We spent the last weekend visiting with my husband's family. His parents and one of his brothers still live in the house where he grew up, and his sister and her six children (including our six-month-old godson) were visiting. Another of the brothers was also there the evening we arrived - it was a pretty good reunion. We also managed to squeeze in a trip to the town where I grew up (two hours away), and hitched up a U-Haul trailer and picked up the few things that remained of the near-legendary storage unit that for six years held the things removed from the huge and crumbling house my mother left (in foreclosure) when she flew back to her childhood home on the West Coast in 2006.
We are now not only the owners, but the proud possessors (non-attorneys can just ignore that last bit, I suppose) of a number of delightful family heirlooms. In my basement is my great-grandmother's Lane cedar hope chest, waiting for my sister to fetch it when she has a place to bring it to. (It's in amazingly good condition - I would say it doesn't even need to be stripped.) Next to it is the same great-grandmother's corner china cabinet, which is waiting for my brother. It's also in amazingly good condition (the storage unit was home to mice, birds, and mold, alongside my mother's furniture and servingware - which were slowly robbed by some of the malicious and petty folk in the town where I had the curious fortune to grow up).
My prize out of the lot was an antique library table that my mother actually purchased somewhere or other, and once mentioned wanting me to have. Because it's shallow and relatively tall, I thought it might offer a design solution to our long and narrow sun porch, which 'till now I have just piled with junk I didn't have another location for. (A great first impression for people walking in the back door.) Of course, the library table was in the worst shape, with its top at an odd angle (I've peered underneath and not seen an obvious cause, but I expect I can fix that), and its finish in terrible condition. I've already chemically stripped it, and a thorough scrubbing, re-gluing bits of loose trim veneer on the legs, patching uneven spots in the stain, and waxing the whole thing are next.
And we picked up a few treasures from my in-laws', too. The super-awesome white-painted cabinet I remembered (repairs proceeding this week, with a vigorous repainting next - I may share pictures), and the tall TV cabinet. It's too small for a modern TV on the inside, but it has lots of room for the VCR, stereo components, and some movies, and the hulking plasma sits comfortably on top. It puts it about five feet higher than the decorating pros say it's supposed to be, but it kind of gives a movie theater appearance, I think. But I also ended up with some lovely vintage water glasses, a small side table my DH would not agree to part with (I endeavor not to acquire occasional furniture, which I find has a tendency to infest, but I do admit the finish is rather pretty), and the most beautiful Bible I've ever seen. It's an English translation of the Vulgate, with a deeply-embossed leather cover (that's nearly come off - I need to figure out how to repair the binding), leaves deeply browned with age, and intricate pen-and-ink illuminations. It's huge, too - weighs at least five pounds. I can't display it until I fix it, but I'm going to have to find a very special place for it.
Despite my fascination with antiques and home decor, these items were probably not the most interesting take-away from the visit. As noted above, we met my nephew and (only) godson, who has Down's Syndrome. (I have mentioned him here before.) He is an absolute doll of a child - amid the considerable din created by his five older siblings, he is invariably happy and relatively quiet. (Not because he's glassy-eyed, either - he's very alert, looking at all sorts of things, moving around all the time. And he does some amount of talking, he's just not very loud, and basically never fussy.) I got to feed him, change him, and try (unsuccessfully - though I am usually pretty good at this) to get him to sleep.
Obviously this somewhat contravenes my usual "no babies" rule, but I assure you it has not been lifted. Just today I have had to dodge an invitation by a friend to visit her imminently-due new baby (given I didn't even know she was expecting, I think we can agree that she's not a close enough friend for it to be profitable for me to treat her to my "I don't do babies" speech). But I have been in a more resilient frame of mind lately, and hanging out with the baby seemed far less onerous than subjecting all of my in-laws to the speech. Plus, when it came right down to it, I didn't find that it upset me to hold him. I didn't make a big show of it - his mother needed help, and I wasn't doing anything. Not so complicated.
