The Aster Glass
by Trina Chapman
He held his body with intense rigidity, leaning forward as he forced his way through the air in front of him. Fists tight by his sides, he paced around the dining room table, circling her like a shark focused on its prey. She was eating as quickly as she could, perched atop one of the eight cross-stitched seats that he and her mother had spent a year sewing. The hardness of the chair added to her discomfort and smothered further the fire of her dwindling appetite. The sloppy sleeves of the latest hand-me-down sweatshirt from her sister continued flopping into the milk and cereal in her bowl. Pink Floyd playing from her brother’s room, echoed in the background. Today she was the target.
Who could eat in a house where rage hid in quiet, unsuspecting moments? Sitting tiny on that hard chair, elbows almost at the same height as her shoulders so she could reach her food on the table, she longed to become smaller still, perhaps even invisible. He slammed the side of his fist down on the dining room table for a second time yelling, “Eat faster!”
The force of his fist rippled the milk in her bowl. She chewed as quickly as her baby molars would allow and stared at the drinking glass in front of her. If she didn’t look directly at him, it felt safer.
The state of her little life was one of constant insecurity and she felt like the only anchor she had in those moments was a few small objects she could draw safety from. One of those was the Aster glass.
All of the drinking glasses in her house were mismatched: found at yard sales, or won at bowling tournaments. Her favourite was the Aster glass. It had four bright red Asters painted on it. Each flower had a pop of yellow in the middle, with the edges of the petals and stamen highlighted in black. Green stems and leaves connected each of the four flowers and underneath them was the word “September” - her birth month. The writing on the glass read, “Growing in a shower of abundance; the feathersoft flowers of the Aster echo the appearance of stars sprayed in an early autumn sky.” Her father raged, and she read the words to herself. She wanted to be there, watching the sun slipping away on that warm autumn day. And as the sun set and the sky grew dark, she could imagine, there and there and there were little stars popping up, like the Aster flowers on the glass. She was slipping away into those safe words again when her brother flew into the dining room, “Leave her alone!” he demanded.
She couldn’t swallow the mouthful of food she’d been chewing for the last five minutes. It was stuck in her mouth, her throat closed over and filled with lumps. Her father turned as though he were taking on an attack and drew back his arm like a battering ram. Before she had time to react, he punched her brother in the face, thrusting him backward until he lost his balance and fell to the floor. She went numb, brain shutting off, her digestive system stalled. She turned back to the Aster glass for emotional protection. Who would have suspected that such a fragile item could give strength?
That evening, all the children were made to attend an awkward family meeting where they endured a lecture from their mother about baby birds leaving the nest. The message behind the lesson was that the chicks had to be taught to fly by the adult birds before soaring on their own. She did not want to learn to fly in the violent, intimidating ways of her father. She sat paltry on the tattered, pull-out couch in the basement, unkempt feet scrunched up under her bottom, observing the lesson on the rules of life. In that learning moment, a fire ignited in her belly as the injustice of the situation refused to rest in her heart. This time her appetite was different; she hungered for integrity and genuine affection.
It wasn’t until many years later, as an adult, that she experienced the effects of the flying lessons from her youth. What she had learned during those formative years was that fear was familiar and she was not repelled by it, but rather, drawn to it. It was a subject she had studied in depth and learned to live with like a partner whom she knew would perpetually let her down, but at least she could plan around it. There had been no guessing when she lived with fear. She could always count on it to find and take hold of her. She didn’t have to try to be anything more than a shadow and it was easier to pretend than to run it out of her life. They danced with one another, her and fear, in a routine of familiarity. She understood how to step in time with it, how to react to it, and how to repair herself from it afterward.
She learned narratives to repeat, using all of the same excuses she had witnessed her mother using to get her father out of trouble with them. And in her first marriage, those practiced excuses became useful tools to extend her life with fear. When that ended, she fell in love with herself and then with a kind, patient and thoughtful man. She had to learn to live without questioning motives or wondering when things would get loud and erratic. Predictability had the potential to be a boring place for her to live, but it wasn’t. She was learning to fly for the very first time. And she did learn. And she did fly.
She’s not sure whatever happened to the Aster glass. Perhaps it was sent off to the nearest thrift store in a box with the mixing bowl they sometimes used to make their chocolate chip cookie dough, on days when life felt safe. It could still be in a storage container somewhere with the fondue pot they used when friends came for dinner and they pretended to be a normal family. Maybe her brother took it off to college with him since he was the first to fly from the nest, to safety. It might even still be hiding at the back of her parents’ kitchen cupboard, with a pile of other, insignificant cups stacked on top of it. Wherever it is, she will always remember the Aster glass for the comfort it brought her at times when she could not speak up for herself, when kindness was still just a word and when happy meant “not scared right now.”
There is no need for the physical glass to remain in her life anymore, she and fear are no longer dance partners, but she found it on Etsy and bought it anyway. It will sit on an open shelf at her writing desk as a reminder to her that even in the darkest times, when loneliness, injustice and fear come knocking on her door, she has the fortitude to overcome them. That little glass helped her to find a place within herself that brought calm and courage and a fiery desire to break free. She will never be shattered again.
Surely, the artistic designers of the now “retro” glass could not have imagined that this little piece would play such an enormous role in the life of a small, broken child.
She has learned to look for the Asters in her life, growing in the autumn fields, popping up, spreading hope, like stars, into dark skies.
Trina Chapman is an emerging poet and essayist whose work has appeared in The Write Launch. She holds a double bachelor's degree in English and International Development Studies from the University of Guelph. A lifelong learner and educator, she has taught English as a Second Language in Japan and now teaches at a Montessori school she helped to found. She is presently studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. She also mothers four children and three stepchildren and cares for three dogs and one husband.