Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Happily in the Middle

I was having a tough time. Last month was a hard one as a parent, because my child was hurting and I couldn't fix it. It left me exhausted and emotionally raw.

While in that fragile state, I read two completely unrelated books that combined to hit me hard.

The first was The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan. It has a cheerful blue and yellow cover that asserts that O, The Oprah Magazine called it "funny and irresistibly exuberant." It looked and sounded like the light, mindless distraction I needed.

It wasn't. I hadn't bothered to read the back cover before I dove into it, so I didn't realize it was a memoir until I started reading. I should have stopped when I found myself teary-eyed at the three-page prologue, which concluded with the author's calling her parents to tell them she had cancer.

"And that's what this whole thing is about. Calling home. Instinctively. Even when all the paperwork--a marriage license, a notarized deed, two birth certificates, and seven years of tax returns--clearly indicates you're an adult, but all the same, there you are, clutching the phone and thanking God that you're still somebody's daughter."

It made me weepy at the hair salon the first time I read it, and it makes me weepy now.

The Middle Place is funny and (thank goodness) not a tear jerker despite the cancer, but its central theme hit me in a tender spot that week. Corrigan's "middle place" is where I happily reside--I am both parent and child. I still call home when things get hard.

I called that week.

When I spoke to my parents the following week, things were a little less hard. Remarking about the previous dark week, my dad said that, had they not been expecting visitors at the time, he would have put my mom on a plane to visit me. He could tell I needed it.

I was suffering because I couldn't make my child feel better, but my parents knew how to make me feel better. I'm right in the middle, both giving and taking. It's a nice place to be.

Once I got through The Middle Place and the worst part of my month, I decided I was ready for something a little heavier than "funny and...exuberant." I picked up Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End. Gawande is a practicing surgeon, and he questions how the medical profession can improve end-of-life care, not only extending life but enhancing it.

While Gawande talks at the policy level about things like assisted living and hospice, I was touched most by his advice for those making end-of-life decisions for themselves or family members. Being Mortal appealed to my pragmatic nature. I accept that the end of life will come for each of us and believe we should plan accordingly. But combined with the memoir I'd just completed, this book also blindsided me.

What I hadn't accepted until then was that there likely will come a day when my parents rely on me for help rather than the other way around. Although I will gladly play that role, I find the idea rather terrifying. Someday, I will really, truly have to be the grown-up.

It's scary.

I like the comfort of the middle. I like knowing that, when the sump pump fails, my first call is to ask Dad, "What do I do?" I like knowing I can misplace the cupcake recipe, because Mom will email it to me yet again. And I really like having a grown-up to call when I'm having a hard time being one myself.

Fortunately, I have no reason to think I'll need to be a complete grown-up anytime soon. When I called to ask advice about replacing a screen door, my dad's answer was simple, "Wait until I visit next month."

I have. And I've confined my reading to fiction. It's easier on my brain.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Shoe Polish

We are going to a cocktail party tonight. I realize there are many people for whom cocktail parties are a special treat, but I am not one of those people. Small talk, fancy clothes, and uncomfortable shoes are not my idea of a good time.

But I'm beginning to warm to the idea of dressing up. It's been a while. I decided that I couldn't possibly tolerate standing in pumps, so I think I've put together an outfit with my high-heeled tall boots. I bought these boots many moons ago--pre-motherhood--and they were quite a fashion stretch for me at the time.

They probably are out of date now. I had to remove a substantial layer of dust when I found the boots in my closet today.

The years have not been kind to my boots. They were so scuffed that I really didn't think I could wear them for dress-up. I started to rethink the whole thing before realizing I could polish them.

I knew I had shoe polish somewhere. I knew where I used to keep it, before I realized it was used so infrequently (never) that it should be somewhere less accessible. Four closets later, I found the less accessible place.

I can't remember the last time I polished shoes. I haven't worn dress shoes regularly in more than fifteen years--business casual took care of that before motherhood did. To be honest, it wasn't like I did a lot of shoe polishing back in the day either. I often could find a guy in my office building I could pay to do it for me. I wasn't sure if I remembered how.

The saddle soap was so old that the can had rusted shut, so I settled for wiping off the layer of dust and dove into the task at hand. As soon as I smelled the polish and held the brush in my hand, I was transported to the day that my dad taught me how to polish shoes, and it all came rushing back to me.

My dad and I sat on the red barstools at the work table in his basement workshop. I was in high school. As with most of the things my parents taught me, I'm sure I saw no reason why I'd ever need to know what he was showing me. Despite this, I must have paid attention.

The how-to video buried in my mental archives was clear as day and better than any YouTube video. I could see my dad holding a pair of dress shoes, teaching me step-by-step how to do this boring (but grown-up) task.

My fifteen-year-old boots now look like new, and I did it myself. With dad's help.

This undoubtably will be more satisfying than the cocktail party.

Lest my mom feel left out, I feel exactly the same way whenever I iron a shirt. We usually send them to the cleaners, but I starch and iron in a pinch. The smell of starch reminds me of my mom's kitchen, and I vividly remember the high school day she taught my friend and me to iron. 

I don't remember much about that trip to Disney World, but I remember how to iron and polish shoes. It's the little things that stick with you for the long run.