The Dress

It would not zip up. It had, not two weeks ago, zipped just fine—with extra room, in fact. But now, forty-five minutes before we were supposed to be sitting in the wedding chapel pew, the beautiful silk cocktail dress would not zip. The wedding was at 5:30 on Saturday evening. It was black-tie (technically “optional,” but not practically so). The bride’s family was from New York City, and the wedding was in an upscale part of Connecticut. I had packed only one formal dress to wear. This dress. This dress that was supposed to fit, but didn’t.

“Let me see,” John said as I started pacing in the tiny Air B&B Bedroom that looked like an explosion of somebody’s great aunt’s entire nick-knack collection. We’re talking cat figurines, cat clocks, a cat doorstop, and some angels (of course there were angels—with older women of the great-aunt variety, where there are always cats and angels). There were also weird glass bowls, and teacups, and not enough room on either side of the bed to fit both suitcases. There were proper inns, of course, but those cost three times as much, and we have other things to pay for, like diapers.

I stepped over a pile of clothes on the floor and walked over to John who, while I sucked-in LIKE A CHAMPION, zipped it. Hazzah!

But—I COULD NOT BREATHE—I’m talking like corsets of the 1800’s, not breathing. If by some miracle I made it through the ceremony without fainting, there was no way I’d be able to have more than a bite of wedding cake without passing out. I bent over trying to stretch the non-strechy silk, but as I continually forced my ribs to inhale (since, you know, the continuation of life generally requires inhales) I knew it was not going to work—neither the stretching, nor the wearing. The dress had to come off.

William was not with us. He was staying with my in-laws. Coming to this wedding was our first full weekend without him since he’d been born. The wedding ceremony and festivities were in Lakeville, Connecticut, which was about thirty minutes from where I went to boarding school in Kent, Connecticut. I had not returned to my high school since graduation over ten years ago, and in celebration of the visit and our weekend away, I bought a new sundress for walking around campus on Saturday morning. The sundress was navy with a sleeveless jersey top and a floral cotton skirt. It wasn’t casual, but it wasn’t formal either. Of the four potential dresses I ordered from Amazon, I returned three, but this one felt right, so I wore it. When we walked around, we didn’t see a soul. My favorite teachers were all on vacation, and apparently the new faculty didn’t arrive until the following week. On an old running trail, we did see into the dean of students, who was walking her dog—the same type, but by a different name. Ten years had passed, and though the school was just as I remembered, I was not who I thought I would be.

The night before, we’d attended a party with people we went to college with, people much like the ones I’d gone to high school with; people who were attending Harvard Business School and Wharton; people who were Luce Scholars and Rhodes Scholars; people who’d just finished trips to Croatia and to Switzerland and to Venezuela; people who were running their own companies and who were working at the most prestigious law firms and the most prestigious accounting firms and the most prestigious consulting firms in the country. These were the nation’s best and the brightest. And none of them had a baby—not one. And none of them stayed home. Round and round they went, telling what they did, and where they traveled, and then they came to me.

“And what do you do, Kerry Anne?”

“Oh, we have a baby, and I just stay home.” Can you hear it? The “just.” As if that choice is not a good choice? As if that choice is not an important choice? In high school, I thought I would grow up to be an international scholar, or a director of a non-profit that helped women in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the CEO of some kind of grandiose something—I didn’t know what exactly, but the world was open, and I would do it. I thought, in short, I would be like the people I was standing beside.

But then in college, I didn’t like my international studies classes. And I shunned math. And I didn’t really like business. What I liked were words and ideas and the culmination of ideas and words into stories that could grab the heart—hold on to it in a way that left it slightly changed, or profoundly changed, or unconsciously changing.

And so I took more literature classes. I read more, wrote more, changed more. I chose a different path without realizing, perhaps, exactly what I was choosing.

And amidst the reading and writing and changing there was love. And love, as it does, changes everything.

Then I chose marriage.

Then I chose graduate school. Not in business. But in fine arts—and not art for art’s sake, but for the world’s sake. Because, how will the world know what it is becoming without someone reflecting upon it, and then reflecting it back?

Then I chose children, and God, graciously, granted us a baby.

