The Baby

My youngest son is the quintessential baby. The kind that makes your ovaries hurt just looking at his smile. The smile that bursts through his plump cheeks. Cheeks that are dimpled, just like his round knees. His head is covered in ringlet curls that make me occasionally wish we had named his something like Gabriel to fit his cherub-esque appearance. He is chubby; he is friendly; he is darling. If his sleeping skills weren’t on par with that of an insomniac who had just consumed ten cups of coffee and then went to a rave, he would be the baby that soon-to-be parents picture when they close their eyes.

He is as outgoing as he is cute. In the grocery store, he will yell, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” to every passerby, growing only louder if they ignore his first greeting. The older women, the ones who have seen their children have children, and their grandchildren as well, melt at the sight of it. “He said hi to me!” they beam, touching my arm and placing their hand over their heart as they walk past. The men in dirty Carhartts, picking up a six pack on their way home from work, are always slower on the uptake, but never fail to return a hello, as by this point he is bouncing up and down and waving both arms in an effort to elicit a smile.

In any crowd, he has learned how to command attention through cuteness. He holds court, gathering his subjects around and bestowing kisses and high fives to any who are willing to offer him a smile. I stand nearby, a proud mama, thinking how my children are assuredly the cutest and most wonderful, and knowing every parent has the same thought. Not that these moments aren’t countered by wondering if I have bred the worst sleepers on the face of the earth, or if it was possible my children have a hidden stash of Jolt Soda somewhere in the house that could account for their unstoppable energy. In addition to wondering why this is all so hard, and if I am doing any of it right. But these moments of perfect sweetness I wish I could concentrate and bottle and save for a time when I am the old woman in a grocery store, waving at strangers’ babies.

I might need it sooner than that. I know that my perfect boys will turn into teenagers, with heads that smell like Axe hair gel, and not the legendary newborn scent. They will no longer be innocent angels with adoring crowds. I know this because I have seen baby pictures of myself, and can attest that three year old me with chubby cheeks and curly hair was significantly cuter with more fans, than thirteen year old me, who sported braces, glasses and some really unfortunate bangs.

I worry that as they grow, the world will forget the sweet babies with the darling smiles that I know was their beginning. I know this will happen, because when I look at the jerk who rolled his eyes at me in the grocery store or the cold faces staring back at me on the evening news, I do not see babies who once gave their mothers their first smile. I do not see chubby cheeks or tiny fingers that wrapped around their father’s littlest finger.

Growing up is an involuntary bite out of Eden’s apple, trading the innocence of youth for the heavy and beautiful reality of life. I might dread their growth, but I never regret it. The newborn smell is gone, but it is replaced first steps, first words, and other amazing milestones. They are becoming who they are. They will grow into a greater existence, but one not without flaws.

Their baby years are forever etched in my own memory, and I wish I could implore the world to always see them as they once were. When they are gangly, surly teenagers, or adults who make grievous mistakes. They will not always be the babies who can win favor by simply smiling and blowing kisses. Now they are loved and appreciated so easily, but their value will not change.

It has not changed for any of us.

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Not home, not alone

The first Christmas I spent away from home I was working at a homeless shelter, and spending more time than I am proud of feeling sorry for myself. I was far away from family, my housemates were also working, the weather was dreary and I spent the afternoon alone. And not the kind of alone spent wrapped in a warm blanket, drinking tea and contemplating the wonders of the universe. I was alone, and lonely.

The next I spent with my in-laws, awkwardly adjusting to holiday traditions that were familiar, but not quite my own.

The third Christmas away from my family, I pushed myself back from the table, my swollen belly rivaling that of St. Nick’s. That year, the last twelve days of my pregnancy aligned with the twelve days of Christmas. I spent more time than I am proud of wondering why Mary got to have her baby already and mine was still nestled snug in his bed.

Now, I am away from the home I grew up in, but spending Christmas in my own home. It is an awkward transition. Christmas is no longer a time of reliving memories, telling stories, doing things just as we have done before. What little “before” we have is still fresh, the ink not yet dried on the family journals. I long to recreate the Christmas Eves of my childhood – eating shrimp scampi by candlelight, opening gifts from the siblings, curling our hair and dressing in fancy dresses before heading into the chilly night to light candles and sing Silent Night in a small brick church. It won’t be the same, and I know that. The schedules of young children create necessary adjustments, the allergies that plague our family change the menu. The goal of Christmas Eve tonight will not be creating a perfect evening, but getting the kids through mass with as few tears and possible and to bed because Santa still has some toy assembly to do in his workshop.

Our meager collection of ornaments on the Christmas tree in our living room is growing slowly each year. There is the collection of handmade ones from the year with the swollen belly when my husband and I couldn’t afford to buy real ones. There are baby’s first Christmas ones being added, and ones exchanged on Christmas Eve.

Decorating the tree as growing up, I would unwrap each ornament, and remember the story I had heard behind it. The one my sister made in preschool. The one I painted in third grade.  The one my mom was given in nursing school. The ones my grandmother had brought with her when she moved in. Hanging them on the tree, we were crafting a story, each ornament a paragraph in the tale of our family.

I do not have the same sentimentality for the ones on our tree. They are too new, none are missing parts, and the only ones that have gotten broken are the unbreakable ones I purchased from Target. Our family is just beginning its story, still in the opening paragraphs. The freshness can feel momentous and exciting, but it is also raw. It is the leaving behind of the worlds we have come from, with the edict to create anew, while still weaving in the memories of the past.

My boys do not remember last Christmas. And next year, it is likely they won’t remember this one. I am thankful for the grace in that, to give us time to adjust to the transition of becoming parents. I wonder which ornaments on our tree now will become their favorites, which traditions we are creating now will become their own.

