Family Reunion

What I want to say is that it is a terrible idea to start a 17-hour drive the day after the school year ends. And that this is the reason we somehow forgot my suitcase. And that I had packed all the toothpaste, among other things. And that I had to replace everything which is part of the reason I was fussy until about four hours ago.

What I want to say is that 18 people in one house is, more or less, 12 too many, even if one of them is my adorable 13 month old niece who, for reasons none of us can quite fathom, is basically happy all of the time.

What I want to say is that South Carolina is hot, even at the beach, and that most of us are ridiculously sunburned even though we’ve only been here three days. And we were too far away to really appreciate yesterday’s fireworks, and what were we celebrating, really, since each day the beach appears to be full of straight white couples and Roe has been overturned and there were 21 mass shootings in the US between July 1st and 4th and as we drove down here we passed within spitting distance of at least two of them.

But then I meet my sister’s partner, a woman who makes her very happy and who, as it turns out, makes a delicious daiquiri. And my Cuban sister-in-law is tucked away in the shade, reading and cooing at the baby. And my brothers are on the beach, kicking a soccer ball with my son while my partner plays in the ocean with my nephews. And I marvel that my family has dealt with addiction and divorce and depression and suicide attempts and miscarriage and abortion and money troubles and the list goes on and on. Some of us own guns; some of us abhor guns. Some of us are vegan; some of us are enthusiastic meat-eaters. Some of us have MDs; some of us never finished college.

By all rights, we should not get along at all, and sometimes we don’t, but for the week of the family reunion, day after day we laugh and love and find the things we have in common. The grill sets off the fire alarm – again – and the kids try to fill the pool with water balloons and then, after dinner, we have a birthday cake to celebrate birthdays we’ve missed. Tonight, we are all in the main room with the baseball game on mute while Jamie and Donna serenade us with old time bluegrass music and about half the family sings the chorus.

This family reunion – so many of us joined in such unexpected ways – doesn’t fix everything, of course, but it’s not nothing. Some nights, once I’ve recovered from the long drive and the end of the school year and all its attendant fatigue, I think it might be (almost) everything.

Many thanks to Two Writing Teachers, whose weekly Slice of Life keeps me writing and thinking.

Parting at Morning; Meeting at Night

I learned about Robert Browning’s paired poems Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning in 11th grade with Mrs Braswell. This morning, all these years later, their titles echoed in my head because – for the first time ever – both Andre and I had to leave the house before our children left for school. In fact, we would both be gone before the older child woke up. They had to get up, get ready and get to school entirely on their own.

At any rate, when the titles of these poems ran through my mind this morning, I wasn’t thinking about 11th grade or Mrs Braswell: I was thinking about my kids. Today, for the first time ever, both Andre and I had to leave for work before the children left for school – which meant we also had to leave earlier than we normally do – which meant we all had to be on our A game.

Last night, we packed lunches, checked breakfast provisions, laid out clothes. This morning, Andre was gone before I even woke up. Half an hour later, I was up, getting ready. I gathered my things, then kissed Mr. 11 awake, told him to brush his teeth & hair, remember his lunch and make sure Mr. 13 woke up in time for school. Then I left.

We’ve left them alone in the evenings plenty of times with (almost) no qualms, but somehow this was different. Would Mr. 11 actually comb his hair? Would his brother wake up? Would either of them eat breakfast? Would they remember their lunches? Leave on time? Lock the door? These questions would remain unanswered until I got back from work. Would they let themselves in after school? What if Mr. 11 lost his key? Would they feed the cats? Would they feed themselves?

I vowed to go home right after my classes ended, just in case, but a teacher in my department was having a very bad day, and I stayed to help them calm down. The kids had another 45 minutes alone.

As I finally gathered my things, I realized that I hadn’t worried about my children at all during the conversation: I’d been focused on the problem at hand. And when I walked in the door, I knew immediately that everything was fine. Mr. 11 had remembered his tutoring session; Mr. 13 was doing his homework. All the keys were where they were supposed to be. The kitchen counter provided evidence that they had eaten (if not tidied up).

