These are my toes on vacation.
I just got back from vacation. Sort of. It was a single-mom style vacation, so the days were roughly twice as exhausting as usual. The girls and I and a delightful assortment of friends were up at the beloved house in the Adirondacks that’s been in my family since it was built by my grandfather in 1912; I’ve gone there every summer since I was born. Because so little in the house and the surrounding landscape has changed since then, the things that do change from year to year–the cast of characters, life circumstances–are thrown into stark relief against the ever-constant backdrop.
R first joined me up there a few months after we’d started dating. It was July 4th weekend, 1989; his immediate and total appreciation of the place sold me and my entire family on him and ushered in the all-about-the-two-of-us vacation years. We were strapping twentysomethings who voluntarily woke up at 5 am so we could hike 14 miles and be back before sunset. During our free time, R would play with wood–chop it with an axe or make nifty things with twigs–while I made the house lovely. We were just adorable in a way that was probably a little nauseating to those around us.
That phase lasted until 1996, when our daughter was born (we baptized her with water from the lake.) Those early baby-makes-three years involved waking up involuntarily at 5 am; if we had any leftover energy for hiking, it would be a brief hike, carefully scheduled around nap time; the pursuit of glorious mountain-top views was replaced by the pursuit of a rock at the ideal height to change a diaper and frantic attempts to keep the baby from toddling off the dock.
In 2001, we added daughter number two and fully surrendered to a child-centered, the-four-of-us life. We compromised in ways that would have seemed blasphemous during those early years, purchasing a brightly-colored plastic kiddie pool, even though the house is set on a magical lake. Sweet the-four-of-us rituals evolved–popcorn by the fireplace upon arrival, no matter how late; a trip to the library in town the next morning, roast chicken and potatoes for our first dinner. R built a Barbie tree house. We wanted to introduce our girls at an early age to the joys of hiking in the wilderness, but the relative convenience of mini-golf was suddenly apparent too.
So there’s 19 years of summer fun in a nutshell, during which my house became unmistakeably ours. Hence, last August–two months after we separated and the first time R did not join us–we were disoriented. The surroundings were still there, reliably stunning as always, but it was a week of non-stop soy-milk episodes. I knew R wasn’t with us, of course, but still, I wondered “where is he?” Sitting on the dock felt weird because I kept expecting him to do his signature run-jump across it and into the lake. Looking at his assorted twiggy touches around the place made me cry. The first-night roast chicken tried too hard to make everything OK and didn’t taste good. I was certain I would never find my magical summer place fun again.
But this summer, I’m pleased to report, fun started to seep back in (you knew that was going to happen, didn’t you? It would be such a downer otherwise.) I didn’t wait for R to run-jump into the lake and I didn’t cry once during the entire week, not even when I caught a glimpse of the Barbie tree house in the corner of the play room.
I guess the girls and I have officially entered a new the-three-of-us phase–a different one–to be played out against the reassuring, constant backdrop until the cast of characters, or the circumstances, shift once again.
You might have noticed that a craving for order is a persistent theme in my recent posts. I thrived on the structured life I enjoyed at summer camp. Then came my blatant convent envy. Today, I celebrate the mother of all mental-chaos tamers: Ikea.
Was it coincidence that a new store opened right near me the same week that R moved out? I think not. I go there when I need to escape the madding crowd of clutter in my house and my head.
Shortly after R left, I entered a brief, semi-euphoric, whoopee-I’m-a-single-gal-now phase–which necessitated, among other things, an urgent bedroom makeover. Sleeping alone in a queen-sized bed was sort of sad, but it was exciting to have a room all to myself for the first time since 1990. (In fact, who decided married couples should share a room?)
During my marriage, I was unofficially in charge of home decor, but I tried not to impose too much femininity on our bedroom since only one of us was feminine. A few years ago, I fought my urge for lilac walls and pretty white things and chose a moldy green shade of paint, just to prove that I did not have a girly agenda. I now see that being enveloped by that ghastly hue night after night certainly cannot have helped our marriage.
That first post-separation trip to Ikea yielded, interestingly, a lot of round items–a couple of Ringum rugs, two Korda mirrors and the Ofelia duvet cover–all for around $100! Oh– and some nice ropey baskets to corral toiletries. And a sisal-ish rug for our back porch. And hundreds of things I never knew I needed until I was sucked into the vortex known as the Ikea Marketplace.
Since then, I have returned to the store several times, always soothed by the cheerful, orderly faux rooms with their drawers and shelves and cabinets and other forms of flimsily-made containment.
Today was an Ikea day. We’ve been transforming our third floor into a rental apartment, which means our remaining two floors are overrun with boxes of stuff, crap and junk that used to be upstairs.
After fretting about whether it would be worse to increase my credit card debt or to remain in this fragile disorganized state, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the blue-and-yellow temple. (I mean, really, it’s almost like getting stuff for free when you shop there.)
My goal was to find a sideboard for my dining area. It would house my marital silverware, tablecloths and other whatnot that the woman gets to keep.
As I entered the store, that familiar Swedish calm came over me. It was a weekday morning, so it was empty. The showroom was perfectly air-conditioned and orderly, and–freakishly enough–there was actually a tow-headed Scandinavian family shopping and chatting in a mysterious tongue. The Marketplace was, as usual, a more fraught experience and, once again, I was forced to buy things like placemats and trays and little boxes (fortunately, they have a good return policy.)
