It was Christmas morning in our pre-kid, pre-marriage years. My alarm went off at 5 a.m., and my eyes popped open immediately. I reached out to silence it, and gently shoved my then-boyfriend awake.
“Wake up love, we need to get going soon,” I whispered. “Oh, and Merry Christmas,” I added as an afterthought with a peck on his cheek, already pulling on my sweatpants.
“Mmmmm, Merry Chris’mas,” Jon mumbled, burrowing further under the covers. “But remind me again why we’re getting up when it’s still dark outside?”
“We have to get to Brian’s for Christmas morning,” I said, slipping into my tennis shoes. Jon sighed and reached for his pair of fleece pants.
“Is it really that important, though?” he asked. “I mean, Lucy is just a baby. It’s not like she’ll even know we’re there.”
He was right; my six-week-old niece was likely to sleep through the entire festivities. But my three-year-old nephew was a different story; the night before at our family Christmas Eve dinner, he’d been nearly beside himself with excitement that Santa would be coming.
“Yeah, but Luke will,” I reminded him. “Plus, you know there will be bacon. Mom probably bought an extra pound just for you. C’mon love; please?”
Jon’s head popped out of his oversized sweatshirt. “I’m coming, aren’t I? But I still don’t really see the point.”
I knew it was just Jon’s early morning grumbles talking and that he’d be more agreeable once it was light outside, so I didn’t answer. I didn’t really have a response anyway, because in all honesty I wasn’t sure what the point was either. But we went. To that Christmas morning and the next one and the one after that, too. To baseball games and Lucy’s kindergarten graduation where Q & U got married. We made trips to the zoo and to pirate day at the children’s museum; we showed up at birthday parties and on bleachers, even when it was hot or cold or inconvenient.
Twelve years later we don’t make it to everything on their crowded social calendars; we have two soccer-playing kids of our own now, but we show up when we can. We met my nephew’s girlfriend and spent a weekend with my niece and her best friend. We try to make it to at least one of their games each season. Sometimes we get to talk to them and sometimes we don’t, but I always look for them and try to give a smile or a nod or a wave. I’m here. I see you.
My family’s annual summer vacation is one place that showing up has never been a struggle. For a week, my parents rent a house on the beach and bring our family and my brother’s. We stay up late playing games and cards and spend our days in the sand and waves, the cousins taking turns riding boogie boards, searching for shells, and building sand castles.
On the second night of vacation this past summer, everyone had gone to bed except Luke, Lucy, Jon, and me. The four of us still sat at the kitchen table where the card game had just ended, and conversation began to flow. We talked about boyfriends and girlfriends and parties and vaping. We told stories about sneaking out with friends and peer pressure and my niece wondered when she’d get her first kiss, since her dad, mom, and brother all had theirs in middle school. I laughed and told her I didn’t get mine until I was 17.
“That’s kind of sad, AJ,” she said with a giggle.
“Hey, there are worse things in the world than being a late bloomer,” I defended.
We sat there for an hour, then two as the stories continued. My 36-year-old back ached from sitting on the hard bench and I tried to shift my weight slightly but I didn’t dare suggest we move because what if they stopped talking?
We talked about what to do when you’re invited to the wild and crazy party. We talked about how it feels when you’re not. As the minutes then hours ticked by, I leaned in to the privilege of this moment when they were trusting and unguarded and met them vulnerability for vulnerability. The whole time we were talking and laughing and telling stories a small part of my brain was nudging me: Remember this. Treasure this. See the gift in this.
Finally, sometime past midnight, we all shuffled off to our separate rooms. As Jon and I climbed into bed, I snuggled against him and said, “Well, that was kind of awesome wasn’t it?”
“I know, right?” he said. “I was almost afraid to breathe, because I worried that something would shift and the magic would end.”
As I curled onto my side and waited for sleep to claim me, I remembered Jon’s words that Christmas morning thirteen years ago and realized: this was the point.
