By Liz Petrone
“I just want to hit something!” Gabby hisses at me through the space in her mouth where her first two baby teeth had recently fallen out.
She is holding the closest object she could grab – conveniently, her brother’s baseball bat – tightly in her chubby fingers, poised for the strike. Her feet are spread, belly and butt thrust out, shoulders back in righteous six-year-old indignation. Her stance is half tiny ballerina, half Athena the warrior goddess, and I too find myself torn, but between scooping her up in my arms and running away.
I can remember when those teeth came in too, the same first ones, tiny and white and precious. I have them and all the ones her brother and sister lost before her in a wooden box next to my bed. It’s the same wooden box my mother kept next to her bed with our teeth in it – mine and my sisters – one of the few relics from my childhood I actually have. Now they’re all mixed in there together, mine and my sister’s and my kids, with no way to know whose is whose, and Nick says I’m a little weird for keeping them like I have but they are staying right there, thank you very much. I like the symbolism of it all, all of jumbled up in there together in my box that was my mother’s box that was before I bought it for her just a cheap trinket on the shelves of a souvenir shop on my first sleep-away school trip.
Gabby didn’t know my mother, not in the way I would have liked her to. She wasn’t even born yet when my mother had mostly disappeared, fading into the space she spent the last few years of her life lost in. Gabby had turned three just a few weeks before my mom died and my mother had sworn she would show up for Gabby’s spaghetti and meatballs birthday dinner and then – in a development that surprised none of us but Gabby – hadn’t. After I had tucked the freshly three-year-old girl into bed that night and kissed the cake frosting from her forehead, I’d gone back downstairs to find that she’d left greasy hand prints outlined in spaghetti sauce on the front windows where she must have stood, watching for her grandmother.
And that had made me that same kind of angry, the spitting fire kind, the grab a baseball bat kind; not at Gabby but at my mother, or maybe at God or maybe at myself for the small part of me that had still, even though it was dumb, willed my mother to walk through the door too.
She’s always a little bit on fire, like there’s a pilot light lit inside of her all the time and sometimes the wind blows just right at her and she flares up in a big showy rush of baseball bat-grabbing heat.
As for Gabby, I’m not even sure what she is mad about standing there with that bat in her hands. There was a toy, or more accurately there wasn’t. Someone had taken it from her, or she had lost it, or it hadn’t been hers in the first place and she had only wanted it to be. I’m not sure it matters. What matters more is that like me, she’s a feeler, with a very thin filter between her heart and her actions. She’s always a little bit on fire, like there’s a pilot light lit inside of her all the time and sometimes the wind blows just right at her and she flares up in a big showy rush of baseball bat-grabbing heat.
She lets me take the bat from her though, of course she does, and I opt for the scooping, carrying her up into her bed and then lying there with her. Neither of really knows what to say and it’s quiet, the only noise our rush of breath, hers ragged with the remnants of cooling anger and a little whistly as it moves through her teeth hole.
You know there are other ways, healthier ways, to deal with your anger, I tell her.