the short list of crosses
It is the morning of our last day in Tennessee, as we leave tomorrow to go back to the icier climate of northern Indiana. I spoke to a friend in South Bend yesterday and he said it was three degrees, with lots of snow.
Here at Jeff’s parents’ house, our whole family has had a break from that state of endurance that had swallowed us up north. Esme has had non-stop adult attention and fun all week long. Jeff and I have gotten to do a host of things that we never get to do together: we played tennis; we spent an entire morning biking around town and then having lunch before biking back; we went to a movie and dinner last night; we’ve slept in most mornings while our little early riser was downstairs having breakfast with her grandparents. She has also allowed her grandparents to put her to bed a few nights, leaving me to visit friends in Chattanooga in the evening, and not feel locked in to my mothering routine as I do at home. I have driven many places by myself, with loud music in the car. I have taken a few long baths. I have been able to do some shopping and, in rare possession of selfish spending money thanks to Santa, have been able to buy things like clothes and make-up that might assist me in the restoration of some semblence of lady-hood, despite the mid-western stay-at-home mom situation I’ll soon return to.
We hear from lots of others who have been in similar situations that the first year of a PhD is the hardest. This last semester took a lot out of our family somehow. There was so much non-stop work for Jeff and yet so little money–something that seems so incongruent in this land of supposed opportunity and reward for hard work. Such a small apartment, and such bad weather howling around outside of it. There was so little time to relax with friends because so many weekends were snatched from us. For Jeff there was so much time at the library, which for me translated into so much time at home by myself with Esme. My hands were occupied constantly with boiling water, scrubbing dishes, wiping sticky bananas and pasta off the floor beneath Esme’s high chair, dunking and wringing dirty cloth diapers, washclothes, bibs, and dust rags, lugging bags of groceries up flights of apartment stairs, replacing all of the items that a toddler rearranges in the course of any given hour, and feeling like any time spent doing things for myself was stolen time. And for all of this, I know our lives aren’t as difficult as most people’s lives, and that we are in fact quite priveleged in many ways. I can’t make sense of it, except to conclude that it is best to avoid comparisons as a rule.
Being here for a week, leaning on the great, stable pillar of family– a marriage that has endured the lean years already– has given me respite. Marybeth, whose home might win an award for “most adorned” during the Christmas season, was remembering a Christmas many years ago when all they had was a tiny little tree on top of their television. It helped me to hear this. Jeff and I did not even put up a tree in our little apartment because it seemed like one more thing that Esme would simply knock over and dissimilate. I kept remembering the things my own mother would bring out for Christmas– an elaborate ceramic nativity scene on top of the piano, a six foot tree with ornaments that increased in sentimental value each year, a Santa house that lit up from inside, which I would stare at while Christmas music played from the kitchen. Just these few things captivated me as a child and made me feel carefree, warm, and far removed from the unhappy schoolday for a little chunk of the year. Now it’s my turn to create something like this in my own family, but left in the kitchen alone for the first time, I somehow botched the recipe, and the magic of Christmas eluded me completely this year. I was only relieved that Esme is not old enough or aware enough to have memories of our hard candy Christmas 2007. I wonder how much practice I will need, i.e. how many Christmases, before I will succeed at getting this thing off the ground, tending to all the domestic details in such a way that will achieve that over-all Christmasy affect I have enjoyed so much from the hands of others.
Interestingly, after a week of pampering and leaning on the strength of my elders, the empire of home traditions that they have built up, I’m ready to go home and have my little life back. It may be a harder life, more paltry, more effort-filled and with less results to show for it, but it’s still my life, my project. I’m ready to go back to my short list of crosses and put my one little box of Christmas decorations back into storage until next year. I’m curious about 2008 and what it might contain.