Vada came bursting into the world like butter off a hot spoon, minutes before the town's midwife could arrive at The Redmonds home. Her mother hardly had time to labor through the waves of contractions before her baby girl slid out with a slight upward pull from her father, placing baby Vada on her mother's flannel nightgown.
The way mother described the birth was like listening to a cooking show, “First you have to make the baby, then you put it in the oven. When the timer pops, remove the bread and get your spoon and your butter. Be careful, there’s nothing more slippery like butter off of a hot spoon.”
The Redmonds lived off grid in Alaska, and had done so for the past 4 generations. Delivering babies at home by the fireside or down by the glacial cold waters was normal around these parts. Vada’s father used an intercom system that sent an alert out to other people who were just a few miles from them. Three quick blasts on the intercom meant, “We need a doctor now!” The midwife knew to come to the Redmond home by the designated sound the family’s system made, a whoop followed by two short pops. As soon as mother’s waters broke, the “whoop-poppop, whoop-poppop, whoop-poppop” danced through the air, a sound no one could miss. Vada liked to imagine the smiles curling over peoples faces as they realized a baby was about to be born. That was the thing about living off grid, every little noise could be heard for miles if you leaned in well enough.
Tradition in the Redmond family was to open fortune cookies the night a baby was born. It was somewhat silly, seeing as there weren’t any Chinese food restaurants any closer than 6 hours away and most of the cooking done off grid was by way of hunting, gathering and preserving. The cookies kept well, so it was easy enough to stash some in the food cellar for such occasions as the birth of a baby and birthdays in general. The night Vada Redmond was born her proud father opened the toasted golden colored cookie. Crinkling the plastic covering, he shoved it into the front bib of his overalls. His smile, brightened the dark room colliding with the warmth from the fire gave the feeling of goodness and emanated the pride only a new father could have.
Clearing his throat, Vada’s father read, “If you think we’re going to sum up your whole life on this little piece of paper you’re crazy.” Laughter erupted from her father's chest, as mother remained on the pile of quilts on the floor by the fire nursing her sweet new babe.
“Did you hear that Miss Vada? Your life is going to be so abundant, even the fortune says so. George, what do you think hmm?” George urged his body up, adrenaline had left the building as soon as the midwife said his wife Margaret and his daughter Vada were just fine. Relief usually followed adrenaline if all was just fine, leaving one too tired for much more than sitting and holding a new baby.
“I think any baby of ours, with eyes that shine like hers will have the best life.”
And so it was. Every year on Vada’s birthday she’d open a fortune. Giddy with nerves and excitement to open her cookie. The fortune cookie was the highlight of every birthday celebration for Vada, in second place was the chocolate chip layer cake her mother made (with chocolate drizzle), and then it was presents.
Before she’d crack her fortune open, Vada would interrogate her father, “Daddy, how do I know these are actually true? When will I know if the fortune has come true or not?” These questions always sent her father into an uproar of delight.
“Sweet one, the fortune is as true as you are willing to make it my dear. Nothing more and nothing less. Don’t seek to make it true, let it seek you.” He’d tuck Vada’s uneven curls behind her ears, and squeeze her shoulder while saying, “Go on, open it! We want to see what your future holds!’ The suspense, followed by the announcement of great fortunes or trials, were always followed by the crunching of cookies.
Every year it was the same for Vada, the anticipation of the cookie and the reading of the fortune. Some of her favorite fortunes were:
He who throws mud loses ground. (She wasn’t ever sure if this was a good fortune or happenstance, as they lived in a rugged terrain and mud was aplenty.)
Don’t pursue happiness, create it. (Vada loved the simplicity of this fortune. It simply didn’t bother her one stinkin’ bit if she intentionally made her fortunes come true. This particular fortune was asking to be true.)
Drive like hell you’ll get there. (Whether or not this foretold her future or not, driving the snowmobile like hell wasn’t a hard one to avoid when the sun started to dip in the wilderness of Alaska).
The year of Vada’s thirteenth birthday she snapped her cookie into two parts, leaving the folded white paper upside down on their oak dining table her mother had hand chiseled details into.
George was eager as ever, “Well, what’s it say sweet one?”
“It says, ‘There is no mistake so great as that of being always right.’” Vada, looked between her mother and father sighing as teenagers do. “I don’t believe in these fortunes anymore. How can they possibly know what my life will be like, when I live in the middle of nowhere?! I see June once a month, and she’s a two hour ride from here. I hate this place. You both told me Santa was real for years, so what am I actually to believe?!! There is nothing here to bring me any kind of fortune. ” Shoving the chair back with the brunt of her thighs, Vada brought her fist down onto the already broken cookie. The transition into womanhood was rough on Vada Redmond, and often her own shouts of emotional turmoil would be heard throughout the wild just like the alarm system stationed above her family’s fireplace. Her cries would come and go alerting everyone “Rescue me from this place.”
The years that followed Vada’s thirteenth birthday recreated family tradition into something more painful. Vada no longer ranked the cookie opening as number one in her book. Rather she yearned for the day to be over before it began. She’d find more wood to stack along the shed, tinker on the snowmobiles, sharpen the axes, or haul more water for their reserve to make the time go faster. Being raised in Alaska, off grid made Vada hardy and resilient. She could do hard things that most of her peers never did. George and Margaret would set Vada’s fortune cookie on a small saucer in front of her bedroom door. A gentle rap to her door, to deliver the prosperous words.
