When God Comes for Tea

posted November 19, 2006

When I was eight years old, I loved to read the same books over and over again. “Try this one,” my frustrated librarian would say, pushing forward a copy of A Wrinkle in Time or one of the Chronicles of Narnia with some urgency.

“No thanks,” I’d say, handing her instead the card for On the Banks of Plum Creek for the fifth time that fall. I was already anticipating my pleasure at going home to my bed in the corner of my room with a two-inch cube of cheddar cheese which I would nibble slowly, making it last until my mother called us for dinner. The books I was drawn to were all about girls growing up a long time ago, girls growing up in little underground sod houses, or Brooklyn tenement apartments, or snow-covered wooden structures buried in a New England blizzard. I liked stories about girls watching their mothers measure out the coffee, precious spoonful by precious spoonful. Girls who knew what scarcity was.

I knew no such lack, or at least that’s what I thought until recently. I grew up in the seventies, and though it’s true that I sometimes had to ford a bridgeless creek to get to school in the Virginia winter, taking off my brown oxfords and shrieking as my bare feet hit the freezing water, I always had shoes. And, truth be told, my mother could have driven us; she just liked the idea of us fording a creek once in awhile. I always had meat on my dinner plate; I slept in a well-heated house, and as far as I know, my parents never measured the coffee, though in those days it came in these horrible tins and was freeze dried. I am sure today’s Starbucks generation cannot even imagine the horror.

Today as I was going for my morning run, I noticed a mother and son waiting, I assume, for the school bus. The mother was just hanging out with her kid—he’s probably eight or so. And she was laughing with him. He was laughing and she was laughing. That was all. But I felt a pang; the same pang I used to feel when I read about Laura Ingalls or Jo March or Francie Nolan, those poor little girls who slept in unheated homes and waited until Christmas to have even a taste of sugar. I felt a twang of deprivation.

My parents gave us everything we needed, but not everything we wanted. We were not poor little rich kids; they were careful not to spoil us. But, like most Americans, they were hungry to improve our lot; not hungry to buy new cars or have us wear the latest fashions—my parents didn’t go out to a restaurant until we were all in our teens, and we rarely went on vacations. What they were desperately hungry for was for us to be well educated. They chose a school that had a fantastic music department and made sure they could pay the tuition, three times over for their three daughters.

And the additional price they paid, again like many Americans, was with their time. I don’t remember ever just hanging out with my parents. I think if asked, they would have called “hanging out” “killing time.” And time was more than money; time was love in the form of hard work, which translated to tuition for the school, which translated to a better life for their kids. I think my parents saw the cultural upheaval of the 60s with mixed feelings. Though they were liberal Democrats, they were not hippies. Though they were passionately in favor of the separation of church and state, they simultaneously mourned the fact that Christmas carols were no longer allowed to be sung at our local public school. And so they both worked from six am until 10pm most days so that we could go to a school and learn Christmas carols.

I woke up at seven am most mornings to find my mother furiously red-lining 9th graders’ term papers, planning her morning lesson and throwing together peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I braided my baby sister’s hair and emptied the dishwasher with the Today show chirping the day’s cold war news in the background. We slurped our orange juice and grabbed our books and tumbled into the station wagon to pick up the kids in our carpool, always late to school. My mother was usually not home in the afternoons—either playing tennis or teaching or working for the League of Women Voters –and thus I found an alternate universe in the prairie or turn of the century Brooklyn. My father came home, usually after dinner and he’d kiss me goodnight. For many years, my mother referred to their relationship as “the 19 and a half minute per day marriage.”

Killing time was a real homicide in my family. When my mother found out I was reading the same books over and over again, she yelled at me. “Why don’t you go out and play?” she’d shout on a cloudless crisp October day. “Soon it’s going to be winter!” I still have pangs of guilt if I don’t get out on crisp cloudless days. Thus my morning run.

And yet, here was this woman, hanging out with her son waiting for the school bus. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood. Her son is not that small. Surely he could spend those moments alone while his mother could be getting some work done, or maybe going for a run herself.

I’ve been working all fall on the content for my new Life Composition Creative Day Planners, and I’ve been thinking a lot about time management, a topic I am fascinated with, although I’ve come to prefer the term “time consciousness,” but that’s for a later entry. At one time, I prided myself on having my life scheduled down to the second. Then I became a mother, at the ripe age of 38, and my whole notion of time management—of hanging out, of killing time—became transformed. When my six month old daughter calls me from her position under the elephant which dangles above her head while she’s lying on her Gymini play mat, I stop what I’m doing. I look over at her and watch her face crumple into a squinty eyed grin, her whole body wriggling like a puppy’s, her feet kicking in eloquent joy. I lean over and pick her up and hold her, smell her ears, run my hand gently over that miraculous head, kiss her soft little peach cheeks and look her deeply in the eyes. And I sigh. And I forget about trying to get anything done; I forget about trying to save my pennies for her future education (well–for the moment—it is kind of an obsession for me). But I know that if the income column falls short of the expenses column, I can always sing to her. I can read to her and find her books—new ones as well as old familiar ones. I can let her choose what she wants to read and notice if she’s going back to the same old ones over and over again, and perhaps ask why.

My parents, I should add, have learned how to kill time as they’ve grown up. The Thanksgiving when my nephew William was born was a veritable massacre of time. We did nothing but hang out on my sofas, go for the occasional stroll in the neighborhood, comment on how huge my sister’s belly was and eat turkey. And it remains one of the very happiest weekends of my life. Being an older mom, I am acutely aware of how little time I have with Lila. When she graduates from college, I will be 60. When I went to college, my mother had just turned forty. I don’t have the kind of time my mother had to learn how to relax and hang out. I need to learn at warp speed.

So part of what I’ve come to learn about time management goes to a wonderful proverb that I’ve found in cultures across the world. In Arabic, it’s translated: “Trust Allah but tie your camel.” In Russia it’s “Pray to God but continue to row to shore.” I would reverse it for myself: “Hoard your time like sweet cream, but don’t be afraid to pour lavishly when God comes for tea.” When my husband tells me he loves me, that he’s proud of me, or when he tells a joke and makes me laugh; when my daughter coos and chants “ma ma ma”; when we’re all sitting around the breakfast table in the morning watching the sun illuminate the late November clouds, God has come for tea.

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