Monthly Archives: August 2020

The perfect bite

A few years before my first child was born, my mom and stepdad took all five of us “kids” to the Turks & Caicos for one of those “everything included” vacations that tends to encourage all manner of indulgence. A fine time was had by all, indeed, and it was a week I’ll never forget, though (as frequently happens as time passes), some of the most memorable things about those days didn’t feel at the time like they’d be the most memorable. For example, one night we went to a hibachi restaurant (talk about “dinner and a show”!) where we sat at a horseshoe-shaped table with about three other families. My mom was wearing a pair of earrings I’d made her for Christmas one year–a pair I liked a whole lot and of which I was particularly proud–and one of the other women at the table, also a middle-aged mom, who’d engaged her in friendly conversation and who seemed fun and smart and kind, complimented her on the earrings. It was one of those all-too-rare compliments so specific that it was obvious that there was a lot of thought behind it, and my mom said, “Thank you! My daughter made them,” and then proceeded to give the earrings to her. Just like that. It seemed like she’d barely thought twice about giving those earrings I’d made her away. My twenty-something self was stung. I thought her giving them away meant that she didn’t really like them that much or care about the fact that I’d made them, specially for her, in her favorite color (blue, always blue). It really rankled for a while. Now fast forward about a dozen years.

When my first child was about eighteen months old, my brother asked me, “So what’s it like being a parent?” (I love this man because he asks questions like this and cares a whole hell of a lot about the answers, but this was obviously not an easy one to sum up in just a few words.) After staring at him dumbly for long enough that it made him laugh, I thought of a way to give him an idea that would really resonate with him on a personal level. “You know that perfect sandwich? With all of the components layered in beautiful order and in *just* the right proportions? And you know when you get to that perfect bite, a few bites in–you know the one? Like, the tomato is a saturated red, and the bacon presenting is mostly meat and just a little fat, and the lettuce almost cries with crunch? And everything is so fresh and smells so good and the crust and crumb of the bread is both the crown and cushion for this positively kingly mouthful of food? And you’re really hungry and those first few bites just fanned the flames of that hunger?” That’s basically what I said, and I could tell by the look on his face that he could almost taste it. (If you know Peter, then this will make excellent sense.) He nodded, thinking about that perfect bite of the perfect sandwich, thinking that what I meant was that being a parent was basically the best thing ever to happen to a human being. “Well, if you can imagine that bite, then being a parent is like wanting to offer that bite to your child. Actually turning that sandwich, on purpose and unbidden, away from you to feed it to your kid.” I’ll never forget the look of disbelief that crossed his face, but when he has kids, if he has kids, I’m planning to remind him of this conversation, and I know he’ll understand it then.

Rewind about a dozen years, back to that hibachi table. If I’d known then what I know now, as they say. But I couldn’t have known it then, I don’t think, because I hadn’t experienced parenthood. If I’d known what it was like to willingly forgo enjoying that perfect bite in favor of sharing it with my child, I’d have appreciated my mother’s gesture of generosity as it actually was, the way I appreciate it now. What she was doing when she handed that pair of earrings across the prepaid pork fried rice and bottomless glass of sake was a symptom, a beautiful one, of motherhood. I was right that she didn’t think twice about it. A mother becomes an artist of giving, and my mother, mother of five, is one mighty fine artist. The other woman, a mother herself, who accepted the earrings, who didn’t refuse the gift, must have understood this. The part I might like the most about my mother’s act of beneficence is that the bigger gift was the connection there, the way her hand, holding out a pair of earrings, was really offering an unspoken, “I see you; I know you.” I’d be really surprised if those earrings haven’t been given away at least a few times since then. But maybe the best gift of all is the one this moment gave to me in hindsight, the clarity of perspective that is born along with the child and that changes the way a mother sees her sandwich forever. I hope that one day I walk out of a restaurant, smelling of sesame oil and with fortune cookies in my purse, wearing at least one fewer pair of earrings than when I’d entered.