Besides, the baby himself (though he is only six months old, and unlikely to achieve significant intellectual development) strikes me as belonging on the side of Those Who Know. For those prancing naively and self-aggrandizingly about tiring the world with talk of their blessings, I can summon up no patience, which can be trying when significant patience is called for. (And with such people, it very often is.) But I find it easy to take seriously the lives and perspectives of those who know suffering and loss, even when they don't agree with me (as everyone always should). Although the baby will probably grow into one of the most happy and grateful adults I'll know, he still gets plenty of credit in that department.
Actually, he's not the only one. I know the typical rule is that the vocationally anomalous (childless couples, older-than-expected singles) are ill-advised to return home to small-town America, where their lives will not be understood, and they will be constantly pressured to conform (even if it is impossible) to a too-standard idea of what their lives should look like. I can see the logic of this rule. But it is not consistent with my experience. I work in, and live outside, a small but quite snotty city. It appears to be composed entirely of yuppies (yes, I know I am one myself), who are bent on achieving - or perhaps I should say acquiring - whatever they want, and certainly whatever everyone around them has. Friend buys a house? You buy one. Friend has a baby? You get pregnant. Can't get pregnant with a baby? Buy one. There's not a lot of just living in whatever one's circumstances are.
It's not that way in small-town America, I find. Everyone there knows someone who just never got married (not "not yet," never); a family that never had kids; a family whose kids just turned out sadly; a couple whose marriage ended badly, not in a rain of affairs and high living, but just in heartbreak; someone whose child died tragically, too young; someone who can't find a job, or was grievously injured, or is sickly - any number of things. It's not easily concealed from one's acquaintance, not lightly glossed over with substitutions, and no one in a small town can live anonymously from his neighbors, the isolated person "with problems" while everyone else has a magazine-cover life.
What's more, because these crosses are known and accepted, because they're borne by people the townsfolk have known for twenty years (or eighty), and sometimes by people who are models of joy and love, they're not shameful. Maybe people say, on occasion, "It's too bad, they never had kids," but that's in more or less the tone of, "It's too bad, corn isn't on sale this week." Their lives are their lives. And in addition to the various family members, guests at my in-laws' this weekend included two delightful ladies: my husband's "unofficial aunt," who never married, and a friend from my in-laws' parish, whose husband of almost forty years died this year, and who was kind enough to let us stay with her (since there was no room at my in-laws' house). We had to check his obituary to be sure, but she and her late husband never had children.
While I think of my childlessness as casting a shadow over a great number of conversations - the new acquaintance who ask, "Do you have any kids?"; the acquaintance of long standing who discuss their children without interruption for an hour; the actual friends who want to know about infertility and treatment - neither the one woman's childlessness nor the other's life-long singleness was even an issue. Not mentioned, not tiptoed around, and casting no shadows on either of them that I could discern. They talked about their lives, and the town, and the weather, and religion, and politics - just themselves, who they were. They're in their seventies, so I suppose they've earned it.
In fact, at one point, with my SIL particularly harried over the challenges of bedtime, my FIL said, "Don't worry. The first twenty-five years of marriage are the hardest." Everyone laughed, and I turned to the delightful lady we were staying with, and asked, "What do you think? Was that your experience?" My father-in-law didn't hear her answer, which was, "Oh, no. It was always wonderful, for us. We got along so well. We loved all the same things. We just loved being with each other." She retired in her fifties (her husband, who was a few years older, had already retired) so they could travel together. She had been a professor at the local state university, and published the most widely-used textbook in her field - by far the most significant career of any woman in her generation living in that town. But we had to ask her where she'd worked. The one clear thing anyone meeting her would recognize is that she is kind. And she didn't mention this, either, but my in-laws told us that she gets up every morning at six to go to the cemetery and pray the Rosary with her husband, at his grave.
I know I'll get trapped in my small universe again in no time, but for a short time, I have to be reminded that reality is larger than whatever I'm struggling with. And I have to say, I'm mourning my lost youth these days, but I really look forward to being old.