The Things You Leave Behind
Walking sticks from around the world sold for a buck apiece at the last garage sale I browsed. Frenzied shoppers snatched up hundreds of hand-whittled or au naturel canes, with the collection site penciled carefully on a sanded section of the stick - Bryce Canyon, Utah; Split, Yugoslavia; Ryoko, Japan. I grabbed six, but wanted more. One woman stuffed the trunk of her Mercedes with the collected treasures and wrote a check for $150. Other sticks left one by one, scattering across Austin.
I brought my walking sticks home and leaned them in a corner by the cabinet that holds my collection of old, tattered children's books. When I die, where will all these books go? Will anyone recognize my name scrawled at an early age across the first page of the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book, so politically incorrect it contains stories of both Little Black Sambo and Br'er Rabbit? And what about my collection of yellow pitchers and my weird aluminum platters? Will all this be scattered like the walking sticks of that childless old man, chronicles of a lifetime of travels, a tangible record of his relentless efforts to lug home branches and twigs from Africa, Asia, and the Soviet Republic to store in a barrel by the television in the den, to ponder and stroke and remember when he was too old for globetrotting? Is it reason enough to have children just to have someone to inherit my kitchen wares?
But I don't have children, and probably never will, because I fell in love with a man who fell off Yosemite Falls. Okay, so Richard didn't exactly go over the big falls - no one has ever survived that tumble - but he did slip off the ledge along a pool near the top (marked with enormous signs warning hikers not to swim there) and jet through the whitewater in the steep valley that links the two main falls. There were many rocks along the way. One broke his jaw. One smashed many of his teeth out. One, which he grabbed just before going over the big fall, saved his life. And one clobbered him in such a way as to qualify as a natural vasectomy. He clung to the rock for eight hours, bleeding, spitting out teeth, and freezing to death while rescuers risked their lives to save his; the vasectomy was the least of his problems.
He told me all about it on our first date. In the short term, I considered it a blessing in disguise. I could quit worrying about birth control. In the long term... well, I was 22 then and long term was deciding what to have for dessert. Fourteen years later, I still consider it a blessing. No worries, no surprises, no pills, no contraptions. But every once in a while, when we've had a few too many margaritas or when a friend's kid does something especially cute like sing and dance on command or when we witness an achingly tender moment between my best friend and her daughter, we wonder if we're missing something.
For now, our child-free life is great. We can live on the edge of a treacherous cliff. We don't have to save for someone's college education. We can travel any time of the year. We don't have to worry about crazed baby sitters, guns in schools, driver's ed, teenage pregnancy, junk-food diets, octane booster highs, that frightening late-night call or visit from the police - at least not intimately. Actually, we do worry about those things for our nieces and nephews and the children of our friends and kids in general. We like kids and we wish the world were a better place for them, but it's not the same as if our own little trolls were marching around in this mess. Our lives seem so calm and uncomplicated compared to those of our baby-making friends.
I like it now. But what about when we're old and gray? Our biggest fear is that we'll turn out like Leo and Ethel, an older, childless couple that lives next door to a house we own. They never go anywhere except to University of Texas sporting events. They know everything there is to know about all their neighbors and they share the information freely and bitterly.
They take apart their box fan to clean it every week. They cover their 1984 station wagon with a drop cloth every single moment it's parked in their drive. They eat ham every Sunday. Leo and Ethel remind me of the goldfish in a tiny bowl a TV preacher held up during a late-night broadcast I was watching when I couldn't sleep during a thunderstorm. "These goldfish will never get any bigger because they have adapted to the size of their habitat," he said, grinning at the little fish. Then he pointed to some huge goldfish in a pond behind him. "These are the same kind of fish but they've grown bigger because they've had this whole pond to explore. It's important for people not to limit themselves to a tiny fishbowl if they want to keep growing. Their pond should get bigger and bigger." Well, Leo and Ethel live in a shot glass. Their world is so tiny, Leo knows the instant a leaf hits his lawn and Ethel knows what time the woman across the street takes a nap on Saturdays. Is this just their personalities or is it because they never had kids to help them push out the boundaries of their lives?
I also don't want to be like a group of people I heard interviewed on the radio. They had formed an organization called something like Childless Couples With Chips on Their Shoulders. They claimed they had been discriminated against or pestered by breeding advocates or slighted by the government in a myriad of ways. They were angry about paying for public schools or dealing with other people's rowdy children in grocery stores or taking up the slack when a co-worker went on maternity leave. They were embittered by other people's choice to have children and I wanted to tell them, whether they had children or not, people weren't going to like them anyway because they were grouchy and whiney.
Occasionally, baby-loving zealots preach to me about the joys of childbirth, dirty diapers, and parental bonding, and thump me on the stomach and demand we join their ranks. But among my friends - an honest, straightforward group that would, of course, throw themselves in front of a train to save their babies, but nonetheless wonder out loud, "What on earth have I done?" when the kid won't sleep or it breaks the oven door or it throws a wall-eyed tantrum in the middle of Central Market - we are occasionally envied and always tolerated.
