We get back to Washington from vacation in Maine, having joined what my father calls the “Iron Butt Society” of committed long-haul drivers. The children and I clamber painfully out of the car, which itself is littered with innumerable magnetic princesses and veldt animals that have come unstuck from e-z travel dioramas. The floor of the car is half-an-inch thick with cookie and cereal crumbs; one seat is smeared with a nasty streak of chocolate pudding. But never mind — we’re home! Home to joyfully unfamiliar stuffed animals, carpeted stairs, and rooms that seem cavernous after our Lilliputian lakeside cottage.
Immediately, everyone starts bellowing.
“MUMMY!” a voice crashes down from two stories up.
“MUMMY!” shrieks someone else, one floor below.
“I’M IN THE KITCHEN,” I yell, fishwife-like, from where I generally am.
This is how it is. One tries to inculcate in children the importance of a soft, modulated voice, one emphasizes how civilized families do not shout like yokels, one repeats the sentence, “If you want to talk to me, please come to where I am,” over and over, as if anyone understands. In the 1950s or 60s, some previous owner installed an intercom system in our house. Now I know why, but it is too late: The system’s bronze boxes hang unprettily by their wires off a wall in every floor, and we haven’t a clue how it works, if it does, which is unlikely.
“IF YOU WANT TO TALK TO ME,” I roar, “PLEASE COME TO WHERE I AM!”
It is dismaying to arrive home and find that Washington’s summer typhoons have smashed a large ceramic urn that had stood outside our house, tipping over a potted hibiscus tree and producing an odor of neglect. Also foot-high weeds are now thriving between the cobblestones in our little front drive and up both sides of the gravel alley bordering one side of the house.
Muttering “how-a-husband-can-walk-past-this-stuff-every-day-and-not-do-anything-about-it-I-just-don’t-understand,” I drag the suitcases inside, put some pasta water on to boil, and put home maintenance out of my mind. I don’t know about you, but driving for eight straight hours at eighty miles an hour in the company of four children, however valiant and uncomplaining, sucks the life right out of me.
As I am uncorking a restorative, down comes the refrain, “BUT MUMMY, WHERE ARE YOU?”
All the way down the New Jersey Turnpike I kept thinking about terrorism and power outages and Code Red and the fact that in our utility room there are spare light bulbs, Christmas-tree holders, tins of anchovies, lavatory rolls by the dozen, but not a single bottle of water.
It wasn’t always so. Last October, when Washingtonians were bracing for a haj-related catastrophe, I assembled a Terrorist Hamper of various non-perishables: single-portion apple sauces, bags of beef jerky, a hundredweight of Power Bars, and two cases of Evian.
I remember feeling grimly realistic: If al Qaeda succeeded in fumigating downtown Washington, we’d probably only have a few hours to live. So I also packed four bottles of wine, a large chocolate bar, and half-a-dozen childrens’ classic novels. I pictured the six of us duct-taped into a bathroom, the oxygen running out, with my husband and me knocking back Bordeaux while reading Robert Louis Stevenson to our doomed darlings. Such a tragic tableau!
As Code Orange faded to Code Yellow, the bottles of wine were the first to be plundered. Next went the water and the Power Bars. The beef jerky — ugh, what was I thinking? — went to a peckish schoolmate of Paris’s. The hand-cranked emergency radio eventually found its way into our bathroom. And when Molly got a last-minute party invitation, we wrapped the books in festive paper and hoped that 2,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Treasure Island would be the pink-themed birthday girl’s cup of tea. Somehow I doubt it.
“Okay, children,” I announce our first morning back, “Now that we’re home, we have a few errands to run.”
A general groan rises from the breakfast table.
“No, it’ll be FUN,” I say, with false gaiety, “We’ll buy lots of GOODIES to keep in the utility room in case we ever NEED them.”
“You mean like chocolate?” Paris wants to know.
“You mean if al Qaeda attacks us?” Molly asks.
I dodge that one: “Chocolate, tortilla chips, Power Bars, bottled water, and — and — MARSHMALLOWS.”
“Hurrah!” cries Paris, knocking over his chair.
“Mallows,” says Phoebe loudly.
It is a matter of moments before we reassemble at the front door, dressed for a city excursion. For the first time in weeks, I am in heels and dry-clean-onlies; for the first time in weeks the children are actually wearing shoes. Out we stride into the swampy Washington air —
— And walk into the weeds. Past the shattered urn.
Across the street, I am sure I see a lace curtain twitch disapprovingly.
“Ugh, LOOK at this place, it’s a JUNGLE,” I say, all the hamper-replenishing purpose draining out of me. Instantly my newly blown-dry hair has begun to soften and curl.
“Kiddies, change of plans,” I decide, “We’ll go to the store later. Right now I’ve got to kill these weeds. Will someone fetch me a garbage bag?”
“Don’t kill them, Mummy!” Violet cries protectively.
“I’ll get it,” says Paris, dashing back inside.
“She has to kill them or they’ll take over the house,” Molly remarks languidly, drifting back indoors, already engrossed in the heavily thumbed copy of the fourth Harry Potter that is always on her person.
Down I hunker, heels poking into the interstices between cobblestones, and begin yanking by the roots anything that will be yanked, and spritzing with poison foam anything vegetative that puts up a fight. Pulling five-week-old weeds is surprisingly pleasant, like peeling dried skin off a sunburn.
Upstairs, the children begin playing a princess game — calls of “help! a dragon!” tumble from the windows above me — but I am lost to all that, rapt in the thrill of the hunt: Grab, pull, out! Grab, pull…rip? Hah: Pfftt with the foam! The bag is overstuffed with roots and soil and leaves, my hair is damp and frizzy, I vaguely remember there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing, something rather more important, but first let me just get that DANDILION….
A couple passes on the sidewalk, chuckling and gesturing towards our house. It is then that I become aware of an infant presence. I look up from my undignified high-heeled squat to see Phoebe standing at our wide-open front door, stark naked and holding a silver whiskey flask.
It would be a more charming scene if it weren’t for the alarming gouts of red ink she has somehow splashed on her legs. That, and the flask.
“Drink, please, Mummy?” she asks.
Anyway, I hope that new videotape of Osama bin Laden taking his morning constitutional in the Hindu Kush doesn’t presage another imminent attack, because we still don’t have our provisions for the apocalypse. Later that weed-filled morning, I lose my wallet to a swift-fingered dame at the organic foods store. At the very moment I am rummaging perplexedly through my purse at the checkout counter, with four hungry children leaping around the shopping cart like caffeinated gibbons, SHE is blowing $600 at Saks Fifth Avenue, a place my credit cards have never been before.
It is a forlorn afternoon, what with one thing and another, and no cash until my husband comes home, and nary a bottle of water in case of emergency. The mail carrier stops by to drop off a sheaf of utility bills.
“You were out of town a long time,” she observes in a friendly way.
I concede that this is so.
“I noticed that pot was broken.”
“Yeah,” I say. We look at it together. “Actually, my husband was here most of the time.”
There is a pause.
“Yeah,” she agrees, “Husbands don’t really do that stuff, do they?”
— Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit.