Duty, Wonder, and Love

In Ann Arbor, at the far edge of the Eastern Time Zone, the sky is still gray long after the day has begun back home in Maine.  After two weeks here Caroline and I have carved out a small routine for ourselves: At 9am Caroline heads off to campus on the #5 bus as our nanny, Nicole, arrives.  I work until 2pm, when Nicole leaves, and then the boys take a nap.  A little before 5pm I load Jay and Wally into the car and we head north, through rush hour traffic, to pick up Caroline outside the Institute for Social Research.  It feels strange to carry out our routine in a place where we are virtually anonymous: If a family goes about its days and no one sees them, are they really there?

On Friday afternoon, on the way back home, we stopped at a market to buy ingredients for dinner.  Caroline and I split up, each taking a boy—she got Jay and the produce, I got Wally and the shrimp and the cheese. We reconvened at the checkout line, where Jay told the cashier he’d like some stickers and I told Jay that not every place works like Trader Joe’s.

Back at home, Caroline stayed with the boys in the driveway while I went inside to cook.

Greek shrimp with tomatoes and feta

I opened a bottle of Kennebunkport Brewing Company IPA, because it was Friday, and pulled up some music I’d been meaning to listen to—the songs of Biet Simkin, a distant acquaintance’s girlfriend, whose music has just the right sound to make the world feel more expansive than it seems sometimes.  I listened to the music, chopped an onion, cubed the feta, sautéed the shrimp, and drank my beer, and for thirty minutes enjoyed the feeling of being by myself.

But then Jay came running through the front door.  I admit that when I saw him my heart fell just a little.  I wasn’t quite ready for my little sojourn in the kitchen to be over.  He wanted to be picked up so he could see the food bubbling in the pot.  I set him on my hip and I felt a swell of love which mingled with my prior melancholy to create a state of confusion.

This weekend I’ve been thinking that there are three things which make for a good day: to love, to wonder, and to fulfill one’s duty.  It’s hard, though, to fit them all into 24 hours and often I find they work against each other: Wonder happens alone, love needs other people, and duty can flatten both of them. Lately, I guess, Caroline and I would both say that our lives have been heavy on duty—duty in service to the family we want to build together, but duty all the same.

There are other times, though, when duty, wonder, and love reinforce each other.

This morning at 11am Caroline and I were loading the boys into the car for a trip to the playground when our neighbor came over to say hi.  We chatted about the pleasant weather and she told us she was about to go pick raspberries at a farm a few miles down the road.  She said goodbye and we got in the car.  As we backed out of the driveway we realized that we wouldn’t mind picking raspberries, either.

Berry picking, it turns out, is just about the perfect activity for a family.  When we arrived at the start of our first row Caroline told Jay that he only wanted to eat the dark berries.  She picked two from a bush—one white and unripe, the other a deep red—and asked Jay which one was darker.  He pointed to the white berry, so they tried again.  After a few rounds, though, Caroline felt that Jay had it figured out, so she set him loose to pick.

I carried Wally on my chest and did my best to keep his be-socked feet away from burrs when I leaned in for a berry.  Caroline worked across the row from me.  For twenty minutes we didn’t say anything, and then just as I was about to ask Caroline to estimate her ratio of berries picked to berries eaten, she asked me the same thing.  I put mine at 3:1.  She put hers at 5:1 but then, in apparent recollection of an eating binge a few bushes back, revised it down to 4:1.

For his part, Jay was largely content to work the bushes by himself.  He lifted the leaves, tugged on the berries, pulled out the stems, stained his face and fingers red.  From time to time I’d lose sight of him but it was nice to know that he was flanked on two sides by a dense wall of pricker bushes, and that the only way out ran by me.

After Jay had eaten his fill he came and found me and announced that he was ready to contribute to the family effort.  “This one’s for the bucket,” he said, showing me a dark red raspberry that he’d crushed in his fingers nearly to the state of jam.  He prepared to drop it into my bucket but then thought better of it and put it into his mouth.  “I’ll go get another berry,” he assured me, and took off.

For the next hour we worked like this, Wally on my chest, Caroline and I talking here and there, Jay visiting us both at intervals.  Overhead the sun was hot like the summer, but the breeze said fall, while down among the berries, between the four of us, everything felt just right.


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