I am not going. Get that through your stubborn head!
Deirdre closed the door — gently — turned her back to it and slid to the floor. She wished, not for the first time, that just once she’d have the pluck to speak her mind. Just once she’d like to not feel like a timid doe mincing her way through a pack of sleeping coyotes. There weren’t even any coyotes! That was the joke in it. There would be approximately zero consequences if she were to actually show a bit of backbone and just come out with it. Approximately zero. Almost zero. But still. There was that slim yet non-zero possibility that something issuing from her mouth would summon up that wide-eyed look of shocked injury in her mother’s eyes, the look that reduced all recipients to remorseful infants. The look that sent one scurrying for the blanket cave to cry hot tears of self-loathing. The look that you never wanted to see. Ever. The look that was quite possibly a lethal dose of guilt. Given The Look, Deirdre’s lack of grit could be seen as a self-defense mechanism.
“Honey?” came her mother’s voice from just beyond the door.
Deirdre scrambled away from the door, muttering to herself. “Honestly, woman! Is the concept of ‘independent adult’ that difficult? Listening at the door of your daughter’s bedroom might be acceptable — might be — when she’s twelve. At seventeen, it’s ridiculous… if not strictly prohibited.”
“Honey?” her mother tried again this time a bit louder. “It’s a great honor.”
Deirdre stood up and opened the door, intending to finally say her piece. Her mother fell over the threshold. They’d apparently been sitting back to back with the thin door between them.
Deirdre blinked. Her startled mother looked up from her back and burst into snorting laughter.
Nobody could resist Caitlin O’Neill’s laugh. Deirdre put up a valiant effort, trying to remember that she was angry and fed up with the whole business. But the sight of her mother lying on her back shaking with laughter was too much for her resolve. She dropped to the floor, holding it in. Then she huffed in exasperation. Soon both women were laughing loudly.
Suddenly her mother said “Whoops” and sat up.
Still chuckling, she said “Can’t laugh that hard at my age.”
“Oh mam,” sighed Deirdre, “you’re not old.”
This was becoming a common refrain in the household.
“Nope. Not old. But I am getting too good at multi-tasking.”
With a sideways glance, Caitlin replied, “You know. That multi-tasking stuff they keep talking about in the rags.”
Yes, Deirdre knew about multi-tasking. The interesting thing was that her hermetic mother — a woman who didn’t give a fig about culture except as it applied to yogurt and sourdough — apparently did too.
As though making a commonplace observation, Caitlin continued, “Yep. I can laugh and piddle at the same time now.”
For a beat there was silence as Deirdre absorbed this and Caitlin held back the laugh that was contorting her smile. Then both broke into new peals of laughter, Deirdre choking out “No multi-tasking on my rug, old lady”.
Deirdre subsided into head-shaking and eye-wiping and gazed blearily at her mother while both brought their giggles under control. Deirdre felt anew a forcible wash of affection. Exasperating as Caitlin could be, it is no small thing to be able to make your teenage daughter laugh and Deirdre knew that. Especially as the teenager in question was herself. Deirdre’s quotidian expression included an eyebrow that hovered somewhere between resignation and annoyance at the whole world. Most days anyway. But most days she didn’t have to lump her mother in with the rest of the irritating universe, and for that she was extremely grateful. Most days.
Caitlin sent a shrewd look at Deirdre and then renewed the attack. (Damn.)
“Honey, you know it’s a good thing for you. How many kids get an opportunity like this?”
Exactly one this year.
Many years, none at all. It was so unusual for Harvard to call up a student from apprenticeship that those that received the honor were objects of their own legends. One guy invented a flexible film for solar panels and was wealthier than Croesus. Several were Nobel laureates. Many were judges and venerable leaders state. The most notable literature of the century came from these chosen few. Diseases were cured and problems were solved. These were the brilliant minds that made the world.
Which made it all the more fantastic that they’d plucked Deirdre out of the rabble. She did not feel brilliant. She did not think she was the type to procure miracles or lend a steadfast hand to running the world. She was the top of her class, yes, which itself was the toughest program in the region, maybe best in the world. But most days she felt this reflected bad on the world, not good on her.
