During our Thanksgiving meal this year, huge flocks of black birds rose and fell in a choreographed, synchronized dance in the field outside our window. It’s that time of year here. They are migrating south, stopping for respite in bare cornfields along their route. If you’re driving, you can see the power lines drooping with the weight of them, looking like musical notes penned in the sky. Trees bare of leaves appear full again, until with some secret signal the hundreds of birds posing as foliage fly away as one, de-leafing the tree in one fluid movement.
We remembered the old nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, where four and twenty blackbirds were baked into a pie that apparently was good enough for the king. My daughter, the picky one, predictably wrinkled her nose and declared she wouldn’t eat that. I just smiled to myself. There was a time when I would have said the same thing. Heady with the audacity and arrogance of youth, I made lots of similar proclamations of things I would never do, wear, say, or eat. In time, my “crow pie” would be repeatedly served to me steaming and piping hot, beaks bursting from the crust.
In my teens and twenties, the world was my orchard, fruit ripe on the tree ready for my haughty hands to deign to pluck it. We were a large, middle class family, and I never wanted for anything, really. The fact that in junior high, my mother wouldn’t buy me a pair of Jordache jeans that cost more than our week’s worth of groceries I chalked up to her stubbornness and lack of fashion rather than any financial reality. I took lessons at the local rec center: baton twirling, horseback riding. If I could’ve combined the two, I probably would have tried because why not? Couldn’t the world use more sequined girls twirling batons on horseback?
But, the best laid plans of mice and men, as Robert Burns says, oft go awry. I once had a showdown with my high school physics teacher as I dropped his class in favor of an English class more to my liking and abilities. “I’ll never use this stuff!” I told him. My first job out of college: science writing. Then, I got married and so many of the things I said I’d never do seemed to be swept down the aisle as fast as my white heels could traipse. I’ll never iron a man’s shirt; he’s got two hands. When you’re home for the day and he’s rushing out the door to make an appointment at work, how mean spirited would it be to just sit with your judgemental cup of coffee, declaring “you should’ve thought of that yesterday”? The compromise and give-and-take of married life was something I’d never imagined at seventeen, or twenty-two, or even sometimes now in my mid-forties. “I’ll never,” “I won’t,” “That’s not my problem,” are statements of petty selfishness that do no one any good.
Then came children and all bets were off. I’d never go a day without a shower and being presentable. Big mouthful on that one. I’d never let my child scream like that in a restaurant/airplane/grocery store/church service, etc. I’d never sit my kid in front of the TV so I could have a moment of mental sanity. Chomp. I’d never let my child walk around without shoes/pants/diaper/tissue applied to nose/scrubbed cherub cheeks at all times. Crunch. I’d never drive a minivan. Open the hangar, here comes the airplane. I was always going to be put-together, classy, with well-behaved, polite, scrubbed children. How hard could it be? Did Jackie O. ever have to catch a child’s vomit in her bare hands? Did Grace Kelly ever open her palm for someone’s chewed gum?
I’d be modest and in control at all times. During my firstborn’s birth, I vomited repeatedly and didn’t care who was in the room. “Students? Bring your friends, just get this baby OUT.” I’d always have the same metabolism I had at twenty-three and would never “let myself go.” I see now it’s not a deliberate “letting go” at all. It’s more of a desperate plea: “Wait! Don’t leave me!” I had a mammogram a couple of years ago, and the tech said something that never gives you warm fuzzies at your annual exam: “Well,that’s weird.” She invited me to come behind the monitor and look at the picture that had somehow appeared on her screen upside-down. For a second, I was elated. “That’s the perkiest the girls have looked in about 15 years!” I said. From then on, I always request my mammograms be viewed that way. It just makes me feel better.
I would always have cute shoes. Well, heels are just out. Don’t even bring them in my house any more because I can’t wear them without being crippled within 30 minutes. The word of the day is comfort, ladies. I can work with that, except for some days when I apparently can’t manage to pay attention long enough to put them on so that I leave the house with a different shoe on each foot.
After looking at old photos of my mother-in-law, I once remarked to her that I would never dye my hair. It was just so fake and not who you really were. (I know. Can you believe? If I were her, I would’ve broken up with me then and there.) My mother was prematurely gray in her 20’s. I was totally asking for it. So, between you, me, and my hairdresser, I’ve had two or three entire pies for that one.
It took a long time (I’m a slow learner), but I’ve stopped making blanket declarations. Learning this is a lot like making bread. You add things to the dough a little at a time, folding in the ingredients and kneading them together gently but firmly, letting the dough get used to the new bits. You sit it aside and give it time to rest and rise. And, if you’ve done it right, when it comes out of the oven lovely and browned, the product is much, much better than what you started with. Something worth sharing with others, even.
Over the next forty years if I’m blessed to have that many more, I hope I’m a lot more gracious, a lot less judgy. I’m racking my brain for things I’ve said I’ll never do when I get old and trying to take them all back. Plastic surgery? I’m game! Cruise ship to the Netherlands? Sign me up! Babysit for large numbers of grandchildren at once…..well, ok.
I want to be flexible, open, teachable. The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know. I’m sure there are things I know for certain right now that will only be rendered laughable in a decade or two. So, be patient with me. And save me a piece of that blackbird pie.