June 22, 2022 by The Citron Review
by Bethany Jarmul
A cloud is hanging over me.
In my first profile photo on Facebook, I was 16. My lips are closed, flat. I’m wearing thick black eyeliner, a black shirt, gray woven hat. The photo’s black-and-white filter casts everything in shades of carbon. On the wall behind me, six sheets of computer paper are tapped to the wall, a hand-drawn cloud with a sad face and tears dripping down, transforming into rain.
“All teenagers say ‘You don’t understand me!’ but with you, Bethany, it’s true. I don’t understand you,” my mother huffed outside my slammed door.
Particles of dust, dirt, and sea salt—known as cloud condensation nuclei—attract water vapor. As the nuclei rise, the vapor condenses to droplets of water or ice. The droplets gather as they float, forming families, communities, colonies—mix with air to form fluffy or furious formations suspended in the sky.
Cirrus clouds are delicate, wispy with a silky sheen, like the tufts of white hair that peek through my mother’s darker strands. Three decades ago, my mother left her teaching job, her adventures—to make babies and never returned. She’s never flown, never had a hobby, never lived in any other state. As an empty nester, mom spends her days cooking penne and peppers, curating family photos for Facebook, folding laundry while watching The Andy Griffith Show or This is Us.
Growing up, I wanted to be a popstar, then a marine biologist, an oceanographer, a lawyer, a novelist, a journalist, a writer. What I didn’t want to be—a stay-at-home mom.
Millions of pounds of water are floating above our heads. Cumulus clouds weigh about 1.1 million pounds, the weight of 100 elephants. Imagine all 100 dancing the slow, slow, quick, quick of the fox trot against the azure sky. The clouds’ low density, the looseness in the way the droplets congregate, allows them to float atop the more-dense air—like silver sail boats on a sapphire sea. A beautiful, ominous deception.
A cumulus cloud is what I want to be—to water sturdy oak trees, to cause wildflowers to bloom on hillsides, to fill rivers, to carve pathways through the earth, to shape my corner of the world.
My days were once filled with meetings, emails, Slack messages, text messages, stacks of papers marked up with blue ink, reporter’s notebooks, multi-colored sticky notes. Four months before the 2020 pandemic, I became my mother—rather, a mother—and decided, for financial reasons, to quit my job. As my life filled with breastfeeding, poop emergencies, baby tears, 12-packs of cucumber-scented wipes, three sizes of bottles, two car seats, one Boppy pillow, stacks of baby blankets, burp cloths, rattles—my identity, desires became cloudy at best.
Two years later, now with a two-year-old and an infant, though I’ve felt the weight of mothering—spent my nights nursing an infant, my days chasing a toddler, worrying or praying every moment in between, lonely but never alone—I still fear that I’m becoming weightless, drifting, floating away into nothingness, losing the ability to cause a storm.
When paired with vast blueness, clouds stretch their arms and legs to tease, to tickle, to pretend. As kids, my sister and I would lay on a pink sheet in our backyard and look up at the puffy formations, our white Maltese puppy jumping on us, licking our faces. “Does that one look like a bunny to you?” my sister asked. “No, it looks like a dinosaur to me—see its teeth,” I pointed. Mom would bring us homemade apple juice popsicles.
But clouds can take over territory, write signs that say “No blues allowed,” as they claim the heavens for themselves. Cloud idioms leave the matter of meaning hanging in the air—There’s a cloud on the horizon or I’m on cloud nine. I’m building castles in the sky, or clouded in suspicion. Don’t cloud the issue, but every dark cloud has a silver lining.
“I want to talk to you about something,” I cleared the clouds from my throat and curled my legs underneath me, next to my husband, our gray couch reflecting the storminess within. “I feel like I gave up a part of myself when I became a stay-at-home mom. There are things I want to accomplish. I want to pursue writing. Maybe get an MFA; maybe publish a book.”
My heart thundered.
“Absolutely. I know writing is your passion, you have to pursue it.” He placed his hand on my leg—a sturdy ship in the storm.
Mom planted, watered my literary love-affair. She read The Hobbit to my sister and me while we snuggled in our fluffy beds—her voice floating in the lamp light, tender and expressive. Yet, recently I asked her if she reads books. “Only the Bible,” she said.
Her ‘I love you’s are more numerous than raindrops, her hugs like a warm spring rain. Whenever she visits, she brings replenishments—a homemade pumpkin pie, a 3-liter jug of olive oil, an extra-large box of baby wipes. Yet, she has no aspirations beyond mothering, even now that her children are grown.
It’s unfair of me. Yet I wish she was more thunderous, more laden with rain—because that’s what I want for myself. I also want to appreciate my mother for who she is, to stop imagining her as future-me.
I want to cause a downpour. But clouds that only sprinkle still feed the flowers.
Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and poet. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Sky Island Journal, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry and Prose among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing’s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two kids. She loves drinking chai lattes, reading memoirs, and taking nature walks. Connect with her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul