FROM THE MIDDLE SEAT

Every year my step-father puts work on hold for a week in an attempt to bring our rather large and eccentric family together. I am quite certain he, like many fathers, finds these trips rewarding and enjoyable, but least of all relaxing.

Bringing 10 people anywhere is a difficult task in itself. Flying with my mother is about as enjoyable as holding on to a feral cat inside of an airplane. But my whole family, all together in one place, almost falls in the category of impossibility.

There are the obvious challenges such as being physically located all over the continental United States - from New York to California. But the less obvious undertaking exists in the abstract sense. We have different fathers, mothers, and relationships with both. Some of us have shared innumerable life experiences together, and some of us just a few. When you put a family together like that, there is a commitment you must make to one another. A bond you choose to develop rather than one solidified in convenience, proximity and time.

2016 was our seventh trip together and we were headed to Tulum, Mexico.

Prior to arrival, my step-father called me to set realistic expectations for our upcoming adventure. There is always the usual drama of having 5 children - if half are up, then the other half are down. I have yet to see a time when the ‘rents weren't lamenting over the fate of one of us. Even I have had my fair share of blame for sleepless nights, but the boys were in a serious shit spiral this past summer. One brother had been in the hospital earlier that month as a result of a failed spiritual enlightenment journey. 10 hits of acid later he was temporarily living with my parents to course correct. Another unfortunate series of events left a strained relationship between another brother and my parents. As a result, we would be slightly lighter in terms of baggage this year, leaving him at home as a consequence of decisions. Both my step-father and mother were strung out on emotions and feared they might break under another perilous episode concerning one of their children. I was warned to avoid being generally difficult and not make any unnecessary comments about my mother and her typical erratic behavior. He of course left off the word “erratic” but I always understood its assumed application.

I spent time quite a bit of time preparing. If I was to bite my tongue for an entire week, I needed practice. Todd would quiz me, “If your mom says X, how are you going to respond?” If there was even a hint of an eye roll, I had to start over. We had one last pep talk on the ride from the airport and I was convinced I could do this. Well rehearsed and ready to put my cynicism on a brief hold in order to remain completely amicable.

We pulled up to our temporary home a few days behind the rest of the crew and screamed hello as we wheeled our bags into the house, ready to get our vacation started.

Within the first few moments I saw something glimmer out of the corner of my eye. My mom was waving from a distance and there seemed to be a flash of light coming from her body. Initially, I brushed it off thinking it might have been her wedding ring catching the light of the sun, or maybe a reflection off the water in the pool.

As she moved closer, the soundtrack from Fast Times at Ridgemont High began to play in my head. Except it wasn’t Linda Barrett getting out of that pool, it was my 52 year old mother. And she had gotten her belly button pierced. The sparkling embellishment radiated tortuously back at me.

How could I possibly not comment on what was happening? My eyes were bleeding from the inability to look away, or even blink.

I shot a sideways glance over to my step-dad in frustration. Had he known and still tasked me with silence? I thought about what it might cost me to vomit the words resting on the tip of my tongue. The consequence of disappointment. Would I be dismissed? Ostracized? Eliminated? Judging by the look of his return stare those suggestions were mere child’s play compared to what awaited me if I so much as uttered a word about the ungodly piece of jewelry hanging from my mother’s naval.

Swallowing my words in the literal sense, I opted for disapproving body language and facial expressions. More subjective than words, I could express my feelings without poorly positioning myself with the feeding hand for the rest of the trip. I was in desperate need of a paper bag and someone with a soothing voice saying to me, “Breath, just breath. It will all be ok.”

But it wasn’t ok. My prior preparation could only help curb some of the urge to make a comment every time she walked into the room, stomach exposed. Which was often, mind you, as we were in a rather tropical location.

She knew it bothered me and continued to poke playfully at my pathetic attempts of composure and nonchalance.  

By day 3 I had already spent so much time perseverating on my mother’s stomach jewelry, I had isolated myself. Todd didn’t care for my jokes anymore, and no one else could be trusted to not grape vine my feelings back to the source of vexation.

With no fuel to keep the fire ablaze, and the desire for positive human interaction, I let it die. And tried, rather unsuccessfully, to understand why.

That evening we celebrated the summer birthdays in the family, mine included. My oldest brother had been slow cooking pork all day for the most decadent and delicious taco bar we had ever seen. The smell of fresh tortilla chips simmering on the stove filled the house as we set the table with mismatched multicolored plates in preparation for our feast. The baby slowly made his way around the table so everyone could have a chance to eat with the preferred method of two hands. We laughed and refilled our glasses again and again.

The evening concluded in a tequila induced early bedtime. After jumping in the pool fully clothed we were in need of warm showers and cool sheets.

My mother came into my room later that night, after I had already gone to sleep. I’d assumed she was out wandering the coastline by moonlight, sneaking cigarettes like a teenager. Crop top exposing her now infamous belly button ring. I searched for the familiar smell of clove and tobacco on her breath, but couldn’t find it.

My father didn’t approve of her smoking much, but I knew she liked the secrecy of her late night adventures. Using it as her escape.

She tucked the small baby hairs that lined my face behind my ear until my eyes adjusted enough to make her out in the dark. She motioned for me to follow her outside.

All I could see in the dim moonlight was the small amount of light reflecting off the ocean and a faint red light at the edge of the beach.

She didn’t say much, but neither did I. We both headed toward the red light, dark figures coming into view as we drew closer. It wasn’t until I was inches from their shadows that I realized the faces I saw were familiar ones. My brother and boyfriend were hard at work digging a deep hole at the top of the shore near a neighboring house.

Laying on the beach was a 3 ft wide female loggerhead turtle, weighing in around 300 lbs. She had been injured during her journey to the beach to lay her eggs and had only made it a few feet out of the water before she began dropping her eggs. We watched as they fell 1 by 1 into the shallow hole she had dug close to the water’s edge.

Silently we worked with the local conservationist to save her future babies from certain death. We were told that loggerhead turtles typically climb out of the water 6-7 feet and bury their body in the surface of the sand. They dig a deep chamber where they drop their eggs and then return to the sea. The whole process takes about 1-2 hours and they lay around 125 eggs. Many of which never make it back.

As the injured mother was unable to climb out of the water far enough, or dig a deep enough hole, my brother and boyfriend helped to finish the task.

My mother and I sat in the cold sand and watched, speechless to the beauty of life and reproduction. Slowly the injured mother woke out of her trance and made the slow turn back to sea, leaving a set of tracks that remained long into the next day. Tears streamed down my mother’s face as she watched a not so different mother struggle through the process of bringing children into this world. She hugged us tight and reminded us what a beautiful thing motherhood is. 

In that moment I saw her for who she was. A loving, caring mother. But also just a person. One who struggles as well sometimes. Especially as she ages. 

Chelsie Fish

Slightly exaggerated stories of love, life and travel.