A new baby, an organized pantry and secret chocolate
by Caroline Hamilton Langerman
Recently, our church branded a campaign with the tag line, “The life that really is life.” There were follow up emails with the subject, “The love that really is love,” and postcards about “The giving that really is giving.” I was nine months pregnant and had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. I rarely went to church or made it to the bottom of an email or opened an envelope that wasn’t addressed in pen. But the enigmatic slogan struck me as genius, and I put it straight to use in my own campaigns. “The avocados that really are avocados,” I whispered over a firm batch in the produce aisle. “The diaper that really is a diaper,” I sang, when one did its job.
The night before the baby was delivered, my parents came to Charlotte to provide what I hoped would be the help that really is help. I envisioned them whisking the big siblings to playgrounds and libraries, drawing their baths, and tucking them in. My job would be caring for the newborn: embracing her terrifying smallness, stumbling back and forth from her crib while I healed from abdominal surgery. This was my third rodeo, and I no longer counted time in weeks.
I cheerfully dusted off my old frenemies: the breast pump, and the soft toothbrush for cradle cap. But when we got home from the hospital with the baby, Mom had already established her role — in the kitchen.
“Where’s the top for this?” she asked, holding up a plastic contraption for spinning lettuce dry. The sight of it brought me back to being 25, living in Manhattan, when she had run out to Bed Bath & Beyond to outfit my apartment. Since the salad spinner entered my life, I had moved three times, married, borne three children. Needless to say, I had not spun much lettuce.
“I don’t think I have that anymore.”
Her face fell, perhaps processing the fact that I had grown up to be the sort of person who buys pre-washed arugula in plastic containers. She moved on to the Tupperware, lining the orphans on the counter like a small adoption agency. “If you keep them together with their mates …” she said.
Sometime during this process, my 2-year-old wet her pants. My 4-year-old complained of a headache. The new baby let out her strange kitten cry.
“Mom,” I said, “Can we work on this later?”
The next day, she gathered all of my plastic cups into families. “You should find a place for these that is consistent.” She wasn’t wrong; our pantry was neglected. But “consistent” was a word that we mostly used for naps and discipline, not Solo cups.
Later, while brushing forty small teeth, I heard her call out from the guest room, “You need a suitcase rack in here.”
“Can you put your suitcase on the floor?” I said.
“A suitcase rack would be nice.”
Finally, after the kids fell asleep, she tenderly took the baby from my arms and raised a white flag.
“Where’s the chocolate?” she asked.
Now, I could get on board with this. I was married to a rule follower who pretended not to like chocolate. Even when he said, “Go right ahead,” I always felt acutely pedestrian having a treat in my husband’s presence.
“I wish I had some!” I said.
When I visited Mom’s house, I missed certain things: air conditioning that really was air conditioning. WiFi that really was WiFi. Coffee that really wasn’t a frozen bag of Peet’s. But there was always a drawer full of chocolates next to the refrigerator: Dove Promises, wrapped in red and blue foil. Sometimes there were mini Snickers that I wolfed one after another until someone came in and busted me. “Hey!” I’d say casually, turning my back and pretending to rinse a dish. Between the home I’d left and the one I was building, sweets had become a common language.
The next day, Mom went to Harris Teeter to get some ingredients for an elaborate vegetable soup. During this time, I nursed the baby while the toddler tantrummed and the 4-year-old listened to the grating singsong voice of Daniel Tiger. She returned with her hands full of bags and set them on the island. I helped her unload small bristle brushes for the sink, a package of dishrags. Then she grinned at me, with her hand still in one of the bags. I braced myself, preparing for the introduction of a new lettuce spinner.
Instead, it was a bag of Hershey’s milk chocolate nuggets with almonds. I beamed.
“Let’s hide it,” she said, like a little girl.
“Sure!” I was having fun now, with my practical, chocolate-loving, there-for-me mother. I could use a few bristle brushes for my crusty dishes. It was so sweet how she worked at my sink, initiating the new rags.
On the last day of my parents’ stay, an enormous rain-soaked tree fell in Myers Park, and the power went out. I was trying to wean myself off the caesarian-section drugs, and the kids were bouncing off the walls. The only light in the room was the sparkle of my parents’ reading glasses in the glow of their shared iPad. Kindly, they suggested taking one of my children for a haircut. I envisioned this 37-minute activity leaving me napless with a newborn and a threenager.
“Actually,” I said, picking myself up off the couch. “Can you take both kids for a haircut? And then take them to a long lunch? And then, if three hours haven’t passed, can you just drive around aimlessly for a very long time?”
Apparently, I was a millennial who really was a millennial. Silently, they ushered everyone to the car.
In the quiet of my own house, dark and cold, an enormous surge of affection ran through me — for my baby, whose little mittened hand was cupping her cheek like a real live cherub’s, and for the team of helpers who were allowing me this fleeting moment of calm. When they returned, the haircuts were atrocious, but I had emotionally budgeted for that. That night, Mom made spaghetti in the candlelight. It was cozy as pie.
The next day, it hurt to see her leave. She took with her a brown paper bag full of my unloved Tupperware. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with these,” she admitted, and we both cracked up. I stood at the back door, covered in kids, waving as she ducked her big brown hair into her little red car.
A few days later, I prepared for the monumental task of changing the bedsheets. I lumbered up the stairs, loathing myself for the state of disarray that would take me a few hours to find the boy’s twin sheets, the girl’s double sheets, our own king sheets, and the baby’s crib sheets. But when I opened the linen closet, I found everything beautifully arranged. Each family member had his or her own shelf, with the sheets folded under the pillowcases. And though I’d not heard the sermon, I understood with certainty the giving that really is giving. The love that really is love.
That afternoon, I added a suitcase rack to my Amazon cart and an old-fashioned head of lettuce to my grocery list. I remembered where the chocolates were hidden and snuck one every time the kids — or my husband — turned their backs. I felt lucky to have — and lucky to be — a mother that really is a mother. SP
Caroline Langerman is a writer in Charlotte.