The name ‘island house’ usually gives people a false impression. “Come visit us sometime at the island house,” we will say, and the image that comes to mind is that of a large house on stilts overlooking the calm bay waters, painted a crisp mint green or fresh canary yellow, and overflowing with the traditional beach décor of seashells and flip-flops. But this is certainly not the case of our island house, or rather my grandparent’s island house. A more appropriate name is bungalow, cottage, or house-stuck-in-the-50s.
The house is in the middle of Sand Island, with no view whatsoever of the sparkling Gulf waters. Its sits low on the ground, raised only two feet or so to prevent it from flooding in most cases, which is certainly not enough room to park the BMW’s and speed boats or set up a hammock surrounded by Tiki torches (like most of the neighbours).
Inside, the time era is blatantly obvious. Wood panelling covers every inch of every room including the kitchen cabinets and drawers. Scalloped wood trim hides fluorescent lights above the stove and sink. The kitchen counters are covered in a red laminate trimmed with a stainless steel edge and, of course, a baby blue bath tub graces the plastic tiled bathroom.
This is where we live—for the moment.
My husband, Billy, had been unemployed for four months, and when we couldn’t afford to pay the rent for our apartment, my grandparents had suggested that we stay at their vacation house on Sand Island. It’s a small island, about an hour south of the main city, and separated from the real world by the longest bridge I’ve ever been on. There are a few tourist sites scattered up and down the long ‘C-shaped’ island, like a bird sanctuary and ancient Indian burial grounds. But other than that it only has one mom-and-pop grocery store, two gas stations, three churches, a small school, and a Coast Guard base. Most people that live on the island are elderly and retired, and they are perfect examples of living life the ‘easy way’.
After being at the island house for three months, I started feeling the symptoms of cabin fever. I began yearning for a place of our own and to use our own things, like dishes and sheets, instead of using what was in the cupboards and pantry at the island house. Finally, after a total of five months, Billy received a job offer.
But there was also bad news—Billy had to leave for five weeks of training, which left me alone with Max, our active, high-energy, demanding, almost two year old son. Max wasn’t a bad child in the least, but he did have his moments. The temper tantrums when he couldn’t explain to us what he wanted, the pinching and squeezing and hitting when he didn’t get what he wanted, and the need of constant interaction—something he always wanted. I was always exhausted, if not crying from the pains of parenthood, and my patience running thinner than a piece of floss. With Billy home all the time, I enjoyed his constant help, superb help in fact. So, I guess I was a little bummed that Billy was going back to work.
Billy left yesterday, so here I was, alone with Max on the island. Being that I had limited options for entertaining my toddler (no Toys R Us to browse in), we decided, like most days, to play in the yard. The heat and mosquitoes were a deadly mixture, so after we were equipped with water and ‘Off’ spray, I was finally able to relax in a lawn chair under the carport while the little guy explored every corner of the fenced in yard. It was his favourite pastime, which made it mine too.
I fervently opened up my library book, only the second book I had time to read since Max was born. Yes, it was slightly embarrassing, and I had to renew this book three times from the library, but to my excitement, I was finally about to hit the halfway point.
Although the book was cracking me up, I forced myself to periodically look up to check on Max, but this time I didn’t see him in the yard. I heard a rustling from the right and got up to look around the car when I realized that the sound had come from underneath the house.
“Oh, my gosh!” I said it out loud, and squatted on my haunches to get a peek.
It was dark under there, and I couldn’t see through to the other side of the house. Concrete blocks and scattered pieces of wood were holding the house up and blocking my view, casting shadows and creating an obstacle course. I saw everything from debris to spider webs to holes in the dirt housing things I never knew existed, but I didn’t see the one thing I wanted to see—Max.
I stood up and looked around the yard, one more time, hoping that he had just been hiding behind a tree, lying in the tall grass, or… anything but this!
“Max? Max!” I called his name, and after hearing no response for thirty seconds, I knew what I had to do. I had to go after him.
As I walked to the edge of the house and inched down, this time on my knees, I wanted to curse whoever it was that created Peek-a-Boo or Chase. It was certainly the fault of those games that instilled the thought of hiding or running from parents. Even Dora the Explorer was to blame—a young child exploring woods and dangerous creatures, on her own? Who created this stuff?
I couldn’t fit on my hands and knees, and I certainly did not want to drag my body on my belly, so I did one of those Army crawl manoeuvres on my elbows and knees.
“Max? Max!” I called. I started feeling panicky, and it wasn’t just from losing my child. I was scared silly of spiders, and I knew I could come face to face with a possum, raccoon, or armadillo. I definitely wasn’t the outdoorsy or exploring type. But I had to get Max.
I strained my eyes to see with what little light was coming through the edges of the house from the quickly setting sun.
I froze, looking around in the darkness, wondering if I even heard what I thought I heard. The voice that had called out to me was not a child’s voice; it was the voice of a full-grown man. As far as I knew, I was still just “ma-ma.”
