The Collective Tragedy of Maternal Isolation

"The Swing" by Marianne Jay Erhardt, recommended by Alyssa Songsiridej for Electric Literature

Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej

Marianne Jay Erhardt’s devastating story, “The Swing,” contains two tragedies, both clear from the first page. The facts of the first tragedy are given plainly, in a sensitive and matter-of-fact manner befitting the unthinkable: the death of two-year-old Luca Swenson from exposure after his mother, Rene, suffers a mental health crisis at a playground. The story orbits around this event, but Erhardt doesn’t hold the reader in the scene unnecessarily, aware that the knowledge of what has happened is already so gutting.

The second tragedy is not stated directly, but gives the story its structure and drives the movement of its narrative. “The Swing” is made of compartmentalized sections told from different perspectives, all revolving around the playground, Luca, and Rene. The characters do not interact, but look at the same event with sidelong glances, through what-ifs, and from the warped perspective of rumor and memory. Many are also mothers: an exhausted mom who gives up on her Waldorf-parenting-group aspirations to stay home with her daughter and watch Peppa Pig; a visibly pregnant woman who passes Rene from a distance and tries to meet her eye and acknowledge that they are “part of the same thing”; the very first mother, whose full name opens the story, but whose perspective never returns after her initial introduction. She is Eleanor Gaw, “one of the last people to see Luca Swenson alive,” although she does not know this. She almost goes out to meet Rene on the playground in search of maternal company, only to be distracted at the last crucial moment, leaving open the possibility that she might have saved them. 

The tragedy embedded in the story’s form is the deep and painful isolation of early motherhood, not just of mothers in clear need, like Rene, who desperately wishes for help, but of all the characters who make up this devastating work’s Greek chorus. All of them wish for company and to have their experiences recognized, but all of them are held apart by the story’s sections breaks, unable to reach out to one another.

But while Erhardt shows the isolation of these characters, she also brings their voices together, merging them in some sections into a collective “they” and finally a “you” that pulls the reader into their shared maternal loneliness. Here, though the characters are technically apart, Erhardt stitches their worries and feelings to a specific and horrific event in a way that ultimately reveals our universal vulnerability. The result is a work with an emotional sweep that, while painful and difficult, rings with a unique and at times breathtaking truth.

– Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing Editor, Recommended Reading

The Collective Tragedy of Maternal Isolation

The Swing by Marianne Jay Erhardt

Eleanor Gaw didn’t know she was one of the last people to see Luca Swenson alive. She had seen him from quite a distance, just the little shape of him. The hood of his winter coat, moving back and forth in the bucket swing, on the far side of the playground in the park across the street from Eleanor’s home. From her stoop, while her own child napped hard in the house, Eleanor often took stock of the playground equipment—the slides, the little ladders—to see if there would be the right kind of company for her boy when he woke up grumpy, hungry, lonely for other children. If there were tender little kids, or oversized school-aged disasters, or no one at all. If there were other mothers there and if those mothers found their children, in that afternoon, precious, or boring, or utterly exhausting. Eleanor would see if there was company—saw that there was company. Eleanor looked, planned to go. But then there was a phone call or her child awoke with a rash, a surprise; there was something she had to tend to, something she needed to savor or something she wouldn’t want another child to catch. So what she saw, and then forgot, was company. For her: a mother. Her name was Rene. For her son: a boy in a bucket swing, Luca, not knowing how to pump, not knowing what to do in a swing beside send his arms and legs out, making his body a star.

Only a few months prior, the police had been called to that very swing set to rescue Lakela White. Lakela had no business swinging in a baby swing. She was twelve, and she climbed in as a joke when her friends commandeered the two big-kid swings. Some middle schoolers could tuck themselves easily into a baby swing. But Lakela was no bendy string bean. She was a strong girl, with strong legs, a girl that took up space without apology. When she got stuck in the swing, her jeans bunching, her sneakers just shy of reaching the mulch below, it was not Lakela who was embarrassed. It was her friend Victoria, who turned pink and said, Jesus Lakela, trying to lift her out.