A baby who was not with us that weekend, as I desperately wanted to be someone other than “Mom,” desperately wanted to be someone who fit into her black-tie attire–now just minutes before a very fancy wedding. But what I wanted, what I thought should fit in that angel-cat-nick-knack bedroom, did not.

I did have another dress, though. The sundress. I had worn it all day. It was wrinkled, and there was no time to iron it because I forgot I had to sew John’s bowtie back onto the tie strap, and I was so flustered that I sewed it on backwards, and then had to use fashion tape and some prayer to keep it in place. But it stayed in place, and I put back on the wrinkled, deodorant-stained sundress. Then I curled my hair, and did my make up and wore the biggest, sparkliest earrings I had. We arrived in time to sit in the back row. All around us women dazzled in designer cocktail dresses and floor length gowns, and I could do nothing but sigh (quite well, at least).

When the ceremony was over, and we made our way to the reception, the small talk around cocktail tables began again, and inevitably the question came up: “And Kerry Anne, what do you do?”

What do I do?

What do I do—I wake up, every day. I breathe, in and out. I get breakfast for my son, and sometimes my husband, and always our dog. I take us for a walk. I read, and I sing, and I dance. I teach my son that God loves him and I love him, and there is nothing he could ever do to make either of us love him more. And I clean—oh how I clean. I never even realized how much there is to clean or how hard it is to clean, but I clean —the baseboards and the cracks in the couches and the toilets and the showers. I water the grass and the bushes and our feet on sunny days. I rake and I push the swing, and I check out books at the library, and I pay the late fines when I forget to return them or choose not to return them because I’ve renewed them too many times and there is something about WHEN GREEN BECOMES TOMATOES that makes my soul feel like it is not alone. I hug our dog. I teach our son to hug our dog, and to hug me, and to hug his friends, and to share, and to say he is sorry, and to say I forgive you. I say I am sorry. I say, will you forgive me? I pray. I pray for patience and wisdom and strength to get through one more lonely, wonderful, terrible, beautiful, perfect day.

So when they ask what do I do, I say, “We have a son who’s about twenty months old, and I stay home with him.” And I don’t say just, because it’s not just. It’s everything. It’s a choice.

It’s not easy—being the one in the sundress at the black tie wedding.   That night I felt like everyone was staring at me.  But after a while I forgot about them, because the only person that mattered told me as we were dancing the way we did before William, before the rings, before we were anything besides a boy and a girl falling in love—he said: “You’re beautiful.”

Sometimes the dress we plan to wear—perhaps the dress we hope to wear—does not fit.   In the moment, it is not right.  We can either stuff ourselves into a role that suffocates, or we can choose to breathe—and it is a choice, and it means everything.

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Live like You’ll Live Forever (or at Least the Average Age of 80-Something)

The woman, I’m guessing, was in her nineties, perhaps late eighties. Her back was hunched, and her skin had the loose and crinkled quality of a plastic grocery bag. Her hair was thin and her nose quite sharp. Most noticeably, she carried about her that slight musky quality of very old people, and death. In the YMCA locker room that January morning, her locker was beside mine—close enough to see inside. And what I saw shocked me.

I should preface this story with the fact that a few weeks prior, I had brought my computer to the locker room because I was trying to finish a manuscript draft by a deadline, and our usual babysitter was on Christmas break. All the back-up babysitters were gone, too, and without any local family to watch William, the YMCA locker room was my only option. While I sat on the bench with the computer on my lap, a middle-aged woman asked if I worked there a lot.

“No,” I told her, “but our babysitter’s away.”

“Babysitter?”

“Yes, my son’s in the nursery downstairs.”

“Your son! I was going to ask if you were here with your mother!”

To clarify: You have to be eighteen to be in the locker room without parental supervision.  Apparently, she thought I didn’t make the cut.

“No,” I said, “I’m twenty-eight, and I’m just trying to get a manuscript finished for a deadline. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve really got to get back to it. “

I met my deadlines, but in an unfortunate turn of events for our YMCA going, William dropped a nap and then went through a period of separation anxiety. Our local YMCA has the policy to only let a child cry for 20 minutes before summoning his mother, so by the time I dropped William off, put all my stuff in the locker room, and hopped on an elliptical machine, usually one of the nursery attendants was on her way to get me. After this happened several times, I gave up exercising all together and opted for the sauna where it was dark, and there was a closed door (and the slim chance that they wouldn’t find me). After five weeks of only going twice (for a ten minute sauna and a shower) I figured the YMCA was no longer a good financial investment.

