What is broken

My husband’s been on the road for work for the past week, so to make time go faster I’ve been spending a lot of time with my girlfriends. They are all about my age, married, with kids, most of them with jobs outside of the home.

I always learn something from them. Parenting tips, new recipes, relationship advice — whatever it is, I usually come away feeling refreshed and smarter. If I am in doubt, I know that one of my friends will have the answer, or a reassuring anecdote to share.

But this week, things were different. It’s the first time I got a whiff of something being off in all of our lives. Some kind of an unease, uncertainty, maybe even fear.

We are all married to great guys — really, truly great guys. Smart, passionate, giving, understanding, handsome men. All of them.  And yet our stories were almost all the same: husbands working long hours, too tired for kids/sex/conversation when they get home, us wives appreciating their hard work and devotion, but at the end of the day feeling lonely and lost and overwhelmed. We don’t want to nag — we know our guys work hard and that they work hard for us. But we don’t want to be alone in a relationship either. And between office jobs and doing the majority of child rearing, honestly we are just as tired and analyzing and nurturing our marriages seems like a luxury.

What I heard form my friends wasn’t reassuring — all of them are trying come to terms with the fact that this might be it. Maybe this is how marriage is — a business transaction between adults who kinda like each other. Not one of them had a soothing word or reassurance about the situation. They were all trying to figure out how to make it work, how to make this life OK, bearable, until maybe things will get better and easier.

How did we get there? I’ve known these women before kids, mortgages, real careers. We were not like this. There was passion, hope, honesty, excitement about the future. Now we just seem… defeated.

It’s like we lost our way in the world. The more we are tied down to houses, kids, jobs, the more we want to fly away someplace else. And I think that’s true of our husbands, too. We all seem to be confused about our positions in the world, in our own houses, and relationships. Are we breadwinners? Are we mothers? Fathers? Nurturers? Parents? What is our primary role? What the hell are we?

It used to be clear — mother stayed at home with the kids, father went out to make money. I am not saying it was the ideal situation, but there was some clarity to our roles. Fathers were not expected to make dinner and mothers were not expected to make a career. Now we have to be good at all of this and there is just no way to do that — not without feeling guilt or shortchanging something important in our lives, like our relationships. We have high expectations of ourselves to be good at everything and I think we are finally realizing that we have to let some of those expectations go. Having all of these life choices seems to make things more confusing, with lots of gray areas.

There are no good models in front of us on how to do this right either — at least not in my circle. Either our parents were really well off and had live-in nannies, or could afford to stay at home even if that meant a tighter budget. None of my friends live in luxury — having two earners is almost a necessity to maintain some level of comfort. My one friend who is at home with her three kids barely sees her husband awake, or away from his phone — clearly not the way to a happy marriage.

So, my time with friends has been somewhat dispiriting. I guess it’s nice to know that I am not alone in my predicament, but it’s worrisome that other women like me don’t have answers either.

I know I am barely scratching the surface of this problem and I know for sure that I don’t have the answers. I just hope that with so many options and choices all of us will find a way to keep our sanity and balance while staying married. I hope we can remember how we got here in the first place — we wanted love and a family.

We wanted to be happy.

These women

I never used to value my female friends. I never had that many of them — friends, or friends who were females — and I honestly just never thought about the value of surrounding myself with strong women.

In college and even in my early career many women seemed like threats — personally or professionally. I always felt like even with close friends there was so much…drama. We got wrapped up in each other’s lives way too much, we judged too quickly and easily, and used other women’s experiences to make ourselves feel better about our own failings. I always felt like I had to compete with female friends. Somehow guy friends back then seemed so much simpler. No drama, no judgment.

A few months ago I joined a women’s writing group. It’s an informal gathering once a month with eight other women. I am the youngest in the group and for the first time in my life I feel such comfort in the company of strong, smart, funny women. Maybe it’s because we share our truest selves in our writing that I immediately felt a bond with everyone in the group. Once you’ve heard someone’s honest, heartbreaking account of a family history, struggles with a sick child, or an ailing husband, it’s hard not to feel that intimacy.  Whatever it is — trust, warmth, experience, love — our group provides all of that to every member.