Carmen’s drawer

One of my closest friends (her name is Carmen) moved away a year ago, and since then we’ve been exchanging videos using the Marco Polo app. In these videos, we talk about everything from Enneagram compatibility to cooking for children (she has four kids ages four through ten), Costco sales to education systems (she teaches French and math–how cool is that?!), politics to dish soap (we’re two blue Dawn diehards on a mission to broaden surfactant horizons). During one of her recent updates, she showed me the new piece of furniture she and her husband had bought to put in their dining room as part of a home improvement project. It was a beautiful piece from Ikea that looked great against the shiplap siding of the room, and she’d organized the kids’ coloring books using magazine holders (we’d recently discussed the phenomenon of PILES of STUFF, and her pet pile at that point happened to be coloring books). She gave me a tour of the sideboard to showcase her newfound organization system, and it ended with her opening the drawer above the cabinet space and saying, “I’m not sure what to put in here yet.”

Hearing these words and seeing that space devoid of anything but possibility blew a thick layer of dust off at least a few neurons while I processed this. An empty drawer! Just think of it: a tridimensional tabula rasa, the gift of space unfilled. My favorite part of moving into a new home (and there aren’t many parts of that process I enjoy) is deciding which kitchen drawer should be used for what. The do-si-do of silverware and dishwasher, the relative utility of utensils, the importance of ensuring omnipresent proximity of the all-purpose scissors and the almighty dishcloth–these are all deciding factors necessary to consider. I take this so seriously, in fact, that last summer I rearranged the contents of all the drawers in the kitchen at the beach house where we were staying because whoever decided that the drawer of menus and magnets should score prime real estate at the kitchen island clearly had never used anything but a microwave to prepare food. This is all to say that that feeling of power, of potential, of the ability to make concrete determinations about how to fill an empty space–and having that space available in the first place–is something I’d been missing but didn’t know it until that moment. The more I thought about it, the more allegorical this all felt and the more sense it made, considering what we’re living through. Life during this pandemic feels like being forced to move into a house we didn’t choose or want or like, a house with no windows and the rooms all wrong. Parenting these days feels like moving into that same house but also with all of the kitchen drawers glued shut. My wish for us all is that we can come upon an empty drawer in our lives, gaze into its beautiful bareness, and pause for minute knowing that it is ours to fill with something, anything, when–and if–we want.

“Just in case”

We had to rehome our one year-old dog in October 2018. That’s another story, but ever since then my kids had missed many things about having a pet, so when my son’s preschool teacher asked if we’d like to bring the classroom guinea pig, Paddy Paws, to our home for the week of spring break (because apparently he’d been asking her about this), I had no reason to say no. I mean, we’d had the teacher’s previous guinea pig at the house at least twice for school vacation weeks, we knew the drill, and the kids always had fun with a little furry visitor. So, on March 6th, 2020, I loaded the guinea pig cage into my car at pickup. The preschool teacher put a big bag of bedding and another big bag of timothy hay in the trunk of my Suburban, and I believe her exact words were, “It’s way more than you’ll need, but just in case!” I think you probably know where this story is going.

Nearly six months later, which is half this little animal’s life, guess who is still here. The good news is that Paddy Paws is the best guinea pig in the history of domesticated rodents. I know this because my mom was once sold a male guinea pig (by a pet store that claimed to only sell females) as a companion to her two female guinea pigs, and let’s just say that companionship didn’t just happen; it kept happening. She ended up with 11 before the little exercise in exponential growth was put to a stop. I read that the collective noun for  guinea pigs is “muddle”, and whoever decided that almost definitely was also put into the position of unintentional cavy breeder. Anyway, I know enough to know that Paddy Paws is the only guinea pig I’d consider having in my life.

With the knowledge that she’d return to school at some point, we welcomed Paddy into our family temporarily but indefinitely. With this knowledge also came the fear that we wouldn’t keep her tame enough: what if she went back to school and bit all of the little preschoolers? We’d be blacklisted by one of our favorite preschool teachers of all time AND all of the preschool parents of traumatized three year-olds with bandaided hands. So, as is typical of so many parents during this pandemic, we threw ourselves into a project. We took Paddy Paws out of her cage and handled her multiple times a day. We spoiled her with more strawberry tops and pea shoots from the garden than any guinea pig could ever expect. We decided to let our yard turn to clover. “Romaine lettuce” as a line item transferred from my regular grocery list to my Costco list. My husband bought special feeders to hang in the cage so she wouldn’t cross-contaminate her food and hay. After the kids were in bed, we took her out and let her munch on carrot peels with us while we numbly scrolled through news or texted people about things like the high price of toilet paper and the low price of gasoline. We spoiled her rotten lest she be returned to school a feral savage, as if an angelic manifestation of beneficence or a monsterish blood-menace were the only two possible outcomes.

