Jody Kennedy is a writer and photographer living in Provence, France. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bennington Review, Fugue, DIAGRAM, Tin House Online, and The Sun, among others. Find her on Twitter @_JodyKennedy.
I woke with a lump in my throat. In this old farmhouse, the cold comes in from wherever the wind blows but this morning it seeped everywhere, from each window and wall and doorframe. We are only renters here but I think often about the people who built this place and lived in it. It’s an oddity, really, with its two closely set staircases and a room with seven doors. The night we moved in we were certain it was haunted. We’d been driving for 17 hours and had never seen the home in person. Somehow, the Facetime tour our landlord took us on in weeks before the move made the spaces appear vast, but, exhausted from the road, we squeezed ourselves into one small room after another, marveling at the number of locks on the doors, on the slant of the floor, on the burgundy carpet in the master bedroom and wondered what would go bumping and wailing about in the night. But nothing did. The place is a friendly mistake, a living draft. In the summer we slept downstairs in a room we call ‘The Birthing Room’ where the women of the house labored and brought more souls into these walls. Now, in the bite of winter, we sleep tucked under the slanting eves, in the room with burgundy carpet and an eastern view of a field of winter wheat, pressed beneath a blanket of heavy, lake effect snow. The heat rises, breathing up from the ancient basement, with its dirt floor and fieldstone foundation, and holds best under the roof, trapped, like a cloud at the top of the world.
In the morning I descend into layers of cold, first the stairs where two larger windows gaze at an expanse of farmland and the crowns of three dozen gnarled apple trees, then into the living room, the room with seven doors, and finally into the kitchen which we have abandoned to the winter. We shut it off unless we’re cooking because the windows there are original, uninsulated glass and the floor sits above a slab of stone, biting as ice. I turn on an electric space heater and boil my tea water, feed the dogs and fetch eggs and bread from the fridge. While the water rises into screaming steam I take the dogs out to the orchard, where they write their tracks across the blank page of last night’s snow. It's so cold I feel it nip through my pants, through the seams in my parka, through the hole in my nose where I once slipped a silver ring. Out in the field, tracks stitch through the fabric of white, blue along the edges. Its coyote mating season and last night their howls woke the dogs. I imagine the tracks are their tracks, hurried lovers in the dark.
Inside, the golden disk of the heat lamp has warmed the kitchen. I prepare breakfast and as I pivot and shift my body aches. I’m sick but I have the day off. My toast scratches down my lumpy throat. I take a shower to wash the fever slick from my hair. The mind narrows while the body grows in focus. Here an ache, a flush, tired. Wrapping my damp hair in a towel I sit at my desk where, through the two big windows by the stairs, the field opens for me, blue and white. From here I can see more tracks, skirting the tree line, darting across the ridge. I test my voice in the recorder on my phone but I do not sound as sick as I feel. I play myself back, testing, testing, then set up for a phone interview with a man whose book I am ghostwriting. Or ghost revising, since he has already provided a skeletal draft.
He likes to talk more than he likes to write so we talk our way through a hundred pages of in-text comments, one bubble at a time. He gets so excited at some points in his story that I let him go on, retelling what I have before me in writing, reworking his narrative, like we all do each time we speak it. It’s easy to forget how essential story is to our identity. Jung thought it was the very heart of it. While this book I am writing as a ghost will never be widely read, or artful it is essential to this man simply in its being. It’s a record, he insists, that he can pass on to his children or his college students. A record that proves that he did certain things. There’s power in that. It's easy to forget.
Fever embraces me. Warm sweet things down my throat, a lunch eaten hunched under blankets on the couch, hours pressed under the quilts, the dogs curled into me, our hearts beating in and out of time. Dreams which I slip between like rooms in my mind. The sun turning on its short pivot, sweeping to the other side of the house. I wake feeling more alive in my skin and the dogs rush downstairs ahead of me, proud of themselves for being so still for so long. Stooped under the angled roof I slip into long underwear, static pricking blue against my body hair.
