Once, when she was a toddler-sized blizzard of pure will, I called her “little missy.” Some current of Victorian chastisement must have welled up through me, springing from all the British books I’d read or maybe from some fifties sitcom re-aired in periodic waves. My daughter had created yet another hodgepodge installation of stuffed animals, food wrappers, chairs, stewpots, picture books, Lego, and I don’t even know what else. She refused to clean up. The phrase came out of my mouth. She gazed at me stolidly.
The next day, which brought further eruptions of clutter, she said, before more maternal protest could escape my lips, “Little Messy did it.”
My daughter is twenty and about to spend spring term in Prague. This means all her college paraphernalia—dishes, lamps, bins of sweaters, notebooks, extra bedding, a photograph-plastered bulletin board, matryoshka dolls painted to resemble Russian leaders—came home in mid-December and have been gathering dust in various corners of her room for weeks. On top of them, she and I piled items for the trip: more clothes and shoes, new suitcases, a wallet stuffed with Czech koruna. My periodic reconnaissance missions into the mess turn up many becrumbed plates and cups crusted with dried coffee foam.
She is so smart and funny and demanding and melodramatic. My life will be easier when she flies off. I ache with sadness at the prospect.
The first definition of “mess” in the OED is a portion of food. I chop onions to cook with leftover cranberry beans, chilis in adobo sauce, cilantro. A large quantity of something. Boil rice, mash avocados, grate cheese, open the jar of cactus fruit-purple tomatillo salsa Scott sent. Prep strawberry crumble and breakfast scones, too, because lord knows what the airlines will feed my vegetarian daughter on this long series of flights. An ill-assorted mixture of any kind. Grief, envy, relief, worry, delight on her behalf. A troubled or embarrassed state or condition; a predicament. A person whose life or affairs are disorganized. An entertaining, witty, or puzzling person. A communal meal. Etym. classical Latin missus, meaning sending.
My kids are seventeen and twenty now, needing me only sporadically, and not even really then. No one stops me from working all weekend, typing through the thermal blasts of perimenopause. I’m unable to figure out which tasks I shouldn’t be doing. Everything seems both important and trivial. Hot mess.
So much of my work involves imposing order, or revealing order that is occluded. Divine the bones of a student’s idea and help her build an essay or a poem that will stand steady, bear some weight. Uncover and tell a story latent in the survey results, the aged manuscripts, the tangle of movements and mavericks that make a literary period. Organize aspirations into weeks of future labor, then write the grant application.
But first comes the mess. Notions, images, daisy-chained phrases with their slightly crushed petals unevenly spaced, like teeth in a first-grader’s mouth. Mess precedes order, often succeeds it too, and some of the best writing remains redolent with it. Mess is smelly and exciting. Noisy and damp.
When she says, Mom, you’re so good at packing, I know it’s like my young son announcing, Mom, you’re the world’s best bacon chef: strategic flattery. But I’m glad when my grown-up children ask for help. So I lay the jeans out on the bed, then another pair of jeans perpendicular to them, then a dress perpendicular to that, then leggings, blouses, tee-shirts. The clothes form a cross. Then I fold in the smallest inner item, perhaps a miniskirt, and continue folding in each item, until I’m left with a heavy, airless bundle that takes up surprisingly little space.
Around that we tuck first aid supplies, rain boots, a few snapshots for the wall by the bed in her Prague flat. Almonds and a package of dried mango slices for her backpack. She picks up the dirty clothes on her floor to run one last load of laundry, revealing that her messes had actually been discrete piles, that she’s on top of the mess and understands it. There’s room in her case for one stuffed animal, so she washes Strudel, too. He is a formerly white bear who replaced another white bear, accidentally left among hotel bedding in another city.
Snow sifts down to render the outside world more uniform. My spouse and I take an early walk, trying to describe the squeaky crackles our sneakers make on the snowy sidewalk. A cascade of distant fireworks, I say. He answers, A box of rubber balls tossed down wooden steps.
That morning, I keep reminding her of documents, chargers, and medications, but she has already packed them all neatly. They leave for the airport on messy roads, as snow turns into rain.