It’s been months now since we’ve gone to the Y, and the long-term writing project I’d been working on in the locker room is coming to a close. But before I pick up anything new, I’ve been thinking about my writing future, and our children’s future, and our family’s future, and what all of those futures mean for me, the glue—stretched thin—trying to hold them all together.

A wise woman recently told me that if it feels like your children are getting in the way of what you’re doing, then it’s time to reevaluate. Your children should not be “getting in the way.” Joy, she said, is the barometer, so if there is more stress than peace in your home, it’s time to cut things out until you reestablish the peace. Over the past year and a half, to accomplish writing goals, I’ve written during almost all of William’s naptimes, I’ve written after he’s gone to bed, and I’ve even written at places like the YMCA. Sometimes, especially during crunch times, peace has been low and stress has been high. With the hope of adding more children to our family in the future, I’ve deeply contemplated how to realign the barometer of joy.  I’ve gotten no answers–only the image of the old woman at the Y coming back to me, over and over again. So why her? And what did I see in her locker that was so shocking?

The answer to the locker, at least, is that I saw exactly the same things as were in my locker: a small bag, a change of clothes, and a towel. I don’t know what I expected—I guess some old-people stuff.   But it was just the same stuff as me.   As the old woman took off her tennis shoes and gingerly put them on the top shelf, I slid off my shoes and shoved them wherever they would go (I, after all, had a ticking time bomb downstairs and had to get in the sauna before someone would find me). The woman glanced my way as I dashed off.  I didn’t look back.

I’m 28. For the sake of easy math, let’s say the woman beside me in the locker room was 84. That is three times as old as me, or to put in other terms, I will (God willing) live two more entire lifetimes before I get to age 84—(birth to 28; 29 to 56; 57 to 84). That means I can have an entire lifetime of raising children and then send them off to college, and then when they leave our home, I can have another entire lifetime to work and write and do whatever it is that my 56 year old body desires—with no infants demanding my time or my body or my mind, and no naptimes to work around (other than my own if I so choose—WOO!). I will in a very real sense be free (and at that point, perhaps lonely, since after all that time of people needing me, I may not know what to do with my freedom).

I don’t think a lot of young moms think this way.  I’ve heard so many times “the days are long, but the years fly by,” but the fact that the years fly by hasn’t proven helpful to me during these long days. The fact that I’m supposed to cherish these days with a mentality of “living as if you’ll die tomorrow” doesn’t help either.  (Heck, if any mother did this, there would be dishes and laundry everywhere).  No, there’s too much to do, and that mantra just adds to the pressure of what I’m not doing well.  What would be helpful, instead, is the fact that (God willing), I’ll probably live a long time, so a better mantra would be something like this: “You have more lifetimes to live than you’ve lived yet, and you don’t have to cram them all in right now.”

We are not meant to hide our talents under a rock, but that also doesn’t mean that the degrees we get necessitate how we use them—or when we use them. For me, for now, that means taking the pressure of a new project off. I will still write. I will always write. There is something within my soul that after a few days begins to ache if I don’t write. But I also imagine that when I’m 84 or 94, something within me will also ache if I don’t pause to enjoy this lifetime right now—this one where my schedule and body and mind are not my own, because right now, they are not meant to be. There will be time for that, perhaps.  Time when I will gently and gingerly place my shoes on the top rack of a gym locker while a young woman throws her stuff haphazardly into the locker beside mine, and when I watch that young woman dash off without a second glance, I will know exactly what the old woman was thinking when she looked at me.

The old woman never spoke to me.  She said not one word. She had deep crows feet, the kind that tilt up around the edges. She was not smiling, but there was a look of deep satisfaction on her face. Something of determination, or perhaps contemplation. Her eyes said in a way her mouth did not: This life has been long and hard. But there is time now for looking back, and oh, what a life I have to remember.

 

 

The Pearl in our Trash

I have a confession to make.