And just like that, we’ve passed another milestone. Over dinner, it was clear that they were tickled at this new bit of independence – Mr. 11 says I should tell you that I was too worried and they were awesome. He’s not wrong.

To be fair to their nervous mother, they did forget to feed the cats.

What counts? #SOL22 26/31

I slept in a little and was rather pleased with myself. Downstairs, I made toast and tea, did some puzzles, checked the news. I baked banana bread and washed the dishes, started the laundry and went for a walk with my spouse. We agreed on another attempt to limit screen time in our household. I met with friends to talk pedagogy, instruction and life. Afterwards, I cleaned out the fridge and warmed up some lunch. I tried to convince the teenager that the new screen time rules would not, in fact, be a disaster for him, then sent him off to a birthday party. I bathed, checked on a friend sick with Covid, cycled the laundry, and responded to emails. I repotted three plants, rooted some succulents, and set up for seedlings. I swept the floor. I gathered the kids and dropped them at a friends’ house, then gathered the moms and went to a fundraiser. (Because of Covid, we took our food to one house, leaving the kids to enjoy their pizza at another.) We caught up as we ate.

What did you do today? we asked and each, in turn, we responded nothing much.

None of us are sleeping well. We are weary.

Now, having rearranged moms and kids and homes, now finally sitting down to write, my thoughts cycle through the endless list of things left undone: more laundry, tidying, grading essays, planning lessons, baking a birthday cake, reading…

What did you do today? Nothing much.

What counts as something?

The cool sweetness of blackberry jam, a counterpoint to the toast’s warm crunch
The quick delight of the last numbers falling into place as I solve the grid
The slight tug of the fork as the banana mixture thickens; the smell of brown sugar and chocolate permeates the house
The wet crumble of dirt and the earthy promise of life
The unending tumble of children
The warmth of clothes pulled from the dryer, the slow warmth of soup in ceramic bowls, the warmth of friends who understand weariness

What did you do today? Enough. I did enough.



Hey, Siri #SOL22 18/31

(This memory came to me after reading Stacey’s slice about her son and Siri.)

He is maybe three when he discovers that the phone will converse with him. “Hey, Siri!” he says, and she always responds. Within minutes, they are best friends. She will answer any question, entertain any flight of fancy. “Would you like me to call you Alien?” she asks, and I swear her electronic voice sounds dubious. “Yes!” he agrees enthusiastically, so she does. (For years, my phone will continue to call my husband “Alien” because I can’t bring myself to change it.)

Phone in hand, Eric wanders away, chatting enthusiastically with the only one who is paying him any attention at all. We adults are in the other room, reminiscing about old times. The older kids are running about, screeching. The house is full: at least one dog, a cat, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, grandparents. And it’s noisy – so noisy that no one really hears a three-year-old having a chat with his new electronic best friend. In fact, none of us really even know where he is until we decide to go out on the pontoon boat. “Have you seen Eric?” we ask. No. No. No. No one knows where he is.

Andre heads towards the back of the house, searching. As he passes through the living room, he hears an argument behind the couch. It sounds as though Siri is telling Eric he is being unreasonable. Just as Andre starts to chuckle, Siri stops playing around: “Ok,” she says, still with that dubious tone, “Dialing Emergency in three… two… one…” Andre lunges for the phone, but Siri is already dialing, and Andre manages to hang up just as the call goes through.

Disaster averted, Andre begins to talk to Eric when the phone rings. It’s the emergency operator who informs this flustered father holding an unhappy toddler that she is supposed to send help to the address of the phone call if the call is terminated. Andre explains. He explains about Siri, about the crowd, the noise, the child. It’s early days with Siri, but the operator understands. She does not send an emergency vehicle. We scoop Eric up, change him into a swim diaper and whisk him away to the boat. He barely notices that his friend is gone.

To this day, Siri is disabled on my phone.

