She slants me a sly glance. She loves to use my given name in conversation, as if using it gives her a certain power over me. I may be mama, the source of all things, but I am also just Jennifer, as ordinary as a pin, and I better not forget it.
“Hmm,” I say. “Well, after I was through being startled, I would probably say, ‘Hello, ceramic cat.’”
“‘Hello, ceramic cat,’” she says, as if perhaps the cat has spoken and I just didn’t hear.
“Hello, Jessica,” I say in a silly voice and she pokes me and says, “That is you. Isn’t it? That ceramic cat cannot talk, can it?”
“No,” I say. I am never quite sure what she thinks. Her toys seem to have a secret life that goes on around me while I sit here doing my work obliviously. She is the same teenager who thinks there is a monkey in one of the trees near the library. She has seen a squirrel in it, and a blue jay who made a terrible racket, so why not a monkey? Why not anything?
She takes a strand of my hair and winds it around her hand as she has done since she was three months old, as oblivious to her fate then as she is now.
“Do you think the ceramic cat is glad to be here?” she wonders. “Instead of on the shelf at the store.”
“I’m certain it’s glad to be here,” I say. “Can’t you see it smile?”
“No. I can’t see if from here.”
I wince. Even after all these years, I often forget that the world is a fractured kaleidoscope of indistinct patterns and colors for her. But she is never impatient with me when I forget.
“Well, you will just have to imagine it,” I say and dutifully she closes her eyes and imagines it.
Then she opens her eyes and says with a smile, “What would you do if that cat said, ‘boo!’?”
“I would say, ‘eek!’”
“No you would not,” Jessica says disdainfully. “You never say ‘eek.’”
“You would say, ‘Dammit! That startled me!’”
“Probably,” I say and lean over to kiss her cheek, so plump and smooth.
“Boo,” she whispers.
“Dammit!” I say. “That startled me!”
And she laughs and unwinds my hair from her hand. “That was me, Jennifer,” she explains. “That was not the ceramic cat with a c.”
“Yes,” she agrees. “I think that would be too much startling for you.”
“It would indeed.”
“Ceramic with a c,” she says.
“Ceramic with a c.”