“Supersized Settling, With a Side of Fries”
In the car culture of middle America, the first months of a baby’s life see the infant toted everywhere, from grocery store to doctor’s office to library, all whilst strapped into a car seat with a handle; during this time, the most gratifying interaction a parent has with that infant is ahhing over a gassy smile or grinning at a gentle belch. And occasionally the baby does these things, too. Outside of the gratifying moments, the rest is just routine preservation—trying to make sure the baby hangs on to all ten fingers, continues to breathe, and sees daylight occasionally. During this phase of the child’s life, Baby is, frankly, just high-maintenance luggage.
That’s why Baby’s first steps are such a revelation and relief. Other milestones in the first year are lauded, of course, but rolling over is less monumental than walking because it doesn’t clearly mark a move towards self-sufficiency. Baby may master rolling over, but Mommy, with a deep, long-suffering sigh, still has to get the toy in the other room or retrieve a misplaced sippy cup. However, walking changes all that and introduces the most-used and helpful phrase in the household lexicon: “Get it yourself!”
Six summers ago, our Girl made the leap from infancy to toddlerhood. In many ways during June, July and August of 2001, we reveled in the summer of movement.
Virtually the same week Girl learned to walk, I drove five hours up Interstate 35, from southern to northern Minnesota, for a job interview. That day, I wore the same shirt I had five years previously, during the nearly-disastrous-but-pulled-it-out-in-the-clinch job interview I’d had in Spamtown, when I first entered Minnesota’s community college system. You might think I wore that shirt again because it had taken on some mythical status as my “Lucky Shirt.” Nae. I wore it again because it had loitered in the closet for five years, lolling about, hanging on to its crispness–leaving me free of the need to iron. Through such a complex process of wardrobe analysis, I decided how best to dress to impress.
The interview went well, and even though the committee had way too rollicking of a time as a mock “class” during my teaching presentation, I was ultimately offered the job. On a professional level, the move was a lateral one, but my new campus seemed vigorous enough to keep me engaged for decades to come. On a personal level, however, the move was huge.
Groom and I had been eager to move out of a humid, over-groomed, smallish down based around pig-slaughter and up to a city of water and natural green spaces. Duluth was the dream, and, thanks to my crisp blouse and formidable eye contact, we had achieved it.
In short order, we put our Austin house on the market; then, before searching out a place to live on Lake Superior’s North Shore, we embarked on a road trip to California, for a friend’s wedding.
California by way of Montana makes sense for those driving from Minnesota–and it affords an opportunity to stop for the 113th time at the money-trap that is Wall Drug, where the weary traveler can eat buffalo burgers, enjoy free water, and perch angrily upon the attractions.
With the Girl having proven her rodeo mettle, we hopped back into the air-conditioned car and zipped to Billings see my folks and brother, who had gone AWOL from his military life long enough to whiz home for a taste of my mom’s homemade chicken noodle soup.
(the bathtub at my parents’ house had been broken for years, so, with Girl afraid of the shower, we had to rig up a different way to soften and peel The Crusties off of her peaches and cream)
During this leg of the trip, we left Girl for the first time for a night without us. While Groom and I chugged up into the Beartooth Mountains for a getaway, Girl stayed home with my brother and parents.
And, hence, I learned that it takes no time at all to corrupt. In the 22 short hours of our absence, my family managed to introduce Girl to her first fast food, and I believe the sound of her brain shifting permanently within her skull at that seminal taste of French fries and ketchup was audible. Fair enough, though. Really, outside of driving home the meaning of “thinly-veiled dysfunction,” what better is family suited for than introducing unhealthy eating habits to one’s repertoire?
While Girl sucked the sugary red stuff sprinkled with salt off of her fingers, Groom and I participated in a true boondoggle up in the mountains: with no altitude acclimatization to speak of, we registered for a race that took place entirely uphill on the switchbacks of one of the mountains in the Beartooth chain. Groom, made of sterner stuff than I, ran the 8-miler straight up, while I settled for the more realistic 4.4-miler, telling myself all I could do was run as much as I could and then walk the rest (thinking I just might, at a leisurely, deliberate slog, manage to plod my way through the race).
I made it 98 yards, give or take an inch, before my lungs exploded in my chest. As the popping sound echoed away down into the canyon, my plod slowed to a pouting trudge, which then lasted for the ensuing 4.35 miles. At least my schlepping was broken up by the friendly chat of a college student who was working away the summer in the local touristy community. Having decided the night before to run the race, Student realized she’d neglected to train at all for the previous, em, 19 years, so she packed in one fierce and extended session of sprints alternated with endurance miles the evening before the race. If you need any further explanation of why she was huffing at the back of the pack with me, I can also tell you she was a smoker who stoically managed to refrain from lighting up until the finish line.
My finish line reward was a beer followed by a quick trip back to Billings, just long enough to snatch up our Happy Meal-addicted Girl.
