What I Do Is Redd Up

What I Do Is Redd Up

$%&#! Ouch!

I want to be home by 3:00 this afternoon. A cluttered living room waits for me, as does an unmade bed and a kitchen that needs to be, as my mother used to say, redd up. In other words, the house requires attention before wife Kathy shows up at 6:00 p.m. with grandsons Cole and Killian in tow. For a couple of hours, we’ll act as spotters to boys who are constantly, gleefully careening toward a concussion. By the time daughter Elena picks them up, dirty dishes will have returned, and planes, trains and pterodactyls will be scattered everywhere, waiting for me to step on them and shout bad words. Clean up, mess up, repeat.

The person in charge of squalor control and hygiene restoration used to be called a housewife, an impoverished term to my ears. A job that involves cleaning, cooking and often child rearing deserves a more worthy title. Nobody is married to a house, nor does one’s marital status constitute a vocation.

But homemaker is a good fit. Creation is involved, as is purpose. A house isn’t a home until people related by blood or blessed ties find nurturing shelter there. Such a place can be ramshackle or palatial as long as at least one heart beats affection into the cupboards and windowsills.

Plenty of homes thrive without full-time tending, of course. Whoever can keep a house presentable, prepare healthy meals, do laundry, give children the attention they need and put shoulder to the wheel forty hours every week for a paycheck deserves credit. Props, bows and curtsies to them all, especially to those who have no choice.

That emphatically said, I have a soft spot for careers given to home and family. My mother spent much of her life that way. Dolly Coleman worked part-time at what she called the budget bakery and at the Boston Store, for decades the crown jewel of downtown Erie, but her identity was grounded in motherhood.

On the back of a well-worn cookbook . . . a housewife, perhaps?

My only reservation about Mom’s vocational history is the possibility that, like countless sisters of her generation, she was disheartened by a society that patronized women and kicked their intelligence to the curb. Housewife bore an implied prefix: just a.

Kathy went back and forth with staying at home and taking jobs. Regardless, she gave Elena and our son Micah amazing childhoods. Some parents can’t keep up with their kids, but my beloved had the distinction of outpacing her offspring. Never much for napping, Kathy was mistress of over-the-top fun, constructing cornstalk mazes in the backyard, going to legendary pains with Halloween decorations and building snow forts ad infinitum. She pouted when the kids weren’t game for the expeditions she cooked up.

A fidget blanket made by Elena Thompson, to calm the restless hands of a dementia patient

As it happened, one of our little acorns didn’t fall far from the oak. Elena and husband Matt decided that their issue were to be raised by a mother who would fill their days with joy and adventure. Capable though she is of employment, our talented daughter has been building a cottage industry of weighted and fidget blankets. Her household speaks of shalom, and her handiwork gives sleep to restless children and calm to dementia patients. Call Elena what you will, but don’t dare start off with just a.

A couple of years ago when I accepted a part-time call to serve St. John’s Lutheran Church in Oniontown, Pennsylvania, it was with the promise of writing time and the expectation that Pastor Coleman would lean into housework.

I know better than to call myself a homemaker. That profession—paid only with emotional currency—is broader in scope and deeper in sacrifice than I can manage. What I do is redd up. Ministry and writing are passions, but home duty now completes my vocational trinity.

Detail from Kathy’s throw on the couch

My job description has gradually written itself on my heart. 402 Parkway Drive should be presentable when Kathy gets home after eight hours of treating cancer patients. Why? Because she deserves a sanctuary: tidy counters, her throw—adorned with representations of sailing knots—draped neatly over the back of the couch, minutiae that threatens to take over the dining room table put away. Stepping across the threshold, she should drink from a cup running over with peace. She shouldn’t worry about dinner. She should leave the dishes to me.

The reason for my efforts, modest though they are, is love. Redding up is a gift. I’m no homemaker, but after thirty-five years with Kathy I’ve decided, against all logic, that being called her househusband would suit me just fine.

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Thanksgiving Letter to My Late Mother

Dear Mom:

November 8, 2014: your Christmas cactus is in full bloom. It may be my imagination, but every year the blossoms seem to show up a little earlier. We could now call your beloved old plant a Halloween cactus. How many holidays will pass before the pink flowers open up at Easter?

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Your matriarch of Christmas cacti

You know, Mom, you’ve been gone sixteen years, and I always figured that the older I got, the less I would miss you. Actually, the opposite seems to be true. The heaviness in my throat in this moment is greater than when I wrote you last year. The reason is your great-grandson Cole. I imagine the deep gladness you would know in holding him, talking to him as I do, sitting quietly as the minutes pass, watching him in ceaseless motion. You would say the same thing as we do: “He’s so busy.”

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Your busy great-grandson in his Halloween costume–grrrr!