After a few months, it started to look like preschool would happen exclusively outside, and perhaps the guinea pig wouldn’t return to school this fall. Or maybe ever. We started to say things like, “Well, if she does end up staying here…” which turned into, “Well, if she does go back to school, then maybe we’ll get a bunny or something because NO guinea pig could ever measure up to this one.” And then, in early August, the preschool teacher sent an email saying that she was ready to have Paddy Paws return to school in a couple of weeks. Cue the panic-breathing and the bunny search. Seventy-two hours later, my three kids and I drove 63 miles away to buy the most precious velveteen mini rex rabbit in creation. He’s currently sitting on the floor vent next to me because he likes the breeze on his undercarriage. Everyone was content with this situation and, though we would miss Paddy Paws, the preschool teacher had offered for us to have our little friend visit her old home (a.k.a. our home) on future breaks from school (hopefully with less nebulous endpoints). Ahh, who doesn’t love a happy ending?

The universe, apparently. This morning, while our expensive little rabbit was enjoying the air conditioning by my feet, I sat down and opened my email to find a message from the preschool teacher saying that she’d just been made aware of the sanitizing protocol for school and that they’ll be spraying down the spaces with major disinfectant and, considering this, maybe it wouldn’t be a hospitable place for a pet and would we like to keep her after all? This, my friends, is why I’m about to take everything out of the freezer and replace it in a more organized fashion. At least that will be one compartment of this life where I can eliminate a muddle.

I just turned 40 and we need to talk.

Remember when you were a kid and you heard grownups saying that they’re turning 39 for the sixth time? Or refusing to tell people their ages, presumably because they were embarrassed or ashamed of how old they were? Or your parents telling you that it’s rude to ask an adult his or her age? Let’s be honest–lots of people still do this, ostensibly due to the stigma associated with drifting farther and farther from the state of youth that feels perpetual when you’re a teenager. Despite the obvious provenance of this antiquated stigma (we’ll discuss that another time!), I’ve never understood the denial of age (not to be confused with the age of denial) on a practical level because it seems so counterintuitive. In this day and age (*wink*), at least, why would anyone so strongly prefer the state of being 39 over 40? What’s a few hundred days, give or take, assuming there aren’t extenuating circumstances? Here’s the thing: I’d been looking forward to my 40th birthday ever since my anticlimactic 39th. Not that I’d ever want to wish away time (at least pre-COVID), but it was something I was excitedly anticipating since I assumed it was inevitable anyway. I mean, how different could it really feel? And it comes with WAY more street cred! The first morning I was freshly 40 and feeling fine, my eight year-old daughter looked at me across the table (ok, the kitchen island…I do most of my eating standing in the kitchen (don’t you?)) and said, “Mommy! You’re eating ice cream for breakfast!” And I replied, mostly for my husband’s benefit, “Yes, I am. I’m forty; I can do what I want.”

They all knew I was joking, but now that’s become a line in our house. For example, a few days later we went peach-picking and were planning to make ice cream with the harvest. I was debating about the best way to go about peeling the peaches (blanch or paring knife?) and finally said, “You know what? There are vitamins in the skins. We’re just going to leave them on.” To which my child, the one so surprised at my “out of the pint carton” breakfast the Sunday before, responded, “That’s right. You’re forty and you can do what you want!”

P.S. A note on the type: I wrote “40” in this post when referring to the number as a number in narrative, but I spelled it “forty” when using it in dialogue because then it’s a phonemic word as well as a number. Also, it’s my preference to spell out the numbers zero through ten in every kind of writing, so that’s why I wrote “eight” instead of 8. This is all to say that I made these choices intentionally because, when it comes to inconsistencies, I like to be consistent.