Thursday, October 29, 2009

When the party's over

White flakes were drifting to the ground outside my window yesterday morning, and the soggy leaves heaped in our front yard wore a silvery trim of frost. It looked festive, but nobody was tempted to play in that heavy mass of foliage. When the weather was still dry, the boys had raked a pile of enviable dimensions, and they had waded through the crisp leaves, buried each other in them, jumped into the middle of them, tossed them above their heads in handfuls to flutter downward like excitable birds and alight on the brown lawn. But when rain fell (as it always does in October), the autumnal celebration ended.

Tuesday night marked the end of my boys' soccer season, and I can't pretend that I am sorry. This weather has dampened my team spirit. The trees in the distance were pale with snow as we stood huddled on the sleet-saturated grass to watch red-cheeked second graders chase a very wet black and white ball. Jonah complained of numb toes. Paul and Jude, retaining precious body heat with a blue fleece blanket, slouched in the double stroller to keep out of the wind. Asaph's nose ran. I could not feel my fingers. We cheered and clapped, but not with the usual energy; our applause were stifled to lifeless thuds by winter gloves.

That soccer game ended not a moment too soon. But then we raised our eyes above the muddy grass and saw that, against this dim and chilly fadeout of the season, the sun, as it sank, was shooting a blast of pink light across the sky, setting the gray clouds and the snow-dusted hills on fire. The unexpected gala of color overhead seemed to revive a bit of the celebratory spirit as we vacated the darkening field. The whole scene reminded me, just a little, of that sense of anticlimax, when the last shower of sparks fizzles to black; when the show is over; when the crowds quietly prepare to leave—and then, out of dull silence, the echoing barrage of canon fire pounds against my rib cage, and the night explodes into a pyrotechnic grande finale.

Which just goes to show that you should never hang up your party hat too soon.

Two weeks ago, when an early freeze threatened our garden, I thought the end of this year's ingathering had come. I had finally resigned myself to the untimely demise of my tomatoes, picking the last of the green orbs from most of the withered vines. But one tenacious plant was still in full, flourishing leaf and laden with so many unripe tomatoes, I couldn't bear to strip it of its fruit and leave it to die. (One can only stomach so many fried green tomatoes.) I dug it up with its roots, transplanted it to a roomy red pot, and moved into my living room. There it went into shock; its leaves shriveled and grew brittle, and again, I thought its time had come. But it stayed, weighted down by the unrealized crop on its branches, and I waited. During the days that followed, an unanticipated second harvest ensued. Every one of those lovely tomatoes took on a pale orange hue—and then a promising pink, and then a flaming Roma red. The second ripening seemed more robust and welcome than the first. It took me by surprise.

When I turned the insignificant age of 31 last week, my family gave me some of the presents I'd had on my wish list. My husband took me out to dinner—just him, me, and a couple of plates of enchiladas. We had some good conversation, some decent margaritas, some fried ice cream. Fun, but nothing fancy. When we returned home, my husband held the door for me, and shouts of "Mommeeee!" sounded from the kitchen. With a screeching of chair legs on tile and a stampede of small feet, my sons rounded the corner and bombarded me with strawberry cupcakes and packages of chocolate and licorice and cards scrawled with misspelled birthday greetings. My sons were breathless with delight at having caught me off guard. The whole birthday was perfectly pleasant, and the party ended with a cheery bang.

My mom-in-law was still staying with us last Friday when my parents left town for the weekend. My grandmother, who lives with them, had just returned from a long trip, so my husband suggested that we go out to dinner one more time while we had our free babysitter and should stop to visit Grannie on our way to the restaurant. Sounded like a well planned evening to me. How well planned I little suspected.

When we arrived at my parents' house, instead of meeting my grandmother, I was greeted with shouts of "Surprise!" and with the laughing faces of some of my oldest and best friends. What began—and ended—as a birthday of little importance blazed back into life to become a birthday I will savor and smile about for years to come. Bursts of fiery color filled the vases on the table. Unanticipated gifts rested on the hearth. Ruby wine filled our glasses. And the food! My husband had conspired with one of our multitalented acquaintances* to present the twelve of us with a stunning eight-course Japanese dinner. I will not describe it, except to say that I cannot imagine enjoying a meal more. And is there any table fellowship that compares to the easy company of friends kept since childhood?

The snow may be falling, but lately I am starting to wonder if an unforeseen Indian Summer might burn through the clouds at any moment. This has been a week full of unexpected gifts. Of waking from sleep. Of gaiety revived. Of beauty for ashes. Don't put away your party hat just yet.


*Lisa B, for those who want to know

Monday, October 19, 2009


Today is my birthday. Not a birthday of any great significance; no special legal privileges are newly mine, and the number doesn't end in a zero. It's just another year gone. Today, as usual, I staggered out of my warm bed early enough to squeeze in a morning walk before the kids woke up to to pull my attention in 4 different directions. I didn't even brush my hair before going out. The sun was hardly up when I came in the front door to find my three-year-old running to greet me with wet pajamas. Again. My 19-month-old stood rattling the sides of his crib, waiting to be dressed. "All the shirts in his drawer are too small," my husband informed me as he deposited the baby, wearing a shirt two sizes too big, in the high chair. As I reached for an apple, my eldest complained of three loose teeth and requested that I pack his lunch with soft foods. Meanwhile, my five-year-old ran laps through the hallway in a panic, wondering where his socks and belt could have gone. Apparently it never occurred to him to check in his dresser. Then, halfway through dishing up seven bowls of yogurt, I realized that I'd forgotten to have him do his math homework for the second time in a week.

If, at age eighteen, I could have seen myself at 31, I might not have recognized the somewhat disorganized mother of four I have become. I would certainly not have been pleased with what I saw. I've grown softer and rounder in all the wrong places, and the dark circles under my eyes seem to be a permanent fixture. I've never been the owner of a single item advertised in Vogue. I have never lived in Paris. I've traded art museums for coloring books; urban Shakespeare productions for grade school plays; dinner at eight for Happy Meals at noon. I never saw this coming. I'm not even a "kid person." As I look back, I ask myself how this could have happened to me. What became of all my ambitions?

The answer is: They died.

Thirteen years ago I was a college freshman with big plans and little foresight. I was going to study French, and then earn a Master's degree—probably a PhD as well—in Art History from some red brick institution on the East Coast. If I had asked my 18-year-old self what I would be doing now, I would have seen myself traveling to sophisticated places and delivering lectures to sophisticated students and reading sophisticated books and wearing sophisticated clothes and painting sophisticated canvases to the delight of my sophisticated patrons and dining in sophisticated restaurants with my sophisticated husband, whoever he might be. I would have a brilliant career. I would name-drop cities. I would know people who knew people, if you know what I mean.

But something—let's call it grace—happened to all those sophisticated plans. Today, on my 31st birthday, tiny, unsophisticated fingerprints stipple the lower halves of the windows and the French door to the living room. Sticky drips from unsophisticated sippie cups pepper the hardwood floors. The upstairs trash can is overflowing with unsophisticated diapers. I read unsophisticated stories to unsophisticated children who can't sit still long enough to hear the ending. I have a family-size bag of highly unsophisticated chicken nuggets in the freezer for those nights when we get home late—and muddy—from unsophisticated soccer games. I sing along with unsophisticated songs while attempting to accompany them using my unsophisticated piano skills. And I live in my unsophisticated home town where I push an unsophisticated double stroller while wearing the unsophisticated tennis shoes I purchased at a church rummage sale. And the strange thing is that I know this life, although I sometimes live it poorly, is a far better life than my 18-year-old self could have understood.