The morning of Vada’s eighteenth birthday was heavy with fog, she’d been born in the middle of spring when the fog still blanketed their tiny valley floor in the morning hours. Above and below the cover of fog Vada eyed the ice blue bay. It was endless, moving in and out pulling the sediment of the shore out into its depths. Vada wanted the bay to pull her away to another life. One where she could actually live among real fortunes, surrounded by the bustle of people within arms reach. She had decided that today would be her last day at home with George and Margaret. Big plans awaited her in Washington where an internship on an organic farm held a spot just for her. The real world was ready for Vada, and like a baby bird pecking it’s way out of it’s ceramic shell Vada was ready to burst out and fly.
The birthday fortunes had been special to her for so long, but the value of the family tradition never wavered for her parents. She knew how delicate she needed to be with her parents, and that her gift to them would be opening a cookie one last time.
“Hey, Daddy where’s my fortune? I think I’d like to open it.”
“Really? Huh, well I didn’t expect that!”
George’s eyes sparkled, beaming with sheer love. His hand came to his chin mixing up his wiry beard. Vada breathed in deeply, the smell of her father's beard when he hugged her would be the smell she missed most. Not the forest of trees surrounding their hand built home. Not the smell of salty salmon curing. Not the crisp smell of snow melting in the spring. Her father’s beard, rich in cedar oil might be the one thing that kept her in the Redmond family home.
Shaking the nostalgia back, she pushed the cookie out, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.” Crying now, and choking back sobs she blurted out, “I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m sorry, but I can’t stay.” Vada couldn’t bear to see their response, as she bolted to her room shutting the door with a loud boom. That’s not how she had planned for it to all go down. That fortune had to have been a set up, a trap maybe by the universe to prove that these birthday fortunes were real. “Damn cookies, what do they know?”
A tiny rap came at Vada’s cedar door. It was so delicate and faint it must have been her mother, everything Margaret did carried the same level of ease and softness. A deep breath released from the hollows of her throat, as the side of her sweater sleeve wiped away the tears and snot on her nose. Expecting her mother to be standing there, Vada opened the door to no one and almost turned back to collapse onto her bed when she saw the tiny glimmer of a saucer. Instead of a fortune cookie, in its place was an envelope with the words, “Sweet One,” written on it.
Vada opened the cream colored stationary slowly. Paper items like this were coveted out here in the wild. The handwriting was her father’s, she knew by the slanted cursive that demanded your head to tilt just so while reading.
“Our Sweet One,
Nothing has brought your mother and I more true resounding joy than living here with you. Watching you grow with wonder and curiosity made us both into better people. When the days got harder and you questioned everything- Even the good things like the cookie traditions, we chose not to push back. We knew that one day, you’d want to leave this little paradise of forest to seek your future elsewhere. Your future has sought you out, just like I had hoped it would. Please never forget that your joys and your sorrows are as true as you’re willing to make them. You might want to grow old and avoid all the pain, but sometimes the fortune comes from the pain. You’ll understand one day when life settles. When I’m an old man and your mother becomes a tinier version of her former self. Don’t seek to make your fortunes true, let them seek you. After all you’ve been in charge of what your life would be this whole time.
Mother & Father
PS, You dropped this at the table. Looks like eighteen is your lucky year, a double fortune.
Laughter exploded from Vada’s puffy face as she read the most literal fortune of her entire life, “Soon you’ll receive a letter from a loved one.”
It had been ages since Vada sat on her bedroom floor in the turmoil of feeling excited and the deepest grief she had ever known. The letter didn’t keep Vada there, she did just what her father had encouraged her to do- Seek. Vada made her way home two or three times a year to visit the paradise that created her foundation for life. As life settled, which it inevitably did, Vada found her way back home to care for her ailing mother with the same tenderness Margaret had given her as a baby. Mother passed cradled in Vada’s arms by the fireside one winter. Vada and her Father made do, and even embraced a new family member along the way- Vada’s husband James Tuft had been with them for a few years now and they expected a baby any day now.
On the night that Georgia Margaret was born, Vada sat on the very same spot in which her own mother cradled her 35 years ago. She had heard that babies born on their mothers birthdays were extra special, but simply being in her childhood home here with her husband James and the smell of her Father's cedar oiled beard made it all the more special. James said goodbye to the midwife, as George shuffled over to his daughter holding two fortune cookies, eyes shimmering with pride as the family tradition was to begin anew again.
Vada shushed Georgia and read aloud, “You are a talented storyteller.”
And so it was, Vada reciting the story of how the fortune cookies on birthdays had come to be in the Redmond family (now the Redmond-Tuft family) for yet another generation. The story of how she created her own happiness and drove like hell when she heard her Mother was sick. The story of how Vada told her Father how he’d been right in the best sorts of ways all along. The story of the time she fell in love with James over a mud fight. How it is so easy to make your fortunes true, if you want them to be.
“Now Sweet One, we will read your fortune. ‘An inch of time is an inch of gold.’