Outside the last light of the shortest day is slipping behind the hills to the west. We burst out into long shadows and rise to the crest above the house, where is tucked as neat as a miniature between the huge red body of the barn and the bones of the apple trees. Sun in the crowns of hardwoods, rose gold. The snow rippled pink and blue. We track the nightwalkers into the edges of the land, into pockets of purple caned blackberries and tangles of brush where an old disk harrow claws at the frozen sod. Far out in another field two antlered deer walk soundlessly across a sea of white. Snow machines roar somewhere distant and the great cargo train along the old Erie Canal wails as it chugs eastward. Light stretches the shadows out. The dogs and I cast our figures up into a bank of trees, skinny-legged, stalking.
I take a picture of the dogs, black against the blue and pink snow, the sky painted the same way, the colors of Sleeping Beauty’s ballgown magicked by her fairy protectors but the phone freezes and the battery drains dead. We trudge home, downslope and I think of all the people who’ve come home to this place over this hill, how lovely it looks resting down in the flatland, where the last light pools like water. I take another shower to warm my throat then call my fiancé in Arizona and listen while he and his mother tour the Christmas decorations in their neighborhood. They stop and talk to the man who put up the best display, he’s fixing one of the three nativity scenes in his yard, and pulling away my fiancé’s mother says that she likes the figures but wonders at having three sets of them. Three Jesuses, three Marys, three Josephs. I can hear the sharp desert air in their voices, the hard sun of the Phoenix valley, the open sky. They tell me their stories and I share mine. The deer. The coyote tracks, how their howls last night spooked the dogs.
Then silence and darkness. The fields no more fields. The snow dark. I curl on the couch in the room with seven doors and watch TV until my eyes grow heavy. I’ve forgotten to write to two friends who share Solstice birthdays. I’ve not sweat at the gym. I’ve not finished the research book I was reading. I’ll leave the dishes in the cold porcelain of the sink. The day simply a bridge between other days, a place I passed through once on my way to other places. The lump in my throat is smaller as I swallow my nightly pills and I fall asleep with clarity, rolling some words around in my mind, examining them more closely than I’ve looked at anything all day.
Megan Baxter's essays have won numerous national awards including a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been published in such journals as The Threepenny Review, The Florida Review, Hotel Amerika, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine's True Story. She currently lives outside of Syracuse, NY in a 180-year-old farmhouse with her fiancé and their three beloved dogs.
STEPHANIE R. PEARMAIN
It’s 11:00 a.m. and I’m starting to write this because I’ve already noticed my day and countless ponderings fading, even with notes I’ve scribbled down. Right now, I’m waiting for my husband to call from Illinois to give me feedback on a picture book manuscript I’ve been working on. Kung Fu Panda 3 is playing in the next room. My seven-year-old has taken over the “family room,” slowly making it hers with piles of books and toys and god help anyone who changes the pillow configuration or shifts the blanket.
My day started – sort of – at 5:07 a.m. when I woke, freezing, and having to fight two seventy pound dogs and a snoring child for blankets. Not ever an easy task. When my husband is out of town and my teen is at her dad’s, Olivia gets a sleepover with Mommy. The dogs usually sleep with her so they all pile into my bed.
I finally slipped back into sleep while thinking about all the things I would think about throughout the day to write about.
At 7:01 a dog plopped his head into my leg and my daily routine began:
Let the dogs out, check in with which parts of my body hurt on my way to the bathroom (right foot and ankle a little stiff but not bad),
check my phone, which usually has a “good morning” from my mom as well as her nightly report (In bed at 10. Up 3x and slept til 5:30 – not a bad report since they often include TMI about BMs), a text from my eldest, Maya, telling me goodnight long after I’d gone to sleep, a text from a friend who’s asking me to read a screenplay and provide feedback by Jan. 2 (I don’t have time but I say yes because she’s in my close circle of friends and she has read my novel twice),
check the weather (I feel happy when it says 46 but then it updates to 36 – only forecasting 38 at 8:00 when I plan to swim),
Turn on my watch as I head to the kitchen so my daily steps will be counted.
I make a cappuccino and line up pills. Every morning I eat a banana with peanut butter but there are no bananas so I panic wondering what to eat to sustain me in the pool without weighing me down. I text my mom, who lives in our guest house, to see if she has a not too ripe banana. She doesn’t so I opt for half a piece of toast.