It's difficult to discern how my perception of "the good life" altered during the intervening years. But if there's one thing I've learned during that time, it's that a well-lived life means dying well—over and over again. I have not done it as often or as willingly as I ought. Not nearly. Sometimes I think that leaping in front of the oncoming train to rescue the baby in the stroller would be the best way to go—all at once, in a blaze of selfless glory. But where would be the challenge? Or the reward? Until I see that I must die daily, a little at a time, sometimes imperceptibly, I will never learn to truly live.

My husband's mother is staying with our family right now, and I think she has known this for a long time. She has given her years to teaching English to teenagers on their last stop before jail; helping kids with special needs learn to read; giving hours and days of every week to students and grandchildren and friends in need. She's been a mentor to people with addictions. She walked 60 miles this fall to raise money to find a cure for the cancer that took her little sister's life. She's planning a trip to volunteer in an orphanage overseas next year. She drove alone 1200 miles to see her son's family here in Idaho and will drive alone 1200 miles to get home to her other son's family in Arizona. She gives her life away. That is to say, she has found it.

We went with her down to the river this week when the weather was warm. We ate a picnic on the levy and watched the boys play on the rocks near the water. She and my husband climbed down with the kids and peered between the stones with them in search of lost treasures. They returned with a broken pink fishing pole, two golf balls, and an orange water pistol. They also returned with smiles and dirt on their hands. My hands were clean. Sophisticated people do not get dirty.

As we packed up our picnic, my husband told the boys to throw the remains of their sandwich bread into the river. When they did so, a pair of gulls plummeted to the surface to snatch the floating pieces, leaving a lone duck to seek vainly for the leftover crumbs. The bread was gone. But somehow the news got out that food was being distributed, and the gulls and ducks from across the river came in a mass to find what we had to offer. My oldest son turned to me and asked for more bread to give them. I hesitated. I had just packed it away. There were sandwiches to be made during the week ahead. I paid good money for that loaf and didn't want to waste it on an assembly of dirty, ungrateful birds. But I am slowly learning that my own plans must die and give way to something richer; I passed the loaf between my sons, who broke it, throwing it riverward.

The cries of the hungry fowl filled the air as piece after piece descended toward their waiting beaks. We all laughed at their enthusiastic response to this unexpected bounty. Broken bread may have been wasted on these filthy crowds, these shepherdless flocks. But what we gathered from it was something much more. Something multiplied. Twelve baskets full.

We took a stroll along the levy and then down its steep green slope toward the road. But looking behind us, all the boys knew that a grassy bank like that is not to be experienced by mere walking. Back up they all went—even the baby on hands and knees—to roll down in dizzy giggles. I stood apart to watch, with the stroller between them and me, giving way to a dignified smile. But then my husband broke away up the hill after the children to take part in their game. And after him went his mother, who reached the summit and came twirling toward me, calling to me to join in. I hesitated. Sophisticated people do not roll down hills.

Sophisticated people do not know how to live. I stepped from behind the stroller and jogged to the top of the levy, lay down on the grass, and let myself go. Over and over. A whirl of colors spun around me. Gulls cried overhead. I slowed to a stop at the bottom of that grassy bank and lay, arms outstretched, breathless, with a thousand-thousand friendly blades against my back. And I died. Laughing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It runneth over

Yesterday, at high noon, I marched boldly into the kitchen to face ranks of sticky wine glasses and crusty forks and Sunday plates plastered with dry salad leaves. Dirty dishes advanced in rows across my counter. I threatened them with a damp pink dishrag—an empty threat at the time, and I think they knew it. I had been waiting all morning for an ally to arrive and help me break through these enemy lines, to save me from from inglorious defeat at greasy, unwashed knifepoint. I was, in short, waiting for the plumber.

This would be, if I'm counting right, his eighth visit to our home in six months. We take pains to show hospitality (as the echelons of dishes could attest), frequently inviting guests to share our table and our conversation. Nevertheless, the plumber, I am ashamed to say, has been ushered in through our door more often than any other visitor this year.

