I was born in Decatur, Illinois at Decatur Memorial Hospital and I lived there with my family until I was not quite seven years old. My parents split up when I was five or six and divorced a bit later, and the house of which I have only fleeting memories was foreclosed on sometime after that. My last memory of that house was bathed with afternoon light or morning light, I can’t be certain. It was light that filters in at an angle when the sun is low in the east or the west. There is a moment during the day when morning sunlight can be distinguished from afternoon sunlight only by the most discerning eye and my child brain didn’t capture that nuance in the memory. Memories are strange like that, tricksters that make us believe we saw or heard or experienced something that may have never actually happened. For all I know the last time I was in that house it was pitch black outside. But in my memory, I see a handful of boxes on the empty living room floor, and visible dust in the air as light streamed in through the window of what had been my sister Nep’s bedroom. She was the oldest and she’d had her own room, and I remember that room as being utterly colossal. Were I to visit it as an adult, I’m sure that I would find that it’s a standard bedroom size, possibly twelve feet squared, maybe a little more, maybe a little less. But as a youngster, that was the room of my oldest sister and it was enormous, especially once all the furniture had been removed from it.
All the bedrooms in that house were next to each other, all running along one side of the modest house. Nep’s was next to the front door, which faced the bathroom door at the opposite end of the house’s hallway. My sister Yay and I shared the middle bedroom, and the last door on the left belonged to our parents. The hallway seemed impossibly long to my little legs and I remember running up and down it as a youngster, laughing and playing. I also remember screaming in that hallway, being dragged down it by babysitters who really just wanted me to be “good”, and hiding in the hallway to be alone with my very important little girl thoughts.
One of my favorite memories of living in that house is bath time. Usually my mom would bathe Yay and me together because that just makes sense. When you have two daughters who are seventeen months apart, you toss them in the tub at the same time because it’s efficient. This is especially true when you are a working mother with three kids whose husband doesn’t do much of the everyday stuff. Not that my dad wasn’t good at the everyday stuff. He could do it, and he’s phenomenal now, a couple of decades later. But back then he was trying to run a business, and maybe he was also trying to process a broken relationship with his own mother and a failed first marriage and the reality that he had a son who he couldn’t really have and the grief of a wife whose parents had died tragically and whose darkness was big enough to fill all the rooms of the modest house he shared with her and his daughters. My dad wasn’t present much in those early years, or at least not that I remember. Sundays were an exception. That was a day when we could count on Daddy being around, usually with a two-liter of Squirt for us to drink out of plastic cups, the non-disposable sort of rubbery kind that you use when you have small children whose clumsy hands cannot be trusted with glass. We would grasp them with both hands and take huge gulps, lemony bubbles burning our noses. He would sit in his favorite chair, the one that was brown and beat up and where he was usually asleep in the late evenings if he was home, his breath warm and smelling of Winston cigarettes and canned Busch. We would lay on him, little girl legs in every direction from the recliner, Marty Stouffer’s Wild America or a Nascar race murmuring in the background. We relished those moments with our dad, and although my memory is spotty, I recall vividly the bright light of the afternoon streaming radiantly into the living room of that little house.
But the average weeknight was just us girls and our mom and the drab responsibilities of the day-to-day. Bath time is one of those chores that can either be great or terrible as a parent, depending wholly upon what kind of mood your kids are in, and what your mood is like. Though I do not have kids of my own yet, I anticipate that I will share the responsibilities of bath time with my partner, that he will be around and we will take turns. Or maybe this will be the kind of responsibility that falls solely on me or solely on him while other responsibilities lie with the other. Perhaps I will bathe our sweet little babes while he does laundry because he knows that folding clothes is my Achilles tendon, a task that pushes my ability to manage the mundanity of life to its very limits. Or maybe we will do it together, turning bath time into a special forty-five minute block of uninterrupted family time. I like to believe that waiting until I’m in my thirties to get married and procreate will have some advantages, and I am hopeful that we will be an altogether pragmatic team of world-wise adults who have solid coping skills for handling the stress of raising a family. I admire people who marry young and make it last. For me, the maturity I have amassed by careening through my twenties and fighting to prove to myself that I can make it on my own is a dowry – which I will bring to the table of my own matrimony when the time comes – more precious than any monetary offering. I can communicate. I can listen. I can give space when it’s necessary. I can ask for space when that’s what I need. I can allow for friendships and healthy interactions without the jealousy of a girl who is uncertain of herself and her place in the world, save for her relational role tied inextricably to her partner. I can pick my battles and let things go when they are not truly important, and I can distinguish behavior from characteristics. I can be honest. I can be vulnerable. Perhaps most importantly of all, I can fart shamelessly, though not without laughing hysterically. Certainly couples learn these things together as they navigate the world, and make no mistake that much of what I have gained has come from failed relationships and loss and being exactly that which I have striven determinedly not to be (hi, ex-boyfriends! Sorry I was a crazy douche sometimes!) But as I stand on the precipice of a new decade, I feel a sense of gladness that I managed to survive this one without the touchstone of a relationship that is ostensibly in place for life, and when I start to feel sad that I am behind many of my peers, I reach for the equanimity this fact about myself brings.
