Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
Second Place Adult

The Praying Mantis

By Cynthia Gordon Kaye

About Cynthia Gordon Kaye

I have lived in Palo Alto with my husband and our two sons since 1993. I was born in New York City, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Stanford University with a degree in English and an emphasis in creative writing. My fledgling expressions in fiction, however, were waylaid by law school, a short career as an attorney and a longer career as a stay-at-home mom. In 2015, finding myself with an empty nest and a few still fully functional brain cells, I returned to my creative writing roots and began taking fiction writing courses, first at community college and then through Stanford Continuing Studies. I was recently accepted to San Francisco State University's Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing and will be starting classes there in the fall. The opening scene in "The Praying Mantis" is, in part, an amalgam of my sons' elementary school classrooms and the memory of my own second-grade assignment to write a report on the praying mantis. The rest of my story sprang out of that fictional classroom as I revisited and reimagined childhood memories of wild hair, musical instruments and dollhouses.

 

Judge's comments

In this evocative tale of memory, the past is compressed into several telling moments that grow expansive in the reader's imagination. Insightful, touching and tender, the story expertly captures specific and mysterious circumstances of the heart.
-- Mike Nagler

Listen to the story read by the author, Cynthia Gordon Kayet:

A female praying mantis lived as our prisoner that school year in a rectangular glass terrarium outfitted with twigs and leaves and perched on our third grade classroom countertop. The counter ran along the side of the room, under the window that looked out at the playground, got no direct sunlight and through which we all (including the mantis, I assume) planned our imaginary escapes. We called it the science counter, and the mantis terrarium was either surrounded by trays of small green shoots sprouting through Dixie cup dirt under lamps offering a slim chance at photosynthesis, or by slowly hardening strings of quartz crystals made from sugar -- rock candy -- that we would later eat. In October, we'd been assigned one-paragraph reports on Rosemary, as we'd named our mantis, plus a drawing of her. When we finished, our reports were each stapled to the oversized bulletin board for viewing at the upcoming Parents' Back-to-School Night. I'd looked up praying mantis in our class encyclopedia and wrote about the mantis fact that I found most interesting.

"Why on earth would you write that?" my mother asked me when my parents returned from their evening in my classroom. My father, standing outside of my mother's peripheral vision, smiled and rolled his eyes at me. I'd written, quite vividly for a third grader, about how the female praying mantis eats her husband after mating, usually starting with his head. And just before our teacher had asked us to turn in our reports, I had stood before Rosemary and sketched her in all her Crayola-with-the-built-in-sharpener yellow-green glory doing just that.

When my mother would question me that way -- annoyed by my being a child so unlike her -- I would let my thick, wavy dark bangs fall over my eyes. According to my mother, I needed to wear bangs so that my shoulder-length hair stayed off of my interesting face. But my mother never remembered to trim my bangs and insisted they be held back with bobby pins or barrettes whenever I was out in public. At home, however, I could let them hang free in my face if I felt like it, and looking through my bangs at my mother seemed to filter her accusations like a window screen keeping out the stinging bugs. Or, in this case, keeping out the loving, happy mantises who lived hidden in the green well-manicured lawns described and drawn with care in my classmates' reports.

Well-manicured -- but very short -- fingernails marked my mother's soft, long-fingered hands as those of a pianist. And that summer, right before the start of third grade, I had also managed to annoy her when I quit playing piano. The black baby grand piano on which my mother sometimes played her mazurkas stood unrivaled by the other furniture in our small living room and untouched by me for months. My mother was still playing beautifully then; at 16, she had won some important music contest and had been a soloist in a youth symphony concert at Orchestra Hall. The Chicago Tribune reviewer had mentioned her by name even though, I was told, they rarely reviewed youth symphony performances. The reviewer had also managed to convey in only a few short sentences my mother's striking beauty and her gracefulness at the piano. I suspected even then that neither of those depictions would ever be used to describe me.

When I asked my mother why she wasn't still playing piano for other people, she told me she'd lost interest in performing during college and was sorry about that now, although she had been able to support my father though dental school by giving piano lessons. While I wasn't sure what all that meant at the time, it had become clear to me that summer that I would be my mother's one unteachable student. I had been struggling with her weekly piano lessons for about a year, fighting with her about everything from practice time to choice of music. That August, during one of my lessons, both my mother's voice and mine grew loud as we argued over her insistence that I keep playing my two-handed scales up and down the entire keyboard until they were perfect. My father called out from the kitchen, where he was warming up his usual Tuesday night leftover dinner, and tried to intervene on my behalf.

"Please calm down, you two. I'm sure Claire's scales are improving enough." On the piano bench we shared I could almost feel my mother's internal temperature rise. But as she looked toward my father's voice from behind the swinging cafe doors separating our kitchen and living room, her face seemed so smooth and freezing you could have sledded down it.

"Maybe you should teach Claire," she said. "Oh, wait. You don't play, do you?"

"I'm only saying that maybe you're expecting too much of her," replied my father's voice. "Maybe Claire can't play like you did at this age." He paused. "Or maybe she doesn't want to."

He was right -- I didn't. But try telling my mother that back then.