The babysitter will arrive at 8:00 but I stay in my robe, working at the kitchen table until 7:52. Piles of my work cover the long table, all of which I’ll have to clean up when Ron comes home because he hates my piles. I’m so close to completing updates for my spring online class, I want to keep working. An article in Scientific American about new discoveries in reversing aging in human cells catches my eye so I skim it. Treatment plans could delay epigenetic changes that lead to muscle deterioration. I think of my mom’s left arm and leg, compromised after a stroke in 2008. I think of my own aches and pains. Just when I move through one, another pops up. I keep seeing an article in The Atlantic about “Ode to Middle Age.” I should read it but I figure it just tells readers to suck it up and accept the aging process.
I can’t bring myself to go to the pool yet so I go to Target and wander around in between getting things on my list. There’s immense satisfaction in drifting through a store alone. It’s a rare pleasure once you have children.
At 9:00 I’m standing at the edge of the pool, turning my Garmin to “swim” mode. The temperature’s up to 44 degrees. The first 25 yards in winter always suck, but then I’m in motion and thinking about my plan. What’s the easiest way to have an authentic workout and get to a mile? I settle on a 500 warm up, 4x100, 400, some hard/easy sprints, a couple hundred of back/breast, and then cool down.
This is my fourth time in the pool in the last two weeks. I stopped swimming regularly several years ago due to chronic neck and back issues. I’ve tried to get back in over the years but never for very long. My body feels good, my lungs and limbs are stronger each time. I’m happiest when I swim but life has been so busy, I’ve stuck mostly to running. Less time and I can do it anywhere. But I’ve battled planter fasciitis off and on since summer (since trying to keep up with Ander on a run…). The last time I tried to get back to swimming was in August while rehabbing from a leg infection that left my ankle wrecked. Coincidentally, last night I looked at my photos to see what I did on June 21, the last date of the “What Happened” essay. Photos of me in Paris, limping around with thick bandaids on my left heel, covering a nasty blister. I’d fly solo to New York the next day to pick up Maya and bring her back to Europe. By the time I reached NY, my leg was swollen and the next morning instead of shopping and playing in the city, Maya and I spent hours in the ER. I was lucky to be able to fly back across the pond. After weeks of walking with a cane, I got in a couple short jogs and then we came home. I thought the pool would help but my ankle hated the movement of kicking.
The time before that was a year and a half ago, after two surgeries and radiation for breast cancer. On a whim, I decided to show my body that I have some control over it and signed up for a half Ironman. I trained well but didn’t get back in the water after the race.
These are the things I think about while swimming. I focus on the feel of the water as I move through it. It’s the most peaceful place I know. Water has always simultaneously scared me and comforted me. When I was a kid, I was certain I had died in water in a past life. I love that sound is muffled under the surface. As I breathe, I note the contrast between sky and water. The sun rises higher, a bright orange power, too bright in one direction, even with metallic goggles.
The 400 is the longest continuous swim I’ve done since recommitting to the pool. My mind feels calm but my head stays busy. I think about a close friend who will start radiation in the new year and then tamoxifen. We talked last week and I told her I was terrified to take the drug but ultimately it has been fine. But now, I ask myself, who am I to say this? I have no idea what the drug is doing as I near my two year mark. Is it keeping away cancer? Will it shorten my life in other ways? Do the spots on my skin that have appeared since I started it mean anything? Am I more susceptible to injury and infection because of it? Can the aches and pains I have be somehow traced to it?
Things quickly blur. Is everyone like this? I power through and then seem to forget. At any time I have twenty balls in the air and live in fear of what happens if a single one should fall. Is this why it’s all blurred? I take on too much and then resent my lack of time to write or sit and read. I dream about going home to Hawai’i and sitting alone on the beach for days or holing up in a cabin somewhere and cranking out a novel. I fear the passage of time. I fear not completing all I want to accomplish.
A 400 is enough time to think about all this and more. But though my thoughts are heavy, by the time I finish a mile, I’m elated. It feels like every cell has been rejuvenated.