Some of the mothers rushed to Lakela, as if to shield her from shame. One got on her hands and knees underneath the girl and said, Pretend I am the ground! Use my body! Another meant to reassure her that everything would be okay, the way things were okay when mothers were in the vicinity. One mother briefly forgot about her own son, then went into a panic, shouting, José! until he emerged from a tunnel slide, unharmed. On the whole, the mothers were ready to mother. But when they saw that Lakela felt no shame, that Lakela was not about to try to stand on the back of a middle-aged white lady in order to wriggle out of a plastic diaper hung from chains, when Lakela pulled out her phone and calmly called 911 as if she were calling for pizza, and when Lakela laughed, explaining her predicament to the operator, the mothers backed off. They admired her. They resented her. They felt exposed, found out, and they stayed to see what would happen to the feeling and to the girl.

And though it was getting late, even the small children forgot their hunger, sensing that this was a story worth staying for. The police arrived, then a fire truck, no siren. In the end, they had to cut the swing away from the girl with a large set of shears (although some of the mothers would say the firemen used the jaws of life when recounting the drama to their husbands, stabbing at their salads that evening) all while Lakela played a game on her phone. It was Candy Crush. Or maybe Pokémon something.

When she was free, the mothers cheered, and some clapped, as if they had all really been through something together. Lakela did not acknowledge the celebration and left with her friends, taking the path that cut through the woods.

For weeks after, empty chains hung from the swing set. And then one day, a new swing appeared. Only it wasn’t new; it was worn in the seat. The blue was whitened at the stress points. Which suggested that this swing had been taken from a different playground, maybe a better playground, which had been upgraded. Or maybe a worse playground, where rainwater pooled in the slides and the mulberries made a mess and the yellowjackets lasted past Halloween. Where that pale old man wore nothing under his trench coat that time. Where your favorite thing—a basketball hoop, a hot metal teeter-totter, a swing—the thing you loved best, might be taken from you, might vanish in the daylight.

If it weren’t for the rain, Jennie would have stayed longer, maybe long enough to know something was off. They had only just arrived at the playground when the skies opened up, and though her Waldorf parenting books told her that There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing! Jennie was cold, and depleted, and now wet. And her daughter Anna Claire was less than two, barely verbal, unable to reveal to the Waldorf mom Facebook groups that her mother was a lazy fraud. Jennie resolved to be a better, more wholesome and nature-loving mother, when Anna Claire was older. When it counted. For now, for just today even, she would go home, light up her living room with Peppa Pig or some other animal in human clothing, and fall half-asleep on the couch with one hand on her daughter, who was easy to entrance.

Jennie resolved to be a better, more wholesome and nature-loving mother, when Anna Claire was older.

Days later, it was more Peppa Pig, and Jennie missed the news about Luca entirely. No bad news, she had once promised Anna Claire. A world that is lovely and predictable. Where there is a sweet little song for every mundane thing. Taking off your boots. Washing your hands. Folding the cloth napkins and lighting the beeswax candles before supper. That had been the hope.

If Jennie noticed Luca or his mother Rene, she noticed that they stayed, despite the rain. She noticed that Rene took off her own coat and wrapped it around Luca while he dangled. He made a sound. He was looking at the ground. Jennie thought special needs to herself, and felt a wave of gratitude that Anna Claire had only unspecial needs, followed by guilt that those needs felt endless nonetheless.

Months later, Rene’s mother defended her daughter to a local reporter She stayed with him all night, sang to him until her voice ran out. She was always loving. And it was true. Rene did not hide Luca in a bag or throw him in a ravine or bury pieces of him in the woods. No sharp shovel, no moonless night. She took her son to the playground. She pushed him on the swing. She wrapped him in her coat. Her hands were nothing but tender.

Rene was supposed to take the pills to quiet the disturbances. Only she didn’t find them terribly disturbing. For instance, when Luca’s father Doug left, calling her batshit, she heard a voice saying guano, which was a beautiful word. Also the voice said Rene with a warmth that Doug hadn’t used in years. Said, Rene, you will be okay. He is wrong. He has never been right. Which, Rene knew, was exactly the kind of thing a voice would say, but also the kind of thing a friend would say if the friend were good.

And at the playground, when Rene couldn’t leave, couldn’t figure out how to lift Luca out of the swing, how to move her legs or shout for help, couldn’t figure out how to do anything other than push that swing, push, push, for nineteen hours, through night falling and dawn rising, the voice was kind then, too. Help is coming, it promised. Push. You are okay. Push. Someone will be here any moment. Push. I think I hear them now.

