TODAY I came head to head with an aspect of parenthood I had never considered - absentee citizenship. The day began when Daniel, age 16 months, woke at 5 with a nightmare. It took a good 20 minutes to settle him down again. When I arrived at the office, still fighting grumpiness from my premature encounter with daylight, I ran into a dead end on a program I was trying to adapt to our computer system. There is only one other person in the city who has a system like ours, and he was out of town.
At dinner Daniel was more playful than hungry. As I was wiping the squash off the mini-blinds, I had a phone call from a group trying to undo contra damage in Central America. The necessity of coping with America's foreign policy, or lack thereof, pushed me to the edge, and since it was Jim's night to bathe and beddy-bye the baby, Mama made tracks for the garden.
I intended to spend an hour sitting quietly under the honey locust and deeping breathly, as a friend of mine used to say, but I got no farther than the walk at the side of the house.
Earlier in the week a few blades of crab grass had emerged along the rock border of the flower bed. Tonight the few had become the many, and they were forming seed stalks. There wasn't a moment to lose.
The trick to pulling crab grass is a slow, steady pull-and-wiggle that eases the roots out of the dirt a millimeter at a time. It helps if there has been a recent rain, and if the crab grass is growing in sidewalk cracks instead of between surface rocks.
If it's in the cracks, the roots are espaliered by the concrete slabs into wide fans that slide out with relative ease. Roots that have spread under rock, however, have a multidimensional hold that much prolongs the job, making it well suited for working off a good case of the Feeling Sorries.
This summer I have been reading Dumas Malone's life of Thomas Jefferson, and it occurred to me as I squatted on my heels rassling an especially devilish hunk of vegetation that Jefferson never would have made his mark on the world if he'd had to pull his own weeds.
In my broodier moments I sometimes think that Jim and I could make splendid contributions to Western civilization if only we had the means to afford a domestic staff for the laundry, grocery, cleaning, yard work, and cooking.
We'd take care of Daniel ourselves, of course, in shifts guaranteed to give each of us ample free time for saving the world. We'd work vigorously for progressive candidates, write eloquent essays in influential publications calling for universal health care and a just and noble foreign policy, and incidentally keep up a deep and witty correspondence with dozens of movers and shakers, round the Horn in a not-too-comfortable vessel on our vacations, and write serious poetry and fun novels.
I was never any competition for Saul Alinsky, but once upon a time I would write letters to our congressional delegation when things in Washington grew too outrageous. Now the letters don't get any farther than most of the letters to my far-flung friends, which is to say, not beyond the stage of telepathy.
We muddle along paying our bills before finance charges are assessed and trying to keep the house from collapsing into a pile of brick and old timber. We both spend more time planning what to eat for the coming week and how it all can be prepared in 45 minutes Sunday afternoon than we do worrying about what's going to happen if the Central American troubles spread to Mexico.
Rationally, I've known all along that bringing up a small child is the very best kind of contribution we can make to the world. It wasn't until tonight, though, that it finally sank in that this is our season for confining grass-roots activism to its most literal level. It's time in our lives to look at Daniel as Part of the Solution (as in ``If you're not Part of the Solution, you're Part of the Problem'').
I uprooted the last clump of crab grass as the light began to fade and the air turned from hot/humid/still to warm/humid/breezy. As I was sweeping up, my irritation over being not-Jefferson blew away in the breeze, but in its place was something close to sadness. The grass had fought so hard to stay alive.
A few years ago an outdoor writer for the Milwaukee Journal caused quite a stir among us local non-macho types when he wrote about the almost religious respect he developed for deer as he stalked them. It was galling to come up against this myself. Compassion for crab grass is inane when children are dying from bullets bought with my taxes. I decided my mood probably had less to do with vegetation than with the ambiguity of daily living.
I thought about Jefferson again. Working passionately for political freedom while one's livelihood is being provided by a plantation's worth of slaves is not exactly clear-cut moral righteousness, either. I'm not far enough in my reading (it's a six-volume biography) to know how he worked it out.
I hung up the broom by the side door, climbed the steps to the kitchen, and helped myself to a bowl of rhubarb crisp.