Three quick errands: pick up holiday splurge that I’ve been keeping in my office, Walgreens, UPS store. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” comes on as I pull into my driveway. Can anyone not smile at this song? It takes the edge off as I make three attempts to get into the garage around my mom’s caregiver’s car. She has someone with her around the clock now. I hate it. I hate that my driveway is like Grand Central. I hate the amount of money it costs and the state of health and elder care in our country. But, the day she is no longer here, I will miss those cars. Maybe I’ll even miss the updates on her poop.
In between writing all of this, my husband called with his manuscript critique, I made coffee for my mom and her caregiver, and a snack for Olivia. I watched Olivia transform from a shimmery mermaid (thank you to the babysitter) to a Kung Fu master (thank you, Kung Fu Panda).
I didn’t leave the house again. This only happens a few times a year. It’s strange but nice. My best friend was going to come over with her daughter at one so they could play and we could work but a migraine got in the way.
Instead of attempting to work, I cleaned my office, uncovering a corner of the tiny room that I haven’t seen since we moved in three years ago. I have too many books (there’s no such thing, I guess). I found a “make a handprint” kit and Olivia and I spent ten minutes rolling out the putty and making an impression of her hand.
We played “good guy bad guy,” running around the house with fake swords (hers a light up unicorn wand and mine a grabber she probably purloined from my mom). When her sword broke, we moved on to Yahtzee while listening to Hanukah music. I grew up celebrating Christmas and this time of year tends to hold sadness for me. I miss the family that has scattered across the globe or passed on. I miss my father more this time of year. So, my Target run included shiny silver and blue wrapping paper and fancy bows. Tomorrow I’ll find time to wrap gifts for the girls. Tomorrow is the first night of Hanukah so Olivia and I will light candles and Ron will come home Monday and Maya on Tuesday and it will finally feel like a holiday. I often long for a quiet house, but the instant it’s here, I await the return of daily chaos.
I thought about my own writing project but then chose to edit a manuscript I’m sort of co-writing. Colleen and I worked four years on a project that we just couldn’t get off the ground and we’ve shifted directions, with her taking the lead. The manuscript is good. The idea is solid. I scribbled all over it and set up a FaceTime date since she’s away for the holidays. I’m more comfortable working with other people’s writing. I have too many blind spots with my own.
I’ve set my novel aside for the year to get clarity and regroup. I’m focusing on picture books in the meantime. For my current project, I read a few articles on picture books, including Maria Popova’s “Favorite Children’s Books of 2019.” Her opening sentence is so beautiful and spot on, I read it over and over. “Great children’s books are really miniature cartographies of meaning, emissaries of the deepest existential wisdom that cut across all lines of division, scuttle past the many walls adulthood has sold us on erecting, and slip in through the backdoor of our consciousness to speak – in the language of children, which is the language of unselfconscious sincerity – the most timeless truths to the truest parts of us.” Wow. Yes. I’m inspired and intimidated. I continued researching and ordered a dozen picture books.
We watched another movie, I read an article on tattoos. I’ve got so many ideas but not ready to commit. It was so much easier in my twenties. Ron and I were going to get one in Prague last summer but then my leg happened. I want to get our Prague address – where we fell in love – on the back of my neck, above the mandala that’s been there for twenty years. Or maybe on my arm.
Maya and her dad stopped by to bring my mom cookies so we spent fifteen minutes over there and Olivia dug into the cookies. The energy shifts. Olivia likes being the only child sometimes, even though she cries that she misses her sister. I don’t blame her. I luxuriated in being an only child…until I was an adult, alone in hospital rooms as my father died at sixty-one and when my mother’s health decline began with a major stroke at sixty-one. No wonder I feel the race against time.
By 7:15, I was in bed with Olivia and the dogs renting the “Dora the Explorer” movie, after FaceTiming Ron. These are the only nights I get sufficient sleep so I snuggled in to enjoy it. Lights out by 9:15. I thought about my day as I drifted into dreams. A fellow triathlete (in my days of triathlon) once told me that I’m in my head too much. She said I’d be a better athlete if I got out of it a bit. I should learn to quiet my mind. Not for athletic improvement but for sanity. An exercise in paying attention to a rare, somewhat mundane day, is a good opportunity to follow the myriad musings of a busy mind. Goodnight, December 21.
Stephanie R. Pearmain lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson, AZ.