Earlier this spring, a basement that refused to stop filling with water was what first brought him to our front step. By the time we realized we were living above a small flood, we were forced to dispose of twenty square feet of moldy green shag carpet, nine sodden wood pallets, an armload of mildewed baby items, and two foully discolored mattresses. Hoping to locate and put an end to the problem, we transferred all of our surviving items from the basement to the shed. But we failed to find the source of the leak; the walls continued to seep and drip and run onto the floor. This clearly called for the deployment of special forces. Hence the plumber.

First, he came and assessed. Not surprisingly, the leaking continued. On the next visit he installed a new shower drain. More leaking. He arrived a few days later to rummage around and perform minor surgery in the crawl space. Still leaking. After that, he replaced a huge chunk of knee-shaped pipe in the basement itself. That seemed to do the trick. Mostly. Even experts must sometimes work by trial and error. After four house calls from the plumber—and one from a gutter specialist—the copious leakage has been reduced to a trickle, which is, I suppose, as good a state of affairs as anyone could expect in a 114-year-old coal cellar. At least we now know better than to trust any important belongings to that dank and musty cave. If only we were collectors of fine wines.

We invited the plumber for the fifth time—as a far more welcome guest—in June to install a lovely new dishwasher.

With the leak in the basement more or less stopped, and the dishwasher performing its function dutifully, we had a few peaceful, plumber-free months. And then last week our kitchen sink quit draining. Or rather, after filling up both sides of the sink, it drained sluggishly into our dishwasher and from there onto the floor. So I plunged. I ran the disposal. I set the dishwasher on "pot scrubber" and let it scrub away. But my attempts only made the overflow worse.

Back came Mr. Plumber again with metal snakes and heavy wrenches and rust stained towels to investigate the unpleasant bowels of my home. It's a grimy, sleeves-rolled-to-the-elbows, belly-on-the-tiles kind of job that this Lysol-wielding housewife would not want to touch. I prefer to let others do my dirty work for me. After hearing a good deal of grunting and rattling from under the sink, I expected to eventually hear a victorious swishing of water through open pipes. But apparently the snake wasn't long enough to reach the clog.

Our now familiar friend came back again the next day with a longer and more venomous snake. This one was plenty long, but it lacked the flexibility to slither past the sharp bend in the pipes underneath the house. To make amends for the defeat of the snake, the plumber installed a vent in our kitchen drain and replaced an aging piece of pipe with something shiny and white. That night I averted countertop takeover on my own; I served dinner on paper plates. (I learned from my high school basketball coach that defense is sometimes the best offense.)

On the following day the plumber returned with a complete arsenal, ready to do battle with the retrofitted guts of this stubborn old house. The noises coming from below our lunch table were promising: something like the concussive chatter of jackhammers and the report of gunshots. And this time, the promising noises delivered. Oh the joy of a functional drain!

And yet...

Three days later, I noticed that the dishwasher still contained a puddle of cloudy water. And when I ran the garbage disposal, the puddle grew deeper. Soon after that, the disposal made a wretched crunching sound followed by a subtle buzz. And each time I rinsed a dish, the dishwasher puddle deepened and the sink drained more slowly. On Sunday night, the sink would no longer drain, and the dishwasher was once again spilling its murky contents onto the mismatched towels I had wadded beneath its door.

And so yesterday afternoon my faithful ally in dirty blue jeans and steel-toe boots came to my aid once again. No matter that he tracked mud across the just-vacuumed rug. No matter that he sloshed puddles on the recently mopped tile. In twenty minutes he had my disposal grinding efficiently through chunks of stale bread and bits of zucchini peel. And that daunting army of dishes now lies overturned on the rack of my perfectly draining dishwasher. A greasy knife is no match for a fully functional sink.

I waved my pink dishrag in triumphant farewell to our plumber, hoping that I will never have cause to invite his help again. As a certain former president might say, "Mission Accomplished."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Last Enemy

I am pleased to report that I removed this post because it has been accepted for publication in the upcoming issue of Relief.  If you want to read the essay, I suppose you'll just have to purchase a copy when it becomes available. (Woohoo!)

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