I was working on an embroidery panel for Sami’s wedding dress when I heard the unmistakable sound of a mouse skittering through the wall. My house is warded against natural mice, of course, so I checked the magic signature to see who it was.
Then I heard the scrabbling as he emerged into my pantry! I jabbed the needle into the cloth to hold it, and practically threw the whole piece onto my side table.
“Willoby Jamison Vogelman, don’t you dare touch my food in mouse-form!”
There was a flash of magic, and my great-grandson sauntered out of the pantry, with a brownie in each hand.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked with his mouth full. He was scattering crumbs everywhere. I have no idea why ten year old boys disdain little niceties like plates and forks, but in my experience they all do.
“I have ways.” One thing I’ve learned, with 3 children, 9 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren is never to tell them how you know things about them. Not until they are old enough to need the tricks for their own youngsters. Thinking that adults simply know everything is a powerful deterrent, and with a brood like mine, I need all the deterrents I can get!
He settled on the stool in front of me, chewing serenely.
“You’re making crumbs in my sitting room.”
In reply, he shoved both brownies into his mouth at once. They didn’t fit, of course. The child has a wide mouth, but I am generous when I cut my brownies. He made a valiant effort, but crumbs leaked everywhere. I thought about requiring him to return to mouse form and eat them off the floor, but he would probably enjoy that. So I just glared at him instead.
For some reason, that made him grin, which made the crumb problem worse. I decided to ignore him, and picked up the embroidery, making sure the charm that kept the white from getting smudged with anything, including chocolate, was intact.
Will chewed energetically and watched me work until the double brownies were gone.
“Why didn’t you want me to eat in mouse-form? I would have gotten full more quickly.”
“You know that only lasts while you are a mouse. As soon as you became a boy, you’d have been as ravenous as ever. And I’d have been left with half-nibbled brownies, and tiny chocolate footprints all over the pantry.”
“What would you have done if I’d stayed a mouse?”
Will is one of the ones who always wants to know the outcomes of every possible choice. Not a bad trait; it will make him a careful, thoughtful adult. But at the moment, he’s still a child, and sometimes prone to repeating behavior, good or bad, to test the variables.
“I’d have dragged you out of the pantry by your tail, and warded it against you for a week.”
He looked at me, his hazel eyes full of mischief and speculation. “But would you have been able to catch me?”
I almost laughed. “We can try the experiment any time you like.”
He smiled and sat back. He has learned that when I’m that sure, it’s not wise to test me. Besides, I never, ever, lie to any of them, and they know that.
I finished the leaf I was stitching, and cut the thread.
“So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked. There are times my family drops in just to visit, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t one of them.
“Mom sent me,” he answered. “She said to give you this.” He fished in his pocket, and pulled out a note. It wasn’t in bad shape, considering everything I was sure had happened to it since his mother handed it to him.
I set aside the embroidery, broke the seal on the note, and spread it on my lap, smoothing the wrinkles enough to read it. I was being invited to dinner on Friday.
That was odd. Not the invitation; I was frequently asked to join my various family groups to share meals, celebrations, and so on. But generally not in writing.
Will craned his neck, trying to see, and I realized that for some reason, Peg hadn’t wanted him to know I was coming. I folded the note in half, thwarting his efforts, and tucked it in my work basket. Peg hadn’t given me any details, so she was either assuming I could handle whatever it was on the fly, or that I already knew what was going on.
Sometimes giving grandchildren the illusion that you know everything can come back and bite you!
On Friday, I showed up at Peg’s house punctually at 4:00, as requested. I find punctuality important. It allows people to plan.
“Nana!” Peg greeted me warmly. “Thank you so much for coming!”
I laughed and hugged her as tightly as I could with one arm occupied. “Of course! Now, care to tell me what this is about?”
“It’s Steph. She’s very troubled, but she won’t tell either Greg or me what is wrong. We tried to send her to you, but she won’t go. So I decided to bring you to her.”
“Ah. Why the note and the mystery?”
She shook her head and smiled, “You know Will; he’s such a tease. If he knew, he’d be likely to taunt Steph with it, and close her up tighter than ever.”
