Firming Our Footfalls

More dreams will be deferred and denied. And our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.

 —Obama’s speech on
“American Recovery and Reinvestment” Jan. 2009

Syrupy Sweet

I sit in the living room of our four bedroom, two and a half bath, residence. The light of candles flickers against the high-angled walls while our labs curl at my feet. I hear the front door open. He and our daughter have returned from their walk, and the scent of an emerging spring’s efflorescence trails their movements to our couch. As the cushions grab upward to cradle his body, I jolt to the realization that he is struggling.

He stays up late on a regular basis. I can hear the click of the computer long after I’ve closed our bedroom door to the glare of its screen. My husband has always been silent. He talks about the moment, answering my speculations much more frequently than stating his own. Sometimes, I get too complacent in the comfort of his untroubled nature. Today is Sunday—and he rose before I did. As a late bedder, he is also a late riser, but not this morning.

            “I need to start doing something before I go to bed—to clear my head.”

            “Are you worried?” I hear myself ask. Of course he is worried—everyone is worried. It’s the talk of our grandfather’s. It’s the talk of bygone eras, and our generation is realizing our adulthood, hearing it seep its way into conversations so foreign to us. All this talk of politics and economics. I look at him, really look, searching for the determined eighteen year old boy who said to hell with norms and married me, that girl of eighteen.

            Those young kids who thought they could take on the world, who dreamed of prosperity without looking at the path at their feet. But here we are, and there we were, and without thinking about it too critically, we know there had to have been a treading along the winding roads that led us to a place and time where this kind of leisure is the earned reward. Like so many other Americans, we are suddenly awakening to our surroundings.

            In 1980, Jay and I were seven years old. In 1932, our grandparents were somewhere between three and five. People tell us this last presidential election was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s and Reagan’s in part because of the economic crisis fueling it. And yet, as I suspect was the case for many of our generation, the economic matters came secondary to the historical significance of electing either a black president or a female vice-president. Probably not something many of us would admit to openly, but there it is.

            Now that the excitement has simmered and our president is faced with so many daunting challenges, the reality of how all this change directly affects an American family is well—dream deferring.

            There are so many directions this essay could go. It could open readers to the way one family is dealing with the stress of layoff rumors around them. It could highlight the severity of the fall for a husband and wife who fit so conveniently into Hoggart’s “scholarship boy” box. You know the kind—Hispanic, first generation college students who served their time in fast food and now send their daughters to private school. The essay could even develop a mind of its own and veer off into a political commentary. But just as this wife and mother of two fights to barricade and cushion her suddenly fragile world, so too is this writer going to assert a sense of control.

            The sun was shining, and Colorado was playing her tricks with us again—seventy degrees today and a forecast of snow for the upcoming three. I had already cleaned the house the night before because our sixteen year old daughter was having friends over. They were all still asleep downstairs in the family room, but they’d be up soon—and being teenagers, they’d be immediately hungry. The combination of the weather and my maternal urge to take care of guests got the better of me, and I and our five year old headed out to the store. I took the empty propane tank with me. On the way, I called my husband’s good friends and invited them over too—the more the merrier.

            Up and down the aisles, the battle in me raged. The need to be frugal pulled one way, and my desire to take care of the family yanked with twice as much ferocity in the opposite direction. I came home with a filled propane tank, ten pounds of hamburger, chips, soda, ingredients to make potato salad, the works—oh, and new pretty place settings. (They were on sale—honest.)

            Jay’s friend, Mike, works with him. He’s fifty-three and counting down the days to early retirement. His wife, Laura, is a stay-at-home mom, and their three-year-old, Corey, is an active playmate for our Isa. As soon as they entered the house, the pairings began—the guys took Corey and Isa to the nearby park while I busied myself around the kitchen preparing dinner, and Laura kept me company. Despite my efforts to distract Jay with friends and food, the theme of the day remained—layoffs. Mike and Jay sat on the playground bench watching the kids run around and talked about their what-if options. Laura and I were doing the same.

            “More grownup talk,” the back of my mind begins complaining. “One minute you’re a kid playing house, and the next minute you’re lifting your gaze to the full casual spectrum. It’s an elaborate game of chess—what move will determine what outcome? Today there’s an announcement about the government’s intention to help private investors buy up bad loans and the market contracts. Everyone’s pulling out their mental EKG’s to monitor which action will send the heart of the global market back into optimal automaticity.” Okay, I’m mixing metaphors. Besides, that’s going the wrong direction again. It’s the idea of causality I am most interested in.  

            Is there anything truly hardwired into us? Innate, intrinsic realities that humans tap into without being conscious of their presence? And if so, is that hardwired knowledge different for men than it is for women? Why is it I’m suddenly plunging into nesting mode, and Jay’s suddenly kept awake at night with the weight of his obligations to provide for his family? We’re a two-parent working family. We both bring home the bacon, and we take turns cooking it. There’s no reason this arrangement of equal status should warrant us to resort to traditional gender roles.

             While I think we are equally troubled about the state of affairs, we are reacting completely differently. He’s running more often—spending more time awake, thinking, Googling. I’m cleaning more often—hearing myself herd my daughters away from dad more often—to let him relax. I wonder how much of this is cultural or experiential. How many other families out there are reacting in similar ways? Am I reacting the way I am because I’m Hispanic? Because I am an American? Because I’m a woman?

            Eighteen years ago, when Jay and I got married, we were the epitome of marital idealism. We took to heart the idea of “and two shall become one,” believing that men and women were created to complete one another, like two halves of a jigsaw puzzle—there were edges here that fit curves there. You get the idea. But eighteen years is a long time. Admittedly, neither of us is that ideal anymore. And we’re lucky—we’re not truly in crisis mode, more the what-if mode, but even this slight shift has brought us here.

There is no reason the men in our lives have to feel as though it is all on their shoulders. Every husband I know makes more money than his wife, so naturally, the impact of them losing their jobs is more severe—but the weight of obligation should not be measured by the size of the paycheck.

Most adversity comes with it opportunity. This moment of adversity is no different. For too many years, Jay and I have been the kids of the family—we were frozen in time as audacious eighteen year olds, but all the while we were climbing, we were ignorant to the way we used our bodies to support one another’s footfalls. I grabbed hold of a branch here, and he held onto my waist. He jumped over the creek and downed a tree for me to walk across. Herein lies the opportunity—the opportunity to see ourselves as we are today and to renew our determination for the dreams that still await formation ahead.      

      And so, I’ll end this essay syrupy sweet—alluding to the author of the befitting famous notion of dreams deferred. As Hughes poses those six short and depressing questions, he is also asking us to recognize the possibility of change, of metamorphosis, and giving us permission to choose our own answers.  For myself, I think the realization of potentially losing what I barely remember having worked for has awakened in me a desire to step more firmly, more deliberately, and in doing so, to reassert my feminine merit.

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