Sneak Attack

“Oh, and one more thing,” Barb said distractedly as she rifled through a file.

“It would be great if you would come in on that Saturday to help out.”

Interesting, the date of discussion was in two weeks. And as far as Rachel was concerned, there was nothing great about working on a Saturday.

“I don’t think so,” Rachel responded after a second of hesitation in which she considered the possibility of a joyful termination from the position.

“You don’t think so?” Barb repeated, suddenly paying attention.

Barb’s eyebrows and voice lifted at the same time. She looked up at the small woman standing in front of her, purse slung over her shoulder and shoes pointed toward the door.

“Ok, see you next Tuesday,” Rachel said with a wave.

 Barb, too flabbergasted to respond, waved back in confusion, certain that Rachel’s next day was not Tuesday.

The Meeting

Once we returned to the office, I typed up a quick thank you note for the meeting.

My coworker had attended with me, arriving late and full of extraneous information and stories. She rattled an empty Starbucks cup back and forth as an endless flow of words gushed from her mouth. I focused on controlling the furrowing of my brow and the contorting of my mouth, forcing my face into a mask of pleasantness.

Inside, I begged and screamed for her silence but would settle for any amount of professionalism. Why are we talking about your retirement plan 20 years from now?

Yet, on she went oversharing and underlistening.  

As I was about to curb her enthusiasm, our host began to follow in the same pattern, explaining her life course and interests and hobbies. They clicked in a soulmate kind of way that left me behind on a different plane of existence.

Within a few minutes of sending the thank you email, our original host responded with a request for my coworker’s email and for what I am sure to follow will be a lifelong friendship, job offer or invite to dinner and drinks.

I have been ruminating over this interaction and found the following things to be true.

Meetings start late here. They require small talk to move forward. Professionalism is optional. And perhaps most interesting, I was envious for my colleague’s ease in quickly slipping from a professional to a personal relationship, and making a real connection, while I remained buttoned up, sharing and receiving next to nothing.

Was this style of communication living fearlessly or recklessly?

There is a thin line between the personal and professional world, separated by carefully curated boundaries, meant to protect and support those of us who must go back and forth between the two.

For me, it is a thin line that I am not ready to start straddling.

Strawberry Fields Forever

The rows of strawberries stretched on forever, long ribbons of black and green, with serrated leaves and heart-shaped pops of red. Runners shot out and away from their mothers, landing in the soil between the established plants, and rooting where no berry had ever grown before in an exciting bid for independence.

Dark soil was carefully tilled between the rows in a continual fight against the weeds that desperately wanted the same nutrients, water, and sun as the berry plants. The prickly purple thistle and milkweed and ragweed remained blissfully unaware of their uninvited status as they continued to show up with friends and family only to be pulled and discarded, again and again.

This field was my first place of employment; my brother was my (only) coworker, and our mother was the site supervisor. Begrudgingly, we learned to till and turn the soil, to plant and pick strawberries. We learned how to quiet our minds and settle in to do the work. Quart after quart basket of strawberries passed through my red-stained fingers as I grumbled about the things I would rather be doing.

It wasn’t that the work was hard, it was, in fact, easy to pluck a strawberry from the plant and put it into a basket. The hard part was to do it for an hour and then another hour. It was overcoming the boredom and tedium of doing the exact same thing over and over in the hot Indiana summer sun. I hated every morning that there were strawberries in the field. I prayed for rain and thunder and lightning, especially lightening, if only to strike me with a bolt to end my strawberry picking misery.  

Yet, now when I think of summers growing up, it always starts in the field, wiping the sweat from my brow, feeling the perspiration drip from the tip of my nose and chin and run down my chest. I recall my brother, in one of his protests, selecting a particularly fat and rotten berry, lining up his sights and launching it directly at our mother’s back where it landed with the most perfectly spectacular splat between the straps of her tank top.   

Now, the field is a dumping ground for old construction equipment. The old farmhouse is long gone, burned to the ground, rebuilt without a single bit of the original character. And the strawberry pickers are scattered around the world, left to reminisce about the old days and time spent together.

Sticks and Stones

Jagged, ragged sobs come from the next room.

Little Legs is on the floor, sleep-crying, after the last thirty minutes of yelling, screaming, begging and pleading for release from naptime.

“You don’t have to sleep, but you have to rest in your room,” Daddy Longlegs explained minutes earlier, gently leading him back to his room for the fourth time.

“Hate naps. Hate sleep. Hate Dada,” Little Legs said.

Daddy Longlegs said, “You don’t have to like it, but you have to have quiet time.”

He let the stinging blow of his son’s words glance off his cheek.

If only Little Legs understood the power of words, he would know the pain and joy they can give.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never (not) hurt me.

I hear a rustling from his room, a moan and another cry. The moan is from me, there will be no napping today, for anyone except Baby Brother. Little Legs is back up and well-rested enough to change tactics.

“Need Mama,” he says.

I jump up and my heart swells, ready to rescue him from his room, until it hits me.

Not only does he understand the power of words, he is using it to crush his parents, each one in a unique and specially tailored way.

Toddler 1: Parents 0

Egg Salad

“Do you want to talk to your grandpa?” the woman asked her daughter.

