“It’s dirty. All the houses have all kinds of shit piled outside and everything is dirty. And the weather isn’t helping.”
Grim. Bleak. Gray is my favorite color but the red-brown-gray of Catskills road grit fails to move me, no matter how hard I try to wax romantic about it. She’s right. It’s dirty. Everything is dirty. And the weather isn’t helping – oppressively heavy steely skies and a flat light that makes everything look… well… dirty, bleak, and grim. No wonder she hates it here.
But she’s gone. I just dropped her off in Rhinebeck, NY, a village with zero snow, zero grit, zero bleakness and zero grubbiness. Driving back across Ulster County, I passed the largest kaleidoscope in the world. A wordless emotion akin to nostalgia clobbers me and I’m blubbering at the wheel. I took her there when she was about 2 years old. We hung out in a toy store (one that might even still be there) for an hour or so, playing with all the Folkmanis puppets. She won’t remember and I’m no longer with her dad, who may or may not remember. But I remember. I remember every time I drive past that spot, and I remember her as a two-year-old, and me as a young mom, patient and present. And I tear up.
She visited me, after about 2 years in which she earned her master’s degree and lived for a year in Morocco, completing field work for her PhD. She arrived with the flu, and spent the first few days coughing and complaining, powering through the days taking Paracetamol and Sudafed (her UK and US pharmaceuticals), doing her best to be pleasant company, and teetering on the edge of needing a visit to Urgent Care. It was parenting on steroids, figuring out whether she needed a beer or a throat lozenge, sleep or entertainment, more doting or more space.
I am not good at this. Just admitting that feels at once self-indulgent (suddenly it’s all about me) and a colossal relief. I am not good at this and I never was. Somehow we both survived my parenting, but the trademark joke of Maya’s childhood was that Iske (our Belgian malinois) was a better parent than me. Maya turned out ok because of Maya – because she popped out of the womb with morals and values and an ethical compass… and a shockingly large quantity of good sense. She waited out childhood and muddled through while I made mistakes and tried hard to step up to the plate.
But being a parent is a selfless undertaking and I have never been able to sustain selflessness for long. Parenting requires sacrifice and I suck at self-sacrifice. I am self-indulgent and resentful by default and all my efforts to hide or mitigate those tendencies inevitably fall short. I end up being me. I can’t hide it or fake it. I do my best for the short amount of time she’s here and then she leaves and I feel guilty and inadequate. I wasn’t present enough. I wasn’t nice enough. I wasn’t sufficiently focused on her. I gave gifts instead of time. I gave money instead of love. I didn’t give enough of either.
So she endured a few days of gray and grim grit, and I drove her the 2 hours to a nicer place to meet her dad today. As I recrossed the Catskills and headed west back home, it started to snow. I arrived home to a place that was cold, remote and inhospitable. I accept all the symbolism therein and dove in to the afternoon chores, feeling the urgency of a house full of dogs that have been alone for 6 hours. Bathroom breaks, exercise, and focused attention for all of them all came before the eagerly anticipated beer for me.
I am just not good at this, but it is a required component of this phase of parenting. I wasn’t especially good at diaper-changing, breast-feeding, or parent-teacher conferences but I did my best. I cried back then, feeling inadequate and guilty. Not a whole lot has changed. But here we are. I get to admire who she has become and await who she will grow into. I get to beat myself up for being selfish, distant, or self-absorbed, or not. It is what it is.
I spend enormous amounts of time alone with my dogs, and it suddenly hits me as I squint at the windshield, tears reducing what little visibility I had left: the dogs anchor me in the here and now. They may not be in the moment, but they force me to be. The dog chores – the daily walks, the necessary chuckit sessions, the remembering to take out meat for dinner – keep me grounded in a reality that doesn’t permit spiraling off into recriminations or flights of guilty fancy. The life I have crafted here on this cold and snowy mountain is remote and rather grubby, but it is intentionally so. It’s safe. The distance works for me. The large biting dogs work for me. The world is kept at bay, but perhaps more importantly, much of my past is also kept at bay. I am anchored in the present and the past is dim, distant and fuzzy.
Until it shows up, coughing and feverish, and in need of mothering. I love, care for, and administer relief as best I can. I stand back and watch as she navigates four large biting dogs with grace and relative ease, and I chuckle as she manages the temper tantrums they pitch. They seem to love and accept her unquestioningly. I’m floored. They are difficult with new people at best, and some of them (cough Peeka cough) are terrible with new humans in their home. Her visit goes without a hitch.
So I’m back here, perched upon this mountainside, where it is cold, remote, snowy, windy, and dirty. There is all manner of detritus in the front yard, bearing witness to our poor housekeeping and our white trash reality. I fed the dogs their deer ribs and pork trimmings, courtesy of other rednecks like me who eke out an existence up here where a cold, dirty, remote, gritty existence is the best we can do. And I drown my feelings – all of them, the complicated love-guilt-inadequacy-backtolove feelings – in local craft beer. We are all doing our best, loving and letting go, and staying connected as best we can. I might not be good at this, and perhaps I won’t ever get much better, but I can stay as present as possible and watch it all unfold. That’s as good as it gets for me.