Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A Week of Surprises

Last week was full of surprises.

For a month, I’d sensed that something strange was in the wind. For one thing, Paul was getting messages on his phone and too obviously turning and holding the phone out of my line of vision when he read them. That’s not like him.

One day I saw on his phone that there was a WhatsApp group called NOT MOM LOL.

Well, my dear Watson, that is a clue that something nefarious is afoot. I had the good sense not to read any of those messages.

Then Paul suggested we go to the coast for a few days. That is nothing outside of normal, but the unusual part was that it was for five days instead of a weekend or overnight. Even more strangely, he was vague about our plans. Normally, he thinks and plans by talking, whether it’s building a new barn, designing a gadget to compensate for his paralyzed shoulder, or taking a trip. He discusses all his plans with me in minute detail.

This time, that wasn’t happening. I only knew that I should take my normal coast clothes and nothing fancy. It made me feel like I was getting into a situation I might not be ready for, which I found unsettling.

The week before we left, our son Ben, who is the only kid living at home right now, went to WinCo after work and bought groceries. That was weird, because I hadn’t asked him to, and normally when we’re gone he scavenges leftovers.

He was also vague about this, with airy nonchalant comments about maybe trying out a recipe using pork.

We should note here that a long time ago, I told Paul that I’d like to be surprised for my 60th birthday. I was surprised for my 40th, which was lots of fun. My 60th birthday isn’t until June, but I began to suspect that that request might be connected to the weird winds blowing around me.

One day Ben, out of the blue, asked, “Is it only dairy that Emily’s avoiding right now?” Then he made a desperate attempt to casually explain away his question—“I just happened to think of that. I’m not sure why. I mean, I just wondered…”

Yeah, Ben. Sure.

I talked to Jenny on the phone and she said she had spring break the following week, but she had lots of studying to do. Did that mean there was a chance she was in on a plan? But she hinted nothing of the kind.

So vague suspicions buzzed all around me like mosquitoes on a warm night in Minnesota, but none of them landed where I could swat them. When I had said I would enjoy a surprise, I had no idea of the anxiety involved in anticipating it. It’s like waiting for something to leap at you from behind a tree, or knowing the balloon is going to pop but you don’t know exactly when.

That was actually the first surprise, that it’s not very fun to anticipate a surprise. If you have absolutely no suspicions, there's zero anxiety, like when my friends Judy and Helen Headings pulled off a surprise baby shower for me in 1986.  Life is merrily buzzing along and suddenly a roomful of ladies yells “surprise!” Such fun!

This time, sensing that something was up, I envisioned a dozen scenarios. It seemed Emily and Jenny might be coming, but when and how? Had Paul arranged for me and the daughters to spend a few days at the coast? But Amy was in Thailand, so there was no way it could be all the daughters. And would Phoebe want to leave Houston so soon after they arrived?

What if he’d arranged for a dinner with lots of people? And here I was, with denim skirts and hiking clothes and sweatshirts because maybe he thought this garb was nice enough for the Salishan.

Maybe my sisters were coming for a few days?!! Oh my, wouldn’t that be boatloads of fun?

I had another thought. Oh dear. "Is this a ruse for taking me to a nursing home?" I asked Paul.

"No, it isn't," he said, looking amused but also like it might behoove him to take me seriously.

As we drove up and down Highway 101 or entered a restaurant for lunch, I stared intently at people. Was that Paul’s sister Rosie over there? Was that Ben’s car? Was something going to pop out at me in the Blue Whale?

The only thing that happened at the Blue Whale was that a woman complimented us for praying before we ate.

We spent Sunday night in Yachats at the Adobe Resort, then went to Cape Perpetua on Monday. This is a mountain that sticks out prominently on the shoreline and offers an incredible view from the top after you gain  700 feet in elevation.

As always, I was a lot like the lines from It Came Upon the Midnight Clear:
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow.

But I made it!

We finished the hike and headed north on 101. In Depoe Bay, Paul said, “Why don’t we go down this side street and see the bay from down below?” and he whipped the car down a narrow road. “Oh wait, this isn’t right.”

Really, husband? Randomly popping down a side road to see what we can see? The first time we took a road trip together, before we were married, we discovered that he was all about charging forward in a straight line and covering hundreds of miles in a day. I was all about taking off down side roads to see what we can find.

We have learned to compromise, sort of, but I’ve still never known him to offer to explore the little byways, just for anyhow. And zipping down a side road to see the smallest bay in the world? Very strange.

And “this isn’t right.” What was that supposed to mean?

I peered all around. Were there people waiting at the park by the bay? No, but Paul seemed very preoccupied, and when I got back from using the park restroom, he was anxiously texting.

We drove across the bridge and down another side road. Paul seemed to have a destination in mind. There was a nice restaurant, all lit up, on the east side of the bay. But he didn’t stop.

