Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Snotty and Thankful

So, I'm sitting at home in Philadelphia with a cold. If I had been in New York today, I would have sat in on a meeting with a vendor of archival materials and possibly helped install some priceless treasures in the Three Faiths exhibit set to open October 22 at the Steven A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library. I got to help some last week, and the books were awe-inspiring: Coptic and medieval Christian scrolls, thoroughly painted and illuminated; beautifully decorated Islamic books with flap closures and polished purple paper; Jewish manuscripts and sacred commentary. Books covered in velvet, books covered in gilt silver with painted enamel bosses and semi-precious stones. Parchment, paper, leather, hand-colored maps, woodcut prints of the saved and the damned. If you'll be in New York, go see this exhibition. The books are exquisite.

But I'm not there today, helping out. No, I'm alternately lying down, blowing my nose, sneezing, watching recorded Mystery! shows, eating grilled cheese and soup, and sleeping. Thankful that I don't always feel this bad. Thankful that normally I can run up the stairs rather than dragging my slow way one step at a time. Thankful that I've got a Mom three states away who would make me tea if she were here instead of there. And a Dad who would light a fire in my fireplace if I had one. And a husband who taught me how to make grilled cheese without burning the bread. And a neurotic black cat who sleeps between my knees and keeps me warm.

My parents have both retired now. That's them at the top of this post: Dad's in the huge bag his department gave him at the party this spring, and Mom's ready to haul him off on their new adventures. It's a bittersweet thing, having your parents retire. On the phone, Mom tells me she's selling off or giving away the smoked-glass stemware they never use, since it's both too fancy and too out-of-date for their lifestyle. Ditto the silver. Do I want it? But I don't use the scraps of silver I got, either. We're all too busy to spend hours cleaning off the tarnish.

Of course, the subtext for all this retirement house-cleaning is that Mom doesn't want me and my brother to have to do it, someday—let it be far, far off!—when she and Dad are gone. I know that day will come. I cry about it, sometimes, in advance, like a pressure-cooker letting off steam. As I get older myself, I know more and more people in the sandwich generation, taking care of both their kids and their parents. And it feels strange to know that I'll never be a sandwich. I'm the end of the line. No kids. Nobody to give my crystal and silver to when I retire. Nobody to mother when my own mother is gone.

Recently, I told a new friend—older, with a young son—that my husband and I probably wouldn't have kids. Some other people close to my age voiced the same opinion. We didn't like kids, particularly, or we were ambivalent; we had other things we wanted to do with our lives. Selfish! she exclaimed. And I'm sure that—in the right circumstances—she's right: having a child turns into the most selfless love of your life. Yet we all see around us the consequences of selfish child-rearing: neglected, abandoned, abused, or just plain spoiled children. Give them whatever they want, just so they stop bothering us.

I think having children must be like responding to a fire: You never know what you'll do—what you're capable of—until it happens. Will you run into the burning building? It could be the love of your life, a selfless, unconditional act of giving. It could be the opposite. Lingering resentment and hardness of heart. I don't know what would happen to me if, in the short fertile time I have left, I had a child. I've always liked babies more than children. And perhaps by the time the baby began to turn into a greedy, manipulative little human, he or she would have claimed my heart already. I'd be able to put up with the tantrums, the messes, the playdates, the tears. The snotty noses. All I know is that my parents did it for me. They're still doing it. And I'm thankful.


  1. Hi Renee-
    It's too bad that some of your friends called you selfish for not wanting to have children.
    It sounds like you know yourself well and if children aren't part of the equation, so be it. We are not all meant to have kids.
    Being in the Sandwich Generation is hard work- it can be fulfilling, but it's still tough to add another thing to your already full plate.

    I hope your cold gets better!
    Pamela Beaudet

    PS- Take the silver! You may find that you really want it someday. I don't like polishing either, but I know that when my mom passes hers to me, it will bring back precious memories every time I use it.

  2. Hey, cuz! Just found your blog through a tweet from your Mom. She is part of your sandwich, which just happens to be open-faced. No kid bread on one side. I know the feeling.

    As for the silver, eh, I just sold mine on eBay this spring. Even when we were in a house and not the bus, we never used it. Sean's crystal also got the boot. There are lots of nice antique goodies like that on eBay, should you ever pine for them.

    I'll be checking your blog regularly so I can see what's new in your world. The book conservation thang sounds really great, and I'm glad you're doing something you enjoy so much.