We pile into the car on a Friday. I tell the children that we can take turns choosing songs to be part of the soundtrack of our drive. After my son’s Twenty One Pilots and my daughter’s Katy Perry and a “Wheels on the Bus” thrown in for the baby, I say out loud, “It’s mom’s turn.” My son says, “Mom, could you please choose something that isn’t Beatles-related?” I shoot back, “I can’t think of much popular music that isn’t related in some way to the Beatles.” Through the rear-view mirror, I see him roll his eyes, but there is a smile on his face. I know his secret: he’s starting to really like the music I choose, but he needs me to know that he’s different from me. Later that night, I overhear him in his bedroom singing, “Admiral Halsey notified me, he had to have a berth or he couldn’t get to sea…” We move further west along I-78. I turn off the air and open the windows, and as the landscape opens, my chest expands as I take a deep breath. I begin to shed my city skin.
As we get closer to our property, my two older children begin to argue over who should be allowed to drive down our driveway, which descends two hundred feet from the road to the house. My son saves me from having to broker the hundredth or so deal of the day: “If you let me go first, you can do it the next two times,” he says to my daughter. She is reluctant but agrees. He hops into my lap in the driver’s seat, and she climbs into the passenger seat. I recall my 6-year old self, sitting in my father’s lap as we drove his car along the street of the first house in which I lived, in days when the laws about these things were much more relaxed. “Only in the driveway,” I constantly remind my children. As my feet control the pedals, he masterfully steers us to the garage doors and is able (after months of not having the hand strength to do so) to shift the gear into “park.” He relishes his taste of power. “Well done,” I say, and kiss him on the back of his head.
In the morning, the children and my husband ride their bikes along our quiet road to the Durham Cemetery, where the views of the hills rival those we get from our back porch. I walk briskly with my stroller-bound baby and spot at least four chipmunks, one hedgehog, and at least a dozen different types of bird. The baby tries to match the various calls of the birds with his voice: “Ack, ack, ack!” “Cawwww.” Someday, I find myself thinking, I would like to be able to identify these birds by their calls. Someday quite soon, I reflect, this baby will replace his darling “Acks” with decipherable words.
When we arrive at the cemetery, the children ride along its paths, attentive only to the magnificent views and the excitement of riding surfaces that aren’t flat. My husband rides, too, taking in the scenery, and I walk along, reading some of the gravestones. “Beloved sister.” “Beloved father.” There are unimaginative names, like “Smith” and “White,” alongside less fortunate ones, like “Fluck.” One stone in particular captures my attention: Sarah Jane Long. Born 1832, Died 1862. 29 Years, 11 months, 8 days. I wonder what led to this untimely death. Illness? Childbirth? I hear my children’s laughter as they race along the paths and move along.
Later that afternoon, I head to the garden, instructing my husband, “Do not let any of the children near me for at least 30 minutes.” With my bare hands, I rake out some of the dead leaves that have gathered at the bottom of the zucchini plant and find that it was neglected for too many days: there is a fruit that is almost the length of my arm and is almost as heavy as my 10-month old. I harvest our first pepper of the season: it is a vivid orange and probably bursting with flavor. I cannot wait to eat it and will think of a way to include it in our dinner. I discover with frustration that the damn groundhog that has made its home under our shed figured out how to get under the makeshift fence we constructed and ate every last broccoli seedling I planted last weekend. “Damn groundhog” I say and discover my 5-year old daughter a few feet away. “Damn groundhog,” she repeats with an impish smile. I sigh. I have been in the garden for a mere 16 minutes, but I cannot resist. She is just too delicious and is pleading with me to swim with her in our pool.
Soon enough, her brothers and dad have joined us in the pool. My husband holds the baby, who delights in his little splashes. The two older children want me to play “find the torpedo” with them, but I beg for a few minutes when I can swim by myself. They grant me five minutes, and I savor the feel of the water against my skin as I move within it. My fragile solitude is soon disrupted, as they have begun to fight over our only pair of flippers.
Soon, my daughter is on my back, and we move through the water as one. I feel her legs wrapped around my belly and her arms wrapped around my neck. Things become quiet and lovely. I find myself thinking of Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know.” I cultivate/myself where the sun gutters from the sky/where the sea swings in like an iron gate/and we touch. In another country people die. She climbs up to my shoulders and counts to three before jumping back into the water. I don’t mind that my shoulders are sore from the weight of her little body.
After I’ve put the children to bed, I join my husband on the back deck, where we sit and watch the sky change. He has prepared a glass of bourbon for me–Widow Jane, my favorite. I study the landscape. On the left is a cornfield–the corn that was, just a few weeks ago, knee high is now as tall as my husband. On the right is a row of evergreens that reach into the oranges, purples, and blues of the setting sun. In the center of our yard are five mimosa trees that blossom at exactly this time of year. Their wispy pink blossoms annoy me during the day, when I’m constantly cleaning them up from the surface of the pool and from the beds of the garden, but at this time of night, I find them quite beautiful. “They can be so lovely, but they can also make a real mess,” I remark to my husband. “Kind of like our children,” he responds. Indeed.
We talk more, but both of us really just want to sit together in silence—or, as much silence as the country will grant us. With each sip of my Widow Jane, my body relaxes into a deep repose, and after a few minutes, I say, “I need to get to bed.” He tells me he’ll join me later because he wants to finish his bourbon and drink in the view a bit longer.
Billy Collins is beckoning me from my bedside table. I am so, so tired, but feel I can never go to bed without reading something. I get lost for a while in Aimless Love and at a certain point don’t know if I’m actually taking in the imagery of his poems or am already dreaming. Whatever. The baby will be awake before it is light, and for now, I want only to embrace a long, lovely sleep.