The woman sat next to her aging father, recently discharged from the hospital. His once-grey hair flowed from one side of his head to the other in a sea of white waves.  

He peered into the screen of the phone with bleary eyes. Deep lines around his mouth and eyes gave away his sickness. His heart was broken. He was broken. Without the woman who made up his other half, he was not long for the world.

Obviously, saying no was not an option.

The woman’s only daughter hated when her mother asked her a question with an obvious, single answer. She had just called to verify the ingredients of her egg salad recipe.  

What could be more New Years-ish than a slurry of hardboiled egg and mayonnaise?

“How are you, Grandpa?” the granddaughter asked with an immediate sense of regret.

“Not good, not good.”

This was moving day; the day he was to leave his house, his independence and the place where he spent the past sixty years with his wife, from whom the recipe for egg salad originated.   

It was eggs and mayonnaise with a pinch of salt.

Just a pinch with the extra tossed over one’s shoulder.

For flavor, for luck, forever unmeasured and never forgotten.

Was it really ever just a pinch?   

Hunting Season

“Hey y’all. Haven’t seen you around,” the voice came from the shadows and was followed by a man with a pointy beard wearing a head to toe suit of camouflage.

“Where y’all been?” he asked with a good-natured twang.

It was only 5:00 and already dark on the street. Daylight Savings saved nothing. In fact, it stole the last bits of lights the couple had to walk during the cool fall nights.

The couple was not to be deterred from their few minutes of peace with both boys contained in the enormous double stroller. They wore matching reflective vests and carried flashlights. The stroller glowed an eerie green under the streetlight, outlined in reflective strips.

“Well, you’re pretty hard to spot these days, too, in your all camo outfit,” the woman said with a laugh.

The man looked down in question, unsure to what she was referencing; he wore this outfit so often it was a second skin, an unofficial uniform that he never gave a second thought to as he dressed in the morning.

Camo t-shirt, check. Camo pants, check.

It was also hunting season which came as news to the Northerners, announced by the constant gunfire in the woods behind their house.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right. I would be pretty hard to spot. We’ve been out hunting, round these parts. Fact is, we just got back from those woods out past Creek Bend Road.”

Good Lord, the woman thought. He is the one who was firing his gun in our backyard.

Her husband volunteered, “Hey, that’s where we live.”

“So’s you live in the house back there. Well, I’ll be darned. Its just me and my boys that ever hunt out there. Sure would be nice to have a place to park so we don’t have to walk so far from the road.”

Silence.

Awkward silence ensued as the couple refused to give the man what he wanted.

“Come on back here, I’ve got to show you something.”

The woman refused to budge. “No thanks, I’ve got to stay here with the boys (and the living world).”

“Ok then, just you,” he pointed at the man who agreed without hesitation and then followed him into the dark shadows in what seemed like a bad idea to the onlookers who remained on the side of the road.

The woman was not a religious sort, but she suddenly found herself praying for the safe return of her husband. Long, drawn-out seconds passed into a minute and then another before the men reappeared and the woman exhaled, realizing that she was holding her breath.

“What in the world did he show you?”

Her husband took over pushing the stroller, “He has the head of a 10-point buck that he shot in the woods behind the house. I guess he’s the kind of guy we need to know if its end of days.”

This was the standard for making new friends, if they have useful skills in case of the Apocalypse.

Apparently, things were looking rather grim.

The Bees

Daddy Longlegs pushes the door open, steps inside and pulls off his white hooded bee-keeper top. Lately, he doesn’t bother with the matching pants or with the smoker. He is very confident in his relationship with his bees.

“You can’t be afraid, they can smell fear.”

He tries to get me to put on the suit, but I refuse. I am surprised this needs explaining but obviously someone must survive to take care of the boys. And to eat the honey.

I encourage him to wear the pants next time and remind him, “A sting hurts.”

Somehow, I am the only one to sustain one since the colonies took up residence in the yard, while Daddy Longlegs has blissfully forgotten his last sting from years ago. Time has a merciful way of dulling the memory of pain, it is the only way we can go on after childbirth or the death of a loved one.

Perhaps it has been too long since his last sting.  

“Well, how are they?” I ask.

“Any signs of a wild animal trying to get in?”

Apparently, our neighbor with diabetes has spotted the hives and is dying for a taste. We have been warned by his wife. He must be kept away or like an unmanageable bear, he will come after the honey.

Daddy Longlegs is somber.

“I saw a big one at the entrance carrying a dead bee out.”

“Doing a little housekeeping?” I wrongly assume.

“He didn’t just throw the dead bee out. He flew it to the ground in front of the hive and gently placed it next to a leaf.”

“I am sorry for your loss.”  

And I truly am. These bees are now family.

A Spot of Sunshine

The two slipped outside, hand in hand, under a pure blue sky.

Even the shadows, usually cool and creepy, felt warm and inviting.

“Watch out for snakes,” his mother warned.

She didn’t want to believe that a serpent would dare infest her garden of Eden but knew it was possible.

She found the skin of one in the grass, brown and paper-thin, left behind as useless as heels and pressed pants during this phase of life.