You know those people who wake up, often without an alarm clock, excited to be alive and start the day? Well, I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m the kind of person who would rather risk suffocation under several pillows stuffed over my head than be woken up by John’s alarm even just five minutes before the baby gets up. But a few weeks ago, John was under the impression that on Friday morning I promptly woke up around 5:30 as a life-loving woman ready to conquer the last day of the week. I did get up.  But I wasn’t doing what he was thinking.

I was plotting.

In our recent housing search I specifically chose not to live near a railroad because in addition to being the antithesis of a morning person, I’m a very light sleeper—and ever since having a baby, I’ve developed these super-human ears. Every creak, every cough, every whimper, I hear it.   A railroad, therefore, was out of the question. When we finally found our house—one with no railroad in sight—I felt at peace that we were moving into a nice quiet neighborhood.  Until the first Friday rolled around.

Then at 5:45 in the morning, I awoke to a thunderous grating sound.  Was someone on the roof? Had a tree crashed in the yard?   A cautionary siren echoed down the street followed by the sound of objects falling.   Then silence. I waited. Whatever it was had passed. I lay back on the pillow, closed my eyes, and tried to go back to sleep.

Just as I was starting to drift off, the grating was back—louder, closer! WHAT IN THE HECK?!

I realized what it was just before I got to the window. The garbage truck. Recycling, to be exact. Our quiet cul-de-sac was the first in the neighborhood, and our neighborhood was the closest to the on-ramp for the highway. We were the truck’s first stop.

It took fifteen minutes for the truck to pull up to every house on the street before heading out again; fifteen minutes of the equivalent of an alarm clock from you-know-where.  By the time it was over, there was no going back to sleep, so I got up and eventually forgot about it until the next Thursday when I rolled out the trash bins. Maybe the previous Friday had been a fluke, I thought. Maybe the truck wouldn’t come at the same time again.  It didn’t come at the same time again.  It came earlier.

At 5:30am, the second Friday at our new home, the grating, beeping, scraping, and dumping was back. I shoved all of my pillows over my head (John says I have an absurd amount of pillows. I say a woman can have as many pillows as she pleases. In total I have five: one for my knees, one for my back, two for my head, and one just to snuggle. Perhaps it is a bit absurd, but it feels like I’m SLEEPING ON A CLOUD!!!) Anyway, that morning as I lay awake, fuming, breathing through the small hole I made under all the pillows, it was if I could hear God say, “You think you’re in control, Kerry Anne? Think again.”

By the third Thursday, as I was dragging the recycling bin to the curb, I had reached a state of dread: THE TRUCK. It was COMING. I knew the sooner I accepted this, the sooner I could move on. But apparently I’m not the moving-on type. Apparently, I’m the mulling type. The mulling angrily type. And the plotting one, too.

It was then that the machinations started, and by the forth Friday, I was ready. I set my alarm for 5:20 am, got up, made a whole pot of coffee, made multiple egg and cheese sandwiches, and when the truck came, I ran out with everything to greet the trash men. I expected there to be a team or at least a couple of people. There was only one man. His name was Charlie. This was his route, and he ran it alone. He took the coffee and my thank you note, and I thanked him profusely for his service. Then I made the big ask: we are a young family with one baby now and hopefully more to come in the future, and we desperately need some sleep, especially if we have some sleepless nights, so since our cul-de-sac is the first one in the neighborhood, would it be possible to do it on the way out instead of the way in?

Charlie’s reply: It wasn’t up to him, but he would ask his boss. I knew what “ask his boss” really meant: No.

All week instead of feeling pleased that I had at least tried, I felt guilty that I didn’t do something nice for him just to do something nice. I did something nice because I wanted something out of it. Until it negatively affected me, I’d never made the effort to meet any of our garbage men. I’d never brought them coffee or told them thank you. Grant it, I was usually not around when they came, and they usually only stopped by briefly, but still, without someone coming to pick up my trash, going to the dump would be yet another smelly chore added to the list, so it really is a job deserving thanks.

The next Friday, the fifth Friday, was the true test.

I did not set an alarm. I hoped beyond hope that the truck would not come. At 5:30 I awoke. But not to the sound of the truck. I just woke up on my own—something unheard of. I tried to fall back to sleep, but feared that as soon as I did, the truck would come. It did not come. That day, it did not come.  So….

I’d done it! THE WORLD WAS MY OYSTER! (Which, by the way, is a strange idiom. “The world is my pearl,” would make sense because who wouldn’t want a beautiful, shiny, precious pearl? But an oyster—a misshapen grayish rock, often covered in barnacles? If you’re thinking, well, the pearl is inside the oyster, let my Eastern North Carolina roots tell y’all like it is. To open an oyster requires a sharp knife and great skill to know how and where to wedge open the mollusk at its knuckle, and amateurs are more likely to slice open their hand than to pry open the jaws of one of those little devils (trust me).  If, however, you do manage to crack one open unscathed, what awaits you, 11,999 out of 12,000 times (statistically speaking) is not a pearl, but a slimy, milky substance akin to an oversized white bugger—a delicacy—which if eaten as-is (and as is the custom) offers the promise of potential food poisoning and on more than one occasion, death.  It doesn’t stop us.)

Anyway, the day after the glorious fifth Friday, otherwise known as Saturday, the truck was back. At 5:50 am.  The previous weekend had been Memorial Day, and apparently after holidays like that, all the truck pick-ups get pushed back a day. So there the truck was. Before six o’clock in the morning.  On the weekend.  Picking up our recycling.

The world was my freaking oyster.

I could not fall back to sleep, but I also could not open my eyes, so because it was the only thing I could do in that state, I prayed; I talked to God; I thanked Him for Charlie.

Sixth Friday. 5:45am. I was up again before the truck.  I was starting to wonder if God wanted to talk to me. If for some reason He needed to shake me awake. If my five pillows could be sacrificed.  If there were other things I needed to pray for, needed to be thankful for, needed to sacrifice. If I’d been making time for everything else and not for Him.  John and I have been doing a reading plan to get through the Bible in one year. I’m behind. Quite far behind. So I pulled out the text and opened to Job.  Is it a coincidence that a person’s work, their job, is spelled the same as the most afflicted layman in the Bible? Job. Job. Does Charlie hate his job?  Sometimes, do we all?

On the seventh Friday, and subsequent Fridays since then, it hasn’t been getting easier to wake to the sound of the truck. It won’t be easier if we’re blessed with more children, and I’m up again all through the night. The only way I can figure out not to dread Friday mornings is to see them as a reminder that I’m not in control, and also that I’m not as afflicted as Job (despite the ruminations of my non-morning-person brain), and that there are people who deserve my gratitude at all hours. Like Charlie. And Jesus, the pearl.

So in the wee Friday morning hours, I’m going to try to keep reading and praying and giving thanks. But don’t be surprised on days when I just can’t take it, if a muffled scream comes from under my many pillows: THIS WORLD IS AN OYSTER.

And then, perhaps, the very faint whisper: It doesn’t stop us.

 

 

 

*For his anonymity, Charlie’s name has been changed.

Happiness and Things that Spin

As William has started to develop his vocabulary, one word has emerged as his first word—though perhaps it would more appropriately be called his favorite word. For when he sees this object, or anything that bears even the slightest resemblance to this object, he points, shouts, and squeals with delight–often for several seconds at the top of his baby lungs. I usually delight in his delight in the confines of our home, but apparently some people at the pool, and grocery store, and doctor’s office do not find the same pleasure in our screaming toddler.

The word, in case you’re wondering, is “ball.” And if you’re looking, you can find these (apparently magical) objects everywhere. In addition to their traditional sports varieties, balls can also be found as:

Light bulbs in lamps

Gumballs fallen from trees

Gumballs in candy dispensers

Rocks—big and small

Watermelons

Oranges

Apples

SO MANY FRUITS can be balls. The grocery store is a ball haven. THE PRODUCE AISLE IS MY SON’S DREAM.

Balloons

Blowfish

Balls in pools

Pool table balls

Or anything else even slightly round that can be thrown, rolled, or spun.

One morning after about the hundredth “Ball!” exclamation in a row, I found myself desperately trying to get William to be preoccupied by something else—in this case: “Book!” (Unfortunately for me, there were balls in the books. See list above.) Unable to escape the ball bombardment, I suddenly recalled something I’d read about a Benedictine Monk and the key to happiness.