I didn’t purchase a sideboard (though I think I want a Besta combination when the time comes), but I did leave with restored faith that there is almost always a way out of chaos.
Well, I’m back from two weeks of communal summer-camp living in Maine. Yesterday I went grocery shopping, turned on the stove and vacuumed for the first time since mid-June. I also ate two spoonfuls of peanut butter right out of the jar–which is, sadly, what qualifies as reckless abandon for me these days.
So now it’s Monday morning after a long vacation and everywhere I turn, the message is writ large: Today is the first day of the rest of your life! Only, it’s the first day for at least the third time since R left (which I guess makes it the third day of the rest of my life? I don’t know how that works.)
The first first day of the rest of my life was the one after R moved out. I awoke with a weary, yet hopeful feeling. The months leading to his departure were polluted and painful, so there was a huge sense of relief just to be done with that phase. I could start over, make a new beginning and apply other sunny, optimistic cliches to my future!
The second first day was when I turned the big 4-5 last September. I threw myself a party for the first time ever, served pink prosecco and received a pile of encouraging “You go, girl!” type birthday cards. About a month after solidly hitting middle age, I joined a dating site–and if you’ve been reading, you know how that unfolded.
Now I’m back from Maine, where I overcame some major fears (driving alone, teaching, throwing myself out of a tree, to name a few) and stability of any kind seems more elusive than ever. Yeah, yeah, it’s great to have new and transformative experiences, but this constant making lemonade from lemons is getting old.
Here’s what’s at the top of my current to-do list:
I hate Mondays.
For the past 10 days, I’ve been sequestered at an artsy all-girls sleepaway camp in Maine, where I’m running the creative-writing program. My daughters are here with me, living as the other campers do, and I gotta say that the experience is making me seriously question the whole mom-dad-kids nuclear family construct.
Here, all of our meals are planned, cooked and served to us (which makes up for the fact that they are not especially tasty.) My daughters engage in wholesome, mostly technology-free activities run by delightful, nurturing counselors, who later make them brush their teeth and go to bed. Wait–it gets even better: I see the girls several times a day and we usually hug and kiss each other. I haven’t noticed them whining or bickering, nor have I had to shop for groceries. Sadly, our camp session ends in a few days, so we’ll be packing up and leaving–but I’m planning to get off at the first exit that leads to a decent commune. It does take a village, dammit!
Another notable aspect of life here is that, except for the cook, the maintenance guy and a handful of others, this is a completely man-less zone. I am trying so hard not to become one of those droopy, unlucky-in-love types who has concluded that all men are creeps and losers. And I am not a member of the gay-and-gray generation chronicled in the recent More magazine article entitled “Over 40 and Over Men.”
(Though if you could switch teams, why wouldn’t you? No, really: Why wouldn’t you?)
Still, it’s surprisingly relaxing to take a break from Y chromosomes. It’s not so much that men are flawed, but that women behave differently in their presence. For example, since I’ve become single again, my mind goes into immediate assessment mode when men my age are around (Is he married? If not, why not? Should I care–and if I should care, do I look OK?)
Obviously, living in an all-female society comes with its own set of pressures and dynamics (remember the hell that was junior high school?), and I suppose it would be a drag if we all renounced men and our species became extinct. But in my case, this simultaneous vacation from the co-ed universe and the drudgery of daily life has been rejuvenating. In fact, I’m psyched for the day when I get to join an assisted living community.
I’m determined not to let this blog veer off into sad/weepy/bitter/poor-me territory (as it is, I visit that arid zone in person more often than I’d like). That said, Saturday kind of sucked and I need to get it off my chest, so please bear with me. (It’s not all reckless abandon here in Splitsville, you know.)
R, who lives nearby, arrived at about 9 am to help me move some furniture. I live in (formerly-our) house and we will be renting out the top floor soon. Since (formerly-our) bedroom was up there, we needed to move the bed downstairs to what will be my new room. Maneuvering the huge mattress down the narrow staircase seemed like such an obvious metaphor. I had that out-of-body feeling where you’re simultaneously living your life and observing it.
I was thinking: Look at the once-loving couple as together they move their marital bed into a new room because now only one of them sleeps in it. Notice how big and unwieldy it is as they turn the corner, cram it into its new location and let out sighs of relief. Life sure is crazy sometimes.
That planted a seed of sadness in me that blossomed later in the day, when we were at our daughter’s dance recital. It was the first big event R and I attended in our new incarnation as a formerly-married couple, the first time we arrived separately and didn’t sit next to each other, and the first time both sets of grandparents were in the same room together since the separation. I was a bit of a basket case.
I had a lump in my throat while watching our beautiful daughter dance so beautifully and while thinking about how R and I created her and how we now know and admire our ever-changing children from different vantage points. R is two rows down and to the left. Oh, I get it: he is not next to me anymore.
After the show, everyone milled around while waiting for the dancers to appear. I greeted my (former) in-laws, R greeted his. R and I stood side-by-side, awkwardly chatting about our child. Assorted members of these two families–who spent almost every holiday together for years and years–were now nervously making pleasantries.
I’m sure we were all relieved when our young dancer emerged from back stage and quickly stole the spotlight from the elephant in the room.