If we really wanted children, there might be a way around Richard's accident. Maybe the damage is reversible. If not, as far as I know, I'm still capable of making babies - although the cut-off date is rapidly approaching - so artificial insemination is an option. (An option that gives both of us the willies, quite frankly. What if my egg is saddled with a sperm loaded with the genes of a liar or a zealous golfer or a big-game hunter or a redneck militia geek? Could I possibly love a lying golfer who drags home dead lions and gazelles and owns a closet full of camouflage outfits as if he were my own?)
There's always adoption, I know. Yet despite the thousands of successful, fulfilling adoptions out there, I stubbornly remember only the occasional horror story: of the birth mother demanding her child back after three years; of the seriously abused toddler whose past is confidential, and irrevocable even if it were disclosed, who grows up to be a tortured adult; of patricide and serial murderers; of terrible genetic diseases. Sometimes, I do want to fill my house with Wednesday's children and every tiny orphaned AIDS baby and Romanian child and neglected inner-city kid I see on 60 Minutes or Dateline.
But the moment is as fleeting as the time it takes for the toll-free number to flash on my screen. The insistent ticking isn't pounding in my head and my heart, driving me to the lengths it would take for us to become parents. It would be an effort, never an accident, for us to create a family.
Perhaps because I don't have children, I weigh parents' responsibility to their child much heavier than some people with children do. The casualness with which many parents - teenage mothers, philandering Don Juans, couples who hate each other, religious zealots who are trying to fulfill some spiritual baby quota - bring another person into this world astounds me. I take pet ownership more seriously than these folks take the nurturing and raising of their own offspring. Hell, I take growing tomatoes more seriously.
This heavyweight view of responsibility may also stem from my own childhood, not because it was terrible, as it seems the majority of childhoods must be judging from the weeping, screaming families that strut the stage on Geraldo or Oprah, or from the stream of confessional autobiographies written by celebrities, or the personal growth directives of psycho-pop therapists. My childhood was magical and my parents worked hard to make it that way. My dad walked us upside down on the ceilings and let us dance on the tops of his feet. My mom made us the most spectacular Halloween costumes in town. She cut all the crusts off my bread when I was sick and served me liquid Jell-O (why, I'm not sure, but it certainly showed concern for my health, just the same). My dad made me an electric car when it was apparent I was too uncoordinated to learn to ride a bike. He made up elaborate games to pull our baby teeth, made an official document for my sister's second grade teacher declaring Cindy was excused from eating the dreaded Turkey and Dressing on Thursdays, and framed our art work and hung it at the office.
Meanwhile, Mom drove us to dance class, swim class, cooking class, ceramics class, horseback riding lessons, Brownies, the library, the allergist, and play practice at The Little Theater on the Bay. (And made us stunning cockatoo, Peter Pan, princess, pirate, and Huck Finn costumes.) That's an awful lot to live up to, don't you think? And if the sweet little kiddos I had tended so carefully grew up to be the volatile, sulking, belligerent teenagers my sister and I became, I would get on a large ship and sail far away, as quickly as possible. Or at least hit the talk-show circuit. But my brave parents stuck it out. I don't want kids because I can't forget my past and I'm afraid I wouldn't repeat it with my own offspring.
Last week I helped my mom clean up around her house. As altruistic as I want everyone to think my efforts were, I had ulterior motives. I knew she'd be tossing tons of clutter and I was hoping to convince her to toss a few things my way: a cookie jar she painted, an awkward-looking vase I've loved for years, and a reproduction of an antique cast-iron toy truck. These goodies are now all mine. But it was the unexpected gift of two books that was more than payment in full for my three days of scrubbing and tossing.
One is Milton's Poems with the inscription "This book was a gift from Clinton L. Moody [my great-grandfather] to Georgina Hunt [my great-great-aunt] on Feb. 8 1884, C.L. Moody, Forest Glade, Limestone Co., 1884". The other is Shakespeare's Works. The title page is missing, but I can tell this is an ancient book that has endured countless moves and rough handling.
Someone had attacked the back of the cover with an orange crayon and dog-eared the pages. There are cryptic notes in the margins: "learn how Claudious killed..." in Hamlet and "do what is right as is to know what's right" in The Merchant of Venice. The only notes I understood were the initials penciled alongside the characters in Titus Andronicus. "P" and "D." Pat and Dot. My mom and my aunt, assigning roles somewhere on a ranch in West Texas near Aspermont. No radio. No car. A block of ice once a week. Dust everywhere. And they've discovered mother's book of plays, determined to plow through lines like "Hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds! Lo, as the bark, that hath discharged her fraught, Returns with precious lading to the bay..." Whew. Remember, too, Cliff's Notes hadn't been invented yet.
These ancestral treasures are now tucked on the shelf with my old children's books. What is their future? I've decided all I can do is cherish my fragile books and goofy glassware and walking sticks while I'm here, revel in the love of my friends and husband and family while they're here, and stop worrying about who will appreciate me or my stuff when I'm old, then gone.
It seems so simple living this life in the present tense. I even brought a walking stick home from my last trip to California. n