I will elaborate in some other post on my thoughts about marriage and relationships and our failures as a society by creating an unfairly bifurcated system. But I think about marriage a lot, especially when considering my childhood and imagining how young my own parents were when they got married and started having children. My mom was twenty-two. My dad was twenty-five, though he had already gotten married once before – at seventeen. They had my oldest sister about one year after their wedding day. I am almost seven years older now than my mom was when she birthed her first child. Not quite seven years, the very age I was when we moved away from the modest house in Decatur. This was the age when my brain stopped making memories there and created a permanent file to put away in a box of the good and the bad from that time to be revisited at weird and unexpected moments, like when I wake up some days as a twenty-nine-year-old woman with Rod Stewart in my head because that’s what my mom listened to while getting ready for work in the mornings.
In the evenings when I was winding down from a long day of being a weirdo, my mom wound round up Yay and me for bath time. The bathroom was as modest as the rest of the house, space for a toilet and a sink and a tub with the kind of shower doors that get gunk in the tracks that most people can never get out, my obsessively clean mother being an exception to that rule. She would start the bathwater and strip off of my sister and me clothes that were filthy from hours and hours of playing outside. Yay played with Nep and all the kids from our neighborhood. I played with dogs and dead animals, and hid behind a tree or a pile of logs or anywhere I could find to hide and avoid interacting with humans. Still, we both were filthy as children tend to be, our disparate playtime choices notwithstanding.
My mom was one of those people whose life could be falling apart and still she kept her composure for all kids, not just her own. She undoubtedly cried alone when we were all asleep, and as we got older we saw the cracks more, but when we were little like this she worked tirelessly to be cheerful and animated in all our interactions. This animation is one of the behaviors of hers that devastates me the most when I think about having my own children who will never get to hear their Nana exclaim joyfully over some trivial accomplishment of theirs. You pooped in the potty?! You’re such a BIG boy! I think she would have gotten the president on the phone to celebrate the accomplishments of her kids and grandbabies if she could have. Mr. Obama? I just wanted to call and let you know that my daughter just lost her first tooth. Pulled it herself! Can you believe it? She’s such a BIG girl!
Not to say that she was perfect because she was far from it, but I have not one single memory from my childhood of my mother losing patience over the day-to-day stuff the way I already lose patience with the dog, and the way I will surely lose patience with my own little babes. She never roughly ripped our clothes off at bath time out of frustration, and never got upset with us for being silly the way kids are often silly, no matter how much that silliness might have wasted time.
While waiting on the tub to fill, Yay and I would gallop up up and down that hallway, laughing and naked, each of us slapping our own little girl butt cheeks in a cadence yelling, butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do!!! Butty-butt-dooooooo! We would skip and run naked all the way to the front door and then back to the bathroom, back and forth, squealing, unable to contain our elation over what we considered the most uproariously funny and witty song in the history of all the music ever created in all the universe. Because butts are hilarious, especially to two unashamed naked little girls skipping up and down the hallway in their home. Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! We would bump into each other with our unclothed little bodies, our scrawny little limbs bouncing of the walls of the hallway that felt interminable even though it was not that long at all, uncontrollable and breathless giggles permeating the entirety of our modest house. Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! Nep would be there in her cavernous bedroom, probably reading four or five books simultaneously, rolling her eyes so hard we could almost hear it over our keister canticle. Our mom would be in the bathroom, picking up dirty clothes, laughing, making sure the tub didn’t overfill, checking the temperature of the water.
She would finally herd us into the tub with promises that we could keep playing after we’d finished our bath. We would be saturated with glee by the time we finally climbed into the perfectly warm water where we would play and our mom would scour every inch of us, removing all traces of dirt and stickiness from the day. I loved bath time, and would stay in the tub playing until the water turned cold and murky from the bubbles and youngster muck that had dissolved into it. My mom would finally pull the plug on the tub, but I would stay in there even as the water went down the drain. I would slide on my wet little bottom up and down, from one end of the tub to the other, tucking my legs up against my chest and leaning back and pushing off with my foot until I crashed into the opposite end of the tub. I would do this until there was no more water left and I had no choice but to finally get out. Yay would be standing on the rug in front of the toilet, one of each of my mom’s legs on either side of her, while our mom vigorously rubbed her down with a towel. Mom would send her off and then it would be my turn and she’d sop up every last bit of moisture from my skin while I fought to maintain my composure. When she set me free, we would be at it again, up and down the hallway, squeaky clean with wet hair, chanting Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! Butty-butt-do! with newly washed hands slapping freshly washed butt cheeks, completely unrestrained.
Sometimes when I think about how ridiculously challenging adult life can be, I ponder what it would be like if we cast off all the years of heaviness and rottenness that linger over every inch of us like the stickiness and crud of a long day playing outside with dead animals and neighbor kids. There was difficulty in those evenings spent playing outside, tearful moments over things like skinned knees and bug bites and splinters. But those crises were no match for the sheer bliss of playing, and they melted away in the wake of a hot bath and a made-up song and an hour or two of laughing with abandon with people who love you. I guess what I’m driving at is that maybe we all could use a little more Butty-butt-do in our adult lives.