Most Sundays we have family dinner, Mom. I’m not sure why as your son I didn’t insist on this practice years ago, but I didn’t. I’m sorry. People who say that they have no regrets in life probably aren’t looking closely enough. Anyway, after we finished eating, Cole got fussy. Had you been there and not been burdened with arthritis, you would have picked him up and walked around the house, talking to him. I can see you telling your great-grandson about this and that. The decades glow and soften in my mind: there you are, my late mother holding my beloved grandson. It’s nice to see you.

But since you aren’t here—not really—and weren’t there after dinner to occupy Cole, I did. Our first stop was your Christmas cactus. I told him a little about the plant, but before I knew it I was telling him about you. Of course, I said you would love him like crazy and other things you would expect. But as he looked on momentary peace at your plant, I told him that when his mother was a toddler, you peeled grapes for her. Peeling grapes: that’s love. “Your great-grandma would do the same for you,” I said, imagining you putting bits of the pulp into his mouth.

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Was Cole looking at that glow in the center, Mom, the light of forever?

Next stop: the photograph of you in your wedding dress. “My gosh, Cole,” I said, “look at how beautiful your Great-Grandma Coleman was.” I was focused on you and Cole, but was also aware of somebody looking over my shoulder and saying, “Oh, yeah! She was beautiful.”

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You are younger here, Mom, than both of my children are now. It’s hard to make the years stay in the right order.

Tours with tired babies last only so long, so that was about it. Elena, Matt, and Cole packed up and headed home. Tomorrow being Sunday, we’ll go through the same ritual, and most likely I’ll use the spatula from home. No kidding, Mom, every time I pick it up, I remember you. Maybe I’ll show Cole, tell him it was yours.

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Still my favorite spatula

I wish you could be with us. We would sit at the dining room table and look at pictures. This afternoon I was missing you, so I went upstairs and pulled out some albums. Time passed. Two photographs held me up a while: one of Elena and one of Micah. I could see Cole in both of them.

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That’s Elena, Mom. I caught her, promise. That’s also Cole’s face.

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Here’s Micah, Mom, foreshadowing his nephew’s two front teeth and swagger.

I said before you were beautiful, but I’ve become suspicious of time, reluctant to accept its authority over us, covetous of eternity. More must await us beyond this lovely, troubled land, where early we toddle on fair-skinned, sausage legs and late travel tentatively, afraid of the fall that might crack our aching bones. There must be more because you deserve to hold this child, to kiss his promise of red hair—however this can happen in the Eternal Calm and Splendor.

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Kathy used to raise monarchs, Mom, and Elena used to wear them. Wish you could have seen.

So, Mom, I’ll correct myself: you are beautiful. I don’t visit your grave often, with its pound or two of ash and bone the required number of feet below. Better: I exchange this earthly chronology for one I compose myself. I close my eyes. Now, you pass your hands over my children’s cheeks as you did decades ago and speak to them gently. Cole sits on your lap. You bounce him and lean forward to look at his round face. Like the rest of us, you get lost there.

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Cole on pumpkin carving day. We would have rinsed him off and handed him to you.

As you and I sit together, I hold your hand, still the softest I’ve ever known. Since this is my time, your knuckles and joints don’t blossom with arthritis—no pain. I’m looking at your skin and veins, Mom, and kissing your hand. Your eyes are closed. You hear me say, “You live.”

Love,

John

A Fifty-Two-Year-Old Galoot’s Take on Mother’s Milk

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Last person in the world who should be holding forth about breastfeeding: a fifty-two-year-old, grizzled galoot

I’m not looking to make trouble, but I’ve been thinking a lot about breastfeeding since grandson Cole was born on November 30, 2013. Granted, this subject falls into the None-of-Your-Damned-Business Department, but that’s never stopped me from having my say. I’ll preface my list of points with a few acknowledgements: Nursing is wonderful for women who want to do so and are able. Still, twenty-five years ago wife Kathy, breast-milk fed baby daughter Elena, and I were on a long car trip, and Elena was practically crying herself into a hemorrhage. She was hungry. We couldn’t stop, so we gave her formula. Needs must. So I’m not personally militant about breastfeeding. And while I dig the Earth mother groove, I wouldn’t bury the placenta and plant a tree over it.

All that said, on with the none-of-my-business points. From here on I won’t say I think or I believe or for me. The whole thing is coming out of my neurotic head.

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Elena and Cole: uber mom and well-fed little bucko

Point #1: I gush with pride in Elena. When Cole was a newborn, she spent a month or so figuring out how to nurse in public, gauging her comfort level, working out strategies for minimizing exposure. Since then, Elena has settled into her ways of being discreet without doubling over in fear that somebody might catch a glimpse of her nipple. When she is over at Mom and Dad’s house, she issues a two-word alert: boob out. This is a perfect approach to every nursing situation because it places the responsibility where it belongs. The woman’s job is to nourish her child. Everybody else’s role is to look away if they don’t want to see. It’s simple. And this leads to . . .