I wake up at 4, which is good for me these days. Sometimes it's 2 and I get lonely. Sometimes I get scared. Sometimes I wonder what I'd do if someone walked in and tried to shoot me. I lock the door to our basement apartment. Cas sleeps with a revolver by the bed, but I don't know if I'm fast enough to run to the bedroom. I'm in my 8th month of pregnancy. I imagine a quick-paced waddle and a shot to the back by a man in a coat before I even reach the doorknob.
I read what I usually read: articles, blogs, comments, etc. on the subject of unassisted birthing methods, which is exactly what it sounds like: the day comes and I feel contractions and I don't go to a hospital and I don't call a midwife. I might meditate. I might bleed. The baby might be blue. The baby might have a conehead. The sites say this is normal. The sites say I'm capable. One site called it "Going to Mars."
I know what other people think. I've read their sites, too. I've read their research studies. I've read their Facebook comments. It's dangerous. I'm endangering myself and my child. I won't try to convince you otherwise. It is dangerous. It's all really quite dangerous and frightening. Do you think I don't know that? This isn't like the miscarriage. The miscarriage was all blood and some fleshy bits. This is different. This is a fully formed human.
I'm not trying to say I know everything. I won't write about how the hospital is more dangerous, because I don't necessarily believe that. Every woman and every pregnancy is different. Some women have complications. Maybe I'll have complications. Sometimes things get stuck or bleed when they aren't supposed to.
Several times between 4 and 7, I move from the couch to the bed and back again. Cas occasionally asks "Where's my Pina?" meaning he wants to put his hands on my stomach to feel movement. He calls the movements "shark fin."
Cas and I got pregnant a month after meeting each other. He's still married to someone else. He moved to Flagstaff with me from West Virginia. These are just facts to throw in, for the record. Are you keeping a record?
When Cas gets up, we start talking about love. He tells me he believes we love each other because our hormones were still releasing the good stuff when we got pregnant, so now that feeling is immortalized in this child. He has never said anything like that before. This is new today.
I move upstairs to cook tilapia with honey.
Cas comes upstairs to waltz me against the wall. I don't know what other verb to use besides "waltz." I guess it reminded me of that poem "My Papa's Waltz," because he smelled of booze and we've already decided he'll be called Papa. But he didn't hit me on the head or anything. He asked, "How long will you make me wait?" and I told him I'd have to redact that from the observation exercise, if I were to come downstairs with him. He left me.
We grocery shop. We see a movie.
At the end, just now, I was showering and Cas asked if he could join me. He got in with two oranges. This was as strange to me as I'm sure it sounds to you. It is not something he has done previously. He told me he would show me how to enjoy a shower orange. He turned the water to extra hot and bit into the orange without peeling anything off, just right into the rind and through to the meat. He spit the rind into his hand and chewed the fruit. I did the same to mine and I noticed how nice it is when your nostrils scrunch up against the rind because it's a great smell. I've always just peeled and discarded the rind. I didn't know it mattered.
Katie Quinnelly is a writer from West Virginia currently studying at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Her work has appeared in the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Occulum, and Rabid Oak, among others. Her chapbook, Sparrow Pie, is available through Eggtooth Editions.
I woke up in an unfamiliar bed and stared into pitch blackness. My husband stirred and I fumbled around on the floor for my cell phone, which revealed the time as 3AM. As we lay in his mother's parents' former bed in his sister's windowless basement bedroom, we both shivered under a thin blanket. Based on past experience in this house, I estimated the room temperature could not be more than 57 degrees.
We had made the three-hour drive from Southeast Michigan to Northern Indiana the previous evening to attend my father-in-law's annual Christmas gathering in Central Indiana. We would spend a significant portion of the winter solstice driving in our minivan. Fortunately, we had limited snow accumulation and clear roads with temperatures hovering just above freezing.
Our eight-year old son had sobbed upon our arrival when he realized that he would not see his cousins at the family event, as they would remain at their father's house over the weekend. Our overtired son did not normally cry, and my heart ached for him when he pleaded in earnest with me, "Why can't we have just a single day? Is it really too much to ask?"