“Max?” I was definitely scared now.
“Mom, something’s happened to me,” I heard the voice say.
I inched forward.
“This is so weird,” the voice continued. “I’m not sure what happened, Mom.” The voice was sincere and certainly confused.
As I crawled forward toward the voice, I was suddenly staring into a face that was less than two feet from mine. I immediately recognized those big blue eyes and dimpled chin. I knew it was impossible, but I also knew it was Max.
“Max?” It wasn’t really a question. I said it more in awe, because this was my baby, yet he was an adult.
The man, who looked in his twenties, was on his elbows and knees just as I was. He was looking down and tugging at the dark brown hair on his arm. His eyebrows were down and close together because he was scowling. He had a five o’clock shadow and dark brown hair that hung over his eyes, the same cut that he had had only minutes before as a toddler. He looked so much like Billy, there was no mistaking that.
“Max, um, how old are you?” I asked, trying to figure out what had happened.
“I’m almost two,” he said, looking up at me, studying my face in confusion. “You know that, Mom. You tell people that all the time.”
Now I was confused. He had aged, in both appearance and language, but it seemed he was still in the same mind frame of a child, of my toddler.
“Tell me what you remember, Max.”
“Well, we were outside, and I was watching the dragonflies. I peeked under the house, and I thought I could fit, so I bent down and starting crawling underneath it. But I bumped my head, because I wasn’t careful, like how you tell me to be. That’s all I remember.”
Now I was scowling. This was definitely bizarre, and I felt like I was watching one of those science-fiction TV shows. What doctor do I call?
Wait, skip the doctor and call the FBI, right?
“Mom,” Max continued, breaking my train of thought, “I don’t feel frustrated anymore.”
“What do you mean?” I was trying to stay calm and maintain my “Mom”
composure, even though I was thinking about how I was going to explain this one to Billy.
“I usually get angry when I can’t explain to you what I want, mostly because you don’t understand what I’m telling you. I get upset and I yell, and I… I hurt you. I make you cry, Mom, and I’m sorry.”
The bottoms of his deep blue eyes were full of tears, ready to pour out and fall down his still puffy cheeks.
“I know, baby, and it’s okay.” My heart wrenched. Hearing him say those words was beyond anything I could ever ask for. Being a mom was the hardest thing I had ever experienced. Those times when Max would hit me, I could only wonder if he felt sorry. I would surrender myself to my room and cry on my bed for a few moments, releasing the pain I felt not only on my body but in my heart. But now I knew, and it filled me with a feeling, something I could only describe as peace.
“Don’t cry, Mom,” he looked at me, his tearful eyes filled with concern, as my eyes too started to well with tears, though mine were of happiness and relief. The look he gave me struck me. It was one I had seen numerous times, that of severe worry when I would leave him for a few hours, ignore him for a few minutes, or crouch in a corner of a room yearning for a moment of rest.
The sun had set, and the only light that was peering in through the bottom of the house was a deep orange and red from the fiery sunset.
It was time to get out from underneath the house. My mind kept drifting to how I would recite to Billy that our son was a man. He would not believe me at first, because it was only something to believe if you saw it with your own eyes.
I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand, trying to avoid getting as much dirt on my face as possible. “Max, we should get out of here.
Let’s crawl back out. Can you do that?”
“Sure, Mom.” Before I could move, Max reached forward and touched the tips of my fingers. “Mom,” he said, “I love you.”
I knew I would remember those words, those sweet, sweet words, for the rest of my life. They were the words I had longed to hear, from someone I needed to hear them from. I felt as if my life had served its purpose, the purpose being to teach my child love.
He wiggled past me, his clothes black with dirt that I could barely make sense of what he was wearing. I turned around to follow him out, my mind spinning in disbelief and wonderment. But I was surprised to also be feeling contentment, especially in this situation, a situation where any normal person would be freaking out.
I slid along tailing Max, nearing the edge of the house. The bottoms of his large tennis shoes pressed against the dirt as he pushed himself out. The red in the sky had faded to a black-scarlet, and being void of any city lights, the island was only lit by the stars.
I looked up at the edge, making sure my head would clear the wood and cement foundation, but before I could slide my head out into the open air, a little sideways face bent down and looked at me with big excited eyes.
“Ma-ma!” it shouted. It was my Max, my almost two year old Max. No longer was he in the adult form I was just speaking with.
I crawled out and sat on my knees, my face torn between a frown and a smile, perplexed by what had happened. But the feeling of pure joy overcame everything else as Max clung onto me, resting his head on my shoulders and patting my back, something he imitated from Billy and me.
I never did tell Billy what had happened—he wouldn’t have believed me.
The island house, once seen only as ugly and old, will always hold a special place in my heart. That’s where I was told that I was loved and needed by my son, when I needed to hear it most.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem