What I’ve learned in marriage: to give sometimes

Once upon a time, in our early years of sharing a name and a home, Ryan and I concocted the Ultimate Telling Question about marriage.

Let’s say that the mister and missus are going outside to dig in the yard. Maybe she needs a new flowerbed, or maybe the septic system is acting up again. One of their two shovels is a little unwieldy; the other is the perfect size, strong and reliable, with a comfortable handle grip.

WHO GETS THE BETTER SHOVEL?

We came at this point to an impasse, because in our families of origin the answer was obvious. And opposite.

In Ryan’s family, his mother would have offered the better shovel to her husband (of course!), because he is the king of their castle. She is a helper well suited to her husband, coming alongside him in his work. In my family, my dad would have offered the better shovel to his wife (of course!), because he is a gentleman. He treats his lady with deference, showing honor to her as the weaker vessel. Both families have a strong Scriptural precedent on their side.

Did you know that men and women can come to marriage with very different expectations? And that the longer they are held, the touchier they become? It got to the place that Ryan couldn’t stick his head in the door to ask for a drink of water without me feeling put upon and treated like a doormat.

Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if the Coblentz half of our marriage had been masculine and the Zook half had been feminine. We might have had the most mutually sacrificial, boring marriage in the history of ever; except we’re human too, and we’d have managed to mess it up somehow.

But listen now – The most important phrase in that whole scenario is the one most easily overlooked. I said one of the spouses “would have offered.” With joy. Would have come into the situation with the expectation of giving. The longer we looked at that posture, the more beautiful it became, and we both wanted a share in it. Happiness came to this Zook-and-Coblentz-match-of-differing-expectations when we decided that in our marriage, it would go either way. Many couples have found harmony on one side of the question or the other, including our beautiful parents – but for us, there would be no “of course.” In the most extreme sense: I don’t have to kowtow to a heap big man; he doesn’t have to indulge a queen. We are heirs together of the grace of life.

These days, sometimes he offers me the better shovel and sometimes I offer it to him (though I often suspect I’m getting the better end of the deal). It’s sort of funny now.


Ryan and I have a deep respect and gratitude for all four of our parents. Each set has grown in love together for 45 years – a miraculous and incredible legacy.

The Grandpa plant: remembering someone I loved

If you thought that story was odd, here’s another even less explicable.


Confession: Once upon a time, I noticed a beautiful plant in a loosely monitored location. It may or may not have been the windowsill of my grandpa’s nursing home. Okay, it was. I made sure the plant was hearty enough to withstand a little pinch. I felt around in the dirt at the edge of the pot until I could extract a single root. I wrapped it in a damp napkin. Then I brought it home and planted it. (I told you before I have occasional problems with plant snitching.)

I named it the Grandpa plant until I could find out what it was really called. I love having plants that remind me of special people. I have Yvonne’s lily and Marlene’s philodendron and my mom-in-law’s Bethlehem sage and Cynthia’s spider plant and April’s creeping jenny and Aunt Rose’s oregano and the kids’ columbine and Sherry’s cilantro… and so many more. Even after I knew this one was technically “purple shamrock,” I called it “the Grandpa plant” for short. Kind of like how Robert goes by Bob.

I enjoyed it for several years, and watched it grow.

That was the story of the Grandpa plant until this spring, when I brought all my houseplants into the laundry room for their great annual shake-up – pruning, transplanting, and regrouping. I had noticed the Grandpa plant was not doing as well as I would have liked in its deep crock; it had grown better when it was cramped. I dug out all the roots (there were a surprising number of them, like mini bulbs), and placed them carefully into a smaller, shallower pot. Then I put the collection by a window – a different window, which was my big mistake.

They all died.

Every stem keeled over and bit the dust, and only one of the bulbs produced a new shoot, a baby thing of hopeful promise until it, too, collapsed.

I was horrified. I’d killed the Grandpa plant, and now it was gone.

Several weeks later, as I filled a jug of water at my laundry room sink, I saw something odd coming up in my African violet pot. You won’t believe this, but it was purple shamrock – the Grandpa plant – just two little curls of leaf, sturdy and determined.

