Last month we took our June bug on vacation to Savannah and Charleston, to soak up some sweet southern sunshine and stroll through some of the most beautiful streets in America. It was June’s first flight. Andrew and I love to travel. We both have flexible jobs, friends and family scattered across the globe. We…
My Dear June,
Today I stood in your nursery and watched the way the light made patterns on the wall and thought that if you were awake, you would have enjoyed watching it. And then I realized that it wasn’t too long ago that I had no idea the things you would like or what you would find interesting, and in just a few short months you have gone from a stranger to tiny human with likes and dislikes and a personality that is expanding and becoming more each day. I guess that’s what all this time we spend together will do—we’re learning each other, you and I, our patterns and rhythms and breaths and paces.
You sleep these days with your lips pursed—we call it your “June face”—with your hands tucked under your chins that are growing by the minute. When you wake up, you’ll stretch those hands high and wide for a full twenty minutes, and you’ll kick your legs and you’ll smile big and wide and finally, you’ll be ready to face the day—another day, when you will get bigger and longer and I will not notice because I will be so busy playing with you, calming you, changing you, feeding you—not until I pull out a favorite outfit from the closet and realize it is too tight around the waist, to short on those chubby legs of yours. Then I’ll fold that little outfit and put it away and try not to cry like I have been lately each time you outgrow a new thing, because I’m learning that each new day is like a thousand golden grains of sand slipping through my hands and I can’t catch or save them.
Every couple has that thing their first year of marriage—the thing that is really hard but makes them so much closer than they would have been beforehand. Tight finances, a move, a new city, a new job.
My sister and brother can thank their thing to french fries at midnight gone horribly wrong.
At 2:00 a.m. on a snowy, cold night at the beginning of December, Andrew and I woke up to a pounding on our window that was Amy and Kevin. Since neither of us sleep near our phones, we missed the seven texts, the nine missed calls (moral of the story: NEVER call us in an emergency because we WILL LET YOU DOWN). Their neighbors got a craving for french fries at midnight, and grease fires spread fast so before they knew it the smoke stung their eyes and they had to leave.
We let in our smokey siblings through the back door, stayed up late drinking cups of tea, and asked them WHY they chose to exit a burning building with only a fossil purse, Ugg boots, and the firesafe box—the ONE thing that should actually be safe in a fire. (It should be noted here that neither of them chose to bring their bibles which could reflect a huge priority chasm.) We echoed each other’s sentiments, that it could have been worse, so much worse, and if it’s just smoke we’re dealing with, it’s not so bad.
We found out the next day the damage was worse than we thought. Smoke makes everything hazy and sticky and it had put a nice filmy cover on all their newlywed, married things—their dish set, their duvet, their couch and photo albums. One night with us turned into two, and then three, then a week, then a month, and then it was the end of January before Amy and Kevin finally moved back home. Our first long term “lodgers.”
For most people, July looks like ice cream, eaten on the edge of a lake somewhere in the blazing heat of the day, but for us, this year, it looked like twenty bowls filled to the brim. It looked like the bulk section of BJ’s, family packs at Wegman’s, dinner reservations that took up half the restaurant. It looked like music, like car rides, sweaty limbs sticking to leather seats. It looked like the back of a debit card, sliding in to machine after machine at pump after pump. It looked like hotel patios and restaurant menus, late nights around the mesmerizing flame of the fire.
July was familiar voices and foreign accents, mingled together over coffee, tea, wine, beer, mixed drinks, interrupting each other, laughing with each other, building up in a slow crescendo until you could not longer distinguish which voice belonged to which person. It was late nights, early mornings, lulled to sleep by the hum of a fan, woken by a baby’s laughter. It was peanut butter pie, Christmas cake, burgers, ripe watermelon, bare feet on grass and no sweaters for days.
Change bedsheets, wash floors, grocery shop, cook, repeat has been the refrain of my weekends the past two months. If I didn’t know it before, I am convinced of it since moving to Central Pennsylvania in February: we have the best friends and family in the world, who have moved ships and mountains to come see us and our new home. Thanks to them, our lives in this new place have been full from the start. We have relished in unhurried evenings around the dinner table, canoe trips, long hikes, and market days with the people we love so much. Laughter and good conversation make a house feel like home in a way that picture frames and eclectic vases never will, and I am glad to have so much of it splashed up on these walls since moving in.