The monk believed that the way to be happy was to be grateful, and one way he practiced that gratefulness was to institute a “theme for the day.”  For example, if his theme for the day was water, then each time he drank from a glass, or washed his hands, or bathed, he paused to be thankful for water.  The theme could be anything from a color–like blue, to an action–like dogs wagging their tails.  Whatever it was, the important thing about the theme was that the monk took time to stop and appreciate what was in front of him, and then to give thanks for it.

William has not just had a theme for the day, but a theme for the past couple of months.  Much of the joy of toddlerhood comes from the newness of being able to say words and the newness of being able to experience the world.  Balls, to my 18 month old, are not just balls; they are something so inherently wonderful that he must pause to delight in them and then express his joy in a single resounding syllable.  As he grows, the novelty of balls will soon fade and become something he doesn’t think about as much anymore.  In fact, “Ball!” is already starting to lose its preeminence to “Dog!” and other small words.  Soon, those small words will become big words, and those big words will become sentences that he’ll use to think about the world–and when that happens, it may not come as naturally to him at 9 or a 19, or 99 to stop and squeal with glee at the sight of a ball; but perhaps it should.

The world, after all, is a ball.  And there is much to marvel at here, much in which to delight, much for which to stop and give thanks.

 

The Most

Have you ever thought about buying something on Amazon but then looked at the negative reviews? By the nature of people inclined to write reviews, usually the posts are overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative. When I was pregnant and contemplating which crib to buy William, I was trying to make the safest, best, and “most right” decision. If a rational person saw that were 100 reviews and 95 of them were positive, she would probably say, hey, that sounds like a great crib. I, on the other hand, felt compelled to go straight to the 5 negative reviews and then freak out that our child’s arm would get stuck in the crib’s bars, or that the crib’s side panel would come loose in the middle of the night, or that any of the other unseemly things that happened to the negative reviewers would most certainly happen to us.

At some point John, who may be the most patient man alive, got on the computer and just clicked to buy a crib. It arrived. It was monumental. To preface how monumental, I should say that at the time, we had procured our furniture mainly from my late grandmother, my dad’s old office, family friends who didn’t want their chairs anymore, Craig’s list, or our personal favorite—a dog John fostered in college that tore up someone else’s table and thus required him to purchase it.

This crib was our first real piece of furniture. One that was beautiful. One that was new. One that would LAST. It was a symbol of permanence—and of change, for its very presence transformed the space we called “the office” into something quite different: “the nursery.”  Feeling the weight of this monumental shift in our lives, I felt compelled to take pictures of us putting it together (and by us, I mean John).

(All that hard work apparently tuckered Lady out, too.)

For over a month, the pristine crib awaited William’s arrival.

Then in one of William’s first weeks home from the hospital, before he was even using the crib, Lady’s ball rolled underneath it—and she scratched up the front trying to get her ball out.

Then when William was a few months old, John was soothing him in the crib, and the zipper on John’s jacket scratched the top of the crib in a deep V.

Then in moving down to North Carolina, we had to disassemble the crib to fit it in the U-Hall. On that seven-hour drive, the sides rubbed against each other, scraping the varnish off the inside panels.

Then a couple of months ago William was in the process of dropping his second nap, and even though he didn’t want to sleep, his little body was very cranky and needed to rest.  Per the advice of several moms, I started putting toys and books in his crib, so even if he didn’t sleep, at least he would have some quiet time.  For several days it seemed to work. But then slowly I started noticing these marks inside the crib. At first I just thought they were scratches from the move. But upon closer examination, and upon their growth week to week, I realized what was happening. William, who was teething and determined not to rest or play like a normal child, decided to start chewing his crib. Like a beaver.

