Early Cubism

A left this morning, after days of frenetic packing and preparations of various kinds, including A teaching me how to clean out the weird water trap thingy at the bottom of the washing machine, how to package the recycling for pickup every other Friday, and how to unhook all the various cables from the TV (which lives in the murky basement) and re-attach everything up here in the habitable part of the house, should we, say, get the stomach flu and need to be able to stare at Mister Rogers on a continuous loop from the couch for a day or two. I guess those are the points of non-overlap in our division of labor. Traditional, huh?

Anyway, the leaving was sad. He was horribly stressed about it, and I waded through it in a daze. He'll be gone 68 days, is all. I'm sure we'll have our awful moments as always, but I also feel like it will ultimately be fine. And, yikes, one day at a time. This is the last time I'm thinking about how many days we have to go, at least until we hit the single digits.

It was a glorious 40 degrees here today and we spent an hour at the park—the most time we've spent outdoors in embarrassingly long. It was lovely.

Ingrid spent the hour after dinner drawing picture after picture of A. Here are my faves. She hardly ever describes what she draws, beyond giving me the default, This is an elephant—always an elephant—to get me off her back when I ask. But this was half a dozen drawings at least, done slowly, one after another, and she talked about them as she made them. Sometimes it seemed like she was talking about a dream. I know any resemblance to actual people or things is coincidental, but I'm so impressed with how intentional the lines seem. And the way she seemed to be making these to work out something about A being away, it makes me think of these as real art—the first time I've looked at any of her many drawings and crafts that way.

This is Daddy in Russia. He's outside, and he's wearing a t-shirt and some shorts. He's flying a kite.

This is Daddy on a sailboat.

This is Daddy in Russia. He has his snowsuit on, and he's holding a piece of wood. He's fixing a wheel on the purple truck. And there's a taxicab with him.



Those little girls are so adorable, those little girls of mine pushing their way out the front door padded with down head to toe, with their matching colorful lunch bags swinging from their fat-parka arms. Even Iris, my baby, has her own lunch bag, and makes a fishy-kissy face at me after I hang her coat in her cubby, and follows her big sister, her suddenly at-ease and in-charge big sister, when she takes her by the arm. When I peek through the window where I used to stand holding Iris and blowing kisses at teary Ingrid, I just see the backs of them, side by side in little chairs, spooning up cereal. They are beautiful, sturdy.

Yesterday I bundled us all up to go to the Y. We had a babysitting slot reserved, and I was going to run around the track. It’s cold enough that we needed all the clothes, just to walk from house to car and car to door: snowpants, coats, hats, mittens, extra vests. Even when they both cooperate and nothing gets lost, it takes a half hour. It was bright, brilliant cold.

Iris doesn’t want to be carried anymore; it’s a struggle to keep her in my arms through the snowy parking lot. On the sidewalk up to the big metal doors I let her walk, and she’s so steady now she can almost run. To go fast she bows her head down a few degrees and leaves her arms at her sides.

Long story short, I gave the oversized metal door a good swing to get us all into the warm faster, and Iris was barrelling up behind me and the thing slammed her in the forehead. It sounded like metal hitting wood. She fell down, she cried, but not as much as you’d think she might. She seemed fine. She had on a thick fleece hat. I can’t explain it, but for several minutes I had myself talked into business as usual: just a little head bump. After the tears, she was cheery as ever. I could still go running, right? In the lockerroom I finally took off her hat and saw how awful it looked. I slammed a door into my kid’s head and it sounded like metal on wood. I asked for ice; they made me fill out a form. We put all the mittens and snowpants and coats back on and went home to call the pediatrician and to watch, as directed, for lethargy, vomiting, and excessive pain. She continued to be fine, except for a minute of looking pasty yesterday afternoon.

We’re supposed to wake her up every four hours for two nights to make sure she can recognize us and move her limbs. When I went into her room at 10 last night she heard me open the door, scrambled to her feet and mumbled, Mumma. Ok, kiddo. You’re ok, I said, holding her, stroking her head, nursing her back to sleep. You're ok.

Most of the time I can forget how much could go wrong. But when opening a door I hear how my daughter’s skull is not all that different from any other breakable object? I think about these gorgeous girls, so naked even in all their winter clothes, and all the things they could swallow, or get hit by, or fall through, or get crushed by, and all the things that haven’t harmed them but could have and all the times I haven’t been looking, and I get frozen on the point between grateful and terrified and have a hard time just getting on with my day. And yet also, there they are with their lunchbags. There they are, so content just being in one another's little orbit, making their way just fine—just fine—through a day away from me.


