Into the Woods

girl in tree

By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Rebecca Stetson Werner

Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather, C. S. Lewis.

Introduction: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I am packing for several days away from my family, away from my husband, Jonathan, and our three children. I am going to spend much of that time in a hospital, I know. I am preparing for this by carefully considering what I will need and what I need to leave behind. I stand before my closet, my Wardrobe, and consider my options. I pull out two skirts. They strike me as nicer than my typical jeans and perhaps they will somehow help me feel more comfortable, more grownup, more respectable in the hospital world I am about to enter. Maybe I’m reaching for a fur coat as I pass through the Wardrobe and into Narnia.

I move from the closet to my nightstand and gather my laptop and cell phone and coil up their power cords. I take several folders and books of work I am in the midst of. And then I grab a book of fiction, thinking I might have a lot of time on my hands, and I toss it into my shoulder bag. The one I grab is from the pile of middle-grade-reader books I have recently collected from the library for Julia, our daughter. Books that expose young readers to the world outside their family, with themes of the difficult but doable, dark but with a promise of a happy ending.

Julia and I are working our way through this stack, both of us happily devouring the stories. So perfect for her because she is nine. So perfect for me because apparently this is what I need right now. As I enter this new stage of my adult life and grow up a bit, and I reach for the fairy tales of my childhood to help me walk through this new terrain and find a path through the dark forest. Just as C.S. Lewis promised. They are my sustenance right now, and, like a gingerbread house, they have me enchanted and captivated.

So. Two skirts, a cell phone, and a child’s book to keep me company during a very adult journey. I register the irony, and also how it seems just right.

Somewhere within me, down deep, I know. I know it is very important what you select for a journey. In your bag will be the only things you will have when you face problems, uncertainties, riddles, witches, and wolves. What seems random, what seems thrown in for another purpose, or by chance? Could be what you trade for your very life.

At least that’s how it works in fairy tales.

•••

As with all great art, the fairy tale’s deepest meaning will be different for each person, and different for the same person at various moments in his life. The child will extract different meaning from the same fairy tale, depending on his interests and needs of the moment. When given the chance, he will return to the same tale when he is ready to enlarge on old meanings or replace them with new ones.

Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

My father has been gone from the hospital’s surgical waiting room for quite a while. Really, for a long while. Though I am not sure this is actually true. It feels as though I have been here alone—alone but surrounded by strangers who are separated from me by their own internal struggles and worries about their own loved ones—for hours.

My mother is in surgery, a minor surgery, a surgery resulting from her age, a “tune up” as we explained it to our three children when I told them that I was going to be away for two nights in order to be with Grammie in the hospital. I am here just in case. Here to keep my father company. Here to try to make sure my mother moves more easily through the complicated sequences of hospital care. Here to get her home as quickly as possible.

I have come to that place in my life: I am caring for my own children, big enough to not need me at all moments of the day, but often needing me more, needing me to be figuring, wondering, considering with them in more complicated ways. This time of tending my children blurs and overlaps with the beginnings of tending my parents. Helping them out here and there.

And then, my father returns to the waiting room from a trip to the bathroom and from a walk out to the car to find something to pass the time. He gives me a small smile and walks over to our chairs with his lopsided gait, never quite having regained his surefootedness after his knee surgery a few years ago. He eases into the chair beside me and says, “I should have left a trail of breadcrumbs. I got a bit lost.”

I look at him, assessing his seriousness.

He does not seem upset. If he was lost, he seems to have handled it. And then, I look down at my hands in which I’m holding the fiction I grabbed as I packed at home. It had remained tucked away in my bag until, alone in this room, I had dug it out in order to help me ignore the pain and sadness of the people around me, to drown out the daytime talk shows blaring on the TV in the corner of the room. To hold my gaze so I could give myself and those around me a sense of false privacy.

Its title? Breadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu.

In this moment, I realize that this book is my Floo Powder, my portal between two worlds. My magic beans, my potion in a vial, my key tied around my neck opening the last door I need to pass through. From the moment I started to prepare for this journey, and really for every moment, every major event of my life, there is a steady undercurrent of story. Moving like a river that guides and explains, flowing under the surface of real life. These fairy tales and children’s stories—with their themes and roles and relationships, their adventure and struggle with maturation and separation and needs and desires. They are told to us when we are young and are here with us in every conscious moment. We retreat to them, draw upon them, quote them, and use them between us as a shared experience and vernacular to guide us.

