I got the idea when I was seven months pregnant with her. We’d decided to pack up our things and move somewhere nicer, more suburban and with cleaner air and less congestion of all kinds from the city. The trip was almost fourteen hours across the country, and I worried the whole way about going into labor during that drive. It would be terrifying to check into a hospital as a complete stranger and just hope and trust in humanity that they’d deliver my baby safely. And wouldn’t it be traumatizing to be born somewhere in between, to feel like your first moments in the world were not your first moments at home, too, but just some place transitory and insignificant and random?
Somehow those crazy thoughts evolved into this idea for a map – a way for her to map out her world so she would never feel lost or without anywhere to go or stuck in one place. We bought a huge white canvas sheet and stretched it permanently across one wall of her bedroom. I started explaining it to her when she was only a year old, but I’m not sure she understood it quite then. I taught her how to color in the lines and draw the basic map shapes – trees, water, and mountains. I drew our house for her, minuscule so she would have plenty of room for all the places she had yet to discover. She didn’t know it yet, and neither did I, but it would become her favorite thing about her room. She would race home from school after field trips and diligently sketch out a tiny museum or a historic battlefield or wherever they’d visited that day, and as soon as she could write and spell she began adding names to every drawing, too. By the time she was eight years old, she had our entire city pretty well mapped out. When she was fourteen, she’d expanded her map to include my mother’s house in Nebraska and, on the far left side of the wall, her grandfather’s beach home in California, as well as a number of places in between. It was absolutely beautiful, drawn in shades of greens and blues and earthy browns to illustrate the changing landscapes.
She got her heart broken at seventeen. I’d warned her, as all mothers do, to be careful with this boy. Something about him was too innocent, perhaps the charming way with which he introduced himself or his almost excessive politeness when speaking with her father at the dinner table. And as all daughters do, she ignored my advice, opting instead to fall head over heels for him. I’m not saying she asked to have her heart broken – I don’t think anyone does, and she of all people certainly didn’t deserve it, but it happened nonetheless. At first, I wasn’t sure she told me correctly because she did not burst into tears or crumble to the floor. When I hugged her, smoothing down her frizzy hair and whispering, it’s okay, baby, you’ll find someone better, she sniffled but still let no tears fall. I don’t know how she was so strong, but I should have known it wouldn’t last.
I found her only a week later sitting naked in her room and feverishly scrubbing at one spot on her wall, a spot I had watched her color in meticulously overlapping horizontal and vertical lines, crosshatched like they must have taught her in the community art classes she had been taking. She was trying to erase it. I knew better than to ask questions, but I did suggest that water might help remove it more quickly. What she did next broke my heart. She held a tissue up to her eyes, absorbing the tears that would trickle down her cheeks every sixteen seconds, and proceeded to dab the tissue on the coloring on her wall. She was literally trying to remove the place with her tears. I couldn’t stand to watch anymore, and against my mother instinct to simply let her get all the frustration and heartache out, I asked her what she was doing.
“I have to take his place off. I have to make it go away. I have to get rid of it, mom, I have to forget.”
I knew instantly it was her ex-boyfriend’s place. Of course my mind went straight to sex – he must’ve sweet-talked her into something there, must have used some magic words that teenage boys all know and teenage girls all fall for – but it wasn’t the time to interrogate her about that. I asked the only question I thought was safe: “Why?”
She stopped scrubbing and looked at me and I watched her lips quiver. It must have taken every ounce of strength she had left, but she spoke softly. “Because it’s not part of my world anymore. He took another girl there. He gave it to someone else.”
I ran over to her, wrapping my arms around her tiny, fragile body, and hugged her, maybe a little too tightly. “We’ll bleach it or cover it with wallpaper or just knock out that portion of the wall with a hammer or whatever we can find. We’ll fix it, my sweet girl, I promise.”
But how do you fix a girl’s whole world?