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Walking
Juniper Shelley will attend Montclair High School this autumn. COURTESY MICHAEL SHELLEY

The inaugural Anderson Park Short Story Contest, a competition for middle school students, asked students to write stories that incorporated the park in some way. The winning stories — by Maxwell Kumahor (“Stand Up”) of Buzz Aldrin Middle School; Juniper Shelley (“Walking”) of Glenfield Middle School; and Madeleine Young (“What Happens After Dark: The Monsters of Anderson Park”) of Glenfield — were judged by local authors Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs; Sharon Dennis Wyeth; and Nancy Star, and their authors received $75. Suki Grabcheski of Glenfield was given the Olmsted Oak Award for the creative way she integrated Anderson Park into her story.

Reading the stories aloud at Watchung Booksellers on May 5 were Ann Anderson Evans and Charles Loflin. Evans, who organized this contest, is a trustee of Friends of Anderson Parkand a descendant of Charles W. and Annie Anderson, who donated the land for the Olmsted-designed park. There were about two dozen entries from all Montclair middle schools, reflecting a wide range of styles.

Juniper Shelley’s entry, “Walking,” is the second winner to be published by Montclair Local. Other winning entries will be published in subsequent issues.

My dad left my mom and me the summer after my eighth grade year. The one thing I really remember from that time period was shock. Once you get to ninth grade, you kind of take it for granted that your parents are either together, or they aren’t. More than that really, was that my parents had always been super close. Somehow different than other families. A team. I think that was why I was so surprised when my dad’s stuff was gone one day.

The days after the divorce were dark ones, hard to remember even. There’s something life-shattering about divorce that I had never thought about before the actual shattering began. I was is such a fog that it took a while to notice the change in my mom. While I cried in the days after, my mom got quiet. It only took a week for the walks to start.

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READ: ‘STAND UP’ BY MAXWELL KUMAHOR

READ: PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT IS TEAMWORK AT GLENFIELD MIDDLE SCHOOL

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It was obsessive really, these walks my mom took in the park across our house. It almost seemed to me that she was getting to know Anderson Park better than she ever had known me. Not quite, but almost.

One day my mom was late leaving for her walk.

“Lucy,” she called up the stairs, “I’m going out”

I rolled my eyes. All she ever did was go out.

 After a moment of quiet, I heard her voice again at the bottom of the stairs. “Would you like to come?”

I thundered down the stairs, forgetting that I was supposed to be angry at her.

“Sure?” I said, and went to join her.

That day we walked around Anderson Park three times, each loop quieter than the next. The only sounds were the yells of a dad teaching his son to catch in the middle of the grass. 

It was so awkward that I was surprised when my mom was waiting for me the next day after school.

“You ready?” she asked, meeting me at the front walk.

I nodded, still a little uncertain, and walked into the park beside her.

“How was school?” she asked me after a few moments.

“It was good,” I said, “I got a 93 on the social studies test.”

My mom smiled. “Well done sweetie.” And then she lapsed back into silence for the rest of the walk. It wasn’t until I was back in my room that I wondered if maybe part of the weirdness was on me. Wondered if part of me blamed my mom for the divorce, even though my dad had told me he had just “fallen out of love.”

After that day our walks through the park were never even discussed, but were simply a part of our routine. In some ways it was nice, walking through the park with my mom, but there was something weird between us. Like for a moment we would be getting along fine, laughing even, and the next moment something frosty would return to my mother’s tone. Even though I spent most of the time on our walks throwing insults at her in my mind, I always joined her on her walk the following day.

In order to relieve the tension between my mom and me, I began thinking of questions to ask her on our walks. One November day I asked her, “What’s the best thing that ever happened to you?”

My mom was quiet for a moment, watching a little girl in a “Dora the Explorer” backpack walking home from school. “Having you,” she finally said. “Having you was the best thing that ever happened to me.” And then she went quiet again.

To be honest, I couldn’t understand it. Why say something like that and then get quiet again? I never asked her about it though. Maybe I was afraid to.

