Permanence

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
January/February 2002

By Xian Chiang-Waren, Illustrated by Anna Harrington

The U-Haul pulls out of the driveway. Raindrops fall on the windows, pelting the glass in a steady rhythm. Dad is driving. He’s wearing his old red flannel shirt and worn blue jeans, which I haven’t seen since we came here, to Miami. My stepmother Lisa is in the passenger seat, humming along to the Beatles (an old music group) on the radio. Dad starts singing with her; he’s smiling, happy to be leaving Miami. I’m not singing or smiling. I don’t want to leave another place that felt like home.

*          *          *

Ever since my mother died, my father has been constantly moving, dragging me along with him like a sack of dirty laundry. I spent the first seven years of my life in Crisfield, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. My parents had bought the little beach house when I was born, and I loved every part of it. I remember the hours I spent playing in the dusty barn (which was somewhat larger than the actual house), or swimming in the bay. We had a private beach with a small dock, and a canoe that my father took me fishing in.

It’s hard to remember my mother. Almost every memory of her is a blur. I do have a photograph of her, though. She was pretty, with long chestnut-brown hair and sparkling blue eyes. In the snapshot my mother is sprawled on the dock, red autumn leaves caught in her hair and falling in a thin carpet around her. It is either sunrise or sunset, because reflections of pink and orange sky are in the rippling water. My mother is laughing at something; her smile lights up the world around her. In the background there are ducks swimming around the dock.

Permanence looking at a photograph

I often take it out and stare at the place that was once mine, and the woman who used to be my mother

It’s a nice picture. I used to spend most of my time looking at it idly. Even now (usually when I’m supposed to be doing something else) I often take it out and stare at the place that was once mine, and the woman who used to be my mother.

She died when I was six. I can just barely remember the time spent at the hospital. I remember nurses hurrying in and out of her room, my family coming and going in and out of the hospital. And the doctors. I remember I was scared of the doctors.

My relatives were all crying, but I didn’t understand. Nobody had ever explained death to me, and so I didn’t know what it was to die. My mother lay still, very still. Her chest moved slowly up and down, her breathing was raspy and loud. I watched her chest more than her face as she breathed in and out. I kept watching because I was afraid that if I turned away the breathing would stop.

The funeral went by in a blur. I remember standing and ‘hugging everybody. People kept crying into my shoulder, which was strange to me because Momma had always said that adults ought to comfort me, not the other way around. The people were saying things about my mother: “Poor child, your poor mother!” Or, “Look at her, the brave little girl isn’t shedding a tear over her momma!” And, “Oh yes, it was a disaster . . . drunk driver rammed right into Cathy . . . poor girl doesn’t understand about it.” Cathy was my mother’s name. I was the poor girl everyone was talking about, and I did not understand anything except that my mother was gone.

*          *          *

And so my father left Maryland and took me along with him. By then I was seven and knew about death and drunk drivers killing my mother. Dad sold the house; he sold the barn and the beach, even the canoe. “Why?” I asked, tears running down my cheeks over my beloved home. My father answered that we were moving because everything here reminded him of my mother.

From place to place we moved, all along the eastern seaboard, but then inland and further west because the ocean reminded Dad of Momma, too. He married Lisa while we were in Vancouver, more because they were friends than because they loved each other. “It’s a way that we can be best friends and so that the social workers won’t think you have a broken family,” Dad explained. “So that they won’t try to put you in a foster home.” I didn’t mind because Lisa was nice, like a substitute mother, and Dad needed a friend.

We never stayed anywhere for too long; each place was like a stop along the line, on a train that always kept on going. I grew used to moving, accustomed to never making friends. If I made friends I knew it wouldn’t be for long, because as soon as Dad decided to go somewhere else to live the friend would just be one more person missing in my life.