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Something right about the world. (Credit: Irene / Wikimedia Commons)

Point #2: For pity’s sake, it’s a breast! Let’s be grown ups. Sure, breasts can be wonderfully erotic. If we took a vote, I would check the “in favor of breasts” box. They get my support. I’m a fan. Golly, breasts are fun. But, come on! I’m writing this in Starbucks, and by my count there are twenty breasts here, not counting men’s poor excuses for them. (Oops, make that twenty-two.) They’re all over the place. I can’t look in any direction and not see boobs in, and, conveniently, they serve a purpose much more important than making men randy. So let’s all work on our ability to distinguish one situation from another. Nursing women are giving their babies not only nutritional gold, but a helping of comfort and intimacy; therefore, if any of us happen to see a kiddo happily tugging away, we ought to give thanks. Something great is happening on our rancorous planet. Bottoms up—as it were.

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The La Leche League walkers, with Matt, Elena, Cole, Micah, and Kathy in the mix. Kids nursed as needed along the way.

Point #3: There’s a really cool community formed around the practice of breastfeeding. Elena has found friendship and support in the La Leche League, and I’m moved by the members’ warmth and commitment. A few months ago Kathy, son Micah, and I joined Elena, Cole, and son-in-law Matt for a walk to benefit the League. That’s when my head really started filling with hippie-type information and opinions. Turns out that—big surprise—some women have trouble nursing or can’t produce enough milk to sustain a child. Other women could feed the Waltons and Brady Bunch combined. So the high producers freeze their expressed milk and give it to mothers who need it or to neonatal intensive care units willing to accept it. (Illinois mother of four Amelia Boomker, 36, has donated 16,321 oz. between 2008 and 2013. That’s 816 venti Starbucks drinks. That’s also a world record.)

And if a woman wants to nurse but is having trouble getting the hang of it, a La Leche League member will come to her home and try to help. Evidence of breast milk’s turbo nutrition is compelling, and here’s a community of people willing to give time and energy to making kids healthy. This is good stuff.

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What makes this Holstein’s milk better than a woman’s. Son-in-law Matt tells me humans are the only creatures that drink the milk of another species.

Point #4: Okay, this one might push some of you over the edge, but get past your case of the willies and stay with me. If women want to, they should go ahead and use their expressed milk in recipes. You heard me! We ought to have no problem eating—I dunno—lady macaroni and cheese or brownies with woman-milk frosting. Here’s a little perspective. We think nothing of drinking cow’s milk. A cow spends most of its day lolling its own prairie puke around in its mouth. And don’t read this next excerpt from an article on foodmatterstv.com if you’re a milk lover:

It turns out that standard dairy cows are medicated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to stimulate a much higher than normal milk production. This causes severe stress that results in mastitis, an infection of the udders of sick and stressed cows. This infection is, of course, treated with antibiotics, helping to breed more antibiotic resistant organisms. It is literally unbelievable that one liter (a little over a quart) of Californian milk contained 298 million pus cells in 2003, 11 million more pus cells than it contained in 2002.

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Lutefisk: fish soaked in lye. Yeah, boy! (Credit: Wikipedia)

Mmmm! Make mine a double. But I’m not finished yet. A couple months ago I made a delicious pizza with goat cheese—from a goat, an ornery coot that gives head butts and dines on tin cans and tumbleweed. We eat cheese that’s got veins of mold. We eat Rocky Mountain oysters and lutefisk, which means lye fish. And hot dogs, which are said to contain gonads and snout and whatever-the-hell. And head cheese, which isn’t dairy at all, but scraps from a pig’s head held together with gelatin. And in other arenas of life, we let some genuine nastiness pass our lips—I’ll leave that pasture of ew to your imagination.

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Let’s not overthink the whole nursing thing, kids. Sigmund Freud in 1921 (Credit: Max Halberstadt / Wikipedia)

So what’s the discomfort with adults consuming a woman’s milk? The problem isn’t with our amiable old buddy the breast, but with three pounds of goo between our ears. Here I’ll break my rule: I believe three thoughts mess with our heads. First, some might associate consuming a woman’s milk with sucking her boob, which leads to a perceived line being crossed. To this I would say, “You don’t associate drinking cow’s milk with sucking its udder. What’s the difference?” Second, we might think drinking a woman’s milk is in a teensy weensy way like cannibalism. Today we’re licking a woman’s-milk ice cream cone, next thing you know we’ll be feeding ourselves like the starving soldiers in Candide. And third, I have to note an ambivalent cultural attitude toward women’s bodies. For some, women are either libido fuel or kind of yucky. Breast milk falls in the latter category. What a shame. To borrow an image from Freud critics, “Sometimes a boob is just a boob.”

I think you’ll agree that we’ve all had about enough of John Coleman’s say for one day. As far as I know, I’ve never had any food made with human dairy, but I’m game. And when a mother is nursing her child, I’m not afraid of seeing too much. Please! I’m reminded that grace is alive and well.

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Bottom line: my little monster getting his nourishment when he needs it is more important than anybody’s twitchy sensibility. And no, don’t tell my daughter to go nurse in the restroom unless you’re willing to eat your own dinner sitting on the can.