Keeping Warm

A will spend the months of February and March in Siberia. I am not kidding. For his job, he has to spend nine weeks (really from late January through the first week of April, if he's lucky and his flight home isn't postponed by days and days due to weather) in the middle of nowhere in the Russian far east.

This will suck for him. He'll be living in a thing that sounds a lot like a semi truck container converted into a bunk room; he'll be working 12-hour overnight shifts, and the temperature will be below zero almost all the time, probably as low as minus 70. Worst of all, nine weeks in the life of a toddler or preschooler is a long time, and there's no way to get back what you miss. He'll likely have access to a shared, text-only e-mail account, so we'll be able to write (and I will, every day). But no photos, no video, and no way for him to kiss those little cheeks.

Those weeks aren't going to be a piece of cake for me either, although I'm starting to feel a little guilty about the sympathy I'm getting from people I tell about it. Exhausting as two months on my own with the girls sounds, it's nothing compared to actual, long-term, for-real single parenting. Still, I'm spending a lot of time these days anticipating his time away—fearing it.

If you have some experience with a traveling spouse, you know the period of separation isn't the only hard time; the mountain of the time away casts shadows on both sides. A has been away somewhat frequently (though never on a trip this long or remote), so we know that the period just after he returns, while joyful, delivers its own special kind of unhappiness. We (and the kids) are unused to each other and have to readjust to being a family of four. He feels left out; I become even more bitter and petty than usual. We get over it, but we have to plan for some tough days on his return.

The shadow on this side—before the trip—is about preparation. We tie up loose ends, we keep from arguing even when we want to, and we pull away from each other a little. We worry about the time away, and we shore ourselves up.

Since November, boxes have been coming in the mail for A—hard core outdoor gear he's ordered from specialized arctic travel companies in Canada. When they arrive, I carry them to the basement, not wanting to think about it too much. There are mittens the size of legs of lamb, a pair of steel-toed boots almost as heavy as Iris, a down coat that makes A look four times wider.

At first, carrying those packages down the stairs, I grumbled, Where's my survival gear? I've figured out that my job right now is to assemble it: a membership at the Y, where there's free babysitting, so I can work out a couple of times a week (plus, we can all go swimming in the fun kiddie pool). Friends who've offered help; lists of people I can call when I start to lose my shit. And (most expensively, most guilt-inducingly) we've signed up for an extra day per week of day care for both girls, beyond the two days I have to be at work. Partly, this is necessary so I can get done the work that I usually do at home during time that A's hanging out with the girls. Partly, it's a way of taking the pressure off of all of us; I'll have more time to stay caught up on the business of life (pay 2008 taxes, keep dentist appointments, deal with unexpected household crises), and there won't be such an unbearable backlog to deal with when he returns. Partly, I think that whenever I can I'll spend the time lolling around on the couch, sleeping and reading the New Yorker.

Beyond assembling his wardrobe, A has been channeling his jitters into a wonderful masculine form of nesting: he's organized the dry goods in the kitchen (beans, grains, nuts) in new glass canisters, upgraded our smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and thought through fire escape plans for every room. He spent many evenings in December enhancing our house's weatherproofing, filling holes with blow foam and caulk. (This was the best part of the whole preparation period: In my dialect of American English, caulk sounds just like cock, and blow foam is funny no matter how you say it. Nothing takes the edge off a nine-week trip to Siberia like a passel of cock and blow foam jokes.)

So we're newly draft-free and safer than ever from fire and other freak household disaster. A's cold weather gear is assembled in the basement. I've got about as much support lined up as I can imagine. Now we try our best to enjoy January together without flinching too much about what's coming.



Way back last summer, my mom, ever cautious and thoughtful—not to mention early—with the Christmas gifts, told me she was thinking of giving the girls a kid-sized picnic table for Christmas. Would we have room for it?

It was nice of her to ask; our house isn't huge, and we add furniture with caution. We have a lot to trip over already. We thought about it, and figured out we could use the table outdoors in summer and in our (imagined) basement art-making space in winter, and told her thank you and yes, we'd love to have a little picnic table. She chose a cute, simple one with two little benches, bought it on line, and had it shipped here; it arrived in early December.

We hadn't yet assembled it when, before our Christmas trip, we hosted A's family for a holiday brunch and gift exchange. His mom brought an embarrassment of gifts. The largest and most loved among them? An adorable kid-sized table. Not just any little table, but the Bunny Table, used already by two generations of A's family, crafted by an old family friend with bunny-shaped legs and bunny-shaped chair backs, painstakingly restored and painted by A's mom, and intended—and taken—as a delightful surprise by the girls.

I'd turn this into a multiple choice quiz à la Brooklyn Girl, but I have a feeling there's not really a choice. We've gotta suck it up and make room for two cute little tables in our lives, don't we?