By Kellie Flanagan —
Something catches my eye. Turning to see, it’s my toddler in the driver’s seat of the Honda CRV. She’s managed to reach the gas pedal with her chubby little foot, and we’re already on the freeway before I realize what’s happening. Wind blowing through her hair, she’s tooling along in the fast lane like it’s riding a Big Wheel in the backyard, smiling on a sunny summer day. “How do you know a motorcycle rider is happy?” my husband asks, the set-up to a favorite joke. “There are bugs in his teeth!”
Meanwhile toddler Clara flips on the car’s signal and prepares to merge into the right lane, a maneuver she completes flawlessly though she’s barely three feet tall and wears the same princess dress every single day. I stare at her. It’s incomprehensible. Looking up, the road signs blur until one comes into focus: UC Davis. That’s when I snap to. It’s not my toddler driving the car, it’s version 17.5 and we’re on our way to visit a college campus because this time next year, she’ll be gone in a whiff of tropical vanilla body spray. What happened? Time passed. I blinked.
I blink again and it’s almost Christmas, which is also my husband’s birthday, and slowly precious ornaments are being unwrapped from tissue before being placed carefully on the tree. Feeling contemplative, a little unsure of what position I’ll hold when my main job as mom goes into retirement next fall, after just a few baubles I’m struck by what we’re doing. These aren’t ornaments we’re unwrapping, they’re layers of family history — every year this ritual finds us revealing and reliving stories from the past.
This little wooden bear with a baby bump is from when I was pregnant — I hand-painted it myself. The ornament from our trip to Hawaii, frosty berry red and island green with hula girls, from that fabulous December before we realized the housing market was crashing. This one that says peace, from my sister, next to a single small globe from the sister I no longer talk to, nestled in with the one from a best friend she no longer talks to. Most of the memories are delightful; the Disney ornaments, the Barbie dolls, each has a story from a specific place and time. This isn’t decorating a tree, it’s a life-flashing-before-my-eyes therapy session.
Before Clara was born, an amniocentesis was ordered by the doctor to check her chromosomes based on my advanced maternal age. I was 37. My mother was 49 when she had me, and so was her mother when she had my mother. Nonetheless, having already experienced an excruciating miscarriage, we said yes to the big needle, encouraged that we’d find out the sex of the baby. I already knew we were having a boy. How did I know? I just always knew I would have multiple boys, in fact, by the time I was 25. That should have been a clue to the depth of my wrongness, because it was 12 years later and I was just getting started. Secure in my belief we’d have a little male person running around soon, I asked the office to fax the results so Dave and I could together confirm, the ultimate boyness of our progeny.
The fax pushed out noisily and I picked it up and… couldn’t read what it said. A grill? I was having a grill? I was so surprised at not seeing B O Y — the letters before me scrambled my brain like aphasia. What would I do with a grill? I burst into messy tears, locked myself in the tiny bath of that first apartment, staring at my ever-growing belly as the hot water ran out, wondering what in the world would I do with a girl? Boys seemed easy. Girls seemed hard. I phoned my sister from the bathtub. “I don’t know anything about girls,” I wept, “what will I dooooo?”
“Kellie,” said my wise older sister, “You have a set of Barbie doll ornaments for your Christmas tree. You’ll be fine.” That broke the spell. Now here we are, nearly 18 years later, hanging the original Barbie in her black-and-white-bathing suit on what could be the last tree our daughter may be home to decorate. That’s being overly dramatic, and depends on when we decorate next year and a thousand other things but remember, I’m feeling contemplative.
I blink again and it’s New Year’s Day. Clara has stayed over safely with friends. Dave and I spent the evening before out, dinner with a small group in someone’s home, and we’re relaxing around the house. There’s this book I’ve been reading since 2002, or maybe 2001, called Simple Abundance. I call it my bible — it’s a series of short meditations, stories, paragraphs, parables, one for each day of the year. It’s a very 90s book about slowing down and decelerating the lifestyle, savoring small victories every chance we get. It’s divided into six sections and I know them by heart. Each leads naturally to the next principle of simple abundance, and I read this book each year, always finding new ways to interpret and apply the text. Gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, joy.
The author suggests preparing a meal of Hoppin’ John on New Year’s Day: black eyed peas for luck, rice for health, collard greens for prosperity, baked ham and cornbread for flavor. We have none of that in the pantry, but we do have black beans and I am no perfectionist, so black beans we are having. I’ve been making black beans since Clara was a baby and a housekeeper we had, before we had a house and could no longer afford a housekeeper, explained how to boil the beans short and sweet, pour the water out, then boil it all up again. This way, she explained, it boils out the gas and you don’t have to soak the beans all night. The aroma of this dish is incredible, with fresh thyme, rosemary, onion, bacon; they’re delicious.
Anyone who cooks beans from scratch knows there’s a warning on the label that you’ve got to sort through the beans to pick out rocks. They say “foreign materials” but it’s little tiny rocks. I’ve been doing this for nearly twenty years, and I’ve only found a few rocks — it’s pretty rare.
Nonetheless, dutifully I sort, intently pushing good, clean beans to one side of the big aluminum casserole dish, plucking the occasional withered bean out and into the trash. Sorting is an important skill. I think about the holiday, the new year, and how fast time is passing. We’re soon putting all those ornaments and the stories they hold back into the Christmas boxes and into storage for another year full of uncertainty.
I find a rock.
One little tiny rock like that could ruin a rack of expensive porcelain teeth in one hot second. At the very least, it would shiver your spine. I’m immediately buoyed by this little miracle. I see clearly the path of persistence and focus that has led to this act of protection for my family. Not only do I feed them, I keep them free from rocks! My worth is firmly grounded in my kitchen comforts, and finding this teensy rock somehow makes me feel like everything is going to be alright. Life will go on. I am the finder of rocks. I take this little thing, this foreign material smaller than a shriveled pea, and place it delicately in a crystal bowl to show my family when they come home. I think of the rock all week. I blink again.