I had not planted it there. I’d never grown purple shamrock in that pot. In the great annual shake-up strange things can happen, but this one felt like a resurrection. How did it get there? How did it survive when my careful tending did nothing for its brothers? (Don’t even think that snarky thought – you are suggesting I babied the others into an early grave?)

I watched it grow, delightedly.


Soon it had five stems or more, and one day as I looked at how the leaves of the shamrock intertwined with the leaves of the African violet, my eyes opened wide.

That violet came from my grandma.

I’d not thought of it before,
but of all my two dozen houseplants (and countless outdoor varieties)
it’s the only plant I have from
Grandpa’s
wife.

I like to think of him in heaven, and her in Ohio, and their plant starts twining together beside my sink.

The Mandela Effect and me

Confession: When I used the word chartreuse in a blog post and some of you said you had to look it up, I decided I ought to as well, to see if Google Images showed the color I had in mind.

It did.

(For something breathtaking, try googling chartreuse and gray.)

It also led me down a pleasantly unrelated path into the intricacies of the human brain, which remembers things that are not, and mistakes things that are.

I found that many, many people are confused about the word chartreuse, and “distinctly remember” it being previously a dark reddish-purple instead of a light yellow-green. How does that happen? they said. My mother was an artist, and I knew! It was on a Crayola crayon, and I knew!

This led me into briefly researching the Mandela Effect, of which I’d never heard (meanwhile my dishes were not getting washed). The Mandela Effect describes collective false memory, when a large group of people remembers something that apparently never happened – such as many people feeling sure that the Berenstain Bears were once spelled Berenstein. The “Mandela” piece comes from a large number of people “remembering” that Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 80’s, whereas he actually died in bed in 2013.

It tickles my brain. How can we remember what is not?

This leads some folks down the path toward conspiracy theory, paranormal explanations, and alternate realities. I don’t follow. I attribute it instead to confusion – substituting this for that. For example, someone pointed out that chartreuse is not a very different word from cerise, which IS a pinkish-reddish-purple Crayola color. And probably there was a famous black man who died in prison in the 80’s, and people saw his funeral on TV and got him confused with Mr. Mandela. Or they believed he was going to die until, in their minds, he did. Then too, many cited Mandela Effect cases involve discrepancies in spelling, such as for KitKat (not Kit-Kat with a hyphen) and Chick-fil-A (not Chik-fil-A or any variant). Easy to get goofed up about a thing like that – I found it rather amusing than not.

Then I went to a party and created a false memory of my own, which was not as funny.

I attended a Lilla Rose event at a friend’s house, and was pleased with the FlexiClip. I wondered how it kept from slipping apart, and so when I saw one up close, I distinctly noted the grooves for the catch, lined up in a row of three for three different size adjustments. They were deep and sharp, angled like a backslash to avoid the wire slipping out. I thought the consultant even called attention to this clever design. One of the women had trouble releasing the clasp once it was in her hair, and had to be told to push the clip farther together, to get the catch past its groove so it could release.

It was a lovely design, I thought.

Several weeks later, when my FlexiClip arrived, my first thought upon pulling it out of the package was “Oh no! The grooves are all wrong!” They were smooth, flat little half-moons, utterly unable to keep anything from sliding out unless the hair itself added strong outward pressure to hold it in place. I complained to my consultant (who compared with her stock and said it looked the same to her, but kindly offered to exchange for a smaller size if it was having trouble staying in my hair), and I looked online (where every image I found of the FlexiClip showed it identical in design to the one that I held in my hand).

Unbelievable!

I realize it’s not really the Mandela Effect, because I am the only one mistaken, although one friend initially agreed with me: “Your grooves should not be like that!” Later we concluded we must have the same kind of brain.

But – How could I have distinctly remembered something imaginary? How could I have come up with three separate memories to verify my impression? I had 1) a visual {clear mental image of what the clip looked like}, 2) a verbal {comment by the consultant on the nice design to avoid slipping}, and 3) a case in point {when another guest struggled to release the clasp}.

