Remembering family routines

From the beginning, one of my favorite parts of writing this blog has been the way it’s led to conversations with parents, older than me, who’ve already been through the stage of life I describe here. Often they’ll read something on Growing Sideways that reminds them of an experience they had raising their own children, or they’ll see a theme in a post and they’ll tell me how they observed it in their own families. It’s in that spirit that I share the following poem by a Jody Bolz, a family friend and executive editor of the magazine Poet Lore. Jody sent this to me last week after reading my previous post, “Family at rest.” It’s her recollection of nights at home cooking dinner as her two children grew up.

EVENING

Most days I cooked without gratitude
standing at the kitchen counter
rinsing and chopping and glancing
at the clock at five-fifty six-fifteen
the violets on our windowsill

backlit by sunset or outlined
in winter dark as I placed pots
to simmer over wide blue flames
stirring tasting seasoning our food
there was never any question

of whether or when or what
we might eat we had everything
we needed and the fact seemed
commonplace our comfort
commonplace each evening

a steep course to master task by task
scouring the cutting board sponging
the stove-top talking to the children
as they leaned over their worksheets
looking up from time to time to spar

with one another or leaping to the door
to let the cats back in while I watched
the hour pass beyond a wall of windows
seasons in free-fall like the pages
of a flip-book green and gold and gone

and sometimes it snowed and the kids
would drop their pencils racing outside
to see but I didn’t join them
I was barreling downhill
in the midst of all that beauty

veering through each gate
to be done and done and done
another weekday evening
vanishing beneath me
and now the level ground flung wide

originally published in North American Review

Family at rest

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A few nights ago, after all the bedtime chores had been accomplished, the five of us sat around in Jay and Wally’s room. Caroline was on one of their beds, I was on the other. The boys were moving around, but not that much, sometimes tossing a ball to Leo, who’d hurl it back, sometimes not doing much at all.

The moment was notable for a couple reasons. The first is that it’s extremely rare that we spend time together as a family doing nothing. We are in each other’s company many hours each day, but almost all of that time is tagged with a purpose – we’re executing the morning routine or the afternoon routine or the bedroom routine or we’re reading with the boys, playing chess with them, ferrying them to music lessons or sports practices. In all those things we’re together, but the point isn’t that we’re together. That fact is incidental to the accomplishment of something else.

And so the other night, when we suddenly and for no particular reason found ourselves together doing nothing, it felt as unfamiliar as a trip to a foreign country.

The second notable thing about the experience was how hard it was to maintain. On the one hand you had me, sitting on the bed, eyeing the little digital clock on Jay’s bedside table. I was aware both that the boys’ need their sleep and that I was ready to commence eating ice cream. On the other, you had the boys themselves, who can’t maintain equilibrium for long. Maybe Leo got tired of sitting with Caroline and started pulling treasures from his brothers’ special drawers. Or maybe Wally started humming, which caused Jay to complain, which caused me and Caroline to lock eyes: That was nice while it lasted.

Later that night, after everyone was indeed asleep, Caroline and I talked about how we hope that it’s only going to get easier to waste time together as a family. Leo’s going to mature, of that I’m confident. And I think there’s a pretty good chance, too, that as Jay and Wally season, they’ll get a little better at staying out of each other’s way.

We also talked about why it felt so good to have even 10 minutes together when we were doing nothing. When we’re busy all the time I feel like our family life lacks density. I could imagine Jay, Wally, and Leo looking back on their childhoods as a series of activities, like points on a grid, all lined up in the right order, but with too much space between them.

And what is it that falls through in such an arrangement? I think it might be a sense of who you are. Caroline said she’d like the boys to feel that during their childhoods, the place they were most understood in the world was in a room with their parents and each other and nothing else much going on. It’s the kind of feeling, like gravity, that maybe would keep them wanting to come back, even when they don’t have to anymore.