It was my friend Jayna that taught me about hosting as an adult on the most practical level. Growing up, my parents hosted people for a night or a month at a time, but always made it seem effortless and I never paid attention to how it was done.
My senior year of college, four of us shared an apartment. Alana, Jenny, and I were usually more than happy to eat nachos and refried beans for dinner and to spend the evenings talking for hours on the couch. We never seemed to run out of conversations and questions, and usually stayed up way too late discussing Taylor Swift’s hair or why we measure time in years, depending on the day. Jayna though, is a walking friend and community magnet, and she brought us into the horde of people we probably would have otherwise missed out on.
For Christmas this year, my brother gave me his old camera: a Nikon D80 DSLR. Capture beautiful things, he told me.
Matt and my dad are amazing photographers. They have the eye, the creative mind, the skill and the perspective to freeze some of life’s happiest, incredible, drop-your-jaw-and-forget-to-breathe moments.
I went out with my brother the other day, and followed him as he took pictures. I walked behind him through the quiet hills of Allegheny, tried to keep my fingers warm as the snow fell gently around us, stood in his exact pose and pointed my lens at the same things.
Matt has always been a capturer of beauty, I realized as we walked, as he pointed out to me the green of the moss and the layers of rock beneath the small stream. “There’s no way your shot will be as good as mine,” he said at one point, grinning cheekily, and I saw him then in layers—as a four year old, fourteen, twenty-four, and I remembered that I have loved him—all his years on top of each other—for a very long time, and I already love everything he will become.
I like two of the sixty eight photos I took that day. Photography, I’m learning, is like writing, music, architecture, design and painting, in that like anything worth doing, it is full of failure and disappointment. It is full of the words no, wrong, try again, below par, until finally, you capture something that sounds like a maybe. It is sitting down in front of your work after a long day and thinking, that is not at all what I meant to say. Then it is taking note of the failure, thinking about ways to fix it, rolling up your sleeves, and trying again in the morning.
“It’s a boy!” The woman said happily on the recording, unaware of how many times her voice would ring through the speakers of personal computers, how many times the link to the video where she talks about legs, hearts, what researchers want brains for, would be shared on social media. Probably she would have wished to be famous for something else, but this is what we know her voice for.
Last Friday a friend and I went to the Heinz Pittsburgh History Museum. The have a new exhibit up called From Slavery to Freedom, detailing the horrors of the slave trade and human ownership.
To be sold, the sign read. Choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy negroes, just arrived from Windward & Rice Coast.
Museum goers walked by, stopping, rolling their eyes, gasping, saying aloud, how could this have been okay?
Because it seems ridiculous today, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it seem crazy to own another human, to think that because a person’s skin is different they must not have a soul? How could they have inspected another person’s teeth, like looking at a horse, and decide they would be good for labor? How could we have put someone on a stand while bidders stood around, prodding the legs, observing the build, and paying a price to control every day they would ever live?
It’s a man’s right was the argument of the slave owner at the time. It was a popular view. It’s a man’s right to own a slave to work on his field, to help him provide for his family, to work the ground the Good Lord gave him. According to popular the law, it was every bit in his right to own another human because one was born chocolate and the other born ivory.
Our stomachs were full, sure, with cheesy bread, cake, washed down and around with cups of tea, but when the last guest left and we put our feet up, it was our hearts that felt wrung out, stuffed and overflowing. My sister placed her hands on her basketball tummy, growing bigger each day as that little boy inside stretches and fills up the space.
The house had been full, seats had been warmed, with people we have known almost since the time our own mother had us. They watched my sister grow up, let her babysit their own children, clapped and cheered as she became a wife, and now sat again, in our living room, welcoming her into motherhood with gifts, laughter, and gentle advice. Friends who had stood up in her wedding now held out hands to balance her as she sits in this waiting— already a mother but not quite yet.
