Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Sting and the Blessing

The fridge held plenty of leftovers, but Dave wanted grilled salmon for dinner. So, despite falling snow and the required hat, scarf, parka and gloves, my husband geared up and headed outside to the grill.

He was in the mood to cook. I was in the mood to write in front of a cozy fire in the dining room. As always, I felt some guilt over this. I would benefit greatly from his mood. He would gain little from mine.

The industry involved in preparing dinner was evident in the repeated opening and closing of the back door, the chopping sound of knife on cutting board, the hollow tap of wooden spoon against steel. The scent of toasting sage and simmering onions competed gloriously with the woodsmoke of my fire.

“Anything I can do to help, Hon?” I called, hoping for a negative. Pleased to get it, I resumed typing.

Dave’s way is to scurry, mine to be still.

When I was growing up, time spent writing or absorbed in a good book was viewed as a pastime important as schoolwork. Now it is a guilty pleasure. It’s hard to feel at ease with indolence when Dave strides by, drill or hammer or spatula in hand. I always feel better if I leap up and clean a closet or organize a drawer, but I wish I didn’t feel the need to strive for equal worthiness.

The products of his efforts benefit us both: delicious meals, cut firewood, home repairs, freshly-baked bread. Mine, less so: an orderly house, bills paid, errands run. Guilt is neither necessary nor constructive, I tell myself, and yet, I’m not convinced.

The pressure to perform does not come from my husband; even at age fifty-seven, I am sheepish to admit, it stems from my need for approval. Through Dave’s long career as a school psychologist, he has earned respect and love in counseling kids and their families. My path has wandered, a reflection of my own lack of clarity and purpose. But even in college, when first we were dating, I recognized the responsibility, the challenge, of attachment to one so good. Friends would tell me, “The guy’s a saint! Don’t blow it!” And I have continued to feel I stand in the shadow of that goodness; that Dave’s abilities, his work, and his character have set a bar that I, like a puppy after a stick held teasingly out of reach, can not hope to attain.

Years ago, when mothering was my primary role, the kids and I were playing on the lawn at the school where we lived. A pretty young thing of a teacher passed by and observed, “Must be nice to have such an easy life. Time to hang out with your kids in the sun.”

I flushed with anger. “Easy life”? I’d like to see her deal with ear infections, carpools, diapers and croup. And yet, her comment touched a chord. I did feel guilty. If Dave came home from work to find me watching a video of “The Goonies” with the kids instead of folding laundry or making dinner, I’d tick off a list of whatever chores I might have accomplished earlier in the day to justify my sloth. He’d make no comment and I knew he thought nothing of it, but I did. The sting and blessing is that Dave was the perfect husband and father. Beyond his work at the school, he helped with vacuuming, cooking, dishes, and the kids. Some (myself included) might say, “What are you whining about, for god’s sake?”

Whenever I mention to Dave my discomfort over his flurry of activity while, I, say, read in bed, he responds, “And we’re both doing exactly what we want.” Just the right answer. A soothing answer. A psychologist’s answer. And he means it.

So, on this snowy evening with the fire warm on my back and Dave bustling in the kitchen, I file guilt away. The window before me looks out over the backyard. A spotlight mounted on the roof illuminates the dance of whirling flakes, the path to the bird feeders Dave shoveled earlier, and the tangle of spindly branches traced with snow.

“We’re just about ready,” Dave calls from the kitchen. I add another log to the fire and move my computer aside to make room on the table and then head to the cupboard to fetch plates and glasses. In the sink, a soiled whisk, wooden spoon, platter and saucepan soak in soapy suds.

I will wash the dishes after dinner. Truly, I will.

Dave serves up the salmon with a glaze of mustard, honey and Jack Daniels barbecue sauce. I spoon helpings of herbed potatoes and collards onto our plates. If we’d spent the afternoon together, reading in front of the fire, followed by a dinner of eggs or oatmeal, I’d still be content.

But that salmon looks pretty good too.