by Molly Engel

by Mary Liza Hartong

I’ve heard water has a memory. That it can recall being a waterfall you hike all day to reach and also the drool in the golden retriever’s mouth. Water remembers being the tears in the eyes of the toddler, who would much rather be playing in the sprinkler. It has a lot to remember.

I can relate.

Last night when I was cooking chili I had to remember the noodles. My mother always made her chili with noodles. We’d eat it the day after Thanksgiving as we pieced together the plastic Christmas tree, Henrietta. Oscar always complained about hauling Henrietta out of the attic, but wouldn’t let anybody else do it. He’d bring down the tree and Mom would sprinkle a handful of shredded cheese on top of everyone’s chili and we’d take turns putting ornaments on. Soup, sip, ornament, tree. Leo made sure everyone’s Christmas sweater fit and set up the camera to take our picture. When my mother stopped being able to eat, Leo pinned her sweater back with chip clips and told everyone she was on Jenny Craig. Nothing wrong. Just watching her carbs.

Leo got the sweaters; Oscar got the tree.

I’m just like water in that I’ve been a lot of things and I can’t forget about a single one of them. After I was the devoted daughter I was the bridesmaid. Sue Ann got married for the second time and wanted to make sure that when her friends poured in from California and Boston and that place in Oregon where you can smoke whatever you damn well please, they would know she was sophisticated now. She knew what country manicures came from and who was running for president. I held up her dress as she sat on the toilet. You’re my something blue, she said, making a pouty face. When you are a sequel bride and your dress is hanging over the toilet and your brand new mother-in-law leaves early with a headache, I guess you need somebody to be lower than you. I decided that person could be me. Flushing the toilet I said, Sue Ann, you are radiant.

Brides kept loving me; I was in nine weddings back to back. I got to know a lot of something olds, usually grandmothers who wanted to know whether the bride had been living with the groom, to which I said, That is the most beautiful brooch I’ve ever seen. Where on Earth did you get it? You wouldn’t believe the things I learned about brooches. So much I could have been a jeweler. Eventually my therapist told me I was allowed to say no to the pink dresses and luncheons where the sandwiches are never bigger than your thumb, so I became The One Who Gives a Nice Gift instead.

It was expensive, but it was worth it.

Oscar gave me my next role: the aunt in the attic. It wasn’t the same dusty attic he’d pulled Henrietta out of year after year but the kind with a little fridge, a little stove, a little TV with antlers. The babies liked my TV better than their own. They’d sit on my lap and watch Sesame Street while Oscar and Winston took the kind of nap you can only take as a parent. At first they set me up with their friends (Toby, Jeremy, the famous one), but one day, when I had finally gotten the babies to sleep, I saw in Oscar’s eyes that if the friends were half decent he would never be able to nap again. He bought the house next door. That way, I could still help get the babies to sleep but I could also run around naked if I wanted to. I would never run around naked, I told him. I felt like the water in the sprinkler if the water in the sprinkler missed being the drool in the golden retriever’s mouth.

It was so quiet.

I wanted someone to cry out for milk.

Sue Ann called me that year to say she didn’t believe in love anymore, but third time’s the charm and would I hold her dress over the commode again? I wept in the bathtub. How did I become the sidekick, the best supporting actress, not the hiker but the lady taking the picture of the hikers when they reach the waterfall? I took my sorry self to the library. Did you know there are a lot of books on this topic? They all say the same thing (get a dog, knit a scarf, go to the beach, and, for the love of God, stop feeling sorry for yourself). It was raining as I left with my stack of helpfuls. Good! I thought. I needed rain to remind me that the same thing that baptizes a baby can flood a car. That sounds terrible, but what I’m saying is I got a dog. I knitted a scarf. I even went to the beach.

The dog never asked me to hold her dress over the toilet, but she did like having me around. We vacuumed together. We made sure we didn’t get too skinny. In the afternoons, the babies would come over to play until they fell asleep in one big heap. With sleepers flung over his shoulders, Oscar said to me, If you want to do this alone, you won’t be alone.

My water broke on Thanksgiving. The dog looked at me like, Hey, you’re allowed to pee on the carpet but not me? She pouted. I packed. Leo insisted on one last Christmas picture, sweaters and all, before we could drive to the hospital because, It will never be like this again. Like water, I will not forget the way the babies held my stomach all the way to the hospital, or the ache of pushing or how, when the doctors washed my daughter and handed her to me, her hair was still (because this was only the beginning) a little wet.

 

About the photographer: Molly Engel is a Philadelphia native now in Portland, Oregon where she works part-time as a nurse while also pursuing a degree in mental health counseling. In her free time, Molly likes to bake things she can drink coffee with, spend time with her cat Dahlia, ride her bike, and climb with friends at a local bouldering gym. She has been taking pictures since she was thirteen, and after an introductory photography class in college she fell in love with the 35mm format. Find her work (all shot on a Pentax K1000) on Instagram @stopf0llowingme.