But then we stopped in Miami. I was twelve. This time, my father told me, it would be different. “This time it’s for real,” he said. “Miami will be permanence. We’ll settle down and stay for a while, a few years at the very least. You can make some friends, Cassie, go to a good school. We’ll have a house, a real life, a permanent one. I promise.”

Permanence. That’s all I ever wanted. I hated moving, hated going to the awful schools where I never allowed myself to make friends. Lisa saw how happy I was and came over to hug me. I was a bit confused about why Miami would be so different, but Lisa explained that my father thought he had run from my mother’s memory long enough. Miami was her hometown and Dad believed he could find peace on the Florida shores.

We got a small house on South Beach, a short distance from Miami. I enrolled in school and made friends. My best friend was Haley, who lived only a quarter-mile from my house. I loved having a best friend; we did everything together. Homework, swimming . . . anything one of us did the other would do too. We were in the same class, and were both good students. The only time either of us got in trouble was when we were caught passing notes to each other.

Permanence girls at the beach

Homework, swimming . . . anything one of us did the other would do too

Haley had short red hair and hazel eyes. She was forever playing with my long brown hair, putting it up in the latest styles. I tried my best to style her hair, but it was too short.

Both of us loved the water. She had grown up on South Beach, and I of course had learned to swim on the Chesapeake Bay. Florida is warm year-round, so we usually went swimming together after school, before starting homework. We were the best of friends and I never wanted to leave Miami, and believed we never would.

*          *          *

Everything changed one April evening. I had just gotten back from Haley’s house and started my homework. I was finishing a math worksheet and was determined to get it done before dinner so I could watch a television special about Mount Everest. My father walked into my room and sat on my bed. “What are you working on?” he asked.

“Math,” I told him. “Dividing fractions.”

He nodded and cleared his throat. “I’ve got news for you.”

“What news?” I asked, barely looking up from my worksheet.

“We’re moving.”

Then I looked up. “Again?” I asked, feeling my throat grow dry.

Dad nodded. “Next week. To Wisconsin.”

I jumped up. “No!” I cried. “You can’t do that, Dad. You said we’d stay. You promised.”

He sighed heavily and opened his mouth to speak. I didn’t want to hear his excuse. I rushed on.

“No, Dad, please. You said we’d stay, you said this time was for real. You promised, Dad, and I believed you. You told me Miami was permanence.” Cold teardrops were falling from my eyes and I didn’t try to stop them.

“I’m sorry, Cassie. I’d stay if I could.”

“Then why can’t you?” I asked, my voice rising. “Why won’t you stay?”

Dad looked at the floor. “I thought I could cope, Cassie. I thought your mother would be less haunting here. But everywhere I go . . .” he broke off, took a deep breath, and started again. “She told me about Miami and South Beach. She used to live around here, you know. She described everything to me. And I see the things she talked about. I see her telling me about it, and I can’t deal with it. Cassie, I’m sorry. I can’t stay.”

And so we packed our bags and sold the house. I bid a tearful farewell to Haley and promised to write. “And who knows?” I said. “Maybe someday we’ll come back again.” That was impossible and I knew it, but it was nice to think about. Haley looked a little hopeful when I said that. At least she stopped crying.

It rained the day we left. The rain made it look as if the sky was crying right along with me. I didn’t want to leave the ocean and my mother’s birthplace. But I knew it was too hard for my father to stay.

The car zips down the freeway. Lisa is asleep now, her head resting on the window. The rain has finally stopped and a bit of sun shines through the clouds. Dad looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Back home, aren’t we?” he asks.

I grin. “Anywhere on the road is home,” I say.

There is no permanence. Miami taught me that. Nothing can stay the same forever, and maybe that doesn’t matter. As long as you stay with the people you love, anywhere can be home. And as for the future? Who knows. All I can do is keep on going.

Permanence Xian Chiang-Waren

Xian Chiang-Waren, 12
New York, New York

Permanence Anna Harrington

Anna Harrington, 11
Andover, Massachusetts

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