We are now entering that phase in life where we are no longer graduate students, or in our first jobs, and John is blessing our family by providing for our financial needs. We will soon be buying a house, and over time we will be filling it with a bunch of new furniture—and a new roof, and new shutters, and new siding, and new things that are made to LAST because there will be permanence there. I have not lived under one roof for more than two years since the eighth grade. Now that will change. In trying to make the safest, best, most right choices for our future and our family, my natural inclination would be to research and second-guess and look at the negative reviews and become paralyzed by indecision.  But I will try to stop myself–not because those decisions don’t matter at all, but because they don’t matter the most.  And thankfully, we’ve already purchased the crib. So when things go wrong, or when I don’t know what’s right, I will try to remember this:

There will be a time when John will no longer be putting babies to sleep in nurseries.   There will be a time when Lady’s face will be grey, and she won’t have the energy to go for a walk, let alone chase a ball with enough zest to scratch something up. There will be a time when William’s room will be packed with boxes for college, and when he, with all of his adult teeth, will smile and wave goodbye. And when those times come, I will think back to my little baby beaver and all of the not-perfect decisions that led to not-perfect outcomes, and I will cherish them all the more, knowing that our family did not live in a museum where things were perfectly curated, but we lived in a home where sometimes things were broken and bitten and scratched.  A home, where imperfections did not mean things were ruined—it meant we made the most of them.  It meant they were loved.

 

A Jolly Load to Carry

One evening fairly recently John and I came to a head about that figure of utmost importance in the American Landscape: The Little Engine That Could.

“It’s a boy,” said John.

“No, it’s a girl,” I said.

“It wouldn’t be blue if it’s a girl.”

“It’s blue, and it’s a girl. I’ll prove it.”

I opened the book and read:

Chug, chug, chug. Puff, puff, puff. Ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks. She was a happy little train for she had such a jolly load to carry.

Ah-ha! I was right! (Well sort of, that female train was the train that got stuck, not the blue engine, but the blue engine proved to be a girl, too.)

For a refresher, what happens in the story is that one girl engine is packed full with toys and dolls and clowns—and also with apples and milk (and even spinach for dinner, smart female train).   But she is so jam-packed that she runs out of steam (quite literally). Then, three male engines come by and do not help.

If we are giving the male engines the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they do not understand the demands of the seemingly insignificant toys and dolls and milk and spinach. After all, they often do not see the toys and dolls strewn across the floor (for the thousandth time) right after they have just been picked up (for the thousandth time). Or perhaps the passerby males don’t understand that spilt milk, if it is breast milk that you’ve painstakingly pumped for days—or weeks—is worth crying over.  Male hormones, after all, aren’t going chug, chug, chug—up at the beginning of the month, down at the end of it, all year long.   Male bodies do not puff, puff, puff out 30+ pounds to grow a baby, and then their bodies do not huff, huff, huff trying to lose the 30+ pounds after delivery. Most males do not hear the doorbell go ding-dong in the middle of the day, just as a bumbling toddler figures out how to climb on top of the play set (not into—on top of), and so whoever’s at the door has to wait while the dog barks ferociously and the baby tumbles to the ground and you scoop him up, crying (the both of you) and just as you pull open the front door, the pot of boiling water filled with macaroni for lunch boils over. These are not big things. These are little things. Seemingly insignificant things. But they are so many and so constant that it is not uncommon to feel that:

All of a sudden she stopped with a jerk. She simply could not go another inch. She tried and she tried, but her wheels would not turn.

There is a reason why the train that breaks down is little. There is a reason she is a girl. There is a reason the train that helps her is a little girl, too.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship … is born at the moment when one (wo)man says to another “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .” (“Wo” added by K.A. Harris, for often the tale of woman is like man, but with a bit of woe.)

There was a time before I met John when I’d sworn off men all together. When men, true to their train natures, did not have my best interests at heart, and so they left that heart broken down on the tracks.

There was a time last year when it was freezing cold and dark all the time, and William wasn’t sleeping, and we were still new to D.C., and the only person I talked to regularly was Lady, who was not even a person, but had to get upgraded in species status because of the depths of my loneliness.

There was a time just last month when all I’d worked for in my writing career suddenly came to a jolting halt and appeared to be lost. Four years of work, lost.

For all of my female friends, and all the female friends I do not know yet, I wish I could be there with you when the day comes when you stop with a jerk and simply cannot go another inch. Much has changed for women since The Little Engine That Could was written in 1930, and much for the better. But one of the tragedies of modernity is isolation. Our metaphorical trains don’t necessarily break down more often than any other generation; but they can stay broken longer. And I think, in part, this is due to perceptions.

