The Wall, North Beach.
A drive-by shooting yesterday with my iPhone. Edited in-phone with BeFunky Pro, a 99-cent app. As an “artist,” I seem to be entering my low-resolution, impressionistic, square photo phase.
I stayed up late last night, messing with tiny little photos. I multi-“tasked” on the tiny little screen and played Monopoly and visited Facebook and read articles linked on RealClearPolitics too. One of the last Facebook posts I read before I fell asleep was a friend musing that her kids were off to their first day of a new school year tomorrow and now she could sit around and eat bonbons again, heh.
In the mind-twilight just before the full dark of first sleep, on a giant technicolor mind-screen, I see myself and another mom sitting on the carpet near a playhouse in the children’s section of our small town library. (The tiny chairs are too small for our butts.) She is wearing gym clothes and I am wearing old clothes decorated with dried wall paint, or maybe it’s the other way around. In linear time, it is a long time ago. Our daughters, who have been fast friends since kindergarten, are reading to each other inside the playhouse and laughing hysterically, yet quietly because they are in a library and they are still little-girl rule-obeyers.
It is Library Week, so it is April. (So it is probably raining and cold and muddy outside too.) The two of us moms are talking about how we don’t even have time to read books anymore. We can talk about things like this with each other. We know no one else will believe us anyway, including our husbands who come home and see things much the way they left them and conclude we have been, ha ha, “sitting around eating bonbons” all day.
We were too busy to even read a book. Can this really have been true? Can anyone believe this of two middle-class mothers with just two children each, and very part-time jobs (she was a decorator at the time and I wrote stories for a small local newspaper), in a reasonably affluent New England town? Well, I suspect I was still reading a bit before falling asleep every night. But, yes indeed, we were ridiculously, insanely, stupidly busy, and with seemingly not very much to show for it at the time, and even – in some ways – now. The house still needs paint!
Why so always-busy? For one thing, our K-8 school had a special talent for needing a lot from mothers (maybe every school does), most of whom were stay-at-home due to the nature of the place we lived. They took it for granted we would always be there for them. (Kind of like our family members.) And, perhaps even more importantly, we ourselves took it for granted we were the kind of people who would rise to the occasion and meet the need. (And we were, and still are.) Teachers, especially the ones who didn’t have kids of their own yet, would send home notes asking, for example, each child to bring in a box of sugar cubes for the architectural sugar structures they would be building in math class in a few days. So, each mother of every child in the three classes in fifth grade would climb into their own cars or, more likely, SUVs and drive the lovely sidewalk-less country roads to converge on the one grocery store in town the night before and try to buy sugar cubes… which were already gone because the moms who had older kids who had been through fifth grade knew this would happen and bought the sugar cubes as soon as the note came home, a few days before. So the moms who didn’t know had to drive all over the Seacoast looking for boxes of sugar cubes. This is the sort of thing that had replaced reading books in our lives.
The Sugarcube Exurban Car Rally is one example of the big issue with the otherwise-lovely place we lived. Due to the nature of our environment, someone had to be available to drive around to do the chores and buy the things needed for running a household. As well as chauffeur the children to their after-school sports and activities – because if you are the only mom who doesn’t do that your children will have no friends and will just sit in their large, lovely backyards alone, eating dirt or being abducted or something. Seriously, some people can buck the trends, no doubt, for things like the average level of after-school activities, but most of us accept that we are part of a society where people do things in certain ways so we do as well.
The other big time-suck: us stay-at-home moms were mostly smart, well-educated, energetic and a bit ambitious and that needed to be… expressed. So we were always getting ourselves into home improvement projects, community and school events and fundraisers, massive volunteer commitments, committee work, sports coaching, etc. Example: when my eldest daughter was in sixth grade, I recruited some local experts and we made a map of the school, the school grounds, and the adjacent woods and taught orienteering to the whole grade.
Or there was the year (or was it two?) we PTO parents decided Scholastic didn’t offer books that were good enough for our kids – too many movie and TV tie-ins and bright, tarty covers like candy for young minds. We wanted great children’s literature (and though we personally didn’t have time to read anymore, we still knew what that was). So we recruited a small local bookstore of quality to provide books for our book fair. Of course, they weren’t really staffed, organized or equipped to run a school book fair, so the other book fair co-chair and I spent hours and hours unpacking boxes of books and setting them up for display on all the spare tables we could gather from around the school. And, after all that work, we ended up selling a lot fewer books than when Scholastic was our provider of attractive, glossy, brightly-colored bound paper products, so we had to pack them all up again. So our grave, philosophical question was: is the book fair a fundraiser so we can provide “enrichment,” or is it a way to spread the joy of reading good books… even if nobody wants to? Well, it turned out not to matter because our middle-aged backs couldn’t take another year of supporting our local bookstore, so we went back to making money off school families hand over fist with Scholastic, the death star of children’s book publishers, and still logging plenty of volunteer hours so we could win a state award for our school.
So, with that (extensive) background, let’s return to my technicolor memory. We moms are quietly kvetching while our daughters are occupying the playhouse. We are wondering how the nice little old ladies who are serving Library-Week tea and cookies in the room next to us can look so put-together in their clean, bright cardigans in spring colors and be so cheerful and pleasant when we feel so drab and harried and un-put-together and we have so little of interest to say to other adults, other than mild recreational complaining and wry observations of our personal situations to other moms.
This is the part where I write something about our daughters’ bright little faces appearing suddenly framed in the playhouse window and they say something charming and loveable that makes us realize either then, on a cold rainy day when dinner was in an hour and we hadn’t bought the ingredients yet, or now, when our bright, well-read daughters are days away from moving to two different colleges within walking distance of each other in Boston, that it was all worth it.
But, I don’t actually remember that part. There is no conclusion, or lesson learned, or memory-and-experience gift package wrapped up with a nice bow and delivered for your, or my, gratification, enlightenment or entertainment. And was it all worth it is a dumb question anyway. You do what you have to do, what is given to you to do, as one day becomes the next. Plans detour anyway, or devolve to glorious chaos.
Before falling asleep last night, I remembered that average day in the children’s section of the library probably because I had written about it in my first, most ancient and now extinct blog, ever so humble. Writing reinforces memory. It was a funny little story then because my husband the airline pilot appeared in the library to pick up our daughter so I could do an errand or attend a meeting or pick up our other daughter from piano, or dance, or indoor field hockey. He was covered in filth because he had just fixed a plumbing problem in our house. He asked one of the nice ladies in spring sweaters why everyone was drinking tea and eating cookies. When they told him, he said, “National Library Week?” then he pumped both fists high into the air and yelled, “YEAH!!”
But that was not part of my technicolor memory last night either. It was just this:
That we two mothers and two daughters were there, then. I can smell the damp carpet and the paint on my sweatpants. I can hear our daughters cracking each other up. I can even taste the damn cookies. I remember exactly what it was like. It was like every other day, in a string of eternal dull necessary good short days – days that were happy only in retrospect and by comparison.
Many years and events stand between now and that day. I am living in my own future from that day. And yet it seems alive and current and representative of so many days that I thought were… no, experienced as… forever. That day seems, as they so tritely but accurately say, like yesterday. And that is simply, and deeply, shocking. Last kid going off to college? Something so common, shared by so many, so… banal even. Yet for a mother, pardon the drama, it’s a massive rip in the continuum of space and time.
When I was near the end of writing this, my daughter walked into the room. She is riding a train to Boston today to meet her new roommate and maybe visit the aquarium. She saw that I had a couple of tears in my couple of eyes and said, “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said, not wanting to attempt to explain. “It’s just happy crying.”