On a recent Wednesday, Kennard and I departed for our first child-free vacation in five years. We left our three kids — two of whom were in questionable health — at our house with my mom. For four whole days. As we drove to our hotel in San Francisco, I said to Kennard, “My mom is doing this unbelievably nice thing for us, and there’s nothing we can do for her in return.” He turned to me and said, “Yes, there is. We can make it worth her while and have a damn good time.”
My mom is 67, but you’d never guess it. She works out at the gym three times a week and has the energy of someone half her age. (Well, maybe not — I’m half her age, and I’m nowhere near that energetic.) Her clothes are classy, expensive, and invariably crisp. I have a recent picture of her blasting down the sidewalk on a Razor scooter, looking like an exuberant teenager, but a lot better dressed. My kids all adore her.
She completely floored us when she offered to baby-sit our three offspring so Kennard and I could go away for our anniversary. Of course we accepted her offer, but we weren’t actually sure she could handle them. After all, we can hardly handle them, and they’re our kids. Plus, unlike me, she maintains a fairly high standard of personal hygiene: she actually showers every day, blow-dries her hair, and puts on makeup. How exactly was that going to work?
So I asked Kennard’s mom if she could take baby Kirby, thus reducing the workload for my mom, and I signed Ben up for extra days at preschool. I recruited a friend to transport Riley to school and back. Then I made our hotel reservations, and I crossed my fingers.
A week before our trip, Kirby developed a nasty case of chicken pox. He had a fever of 103. He had blisters on his eyelids, in his ears, all over his face and scalp, in the folds of his groin, and on his scrotum. He screamed every time he peed and spent the rest of the time crying. I called my mother.
“The baby is a disaster,” I told her.
“That’s okay,” she said. “He’ll be better by next week.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Of course! Don’t worry, I can do anything for four days. And besides, Kirby will be with Grandma Karen for most of the time, remember?”
In my arms, Kirby started wailing. “I gotta go,” I said.
My mom arrived the day before Kennard and I were supposed to leave. She was right, Kirby was better, though still fussy and snotty. Things looked good.
That night we were all in Ben’s room watching him have a pillow fight with Riley. Suddenly, he stood up in his bed and said, “Mommy, my tummy hurts.” He opened his mouth as if to elaborate and instead emitted a cascade of vomit. Then he started crying.
I said to my mom, “Um, I’m not sure Ben will be able to go to preschool tomorrow.”
I waited for her to tell me, as any sane person would, that she was going to back out. But instead she said firmly, “That’s okay. It will be nice to have some alone-time with him. And you guys,” she said, pointing at Kennard and me, “need some alone-time, too.” After a pause, she added, “Though it is a little . . . daunting.”
An hour later, after we’d changed all the bedding and done a second round of baths, Kennard’s mom called. “I hate to cancel at the last minute,” she said hoarsely, “but I have a fever, and I won’t be able to take Kirby.”
“Oh, no problem, I hope you feel better,” I said. Oh shit, I thought.
After I told my mom, we regarded each other soberly for a moment. Then she started laughing. “Wow,” she said, “it’s always something, isn’t it? Just go, we’ll be all right.” That woman has grit. She comes from Texas, where they eat grits all the time, so perhaps that affected her personality.
We left the next afternoon.
Thursday morning, the first morning of our vacation, I slept late. I bathed long. Kennard and I had a lengthy debate — mostly non-verbal — about the best way to achieve conjugal bliss. I’d almost forgotten how much fun we could have given unlimited time and plenty of sleep.
In the afternoon, I called my mom. She sounded tired but solid. “How was your first night?” I asked.
“Pretty good. Ben seems completely fine this morning, but Kirby was up a lot coughing. He’s really snotty. I gave him his bottle at four, and it seemed to cheer him up.” At that point, Kirby started wailing, and I could hear Ben whining for more milk.
“I gotta go,” my mom said.
On Friday night, Kennard and I were planning to have dinner at a swanky restaurant, and I wasn’t about to miss a rare opportunity to wear fancy clothes. I put on some Moulin Rouge-type lingerie that I’d bought especially for this trip (I figured that my life — and my husband — could use a little more vixen and a little less vomit). I pulled on black stockings and stiletto heels. I spent more time on my hair and makeup than I had in the preceding five years combined. I slipped into a new black lace, strapless dress.
Kennard watched the whole process appreciatively, and I ended up having to do it twice.
Halfway through the second round, my mom called. Kirby had apparently developed an ear infection that perforated his eardrum (the pus coming out of his ear was a dead giveaway). And thus it was that I found myself pacing around an expensive San Francisco hotel room in my stilettos and tarty underthings, talking on the phone first to the pediatrician (“It’s not a big deal,” she said, “but he’ll need antibiotics”), then to several friends as I tried to find someone to deliver Kirby’s medication. We offered to come home early, but my mother was flatly against it. “I can handle it,” she insisted.
That night, while she administered Kirby’s medicine and put drops in his ears every four hours and got all three kids to bed, Kennard and I went out to dinner and played air hockey (I took off the heels for that), then stayed up until 2 a.m. talking and cuddling.
We came home two days later, on Sunday afternoon. We found my mom cleaning the kitchen in her bare feet, with no makeup on and her hair looking noticeably less sleek than usual. There was something crusty and green on the front of her shirt and amoxicillin-pink stains on her shoulder. She had dark circles under her eyes. Though I look much worse than that on most days, I’d never seen her looking quite so disheveled.
After giving me a hug hello, she said tiredly, “Kirby was up all night. I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, and I haven’t showered in two days. Can you watch him for a little while?”
It was strangely reassuring; if the kids put a dent in my mom’s personal hygiene, maybe my own sense of being perpetually overwhelmed was understandable.
Before she went upstairs, my mother said, “Did you have a good time?”
Yeah, Mom, we really did. We had a damn good time.