Magic Elixir #SOL22 17/31

I sneak quietly down the carpeted stairs into the basement and open the door to the bathroom. Creak. I freeze for a breath, then carefully close the door. Creak. I wince. I’m trying not to wake my eleven year old who is sleeping in the room next door. It doesn’t work: his tired face peers at me mere moments later.

“Hi, Mom,” he mumbles. “What time is it?”
Late. “Go back to sleep,” I murmur. “It’s just me.”
“I know.” He pauses. “But that door is so creepy.”
“Creaky?”
“No, creepy. It sounds like a haunted house. We need WD-40.”
“Remind me tomorrow,” I say as I take him back to his bedroom, tuck him back under his sheets and kiss his forehead.

In the morning, I find the tool chest in the corner of the pantry, then sift through hammers and pliers, twine and tape until the distinctive blue bottle appears.

Downstairs, I spray the door hinges and carefully wipe away the excess. When I test the door, it closes noiselessly. I feel the brief shimmer of domestic victory and catch the edge of a thought: armed with her magic elixir, Mom slays nightmares.

If only I could so easily vanquish other problems.

Oh, my love, my sleepless child, I’m not yet ready to tell you how much of our world is held together with duct tape and dental floss, WD-40 and willpower. You’ll know; you’ll know. For tonight, at least, let’s pretend that WD-40 will always keep the monsters away.

Alone #SOL22 15/31

“Now I am alone.”
Hamlet 2.2.1

I did not sleep well last night. My brain got all wound up and decided that it was a great time to plan a new unit or two, and my body decided that it was foolish to try to relax when we were just going to wake up sometime anyway. So this morning when everyone else was heading off on another adventure, I begged off.

I come from an all-for-one one-for-all kind of family, so staying behind was really hard. I felt terribly guilty – I kept saying, “I really want to go. It sounds like fun” – and my father, who has organized more outings that we can possibly squeeze into a week, dreamed up multiple ways to include me: “You could nap in the car” and “We can try to come back early.” Luckily, as I brushed my teeth, nearly resigned to joining in, my darling partner reminded me that I am allowed to want quiet. So here I am, alone.

When Hamlet declares “Now I am alone” the players have just left, the stage is empty, and he’s about to give his “O what a rogue” soliloquy in which, among other things, he spends a lot of time wondering what he should do. No one has murdered my father and married my mother (thank goodness!), so my “what next?” is considerably less pressing; I have spent the last hour or so letting go of my lingering guilt about staying home and wondering what on earth I should do.

I am a parent and a teacher during the time of Covid: I am rarely alone for any length of time. In fact, I cannot remember the last time that I was so thoroughly alone – it’s just me, the cat and the dog, and no one is going to interrupt for hours and hours. I’m not in my own house, so no one will call and my internal list of things that I “should” do is shockingly short. Despite that, I’ve needed about an hour of simply sitting to let go.

Now, I am alone. I’ve made a second pot of tea. I am listening to the clock tick and the birds call. Here in this quiet, in this moment of inaction, in a moment I chose for myself, my body is beginning to relax, my mind is starting to unspool. Now I am alone, to fill my time as I wish. Tonight, the players will return and I will be an enthusiastic, even participatory, audience when the stage is full and action inevitable. But for now, I am alone.

Vacation? #SOL22 14/22

Describe your ideal vacation. Does it involve going into a dark, wet, hand-carved, dead-end tunnel with a group of energetic pre-teen boys? If so, today would have been your day.

The last time my children and my nephews were together was July 2019, pre-pandemic. Their reunion during this week of March Break has been, well, loud. In two short days (and today isn’t even nearly over), they have done a “Polar Bear” dip in the lake (54F/12C) – then done it again because their aunt offered them $25 if they do it five times for five minutes and they love money, met their (adorable) baby cousin, convinced their grandfather to take them tubing even if the water is ridiculously cold, gone to (distanced) church, played Dungeons and Dragons (with my partner as their patient Dungeon Master), talked about D&D until we forced them to stop, exhausted their grandparents’ dog (who did not know this much non-stop action was possible), watched 40 gazillion episodes of The Simpsons, and gone on an adventure to Stumphouse Tunnel.

