Yesterday on Instagram I shared photos of my family in an orchard picking apples, all of us smiling, the littlest stomping through the mud, our bag stuffed with fruit. I shared images of my two youngest in a candle shop brimming with handmade candles, where they dipped their own candles in a vat of wax surrounded by logs, directed by a friendly looking older woman in a COVID-friendly plastic face shield, because nothing says 2020 like vague dystopia and human separation.
ANYWAY, a commenter asked a question I so related to and felt all the way to my bones. She asked if my family was always so harmonious during outings and that we all look so happy. And we really do.
First of all, it’s a heavy happy vibe on principle, apple-picking in the fucking Netherlands. The Dutch are big on “gezellig,” which closely translates to “cozy” but also means much more than that. It’s cozy, quaint, comfortable, friendly. It’s like a way of being, and it penetrates so much of Dutch life. You’ll often hear Mac and I yelling “Good god this place is so fucking ADORABLE JESUS CHRIST!” Or just the random “Are you fucking kidding me?” while staring at some street that looks like it’s out of Disneyland, and then here comes a toddler on a balance bike wearing MaryJanes and tights and a puffer coat and everyone just looks so happy with their fucking healthcare and reasonable college tuition. Don’t even get me started on the boating situation on the canals, OR THE MOTHERFUCKING BIKES WITH BABIES ON THEM OR IN WOODEN BASKET THINGS ON THE FRONT.
It’s fine. Gezellig.
But it’s not a cutesy cute. The Dutch are not “cute.” They’re direct, strong people committed to personal liberty, freedom, and being decidedly NOT DELICATE. You don’t bike 2-3 children, groceries, and possibly a small mattress home in a sideways rainstorm year after year while being delicate.
Anywho, I also add filters. I like playing with photos. I like photography. I’m not a photographer, but I’ve always enjoyed the process of taking a drab photo and turning it into something that better captures what I think the photo is trying to say. You know, cropping, fading, highlighting, fucking with this and that. Sometimes I can’t be bothered, but on a day like yesterday, when I had some time, I doctored my shit and made the photos look as gezellig as the outing felt.
You know, in between times we were screaming at each other.
Oh right. That was my point: These photos are, by definition, bullshit. They are a filtered selection of real life. We all know that.
And yet they aren’t at all. Everything in those photos happened, they happen every time. They are real. But it’s a curation, a thoughtful presentation. Our trip to Italy recently. Damn. You’d think we were some fancy-ass world travelers who sit around and love each other all day while eating large shrimp.
Absent from the photos are the screaming matches, the teenage and kid tears, the parent tears and rage-breathing in response to it all, the bickering between kids, between parents and kids, between parents. (Look, it’s not my fault Mac doesn’t drive perfectly. SOMEBODY HAS TO SAVE US.)
Also absent: The moment I realize it’s noon and we’re in Italy and I’m on my phone playing Two Dots and I hate myself.
I don’t feel a need to excessively curate my life. I post my messy house. I post my messy self. I tell you how miserable the drive home was from Germany on the last day when every last one of us contemplated launching ourselves out the car door and into a Swiss alp just to make it stop.
I don’t add filters and “iris enhancements” to our eyeballs until we’re teetering on the border between “definitely aliens” and “perpetually tanned white people with astonishingly blue eyes,” causing half the comment section to freak out: THE EYES OMG THE EYES.
(Friends, if the eyes look fake, they probably are. Creating piercing crystal eyes is like a ten-second process in Photoshop and Lightroom.).
But also, when I post these collections of dream-like shit, it’s real, and it’s what I remember, and it’s what it means to me. I think I’m old and tired or something because the family bickering doesn’t bother me as much. It does for a moment—don’t we all have moments when we wish we had chosen a different life with different humans on a different continent? No, just me?—but it’s a moment, a flash. It doesn’t define the day, the trip, the outing.
In other words, I don’t really give a fuck.
The yelling, the bickering, the snapping at each other, the freak outs, the muddy shoes, the forgotten jacket—for sure there was a time when all those things would have turned the heat up beneath my patience until I was boiling in anxiety, pissed off, and reflecting on how our day was “ruined.”
I’m not better than that now. God knows we reject all personal growth around here. But as I’ve written before, I MISS MY BABIES AND CLING TO THIS SHIT FOR DEAR LIFE.
I feel like I’ve seen it all, felt it all. I’ve done the rotation of Family Shit so many times. Not that I know more or I’m better at handling it. I’m just immune to it. Where it used to hit me deep inside and I’d decide my family was dysfunctional probably due to a deficiency on my part, or Mac’s, depending on my mood, now I see Normal Family Shit and move on.
Ava will be 19 next month. Rocket is 15. I’m happy they’re here, that they’re around, that we’re together. I’m happy my teenagers want to hang out with us occasionally, that we laugh sometimes, that we turn on Paul Simon and sing after somebody whines about how THEY DON’T WANT TO LISTEN TO GRACELAND AGAIN and everyone in the car has to “handle it” instead of just, like, us parents. I swear to god I say “You don’t have to HELP!” 1500 times a day.
I’m happy Mac and I have been together long enough to accept that we’re both dicks. I have no idea how to expand on that.
I’m happy we talk honestly to each other and come back around and apologize when we act badly and I’m happy we pile on the couch almost every night, for a few moments, until somebody gets mad and stomps upstairs yelling about how they hate us.
I don’t know. I’m 41. I have four kids between the ages of 18 and 6. I turned around once, and one was grown. I look back on the days when they were little as the happiest fucking days of my life and I hate myself for even saying that. But let me tell you what I wouldn’t give to go back to the day when my George was born and I watched Ava and Rocket hold her, just kids themselves, and it seemed there were so many years.
I know this isn’t everyone’s story, but it is mine, and I realize the strong cliché vein running through this—but I’ve never bullshitted you and I won’t now, especially not to maintain some consistent branding as the one talking shit about motherhood. Ha. Branding.
I still talk shit about motherhood, but now I’m mad at the fact that I would, at 41, reflect on the years that felt SO ENDLESSLY HORRIBLY HARD AT THE TIME AS THE BEST YEARS OF MY GODDAMN LIFE.
Also why am I talking about my life as if it’s over? Is this a 2020 trait?
It’s not over. And now I live in a country where I feel more serenity and day-to-day happiness than I’ve ever felt, so basically I’m full of shit and nostalgia is a motherfucker.
My point is: I miss those days, I love those days, I love the days we have now.
You know what I really enjoy about this stage of parenthood? That those outings to me, even with all the yelling, bickering, forgotten shit, and moments of why are these people in my life, the day, more than anything else, is my little boy showing a Dutch oma which shape of candle he’d like, and then watching her, wide-eyed, as she twists the warm wax of the candle he made.
It’s the grin my boy Rocket gave his dad as he teased him about a joke I missed and the way I caught him smiling as he picked an apple, and he looked just like he did when he was seven. It’s my Ava getting so irate about the mud on her suede shoes, just as she’s done her whole life, but walking through the orchard with us anyway.
It’s that same girl, my first, almost 19, taking a picture of her siblings, the ones she was so fucking mad at on the way home, and posting it on her Instagram, as they sat making apple dumplings that evening.
“And they called themselves the apple dumpling gang,” she wrote.
And I remembered how many times we’ve watched that movie together. In time, it all becomes a beautiful curation.