Monday, July 20, 2015

... to Leave a Home Better than I Found It

I'm pretty good with the social conventions that keep polite society functioning and healthy, so I was surprised when, at thirty-seven years old, I learned an old rule of etiquette that I hadn't heard before.  After a play - date for our young children was over, a new mom friend playfully began picking up toys and straightening up the clutter we had generated, chirping, "Always leave a place better than you found it!" I remember stashing that away as a handy rule to teach my kids when they were a little older. So succinct, so clear, so reasonable and considerate. I like it. Another friend takes this common adage (well, common to everyone except me!) one step further, applying it to people as well as places:  leave a companion better than you found her, physically and/or metaphysically. Leave her more comfortable, more content, cheerier, wiser. Such a lovely rule to live by!

This rule popped into my head three weeks ago as I stood in the shower of my home of twenty - one years for the last time, preparing for a big day of moving to another house far, far away.  As I washed the sweat and dust, gathered from packing, off my aching arms and legs, I admired the newly tiled walls and floor of the bathroom. I love that new shower, vaguely reminiscent of a grotto, and all of the renovations we made to our house in an effort to make it more attractive to people looking to buy. Our efforts were not in vain; the first prospective buyers to come see our house wanted to buy it immediately and are now the new owners. We weren't surprised. We were leaving this home far better than we had found it two decades earlier. 

Ceramic tile now graces the floors once covered with faded and peeling vinyl; a vinyl shower surround yielded to more ceramic tile and granite shelves. 

Stunning granite anchors new kitchen cabinets and stainless steel appliances.

If you tilt your head to the right, you will see a donkey on the top step riser. My husband hand-picked each piece of wood for its distinctive grain pattern.
Sand-colored carpet suggests a little hint of the beach in our landlocked neighborhood, and creamy-hued walls softly brighten every room. Our newly renovated house certainly looks better than when we found it.

But it is better in other ways as well. 

Better for having sheltered two boys from birth through their teenage years.
Better for hearing bedtime stories night after night as we settled down to sleep.
Better for the hundreds of pots of tomato sauce that simmered on the stove all day long.
Better for the excitement of twenty-one Christmas mornings. 
 Better for lighting the way through the countless hours my husband spent writing his book.
Better for school projects, arts and craft days, chalk drawings on the driveway, afternoons raking tons of leaves, mornings shoveling tons of snow, first and last days of school. 
Better for absorbing the magnificent drumming of my young son.
Better for the college essays conceived and written with brute intellectual force and revised for elegance and grace.
Better for the newlyweds' initials carved in the fresh cement of a newly poured chimney top.

Yes, indeed, we have left our home better than we found it. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015 Remember Romance

My husband would not ever be mistaken for a starry-eyed romantic. Before earning two degrees in electrical engineering, he was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and served as a Special Forces operative. He used to joke that he could kill a man with a blade of grass. Cary Grant he is not. But I had fallen in love with this man because beneath the surface, all was not what it seemed.

Shortly after we were first married and had moved into our first home together, we hired contractors to rebuild our creosote - infused chimney. Think burnt wood left to rot and ferment. It was stinky, dangerously noxious, and needed to go long before we began building a family. This highly contentious topic had spawned tensions with the previous home-owners, incited arguments with insurance agents, and inspired conversations that included dismissive comments from chimney cleaners about the unavailability of "micro-scrubbers." It was not an auspicious beginning to our first home ownership. We finally despaired of saving the chimney by merely cleaning it and resolved to having it replaced.

Weeks later when our brand new chimney stood tall next to our house, my husband climbed onto the roof to inspect the job from above. Satisfied we had a stable, plumb, and creosote-free chimney, he rushed into the house, suddenly grabbed my arm, and pulled me outdoors.

"What are we doing?" I demanded.

"You'll see."

As we neared the only handy access to the roof, I dug in and stomped more like a petulant child than a new wife.

"I don't wanna go to the roof!"