Each of them came and stuffed her arms full with rattles, onsies, blankets and creams, tied together with anecdotes and stories of their own wakings in the night, their own aches and joys, their own sweet bundle. I was reminded again that we are a linked people, that these experiences and milestones are not made to separate or distinguish us, but to make us all into one. This shower was about Laura, in a way, but it was more about what we are all made for: to nourish, restore, and encourage life.
It was a model train exhibit, a second story creaky attic packed with eager faces and laughing children, that got me thinking about living in the absence of the dead.
Once, in England, my grandad took us on a real train. The black, coal kind that made me feel, even at six, like the modern world lost something crucial when we traded in tracks for tires. It heaved and swelled as it chugged along that track, laid again, painstakingly by the backs of men. He worked for the railroad, my grandad, and with his gravelly voice and rough, warm hands, he would explain to us all the parts and workings.
See that there? That’s the smoke stack. That keeps the train from overheating.
He loved trains. Trains and electronics. He used to make videos of our family vacations, and over the stream of classical music we would hear the whistle of the train and the steady chug, chug, chug, like a heartbeat as it passed over the screen for at least fifteen minutes. When he and my grandma would come to visit, we would take him to train anything, just for the satisfaction of the half smile that would come over his face as he stared intently at the inner workings and knobs.
Painstaking work, is all I can think about the tiny little houses, the boards upon boards of miniature wooden logs that assembled in a line so that the model train can chug on by.
You don’t know me yet, I said to him once, as we stood among the cat reeds watching the sun set over the water. This was in the days when the thought of us was still new, before love or forever ever entered our vocabulary.
Then show me, he told me, palms stretched open and eyes pleading. Show me everything there is to know.
There’s the thing of my family, I explained, hesitating, my tongue too thick and clumsy to find the words inside my heart. And the other side of the world.
How do you explain to a person you think you might be beginning to love a thing you’ve loved fiercely your whole life, maybe even before you were born? This is the question I’ve asked myself a hundred times. How do you let a new person in to a community you’ve always held sacred; a community whose key is laughter and tears, and whose gates are sealed with idioms and memories?
One…two…three…four… Count with me. She stretches out her withered hands, splotched with the brown marks but also with life. With effort, she picks them up and puts them back down, a simple, slapping motion. And out of the mouth, which is in the place where the wrinkles converge, comes a soft, unsure voice that increases…
For laughter spilled over in rooms full of warmth,
For rich food in plenty and wide open arms
For a chair by the fire while the snow falls silently,
For being full and satisfied, we give our thanks.
For friendships that span across the years,
That only run deeper as we shed our skins
For the chance to be real, a horde of Velveteens
For the covering of love, we give our thanks.
If the end of a life is a swan song then it’s the silence in its wake that keeps us spinning. The final notes of the last few breaths, so beautiful in their vulnerability, raw enough to break the glass and leave us holding shards of mourning and questions.
What do you say to the end of a life? How do you collect the fragments and piece them together, knowing that even if you do, there will be lines in the glass, and the sun will never shine through them unbroken again?
It’s the way he smelled that comes back to me, in wafts that taunt my memory, as I remember the way it was. The way his room smelled soft, like flowers, his clothes inundated with that fresh scent. I never knew whether it was him or Grandma who smelled like that, but I guess after 57 years of marriage, maybe your smells start to become the same.
The walls felt cold, when we first stepped in, new to us and oh so bare. I wondered how many other people have stepped across this threshold; how many other characters have played a part in this house’s story.
The rain came in with our tires and we raced the storm as best we could, lugging in box after box, soaked with droplets from the crying sky. We stood in the midst of wet boxes and white walls and sneakers squeaky from water, and we looked at each other- really looked. Amidst the exhaustion, the nine hour drive, the frizzy hair and the sweaty clothes, here we stood, and these white walls and wet boxes were ours. We swallowed hard, wanting to laugh and cry, and for one small moment, one that may have been waiting for us for years, perhaps centuries, we knew that the path we were on was good. As we stood aI caught a glimpse of one eternal day, when we will always know that where we are and who we are is good.
