If the first part of this story didn’t happen exactly as described, then understand that it was close to this, and that the specifics don’t matter. Plus, it will better preserve privacy that I don’t recall some of the details, and since I don’t have a way to ask permission to tell this tale, retelling it this way (imprecisely) is probably best.
One winter break, in my freshman or sophomore year of college, a group of us drove to Vermont to stay at a friend’s house and ski (or, in my case, just enjoy the winter weather and time with friends). On the drive north, we made a short stop so one member of our group could get something from his house. We hung out in the kitchen, where his mother was making carrot soup, while he went upstairs to pack. We were visiting and chatting casually while the cook cooked. The kitchen fragrance was warm and inviting and surprising, to me, because carrot soup was something my mother would never have made.
We were offered a sampling, while we waited, which was lovely. But in between lifting the heavy pot from the stove and setting it on the counter to serve, the handle slipped from my friend’s mother’s hand, and the entire pot of soup splattered to the floor.
“Oh dear,” the cook said, without a trace of annoyance. Then she calmly got a towel, wiped up the mess, and offered us something else.
I remember thinking, at the time: I want to be like that when I grow up.
I thought her understated response was, more than anything else, a function of age, combined, perhaps, with a distinctive lack of the hyper-dramatic Southern-ness I’d grown up with. Yes, by the time I reached my mid-40s or early 50s, provided I stayed north of the Mason-Dixon line, I would surely, in the natural course of things, behave exactly like this graceful, soft-spoken mother.
But when the time came, my behavior, when encountering spilled milk or knocked-over chairs or burnt pizza, was as opposite the calm response I’d once dreamed of having as anyone could imagine. In fact, nothing about my mothering even came close to being graceful, soft-spoken, or even-tempered in the way I’d once envisioned it, sitting in my friend’s kitchen so many years ago.
Then, one afternoon while we were unloading the dishwasher, my daughter dropped a bowl, and it broke, and I overreacted. Not five minutes later, I broke a glass. And my daughter, who was five or six at the time, said: “Haha, you broke something too! So you’re not perfect after all either!” And the only thing I could think to do was make a mockery of my own behavior, to give myself the overblown reaction I’d apparently just given my child.
To this day, if you ask my children what they remember most from these early school years, they’ll likely tell you it’s the combination of expression and sound I made when I overreacted to something, realized my children were watching, and then tried to pretend I was a ridiculous character having a ridiculous reaction to something ridiculous.
(I know; I’m describing this badly. You should see my children do the reenactment. It’s side-splitting comedy, I promise.)
My animated responses became, over time, a running joke, one that continues to soften with time, repetition, and practice.
One day recently, I placed the coffee carafe off center in the coffee maker, and when the brew cycle started, as programmed, at 7 A.M., the coffee couldn’t drip into the carafe because the carafe wasn’t in the right position to trip the lever that allowed the coffee to flow. So when I walked into the kitchen,
eager desperate for a cup of morning rejuvenation, what I discovered was a complete mess of coffee and coffee grounds that had overflowed from the brew basket onto the counter and cabinet below and floor below that.
And I’ll confess that it was not the first time this has happened. It wasn’t even the second. In fact, I can no longer count on one hand how many times I’ve made this same error (or one close to it, with the same end result).
The first time it happened, I was mildly annoyed with myself. The second time, I called myself “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”
This time around, I looked at the counter, looked at the dog, and said, “Well, damn.” Then I fetched a towel, wiped up the mess, rinsed out the coffee maker, ground some fresh coffee, and made a new pot.
When I finally got to my kitchen chair, with my mug of coffee, the image of my friend’s mother popped into my mind. I wondered how many batches of spilled carrot soup it took for her to master saying, “Oh dear,” then calmly get a towel, wipe up the mess, and move on.
Because it isn’t age, or geography, that magically instills this response. It’s practice, perhaps imbued with aspiration. And the only way to arrive at the goal is to put in the work of getting there.
This post is 46/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.