Sunday, June 29, 2014

Back to the Womb

You can go home again.

With my 10-year-old son settled happily at camp, I have returned to the St. Louis suburbs for some much-needed time with my extended family. Back in Brooklyn, I yearn for such support, and so I have left the paperwork and cleaning behind for a few days. I know all of it will be waiting for me when I get home.

My parents long deceased, I always stay with my Aunt Fran and Uncle Jerry. I like to call their subdivision ranch house "the womb," named for the back bedroom where I'm ensconced. When the drapes are closed, the dark hush that envelops me in a room furnished with my grandparents' bedroom set–the one I used as a girl–makes me feel safe and comforted. While I'm here, I will sleep and eat, eat and sleep, with plenty of talking and deep hugs and raucous laughter to punctuate the time in between.

Someone asked if I have old school friends to whom I can turn for love and encouragement. I do, but I depend mainly on my aunt and cousins as we talk for hours about our children, our marriages, our work, our family history, cramming into several conversations many months' worth of events and feelings.

There's even Ruthie Ann, the beautiful yet spiteful cat who will tolerate a brief amount of petting. Eventually, the fangs come out, but I'm sure my blood pressure has gone down, regardless.

If I lived in town, I wouldn't need a therapist.

My aunt and uncle keep a house of calm order and routine, so different from my own. And unlike my apartment, their home–with its full finished basement right down to a complete kitchen–offers enough storage to get them through several rough winters. Their hall closet alone is stocked like a Walgreens. A very partial list of contents:

3 bottles Sarna lotion
6 boxes Kleenex
12 packs Kleenex packs
3 bottles nasal moisturizer spray
7 tubes Colgate Optic White toothpaste
3 tubes Arm & Hammer Advance White toothpaste
10 toothbrushes (you never know when house guests might forget theirs)

I'm not even going to begin cataloguing what's in the basement; let's just say that regular trips to Sam's Club and Costco mean there's little chance of running out of anything.

The refrigerator is another marvel of home engineering. The asparagus stalks stand on their tips in a shallow glass bowl of water so, as my aunt explains, they don't dry out. The strawberry tops have been sliced off, the fruit placed in rows on an oblong plate like tiny red Christmas trees "because otherwise," she says, "you know what happens."

For the first time in weeks, my mind is clear enough to write.

Frannie, 76, and Jerry, 79, both look 20 years younger. They are still strong and independent; at an age when many lean on canes or walkers, he logs 2.6 miles almost every day–my engineer uncle's precise calculation–in the park or shopping mall, depending on the weather. (And I now know from experience that he moves at a brisk clip.) When my aunt doesn't join him, she works out at Curves.

I only wish I had half my aunt's energy. I take after my mother, her older sister, prone to depression and anxiety. Frannie is always busy in the kitchen and takes joy in the things she does for her family. She never lays down to rest; I do.

My uncle continues to cut the grass and do most of the home repairs. (He also often cooks and does the dishes; any gender-based division of labor that existed when I was growing up seems to have disappeared.) Both engage with the family, many friends and the community, running volunteer organizations and helping the elderly neighbor.

They continue to make the small daily concessions–there is much discussion over the temperature setting–and exhibit the acts of kindness that demonstrate their love for one another and allow a marriage to thrive nearly 60 years. They are a team. This is their life, here in the quiet suburbs.

I know there are reasons I rejected all of this as an about-to-burst 18-year-old, ready to make her mark in the big wide world. I know I'm lucky to live where I do, close to the most exciting city on earth, blocks from an urban park oasis. and within walking distance of shopping and the subway.

And yet here I sit on their front porch, the wind whistling through the branches of oaks they planted 49 years ago, wistful for this life in the Midwest. What was once mundane to me has taken on a glow. At this moment, I wish I could pull up stakes and start over.

Don't we all want a redo sometimes?