Steph is one of my younger great grands. She’s only seven, and very quiet and reserved. Unlike the rest, she never changes into something unexpected and just pops over and lets herself into my house. When she does come to visit, she always knocks on the door, and always in human form.
I put the cake I’d brought on the kitchen table.
“Where is she now?”
“On the swings. She’s been spending most of her time there. What a lovely cake! You didn’t have to!”
I just smiled. If I ever showed up without something good to eat, I’m fairly sure they’d all wonder if it was really me.
I let myself out the back, and walked to the little copse where the swings are. I could see Steph, her back to the house, listlessly kicking the ground in a half-hearted attempt to swing. Something wrong, indeed.
She looked up as I took the swing next to her. “Grandnana. I knew they’d make you come.”
Might as well get right to the point. “They are worried, because they love you.”
She turned her head away, but not before I saw her eyes fill with tears.
“They won’t, when they know.”
Oh dear. This was worse than I thought. I stood up, gathered her out of her swing, and carried her over to the double glider. I’m so glad young children are small enough to pick up easily!
For a while, I just held her and swung gently, while she cried. “That’s right.” I murmured, “Let the tears wash the pain away. And know that I will always love you, no matter what.”
She wrapped her arms around me, and wept for a while.
“Now,” I said, “who did you murder?” She was startled enough to laugh, and doing that while crying caused her to hiccup. Loudly. Which made her gulp and half laugh again.
She sat up, and I handed her a handkerchief to dry her tears. She took it, took care of herself, and shook her head.
“It’s not that! You know I’d never do that, right?”
“I didn’t think so.” I gave her a squeeze. “So, we’ve established it’s not as horrible as murder. What is it?”
She sighed, and relaxed against me. “You know they teach shape-shifting in second grade, right?”
I did, indeed. Although my descendants generally figure it out well before that. I’d never seen Steph – oh no. I knew where this was going.
Sure enough, she started to sob again. “I tried, Grandnana. I tried really hard. They’re going to kick me out of the family, aren’t they? Please don’t hate me, Grandnana! Please!”
I held her as tightly as I could, and covered the top of her head with kisses.
“Oh, my poor little Stephie! My very own, dear little Stephie! Of course not! I’m so sorry you thought that for a minute! You’re our own darling Steph, and we don’t care a bit if you can’t Shift! Not everyone can, you know!”
“Everyone in this family can! Everyone but me. I’m a failure.”
She was holding me so tightly that it hurt. She had accidentally grabbed a pinch of my skin, under my shirt. I’d have a bruise there tomorrow, but that was insignificant next to this.
“No, honey bunch, you are not a failure. Don’t say that about my great-granddaughter. Lack of one talent does not a failure make.
Besides, haven’t I taught you that people may fail at many things, but people, themselves, are never failures?”
She nodded, and sat up slightly, releasing her hold. Oh thank goodness!
“But you are so famous for shifting, and I can’t do it at all! People will make fun of me.”
I held her close, taking her hand in mine. She could hold my hand as tightly as she liked. “What will they say?” I asked.
“They’ll say I can’t Shift!”
“Is that true, as far as we know right now?”
She sniffed, and nodded miserably.
“Then say, ‘Yes. And?'”
I sighed. “People who tease are trying to get a reaction from you. Lots of times, they don’t care what reaction, as long as they get one. Any reaction at all makes them feel, just for a minute, like they mattered to you. Just for a minute, you saw them, and interacted with them.
“People need interaction with other people as badly as they need air and light. They’ll do anything to get it, even when they have no idea that’s what they are doing.”
“So, if I just say yeah, as if it’s no big deal, they’ll leave me alone?”
“Perhaps. They might also be reaffirming their group identity, showing their friends that all of them like the same thing, so they are part of the same group.
“The trick is a two prong approach. Let them know that not shifting is something neutral for you, like having dark brown hair or green eyes. But also interact with them doing things that make you all feel good, because it’s the interaction they crave.”
“But it’s not neutral! It’s one of the most important things there is! Ever since I was tiny, I’ve been waiting until I could turn into a bird and fly through the sky, or turn into a horse and run like the wind, or be a fish in the brook! And now I never will!”