The showing up, the sweating in the bleachers, remembering the girlfriend’s name and knowing who the best friend is, the crowded Google calendar with everyone’s activities color-coded—the minor inconvenience of it all is an investment in the relationship. My presence has said over and over to them: you are important to me. You matter.
At some point, they believed me, and tonight, they let me in.
It’s 5 p.m. on a Tuesday night. I stand at the stove, searching for a recipe that checks all my weeknight dinner boxes: short ingredient list, quick cooking time, and something my children won’t throw a fit over eating. I need to move quickly; we have soccer practice later and as I rummage through the fridge for the package of chicken breasts, I hear the scrape of a chair from the kitchen table being dragged across the floor to the kitchen counter.
“Can I help?” my five-year-old asks.
I sigh. Ellie’s help is anything but helpful. She will add salt when I’m not looking and tell me the chicken looks gross. She’ll get mad when I won’t let her use the sharp knife on her own. Worst of all, she will slow me down when I’m trying to work quickly and efficiently. For all of these reasons, I try to put her off.
“Are you sure you want to help, Els?” I ask. “I thought you said you were going to color a rainbow picture while Nathan is finishing his homework.”
“No, I want to help you, Mom. Please?”
I don’t answer immediately; my mind casting around for something, anything that will be more appealing to her than helping me cook. I turn to my recipe box to buy a few additional moments, thumbing through for the chicken recipe I have in mind. Stuffed in the front, where it doesn’t belong, is my grandmother’s recipe for homemade icing. I had used it the week before when I made my mom’s birthday cake; I was in a hurry then too and had stuffed it haphazardly back in the box, too rushed to file it in its proper place.
I thought I’d lost it once, this recipe. My grandmother copied it down for me years ago, but one day I went to make it and couldn’t find it so I called her and she emailed it to me. The emailed version is actually the one I use more often, because it includes the kinds of details that can’t fit on a recipe card—what a rolling boil looks like, and how thick she thought the base of the saucepan should be, and the importance of setting a timer for exactly one minute between the time you stop stirring and the time you remove the pan.
The card doesn’t say any of that. But it’s in my grandmother’s handwriting; not her cursive, but her print to be easier to read. I’ve seen that strong scrawl on envelopes and gift tags my entire life, but my grandmother passed away a year ago in July and now I don’t see it anymore. So when Jon had to install a new heating element in our oven and found the card wedged beneath it when he slid the oven out, I put it in my recipe box. I didn’t need it, but I kept it anyway.
“Mom! What are you looking for?”
Ellie interrupts my reverie, bringing me back to the present. Except when I look up at her, I don’t see her—I see me, standing on a chair at my grandmother’s counter, watching her stir icing at the stove. I’m helping because helpers get to lick the spoon, but I’m also asking questions and trying to touch things that are too hot to be touched and generally being a nuisance. My help wasn’t helpful either, but that wasn’t the point … for me or my grandmother.
I smile. “Just grabbing the recipe I need, chick. Are you ready to help?”
I let Ellie help me season the chicken. I measure out and then let her pour the oil into the skillet for the fried okra. She gets salt and pepper on the countertop and oil on the stove. I have twice the amount of cleanup when we’re done, but Ellie also talked the whole time we worked. I now know her favorite center in her kindergarten classroom and that the lion she drew in art class is hanging up on the wall outside the art room. I know there’s a new girl in her class named Ariana, and Ellie showed her how to sharpen her pencil. I learned things I wouldn’t have known without a little inconvenience; for a few minutes, she let me into her world.
I know the pattern is not prescriptive. But maybe parenting isn’t always the shot in the dark it seems to be. When I’m not sure what the right choice is, choose the one that honors the relationship. Pick the path that says you matter; keep trusting that, eventually, they’ll believe me, that they’ll let me in.
And that’s the whole point.
Photo by Lottie Caiella