The pews were hard and the sun made the stain glass colors bounce off our clothes. We stood to sing that ancient hymn, the notes etched in love by our fathers. We sang and I swelled with the voices of my own, those who had given their weekend to help us unpack and then showered us with gifts, who brought us food and then took us out, whose laughter and sweet spirits made the transition lightyears easier. My mother, father, sister and brother, voices weaving in harmony around me like a blanket. So much love, in those voices, for each other and their maker, and I cried with joy for the day when we will sing together eternally alongside the writers of these hymns, in the presence of he who inspired them.
I watch the little family of ducks as they waddle toward the pond. They’re mission ducks, this tribe of waddlers, bound for the water with the determination of a hunt already set in motion. And I wonder, as I watch this little unit, who taught them how to be together? Who taught them to be a family, to travel in a pack? Who taught them to walk in a line, and who taught this Duck Mama to cover her little ones with a coat of fierce protection?
A sigh next to me diverts my attention. He’s asleep now, sprawled out on the blanket in the sunshine. The picnic was his idea, thought of purely for my enjoyment. Just like the trip to the library on our way out of town, because he knows there is nothing I enjoy more after a picnic than soaking in the sun with a book new to me. And later today, when the sun sinks too low and our skin gets prickly from too much sun and shade, he’ll take me to ice cream, I know. We’ll find a park bench by a lamppost and he’ll listen with interest, feigned for my benefit, as I tell him the details of the new story I’ve been visiting.
And I wonder, as I watch him sleeping, who taught us to be a tribe, a unit, our own tiny family? Did we learn from the ducks or did they learn from us?
The park is getting busy. Around our tree and across the pond are other little families, picnicking, throwing a frisbee, tiny miniatures chasing the ducks, their larger counterparts reigning them in. And all these many, little units, each individual member with a place to call their own, a place to fit and a place to belong. And how do they know?
It can be tricky business, becoming one. I smile as I look at him and think this, knowing he probably knows this better than I do, and thinking my family, my first tribe, would laugh and agree with me could I tell them this thought. I wonder how much the ducks have to give up of themselves to become a part of the group. How many of their dreams, their preferences, their faults and tendencies do they give up for the health of their unit?
I am a chronic apologizer.
I apologize for being late, for being early, for being forgetful, for remembering too much. I apologize for ordering an item at a restaurant that they’ve run out of, as though it’s my fault that they still had it on the menu. I apologize in an elevator, when the other person is going to floor ten and my stop is floor eight. Sometimes, I even ride to floor ten and then walk down two flights, just to avoid having to apologize. And so, “I’m sorry”, ends up being one of the most common phrases to tumble out of my mouth. In its overuse, it’s become less of a true confession, and more of a continual excuse to cover my tracks.
I wonder why I feel the need to excuse myself so often. I do it because I want people to like me; rather, I don’t want to give them a reason not to like me. I don’t want to rock the boat; I’m terrified of making people angry. Outwardly, this aspect of my personality has served me well. I rarely get into fights, rarely am in continual conflict with a friend. But inwardly, it can be suffocating- to never say what I really think, to never speak out when I’m harmed by a friend, and to always, always, lace a hard conversation or confrontation with I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.
In our seven months of marriage, Andrew and I have had our fair share of disagreements. We are both passive aggressive and both very highly opinionated, so most of our “arguments” take the shape of sharing our very opinionated opinions in a passive aggressive code that the other person needs a mind reader device to decipher. Good luck trying to get a straight answer in our house when this happens.
Usually, these little squabbles and skirmishes are about things completely trivial, like leaving dirty dishes in the sink or double booking a schedule, and within minutes, the issue is forgotten as quickly as it began. I can almost always be won over by an unsolicited cup of tea and a freshly baked cookie. Andrew and I are also both fairly forgetful, and so issues don’t linger in the curtains for long.
The holidays, though, were a different monster altogether. Just the mention of the words “Christmas”, or “Thanksgiving”, or even “Wassail”, was enough to set us both on edge, the blunt tip of our passive-aggressive swords ready to attack or defend the other’s comment. I guess there’s not much else to expect from a couple whose first real argument was about the idea of Santa Claus being a magical Christmas enchanter or a misleading, damaging scheme.