Friday, December 15, 2006

a day out

In the restaurant today over lunch, there were three couples seated to the right of us at a big round table in the corner: retired people, white-haired, well-dressed. On our left, two young mothers with children young enough to be carried around in those complicated-looking infant car seats that double as baby carriers.

I don't know which group made me sadder: the young mothers raptly discussing cereals and the safest kind of highchair, or the stiffly seated grandparents conversing about titanium knees and cholesterol levels.

The mother with the older baby clearly dominated the friendship. She sat very straight, sliding her eyes pridefully over to her child (whose plump dimpled hands kept waving gracefully in and out of the carrier seat as she spooned him something green from a jar), delivering firm -- I would say strident -- opinions on feeding and sleeping.

The newer mother would nod and swallow, listening hard, as if she longed to take notes.

Unexpectedly, I recalled a time twelve and a half years ago when I'd carried my infant son into a restaurant in San Francisco, gritting my teeth with self-consciousness any time he cried out or turned red in the face (signaling an impending bowel movement).

Really, I thought, I hadn't enjoyed my children's infancies much, especially with my oldest. It seemed there was always so much to worry about, then -- I had far too much anxiety over their infancies to find much joy in the actual experience.

This realization brings sorrow: as if something valuable has been carelessly squandered.

I studied the young women over my wine glass and envied them their aplomb, doubtless forgetting that I'd probably carried myself much the same way (how secure could they be, if all they can discuss is the children?).

My parents didn't come to California to visit. I brought the child back to them (my son squirming and angry, throwing his sippy cup in a fury at the back of another traveler's head. I was the harried parent no one wants to sit near on an airplane).

I felt so alone in the world, in my twenties. I felt blank and little, as if still absorbing knowledge from each person who came into my periphery. I'd wonder why other adults ignored me at parties, knowing all the while that I had nothing of value to offer anyway: I had no assurance or certification to make my insight valid. What does a twentysomething know?

"When we last visited the grandchildren, we stopped in Michigan," one of the older women at the other table said confidently, as if delivering a well-rehearsed speech. "We so enjoy traveling now. It's so easy to do."

Everyone else nodded, but I sensed a hollow ring to her voice -- a sort of false bravado. She wasn't saying, They don't come to us; we have to go to them, and it's so awkward being in their house and not wanting to offend them by asking too many questions or giving too much advice. But I heard it anyway.

I watched the new mothers. I listened to the grandparents. A woman across the room also having lunch with her husband caught my eye: she was looking down at the table between them, the corners of her mouth pulled down. She wore a white turtleneck with candy canes and Christmas trees patterned on it. It looked too prim and smug, somehow.

I always feel anxiety when I go out in public and realize how other people have dressed. It always seems that whatever it is I've chosen, it's just slightly wrong. (In this case, a powder blue sport shirt that my father in law used to wear when he painted the house. I just tucked it into my blue jeans to hide the paint smudges, thinking no one would notice. Now in the restaurant, I realized how arrogant and careless that was of me.)

For that matter, I barely recognized my reflection in the mirrored wall on the other side of the room: long, thin, flat hair, full round face. In fact, I reminded myself of the kind of mother I'd see around when I was growing up; the ones in their late thirties and early forties, identifiable by the quietly stunned expressions they'd wear in an unguarded moment -- the expression you have when you realize you've lost something.

(I've had a hysterectomy. I'll never have another infant of my own again.)

These girls with their first babies. Everything is monumental to them; because it's so new. There's this part of you that wants to lean over and say confidentially, if a little cruelly, "Oh, for Heaven's sake. Let the boy sleep through your meal; you can feed him later. You don't have to give him his peas before your own dinner just because you sat down. And it doesn't matter what highchair you get, or what kind of spoon you buy. They grow up no matter what you do." But then you don't say that, because it's kind of touching, in a way, their firm-jawed determination in doing it right (whatever that is).

"Personally," one of the grandmothers said, "I've been finding that dyeing your hair blond doesn't always work well. It's so easy to get that false color! And after a certain point dyeing your hair dark seems to age you more than anything else. I think it's wise to try tinting your hair a reddish color."

I didn't look up, but I could feel their gaze swiveling in my direction as I toyed with my salad.

I tried not to smile.

"Let's have a toast," my husband said suddenly, and I lifted my glass to his, obligingly.
"But what do we toast to?" he asked me.
"To getting better as we get older," I said very definitely.

We drank to it.
And I felt such gratitude.