The Stumphouse Tunnel was carved into a mountain in the middle of nowhere South Carolina before the Civil War – apparently as a potential train tunnel. I would be able to tell you more about it, but we didn’t have time to stop and read the signs. We *did* have time to go to the end of the tunnel, climb over top of the tunnel to the peak of the “mountain,” have a picnic, and then go off-trail and clamber down the nearby Issaqueena Falls. The day was gloriously sunny and warm (at least for those of us from Ottawa).

After a few hours of climbing outdoors the kids were almost worn out – but not quite. They contemplated Laser Tag but opted to come home. We’ve played the family version of Cards Against Humanity and some of the adults (ahem – me) took a nap, but there’s still spaghetti pie to make (it’s pi day) and apple pie to eat and at least one movie to watch.

I’m exhausted and as happy as I’ve been for a while: writing on a couch with a cat curled up next to me, listening to boys laughing in the next room, to one boy and his grandfather cooking, to my partner and my stepmother deep in conversation.

Happiness sneaks up on us, doesn’t it? Even when your vacation day involves hiking in a cold, wet tunnel.

Fatigue #SOL22 10/31

When she first came to visit, I wasn’t surprised; March Break was coming, and she often arrives around this time. Most days, she showed up in the late afternoon, hung around until bedtime and then left, sated. I reminded myself that there was no point in pretending she wasn’t coming, no point in ignoring her – better to accept her visits and maybe go to bed a little earlier than usual to help send her on her way.

But since the beginning of this week, five days before break, she’s been here every day. Some days, I swear she shows up first thing in the morning and lingers until lights out. I can’t shake her. I’ve tried warm baths and early bedtimes. Still, she’s there the minute I open my eyes, laughing. “You thought I’d leave?” Her shoulders shake as she chuckles, “You know better.”

At work, she’s been messing with my calendar: every day this week I’ve found myself accidentally double-booked for at least one meeting. I’m usually very good with time management, so I’m sure it’s her fault. And she’s making me very grumpy. I’m trying to ignore her, but she’s *always* there, and I have to admit my temper is short. She’s even infiltrated my writing – I’ve been posting later and later even though I’m often a morning writer.

The good news is that March Break starts at the end of the day tomorrow. She may try to accompany me on vacation, but I have a feeling that some serious family time, a lack of commitments and, yes, some morning sleep-ins will let her know that it’s time to leave. After all, I much prefer her more pleasant sister, Energy.

Surprised by Winter #SOL22 3/31

I have lived in Ottawa for 15 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life, but somehow I’m still coming to terms with winter. I’m regularly annoyed when it snows before the end of November. I make jokes like “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a… lion.” As someone raised largely in the South, I mutter “April is the cruellest month” year after year when Ottawa April shows its capricious nature: freeze thaw freeze thaw; few things bloom and I often wonder if Spring will ever arrive.

I should know better. I should.

Despite all of this, I managed to be shocked this morning when I walked out to my car covered in a light layer of snow, and, underneath, the windshield slick with ice. For once, I was leaving vaguely on time, determined to get to school early enough to write this slice before students arrived. But winter had different ideas.

Why replace this scraper? After all, winter’s nearly over, right?

I swept my gloved hand along the seam of the top of the car door before I opened it so that none of the snow would fall on my seat. I half-sat on the front seat and turned the car on, followed by the front windshield heater, the back windshield heater and the seat heater. I groped on the floor for the now-broken scraper that I had decided didn’t need to be replaced this season because “it’s already March.”

Then, I spent the requisite three or four minutes brushing and scraping the car – not quite enough to make me late, really, but just enough to remind me that I should not be surprised by winter. The broken scraper meant that I couldn’t quite reach everything, so I drove to work with the mom minivan mohawk: the narrow strip of snow that not-quite-tall enough moms end up leaving in the middle of the roof of their minivans.

Pretty sure I still won’t buy a new scraper this season. After all, it’s nearly Spring.