I've been looking through old files of essays I've written over the years. This one, from early 1986, struck me as appropriate for Valentine's Day. To my children with love . . .
When I add together my four children’s ages, the sum is seventy-eight years. Seven-eight years of child raising has been telescoped into twenty-two calendar years. No small accomplishment, I think to myself. No wonder I have graying hair, a dumpy figure, slumping posture, and feel tired by nine o’clock each night.
I figure I’ve prepared over 85,000 individual meals, of which easily 10,000 were received with less than all-out enthusiasm, from strained carrots blown back across the handle of the baby spoon, to green pasta booed off the table and into the garbage can amid cheers. I’m beginning to comprehend why I feel uninspired as a cook.
I also understand, now that I begin my calculations, why we use one tube of toothpaste every week and why the shampoo bottle is always empty. We’ve worn out two refrigerators, one and three-quarters wash machines, five irons and four toasters. Actually, the irons didn’t wear out. One by one, they met violent (if accidental) deaths, knocked off the ironing board onto the cement floor as children chased each other around the basement on wintry, snowbound days or let teenaged roughhousing get out of hand.
In the seventy-eight child rearing years, their father and I changed about 12,000 diapers and spent approximately 9,000 minutes as instructors of student drivers. We paid for 1,000 days of braces, attended nearly sixty school concerts, more than 150 athletic events, and fifty Open Houses over fourteen autumns.
There is no way to tally the chats, nose wiping, or nights spent waiting for fevers to break. I have long ceased trying to recount the gut-spilling bedtime talks. And worry? Try 365 days times seventy-eight.
But sometimes unexpected insights appear, allowing me measure the outcome of all that toil and energy. Yesterday in our kitchen I overheard this conversation.
17-year-old son: I can’t believe how rude some of my friends are. I don’t think they’ve ever been taught any manners.
19-year-old son: Yeah, no having manners is really a disadvantage, Most people I know are all so rude!
17-year-old son: I know how to act at a nice restaurant or a play, or anything like that. I kinda feel sorry for people who don’t know how to behave in public.
19-year-old son: Right, it sort of makes you more secure if you have manners.
17-year-old-son: Actually, we were really lucky to learn good manners.
19-year-old son: Yeah, even though I used to think Mom was stupid to keep talking about them, she was right on.
The seventy-eight years melt away and I, this newly congratulated parent, find myself standing a little straighter, tummy tucked in and head held high. (The gray isn’t as visible with my head up.) I’m smiling, but there are tears in my eyes, too.