The end came at my next lesson, when I demanded my mother teach me the piano music for the song, "Up, Up and Away," insisting that I would stop practicing my classical pieces until I was good enough to accompany The Fifth Dimension, my then favorite singing group.

My mother was quiet at first. I thought maybe she was considering my demands and would give in to me, just this once. Instead she stood up and closed the piano fallboard over the keys.

"I give up," she said, walking away from the piano. "I cannot teach someone who has obviously inherited her father's creative abilities."

I took this comment as a compliment, usually feeling more in tune with my science-oriented father than my culture-infused mother, but this time -- although I'm pretty sure he had heard what my mother said -- there was no response from behind the swinging kitchen doors. From then on, ignoring my mother's scrutiny became my father's usual approach to her vocal critiques. As for my musical education, I did learn to play the oboe in middle school (another unorthodox choice, by my mother's standards), but the fight between my braces and the oboe's delicate double reed, combined with my true lack of musical talent, put an end to the possibility of any world famous mother-daughter piano-oboe twosome.

The one thing I did have in common with my mother was our dollhouse. It had been my mother's as a girl and right before that third-grade Christmas, following our annual Thanksgiving weekend at my grandmother's house in Milwaukee, it arrived by moving van and was left on our icy doorstep along with several smaller boxes of my mother's mementos. My mother had once explained to me that she had discovered the dollhouse in a children's toy catalog, and despite it costing more than her parents had ever spent on a birthday gift, they had bought it to reward her hard work on the piano. She claimed to have played with it for years, every day after school before her daily practice time.

We were both delighted to be reunited with my mother's childhood treasure, but the dollhouse was huge and my father laughed when he saw it there. "Why would your mother spend the money to ship this?" he asked. "It probably would have been cheaper to buy Claire a new one."

My mother glared at him, something it seemed she did increasingly often. "Because it was mine and she wanted Claire to have it."

The dollhouse had always been beautiful to me -- a painted wood half-house that looked as if someone had sliced it straight down the middle, the backside open and exposing six rooms on two floors. In the soft lighting of my grandmother's basement, the front of the dollhouse had been a bright, creamy yellow, and the four windows' delicate black shutters flanked tiny window boxes where dots of color became flowers if you squinted your eyes at them. The three of us stood on the sunlit porch looking at the massive dollhouse, now faded to beige with chipped shutters and rooms filled only with dust and cobwebs.

"I don't get it," my father said as he walked into the house, leaving my mother and me in the cold to drag the dollhouse and the boxes inside.

"Of course you don't," my mother said quietly.

My mother and I cleaned the dollhouse and set it up in a corner of the living room. She bought me a few pieces of plastic dollhouse furniture and two small, bendable girl figurines to live in those miniature rooms. I made two praying mantises out of green Play-Doh, one female and one headless male, who lived with the girls and protected them from the strange noises I pretended the dollhouse made at night when the girls were in bed and supposed to be sleeping. If my mother was nearby when I was playing, I'd announce that the girl figures were ballerinas or artists, but I always made the mantises married mad scientists with the headless male, being blind, continuously knocking over their mad scientist experiments and exasperating the female. It was a sorority dollhouse of oddballs, but when I played with it, my mother never commented on my wild hair or my lack of ladylike finesse.

One day, near the end of April, I was called to the principal's office to wait for my father to pick me up from school. Sitting together in the idling car, my father told me that my mother was in the hospital, but assured me that she would be fine. He tried to explain how she'd only been pregnant for a few weeks and that she'd lost a lot of blood along with a baby, but he had to keep pausing and looking away from me while he talked. I didn't understand the word miscarriage, but it made me think of Cinderella's pumpkin when I heard it, so I made my mother a crude carriage out of orange construction paper, glue and glitter and placed it in front of the dollhouse with the headless male mantis at, yes, the head of it.

When we brought my mother home from the hospital, my father helped her out of our car while I ran ahead and held open the front door. As we slowly walked her to their bedroom, she noticed the dollhouse and the glittery new orange paper contraption in front. She stopped to look at it.

"What is this? A pumpkin?" she asked me.

"It's a miscarriage," I said.

She was silent for a second, then slowly turned to me and gently brushed my bangs back off my face. "You mean, a carriage," she said. "It's lovely." And right at that moment, so was I.

Third grade was to be my last year at that school. After my mother recovered that summer, despite what I perceived to be a peaceful time in my parents' marriage, we sold our house and my mother and I moved without my father to a smaller house in a neighboring suburb. We took the piano and the dollhouse with us. It was a big deal because not too many parents got divorced back then, at least not while kids were still young. I was heartbroken for a while, but I saw my father pretty regularly; we spent more time together, just the two of us, than we had before the divorce. My mother started teaching piano again -- though I was still a lost cause. In some ways, life for all three of us became quieter.

Eventually, my bangs grew long enough for me to pull them back in a ponytail with the rest of my hair, but when I wore my hair down, the front would still hang in my face, annoying my mother. I didn't really understand then what had happened between my mother and father when they lost that baby, or even what had happened between them before my mother became pregnant. I have a pretty good idea now. But back then, before the divorce, their relationship had felt normal to me, and it seemed like the only ones with problems were any hapless male praying mantises who might make the fatal mistake of falling in love with Rosemary.

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