How could I have invented at first glance a better design than what was?

You tell me and Mr. Mandela – and maybe I can sleep again at night.

Our Passover 2017

Confession: Even though the month of April is history, I still want to share pictures of our Passover supper with you.

For the past two years, we’ve chosen to celebrate a Passover feast with our children on the Thursday night before Easter, as part of remembering Jesus’ last days before death. My giant disclaimer fits here: This is an American Anabaptist Passover. The main event is the food, and we don’t go kosher – we shamelessly pick which pieces to observe, and then fill in the rest with foods we like to eat together.

But our children love it, and we leave an empty place setting and a glass of grape juice for Jesus.

We eat lamb, because that follows the original story of when God’s people left Egypt. It’s a costly meat, special for our family – I know we could roast a chicken instead, but there’s something so perfect about the Lamb. We buy a small roast, already seasoned delightfully with garlic and lots of rosemary.

Last year I roasted potatoes and carrots, which is more traditional. This year, having served roast veggies a couple of nights before, I whipped creamy mashed potatoes.

We picked bitter herbs from the yard – dandelion, yarrow, and parsley (does parsley count?) – and dipped them in salt water. The herbs symbolize the bitterness of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, and the salty water is their tears.

For unleavened bread, I tried homemade matzo this year – thin crackers with salt. That was a hit, especially when we dipped them in the haroset.

Haroset is an apple salad, made in a food processor to look like the mortar the Israelites used. I can’t for the life of me find the site from which I originally borrowed this particular recipe, though I tried hard. It was from a private blog and I really liked how he wrote about Passover. We love this recipe well enough to eat it any time of year. Its spices and honey add a curiously delicious twist. So thank you, Mr. American Haroset, wherever you are…

American Haroset

3 red apples
3 green apples
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup pecans
To taste: honey, cloves, and ginger

Process all together in food processor.

Of course we ate hard-boiled eggs, though when I turned them into mice with cheese Ryan said “Do you know how horrified a Jewish person would be to think of a mouse on the table?” I just laughed and said “Okay, well, yeah. Good thing we’re not Jewish?”

We lit candles and poured our homemade sparkling grape juice, and served everything up.

Each year I think, “This time we will do some of the readings and questions.” I even found Elisabeth Adam’s beautiful Haggada and printed it off, trying hard to include it. But then…

Do Jewish babies not fuss?

Are Jewish mothers more long-suffering when they do?

We skipped the readings for another year, and just ate a lamb cake for dessert. I told you the food was our main event, and hey.

It made Jenny happy again.


What ideas will you give me for next year’s feast?

Thoughts after the holiday

Congratulations, everybody. We made it through another Mother’s Day.

All you dads thought of something heart-warming and appropriate to give your wives, or survived the humiliation if you did not.

All you church leaders and Sunday school teachers avoided the fraught topics, or not, but at least it’s behind you.

You women who wonder if you really qualify as a mother, because your mothering is non-traditional, smiled and wore something pretty and made it through. I honor you.

You who are grieving the loss of your mother cried the tears and braved the ubiquitous shopping displays (BUY THIS NOW!! FOR HER!! – while you thought if only I could). You who are grieving the loss of a child you loved – I know it hurt. I honor you too.

You who are still waiting for that special someone who will rock your world – you who sat quietly with no one squirming on your lap and putting sweet arms around your neck – you made it. We saw you, and the tears you could not cry. Our community would be so much less without you.

You kids who pulled off the breakfast in bed, the handmade cards, the first attempts at cooking – Good job, honey. You did a good job, even if it didn’t look like you imagined.

You moms, whom this day is supposed to be all about – I thought of you especially. Some of you ate it up and loved it. Some of you found it didn’t look like you imagined either.

The before-church messiness and bickering, normal on most Sundays, can be unbearable on a day like this because can’t they for once let it go, just once this special day?? All the usual, reasonable sacrifices of motherhood – being last at the food, washing those dishes, sweeping up the glass shards – seem more burdensome. There are babies screaming to be fed. There are adolescents giving you that face. There are grown children who do not reach back to say thank you. Mother’s Day can be a reminder that not all is as it should be.