Luca is born every day before he dies. Rene has this lovely curtain panel she found at the Goodwill. It’s baby blue, semi-sheer, embroidered with these rust-colored flowers and flourishes. Rene bought it because she would never have guessed that the colors would look so good together, but they do. They look so good. She delights in the surprise of it. It’s a long panel, no companion, meant for some floor-to-ceiling accent window in some tony neighborhood west of Route 52. Rene imagines she will cut it in half, learn to sew, and make a pair of café curtains for Luca’s bedroom, which for now relies on broken blinds for darkness. Until she learns to sew, the curtain is Luca’s plaything. He drapes it over his head and walks delicately through the apartment.

Grandma says, Where’s Luca? Is he hiding, Rene? But Rene says, Where’s Luca? It’s time to be born, Luca! And when he pulls the curtain down, both women have taken to saying, Happy Birthday! just like they did when Rene delivered him, fierce and focused, no wrong sounds in that room. Only the sounds of life, magic, a body becoming two bodies. It’s time to be born! It’s time! Happy Birthday, Luca! he hears every day. And when he pulls the curtain from his face, he has started to say, Bean Bone, which they realize is Being Born. And Rene pushes away the thoughts of his bones made of dried beans, the thoughts that the red beans she heats for dinner are not beans at all.

She tries another game with the curtain. When he tiptoes around, she pretends he is a celebrity about to perform. A trapeze artist, a pop star, a Guinness book of World Records novelty. Someone who gets famous. She tries on the voice of an announcer. Ladies and Gentlemen…But Luca hates the new voice, hates ladies, hates gentlemen. Bean Bone! he demands, and she relents. Happy Birthday, says Rene, dozens of times a day, dozens of days, more birthdays than any human lifetime could contain.

Maria could not push a wheelchair without thinking of Nellie Olson. The old episode of Little House where Nellie is in an old-timey wheelchair, and goody-goody Laura is pushing her along, until they come to the crest of a steep, overgrown hill. Mean Mrs. Olson at the bottom, on her literal high horse. Laura gives the chair a shove, shouting, Your mother wants you, Nellie! sending Nellie careening. And, while it might be true that bratty Nellie had it coming (she was, after all, faking paralysis for attention), Maria was shocked that Laura had it in her to do something so cruel, something that could, after all, result in real paralysis for Nellie, although Nellie fared just fine, landing in a pond, forgetting her lie, and standing up on her healthy legs to wring out her pinafore, petticoat.

Maria had always thought of herself as a Laura. Nice. And when she saw the episode as a child she was shaken at the girl’s capacity for violence, and thus her own capacity for violence, given the right circumstances.

And now Maria pushed a wheelchair every day. Her father’s, mostly, though before she left her job to care for him day and night, she was a CNA in a nursing home and pushed many wheelchairs there, too. Every time she held the handles, she felt the warmth, the possibility in the palms of her hands. That she might launch the chair down the hallway, down the sidewalk, down the ramp at the church, which backswitched three times between the door and the parking lot. She loved her father. The burden of his care, she knew, was quite temporary. He was dying, rising only to take a few bites of egg and attend Mass, where he slept. She did not want to hurt him. She had no reason to think that she ever would.

She tried to tell her husband about Nellie Olson. But John didn’t remember these kinds of things or have these kinds of thoughts. He once admitted, when she asked, What are you thinking? that he was thinking nothing at all. That his head was often pleasantly empty.

Maria was pregnant. The baby would be born a few months after they buried Maria’s father at the VA cemetery. Already, Maria was beginning to worry about the baby, about pushing the baby in a stroller. Would she still think about Nellie Olson every time? She said to John, There are mothers who drown their babies in the bathtub. There are mothers who have to drive their kids around until they fall asleep, and when they get home they plug up the exhaust pipe in the garage and nobody sees it coming. John waved her off, telling Maria that she will never be one of those mothers. You’re just not that type of person.

When Maria walked by the playground, before the rain, her hands were free. John was with her father for the hour so she could exercise. She touched her belly, happy to be showing. She took the path over the stone bridge, past the swing set, past Luca. He smiled then. She tried to guess his age. Two? Hi! he called out. Hi! said Maria, who locked eyes with Rene. Maria wanted her to notice her belly, wanted her to know that she and Rene were part of the same thing. Rene greeted her with a nod, but Maria couldn’t read her face. She was not good with faces, she told people after it happened. Just ask my husband.