This weekend we spent a day on Star Island as our yearly writing retreat. We ate a picnic on the lawn listening to a 1920s jazz band. We wandered around the island, in and out of small churches and cottages, taking pictures of rocks and driftwood and the blazing, bright blue sky above us. Later in the afternoon we sat in a circle on the wide porch of the island’s hotel and read what we had written that day. Here is what the ocean and the waves brought out of my pen:

I’ve been feeling like one of these huge waves crashing on the rocks along the shore.
I am still a drop of water or a small quiver on the surface somewhere off shore, but far off in the distance I can see the rocks. Gray, shiny, smooth, beckoning. The water is murkier around those rocks, but also warmer. My choices are limited: I can drown with the rest of the little drops around me, or be sucked into the mouth of a whale. Or the rocks.
I could roll myself into a big, frothy wave and punch my way through the depth around me. I know the crash will be painful for a moment maybe — all that smooth hardness breaking me into droplets.
But then it will be exhilarating to feel the cool splash, to take flight for a second, to break away. Maybe the rock I will land on will be warm from the afternoon sun and I will sizzle away in the heat. Or maybe I will land on a cool, slimy spot and gently roll back into the wetness. But it will be worth it — the rush, the leap, the splash. It will all be worth it.

When I got done reading it to my friends, I felt such a huge relief. It’s not much as far as writing is concerned, but I felt like I finally told someone — someone who mattered — what’s been going on in my head for months now. The uncertainty, the excitement, the feeling of possibilities and the terrifying possible outcomes that haunt me every day.

These women now know. I didn’t have to tell them the details — that I am bored out of my skull at my job, that my heart is sick and worried about my marriage, my parents, my brother, or that I feel lost, alone, and scared, and so uncertain about the future. They asked me if I was OK after I read it and for once I felt like I can really say that “yes, I am OK.” Or if I am not OK yet, I will be soon.

I am OK because of these women. We surround each other with words, with love, with wisdom.

No drama. No judgment.

Cooking with Grandma

My Grandma died this January. I think about her often, especially when I am cooking. I wrote this piece a few years ago, but I wanted to post it here in her memory.

***

Let me lick your finger,” my Grandma demands as she reaches for my right hand. My fingers are sticky with a mixture of raw meat, eggs, rice, and spices. We are making stuffed peppers.

“Grandma!” I yell, even before I realize what she is about to do. “It’s raw meat!” Her tongue touches my index finger and, not being sure of the result, she licks it again. “How else am I going to tell whether it’s salty enough?” she scolds. Then, softly clicking her tongue, she adds, “It does need more salt.”

I spent several afternoons in the kitchen with Grandma after my wedding last winter in Budapest. She came to my parents’ apartment in the afternoons so that dinner would be ready by the time they got home from work.

It was my idea that Grandma should give me cooking lessons while I waited patiently for my green card. I have already mastered the three most important dishes of Hungarian cuisine: gulyas soup, chicken paprika, and the beef stew called pörkölt. I imagined my husband surviving on these three alternating dishes…. I needed help.

It was the first time in a while that I had Grandma all to myself. Sure, I was the first grandchild and Grandma spent hours with me while I giggled in my crib as she pointed to the figures on my favorite blanket. During longer road trips, Grandma would recite a nursery rhyme about a bear that drifts away from his family on a block of ice and finds new friends in the city.

When I was a little older, she indulged my love of figure skating by sewing skating outfits for my Barbie dolls. And she was my most understanding ally when my parents didn’t let me go to a rock concert.

When I left for college in the United States, Grandma handed me three embroidered handkerchiefs at the airport. “Sometimes one just has to have a good cry,” she said.
My brother stayed at home, and during Grandma’s weekly visits he was the one who spent hours in the kitchen while she baked cookies. During my summer and Christmas visits, I could never seem to find the old connection with Grandma.

Now that I was married and in charge of a household, Grandma and I found a whole new connection.

The best part about cooking with Grandma is listening to her stories. She had a difficult life, but her anecdotes are always cheerful.

Her stories always start with “You know, the way it used to be …” Members of her family weren’t very imaginative with names. The men are named Sandor (Alexander) and its variations (Sanyi, Sanyika, etc.). The women are Terez (Theresa) and its variations: Terka, Terike, etc. Thus, Grandma’s stories are always confusing. But it doesn’t matter. The tales of her small village, her many siblings, and the hot summer days she spent working on the fields are fascinating.

Like the story about how much she loved school and how sad her teacher was when my grandmother dropped out in sixth grade. “I was my teacher’s favorite,” she says. But after her mother’s death she had to stay at home and help with her seven brothers and sisters. “I had the most beautiful handwriting,” she goes on, “and the teacher asked me to correct older students’ tests.” The teacher recognized her 20 years later as she sat on a park bench, her son (my father) in a baby carriage.

