Saturday, April 21, 2012

Only Five

I am used to the stares of strangers as I parade my five children in public. I am used to hearing, "Are they all yours?" "My you have your hands full!" and "I could never do that, I'm going out of my mind with two kids." But Monday morning I heard a response I never imagined I'd hear.

Matt needed to have his wisdom teeth removed Monday morning. The oral surgeon's office required that an adult wait in the waiting room during the entire process, and while Matt's grandfather was able to drive him home, he couldn't wait the whole two hours at the office. So I woke early, got all the kids loaded into the van, and we waited in the waiting room until Matt's grandpa could arrive. I passed out dry Chex for breakfast, laid out coloring books and crayons, and shuttled Toby to the potty twice. I was bouncing Elijah up and down, hoping he'd drift to sleep when an Amish woman entered with a teenage son and a toddler. She was 40-something, in a traditional black dress, with her straight brown hair smoothed back into a bun under her white bonnet. Her sons wore black pants and black suspenders over white shirts. Their bowl-cut hair looked a few decades out of place.

Sometimes the Amish respond to my smiles with disdain, as if to say, "Stop gawking." Sometimes I see an air of superiority in their reply, and I have to question if my outfit was not modest or plain enough for their approval. But this lady smiled back at me warmly, knowingly. She cuddled her toddler close and smoothed his long, blond hair as she talked her teenage son through some paperwork. From a corner of her eye she watched as I fumbled to settle an argument between my daughters, coach my son to pick up the cereal he'd dropped, and soothe my sleepy baby.

After a few minutes she spoke, "Five children?" she asked with a mild German accent.

"Yeah," I smiled, patting Elijah's bottom and moving to drop some of Toby's fallen Chex in a near-by garbage can.

"And is that all you have?" she asked.

Somehow with her accent and the incredibly unusual nature of her response, I was sure I had mis-heard her. "Yes, they're all mine," I answered as I had a thousand times before.

"No," she replied, "I mean do you have any other children?"

"No," I laughed, "five is quite enough!" She looked so kindly into my eyes that she melted this well-programmed, socially acceptable response. I felt safe with her, and so I opened up a little farther, "At least for now...we'll see how many God gives us." A corner of her mouth turned up a little and her eyes sparkled at me as her head gave the slightest nod. "How many children do you have?" I probed.

"We have nine in all, from sixteen years to two," she said proudly, and somehow humbly at the same time.

"That's wonderful, but a challenge too," I replied, searching for her secret to easy mothering.

"Yes, it is," she answered, and waited for me to respond.

"I feel like five is all I can handle," I offered.

"I did too, when five was all I had," she empathized, "but they do grow older, and they begin to help. It does get easier."

She had read me perfectly. I wanted to plop down beside her with a cup of coffee and mine the depths of her maternal wisdom. I wanted to ask her if she had ever questioned the wisdom of having so many kids, if she had ever felt like a bad mother because her attention was so divided, if she had never wished that she could have spent her youngest and healthiest days doing something beside changing diapers (and probably hand-washing them!) from dawn 'till dusk. I wanted to hear her tell me that there was nothing better that I could pour out my life doing, that I would never regret the sacrifice when I was gray-haired. I wanted to soak in the warmth of her comforting approval.

But Matt's grandfather arrived, and Elijah was fussing, and Toby was jumping from chair to chair leaving a trail of Chex behind him. So I packed away our supplies, and strapped Elijah into his car-seat. I lined my troops up by the door and waved good-bye to the quiet blond-haired toddler and his calm, bonnetted mother. I wished all the way home that I had had the courage to ask her address, to ask if I could visit and learn from her. But maybe, in those short minutes, I had already learned what I was supposed to.

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