As I stroked his soft blond hair, I tried to explain to him that we would see his cousins in just a few days when we came back to Northern Indiana to celebrate Christmas with my mother-in-law's family. No stranger to a family full of complicated marriages, divorces, remarriages, partnerships, widowhood, and single parenting, our son watched his brother go back and forth between our house and his mother and stepfather’s house across town for several days each week. My attempts to soothe him, to remind him I had no control over his cousins' whereabouts or the existence of their two houses, and my apologies for not making their activities clearer to him fell on deaf ears.
I hated my inability to relieve his anguish.
Cuddling with my husband in the early morning hours under the sheets, I recounted our son's sadness to him. Not known for his warmth and empathy, my husband sighed in acknowledgement of our little boy’s hurt. Then he shared his own unrelated wistfulness about selling his dying 2000 BMW, “the old gray lady,” that week to someone he felt would not sufficiently appreciate its quirks and value. He regretted feeling like he did not ask for enough money since it sold too quickly. I reminded him he felt similarly when he sold his 1998 Honda Civic, “the best car he ever owned” five years earlier, yet he could not shake his remorse, regret, and disappointment.
Sometimes we each have to sit with uneasiness, discomfort, and longing.
In a lull in our conversation, I dragged myself out of bed and crawled onto my former couch that has lived for the past five years in my sister-in-law’s basement. I had lamented parting with my soft black leather sectional, even when my husband insisted it would not fit in the family room of our new house. I sat on its chaise lounge to write in my journal per my morning routine, curled into a welcome home that felt like a lost lover. My long deceased grandmother had bought my former husband and me that couch a lifetime ago.
Shortly, I forced us to go to the YMCA, even though we could only stay for half an hour before getting ready to make our trip south. I had exercised for 176 consecutive days and was not about to let a food and vehicle-filled day prevent me from squeezing in some movement. Even though I regard exercise as more important for my mental wellbeing than for weight reduction, I had lost over 35 pounds since March, and did not intend to let that progress slide over the holidays. My husband had lost over 40 pounds since August, even as osteoarthritis began to set in and cause his knees to ache. Our mutual goal of improving our health felt like a welcome step forward, with both of us rowing in the same direction.
We trudged off in bitter cold and darkness to arrive as the doors opened at 7AM. He and I jumped on the treadmill and elliptical machine respectively, and then drove home as the sun began to peek over the pink horizon to relieve his sister from staying with our son. Without her boys, my sister-in-law chose to work, as she often does, and did not plan to join us for our excursion. I finally had a chance to see the new deck outside of her house that my husband helped build over the summer, thereby exacerbating his knee pain. I admired its white pillars and sleek lines, and longed for the heat and warmth to beckon us back outdoors again, even though summer felt impossibly far away.
When we returned from the gym, our son appeared in a better frame of mind after some sleep, and he showed me the log loader on his cousins' American Flyer train track, similar to the one he had constructed in our home basement. He also tolerated my insistence that we document the day on video as I do on every 21st. I commemorate his February 21st birthday by requesting one minute of footage per month.
Perhaps I am trying to slow down time, to remember it, to capture it in a way that still pictures cannot render whole. Perhaps I will always feel guilty about letting my son down during my perinatal mental illness surrounding his birth, and I will spend forever afterward trying to make up for lost time that I cannot ever regain. I did not start recording videos until he was three months old.
By happenstance, my videos manage to capture the beginnings of each season, including the first day of winter on December 21. Perhaps someday I will make a montage of each monthly minute, one after the other, watching my son’s childhood fly by before my eyes. Then again, I do that every day anyway, with or without the video.
Despite our best intentions to leave promptly, we not only scrambled out of my sister-in-law's house later than planned, but had to go back to pick up the meat and cheese plate and salad my mother-in-law made for us to take to the celebration with her former husband's family. Then, we nearly ran out of gas, as my husband noticed a light neither of us have ever seen before, which indicated "one mile until empty." He quickly exited the highway and we both sighed in relief about not having to push the car or run off to get a canister of gas. Perhaps each relationship must have one person who fills a tank at half empty and another that waits until the warning light has flashed for some time before stopping.
Back en route, I asked my husband to recite Robert Frost’s "Walking through the Woods on a Snowy Evening," which he memorized in 7th grade in the early 1980s. No matter how many times I try to remember it, I get tripped up on the 2nd and 3rd stanzas, and yet we often trot it out in long car rides in time for "the darkest evening of the year." As a solar-powered Southern California native who aches in coldness and darkness, I regard switching to gain daylight each day for the upcoming six months as the one redeeming feature of the beginning of winter.