She graduated from eighth grade the day I was born in 1976.

Grandma has a large library of knowledge, but not because she went to school or has degrees. She solves at least five crossword puzzles a day and seems to know everything about history, geography, politics, and biology. She knows how to cook, how to bake.

She is also an avid sports fan, even though she doesn’t know how to swim or ride a bike. Her favorites are winter sports. She can name the members of the 1986 Swedish giant slalom team. I think she secretly learned English as well, because she seems to understand every word on EuroSport and knows when to tune in to see the women’s biathlon.

While we are waiting for the water to boil, we watch television together and root for the Finns, Grandma’s favorites.

During commercials we check on the food and Grandma dispenses marriage advice. “You are not going to get mad at me, are you?” she asks before passing to me this secret to marital bliss: “Discuss everything with your husband and make him feel like he is the master of his house, even though quietly you are doing things your own way.

“That is all I am going to tell you,” she assures me as she measures salt into her palm.
Later we move on to making desserts. My first attempt at rolling dough fails and Grandma grabs the rolling pin out of my hands.

“The problem,” she says, “is that you are trying too hard; you want it to be too good.” I wipe away a few tears. I can’t even roll dough. What kind of a wife am I going be?

“Don’t worry, you will learn when you are a grandma,” she encourages, and I feel strangely comforted.

What our stuff says

I have a lot of stuff. I realized this when my husband and I moved into our first apartment. He neatly packed his clothes, books, a few antique cameras, and a box of photos into his little white Neon. I had to make 10 trips in a Mercury Sable that was bursting at the seams.

“What is all this?” he asked, pointing at the pile of boxes and bags in the middle of our living room.
“It’s my stuff,” I replied. “Can’t you tell?”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “Every time you move, you should get rid of everything.”

Obviously, I hadn’t changed apartments in a while. I tried to convince Drew that my stuff was important, that it ensured my comfort and happiness in an ever-changing, crazy world. Stuff, to me, remains constant and stable.

My collection of notebooks, for instance. I have leather-bound notebooks, silky ones, notebooks with gilded pages, notebooks with and without lines. I have a notebook in every room.

I have a scarf collection from around the world. My husband claims that he first fell in love with my scarves, so he doesn’t complain about them too much – even though they take up most of his drawers and jump out at him from the coat closet in the hallway.

It is hard to explain my relationship to my stuff. But in a strange way the things that surround me – just like people – represent who I am.

When I was little, my grandfather’s room always seemed incredibly warm and mysterious. He believed in conserving energy, so the lights were always off, except for a small reading lamp on his computer desk. In high school, when I needed help with my math homework, I usually found him behind that computer desk, peering up at me from some complicated equation. We sat in his dark room several afternoons a week; I was not exactly a math genius. Grandpa made up little rhymes and poems to help me memorize rules and equations and hoped earnestly that I would become an engineer just like him.

I didn’t.

His room was the only one in our apartment that had paintings on the wall. If I remember the story correctly, he told me once that they belonged to a great-great-uncle who once owned a movie theater and whose wife owned a stationery store. The paintings were of a young woman in a hat, a small country house, some trees, and the interior of a room. When my grandfather was away, I liked to go into his room and snoop. I don’t know what I was hoping to find, but there was so much stuff everywhere I was sure he was hiding great treasures. I also liked to inhale the smell in his room: a mixture of chamomile and shaving cream.

His closets and drawers were full of mysterious tools, notebooks, his stamp collection. He believed in keeping everything: plastic bags and bottles (he was a plastics engineer), carbon paper, old envelopes, anything that could be reused.

I wasn’t there when my parents cleaned out his room after his death. But I often wondered about what they would uncover, the family mementos, silly souvenirs from trips, or secret diaries. I was hoping for some stuff that represents who my grandfather was and wasn’t. When my parents were done, the picture was sobering: My grandfather left behind 20 bags of trash and about $900 in a bank account.

His long life had seen him hiding from Nazis during World War II, getting married as Budapest was being bombed, finding his wife alive in the Dachau concentration camp, having successful children and grandchildren, writing books, learning to use a computer late in his life. But his room had no personal belongings that he held dear or wore every day. We couldn’t point to anything and say: “That was his favorite so-and-so” or “Remember when he bought such and such?”