But we made it.

If there is one thing I have learned in the last months about motherhood, it’s that it is a GIFT, surprisingly unpredictable, impossible, and delicious. You who felt swamped with work and worry yesterday, remember – some in your congregation would give several years off their life for that honor. Okay, maybe several hours, I don’t know.

I read two books lately that changed my views on mothering and homemaking. One was The Bookseller of Kabul, a difficult read I wouldn’t necessarily recommend. Besides painful glimpses into the oppression of women in Afghanistan, including sexual exploitation, the punch-point that impacted me most was that the author could not imagine a fulfilling life for her main characters, women who lived out their lives in service to the men they loved, sweeping daily dust that never went away and cooking for daily crowds that never went away too, and falling into bed at night exhausted. I thought Abuses granted, yes. But women have lived this way for thousands of years, and some of them have been very happy.

I’ll be honest with you though: it rattled me. For several weeks I was choked by my own femininity and cultural setting, and I even printed out Maya Angelou’s beautiful poem Caged Bird and hung it by my kitchen sink. That worked, and made me feel noble and queenly and misunderstood, until my sons who were emptying the dish drainer began reading it aloud in an outrageous mixture of British, Swahili, and Pennsylvania Dutch accent. They don’t even speak Swahili. But they had it down, and it nearly ruined the poem for me forever. “A CAAAHGED bird stahnds on the GREEAAAVE of dreams, his SHAAAYHdow shouts on a NEIGHTHTHMAHRE scream…” When I stopped laughing, and crying, I took down the paper and threw it in the trash can.

We are not in a cage.

We are not in a cage just because our lives revolve around other people and we serve a lot and wash mounds of grass-stained laundry without thanks. We are honored. Jesus said those who serve are blessed, and I can’t help noticing that his servants eventually grow into pretty incredible people.

The other book was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and in it the author, who is a self-professed liberated woman, mourned the losses of a generation of stay-at-home moms. She spoke of the food losses, particularly, in healthy eating and homey happiness, but she spoke also of the deception of a System that promised us freedom and then harnessed us with long-hour jobs as well as childcare and housekeeping and cooking (someone still has to do it!) with less time than ever. She considers it “the great hoodwink” of her generation. (Read a larger quote here.) So I am happy not to have entirely fallen for women’s lib, just yet.

Mothering is hard. We women have always struggled with comparison and jealousy, but in this modern age of invasive technology and picture-perfect online worlds, I am convinced we have a harder time of it.

I’m not sure – forgive me for being cynical, I don’t try – I’m not sure that a day to honor us is the best idea. Besides all the people on whom it puts pressure (those I spoke to above: men and children, and women with pain), it puts some pressure on all moms – to get our smiles on and make this look good, and bask in rather dreamy praise while simultaneously juggling a baby in one arm and a stack of Bibles in the other (which the kids forgot under the pews), and thinking whether that casserole we put in the oven for dinner will really feed fifteen. And showing delight in everything we are given, no matter how clumsily and preciously.

They love us, and they want to show it. That breaks my heart. The way I made peace with the day is that I said to myself, Shari – it’s a great day to be a mother. Be glad, and do your job.

I was given a lovely hammock yesterday from my favorite people, and the columbine they gave to me last year bloomed again in my flowerbed this year, just in time for Mother’s Day. That was awesome.

Maybe it is primarily a day to honor the women who are done. When I went to town on Saturday, the store was full of women in their forties and fifties, prancing around with carts full of flowers. How many mothers do they have? Do they buy their own presents? Instagram post: #mythoughtfulson #amazinggift   Anyway, I honor my mom, and mom-in-law. They are at the stage to rest; I am at the stage to rise up and call them blessed.

And then I need to wake up Monday morning and draw sudsy water for those dishes. And Tuesday morning. And Wednesday morning. I’m a lucky kid, and I get to be a mother, and although this job is not classy or romantic it is liberating, and worth doing.

Hang in there, everybody. We made it for another year.

xoxo

Shari


This post contains affiliate links.

What did you take for granted about your mother?