Retrieving the Knife by Karen E.F. Lerner
We’d finished decorating the bright, mirrored room of the neighborhood dance studio for Abigail's fifth birthday party. Juice boxes stood neatly arranged on a folding table, draped with a pink plastic tablecloth. Abby leapt joyfully across the floor, stopping now and then to spin in front of the mirror. Her eyes would focus on the sheer skirt of her white leotard as her momentum carried the cloudy chiffon around her hips; the same lovely effect was created every time.
Brooke, my older daughter, flopped her head against my arm in a display of boredom. At nine years old, she clearly felt done with parties “for babies,” but she had been relatively patient and helpful that morning. She’d pitched right in - blowing up balloons and sustaining Abby's birthday high while the grown-ups were busy with less glamorous things.
Leaving Abby with the cheerful, pony-tailed dance teacher, Brooke and I settled on folding chairs next to my mother in the cramped lobby. With our minds still moving at the speed of birthday, we did a bad job of waiting around for the guests to arrive. In my need to keep preparing, I asked my husband Josh where the knife for the cake was. "It's in the car," he said, jumping up to go get it. I followed him to the door to take the camera from him, and when I turned back toward the chairs I heard my mother talking to Brooke, starting in on one of her stories.
"...the time I had a knife to your grandfather's throat..."
It was one of the many legends from my parent's divorce. The telling had always been something of a performance. She would lean in, my mother, like a predator. As the story would go on, she’d get closer and closer to you until she reached the edge of what could reasonably be considered your personal space. She would hover there, seeming to know just how much room to give you so that you'd feel rude backing away. And she won’t respond to your responses - no matter what you do with your eyes, your face, your body, your words, she keeps on. It negates you. And that's when she makes her big move. You haven't noticed her elbow bending, her arm cocking back, because you're too busy looking at her eyes, her mouth…paying attention to her breath, so that when she takes one you’ll have a chance to interrupt. But she's a master - looking down, holding up a hand, giving a dramatic hard swallow while inhaling through her nose - then suddenly a fist jabs up toward your throat, another hand roughly grasps your shirt collar. It's too affected to be genuinely threatening, but too fierce to be funny. And this is when she’d raise her voice much too loudly to insist, "...and I PUT the knife right UP to his neck and I said I KNOW you are lying to me." It's right then that she backs off, releases your collar, deflates her fist...and then she'll hang her head and weigh down the empty place she just carved out of you with the helplessness of the reason that she didn't just run him through. That part is always different.
So there I was, at my daughter's 5th birthday party, and she was inexplicably digging in to the story, leading up, setting the stage to tell it exactly the way she always does...to my unsuspecting nine year old. I was already starting to feel the momentum building behind her, like a freight train going downhill.
My mother had barely begun, but I could already see that Brooke was better equipped to handle her than I had ever been. Frozen, I watched my daughter make a series of silly mock-shocked faces, deflecting her grandmother’s intensity with a shield of lightheartedness. But I knew there was a startled person underneath. I also knew what came after being startled, after being disregarded - the feeling of not mattering, of being nothing, of being worth something only as a vessel to hold my mother's pain for her for a little while. Or could Brook deflect that as well? I didn’t want to wait to find out.
I opened my mouth to speak - but like a bad dream, no words would come. As a kid, how many times had I tried to stop her or slow her down? I don’t remember. I just remember feeling, at a certain point, that it wasn’t worth trying anymore.
My mother crossed half the distance between Brooke and herself, saying, "...and he just laughed at me."
On top of everything, Josh was going to come in any minute (with the knife, for heaven’s sake) and he would stand for none of this. I had to find some way to stop this train – to do what I had never been able to do. I turned to look at the door, hoping for an early guest to arrive and save us. What had I told myself all those times I had let these stories run their course? My reason was always different.
Then Brooke shot me a glance, and my mother touched her knee -- drawing her attention back to the tale, to her face, to her. I thought, “She can’t share the attention for even a second.” In one familiar huffy, annoyed-parent breath, I understood things differently. My mom was like a child, thoughtlessly seeking attention in a way that had always worked before. Like a child, she didn't care what kind of attention it was or what damage she caused in the process. And like a child, she needed to be gently redirected towards some more appropriate task. I didn't have to stop a train, just shift its track. I'd been a helpless daughter, but I could be a good mother.
Mid-sentence, mid-word, I strolled right between the two of them. I announced in a bright voice, "Okay, ladies, let’s tie these balloons on to the goody bags.” Brooke’s eyes went to my face, and mine went to my mother’s. I ventured, “Actually, could you do that for me, Mom? It'll save some time and confusion at the end when everyone is leaving."
She paused for a moment, stopped breathing. Or, I did.
"Sure!" she said with the same energy that had fueled her story; the focused fury had fallen away. Maybe it never had been fury…just a misdirected longing, a need.
"Thanks, Mom," I said.
And then I turned to Brooke. "Hey, Miss Silly Faces, why don't you go check on your sister?" She popped right up. "Bring two of the balloons and you girls can play with them until the other kids come."
My mother plucked a yellow balloon out of the bag, lifted it gently in the air and spanked it over to Brooke, who scrambled to retrieve it where it fell. "One more, Grandma!"
Josh came in then, bringing the first of the guests with him. He was anxious to have his camera back and don the mantle of party photographer.
"Where should I put the knife?" he asked.
"I'll take that," I said.
I looked over at Abby spinning, her skirt rising up in its obedient twirl.
Karen E. F. Lerner has been a musical theater performer (earning a BFA from The New School), a high school English teacher (in Lodi, NJ), and has spent a decade as the Editorial/Product Manager for a nostalgia-themed catalog company. Her writing has previously appeared in New Jersey Family Magazine. She lives with her husband, children, and rescue dog in Parsippany, NJ.
Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Karen on the Orson’s Publishing blog.