It doesn’t take long before a parent figures out that appreciation is not one the attributes children freely extend. For some of us mothers, the realization first occurs in the hospital when cajoling sweet baby to nurse, but he refuses, as if a better choice will come along. Still, my belief that embedded somewhere deep (perhaps core-of-the-earth deep) within is a resilient, non-negotiable sense of thankfulness. I wonder if this belief is where the torment in parenting exists, rarely acknowledged and stepped upon like fragile alpine tundra above treeline on back country mountains.
On a late August morning when the air through our open windows felt more like cool September and beckoned us all to stay in bed a little longer, I decided to make the appeal of getting up for school and work a little less painful. Mixing up blueberry muffins and getting the frying pan out to make scrambled eggs, I thought how pleased my husband and children will be to enjoy a special breakfast.
Son Oldest enters kitchen first, head hanging down and asks for the remains of a sweet bread going stale. I said, “Sure, and I’m making scrambled eggs.” He apparently didn’t hear me. (Why is it my family never hears so many things I say?) When I slipped a dish of eggs next to the plate of bread, he squawked, “You didn’t say you were making eggs!” Didn’t want them. Any other time he’d pant in anticipation at the sight of the frying pan. Not today. Fine. Strike One.
Husband Only arrives. He reaches around me over the countertop mess to grab a bowl and pour into it, dry, flaky woven squares—while I pull my steaming muffins out of the oven and ask, “Are they done?” Really asking, “Don’t they look delicious?” “Yes, they look done,” he says, and continues to prepare his bowl. Hmmm, I thought to myself, “You aren’t even going to reach over and grab a muffin or two to go with that dog bowl?” Strike Two.
As I stirred the batter earlier, I fantasized that the aroma soon to waft from the oven would have the hypnotizing effect of making Son Youngest raise his head from the pillow and take in a pleasureful whiff that would go down to his feet and bring tip-toes and a happy disposition out of bed gracefully to his kitchen chair. Instead: Reality. It takes a succession of an insistent Mom, Dad and Brother Oldest to pry Son Youngest out of bed. He stands naked in his room for as long as he can, protesting his clothes—specifically, and the world—generally. He stomps an acidic scowl to the kitchen table. “Where’s my breakfast!” Still, my fantasies. I expect a plate of warm muffins, blueberry—his favorite—slid under his chin will cut through cranky disposition. Instead: Reality. “I want cinnamon rolls!” Strike Three.
Fine, instead, two stale cinnamon rolls. (We typically don’t have so many aged baked goods in our house.) He struggles to chew through them, banging on his plate one large chunk pierced on his fork, while warm blueberry muffins sit on a plate he has pushed away.
Meanwhile, I finish packing lunches and grab Son Oldest before he runs out the door to catch a look at the long, ragged nail on his forefinger. “Please, let me clip that.” “Not now, Mom. OK, only one clip.” I proceed to clip the rest while he tells me no, he’s got to go. Pinkie done, quick hug, he’s out the door.
Son Youngest and I squabble. I push him to finish breakfast, get his shoes on. “Where’s your backpack?” He doesn’t know. The search. He’ll be late. I drive him the four blocks so he doesn’t get a tardy on his report card. He growls the distance. Van door opens. “Have a good day. I love you.” The back of his head and backpack disappearing into the school are the only response.
I pull the van into the garage, cut the engine, close the garage door and sit there in the Genie’s dim light that fails to warn before darkness smacks. It is six years practically to the day I quit a job—a career—I liked and daresay, at times loved, if you can love a job. Clients often told me “thank you.” They even gave me gifts. Sure, sometimes promotional tchotchkes, but useful things they handed over with such appreciation: pens, t-shirts, a fleece jacket, tickets to concerts and shows. Without that job I would not have experienced chamber music in a historic Kansas City cathedral or a student opera that filled my chest with emotion. One client gave me a turquoise bear charm. I wondered how she knew I loved bears, that stone, Southwest flavor. She had taken the time to ask one of my coworkers. Not even my husband could pick out something so fitting of “me.”
But, I realize I’m crying not because no one in my current occupation thanked me this morning. Instead: I never thanked my dad for all his sacrifices. Why couldn’t I say, “Thank you, Dad”? Why does the self-absorption of childhood and the teen years make it so imposing and still uncomfortable into adult years? Was it his hardness? Mine? It’s too late now. He is gone. Almost four months.
What would I thank him for? Above all, no doubt, for working so hard to give us a good home in a good neighborhood. But the details… the gray plastic record player, Carpenters singles, and twirling baton I used as a microphone. His tomatoes, sliced and sugared, from the backyard garden in sight of all the roses he planted along the fence. His awning factory, where he taught me to use an electric screw gun. The french toast with Texas bread I thought everyone called “Daddy’s Special.” His driving us up Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park and back down again for pizza at Bob and Tony’s in Estes Park. I would thank him for those, the sanitized, funny stories about his World War II crew, and his tuning in to the Carol Burnett Show to laugh at Tim Conway.
I’d say “thanks” for sitting through squeaky junior high band concerts and silly high school plays. I’d so-thank him for my vessel of freedom, the maroon Sears Free Spirit 10-speed, and less so for the restriction of the midnight curfew and “no’s” that made me storm off to my bedroom. I’d thank him for asking the Palm Springs celebrity tour van driver to swing one more time past Barry Manilow’s home because “my daughter is crazy about him.” I would thank him for sitting in the parking lot at St. John’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday evenings, waiting for a carpool of us to emerge from confirmation class. I do remember thanking him and would again for the old volume of Shakespeare’s works he passed on to me in college—even though I wasn’t always able to find the passages that matched those on the pages cited by the professor for the new Oxford editions classmates had before them.
What memories will I make? Scrambled eggs and blueberry muffins uneaten on a golden August morning?
Someday, maybe my kids will thank me for quitting my job, my career. Maybe they won’t. Expectation of thanks is futile pursuit. Maybe the gift was all mine and I still just don’t see it as I sit with a hot laptop trying to reclaim a piece or more of the past. I could not dedicate this blog to my kids, husband, mother … anyone. Not when I should clean up the mess I made in the kitchen, organize school papers, pay bills, fold clothes, clean toilets, send birthday cards, make a grocery list, call for dental appointments and plan weekend activities.
This blog is for me, and the wet, wadded tissues long tossed from my teenage bedroom. It’s an affair with the first love of my life: Words.
Yet, I recall years before that passion, the excitement circa five o’clock when Mom would call out, “Daddy’s home!”
— Laura Patterson