In Our Family, People Can Get a Little Testy Before Dinner
Essay & Illustration by Sarah Raymond
“Can you straighten up the living room?” I ask my six year old. “Then we’ll have dinner.” I’m calm. Least I think I’m calm.
Sam and his friend made a fort from couch cushions. A jagged mass of pillows, strewn on the living room rug, was left behind.
“But Tim made most of the mess. Why doesn’t he have to clean it up?” Sam asks.
“Because Tim went home. Here -- I’ll help you.” I’m still calm.
“But--” (Sam’s voice begins quivering and his sense of injustice mounts.) “This is Tim’s mess too. Why do I have to clean it up?” Tears well and hover behind his eyes as his rage gathers force. “When I go to his house, I have to help clean up.” Sam's voice shakes uncontrollably.
“Every single time you go to Tim’s you clean up,” I clarify. I’m less calm now; snippy in fact. Also hungry.
“Well most of the time I clean up.”
“I’ve only asked you to put away pillows. I’ve offered to help.” I’m losing control -- not of my voice, but of my children and my need for them to be helpful citizens of our home. (And for Christ’s sake, my sister’s kids would have fed and watered and cleaned the stalls of eighty chickens on their farm in the time I’ve taken to beg my child to return cushions to a couch.)
“I don’t think I should have to do it.” Sam draws the line.
Years of training dissolve before me. Our children graduated from Livingroom Tidy Up years ago, and now this.
“Sam,” (if you can talk about injustice well then so can I, Buddy) “Today I washed your clothes and folded them and put them away, and while I was there I made your bed and and now I’m making your dinner. I’m like your personal slave, Sam,” (okay so I’m a little melodramatic) “and all I ask is for you to put the cushions back on the couch--” My muscles are clenched; my voice strains higher from the impossible, horrific plight of a six year old who WON’T EVEN PICK UP THE FRICKIN’ CUSHIONS!
And then Sam senses the height of my rage, surpassing far beyond his, and he snaps. He throws himself on a pillow (still on the floor, of course) and his tears -- reined in long enough -- gush out as he cries, “Mama!!”
What? What now?
“Remember the good times Mama! Remember the papier mache snakes we made together in the summer!” His body is a shuddering, heaving machine.
I drop everything – my need for squared-away cushions, my desire for a respectable living room. Even my body drops. I fall on a cushion next to my son (they’re everywhere, so it’s easy), and I say “Oh Sammy, I do remember the good times. I loved making the snakes and I love you. I just want some help. Don’t cry Sammy Sweetie, please don’t cry. I'm sorry, Sammy.”
We hold each other for a long time. Then, together, Sam and I tuck all the couch cushions back into their respective spaces. We resume normal breathing patterns and prepare for dinner.