In the living room, Gracie paraded her stuffed animals across the coffee table, while in the adjacent dining room, Kate set out plates and silverware. Anna sat down on the couch, which Gracie took as an invitation to abandon her toys and climb up onto her grandmother’s lap. She reached for Anna’s ears and tugged. Anna popped her eyes wide. Gracie tugged again, and Anna dropped her jaw open. The third tug made Anna roll her eyes around in circles.
“You are silly, Nana.”
“You are an imp,” Anna said, mussing her granddaughter’s soft hair.
“Read me a story,” Gracie commanded, as only a child princess could.
Anna reached for a book from the coffee table, the one she had brought downstairs that morning before they left for the zoo. “Okay, but we can’t read for long, just until your mother calls us.”
“Okay,” Gracie said sweetly, snuggling close.
Anna opened the book to the title page. “Animals of the Wild,” she began.
Then the oven timer dinged, and the pungent smells of Kate’s cooking permeated the house. Anna closed the book and she and Gracie got up from the couch and took their seats at the table.
Kate brought out the macaroni and cheese casserole she’d made from scratch the night before, and a smaller bowl of steamed broccoli.
Gracie took one look at the vegetable and contorted her face in disgust, turning the corners of her mouth down and pushing her tongue out as if gagging.
Kate ignored Gracie and dished small portions onto her plate.
Gracie escalated to making retching noises.
Kate sat down and, with exaggerated flair, stabbed her fork into a piece of Gracie’s hated greens and raised it to her mouth. She dramatically swallowed the broccoli, dropped her fork, clutched at her throat, and crossed her eyes to portray an extreme case of poisoning by vegetable.
Gracie threw her head back and squealed with laughter, her long blond hair flying and her face breaking into a wide, gap-toothed smile.
Anna laughed too, laughed hard, and for that brief moment of ebullient, collective happiness, she could almost forget about the plan she had begun to execute and the damage she would soon inflict.
Kate shepherded Gracie into the downstairs bathroom. Anna cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher, then returned to the living room couch. Through the picture window, she watched a light rain drizzling from the grey sky onto the grey street in front of the house.
Kate returned twenty minutes later and collapsed into the recliner opposite her. “I’m exhausted.”
“Is Gracie still in the bathtub?”
“Yes, but I emptied the water, so she won’t last long. She’s playing with that Otto the Otter plush toy you bought her today.”
Anna put her hand on the cushion next to her and patted it twice. Kate shrugged and got up out of her own chair, but she didn’t take the seat her mother had proffered. Instead she perched on the arm of the couch.
“I want to show you something,” Anna said, holding up the children’s book she’d started to read to Gracie before dinner. “This was yours when you were a child.” She ran the tips of her fingers over the faded cover of the Little Golden book, then slowly fanned through the twenty-four illustrated pages, most of which were scribbled on and tattered from Kate’s own handling of the book many years ago.
“I remember,” Kate said, with a smile that was one part recognition and one part relief. “That’s so cool. I loved that book. Where on earth did you find it?”
“In Gracie’s bookcase, under a stack on the bottom shelf. I was looking for animal stories to read to her this morning, as a prelude to the zoo. But we didn’t have time, so I started to read it to her tonight, but fortunately, you called us to dinner.”
“Fortunately?” Kate asked, sounding suspicious.
Anna nodded. She opened the book and pointed to the illustrations. “Elephant,” she said, then turned the page. “Giant Panda.” Flip. “Tiger.” Flip. “Orangutan.” Flip. “Rhino.” Flip. “Lion.” Flip. She paused and looked up at Kate.
“What? You’re trying to make a point, I take it?”
“This was a wonderful book for you when you were a child, but now it reads like a catalogue of environmental disasters. All of these species, and thousands more, will probably be gone from the wild by the time Gracie reaches the age you are now.” Anna bit her lower lip and frowned, considering her next step. “At the zoo, so many of the animals we saw were from species on the verge of extinction.”
Kate jumped off the arm of the couch and backed away quickly, as if she’d sat on some vicious insect that had taken a bite out of her.
“What’s wrong?” Anna asked.
Kate folded her arms across her chest and flattened her hands under her armpits, clamping them down. “What the hell do you think is wrong? God forbid you should come home from spending the day at the zoo with my daughter and tell me, ‘oh the otters were so cute’, they did this, they did that. God forbid you should have a good time. You know, I’d like to make it through one frigging weekend without hearing your doomsday scenarios.”
Anna sighed and shook her head. “Kate, you just don’t get it.”
“Oh, I get it all right. It doesn’t matter where you go—the zoo, the park, the grocery store, even kid’s movies for Christ’s sake. Smurfs are dangerously overweight; Nemo’s reef is being destroyed by pollution; and penguins won’t have Happy Feet for long if the arctic ice keeps melting. I mean, really Mom, you always find something to be depressed about, and for some reason you always feel compelled to share your misery with me.”
“No,” Anna said.
“Yes,” Kate said, insistent. “You haven’t changed a bit since I was a kid. You still delight in telling every goddamned detail of every story of paradise lost. Only back then, your obsession was with polluted air, pesticides, and industrial toxins. Now it’s global warming, drought, famine, mass extinctions.”
“I wasn’t obsessed,” Anna shot back. “I was paying attention and trying to change things. I volunteered. I marched. I stood vigil. I did everything I could think of to make a difference.”