Though I remembered that The Little Engine That Could was a female, I misremembered her story. I thought that she was carrying the toys the whole time, and then she just willed her way up the mountain. But that’s not what happens. A different female engine breaks down, and then the little blue engine comes along and helps her.

It is as if, between the lines, you can hear the blue engine say to the broken down engine, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .”

The load is heavy. The terrain goes up and up and up. No single female engine can do it alone. But we’re not meant to. We’re meant to carry the loads of our friends, and those, indeed, are jolly loads to carry.

Bodysurfing

Recently, William has invented this fun game he likes to play. It’s called: how can I humiliate mommy in public places. Let us take, for instance, a couple of weeks ago when we were at the grocery store around 5:45pm, which apparently is the time that everyone in America decides they need to go to the grocery store. William, obviously, could sense this.  He knew he would have an audience.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that in the front seat of grocery carts there are these straps with buckles to tie in young children. I never noticed them until recently because as William’s little personality is starting to come out, it is clear that he is both extremely energetic and extremely focused. When he wants something he WANTS it, and most of the time what he wants is not to sit still. I know these straps must have been product-tested at some point, but the testers obviously had never seen the likes of my son. I still use the theoretically handy, yet practically ineffective straps—but I also have taken to stuffing things into the front bucket seat along with William in the hopes of wedging him immobile.

Anyway, on this particular grocery shopping day around 5:45, with William wedged between a cantaloupe and a gallon of orange juice, I turned down the laundry aisle to procure our weekly supply of Spray-N-Wash.  As if to spite my 5’1” self, our grocery store stocks the Spray-N-Wash on the very top shelf.  I would like to qualify that this is not a normal top shelf.  It’s like a top shelf for giants.  And this day, the Spray-N-Wash happened to be on sale, so there were only two bottles left in the far, far back.

Up until this point, the store had been packed.  Every time William tried to climb out of the front seat, or grab stuff in the main cart, or grab stuff off the shelves, about three to five other people within an arms distance would stare at me and give me the stink-eye.  But now, when I could use a hand from someone just slightly taller—just even like 5’ 3”–there was no one to be found.

A logical person might suggest forgoing the Spray-N-Wash on this particular shopping trip, but due to William’s messiness and my clumsiness, that was simply not an option.  I’ve tried other laundry spray brands. They are not the same. And OxiClean makes my fingers turn white and burn (does this happen to anyone else?!? Do I have some sort of freakish Irish skin disease?). I suppose, looking back, I could have searched for a store clerk or some other patron, but I was in a hurry and I was determined to just get the laundry spray myself.  So I pulled my cart over to the side and looked William straight in the eye.

“Stay right there,” I said.

He knew what I meant. He knew it.

Then I turned, put one foot on the bottom shelf, the other foot on the second to bottom shelf, hoisted myself up and over the top giant shelf, grabbed one—then two Spray-N-Wash bottles, and scooted down the shelf ladder. (If you are judging me right now, you didn’t stop growing at five one. If you’re five one or shorter and have never done something like this, kudos to you.) I dismounted, loot in hand, proud. Then I turned.

Suddenly the aisle was populated with elderly women. A whole gaggle of them. And they were all staring, aghast. At me. And at the empty bucket seat of my grocery cart. And at my son in the main cart. Bodysurfing over the premade chicken.

How did he do this? It’s unclear.

The whole ordeal took approximately 15 seconds, and for all who are concerned for William’s safety it wasn’t like he crashed over to his doom—I still pack the cart like we are preparing for the apocalypse, so he was just kind of floating happily on top. Before the elderly women could call social services, I picked William up, shoved his legs back through the cart holes, tied him in again, and headed straight for the check out.

This grocery cart situation has been going on for weeks now (no more bodysurfing, just the general cart-sitting angst), and I still have no solution. I just keep stuffing William in between the milk and OJ, and re-rotating him to face the front. Multiple times I’ve seen other mothers pushing well-behaved children who just sit there, peacefully, in the cart, and I can’t help but wonder what is going through my son’s head.

But, I suppose, it really shouldn’t be any wonder at all. Our determined little William wants what he wants.  He also learns from what he sees.  And he comes from a woman who wants what she wants, too—top shelves and all.