Susan Burton and Naomi Ulsted

Susan Burton


Settling Down
By Naomi Ulsted
Inspiration piece

“Well, what do you think?” my mom asked, turning around in the front seat. I was confused. We seemed to be stopped in the middle of the road for no reason.

“Think of what?” I asked.

My mom’s long brown hair was fixed in my favorite way, with two sections pulled back into a gold clip at the back of her head. The remaining strands fell over her shoulders. My little brother, Adrian, reached his pudgy hands smeared with teething biscuit toward her hair and she absentmindedly pushed them away. “This!” she announced, gesturing her arm out the window toward a great wall of forest. “The property for our new home!”

I thought of my grandmother’s tidy lawn with its perfectly rounded shrubs and straight mowed lines in the grass. I suspected the surprise my mother had been promising me today was not going to be a really fun surprise, like a trip to The Farmette for an ice cream cone. This was going to be one of those grown up surprises that are kind of boring until they are kind of complicated, like when my brother came along or when I got my new dad. Even though I thought my mom and I had been doing just fine on our own.

“You see, Naomi?” she went on, smiling back at me while my dad scooted toward his side of the car, trying to distance himself from the gooey teething biscuit my brother was waving. “I told you we’d get our new place before you started second grade.”

I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking at. All I could see were trees and this dirt road, but my mother’s eyes were lively and she looked happier than I’d seen her since we’d moved to Camano Island, where we’d been staying with my grandparents. I tried, for her, to muster as much enthusiasm I could. “Great!” I said. I had to pee and I hoped we could just look out the car windows and go home.

“Out!” announced Adrian, fiddling with the door handle where he’d been riding on my mother’s lap.

“Come on, Chuck,” my mom said, “Let’s go look!”

I would have just as soon stayed in the car, but I got out and we all stood at the side of the road looking at the imposing wall of ferns, pine and fir trees, nettles, wildflowers and blackberry bushes. The sun was low in the sky, although it was still warm out as days in June were long. “Follow me,” said my dad and led the way. The blackberry bushes were thick and tall, although the berries were only hard little marbles still. As I stepped onto a trail leading into the woods, I smelled a summer smell of blackberries and thick green leaves. The bushes towered over my dad.

My mother picked huckleberries from bushy clusters of tiny leaves as she held Adrian’s hand and he toddled along until he toddled into a stinging nettle and shrieked in pain. She picked him up and continued to walk and talk excitedly about the five acres they’d just purchased. “We just have to decide where to build our house,” she was chattering. “We thought we would build on the south side of the property, but if we built a little farther from the road we’d get more sun. We just need to put in a nice long driveway.” Her hair caught in a blackberry bush and I helped her untangle it as she went on. “Besides, a long driveway will keep us away from the noise of the road. It will be nice and quiet.”

It didn’t seem to me like that particular road got much business, since we’d taken so many turns to get back here, I was totally turned around. I had no idea in which direction my grandmother’s trim, sunny yellow house was. She was right that we could not hear any car noises. I hadn’t even seen a car for miles. It was not quiet though, as I heard the sounds of birds singing, branches and leaves rustling, and occasionally a slithering sound near my feet of something darting away from us, the intruders.

I bent down to pick a shy baby of a fiddlehead fern, its tiny leaves still furled into a snail shell shape. I popped it into my mouth. My mother and I had eaten the tiny fern heads when we would gather up greens from wooded areas surrounding whatever apartment we were staying in at the time. My mother didn’t go to work, so we had lots of time together to pick the plants she had learned about. She made chamomile tea from the tiny yellow chamomile buds, which I would drink after stirring in large spoonfuls of honey. I once picked some from my grandmother’s driveway and brought a handful to her to make for tea, but she just asked me why I was dragging weeds into the house.

Suddenly my dad stopped, so I almost ran straight into his backside. “See?” he said, waving his arm in front of him. “Linda,” he said, putting his arm around my mom, “this is the perfect place for a new house.”

