Measure of a Fairy Tale

by | Feb 4, 2023

The last time I heard your feet in shoes
early in the morning
you were coming to tell me of a change in plans.
I needed to get dressed quick

somehow I was now the right person to travel with you

to Cleveland, to the heart clinic. My father, your constant companion in this quest, couldn’t go.
It was now up to me. Three days after my tenth birthday.

You never travel alone: Oxygen, medicine, watching eyes go with you everywhere.

And there was this other thing about me.
I was the only person who knew how to give you

a shot of Demerol in your hip.

Everyone praised how quick, direct, and gentle I was with the needle.
They missed I shut my eyes to do it.

So it was decided, and we went, got the bad news and I helped you bring it back.

I am now fourteen. We celebrated the fourth of July two days ago
so why are you outside my bedroom with shoes on

You slip into the room careful not to bump sister’s bed,
“Honey, get up sweetie, we are going on an adventure, just us.”
Forgive me for pretending to still be asleep, I love you, Mama.
The sun is warm on my blanket and bright in your red hair.
I reach up for your hands, “What’s the plan?”

Down the hall, in the kitchen,
you tell me we are going shopping, downtown.
That is the end of swallowing any oatmeal.
I hate shopping. Jerry Serafini tells me
I am a newly minted jolly green giant.
It’s true. I am suddenly 6 feet tall. My feet are out to kill me.
I knock people down when I mean to hug them.
And then there are the Breasts.
Shopping. Breasts. Hips. No. Why.
I do not usually whine. I am the oldest, obedient, and kind.
But Mama, why? I don’t need anything.

You sit down across from me.
There is this look you give us most days
and every night when you think we are sleeping.
Us kids call it your goodbye I love you look.
You guys don’t talk about it but we know,
no one knows the minute or the hour
so just be ready. Ok, here’s the look, we can go.

You can drive now. The oxygen is put away. Your medicine is in your purse.
My sisters put little hearts on the bottle.

I watch everyone’s house go by
you tell me important times are coming in my life.
You may not be able to share those times with me.
You hope you can but in case something happens
you want me
I know what comes next. You want to make this all right for me.
We know so many stories about you, about each of us.
You tell us stories all the time.
We repeat them to each other

so we all remember things right.

You want to make a fairy tale story for me.

We park the car.

We are at the fanciest dress shop in town. Everyone knows you there.
You weren’t always hurt. There is a green lace dress in your closet.

I am staring into the glittering window display of bridal gowns, veils, peignoirs, special day shoes. Your friend, Jean, is opening the shop. She hugs you and looks me over. All in a rush you just beg, she has to be so busy

real bridal parties coming in for fittings but please could she see me
just once in a wedding dress

The air is shimmering but not with heat, time is collapsing around us. A fairy tale ending is so far in our past, Mama. You have to understand

every day we wake up together
we use up more of our allotment, only so many miracles are left. There are no magic portals for me, no wedding day future. I am the oldest girl, too many little ones left to raise. It’s all

up to me. Come home NOW mama. You are too upset. If you get hurt trying to do this, what will Daddy, the brothers, and sisters all think of me? I don’t want a stupid wedding dress. I don’t believe in a guy who will want to hear

something happened, I can’t stay after school, I can’t just come over to your house.


  1. Dominique Christina

    The speaker’s ability to do a hard thing causing people to misread what it costs them to do that hard thing resonates with me very much. Like, sure I am give the Demerol shot but I can’t look at it. I’m affected by it no matter how good I am at bringing what is needed. Yep. I can connect with all of that. And of course the insecurities and internal monologues that make us feel too big or not enough. I hope you’ll keep working on this. Thank you for writing it.

  2. Meg Tuite

    WOW Karen,
    This is entire lives in sentences! So much tension is built through this and I feel like I stopped breathing. Through your gorgeous language you are taking me on a journey with the narrator and mom and a scary one, cause I get that she might be on her way out! This is a knock-out! LOVE LOVE LOVE!

  3. Sheree Shatsky

    This revision of your Day One submission really captures the reader through the daughter’s POV, particularly as she moves through adolescence and is transformed into a young woman, perhaps the realization for the mother-that her time is short and she writes her daughter’s the fairy tale on her own terms.

  4. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Karen, this is packed with tremendous and affecting details. My heart was racing by the end, and the pace is fantastic. I love that we get a second take, a re-telling of the wedding dress shop, from the daughter’s POV. I wonder if there is a third, perhaps a triptych here, told by the mother? What amazing work, indeed.

  5. Len Kuntz

    Hi Karen.

    This was epic in scope with so many wonderful allusions. I loved the narrator’s keen eye, vulnerability and insights. I also appreciated the way you placed “feet” throughout as a means of signifying movement or going forth. The way you’ve formatted this is also terrific. It really helps the piece rumble on. Such a tender thing you’ve created here.

    • Karen Keefe

      Thank you all so much your detailed comments. Each one is so appreciated, and helps me continue!

  6. Koss (No Last Name)

    Karen, this is such a beautiful vulnerable piece. Heartbreaking. As a caregiver who has lived in anticipatory grief, this really resonates with me. Love how you traverse time and found a small container for something so complex. Nice work!

  7. jennifer vanderheyden

    This is really phenomenal, Karen. So vulnerable, and showing that children always know much more than we think. And understand the importance of remembering the stories. And that first paragraph draws in the reader immediately.

    • Julia Bouwsma

      Wow! I feel like you’ve just cracked open an egg. A fertile egg, with a touch of blood in the center. Like your day one piece was the shell, but this…this is the yolk bleeding out over your palms. There are many hearts inside this piece, many hinges so many doors, but one that struck me especially was:

      “The air is shimmering but not with heat, time is collapsing around us. A fairy tale ending is so far in our past, Mama. You have to understand”

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