The Never-Ending Surprise Party
I was cooking dinner when my husband called. He’d already been gone for ten days on this punishing, potato sack race of an international business trip and still had another week to go. So, I just couldn’t contain myself when his number came up on my phone. I mean, really, I jumped up and down.
I always look forward to hearing his quirky stories and cranky observations, especially when he’s far, far away. Since having children, I’ve become mostly an armchair traveler, so his musings about foreign countries I know – Ireland, England, Germany – and don’t know – Russia – were not only going to be a fun distraction for me, but a chance for us to connect and have a laugh, help me miss him less.
“What are you cookin’?” he asked.
“Chicken with lemon rice.” It’s a family favorite.
“Yes!” he said. “You slow-roasted the chicken, right? I mean, you didn’t cheat?”
Of course I cheated. I’m single-parenting until next Saturday and don’t have time to baste a chicken for three hours. “Cheat? Me?”
“Because my day took an unexpected turn this morning,” he continued. “And I’m going to be home in an hour.”
I got all verklempt.
“Are you crying?” he asked me.
Honestly, since having children I cry watching cat commercials, but I really was so happy that he was on his way home. And I love that he kept it from me until the last minute. That our son’s jaw was going to drop, then morph into a grin like a fat orange slice when he saw his dad come waltzing in. That our daughters would squeal. Well, one of them anyway. The other one gets all pre-teen and says mushy things like, “Hey, dad.”
As a family, we have always celebrated surprises. We take spur of the moment trips to podunk towns that do or do not turn out to be fun, we reach out to new neighbors, we move, we buy old houses, dream up schemes and stories, have more kids than we planned, don’t want to know the sex of our babies until they’re born, take on too many projects and surrender to rotten, good-for-nothing luck, not just in the hopes of surviving it, but with the belief that in the end something special will come out of our long, dark journey. Like a new best friend or a golden, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Or maybe just some wisdom and empathy.
All, not most, of the best things in my life have come from surprises, so I’m not just being a Pollyanna here. The Berlin Wall coming down was a huge surprise, as was my decision to move to Prague shortly after. Falling in love with my husband came so far out of left field that I still find myself humming that Talking Heads song,
“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house,
With a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself…well, how did I get here?”
Every facet of having children has been surprising – from finding myself obsessed with their interests and emotions to a pitying degree, to how much and how little they are like me. People tell you a lot of things about becoming a parent, but nobody tells you that children will be a mirror held up to your soul – exposing the best and the worst of you, making you desperate to fix your own flaws for their sake. Selfishness, vanity, any sense of moral equivalency or ambiguity – at least in regard to their welfare – don’t get thrown out the window, necessarily, but are definitely thrown a curve ball.
And no, sister, you can’t have it all. You get so much more than having it all.
Plunging into the role of wife and mother has been a one-way ticket to being a better person for me. More than the accomplishments I craved like street drugs when I was growing up, more than therapy, more than seeking enlightenment. Not to beat a dead horse here, but that’s been kind of surprising. It’s been a one-way ticket in coach, mind you, on a train that often smells of perspiration, spilled cognac, cigarettes and live roosters, but damn, it takes you to the most unexpected, often glorious places.
And lately, I’ve been surprised at the daughter I’m becoming.
Although we always loved each other tremendously, my mom and I weren’t actually close until my late thirties, when my youngest was born so sick. Without missing a beat, my mom kicked into overdrive. Her heroic efforts to ease our burden – taking the night shift at the hospital so that we could be with our other kids, massaging my feet after a shattering day, standing in for me at field trips and class parties – helped us both see each other anew. Since then I have slowly, sometimes painfully – in a cut and bleed, stitches and Band-aids kind of way – become a daughter.
It has been a narrow and bumpy road.
I’ve had to surrender some of my prized independence, care for my mother without taking on a condescending or bossy air, and accept the fact as lovingly and graciously as I can, that my littlest loves my mom more than anyone in the world.
More than she loves me.
Against everything that my younger self would have thought possible, I’m endeavoring to guide my mom through the twilight of her life – from the death of her husband to the change from her role as mistress of her own household, to being a part of mine. And I’m learning that I welcome and relish the challenge – most of the time. Even when I lose my temper and get it all wrong – which is often.
No surprise there.
I’m sharing my kitchen – which is huge for me – letting my mom rearrange things, throw out perfectly good mops in favor of her own, over-stuff my pantry, and serve us her “Chinese” food with a French baguette instead of rice.
“Mmm,” I say, hoping she won’t trot out her other “ethnic” dishes. Like spaghetti and meatballs served with a sauce of Campbell’s tomato soup cut with milk. My mom spent seven months in an Italian refugee camp after fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia and is the only person I know who loved everything about Italy, except for the food.
But while her forays into international cuisine are dubious, she’s actually a wonderful cook – when she’s cooking Czech food. Her goulash, potato dumplings, schnitzel and sweet and sour cabbage are a welcome shake-up of our family dinners. I can’t wait to cook Thanksgiving and Christmas meals with her for the first time in years. Goose, mushrooms, fruit tarts, spaetzle.
And the best surprise of all is that I’m once again finding myself falling deeper in love with the man I married. A guy who is not only welcoming his mother-in-law into his home, but is creating two lovely smoking lounges for her on our front and back porches. A man who isn’t afraid to be the bad guy when he needs to be – setting boundaries and confronting very real issues. Like when my mom contradicts our parenting, either behind our backs or right in front of the kids. From “Oh, come on, she can have another ice cream,” (Not after chocolate chip cookies and and a full bag of gummi worms she can’t!) to “If mama won’t buy you phone, I will,” (What the @#$%&*!??)
“It’ll take some adjustment,” my husband says. “But we’ll get to go away alone now, too – have overnight dates.”
I’ll get to tag along on business trips and expand my own career universe without feeling guilty for leaving for a couple of days.
“Most of all, it’s a chance to grow,” my husband reminds me.
A surprise always offers that chance – to those who are willing to embrace it.