(First appeared on 1:1000 on February 23, 2016)
Photograph by: Garrett Carroll
“See you later,” Martha whispered over her shoulder as she skipped off to the park. Her mother was busy cleaning the cabin. Her aunt was doing dishes. Her brothers and cousins were playing cards. Her dad and uncle were at the fire pit talking about the annual horseshoe tournament next week. Martha wasn’t supposed to wander off on her own, but she figured no one would miss her for a while and they would know where to find her.
Today was Martha’s ninth birthday, so she didn’t have to do any chores, other than making her bed. She wished she could disappear and come back tomorrow. Every summer her family was on vacation during her birthday. They tried to make it special, but it was always the same. There would be a cake from the bakery in town, everyone would sing Happy Birthday around the campfire and she would have to make a wish with everyone teasing her about being the baby in the group. Martha dreamed of someday having a birthday party with her friends. No boys or adults allowed.
At least this year the family was staying in a cabin on a lake. There was a large park with swings, slides and a merry-go-round next to the beach. Swinging was just about Martha’s favorite thing to do in summer. She would pick a seat high enough so her toes just touched the ground. The swing closest to the lake was the best one. You could see the whole resort when sitting still and nothing but sky when flying through the air. Please be empty today, she thought, fingers crossed.
A few early risers were on the beach but no one was on the swings. Martha ran the last few yards and sat in her preferred spot. She always liked to start by winding the swing in one direction and letting it unwind, feet in the air, leaning back as far as she could. When the swing stopped spinning, Martha closed her eyes and imagined herself swinging high enough to go over the top and make a complete circle. That would be the best birthday present of all.
Martha’s brother Dale told her it wasn’t possible. She was too small to get enough momentum to go all the way around. “Have you ever done it?” she asked.
“Almost, but dad saw me get as high as the top and made me stop before I made it around,” Dale answered.
“What did it feel like?” Martha asked, eyes wide.
Dale leaned in close to Martha to say, “It was wonderful and scary at the same time.”
“Have you tried it again?” Martha asked.
“I’m too old to be playing on the swings,” Dale said before he turned and walked away.
Martha opened her eyes and began to pump her legs back and forth. The cool morning mist brushed across her face as she propelled forward, disturbing the still air. Gravity pulled her back down. Martha pumped her legs faster and faster, gaining speed, slicing the air, higher and higher until she was almost upside down. Blue sky and green earth become a blur as Martha’s legs pushed and pulled, taking her to new heights.
I’m almost over the top, Martha thought. Her heart was racing with exhilaration, her hands grasping tight to the chains holding the swing. Suddenly the swingset posts began to move up and down with a thump, thump, thump. She wasn’t scared at all. Freedom, she thought. This must be what it feels like to fly.
Martha caught a glimpse of her mother walking toward her. Martha stopped pumping and let the swing slow down. She was in enough trouble for wandering off; she didn’t want to hear what her mother had to say about how high she was going.
“Can I join you?” her mother asked.
“I guess so,” Martha said, expecting to get an earful about taking off and not telling anyone.
Martha’s mother sat in the swing next to her, twirling from side to side. “I always liked to swing,” she said.
“When you were little?”
“When? I’ve never seen you swing.”
“Sometimes I like to sneak out at night and swing. I don’t know which I like better, swinging under blue skies or under the moon and stars. Maybe we can come back after dark and you can tell me which you like better. But right now we need to go to town–you’re old enough to pick out your own cake this year. What do you say?”
“Wind me up and let me twirl once more,” Martha pleaded.
“Alright, but then we have to scoot. Your brothers and cousins have planned a special day for you.” Martha’s mother wound the swing as tight as she could before letting go. As she walked back to the cabin, she turned and said, “No dawdling, Martha.”
Martha let the swing unwind and come to stillness. She heard her daughter-in-law calling her, “Martha, Martha, where were you? You looked like you were a million miles away.”
“Not so very far away. Just…remembering swinging under the stars with my mother.”
“Come inside Martha. After all, it is your party.”
The house was filled with her children and grandchildren plus all of her brothers, their wives, cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends who could make it. Martha was over the top with love, soaring with gratitude as she looked out at family and friends gathered around.
When it was time to make a wish and blow out the nine candles, one for each decade, Martha noticed the cake top. It looked like a starry night sky, her favorite time of day to fly.