A kid died on that slide, you know. Felix took it upon himself to inform the little kids. It had been more than a decade since they found Luca, in full rigor mortis, Rene still pushing in the light of dawn. Felix was a newborn, then, too little for a slide or a playground although Felix’s mother Toni admitted that she took him to the zoo when he was only six weeks old and that it was too hot and the animals all looked tranquilized, which made her worry about what kind of world she had brought this child into in the first place. Now she knew it was stupid to think such a young baby would appreciate a zoo, but she took flattering photos of herself and Felix with a dazed tiger behind them and in one of the photos you couldn’t see the glare of the plexiglass and it looked like they were in the enclosure together. She put the photos online. #adventuremom. These days, she posted photos of a messy house, an unused elliptical machine, and of Felix and his sister packing their own lunchboxes with fruit-shaped gummies, animal-shaped gummies, and cheesy puffs. She no longer obsessed over the caption: “I surrender. #realmomlife.”

Nobody died on the slide, but children map stories on to the equipment at hand, and there were no swings at the park anymore. After Luca, they were wrapped with caution tape, and when that caution tape began blowing around in the wind, kids began tearing it down. Some young couple stole the rest to decorate their front lawn for Halloween. They debated how best to tape it across the doorway. How to make their house look like a murder scene but also allow Amazon packages to be delivered without incident.

And maybe kids would have returned to the swings, but a few days after the caution tape was removed, the swings were, too. All of them, leaving empty metal A-frames for several years. But then word got out that the playground was getting some new equipment, better-than-swings equipment, along with new state-of-the-art playground turf. No more mulch or sand or diced tires from decommissioned school busses. The new ground would be made of something squishy but not too squishy. Walking on it would feel like walking across the surface of a kickball, if the kickball were flat or if you were very, very tiny and so the kickball seemed flat, like the earth seems flat.

The new equipment was donated by the corporate offices of CiderMill Donuts as a part of their Healthy Communities campaign. There was a CiderMill sign at the park now, next to the sign discouraging concealed weapons, and when Felix came here, Toni usually said something like, “CiderMill Donuts. Keeping kids healthy since 1958.” She and Felix both disliked the new equipment. It was just a bunch of plastic poles sticking out of the flattened kickball ground. Each pole had a light on it and made the kinds of sounds reserved for first generation video games. The game you were apparently supposed to play was to run among the poles, hitting the lights as they appear. Glorified Simon, said Toni. What a waste.

What’s worse was that after the first big spring rain, the squish of the turf grew untenable. And the game must have gotten wet in the wrong places because the lights never worked when you wanted them to anymore. You thumped them with your hand and they were unresponsive. But now, unprovoked, they lit up and sang out at random. In the middle of the night, even, when the donut batter was still raw and cold in the silver refrigerators, when the playground was dark and the only people who came through were a couple of teenagers with a joint, or a restless man in a reflective vest, running with his lean dog. No kids, of course. The kids were in their cribs and beds, where they belonged.

It was 4 AM when Rene understood that she and Luca had become invisible. It had been fifteen hours. While she shivered all night, Luca, somehow, slept. But he always ran hot. Kids run hot was what her mother said when Rene wanted to add another layer to the boy. When a police car drove by on Miller, she was sure it would stop and stop the swinging swing and bring her and Luca somewhere warm. Like the time she’d been found in the highway median with the boy. Or the time the bus line shut down because of the snowstorm and a man in a truck drove them home and nothing disgusting happened. Something about the storm made it okay to be stranded. Something about the white made people generous. In better weather, she knew, that man would have looked away, driven on. He wouldn’t have found a pouch of Goldfish crackers in his glove box to give to Luca, wouldn’t have blushed when he admitted, Nah, I don’t have kids. I just love these damn things. Wouldn’t have hollered to them to Watch the ice! as they tiptoed their way up the sidewalk to their building, which was not beautiful but looked beautiful as it disappeared under the snow.

It was 4 AM when Rene understood that she and Luca had become invisible.

But the cop didn’t notice Rene. And the not being noticed continued into the morning, into another spell of soft rain. Earlier, she had seen a pregnant woman and remembered being noticed when Luca was still inside of her. Everyone back then wanted a look, a guess, even a touch. Doug wanted all of her all of the time. But now, there were afternoons when she tried to buy a pack of gum and the cashier didn’t register her presence at all. Times when the bus driver almost missed her stop, times when the robotic voice on her doctor’s automated answering service said, Sorry, I missed that. Can you try again? State the last four digits of your social security number.