By this time, I regretted saying that I wanted to be surprised, because the whole process was so unsettling. Finally, I decided to just roll with it and enjoy whatever happened. Maybe I’m as obsessive about figuring it all out as I accuse Paul of being.

Next, Paul pulled in at Boiler Bay, which has a huge fenced area overlooking the ocean. A car in the parking lot looked a lot like Steven’s. I mentioned this. Paul didn’t reply.

Oh well.

We walked along the fence and admired the surf on the rocks, far below. I don’t know what alerted me, exactly. Did I hear something, or did Paul tell me to turn around? In the videos I saw later, he puts his arm around me and tells me “Happy birthday!” but I walk right out of his embrace and march forward, because over the rise, like a beautiful cavalry advancing, came all six of the kids and Phoebe the daughter-in-law. All of them.

Now, I had spun scenarios in my head about how each of them might connive to be present, but I “knew” Amy was in Thailand and would be there for months to come. In fact, I had just heard from her a day or two before, and she was in Chiang Mai with her friend Glenda for the weekend.

But there she was, along with Matt and Phoebe who flew in from Texas, Emily and Jenny from Virginia, Steven who took off work to be there all four days, and Ben who, along with Paul, was the hero of the story. It turned out he had hidden food in the fridge in the barn, packed supplies in secret, organized airport runs, and much much more.

You can see the video on Emily's blog. 

It was utterly and completely delightful, and despite my suspicions, I felt totally surprised, flabbergasted, and overwhelmed.

And I felt honored beyond all explaining. My children rose up and called me blessed, as Proverbs 31 says, and that is an achievement to top every success I’ve ever had or hoped for. And my husband also, who not only did an incredible amount of planning and preparing, but did it all with the added burden of not being able to process his plans with me.

We all went to a rental house and had a wonderful time together. The beach was an easy walk away. We watched movies together—Encanto and Hidden Figures, both excellent in their own way and enhanced by Emily the movie researcher explaining all the subtleties of Encanto and Matt the NASA engineer explaining all the subtleties of Hidden Figures. We ladies went secondhand shopping. Five of us hiked Cascade Head which was even more challenging than Cape Perpetua and had the added challenge of a muddy trail. But the view at the end was worth the effort.
At Cascade Head

One night we ordered hamburgers and fries.

"Hold it sideways," said Jenny.

Then the third surprise occurred.

Amy tested positive for Covid.

This time it’s my turn to explain the context. During most of the months when Covid was wreaking its destruction, we were all together in Oregon. Well, the sons lived in Corvallis, but essentially the nine of us were in a cozy little snow globe, watching through the glass as the world spun around and changed in so many ways. Even though the family members with jobs kept going to work, it still felt like we were sort of cut off from the world and living in our own bubble.

The cohesion only increased with Paul’s accident and everyone helping with his care.

All around us, people got sick in one wave after another. At times, we prayed desperately for the lives of neighbors, friends of family, and family of friends.

But we were spared, and none of the nine of us ever got Covid.

True, we tried to use precautions, and we all got vaccinated, but we knew the outcome was still unpredictable and out of our control.

Eventually, we broke out of our little snow globe, the kids moved away, and only Ben remained here.

Then, in a bizarre twist, Amy picked up Covid in Thailand, presumably from her friend Glenda, and exposed all of us at once.

The kids have always insisted on protecting Paul and me, so Amy left the house at the coast early, drove home, and fixed a nest for herself in the loft of the barn, where she’s been holed up ever since. She felt like she had a bad cold, but never got horribly sick. But she’s still testing positive.

So far, none of the rest of us have caught it despite all the hugs and riding in cars together when Amy first arrived. We go on walks together and chat on the porch or out by the barn.
Mercifully, Amy doesn’t need to return to Thailand for another month, so she won't have to spend her whole vacation in isolation. We should have plenty of normal time together.

Speaking of normal, I'm here for it. I am ready for life to be predictable for a while, even boring. Nice, repetitious, and routine. Knowing what's coming, no surprises, no strange winds blowing.

At least for a while.

But being surprised by my family will surely be the highlight of the year. With such a wild beginning, I'd better plan to enjoy being 60.

The guys!

I don't often see a rainbow over the ocean.

Friday, March 04, 2022

I Am A Woman: Guest post by Jenny Smucker

Our daughter Jenny is a first-year grad student studying mathematics at Virginia Tech. She wrote this essay for Women's History Month, and I thought it merited sharing.

Jenny proves that women can be both/and rather than either/or. Recently she bought a bed sheet for $2 at a thrift store, drafted her own pattern, and sewed a jumper.

The next week she got the best grade of the class on a Real Analysis exam.

She also baked tomato basil bread for a dinner with friends.

     I attended a luncheon last Tuesday in honor of Women’s History Month. Eight women from different countries and cultures discussed what it means to be a woman in their home country and what it means to them here. Some of what they said rang true with the experiences I have had, and some of what they spoke of did not, exposing me to new ideas and ways to see womanhood. 