I was disappointed. There seemed to be so many mysteries about him, so many unanswered questions. In the half-darkness of his room I’d hoped to find answers to why he was always seemed unhappy and lonely even though his daughter and grandchildren lived with him.

I realize that one’s legacy should not be measured by the amount of stuff. But I couldn’t help but wonder about my own stuff: Am I just collecting trash? Will my children and grandchildren walk through my house, discarding my collections? Will my notebooks and scarves seem like the goofy habit of a crazy old woman? I hope that maybe one of my grandchildren will wrap one of my big, silky scarves around her face, inhale the scent of my perfume and say: “This used to be Grandma’s.”

Daddy job vs. Mommy job

My husband works for an engineering firm that builds power lines, substations, airports, trash incinerators, and other cool stuff. He brings home videos he produces of huge helicopters carrying pieces of equipment high up in the air, or of a giant auto transformer being lifted by cranes from a freight liner onto a tractor trailer.  The trunk of his car is full of traffic cones, safety glasses, and helmets, and he spends days out in the field with tough construction guys wearing steel-toed boots talking about blueprints and bucket trucks and digging schedules.

My son is four and thinks that his daddy is just the coolest guy on earth because of — among other things — the helicopters and the bucket trucks and the construction hats. His pretend-play usually involves talking on the radio to “my Joel” and “my Chris” — the imaginary versions of my husband’s very real colleagues. Or he stomps around the living room wearing his rain boots, reflective bicycle vest, and a construction hat, carrying a toy broom around as his digger. He begs his dad to bring the traffic cones in from his car so that he can set up a safety parameter in the middle of the room.

I work in publishing.

An exciting field for sure. Flashy? Not so much. I mean, just look at these neatly printed and stacked manuscript pages. Are those page proofs over there? And what about that daring cover design? And mama, is that a bouncy exercise ball you are sitting on all day?

That was the most exciting part of my son’s visit to my office a few weeks ago — the exercise ball. And I really can’t blame him — my job is not as exciting as his dad’s, at least not to the untrained, four-year-old eye. But I’ve been struggling with somehow conveying to him that I too work and that my work matters, despite the lack of heavy equipment. On our way home from preschool every day I tell him about meetings, new books, computer problems, and usually his answer is something along the lines of “can I play with dada’s helmet when we get home?” When we read at night we talk about the authors and illustrators we like and how their books came into being and that mama makes books just like this at work. “One more story” is usually the response and I really can’t complain about that.

I know that my job is a lot more abstract than the very visible and very large power lines and equipment my husband points out everywhere we go, but I wonder if my son will ever see me as more than the woman who rubs his back when he can’t sleep or who packs his lunch bag every day. Not that those jobs are not important, of course, but they don’t completely define me as a person, as a mother, as a woman.

Neither does my office job, to be fair.

And that’s where I think maybe the secret lies. No matter how much housework my husband does, he is very much defined by his job, his head-of-the-household responsibilities both by choice and by necessity. He talks about work in the evenings like it’s the most important thing in the world and in his life. The stress, the meetings, the travel, the colleagues are all very vivid in our minds because we hear about them in great detail all the time. There are stories every day about clients and bosses and deadlines, told with a lot of animation and passion.

To me, work is work. I go to the office, do a great job, enjoy it, but then I leave it there. It’s just one thing I do during the day, between drop-off and pick-up, dinner, taking care of my own parents, or writing for my own pleasure. Whatever happens in the office does not have a huge impact on my day or my mood — both because nothing dramatic usually happens and because I don’t let any kind of work drama get to me or define my day.

I go back and forth between thinking that maybe I am showing my son a more rounded and grounded way of looking at work — sure, it’s important, but it’s not everything — or that maybe my husband’s all-encompassing passion is a better way of demonstrating the importance of finding work that is meaningful and that you are happy to do every day. Do I want my son to think of work as “meh, it’s nice,” or do I want him to live and breathe it every moment of the day like his dada does?

I am not sure the answer is clear — at least not to me. The fact that he is a boy will probably have an impact on how he views work and what his role will be in his family. Maybe if our roles were reversed with my husband I’d be the one with the crazy work stories and the cool colleagues. It’s hard to know.

I hope that as my son grows he’ll “get” more of what I do — both at home and at the office — and I also hope that he’ll keep his enthusiasm for what he thinks is cool and exciting at the moment.