Overhead two white cranes honked at each other,

Speaking the private language of family that they somehow understood.   

Snow in June

As the woman stared blankly into the refrigerator, she stood with a slight hunch, a droop like a bouquet of old flowers. The cold air did not revive her, it merely preserved her current wilted state from progressing any further. She was nine months pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen.

“How did this happen?” she wondered, already knowing the obvious answer.

A Tupperware container with a mass of green stared back at the woman; three-day old broccoli, she remembered from earlier in the week. Not wanting to play the food poisoning pros vs. cons game, she continued to consider other dinner combinations.

Frozen pizza and bagged salad would be easy but problematic for the lack of a bagged salad, pasta was always a hit but not very nutritious unless she added a can of peas. She mentally checked through the usual meal options and their level of popularity as the remaining cold air flowed out and around the woman.

Meanwhile, the original source of her exhaustion rode a train around the kitchen island, propelling himself forward with kicks and a realistic choo-choo sound. Every few rounds, he redirected the train at his mother’s legs which got him the attention that he needed to continue with his well-worn route.

She suddenly realized with an instant dread that the kitchen was strangely silent. The train noises stopped. No choo-choo, no plastic wheels against the ground or the sound of the train ramming into the cabinets or her inconveniently located appendages.

“Little Legs?” the woman asked as she turned around fearing what she may see.

The tall, wooden cabinet doors were open behind her and the ground was coated with a fine white powder. In the air, the powder floated down and around Little Legs as he shook an open box of baking soda to a beat only heard by his ears. For a second, he appeared as an other-worldly creature in the midst of a freakish, summertime snowstorm. His long eyelashes were tipped in the same white that covered his arms and hair, the kitchen floor and lower cabinet shelves.

He smiled and laughed, showing a pink mouth and tongue breaking from the white, as he continued to make it snow, bigger and bigger, over his head and out to the sides. As his mother approached, he frantically shook the box harder and higher, aware that his special snowstorm was about to be involuntarily terminated.

His mother kneeled and wrapped her arms around the little space creature to not only prevent his escape but also to limit the spread of the baking soda dusting. She laughed in disbelief at the mess as she removed the box from his hand, prying it from his clamped fingers.

Through a flood of fat protest tears, the boy took in the beauty of the kitchen. It was covered in white, clean and crisp aside from the footprints of his meddling mother.

With a final yowl, he turned off the tears and seemed to take a babbled vow to make it snow again.

The summer was far from over.

snowglobe

When the Cookie Monster visits

cookie monsterOver the past few weeks while remaining safer at home, we have all been brought quite literally closer with Daddy Longlegs working from home.  However, this temporary/ongoing arrangement has also meant that our places of work and play are currently one-in-the-same and naturally there is bound to be some conflict. 

Who knew it would come to a head over a peanut butter cookie?

Last week, Daddy Longlegs decided to make lunch for Little Legs and me.  He thoughtfully made each of our sandwiches according to our preferences, ham and cheese for me, peanut butter and jelly for Little Legs, with a handful of chips and strawberries to share between us.  I brought cookies and milk for dessert and boosted Little Legs into his special seat.  His seat clamps to the table where he likes to play with his food, swing his legs back and forth, and drop things for the cat to scarf down; sometimes he manages to eat, too.  

On this fateful day, I made the mistake of handing a cookie to Daddy Longlegs over Little Legs’ head and saying, “We can all have cookies after you finish your sandwich.”  

Little Legs watched the hand-off with a pair of eagle eyes that miss nothing and decided there would be no sandwich eating.  Only cookie eating.  Also, he wanted all of the cookies.  Now.

It started with a quiet whining and pointing at the distributed cookies with a grubby finger, first at his daddy’s and then at mine.  He turned his head away from his sandwich and knocked Daddy Longlegs’ hand away as he offered him a chip.  Then he threw a strawberry to the ground in anger, barely missing the cat that sat waiting and hoping for a meatier offering.

I moved to break off a cookie bit as a compromise when Daddy Longlegs’ intervened with a raised hand like a crossing guard to stop.  He was about to do some emotional mealtime redirecting.

“You can’t negotiate with a terrorist.” 

He turned to the boy who was red in the face and on the verge of screaming. 

He explained, “You have to eat your sandwich before you get a cookie.”   

And then back to me while still talking to the boy, “And mommy isn’t going to give in.  Right, Mommy?”

“He needs to eat something,” I said, driven by an irrational fear that he would starve starting at that instant unless he got a cookie.  Mother knows best, I thought, and assumed that he would naturally agree to eat his sandwich if he got a little bite of early dessert.  In short, I assumed we were dealing with a rational person instead of a toddler.

“You can’t just feed him cookies.  If you give in now, what’s going to happen tomorrow and the day after that?” Daddy Longlegs asked.

I took a minute to think, to allay my fear and push my maternal arrogance aside, and to consider things as an unbiased and rational adult.  Of course, I can’t just feed the boy cookies, he’s not going to starve, and I can’t give him everything he wants.  

He needs boundaries and vegetables. 

After all, we all know what happens if you give a cat a cupcake, he’s going to want some sprinkles.