Rene thought of her best friend Sita. As a pair, Sita and Rene were always seen. There was that night long before Luca, before Doug, before Sita moved away, when they danced together at The Vital. It was the kind of bar where there was danceable music but nobody dancing. They didn’t care. Sita said, “Everyone is looking at us. Don’t look back.” And they ignored the stares, the men, even the free mixed drinks they were offered—shiny pink things with a lemon crescent worried onto the lip of each glass. “We don’t drink juice,” said Sita. “We’re not children.” And she bought them shots instead, which went down easy. And later they fell into a booth at a different bar and ordered the sweetest, pinkest daiquiris on the menu and laughed and cried about some things, and then Sita’s eyeliner was all fucked up and Rene found some wipes in her bag and tore one open and fixed everything in a matter of seconds.

It was easy to bury the wonder. Because the horror came first. This happened. A child. A mother. A swing. But then the wonder slipped out sometimes when the mothers were alone. Nineteen hours, one of them said out loud in the shower. It’s like a filibuster. One of them remembered the townie hot dog-eating contest she and her sorority sisters had entered, in jest, in college. It was supposed to be funny or sexy, good for photos, meant to shock the people who were the type to enter such a contest in earnest. But one of the Kaitlyns had a competitive streak and a remarkable capacity to swallow food without chewing, and the sisters rooted for her and rooted for her until it was down to Kaitlyn and some greasy man. There was a trick of the light or something off in the sisters’ bellies and they grew, in one shared breath, disgusted with themselves, disgusted with Kaitlyn, who didn’t even want to enter this contest in the first place but was now disappearing everything into herself, was unbecoming, was winning, winning, was the winner. One of the sisters, the one remembering it now, had cried on the drive back to campus.

Nineteen hours. Longer than my labor, thought another mother. Longer than my longest double shift at the warehouse. Did she lean against the metal pole at all? What kind of shoes did she wear on her feet?

I could never, thought another. And they weren’t referring to pushing a child on a swing until that child died of dehydration and hypothermia. They were referring to pushing a child on a swing for more than five minutes. They hated pushing a kid on a swing, even their own kid, especially their own kid. It was so boring. It was so lonely. It required no energy yet entirely wiped a person out. And the child kept demanding that you keep going. Of course you will keep going. Only a terrible mother would put an end to such joy. But it felt like a dog was barking at you. It felt like you were falling down an endless staircase and your child was naming every step your body hit along the way. Naming it with glee.

Another mother remembered Sister Mary Daniel from elementary school. Sister Mary Daniel was all about gratitude, and the way she taught you to practice gratitude was to make you imagine all the ways that your life could be so much worse. Skinned knee? A leper would gladly trade you for it. Boy snapped your training bra? At least you’re not a pillar of salt. Classroom radiator broken? Go complain to Joan of Arc, happy to share the warmth of her fire. Once, Sister Mary Daniel made the class stand up and stretch their arms out on their own invisible crosses. She wanted to show them how hard it can be to last. But instead of a twinge of suffering or solemnity, the kids savored every moment of discomfort. The longer they stood there in their plaid skirts and neckties, the fewer notes they would have to take on the Stations of the Cross. When they finally broke, with the bell, no lesson had been learned. One boy complained that he was sore and told Sister Mary Daniel that Jesus had it easy because Jesus didn’t have to hold his own arms up on the cross. There were ropes or nails or whatever.

There are different kinds of endurance. When, nearing dawn, a family of deer wandered onto the playground, there was a soft wind from the north and so they caught no scent of the humans. There was still a set of swings, still grass, still Luca. The deer nosed around the honeysuckle. One found a granola bar wrapper, the silver mirror of its interior still sticky, sweet. The deer licked at it, her tongue forceful, indelicate. When she lifted her head, the wrapper clung to her tongue, to her dismay. It became an ordeal. It became her project for the morning, for her lifetime. Who knows how time feels to a deer. She felt it. How she got it loose was another deer came along. All it took was one lick to the underside of the new deer’s neck—that tender, shadowy place—and the wrapper was free, falling away like nothing, like confetti, the silver rearranging the new day’s light. Rene told Luca to look, and that was when the deer realized they shared the morning. Mid-breath, they quieted every rhythm in their bodies. Their eyes fixed in place. Their hearts scarcely beat. They were almost invisible, almost trees, almost strollers. And again Rene said, Look. Rene said, Luca, would you look at that?

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