I recalled prior years when my stepson tried to learn this poem as well as the order of US presidents. When our son was in kindergarten, he tried to mimic his older brother and could recite the first stanza. This year, my stepson remained with our dog and his mother so he could attend his high school swim team practice, and our son watched a horrible cartoon movie on the iPad as we careened down the highway. I thought not only of all the miles we would travel before bedtime, but all of the miles that so many of our loved ones traveled before their endless sleeps.
As my husband drove, I crocheted contributions to the family's white elephant gift exchange that used to feature entirely homemade gifts and baked goods. Although I usually plan well in advance, my work responsibilities often crowd out my limited domestic skills, and this year I procrastinated on my hat and dishtowels. I congratulated myself as I finished precisely three minutes before we pulled into the driveway at my husband's cousin's house and shoved the gifts into a reusable cloth bag.
Even though I have known my husband for more than a dozen years and we have been married for nearly a decade, no matter how many times we leave the bubble of our own home and community to visit his family, I cannot shake feeling like an outsider, a foreigner in a strange land. We get together with people that are technically considered relatives, yet what is my relationship to my husband's stepmother's son-in-law? Or his mother's second former husband?
During such occasions, I gravitate to the relatives that I can relate to most, as perhaps we all do. I like talking with my husband's aunt, who like me, is also a university professor. She studies social movements. We talk about wanting more time to publish, struggling with the patriarchy and departmental politics, and commiserating over the presidential impeachment proceedings and the pending 2020 election.
I like all of my father-in-law's siblings, whereas some of their children and grandchildren are hard for me to understand. I cannot relate to owning a boat or scaring people on Halloween or renting out space for paintball or owning a farm. I feel regarded as an exotic, rigid, bicoastal Jew who does not bake homemade pies or can fruit or run a chain saw, so thereby I must serve no practical purpose. And yet I appreciate being included in any family holiday events, as nearly all of my relatives of previous generations have died, save for my mother, an only child, and my father’s sister who has resided in a residential facility for people with intellectual disabilities for her entire adult life.
After overeating and polite chit chat and making out fairly well in the gift exchange, including three pottery bowls from one aunt, and a leather bound journal for our son from another, we embarked on our northbound journey home. A few hours later, my husband broke our exhausted silence to wonder aloud whether and for how long such family gatherings will continue. His father's mother, the family matriarch, died over three years ago, and his uncle died last year. Will this tradition of meeting up once a year to talk about the weather and kid sports and politics and eat too much pie continue?
What will hold us together?
It felt like midnight by 6PM, and I dozed as my husband drove, which would make it harder for me to sleep at bedtime. With full stomachs and a trunk full of gifts, we arrived home many hours after sunset. After unpacking the car and taking hot showers, my son and I snuggled in his bed, each reading our own books before I read to him, per our nightly routine. I looked forward to the coming days filled with increasing daylight and vacation and peace in our own home.
In spite of our often conflict-ridden daily existence, I remain grateful for the life my husband and I have built, separate from either of our extended families, or even our own existences prior to our union. Just as others’ lives can feel confusing to us, ours blended family may appear that way to them. Ever navigating our quotidian challenges, disappointments, and losses, we continue to forge our way forward in this life together.
For hours after my son and husband went up to bed, I ended the day writing again, this time in my father’s recliner that resides in my home office. I covered my legs with a crocheted blanket, surrounded by my academic book collection intermingled with my husband’s, my nonfiction favorites, our family photos, our son’s artwork, and late night stillness. Just after midnight, I finally lugged myself upstairs into bed next to my deeply sleeping husband, this time comforted by heat and home.
Kara Zivin, PhD, MS, MA is a professor of psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology, and health management and policy, and a research scientist. She studies behavioral health care for perinatal women, older adults, and veterans. She is an MFA student in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, aiming to combine her research with personal narrative. She lives in southeast Michigan with her husband, stepson, and son.
Check back tomorrow to read more about What Happened on December 21, 2019. —Ander and Will