The tiny trail we were on continued ahead and on both sides were deep woods. I thought I heard a scurrying sound in one of the bushes near me. “Where?” I asked, confused.

“Right up ahead!” said my mom. “It will be perfect! We just have to clear it.”

As we stood looking into the bushes at nothing I could recognize as house-worthy, my dad reached around and tugged me close to him, so my face rubbed against the hard jean material of his jacket. I held my face pressed into his jacket for a moment and then pulled away. I reached around my mom’s waist with my arms and held her tightly. My head was now just past her waist. I pressed my head into her soft side and breathed in. She smelled of chamomile and sunshine. Suddenly I was kicked in the head by Adrian, as she shifted him over to her other hip. “Naomi,” she said sharply, “don’t cling! I’ve told you I can’t have you clinging to me when I’m carrying the baby.”

“Chuck,” she said, “what do you think about putting in a nice deck? Looking out over the garden?”

I was ready to go back to my grandma’s house. She was making fried chicken tonight, which was my favorite.

“Should we have the garden on the south side?” asked my dad. Where would we put the greenhouse?”

It was also Tuesday night and we always watched “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” on Tuesday nights. Since I was seven now, I was allowed to stay up until nine o’clock, so I was excited about being able to watch both shows.

“Well, don’t forget we need to have a space for the cow and the sheep,” replied my mom. “I want them to have lots of space to exercise and be comfortable.”

As they continued to talk about houses, animals and gardens that didn’t exist, I felt my own needs becoming more pressing.

“Mom,” I said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Honey, it’s the woods – go ahead and go.”


“Go behind a tree. If you have to go number two, wipe with a leaf.”

I wasn’t pleased with this situation at all. I was glad I didn’t have to go number two, since all I could see to pick were the stinging nettles that seemed to reach toward me with their hairy leaves. I found a part of the underbrush that didn’t have quite as many nettles and worked on shoving my way through. I turned back to see Adrian sitting in the middle of the trail, drawing in the dirt with a stick. He looked up at me, smiled through his dirty smear of a face and waved. “Bye, Sissy!” he called cheerfully.

A blackberry vine caught at my sleeve and scratched me as I pulled away, leaving a then pitched forward, landing directly on a root that was sticking up from the ground. I was sure I’d been stabbed through. I shrieked in pain, and curled up on my side. “Mommy!” I screamed, sobbing. I heard a crashing and my dad came barreling through the underbrush. He pulled me up out of the dirt and pee, with my underpants still around my legs.

“What happened?” he demanded, brushing me off.

“My stomach!” I wailed, and tried to reach for my underpants to pull them up.

“What? Did you get a scratch?” I looked down at my belly and saw, through the dirt, a couple spots of red blood where I’d been scratched. The area just above my belly button, where the root attacked me, was a dark blue color. It throbbed.

My dad carried me out of the woods and I thought my mom looked a little annoyed with me when she saw my tear-stained face. “What happened?”

“Oh, she just took a spill,” said my dad before I could respond. I continued to wail.

“You’re fine,” said my mother. “Pull up your pants.”

My dad set me down and I pulled up my pants, my wet underpants clinging to my bottom. I sniffed. “Can we go home?” I whined.

“This IS your home,” my mother snapped.

“I meant Grandma’s house,” I said, lamely. I really hadn’t meant to say “home.” I should have said “Grandma’s house.”

I saw the two lines form between my mother’s eyes that always appeared when she was angry. I hung my head. “Grandma’s house is NOT your home. Now, stop whining and act your age.”

She turned and walked deeper into the wood. I sat down with a plop in the dirt. I’d make her come and get me. I wasn’t going on my own. But when I looked up, I saw the backs of my new dad and her, with Adrian on her hip, as they looked into the woods. They were talking again, already forgetting me. I stared into the dirt on the ground and looked at the blue spot above my belly button. Finally, I got up and scuffed my feet as I joined them. My mother reached out and stroked my hair as we all looked at our imaginary new home.

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