I held her close, and felt the pain I would feel if I had to give up all those things. “You’re right. It’s hard to give up dreams and expectations. It hurts a lot. I know.”
“How? Did you ever have to give up anything?”
“Oh my darling, yes. Think how old I am. I’ve had to give up so much! So many dreams, plans, hopes that never happened.”
“Can you tell me one?”
Well, it was only fair. She’d shown me her pain. “The worst was when I realized I’d have to live without your GrandGrampa. I didn’t think I could. I’d always imagined us going on forever together. But life doesn’t go on forever, and his ended before mine.”
“How did you manage?” she whispered.
“By concentrating on the things I still had. Your grandpa, and your great-aunts, and all your aunts and uncles and various cousins.”
I squeezed her. “You weren’t born yet. But now that you are, yes, you.”
She was thoughtful as we swung for a while, and I left her space to think. I had memories of my own to think through.
Finally she said, “I can still throw a charm faster than Will or anyone, even if I can’t shift. If he wants an interaction, I can make his pants fall off!”
I had to laugh. “Well, yes. But that’s not quite the kind of interaction I was thinking of. That would probably not make him feel good.”
She laughed too. I was so happy to hear it. “Probably not! What is the most important thing, Grandnana?”
I could answer that one without thinking. “Being kind. And that’s not dependent on any talent or ability or skill in the world. Everyone can do that, no matter what.”
She nodded, thoughtfully. “I better go tell mom what’s been bugging me, huh?”
“Yes. Want me to come with?”
She turned, gave me a kiss, and slid off my lap. “No. I can do this. You’re sure she’ll still love me?”
“I’m sure. She might want to have you tested, or tutored, but that’s because she doesn’t want to give up her hopes and expectations for you, not because she doesn’t love you, even if you never shift at all.”
She nodded. “That makes sense. Okay. Love you, Grandnana!”
“Love you, Steph.”
She straightened her little shoulders, and marched off to the house.
I watched her go, her back straight and head up, and thought about my husband. I still missed him dreadfully, at times. But I know he’d be so very proud of our brood!
6 thoughts on “Expectations”
Loved it. Reminded me of my Grandma.
Awww.. thanks, Lauren! 😀
I’m looking for advice on a small point of writing technique, because of a sentence in your story: “Lack of one talent does not a failure make.” Is there a rule for when a declarative sentence in written or spoken English should use this SOV sentence structure (found most famously in a poem by Richard Lovelace) instead of the default SVO sentence structure? I can’t figure it out, because I thought I spoke this language natively. Does it depend on how transparently one’s trying to allude to the famous Richard Lovelace quotation “Stone walls do not a prison make”? Also, is it limited to the verb “make,” or may other verbs be used in the same sentence structure?
Hi Kate! Umm… Beats me. I’m not trained as a writer. Or as an illustrator, for that matter. My degree is in Special Education; Visually Impaired. Which is what we used to call it, more than 40 years ago, when I earned the degree. Of course, in the intervening 40 years much of what I was taught has been debunked or superseded, so that training is pretty much useless now anyway.
I just write things that sound right to me. I suggest that you do the same. Especially in a short story, like these, I tend to choose every word for effect. I wish I had an editor, but can’t afford one at the moment, so my decisions stand. In this case, yes, I was alluding to the line in To Althea, From Prison, because it’s fairly well known, and I was guessing that readers would understand the whole sense of imprisonment, or failure, being primarily a state of mind. The rules of grammar have changed since the 17th century, of course, and I have no idea if that would still be considered proper, aside from the allusion.
Sorry I can’t help more.
I’m also uncertain of whether “Want me to come with?” is considered native-speaker English. I’ve not heard it in NYC, where I’m from, or in Albany (NY) where I live now.
Hi Kate! I don’t know about this one, either. I know it comes from German sentence structure, and probably entered the language through Yiddish, like so much else. I heard it pretty often in NYC and even more often in New Jersey, but that was all long ago.
As far as being native-speaker English, from my POV, if people whose first (or only) language is English commonly use it, and they do, then it qualifies. A great deal of native English is really borrowed from other languages. Or, as the t-shirt says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. It leads them down dark alleys, beats them senseless, and rifles through their pockets for loose grammar.”