Fairy tales, given their oral storytelling origins, hold common truths. In fact, they must. For in order for one narrator to decide to pass them along to another, tales had to have been deemed good stories. Had to hold themes and roles and problems and resolutions that resonated with their audiences. They were told again and again until eventually they were written down. And then read again and again, until they became a part of our cultural history, and of our personal narrative and compass for our own lives, internal and external.

I look over at my father, my former woodsman, to see if somehow he knows, if he is referencing my book’s title. But he is not and does not know that I am reading this modern fractured fairy tale. He is instead listening to his own internal map, relying on the network of story that is within him as well, trying to make meaning, trying to understand these unfamiliar woods by following the rules of those storied woods he does know and has visited before. Hoping that perhaps he will know what to do now.

He and I have been adjusting ourselves to each other in these past hours, figuring out who sits and who stands near my mother during admission. Who gets the first kiss goodbye as my mother is wheeled off to surgery. Who answers the phone when my mother’s name is called in the waiting room. Who pays for snacks from the cafeteria. Who is in the lead and who is following behind on this path. It used to be him leading, always. But today, as uncomfortable with and as ill-suited to the task as I may feel, I think it may be me. If my father is not the woodsman, then I may not be the little girl anymore. Even if these woods are dark, and the nurses and wolves are scaring me a bit.

My father, as many do who reference this story, seems to have forgotten that the trail of breadcrumbs was faulty. On their first trip to the woods, Hansel cleverly drops white pebbles to lead them home. It is on their second trip that he uses breadcrumbs, his only available material, and these impermanent, edible, and disappearing trail markers are what ultimately cause Hansel and Gretel to get lost in the woods, unable to return home. Only then, faced with this problem, does Gretel rise to the occasion and lead the way on her own self-determined path to their happy ending. Somehow it is troubling to me that my father has forgotten that we don’t want to leave breadcrumbs, that what he needs is something more permanent. And inedible.

So far? My role is to hold things. I have placed my mother’s car keys in my shoulder bag next to my cell phone and have tucked her wedding ring, the one they snipped off her finger in case there were complications, into my change purse. Before I did so, I checked the engraving. The nurse had not cut through the inscription, my parents’ initials, followed by the date of their wedding. Somehow I am relieved. And like any fairy tale, each item I collect has some kind of meaning, some kind of purpose, each statement a window into underlying wishes and needs.

•••

This is what happens on journeys—the things you find are not necessarily the things you have gone looking for.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

My phone vibrates, a text from my brother. He is at work, a doctor, several states away. He hasn’t heard from me. My father and I have been waiting here for six hours for what we were told would be a three-hour procedure. I have not texted my brother for a while with an update. Because I am trying to sit still, trying not to move. Movement might be interpreted as panic by the imaginary wolves of possibility in the room with me. I am waiting for some information. I have been hoping not to have to send a message admitting that I have no idea what is taking so long. I know right now where my father is, but I have lost my mother for a bit.

Despite the states separating us, my brother and I are here together in this new place. Trying to figure out how to make this shifting role with our parents work. And how it will work between us. Because we are still the same people, the same children. We are still on the same path, walking together, he the older brother, me the younger sister. Our roles, our history, the story of our childhood together cannot be ignored as we take these next steps.

My trickster brother, my fellow backseat rider, has grown into a brilliant and successful adult. He actually saves lives on a daily basis. In his role as Hansel, his focus is on the world in front of him, and he moves through it with strength, skill, and confidence. He expects, as darkness falls, for the white stones he wisely laid earlier to begin to glow, to keep us safe, and he expects to know the right thing to do.

I’m not sure he would ever leave a faulty trail of breadcrumbs. That’s my role. I am much more likely to leave behind a trail of the accidentally vanishing variety, birds eating the crumbs and making our way home impossible. And this mistake would not shock anyone who knows me. I have been given the role of observer, wanderer, emoter, but rarely leader. My ear is more likely pressed to the forest floor, listening to the rumblings and undercurrents and meanings that are held beneath the surface of the action above. When I try to walk the path that Hansel would blaze, I trip and stumble and get lost, because this is not my role and not the path I would choose for myself. But with my lifetime of poorly chosen materials, I am afforded the ability to laugh at myself and not be very surprised to find myself lost in the woods because I was listening to the rhythms below, with no plan for getting home. I look about the room. It is relatively empty. There is no one to ask for directions.

Some time later a nurse and then a doctor come to tell us everything has gone well. My mother is doing just fine and is in recovery. I am relieved. And a bit angry at the doctor for the frozen fitful slumber my father and I have been plunged into for the past three extra hours. I ask a few questions. My father is quiet but asks for reassurances that she is okay. My mother’s doctor looks tired. I try to forgive her. I tell her I hope she can go rest for a bit. She looks taken aback. I realize that this was not the thing to say here. She is the one doing the caring.

