We lined up at the classroom door, kids bolting as the final bell still echoed down the hall. I lagged behind, relishing the quiet. Which way home, today? Even at a daydream pace, I’d reach Plum Street in five minutes. I’d fling the front door aside to shout “HI, MOM!” With luck, my brothers would already be gone.
Most days, she would shout back, “Hi, Honey! What are you hungry for today?” And she’d leave the sewing machine, the garage, whatever work she was doing, to welcome me.
“Are they out riding bikes?” I’d ask. She would nod. Where else could my brothers be?
“You should go ride, too. But first, tell me about your day.” She’d pour a glass of something cold for me. “You know what I was thinking?” she’d ask. Sometimes she’d grab my hand in her big burly grasp, and sometimes I’d grab hers. This was her favorite time of day, the catch-up time.
If she was not home, I’d look for the message on the dining table. “If you need me, I’ll be working at the...” upholstery shop, library, drugstore, grocery. Canning food at Grandma’s. Weeding at the Little League diamond. No matter. She was never more than ten minutes away, if I pedaled fast.
Mom ran her own upholstery business, cutting fabric at the kitchen table, hammering in the garage, a pencil behind one ear. Twice a month, as the town’s third-assistant librarian, she donned lipstick and winked about racy novels. When upholstery work ran short, she kept tabs on who might need a hard worker for a month, for a season, for steady pay. As a small business owner in a small town, she could come and go from other jobs with a few weeks’ notice—when a ragged couch came her way, or when her children worried her.
From my desk at the publishing house, I pull out my cell phone at 2:15 and wait for my son to call. And he asks, every day, “When will you be home?” When I answer, he groans, or the phone goes silent. While we live in a small town, he does not know that yet: we are new here. He will do his homework; he will not leave the house, not even to throw the baseball at the pitch-back in the yard. He will wait for me. My daughter—whose laughter pours out of her at the end of the school day—rides home with a carpool I never see. By the time I ask about her day, she shrugs and says, “Fine.”
I think of my mother, who was home for the bike wrecks and emergency room runs, for the tantrums and territory wars, for negotiations when a baseball smashed a neighbor’s window. She fed the petty thugs who ran with my older brother, and she challenged them at games of poker. She chain-smoked, swore like a sailor, and she was home after school, when children’s feelings were still raw. She was a parenting genius.
With this new job, I wonder what I have done. And how much I will miss, the last hours of every workday, five days a week. Mothers do this. Fathers do this.
What is right for my family? What is right for me? What does God ask of me? Where is the harmony of gifts, responsibility, and family? How long can I do this?
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