"Come on. You'll be fine." And he helped me onto a low-slung roof access next to the deck.

Hunching down, I breathlessly tried a more rational approach and explained that I didn't need to see the new chimney; I was sure it was fine. Reluctantly climbing higher, I tried for sympathy and reminded him of my fear of heights. Reminding me that he was a paratrooper and clearly not afraid of heights, he pulled me onto the second story rooftop.

Now I was starting to get annoyed. I could observe the new chimney very well, thank you, with my feet planted safely on the ground. I trusted his assessment and frankly didn't care what it looked like from above, certainly not enough to risk life and limb climbing to the apex of my house, stooped over, wobbling in the knees, and teetering with vertigo!

And then I saw it:  the wet cement on top of the chimney and the little stick he had picked up before he had grabbed me. How could I be mad at him? So there we stood, clinging to each other on top of our first home, carving our initials in the cement before it dried. There those initials will remain until the house or the chimney crumbles to the ground.


The Italian Mama thought about this little bit of newlywed romance the night before we moved out of this "starter home" that we had lived in for twenty-one years. Oddly, this memory didn't make me sad or wistful. Thinking about that sunny afternoon so many years ago, when I yielded to my husband's confident grasp, made me excited to begin a new journey, in a new state, in a new home where we will also leave our mark.

Saturday, March 14, 2015 Crave Pi

I made pie today. Lots of people did, but while I was planning my pie, I spent a lot of time thinking about pi and the time in my life when I actually relied on the famous ratio to help me solve problems. Finding the area of a circle, calculating angles in radians, and designing crop circles - these are not the kind of problems that one encounters as a middle-aged English instructor. After college, I closed the math books and never looked back again. Until today, 3.14.15.

When I was in elementary school I thought of myself as a scientist and imagined that I would be a ballet dancer who just happened to know a lot about physics. Such are the dreams of young girls. As is typical for young women, once puberty hit, these ambitious dreams were replaced with more realistic goals, and my inclination towards math and science was replaced with more right- brain functions:  language arts, writing, literary analysis. And even though math did not come naturally to me, I found some degree of success in upper level math courses in high school. Of course, most of the credit goes to Sister Regina Maureen, who, apparently, could teach a rock the law of cosines, since I did very well in trigonometry and pre-calculus. It is shocking to me to write this historical fact, which brings me to my point.

         Thinking about pi and the hours spent solving equations, I find myself on 3.14.15 longing for some math. The
                simple elegance of following a prescribed proce-
dure, methodically, step by step, working 
yourself closer to a solution until
 finally, you solve for x. The 
great thing? You can go
     back and check to make  
sure you got the right
     answer by plugging  
x back into
  the original

Where in my life at the current moment is there such a clear path to a solution and such reassurance that you have found the right solution?  No where. I am currently in the process of deciding what my next career move should be when my family relocates to a place far, far from home; deciding whether to buy or rent a home in said remote and, as yet, undetermined place; helping Son 1 decide where to go to college; shepherding Son 2 through the tumultuous high school years. The list goes on. Primarily I spend the bulk of my professional life making judgment calls about student writing with rubrics that many would say are "subjective," teaching lessons that ask students to make rhetorical and stylistic choices for which there are few objective rules, and all the time wondering if anyone is listening. In writing classes, the students may or may not "get" the technique, strategy, or organizational pattern I'm teaching, but they can still write something that they might even think is good. Not so in a math class. If you don't "get it," you can't find the solution, and you fail. No judgments. No equivocation. No need to justify to a disgruntled student the red X  next to an incorrect equation. It's just wrong. No math teacher would ever write in the margins of a test, "I sense you lost your focus on the original problem," a comment that I often write in the margins of my students' essays. "I sense that you lost track of your thesis and strayed into a different topic." Happens all the time. Not so in a math class. So clear. So unequivocal. So impervious to second guessing. How lovely!

All of this uncertainty, and ambiguity, and potential for equivocation has made the Italian Mama long for pi.