I hope he’ll be just as happy and comfortable pursuing his career as doing the dishes and putting his kids to bed.

3 a.m.

I am awake at 3 a.m. a lot these days. Something happens at that hour of night (because who are we kidding, that’s still night) that makes Sam stir and wake briefly enough to realize that where he really wants to be is in bed with me.

Through the baby monitor I hear his little feet hit the floor, pitter-patter across his room and open the door. He stands in the door and says “mama, can I come and snuggle with you?” and when I tell him yes, he scurries down the hallway into our room and into our bed. The first time he did this a few months ago I got out of bed to see what was wrong. I found him in his doorway, eyes half open, holding his favorite blanket “gump-gump” and his stuffed sheep Baa, ready for snuggling.

At 3 a.m. there is no way I can say no to a little boy in pajamas. During the day I am usually strong enough to hold on to the few parenting principles I do have, but at that hour my principles are asleep. I help Sam into bed, make room for him on my pillow and pull him close. He grabs hold of a good chunk of my hair – to smell, to rub, to twist – as he falls asleep again, his warm little body relaxing next to me.

I could go back to sleep at this point. But instead I lie awake every night, watching the minutes tick away on my alarm, listening to the competing snores coming from Sam and Drew. It’s a peaceful time of night.

Or it would be, if 3 a.m. wouldn’t be that time of night when my mind likes to go wild. My sleep interrupted, my thoughts go where I really don’t want them to go, where they normally don’t go during the light of day.

Thoughts like: was I kind enough to my grandmother the last time I saw her over the summer? Probably not.  I was actually kind of mad at her – for being frail, for not feeling well, for sleeping most of the time we were there. I mean, I just traveled 12 hours with a toddler to see her and she is sleeping? That was pretty mean of me to think that. And selfish. And just plain awful, right? And now here we are… No more grandma.

Shit, I must remember to put lemon juice on my shopping list. And honey. Or do we still have honey? I made gallons of lemonade this week for Sam’s sore throat. We can never have too much honey or lemon juice in this house. If he is not feeling better by Monday I probably have to stay at home with him, maybe see the doctor.

I hate making excuses at my office when I stay at home with Sam. It feels like I am out at least a few times a month and I don’t want people to think I am not committed or reliable. But I also hate sending a sick kid to school. No choice there, really.

I really should go to sleep. And I really should try to move Sam’s head off my arm before my arm falls off.

Why hasn’t Peter responded to my e-mail? I mean, what is this all about, this writing to me eight times a day when he thought I would come and see him on my way to Hungary and then nothing? How did he think this would work? He is married. I am married. We are not the quick-Frankfurt-layover people anymore. God that seems like such a long, long time ago, when that was OK. When that was what I wanted. Frankly, even if I weren’t married or didn’t have moral objections against an affair, the sheer logistics of sexy underwear, hotel rooms, or having to shave my legs in the winter exhaust me. I travel in yoga pants and sneakers. I am too old for airport hotel room shenanigans.

It’s only 4:30. I can still sleep a solid hour and probably feel OK.

I really can’t forget the lemon juice. Lemon juice, lemon juice, lemon juice.

What are we going to do with this house? Staying is so tempting, but so is starting over in a new place. Maybe this time we’ll know what we want in a house and we won’t end up with a too-small, too-old place with creaky floors and a jungle in the back yard. Drew is right: it does feel weird to be planning our next move based on how much money he inherited from his dad. It seems wrong to be planning a future with a dead man’s money. But maybe that’s what he wanted. What parent wouldn’t want to help their child?

I wish Drew would talk more about how he’s doing since his father died. They didn’t talk for 10 years then the man dies just as soon as they reconciled – that can’t be easy on anyone.

Lemon juice.

Sleep.

Drew turns and I can see that the alarm clock behind him now shows 5 a.m. It will go off soon. Vivaldi, Four Seasons, Winter. How fitting. That’s the music they played when grandma’s ashes were scattered.

Drew reaches out across Sam to hold my hand, stroke my face.

“Are you awake?” he whispers.

“Yeah.”

“Were you crying?”

“Nah, just thinking about stuff.”

Sam stretches and yawns in my arms.

Drew brings him his warm milk. Sam plays with my hair and drifts off again as he drinks it. I hear Drew downstairs eating breakfast, catching the morning news, packing Sam’s lunch bag.

The house smells like toast and Drew’s cologne.

It’s time to start the day.