Friday, September 25, 2009

Dishwashers and dry sinks

My dishwasher broke down a few days ago. So for three days I did dishes by hand. Now that might sound like "big deal, whatever, three days, quit complaining or shut up completely you lazy, whining slob." And I admit that's exactly what it sounds like. But I wasn't complaining. Honest. Granted, I was eager to have my dishwasher fixed, and if the repairman hadn't been able to do so (which he did yesterday), I would have bought a new one this weekend.

What I really felt for three days, however, was guilt.

My father grew up on a farm during the Depression--as in the *real* Depression, not the Feeling Sad that the U.S. has experienced this last year. I don't want to minimize what the declining economy did and continues to do to some families. But this wasn't a Depression, not if most of you got to keep your homes, not to mention your satellite dishes and cell phones and iPods and laptops.

But that's not my point. My point is that my father and my mother and my aunts and uncles and my grandparents experienced the real thing. My father wrote and published a Christmas book a number of years ago entitled The Hired Man's Christmas. It's a true story and takes place during his childhood. One of the most poignant moments in it for me is his retelling of a trip his family took to town so his parents could buy a box of "dog food"--a box of broken cookies from the bakery, bits and pieces, some of which had likely been on the floor before making it to the box, that used to be sold as dog food before the Depression hit the small town in Upstate New York. My father talks about the shame he could see on his father's face as he went in to purchase the box, the bakery owner knowing my grandfather didn't have a dog . . . but he did have a young son.

Dad held the box on his lap on the way home, sneaking in a bite here and there, his father silent and unwilling to chastise him.

My father's family was, in truth, barely touched by the Depression. It was hard to hit a family that was already so poor they didn't yet have indoor plumbing--a family so poor that the house was never warm in the winter. My grandmother had to get up before everyone else on the farm so she could start the fire in the kitchen's wood stove and melt the dishtowels that had frozen onto it overnight.

The farm was what Dad used to call "hardscrabble." He and my grandfather and my uncles--when they weren't overseas in WWII--worked hard and the farm still failed. My grandfather tried to raise dairy cows for a while, only to have to put them all down when the government ordered him to during a livestock health scare. By the time my grandfather was in his 50s, life had beaten him down completely. He died a painful and slow death from lung cancer before I was born.

But my grandmother? She kept going, because that's what women did then.

I have a ledge that runs around my eat-in kitchen, and it's filled with antique kitchen tools: butter molds, rolling pins, fat strainers, hog scrapers, wooden spoons and forks. They're reminders to me of a harder and, in many ways, more grateful life.

The antique I covet the most, however, is the dry sink I don't own.

When we were looking at homes before buying this one, we put an offer in on one in a different neighborhood. The woman selling it had a dry sink in her front room and was willing to include it in the contract because my realtor had told her realtor how much I wanted it. I was sorrier to lose the dry sink than to lose the house.

As I was doing dishes by hand this week, I thought about how much--especially free time--we have today. My washing machine and dryer work well. My wood floors are varnished and don't require daily scrubbing. My air conditioning keeps my windows closed and the dust off my furniture and rugs. I don't have a fireplace hearth to keep cleaned. I don't have farm animals to feed--or to kill and clean. I have more than I need. We all do.

So what am I doing with that free time--the free time my father didn't have when he was a child, the free time my grandmother didn't have when she was 40 . . . or 50 or 60 or even 70? Am I making good use of it? One of the things that upsets me the most is hearing anyone--but particularly adults--say they are bored. Bored! My mother always told me, "Only boring people are bored." I believe that only lazy people are bored. There's so much to do, so much to be grateful for, so much time and resources to take advantage of. Bored. We should be ashamed to ever use that word.

I'll get a dry sink one of these days . . . when I find just the right one, the one that calls to me, the one that feels smooth under my hands, the one I can picture in my house--the one I can picture in my grandmother's house. Wen it's finally sitting against my wall, I'll look at it and cry. And then find something to do that is worth doing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Revenge fantasy

We have roughly a bazillion children's books in our house, give or take three. And still, my four-year-old gets bored with his choices and demands a trip to the library so I can read to him for half an hour or so. The routine: I sit in the least uncomfortable chair I can find and wait for him to bring the books to me. (And don't worry, I return them all to their proper places.)

Yesterday, he chose a book about a caterpillar and a tadpole that fall in love, promising to each other they will never change. Ever ever.

But, of course, the tadpole does change. He grows legs, and the caterpillar, his "rainbow," feels betrayed. He promises to never change again and she forgives him. Then he grows arms. "No! You changed." But she forgives him again when he promises to never change again. Then he loses his tail, and that's the last straw. The tadpole broke his promise three times, and she couldn't forgive him anymore.

So the tadpole mopes around missing the caterpillar, but as the season changes, the caterpillar realizes she misses him, too, and that she shouldn't have been so unforgiving. She, now a butterfly, heads off to find him but instead finds a frog.

I was, at this point, expecting a happily-ever-after ending. They both changed. Change is part of life and love. Kiss and make up. Ta-dah!

But apparently the author had a revenge fantasy he or she was playing out through this children's book. The butterfly starts to ask the frog if he knows the tadpole, and the frog sticks out his tongue, swallows the butterfly whole, and then thinks of his caterpillar every time he sees a rainbow. The end.

