A Child At Rest

A SHORT STORY BY MARGARET KOLB

At night, we shuffle into the room our children share to turn off their owl-shaped reading light. My husband extracts books from still-gripping fingers—Magic Schoolbus, tomes on Pacific Coast tidepools. Our three-year-old sprawls across the bottom bunk, a dramatic splay of tiny limbs; up top, our six-year-old cradles his stuffed camel by the neck. Their stillness catches and holds us. In sleep, there is nothing to fix for them, nothing they need. My eyes trace the curves of their cheeks and fingers, marveling as I often do not during the day. When we flip the light switch, darkness comes almost as a reprieve from their radiance.

Even when they wake, we will not be far from the aura that surrounds a sleeping child. I never have been. A watercolor of a sleeping toddler hangs on my bedroom wall. Like my children, she emanates ripples of tranquility, her choppy haircut riddled with errors and love. My gaze meanders from her round cheek to her curled fingers. She is nested in texture: overalls, pillow and blanket soften into one another despite their mismatch, linked by a riot of joyous oil-pastel squiggles, whose movement contrasts her stillness. She looks like my children—perhaps because the sight of any child asleep nudges the everyday toward the sacred. And perhaps the sleeper looks like my children because I am the child in the painting.

“WHILE OTHER TEENAGERS RACED TO HIDE THEIR MIDDLE SCHOOL GRADUATION PHOTOS, I STUDIOUSLY REDIRECTED FRIENDS’ ATTENTION FROM THE WATERCOLORS ON THE WALL.”

Pictures of me as a toddler asleep have always hung in my parent’s house, a fact that I regarded as normal, but also embarrassing—a record, among other things, that I once required a daily nap of such duration that my mother completed paintings in its span. In a family for whom photos were rare, her paintings are the records of how I looked as a baby, recast in my mother’s unmistakable style. While other teenagers raced to hide their middle school graduation photos, I studiously redirected friends’ attention from the watercolors on the wall.

On harried days as I attempt to mop, make muffins, and meet writing deadlines in the three-hour span of my daughter’s nap, I wonder how my mother found the presence of mind to paint me while I napped. I am her third child. I slept on the couch near the door, and when my brother and sister burst through it after school, my reverie would end, and so would my mother’s. Didn’t she need to make a third cup of coffee, or pay bills, or somehow attempt to bring order to the deluge of everyday life? Were there no sticky messes in the house at that time? Wasn’t she desperate for a moment when she could sit alone and do nothing, absolutely nothing? “I wanted to paint, and you were asleep,” my mother insists, every time I ask her. “So I painted you. It was very peaceful.” “Was I sleeping on the really scratchy couch, the one from Uncle Ned?” I ask. “Yes,” she says, and my skin bristles involuntarily.

“LOOKING NOW, I SEE A HEART-STABBING RECORD OF THE ATTENTION MY MOTHER PAID ME AT THE ONE TIME OF DAY WHEN I DEMANDED NOTHING OF HER.”

The reverence that my own sleeping children exact from me—the forceful demand that I stop everything and watch them rest—sends me back to my painting with fresh eyes. Looking now, I see the glow my children exude knit into each curve; I hadn’t yet grasped it because the picture was me, and reverence for one’s own sleeping self seems at best comic, at worst egomaniacal. Looking now, I see a heart-stabbing record of the attention my mother paid me at the one time of day when I demanded nothing of her. I see that as I slept, she stayed and watched, remaining still herself, so still that I never woke up. 

I turned to the painting in my bedroom during pandemic months spent round-the-clock with toddlers, wondering at what my mother didn’t paint. There are, for starters, far more accurate ways to paint that couch. And there are other ways to look at a sleeping baby. Mary Cassatt, another admirer of children and their splendid curves, often painted mother and child together at bed-time. Cassatt’s paintings register the glory of a child near rest, but also the stunned disbelief in the mother’s eyes. “What next?” Cassatt’s mothers seem to ask. Apprehension tiptoes toward grief in so many representations of Mary cradling sleeping Jesus, as if she cannot help but temper her devotion with anticipation of what lies in store.

No matter how hard I look at the painting in my room, I do not find infelicitous fabric, exhaustion, or fears for the future. There is a certain bravery in seeing the world as one wishes. My mother chose to overlook everything but the spell of a toddler asleep. In those moments when I slept and she painted, the two things she most wanted to do—raise children and paint beautiful pictures—clasped hands. Once I abandoned naps for good, I sometimes watched her as she painted, confused by her steadfast attention, and even more puzzled by the colors she chose—orange for our gray dirt road, blue for the murky brown river just beyond it. It was summer; she had a house full of hapless guests who refused to cook, and a giant garden full of ripe fruit. She saw it all, and she walked outside and painted, staring intently at the world, before coloring it exactly as she chose.

A few weeks ago, my daughter was trying to nap in a two-room cabin in Big Sur. She couldn’t sleep in the kids’ room, and so we climbed into the big bed in the main room, with its suspicious synthetic comforter. There was no obvious way to clean it between guests—it was possible, I sighed as she nestled into it, that it had never been cleaned. When she fell asleep, I lay beside her, afraid to move. Our unwashed bedding disappeared, along with my phone, the broken screen door, and the afternoon. For three hours, the world comprised nothing but the volume and presence of my daughter asleep, her steady breath escalating on occasion into full-blown sighs, followed by startling, large flails. I could not hold her with paint, as she held me with her slumber. So I held her with my eyes, watching, until she woke up.

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