We are told we have another hour before she will be ready to be transferred to her room. I tell my father I will be right back, and I go to the bathroom. I text my brother and Jonathan from the stall. I need a few moments of aloneness with my relief.

I emerge and go to wash my hands. I look at myself in the mirror. I reach up to my hairline and pluck a grey hair from where it has been sticking straight up toward the florescent lights. I stare at my reflection for a few moments before another person enters the room.

Mirror, Mirror.

•••

She had done her best to be prepared, but had not anticipated crazy people.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

Despite all my preparation, packing, and collecting along the way, I had not expected to get into an elevator with my mother, pale and scared looking, still under the influence of anesthesia. Nor had I anticipated where this elevator would take us.

“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” she asks when she sees me walking toward her. Despite the drugs, she knows her role, her lifetime as the Baker. I feel comforted that she seems lucid. This is a very typical question from her. I answer that yes, we have. And glance at my father. Should we tell her we’ve had lunch, too? I wonder through my eyes at him. He does not answer. Unlike in fairy tales, we cannot apparently speak with our minds.

I squeeze in beside her and hold her hand, lifting my large shoulder bag above the railing of her bed. I turn to her. She is focusing on me. Staring at me. The attention is unsettling. I crack a few jokes and then swallow more, realizing that the recovery room nurses in this incredibly small space with us might see my retreat to being silly as inappropriate. Or more likely, as the rantings of a heartless mad woman. My father is silent, making himself as skinny as possible, standing behind my mother’s head. I am not sure she knows he is there.

“I think I might be talking funny,” my mother says thickly, as though her face is numb and her tongue non-responsive. And then, “Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” Her eyes grow wide, and even more scared as I answer that we have. And lunch, too. “Did something go wrong? Am I okay?” She’s garbling the words.

Her vulnerability is dawning on me. I respond by being overly cheery. I explain to her what the doctor told us, that it just took longer than they had anticipated, but that there had been no complications. I start trying to be funny again. My father can’t hear me. My mother is loopy and confused. The recovery room nurses just look at me. I am babbling.

“Did you and Dad get some breakfast?” she asks for the third time. I turn to my father, who either has not heard her or is really good at hiding his reaction. Are we trapped in some small circle of time together, sleeping in this moment for eternity while the rest of the world moves on without us? Or maybe I am just being childish and this is just something that happens when Moms come out of anesthesia?

This hospital. I was born here. And as if to make this all come full circle, I follow my mother’s wheeled bed out of the bank of elevators and onto the maternity ward. “Ah,” I say, “this is where we met.” I say it mostly to myself. But my groggy mother and her recovery room nurses look at me with equal amounts of confusion and concern.

•••

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

C.S. Lewis

Once we are settled into her room, we focus our efforts on the same things that I imagine my mother and father focused upon when we were last here all together forty years ago: eating, sleeping, and pooping. I notice families outside her door taking their first walks in the halls together, babies pushed before them in wheeled bassinets. I see lactation consultants come and go. I watch some newborns being cared for in the nursery. I run into tired fathers in the kitchenette downing coffee. I think of my children, and of my now-woodsman, Jonathan, to the north of here. And turn back to my parents.

I order my mother meals on the phone and I take my father for a third meal in the cafeteria. On my mother’s ward, the mothers’ ward, we pass by the newborn nursery at its center. I see myself there as a baby and see my own children being given their first baths in nurseries very similar to this one. I quietly register that I am now like my mother in another way: there will be no more newborns for me.

My mother is struggling with her lack of control, of being the one who now needs tending, and her mood is rolling in unexpected waves. As she wakes from her long slumber, we are cast as children, then as evil step-parents, pulled in and then pushed away. Her eyeglasses now returned to her, she holds them up, looks at me through them and then not through them. With glasses. Then without. Over and over. She sees me blurred followed by invisible, and I am not seen well in either case.

I step out and go for doughnuts. I nibble from the gingerbread house for a bit and bring back treats to my parents. Upon my return, I once again enter this shifting, muddy, dim terrain populated by the where and who and when we are, and by what we packed and who all of us have been up to this moment. We crash and bump and collide into all of these selves in the room together. The Woodsman and Gretel, the Snow Queen and the Gingerbread House Woman, the wolves and the birds. Hansel is on the phone, asking me about medications for which I do not know the names. I try to make light, but know that I should have asked about this already. I would like to talk to him about how full and noisy and messy it is here in the room with all of our past and present selves dancing about like wood nymphs. But I don’t. I just go find a nurse to answer his questions.

