Partners For a Head of Household
IN the fall, as a symbolic farewell to summer, my children and I build a bonfire in a small pit we've made from jagged quarry stone. My daughter and I carry wood down to the pit while my son tramps through the woods looking for the perfect roasting stick. It has only been in the last year that he has learned to skillfully use a jackknife to carve the end of a branch to a sharp point. Our big golden retriever noses steadily toward the marshmallows. He turns firmly away from treats made for dogs, but neverrejects a sweet. Each year at the fire, we talk about the summer past. For a moment the crisp autumn air is gone, and we're back on a raft bobbing in the saltwater pool that circles a big rock at the beach. Or we stand, precariously twisted and bent on tree limbs overhanging the local lake, intent on catching salamanders for the pond we dug in the garden. This is a year of changes for us. My daughter has started first grade. My son has a new teacher. I will be working more than I have in a long while. We talk about the students I'll teach who are learning English. My son throws little twigs on the fire, and I put another small piece of wood on top of the pile. "Did we do these fires before or after Dad died?" my son asks me. He measures everything from the death of his father. I tell him we began the fires after, during that time when the only way to feel like a family again was by creating new rituals as well as hanging on to the old. At the time of my husband's death, I believed that being a single parent was not going to be as hard as the pain of missing him, and at first it wasn't. But soon, within days, I realized it would be more difficult than I had ever imagined. I was alternately overwhelmed by laundry, and the logistics of parenting two young children without his help. I learned that life isn't always what you expect it to be, and that we would survive into a different life. In this new life, they were my partners. My daughter was only two, but she carried wood upstairs for the stove. My son learned to separate the laundry and make a simple dinner. I would love to say that I taught them these things out of a sense of good parenting, because I wanted them to learn responsibility; but I taught them these things because I felt like I was drowning, and I needed their help in coming to the surface. It wasn't always smooth. They were young and didn't always want to help, but I'd tell them we'd play a game at the end of cleaning house, or we'd go to the local store for an ice cream. This is bribery - no excuses. But it worked and though they still, four years later, use ice cream as a bargaining tool, they also pitch in when there is no reward in sight. The fire has turned to hot coals, perfect for cooking marshmallows. The dog lies with his head at my daughter's foot, the most likely spot to catch a stray sweet. "I want to teach you to do your own laundry this year," I say. I tell my daughter I will help her with hers. My son is happy as it has taken all summer for his favorite white socks to return to their original color from the time I threw them in with my daughter's red shorts. He thinks, and deservedly so, that he will do a better job than I do. It is time to go inside. My son stirs the coals and spreads them up the sides of the pit. Bits of marshmallow on the end of his stick sizzle as he digs into the hot embers. My daughter heads up the gravel driveway, the marshmallows tucked under her arm, the dog at her heels. In the house, I give my children a brief lesson on the washing machine. They already know how to fold clothes. In our home, you can tell who folded your clothes by the creases in a given piece of fabric. My daughter folds towels until the thickness doesn't allow her one more turn. A pattern of rectangles covers the towel like the endless windows of a skyscraper. My son folds them in thirds, and I fold them four times. I gather socks in pairs and so does my son. My daughter throws her socks, like the raw material for a rainbow, in her drawer. She rarely has socks that match. I learned early on that my children won't do things the way I do. When my daughter sets the table, she takes out small metal cookie cutters and places them at the head of our plates as decoration. My son cuts the apples in little shapes and comments on "who" they are as he abandons them to the rest of the salad. "Down you go, Bozo," he says to a piece of apple. His voice rises for the reply, "ARGHH, you get off me you rotten piece of orange." Who am I, the one who dyed my son's socks pink, to say how thi ngs should be done? The past four years I've thought about how families come apart and how they come together. And while I didn't know how to face an unexpected life alone, I learned how to face it with the very people I thought I needed to stand in front of and protect. They continue to surprise me with their resiliency and humor, and they continue to push their way from behind my back and walk by my side.