I will eventually lose count of the Christmases spent away from home, until home begins to mean the place where my children have grown up.

Wild peace and snow quiet

Snowflakes are lucky creatures. Except the ones that fall in the midst of blackest night, rarely do they land without being greeted by the cheers of young children. Snow and children were created for one another. I can appreciate the transformative beauty of a snow fall – the trees draped in heavy white sweaters, the earth smoothed over and imperfections forgiven, the small birds with black heads highlighted against the cool white. But to children, the transformation is more than  visual, it is an invitation for exploration, discovery, and movement. It is a gift of joy.

I watch as my oldest child roams through the snow, our simple front yard now holding his attention much longer than it would have had it been bare. His joy is palpable as he throws his body down onto the soft drifts, his smile reverberating through the trees, shaking more snow down on top of his sweet head. I wonder when I lost the joy of simply moving through and dancing in snow, when the idea of skiing, snowshoeing and other sports became more enticing than simply playing. I briefly consider throwing myself down as well, then remember that six inches of snow provides much more ample cushion for someone 36 inches tall than it does for someone five foot six.

My children beg for movement just as I long for stillness. An opportunity to sit, to rest, to enjoy the quiet snowfall. I wonder if the Saint Paul had thought about this when he advised his readers of the sins of the flesh. Now, in a perpetual state of parental exhaustion, the classic temptations of drunkenness and debauchery are less seductive to me than my couch. After the good nights are said and bedroom doors are shut, the couch calls, enticing me with Netflix sitcoms and other delicious evils. Laundry goes unfolded, and the guilt piles up next to it. Creative projects go unfinished, and the list of what I would like to do, had I only the time, or rather, the energy, grows longer.

Guilt might be an overstatement. I fully believe that a certain amount of Friends reruns and popcorn are not only forgivable, but I would postulate, good for the soul. It is not this that nags at me. It is the question of when I lost the joy of playing in the snow. When challenges were to be danced through, not avoided.

This year, my children have begun to take an interest in Christmas carols. Silent Night, of course, is an old favorite, and on snowy mornings, the house hums with the images of a peaceful woman and a sleeping child. After becoming a mother, the song always brings a wry smile to my face. There was no silent night. There were tears, there was screaming pain, there was blood. There was a man, who doubtlessly did not understand the delicate process of childbirth, whose feet ached and body begged for sleep. There was a baby, beautiful yet raw, and certainly not silent.

And still there was peace. Within the noise, the fear, the confusion, the joy, there was peace. It is the peace rather than the rest that makes the best fodder for songs, but the peace was born from the wild.

Perhaps I have it wrong. My search for a little peace should not come from the quiet still moments at the end of the day, although I will not stop treasuring those. The peace is in the midst of the wild energy that swirls through my boys. They look at the softly falling snow and see nothing but a blank canvas for adventure. I look at them, and see the peace of living with wild abandon.

 

Enough

It was a few days before Christmas, and I was working at the front desk of a transitional housing facility, a home for families regaining their footing after a stint of homelessness. It was the weekend, and the place was quiet. I answered a few misguided phone calls of people looking for an animal shelter. A mom came in to see if we had any band-aids for her daughter. The snow fell silently outside, and I listened to Christmas carols on a scratchy radio.

And then a man walked in. He was tall, wearing a large black coat, but his voice was quiet, apologetic. I knew what he was going to ask. “Is there anywhere here we can stay here? We don’t have a place to go.” I looked out the window. A woman sat in the front seat of the car, holding a baby wrapped in pink blankets. The snow kept falling.

I tried weakly to explain that we didn’t have any emergency shelter, that prospective residents had to fill out an application. I reluctantly informed him there were, in fact, no shelters in town took children and families. He looked down. He knew this already, but they had nothing else to do that day but try.

His “thank you” was unbearable, and my throat closed as they drove away. I was the innkeeper, and there was no room for them.

Years have passed. Now different children seek refuge from me. They bury runny noses between my legs and look up at me, begging for another cracker, for me to read them a story, for just a moment with their mother. I turn them down. There are dishes to clean, floors to sweep, e-mails to answer. There are blessed moments when I can turn the legs they have been clinging to into a lap, a place for them to land. It is in these moments that they quickly remember there is a toy on the other side of the room that has not been played with yet today, and scamper away. They do not need me as much as they need to know I am there. I occasionally wonder, when the day concludes, if there were enough “yesses” to make up for the multitude of “not right nows.”

It’s Christmastime again now, and the news is covered in images of children and families staring out across a sea, wondering if they will ever be enough for a country that won’t accept them. A country that says there is no room, because the words they pray are in a language unfamiliar, because the holidays they celebrate fall on a different day.

I still wonder about that family in search of shelter. I wonder if they found a church that had enough money to put them in a hotel for a few nights. Or if they spent the night in the car, turning the engine on for a few minutes at a time in an effort to stay warm. And I wonder about the answers I gave them. Was it enough? Did I do enough?

I know the answers to that question. The social work answer reminds me that there are limits to our ability to help. The sociological answer places the blame with structural oppression. The theological answer begins to sermonize that “enough” is only born of grace.

There are answers, but even with them, the question remains. Is it enough?

The real answer, of course, is to a different question. It matters less what I do than what is done. Whether or not I was able to help is of less consequence than if the family was able to find a warm place to sleep, a home to rest in.

But what I can do is be a home for two wild, cookie crumb covered children. To find their missing loveys and wipe tears. To feed them, to teach them, to love them. They are the part of the world to which I can grant harbor. I know it is not enough, that there is more the world needs. The answers and the questions do not always agree.