The chaos in that room. The spilling and boiling emotions. The things that have been felt and seen and said. My instinct is to talk, to process them, as I have awkwardly attempted to do throughout the day. But I choose to hold them instead. And not just hold them, but bottle them, thrust in a cork, and pop them into my bag. That is something I can offer all of us. For now, I will keep my awareness to myself so we can all continue moving forward together. I can wait to press my ear to the ground. I can choose to just keep walking.

•••

Now, the world is more than it seems to be. You know this, of course, because you read stories. You understand that there is the surface and then there are all the things that glimmer and shift underneath it. And you know that not everyone believes in those things, that there are people—a great many people—who believe the world cannot be any more than what they can see with their eyes. But we know better.

Anne Ursu, Breadcrumbs

Finally, I am heading home. My mother is doing well. My father is at the helm. My brother will be here later in the day. We have our happy ending. Yet I know I have now entered unfamiliar woods. And that I am going to have to walk around in them for some time now. And contend with the rustling noises.

When I get to my car, I notice that I have a message. From my father, to whom I have just said goodbye a few minutes before. I dial voicemail and set my phone on speaker. I begin my long drive back to my children, hoping to meet them outside their school, to hear about their days.

I just got outside and noticed there is a steady sleet coming out of the sky. The temperature is hovering at freezing. But as you drive north, it may be slippery. I don’t think it is going to accumulate, but I wanted to let you know. Please drive carefully.

The Woodsman has returned. So I grab a bite of turkish delight. Feel the fur coats brush against my face as I pass back through the Wardrobe. Flick the reins of my Subaru. And head north, toward home.

•••

REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and three children. She has a doctorate in child psychology but uses it mostly to help her better understand all of her parenting blunders and to help her children choose good books. She has contributed to Taproot Magazine and Grounded Magazine and writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at www.treetoriver.com.

 

14 thoughts on “Into the Woods

  1. This essay touched me deeply. I loved your use of quotes and language. The idea about all of your past and current selves bumping into each other in that hospital room was so right. Having begun an entirely new journey with the death of my own mother a year ago, I can relate to so much of this. So well done.

  2. Rebecca,
    This is so, so beautiful. As a daughter and a mom, your story and emotions touch my heart and get inside my mind. As a writer, I am blissfully envious of the flow and style of this essay. I am also a person who turns to fairytales for life guidance and the way you have woven their magic through this very real world story is just perfection.

    Loved every bit of it.

  3. I LOVED this essay. I was touched as a mom and daughter in that same murky in-between of parenting children as my parents encounter the first stirrings of aging. And this piece was beautifully crafted. I look forward to reading more of your work, and “hi” from another writer in Maine.

  4. Yay! Another Mainer! I loved your essay. This is such a universal experience — this negotiation of roles with you parents. I am in the thick of this right now so reading your words was especially comforting and emotional. Thank you for writing this!

  5. Thank you so much for your comments! I really appreciate knowing that people are connecting with this essay. And I am enjoying reading what you all have to say about it.

  6. Rebecca,
    I have to say it’s been a long time since I’ve read an essay with which I identified so strongly and which I enjoyed on so many levels. The daughter in me has been through those same woods, has tried to hide behind the same trees, and has been comforted by those same literary touchstones. The wife in me recalls when my “woodsman” became not my father, but my husband. The mother in me wants to shield my daughters from the confusion they will face when our roles begin to invert—while preparing them to face it and draw on strengths they have not yet discovered. The English teacher in me loved the structure of your essay, the interwoven voices and juxtaposition of character and tone. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences so eloquently and for speaking to “all” of me. It was a wonderful gift for a Friday afternoon.

  7. Oh, I adore this. I’ve just ordered Breadcrumbs, which I wasn’t familiar with, and can’t wait to read it. Of course the Einstein quote about reading your children fairytales comes to mind, but so too do I love how you point out all that we adults have to learn from fairytales. Thank you. xox

  8. I’ve been waiting to read this until I knew I would have the space and the time to really read it. To start and stop, to let my thoughts drift, to allow my gaze to wander from screen to window as I reflect on all the points of connection and personal memories your writing has set free. Thanks Rebecca, you’ve reminded me of so much that life provides but sometimes conceals from us in the flurry. Peace.

    1. John,

      Thank you for taking the time to give it such a careful and thoughtful reading, and to comment on it here. I truly appreciate it.

  9. This is wonderful in the same way “Into the Woods” the musical is wonderful. It’s a winding narrative with just-right fairy tale references, but it says something new about our stories and how they intersect with folklore.

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