Our first Thanksgiving without Dad came about without real incident. I was with my Mom’s family  (I wouldn’t see Dad until summer) and no one even mentioned the change in our lives. Instead we spent a week with my grandparents, getting told that we were too skinny (me) or that we were to lose a few pounds (Mom). All in all it was a relief to come home.

The day after the holidays ended I found my mom carrying the scale up from the basement.

“I could do to lose a few pounds,” she said when I asked her why our walk was twice as long as usual. I nodded awkwardly, feeling that awkward was becoming a common feeling for me, and fixed my eyes on the father son-duo once again playing catch in the field.

As the days slid through December, I began to notice things in the park. The squirrels looked fatter by the day. There was an elderly woman who always walked her very barky chihuahua through the park. A group of boys rode their bikes through it on the way home from school. A father and daughter jogged in the park every Tuesday and Thursday. These things stayed the same, even as everything around me was changing.

“You’re quiet today,” my now seven-pound-lighter mom said right after Christmas. “Is everything ok?”

I nodded. “Yeah. It’s… it’s really stupid.” I fixed my eyes on two soccer players in the middle of the field. “I had a little fight with my friend, Jenna. I’m sure it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

“Honey,” my mom said, “It’s my job to worry about these things.”

I smiled and looked over at her. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess it is.”

After that things seemed a little bit better between us. We still spent a lot of our time together not saying much, but there was less tension somehow. And it seemed like my mom had started to lose that weird clouded look in her eyes, along with the weight. Sometimes she even laughed.

“Mom,” I said to her one day in late January, “I need to tell you something.”

My mom looked away from the father-daughter joggers, a clouded look in her eyes. “What is it Lucy?”

“I got asked on a date,” I said, pushing the words out in a rush. “I won’t go if you say I can’t, but I want to if that’s OK.”

Suddenly my mom laughed. “Of course it’s OK sweetie. I mean, I’d advise against you getting really serious, but one date, that’s OK.” She seemed flustered for a second. “Just be careful, OK? I know you don’t need me to tell you, but it’s important that you stay safe.”

I nodded, and was quiet. Then, just as we were heading out of the park, my mom grinned. “What’s his name?” she asked me. “Is he cute? When did he ask you?”

I laughed, and blushed, and then broke into my story, hesitantly linking my arm through my mom’s.

It turned out that my mom didn’t need to worry. I only went on one date before falling back into my normal schedule, but the date was still nice. And it was nice to tell my mom about it afterwards.

Soon it was spring. Birds were building nests in the park and in the evenings we could hear kids yelling and playing from our house.

My freshman year was a year of a lot of changes. Some changes were obvious, like my mom losing twenty pounds and my dad moving out. Others were more subtle. My mom was quieter, for sure, but she was also funnier. More honest. I felt different too somehow. A little older. It was definitely different than what we had, but that was bound to happen. We still needed to figure each other out in this whole different way.

My mom and I kept up our walks all the way until June. The day before I was supposed to leave for my dad’s house we went on our final walk through the park.

“Did you have a good year?” My mom asked me, taking a lick of her ice cream.

I looked at her and we both burst into laughter.

“In fairness, it wasn’t that bad,” I said when our laughter subsided.

 My mom gave me the side eye, before falling into a sadder look.

 “Also,” she said a bit apprehensively, “I just wanted to say that I know that I kind of spaced out when your dad left. I guess I was just confused about who I should be without him. And I guess I forgot how hard it must be for you too. And I’m so sorry. It wasn’t fair. I hope you can forgive me?” She said this last part like a question, as if she was worried I wouldn’t.

For a moment I wanted to yell, and say every angry thing I had thought about her, but then I smiled. “Thanks Mom,” I said. Then I waited a beat. “And it’s OK.”

My mom smiled and wrapped her arm around me, her eyes a bit wet.“You’re a good kid,” she said into my hair. Then we started our next loop around Anderson Park, waving at Chihuahua Lady as we went.

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