Then we continued on road tripping over to Idaho before dropping south and cutting a shoulder into Nevada, ultimately ending up at pre-wedding festivities in the Yosemite region of California: hikes, swims, renting a house with a group of buddies. Then, en masse, we traveled to the Palo Alto area, where we witnessed, in a vineyard, the exchange of vows. To pass the time during some of the readings and songs, I pretended to be a character in the long-deceased television show, FALCON CREST. In front of me, they broke a glass under the huppah, but in my head, I was Jane Wyman’s evil sidekick, one with feathered hair and waist-narrowing shoulder pads.
On our way back to Minnesota, we spent a delicious couple of days zipping along “The Loneliest Road in America,” a 284-mile stretch of parched road through Nevada. We camped in Great Basin National Park, at a site I remember best for having a pitch just steep enough that newly-toddling Girl discovered running by surprise. She was just trying to walk downhill, but suddenly her elfin feet were flying out of control, and then she whirred out onto the asphalt campground road, gaining momentum, cackling and giggling wildy the whole time. I missed a lot of her careening, however, as I too busy bending over, holding my stomach out of fear for her, trying not to shriek like a harridan, “STOP, CHILD, for nothing must ever harm you.” Crouching and cowering, I managed to subdue my maternal fears, and then we all ate noodles.
The next morning, trying to fit in his daily run while making time on the road, Groom ran from the campsite, seven miles straight down the side of the mountain (karmically balancing out his mountain running efforts). When he reached us where we awaited him in the car, I knew it had been bad, as he broke the stoicism that typifies his Northern European heritage and bit out: “I. Don’t. Ever. Need. To. Run. Seven. Miles. All. Downhill. Ever. Again.” From him, that was a veritable wail of pain. His quads actively hated him for at leat three days afterward, even in the midst of lovely Utah.
Quickly, we discovered that rents in Duluth are higher than mortgages, so we switched our search to buying a second home—and don’t all good Americans own at least two homes, whether or not they can afford it? We found a sweet little place, under 1,000 square feet, but couldn’t move in for six weeks. Thus, midsummer found us in interim housing, waiting for the keys and for the comfort that would come with what was surely the imminent sale of our Austin house. Because, although we really wanted to be good, over-consuming Americans? The truth is that we just wanted the one house; paying two mortgages would eat up 55% of our monthly income, after all, and now that she was walking, Baby would, periodically, need a new pair of shoes.
As the weeks passed, we eased into our Duluth life, and eventually I started my new job. The Austin house sat on the market. Our diet began to consist of a lot of rice.
Summer ended. Months ticked by. We continued to pay two mortgages. Realizing either rickets or scurvy was setting in, we scraped some pennies out of the couch cushions and bought a bag of dried apricots.
During the continued months of double-mortgage stress, there was, simultaneously, a glorious feeling of having truly come home in Duluth, in that small house. Whereas in Austin, our outings with Girl strapped into the jogging stroller had been greeted with bemused comments like, “Well, would you look at that chariot, Marv! Have you ever sent the like?” we were relieved to have found our own–to have spotted our tribe, our clan (one possessing both fire AND the wheel) on our first walk to the playground, when no fewer than three other baby joggers were parked along the edge. We approached the hurricane slide joyously, giving the other parents there the secret handshake of a shouted “trailmix-gorp!” followed by a clanking together of canoe paddles and a revving of Subaru motors.
Indeed, the lovely thing about this period of getting to know our new city was that it felt so completely like a place where we could spend decades. And for the first time since I had headed off to college, the idea of settling somewhere didn’t feel like a diminishment of possibility or a letting go of dreams. In this case, it felt like an augmentation, an actualization of dreams. Even though “settling” and “down” so often have negative implications, taken together and attached to “Duluth,” these words felt more like “whooping” and “up.”
Of course, whooping it up over a bowl of rice and beans gets old, even when dried apricots have been stirred into the mix. Eventually, as our gorgeous Austin house went unsold, Groom, then thirty years old, nobly took on a paper route (he was up at 3:30 a.m.–riding off on his banana-seat bike, wearing his chest banner of scouting badges, toting ball of string, a stick shaped like a gun, and a frog in his pocket– getting home a few hours later, in time for me to head off to work and for him to watch Girl. In no time at all, his ability to answer the telephone or complete a sentence was gone, but at least he had already completed a successful tour in Girl’s Lack of Sleep Bootcamp, so he knew how to function in a daze). With the addition of his paper route money, we even had chicken one time.
That was some ferociously-good chicken.
Twenty-six months after first listing our Austin house, each of us suffering from only mild hair loss due to poor diet, it sold.
To celebrate, we tossed a symbolic bag of beans into Lake Superior, bought a haunch of beef, and settled, even more deeply, into our deck chairs, napkins tucked under chins.
Naturally, next to her slab of cow, Girl had a heap of French fries slathered in ketchup.