I spent the last two weeks in Washington bickering with and loving the guts out of my family members (and could argue that bickering expresses love since it's a freedom we almost never can indulge in... ), watching the dark skeletal trees brighten with green match-sized flames -- a transformation I've never found so miraculous -- walking under cotton candy cherry blossoms, soft and full, that turned pink and heavier as they dropped and cleared way for their own bright leaves. It was a trip that left me thirsty for more. For the first time in 18 years, I walked into the house where I grew up, got to live in it for just a few minutes more until a hostile au pair shooed me out the door. I stood near my sister-in-law and husband as they sorted through their mother's things and made sense of a house packed with years of living. And watched flint and rock spark as everyone came to that task with a different idea of fire.
I've been thinking a lot about family -- Silas and Eden against the backdrop of my generation, seeing Ben with his siblings and me with mine, all of us meeting as adults, and all of us against the backdrop of our parents. Just this afternoon, I was thinking about how I'll miss these years when they're over, the beautiful, messy, ALIVE time of parenting little young children, will miss even carrying a tantrummer through a restaurant toward the exit, the ridiculousness of it. These are years of bright vitality.
A friend recently sent me this column that I only just read by Anna Quindlen. Applicable to today's musings:
Getting to the Point
By Anna Quindlen
Oh, I loved having babies. The smell, the feel, the … well, I liked the stupidity of them. The way they grabbed their own feet and then looked perplexed at the fact that they somehow felt it in their bodies. The way they’d be entranced by sunlight or ringing phones or the thrum of the dishwasher. There’s a popular YouTube video that shows a baby in near-hysterical laughter because someone is tearing up a piece of paper. That’s babies all over. Why paper? Why tearing? Who knows?
And toddlers — they were great, too. The way they would march across the lawn once they acquired motor skills, then run back to the shelter of mom legs, then sally forth again. The way they would mangle their words and chew their consonants and name things obsessively: Hot dog. Big bird. Good boy. The way they would dress themselves and then wind up looking as though they’d done so in the dark, color-blind. The way they would catch you if you tried to skip a sentence or two in a beloved book: “That’s not right!” They had such a strong sense of fairness and no filter at all. “That man is fat!” they would say, then be perplexed by the notion that there was anything wrong about that.
I loved having elementary school kids, holding their pencils like etching tools as they worked out a subtraction problem on lined paper, their faces scrunched. It was great how they would work out more complex matters, too, realize that one of their classmates was not now nor was ever going to be a good person, understand that when they hurt someone else they might also wind up hurting themselves. You could read human progress through the tears. The tears of a baby are often a reflex, for a toddler almost always the fruit of frustration or fatigue. The tears of a child begin to be the tears of knowledge. The older heart is more breakable.
Which brings us to teenagers. Ah. This is where I am supposed to admit defeat, but I just can’t. As hard as it was, as challenging as they could be, I really liked having teenagers. Some of that was about me, not them; I can’t really remember what it was like to be a little kid, but I remember very well what it was like to be a teenager. So when one of them would blow an assignment or a curfew, say something stinging or thoughtless, I would usually think: I would have done that, or, sometimes, I did. Besides, the smarts and the cool helped make up for it. I know about music and movies and slang I never would have known about otherwise. The house was full of snap crackle and pop. There were always kids at the dining room table, and if the dishes sometimes didn’t get done — well, I definitely remembered having left dirty dishes in the sink, too.
I don’t have babies anymore, or kids, or teenagers. I have adults, with their own dishes and their own sinks — and, I suspect, their own sinks of dirty dishes. The house is not always full of snap crackle and pop. But here’s my bottom line on this continuum for any woman bemused or becalmed or bedeviled by any part of it: it just keeps getting better.
Oh, don’t mistake me: I still miss breastfeeding, and having someone holding my hand when we cross the street, and high voices in sleepy conversation over the baby monitor from the bedroom. I miss laying down the law, enforcing arbitrary rules, having some modicum of control.
The old arsenic hours were when the homework was done and the squabbling began and there was still an hour until baths and bed. (Once, I remember, I lied and said it was 8 p.m. at 6:45 just to get them out of my hair. Note to the mothers of young kids: don’t buy digital clocks.) The new arsenic hours are when I’ve knocked off work for the day in an empty house and have a cup of herbal tea and an hour of whatever’s on the DVR before my husband shows up for dinner. Occasionally, if the universe is feeling merciful, I will hear the dogs bark as the door downstairs opens, and a voice will call, “Mom?” And my heart sings.
I regret being pinkslipped from my 24/7 Mom job, although there were times over the years when I thought the inexorability of it would kill me. But it’s hard to imagine anything better than right now: the family dinner with the five of us, all talking about politics, books, work, friends, and one another. It’s hard to imagine anything better than three smart and insightful people who live in the same city we do, who make me remember that there was a point to the whole exercise, and the point was this.
I couldn’t wish for more than that. Except for grandchildren, of course. But that’s another story for another time.