“Oh, I remember exactly what you did, Mom. You stuffed envelopes for a local Earth First group. Big fucking deal. Then you started holding those Friday night potlucks in our living room, and you brought home grubby, longhaired strangers full of stories of a dying earth. I remember them passing around pamphlets with pictures of oil-soaked birds. I remember pictures of kids with sores on their faces from drinking poisoned water. Jesus, I can’t stand to think about that even now. Do you have any idea how terrified I was?”
“Kate, I’ve told you before, told you a hundred times I am sorry. I was so young. I didn’t understand what hearing about those things was doing to you. Not then. I had no idea my fears would become the monsters under your bed.”
Kate’s voice was a dry husk. “You know, sometimes I think about the person I might have become if I’d felt safe in the world. I wonder how different my life would have been.”
Gracie came running out of the bathroom, dragging a wet towel behind her and wearing nothing but pink flannel pajama bottoms decorated with drawings of baby bunnies.
“You’re going to freeze to death,” Kate said, and lifted her up in her arms. “What happened to your top?”
“Otto was cold.”
“Otto will live,” Kate said, carrying her daughter back down the hall.
Moments later Gracie returned, fully clothed. She ran as fast as she could toward Anna. “Nana! Nana!”
Anna rose to her feet and opened her arms. “Gracie, Gracie, you are a wild child,” she laughed as she lifted the little girl high. She kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear, “Goodnight to you, dearest heart, and sweet dreams. Nana loves you more than anything in the whole, wide world.”
“I love you, Nana,” Gracie whispered back.
Anna pulled her a little closer, held her a little tighter. She kissed the top of her head, brushed her cheek against the silky blond hair, breathed in the lingering sweetness of baby shampoo. She closed her eyes tight, trying to imprint the moment on memory. Taking a shuddering breath, she handed her off to Kate one last time.
She was still standing, staring out the window into the darkness, when Kate came back downstairs. Turning around, she noticed Kate raise and drop her shoulders and let her arms hang loose, like a soldier standing down.
“Mom,” Kate said. “I don’t want to fight tonight. The zoo was my fault. I should never have asked you to take Gracie there in the first place. I knew better. I just—”
“No, honey, you did nothing wrong. You just wanted her to see otters and all of the amazing animals all kids her age delight in.”
“So what’s upsetting you tonight? You seem off, somehow.”
Anna took a deep breath, then softly uttered the sentence she had been rehearsing all day. “Kate, I can’t do this anymore.”
“Do what anymore?”
“This,” Anna said, holding out her arms to encompass everything in their shared world. “I can’t do this. I try so hard to be upbeat, cheerful, positive, but I can’t keep pretending everything is okay all the time.”
“All the time? You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t act like things are okay for ten minutes,” Kate laughed, as if she hoped to take the sting out of her accusation by cloaking it in a joke.
“Maybe you’re right,” Anna said wearily.
“This is about climate change again, isn’t it?”
“Kate, you don’t understand. You believe we will adapt to a warming planet like northerners do to a tropical vacation: take off a few clothes, slather on the sunscreen, turn up the air conditioner.”
“Of course I understand,” Kate snapped, her temper flaring. “I recycle. I take the bus to work. I don’t run the air conditioner until it’s practically boiling outside. Christ, I just signed a petition today, outside the grocery store, to keep rail trains from transporting crude oil down the Columbia River. But I am sick to death of you talking about how screwed up things are all the time. Why is that so goddamned hard for you to grasp?”
Anna cried out, “Every time I look at Gracie, I know I’m failing her.”
“Gracie is not your responsibility,” Kate said, her voice clipped and hard.
“Of course she is,” Anna said sharply, “and so are you. What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t talking about climate change every single day. What I don’t understand is how you, how anyone who has a young child or grandchild, can just take what’s happening in stride. I think we all should be screaming as loud as we can, ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling, everybody fucking look, everybody fucking do something, the sky is falling.’”
Kate took a big step backwards, then turned and marched into the kitchen. Anna watched her grab a sponge, lean into the counter and start scrubbing the tiles so furiously that it looked like she was trying to take the glaze off. Anna was still watching when Kate threw down the sponge and marched back into the living room. She stopped a foot away from Anna, crossed her arms, and stared at her mother with an angry expression, but her voice conveyed an undertone of compassion—or perhaps pity, Anna thought.
“Look, I love you, Mom, but I will not follow you down this road again. I mean that. You have got to hear me this time. I will not let you make Gracie fear for her future before she even gets a chance to have one. I want her to be grateful for what is in her life, not constantly worried about what isn’t. I want her to be emotionally strong enough, resilient enough to face whatever happens next. But she’ll never develop those qualities if I raise her on stories of a coming apocalypse. Believe me, I know that from experience.”
Anna opened her mouth as if to say something, but she couldn’t find the words, the last words she would ever say to her daughter. She shook her head, tried again. “Kate, I know I have not been the best of mothers, but I love you with all my heart. I always have. I always will. But right now, I am tired, bone tired, and I must go to bed.”
Anna turned away, walked into her bedroom, and closed the door behind her. She pressed her hand over her mouth to stifle a sob as grief washed over her like a tidal wave, carrying away everything and everyone she loved, then surging back again and again to batter her with the detritus of their lives.