There was a plastic beach bucket in my garage. It was right next to my father’s tackle box with the rubber worms inside and right behind the grass-stained slip-ons my mother wore while mowing the lawn. One summer it was orange. The next year it might have been pink or yellow but, for what seemed like the entirety of my childhood, it was my imaginary soup bucket. I’d pluck thin bark form the sycamore tree in the backyard, wild onion weed from the side yard, dead and cigarette-like leaves from the rhododendrons on either side of the front steps, dandelions in every stage of life. Each item went into the soup one at a time and with careful consideration.
I was a frontier mother, a crone from the woods making magical potions, or a girl named Melissa Chambers that had perfectly feathered hair and high cheek bones like my sister’s friend Jill. I went places while stirring that soup. In the swirl created by a dead tree branch, I traveled to future slumber parties, a train’s dusty boxcar, the ball pit at Sesame Place. There were no walls, no limits, and the wonder of me was thriving. Lifetimes went on like this.
Third grade was different. I became afraid of math. Maybe I became afraid of more than math and saddled math with the blame. It was the scapegoat. In second grade, I got all A’s in math. In third grade, I watched my math teacher scream at bad boys and girls who forgot their homework. I watched their faces turn red with embarrassment as a grown woman spit fishing hooks. Why, Mr. Johnson? Why do you not have your worksheet? We all took the ride as her voice ran the scales again and again. I was safe though. I had my homework. My hands were sweaty bear traps clinging to the edges of a life boat. When our teacher finally took the paper, my fingerprints were visible in smeared graphite. I had delivered the package.
I remember walking to my seat the day I forgot my homework. I had left my math book at school. Girls in my group with colorful folders pulled their work out. My hands had nothing to do. My arms began to tremble, and tears blurred my friend Shelly sitting beside me.
“What’s wrong,” she whispered. “Are you sick?”
I couldn’t speak. I was sweating and shaking, and my teacher would get to me soon. Every bit of love and support my mother sent to school with me (clean clothes, a sandwich with chocolate cupcakes for dessert, the pencils and fun erasers we’d bought at the start of the school year) was unreachable. The feel of her was gone, like it had never been. The safe feeling I got when my dad hugged me: It was untouchable, like his job was on Mars.
“Christine,” my teacher asked.
“I think she’s sick,” Shelly said.
The woman bent down next to my chair. I could hardly look at her.
“I forgot my homework,” I cried. The words fell out. My body and I had separated. It told all available staff to pull air into my lungs.
“Okay, but why are you so upset,” she asked. Her face was worried and compassionate.
“You’re going to yell at me,” I whispered.
I can still see the realization in her face.
Now, when you make imaginary soup, it’s important to remember that it can take you anywhere.