Years ago, with the kids in bed, my wife and I were doing clean-up chores when she uttered a simple comment. Actually, it was a musing.
“There’s a hundred of them,” Lynn said, stopping her work for just a second to marvel at her realization.
“A hundred of what?” I asked.
“A hundred I have to deal with.”
“Huh?” I was totally lost.
Still clueless, I stared, stupefied.
“The kids’ nails,” she explained. “There’s five kids, 20 nails to a kid, so that’s a hundred. Not even counting my own.”
Man, I hate cutting even my own nails. The realization she was cutting so many knocked me right off my pedestal as breadwinner. Sure I brought in the income but she was the kid groomer, food shopper, dinner maker, clothes washer, clothes mender, clothes buyer, homework checker, travel planner … and on and on.
I am still breathing today so I obviously pitched in.
But, the “nails” comment really stuck with me. It was one of the many times over our decades together that I stopped to truly appreciate the difficulty of her my wife’s jobs. Did I mention family barber?
Lynn handled a lot but did not complain a lot. We wouldn’t have made it this far had she been weak. The kids, now grown and appreciative enough to give us credit when they reminisce, talk about their mom’s toughness and her stoicism.
They recall her at-times inappropriate laughter — she became a nurse but cannot hold back guffaws when someone falls down. On the flip side, the kids all recollect in detail how well their mom dealt with adversity, her ability to steady the ship in rough waters, her knack for handling unpleasant surprises with resolve, not tears.
Except that one time.
“You remember when momma cried?” one of our kids will ask, and they all recount the same story. They answer in unison and more quickly than when any other question about the past pops up.
To understand, a little background is necessary.
Some of our busiest times with the children came in Warren, Ohio, where we lived from the beginning of 1988 to the end of 1994. We bought our first home there and eventually got it set up to accommodate five kids close in age, the oldest still not even a teenager.
Once I redid the attic, we had enough room. We had a garage. We had a yard. My wife started nursing school. We were comfortable.
But, a problem developed. I knew I was going nowhere in my Ohio job, and an opportunity developed in Pennsylvania. But we had to act quickly. My wife didn’t disagree. So, after some candid conversation, we realized the enormity of this challenge, took a deep breath and got moving. Just action, no tears.
This was not easy. We had to move ourselves and this was mid-school year. With me still working, it was up to Lynn to make the five-hour drive with our oldest Luke to visit our prospective new town, search for an apartment for seven people, a giant lizard and a dog, figure out where the kids would go to school, get through the background checks, sign a lease and ensure we could move in quickly, within two weeks. She took this on with a steely determination. She accomplished all this over one snowy December weekend.
I never saw the place before we arrived with our U-haul, trying to fit what we had accumulated in a decent-sized home with a big garage into half a house with no garage. It was what they in this old coal region in northeast Pa. called a “half-double.”
The transition was tough. Older kitchen. Tiny yard. Crowded bedrooms. The landlord hadn’t cleaned like he said he would. And, as expected in a rental, nothing worked as well as expected.
Still, just action. No tears.
We made do.
The kitchen, though, proved especially nettlesome. Of course, as fate would have it, that’s where Lynn had to spend a great deal of time. In addition to finicky appliances — it had a crappy stove and one of those portable dishwashers that hook up to the faucet but always leak — the big drafty room was just plain ugly.
Dreary walls. Beat-up linoleum on the floor. Cracked ceiling tiles. Fluorescent lights designed to shine through those clear plastic ceiling tiles that turn yellow in about a month.
I was working when I got the call.
At first, my wife sounded angry, but I could also hear panic in her voice.
She was uncharacteristically unclear and spoke frantically. Something about a toilet. Up above the kitchen. No, no one was hurt.
Here’s how our son Scott remembers it:
“Mia had a tendency of rolling up the toilet paper when using the potty. This clogged the second story bathroom which happened to be directly above the kitchen. Mommy was on the phone and it was literally running down the walls in the kitchen.”
“She said, ‘ “Dave, DAVE, there is SHIT on the walls,” while sobbing-crying into the phone. I remember Mia felt really badly because she had the flush that broke the camel’s back that started the poop waterfall.”
After Lynn’s outburst, I listened to my tough, strong, resilient, resourceful wife crying. I felt horrible, but I was also embarrassed.
My new job had me sitting very close to reporters to help coach them. I was trying to keep them from hearing that my wife was freaking out over an overflowing toilet.
But of course it wasn’t just an overflow. It was about being overwhelmed.
It was an overwhelming move, with overwhelming responsibilities and overwhelming chores — can you imagine ensuring five kids are ready for a new school, mid-year?
Think about a hose to a washing machine with a small section weakening. The pressure builds into a small bump on the hose, like a tiny Adam’s Apple, and it grows bigger and bigger, with more pressure … and the kids start fighting … the dishwasher leaks … is the oven working? — what’s that? — shadows on the sink, coming from above, in the fluorescent lights, weird, like clouds above me, with — oh my God! — that’s crap!!!
The kids froze. They tiptoed around this woman who looked like their mom but certainly wasn’t acting like her. I tried to talk Lynn through it, promising to help ensure it was all clean when I got home. I couldn’t leave work; I was the only editor on duty.
She recovered quickly. OK. Deep breath. Get that crying out of the way, breathe again. No more tears, just action.
Before writing this, I emailed our kids asking if they recalled other times when their mom’s tear ducts opened. Other than the “poop waterfall,” the moments they recalled were typical, after deaths of loved ones or when someone was in danger.
No tears when all five kids got chicken pox at the same time, over Christmas. No tears when the cops showed up when after one of the twins scraped an arm and would not stop screaming. No tears transporting our oldest with a dislocated elbow from a rural wrestling match to a hospital where he could get help.
No tears moving all those kids and the dog five times in about eight years.
Heck, I don’t recall her crying while giving birth. And she bore twins.
They say opposites attract. I am a big blubberpuss. The kids’ replies to my email poked some fun at me, saying they would have difficulty answering the crying question regarding me. They were too many to count. Mostly, that’s because I get nostalgic thinking back to our days as a tight, clever family juggling life and laughing at obstacles. I also have a tendency to mix beer with my musings.
My wife doesn’t get maudlin. She’s planning the next chapter, not looking back. Figuring out a night out with friends. Scheduling the summer vacation. Planning the next trip to see the kids. Where are we having Thanksgiving this year?
Knowing I was writing this, I asked her the other night if she would help me with some hangnails. “Will you give me a pedicure?” I asked.
“Hah!. You’ve got to be kidding,” she said.
“But you did it for the kids when they were little,” I pushed.
“Yeah, but they were babies.”
I thought about pretending to cry. But, with my history, I don’t know if she would notice.
She’d also probably rat me out to the kids.
So, before I grab the nail clippers, I leave you with this:
Life can deal you crap. You gotta take it. You gotta clean up after it, too.
That’s tougher when you can’t see because of the tears.