Ivan thought the ending was funny. I was disturbed. And then amused.

I think we're all, to a degree, trying to live out those fantasies, aren't we? Proving to the bullies that we could succeed? Making that ex regret the way he treated you? Wearing the killer outfit to the reunion so the popular girl can see you aged better than she did? We might not cram it all into a children's book, but, come on, the way we close up those wounds can be a little childish. I'll be the first to admit it.

The thing is, the frog was doing just fine when the butterfly showed up. He was going about his business underwater; he wasn't mooning about on the surface looking for his rainbow. And, heck, he still had enough of an appetite to *eat* a butterfly, so how love sick could he have been? I've been dumped before. I wasn't craving butterflies or pizza or even chocolate for some time. Even now, when I look back on the two times I was dumped, I kinda get a little sick to my stomach--not because I feel that hurt again but because I feel the shame that goes along with how I handled myself at the time. (stupid girl. stupid. stupid. stupid.)

But the frog wasn't looking for revenge. He was just looking for a meal. So perhaps that's what true revenge is: getting on with your life.

And now I'm feeling a little snackish. No butterflies around, but I think there are some dark-chocolate-covered raisins in hiding. They'll do just fine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Growing up

Jerry Seinfeld wrote a hilarious book a few years back: "Halloween." It's based on his stand-up act and is about (surprise) Halloween and kids' costumes and all the candy they're capable of consuming. We've had it for a long time, and I still laugh every time I read it. He talks in one part about how when you're a kid, everything is "up":

"Wait up!" That's what kids say. They don't say "wait", they say "Wait up! Hey, wait up!" 'Cause when you're little, your life is up. The future is up. Everything you want is up. "Wait up! Hold up! Shut up! Mom, I'll clean up! Let me stay up!" Parents of course are just the opposite. Everything is down. "Just calm down. Slow down. Come down here. Sit down. Put that down."

And it's the "slow down" that I'm thinking about this afternoon. I want my kids to slow down and stop growing up so fast. I know it's a common complaint of parents, and what I have to say about it isn't going to offer up anything new, but I need the cathartic release so I can get back to my work without sitting here all weepy and melancholy.

When Ivan was little--just 2--I used to take him to Costco. I didn't need to go. There was nothing I could buy at a warehouse that I couldn't buy on sale at our local grocery store for the same price or less. And I have 4 kids not 14. But going there with him was a splurge of sorts, not because of the shopping but because he liked going and looked forward to his pizza and ice cream afterward. I'd buy the few things on my list--freeze-dried apples and strawberries, a bag of avocados, a case of diced tomatoes, whatever I thought I could use up before it went bad--and then I'd head to the "cafe" where I'd get him his $1.50 slice of pepperoni and his $1.00 soda. Then I'd sit with him while he ate what he could, me with all the time in the world and him in a hurry because he knew the soft-serve ice cream was next.

And that half hour we'd be eating together is what the early stages of my parenting remind me of. I had all the time in the world to sit and watch them, but they were in a hurry because they knew what came next. "When do I start kindergarten?" "When can I start having sleepovers?" "When can I walk to my friend's house alone?" "When can I stay up later?" "When can I get an iPod, a cell phone, my own laptop?" And I just want them to be content with the pizza and soda for a little longer.

Ron and I decided when Ivan was about one that we were done having children. Or rather, I decided and Ron went along with it all. I didn't think I could emotionally handle another. I didn't think I could psychologically or even physically handle another. Mothering didn't come easy to me. It's something I've had to work hard on since Day 1. I remember sitting with Simon on the floor when he was only a couple of weeks old and saying aloud, "Okay. The books say I should talk to you. But I don't know what to say." And what to say was only one of many things I didn't know.

It's been more than 12 years, and there are still many things I don't know--like how I'm going to handle Ivan starting kindergarten next year and I have 5 full days to myself each week, like how I'll handle any of them starting to date, how I'll handle them getting their hearts broken, how I'll handle them hating me or resenting me for even a brief period, how I'll handle them leaving home one at a time.

The irony of parenting is that this is what we all want all along. We want them to grow up. We want them to learn to be independent, because that's what's best for them. We want them to look ahead to the ice cream, because who doesn't love the desserts in life?

I even thought this time of my life would be one of those desserts. I wanted to be busy with work again. I wanted to have something to call my own, because no matter how much I may lay claim to my children, they don't belong to me. And now I am busy with work. And I do have something to call my own. And all of this is yet another reason I said that four was enough. I have what I want, but it's bittersweet.

And the truth is, four is enough. But I can still miss Simon at 3, coming downstairs from his nap and kissing me on the cheek while I'm waking up from my own nap. I can still miss Owen at 1, screaming at the top of his lungs for his breakfast--and then laughing hysterically throughout dinner at anything and everything around him. I can still miss Emma at 4, telling me that hearing me get angry at anyone is "a sad story." I can still miss Ivan at nap time today saying, "Thank you that I get to hug Mommy" in his prayer.

The future is up. And I look forward to all the pizza, soda, and ice cream ahead of us. But I just need it to slow down a little so I can capture every moment of it and play it again and again. And again. Because these times are my desserts. And I want to be able to savor them for as long as possible.