    So, I will speak as if I know, because I am a woman, and I have lived the life of a woman, though I have not yet lived it for very long. I recognize that my experience is not everyone’s, and I may read this again in 40 years and think of my 22-year-old self as extraordinarily naive, but here it is anyway with as much and as little nuance as I feel fit to give it. There is no concrete answer as to what it means to be a woman, and what I’ve discovered is that to be a woman in one place is not the same as being a woman in another.

    To be a woman in a male-dominated field, such as my field of Mathematics, is to constantly need to prove that you are worthy to exist in a space. It is to be seen and not heard, to be looked at and judged but not listened to. I cannot count the number of times I have had to fight to prove myself worthy of being taken seriously to men around me. In my math classes, it is not until I have scored better than everyone else on an exam that I am taken seriously by my male classmates. Not until I have shown that I know more than them are they willing to take the time to hear my ideas. I can think of one classmate in particular who shot down everything I brought up in group work until the first exam result came back and he saw that I had done better than he did. After that, he would ask me what I thought about problems and seek out my ideas.

    One result of being a woman in a male-dominated area is that this idea that I’m not worth hearing permeates into my own way of thinking. I don’t want to speak up in class unless I’m certain I know the answer. I don’t want to present ideas unless I am a hundred percent sure they are worth sharing. Otherwise, I don’t see my voice as worth being heard. I see my male counterparts present terrible ideas with utter confidence, and I envy them for it. To be a woman in a male-dominated field is to have cousins respond, “But you’re a girl!” when they hear what you want to do with your life. Among people that I am close to, it is to have questions in my areas of expertise deferred to a man who knows less about math than I do because he has the confidence to blaze ahead to an answer and I do not. To be a woman is to lack the confidence to speak because sometimes it isn’t worth it when you know you’ll get talked over.

    To be a woman in a woman’s space, however, is something totally different. “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” is a phrase loathed by women everywhere, and I entirely agree that to sequester a woman only to the kitchen is to deny the incredible things she can do outside that space. Women ought to belong in all places. However, to me, the kitchen seems a sacred space for women. Here, we are the bosses. Here, we belong. Here, our voices are heard. It is in the kitchen that my brothers defer their questions to me. It is in the kitchen that women gather to tell stories in hushed tones while washing vegetables and chopping them into tiny even pieces. I have seen women who didn’t know each other from Eve become fast friends for a fleeting hour as they conversed cheerily in the kitchen of a mutual acquaintance, gathering dishes by rummaging through unfamiliar cupboards and waving knives around as they told a story with animation. It is incredible the way women come alive in a space deemed to be their own. 

    In the same vein, to be a woman is to bake bread. I have only recently been exploring the wonders of taking out my feelings on a lump of bread dough, and kneading has proven to be an incredibly therapeutic and nearly spiritual experience. My arms begin to grow tired as I work the dough back and forth and back and forth. Inevitably, I think of my mother, the woman who taught me about breadmaking. I think about how she used to bake bread: spanking it down and kneading it back and forth, and how in the end I got a slice of Warm Fresh Bread, thickly coated in butter. As my arms ache, I think about the strength my mother carried in hers throughout her life as she fed her family with practically pennies, raised small children in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, and worked ceaselessly to prevent the destructive cycles that permeated her childhood from being passed on to her children. My mind continues on its journey, then, to my mother’s mother, and I think of a woman who did this same action as me: pushing bread dough back and forth. She strove to keep her family fed as her husband struggled to make ends meet; she baked bread. She taught my mother to bake bread. My mother taught me to bake bread. I can trace my family history through generations and generations of bread-makers. Women who performed this arm-strengthening act, not for the purpose of becoming strong--rather, they became strong to provide for those they loved.

    To be a woman, then, is to persevere. To prevail. They say that women, built for building new bodies and caring for children, can survive a starvation situation for much longer than men can. Women grit their teeth through pain as their body rejects pieces of itself each month and live their lives as if nothing hurts. Women cry in the bathroom for 20 minutes and then walk out like nothing happened. Women take in all the ugly things in the world around them, and then, despite the brokenness, women keep on with life, caring for the world around them and striving to make it better through acts both simple and bold.

    In my younger days, I saw femininity the way the world fed it to me. Femininity was weakness, but the traditional view of womanhood was bad. Women had to be womanly and pretty, but women must also be strong like Katniss Everdeen. Women had to be feminine, but in the way the men in the world dictated. I was a mass of confusion, stuck between the ideas of rejecting traditional womanhood and blazing into territories uncharted by the women before me, versus embracing the traditional view of womanhood and staying home, providing, creating life. I’ve come to determine that for me, to be a woman is not to choose one; to be a woman is to choose both. I persevere into a world that was not built for me, proving myself over and over again. Likewise I bake bread, I sew, I create, I attach myself to my maternal line, using the skills that my mother taught me, that her mother taught her, and that I will teach my future daughters. And I decide, to be a woman is to be me, wholly and entirely.