If I’m the best, then we’ve got problems.
Her mentor had asked if he could send “a colleague” the abstract on her work with selectively breeding short-season maize without producing hybridization. She was proud of her work. It was good work. After intensively raising thousands of seedlings and exposing them to cold, she had finally hit upon a strain of corn that could survive, producing viable as well as edible seed, generation after generation. Open-pollinated. Hardy almost to freezing. Top of the middle-range in grain yield. And with a few more iterations of the breeding process she hoped to speed up the maturation process so that the time between plant emergence and tassel emergence was reliably under 30 days. (In fertile soil, of course — there were so many caveats she couldn’t help adding, even in abstract thought.) It was grinding work and it was fiddly work. It was necessary work even. But brilliant? Not very.
Anyone with a mildly (ahem) flagellant bent toward observation and detailed note-keeping could produce similar results. And had. How had maize been invented in the first place, after all? It had taken longer. It had taken many generations of farmers, carefully pulling out the likeliest plants, raising them in special plots, harvesting the best seed and passing both seed-stock and wisdom on to their children. But the results! The transformation of a weedy grass into a delicious vehicle for calories and nutrition, into food for the world — that transformation was no less miraculous than anything that ever came out of Harvard. Maybe more so. Because there was genius in recognizing that weedy grass as a potential food source. And yet the miracle was accomplished by hundreds of unheralded inventors. Not even remotely brilliant people. People who more or less defined “the masses”. People who did not get called up to Harvard.
(Well, yes, Harvard did not, in fact, exist when that particular innovation was developed, but that’s beside the point.)
Deirdre and Caitlin stared each other down, and suddenly Deirdre just deflated and looked away. It was too much work to stay angry with Caitlin. Time for evasive action instead.
“I’ll think about it,” she mumbled.
Caitlin swelled up, but before she could say anything Deirdre put up a hand.
“Think. I said think about it.”
“Oh honey,” gushed Caitlin, “of course! That’s all I was asking. You’ve got plenty of time to make a decision.”
Caitlin scrambled to her feet. Beaming happiness, she bounced in place waiting for Deirdre to stand up so she could wrap her daughter in the requisite hug of reconciliation.
It’s nice to have such a simple mother. There’s always a program to follow.
Having performed her motherly duty, Caitlin wandered out of Deirdre’s bedroom, her mind clearly changed track to focus on the evening’s next task. Probably bread-related. Deirdre softly closed the door on her mother’s retreat, released a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding, and sank down onto her bed.
It took a good deal more effort to do that these days. The bed seemed much closer to the floor than it used to. Deirdre had grown nearly half a foot in the last year, from middling to gangling in far too short a time to have gotten used to it. She could see the bald patches on quite a few pates these days, and boys her own age were as likely to be facing off with her chin as looking her in the eyes. Most disturbing to her equilibrium was the discovery that her mother was not the towering force she’d been looking up to all these years of childhood. In fact, Caitlin was rather short.
And always too skinny.
Deirdre did not approve of skinny. Smacked of malnourishment. Which was not something she wanted to face just yet.
Hunger was in their future. She understood that. But it was in the future. Not now. Yes, the summers were notably shorter than even she remembered as a child, and you just didn’t want to get the old folks started on how much the weather had changed. But they weren’t ready. The world was not ready. Humans weren’t ready to face the cold. The hunger. The ice. Not yet.
“Give us a decade” she thought desperately every time an experiment failed. “Just ten years.”
And the answer always came back, insinuating itself into her mind, “You’ve had ten thousand. Isn’t that enough?”
No. It is not.
So maybe she would think about this Harvard thing. They at least had the resources. Whole buildings that were climate controlled. And there were rumors of a vast seed library, a collection of every sport of every food crop known to humanity. Who knows but maybe some of her own seeds were stored in the vaults. Maybe that’s why “the colleague” had not merely consigned her abstract to the permanent file upon receipt — as she had completely expected him to do when she agreed to her mentor’s request to share her work. But maybe, maybe they’d been watching her. Because the world did actually need her work right now.
Which filled her with both terror and elation.
Ten more years. Please.
Elizabeth Anker 2021