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In ‘Lift,’ mom shares letter to kids

Kelly Corrigan's second book, "Lift," is written as a letter to her young daughters. Intimate and reflective, she conjures up the moments she will never forget, but that her girls may well fail to remember as adults: teaching her daughter how to spell her own last name, long games of “I Spy,” watching the Jackson 5 on YouTube. Corrigan wants them to understand that “Mothering you is the first thing of consequence that I have ever done.” An excerpt.

Dear Georgia and Claire,

You’re both in bed now. Dad, too. I should be sleeping but I’m too wound up.

First day of school’s tomorrow. Bus comes at 7:44 and won’t drop you off until after three. We don’t usually get downstairs before nine. But tonight, shoes are by the front door and backpacks are zipped. You even laid out your clothes, so we don’t have to argue in the morning.

I don’t think you’ll remember tomorrow, or many of the other days we’ve spent together so far. I only remember a handful of stories before middle school. There was the kiss by the coats in the spring of fifth grade that I pretended was gross. And my teacher, who was tall but wore purple heels anyway. I remember she asked if anyone knew how to spell chaos and no one did and I wanted to raise my hand so badly and be the one who knew something no one else in my class knew but I couldn’t because I didn’t know. I feel that way still, like I wish I knew more, like I wish I had answers.

And I remember in third grade, I pulled a tiny foil star off Julia Burr’s line and put it on mine, so I’d have more. I got caught and was taken to see the principal who had very short hair that looked burnt on the ends. When she started in on me, Mrs. Ford, my teacher, held out her hand and guided me into her lap. I put part of her long necklace in my mouth—I was very nervous—and she gently took it out so I could concentrate on the principal’s thoughts about truthfulness. You guys love that story.

You’re always asking me to tell you about making mistakes or getting grounded. Like when I was ten and I tried to get a bug off my dad’s windshield by kicking it, over and over, from the inside until the glass cracked from top to bottom and side to side. When Greenie came back to the car after paying for gas, sliding his billfold in his back pocket, he said, “Lovey! What the—?” We drove home in silence, Greenie shaking his head like he’d never in his life met a kid with less sense. Those stories are as clear as stains compared to the everyday stuff like eating ice cream or playing Go Fish or swimming with my mom in Squam Lake, which I’ve seen a picture of but I can’t actually call up inside me. I can’t feel the water, or my mom’s shoulders under my hands, or her neck under my chin, I can’t remember how safe and good it must have felt to ride around on her like that.

*

I heard once that the average person barely knows ten stories from their childhood and those are based more on photographs and retellings than memory. So, even with all the videos we take, the two boxes of snapshots under my desk, the 1, 276 photos in folders on the computer, you’ll be lucky to end up with a dozen stories. You won’t remember how it started with us, the things that I know about you that you don’t even know about yourselves. We won’t come back here.

You’ll remember middle school and high school, but you’ll have changed by then. You changing will make me change. That means you won’t ever know me as I am right now—the mother I am tonight and tomorrow, the mother I’ve been for the last eight years, every bath and book and birthday party, gone. It won’t even occur to you that you’re missing this chapter of our story until you see me push your child on a swing or untangle his jump rope or wave a bee away from his head and think Is this what she was like with me?

The last time we went to Philly to see your grandparents, Jammy taught you dominos while I checked my e-mail. I listened as she explained the rules in stages, showing you all the ways to score until she was sure you understood. When you bagged your first point, she helped you move your peg up the board, winking and clicking her tongue and saying jokey stuff like By Georgia, I think you’ve got it.

When I little, I don’t think she winked or clicked or punned.

And my coming-of-age? Imagine one long string of cursing, crying, and lying followed by stomping and slamming, punctuated by the occasional kindness—These eggs are good or Is your knee feeling better? Jammy must’ve cut those moments into tiny pieces and ration them to herself; for all she knew, it’d be a month until I fed her another morsel of affection.

I don’t know when you’ll read this. Maybe when you’re a teenager? No, probably later, when you’re on the verge of parenthood and it occurs to you for the first time that someone has been loving you for that long. Maybe (let’s hope not) you’ll read it because something’s happened to one of us—my cancer has come back or Dad was reading a text going across the Bay Bridge and cars collided—and you want to piece together what it was like before. No matter when and why this comes to your hands, I want to put down on paper how things started with us.

I always wanted to have kids—more than all other things. Not very Harvard Business School of me, I know. There are other things I want to do, big crazy things, like make a movie and build an artists’ compound and fix my printer. But at night, in the years before I met your dad, when I was talking to a God I wasn’t sure I really believed in, I whittled down all my requests to one: children. You.

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Greenie has this huge family and I love being inside something that big. I love the noise and hugging and high-fiving and how we tell the same ten stories every time we’re together and, after that, we tell the same six jokes, all of which have titles, like “Precious” and “Probably” and “The Sportcoat Joke,” which Uncle Dickie delivers with a Scottish accent and a hairlip for no reason anyone can give. I remember once in college climbing onstage with a band. The music was so loud. The bass line came up through the floor into my body. That’s what it’s like being in a room full of Corrigans.

Kathy is my favorite. She’s one of Uncle Gene’s seven kids, which I think explains her self-reliance and therapist’s eye for interpersonal drama. I like her because she’s so totally unguarded. I’ve always wanted to be like Kathy, and over the years, I’ve tried on various parts of her: I mimic her one-sentence e-mails in all lowercase letters. I listen to John Prine and early Bonnie Raitt. I clutter my bookshelves with unframed photographs, old lunch boxes, and homemade art. She’s why I cut my hair short every couple of years and wear bandanas when it’s too hot to turn on a blow-dryer. I read the books she sends me and the poets she mentions. She introduced me to Rilke, who has this line about how some harmonies can only come from shrieking, and another about how when crystal shatters, it also rings. The Rilke line that’s up on my bulletin board is “the knowledge of impermanence that haunts our days is their very fragrance.” So many true and delicate thoughts that prose can’t touch. Promise me you’ll read him.

Kathy took a job teaching high school English because she loves reading and talking about books, especially the things people accidentally reveal by empathizing with one character over another or hating a story too much or crying over a certain passage. But more than reading, she loves her students—the pregnant girls, the sassy girls that call her Mizzes, the boys who look at her chest too long. I sat in on her class once at Charlottesville High and left thinking, God, she’s important.

I remember this one Corrigan wedding—Cousin Boo’s. Kathy and I were sitting by the dance floor, picking at an unclaimed piece of cake, the way you do when you’ve already had enough and think you might just have one more bite and then the other person joins in and then you’re sweeping up the last of the icing with the backs of your forks. Her kids, all three of them, were on the dance floor together. I guess they were in middle school, or just starting high school. Lena was doing this move where you pull one foot behind you like you’re stretching your thigh after a run, and Maggie was trying to moonwalk, and Aaron, the oldest, was doing the sprinkler.

“That’s all I want, Kath. Right there. Funny kids who like each other.”

She leaned into me and said, “It’ll come. You’ll get it. Oh! Look—”

Just then, Aaron and some other guys lifted Kathy’s husband, Tony, over their heads, and Tony crowd-surfed, like Jack Black in the last scene of The School of Rock. People went nuts—cheering or reaching for their cameras or looking around for the father of the bride to see how this was going over with him. Over all the laughing and hollering, I could hear Aaron’s voice. “Stay stiff, Dad! Like Superman!”  

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