(This story was read at the Litchfield Writers Guild Coffeehouse, June 14, 2017.)
My college roommate dated a guy who would only eat smooth ice cream. No walnuts, chips, or chunks. John’s reasoning was he didn’t want roadblocks intruding on his creamy dessert experience. We thought that was boring. The nuts and candy were what made things interesting. Like little embedded gems. One year, I threw a themed birthday party and asked my guests to bring their favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s. While everyone else brought Chunky Monkey, Cherry Garcia, and, my favorite, New York Super Fudge Chunk, John showed up with vanilla.
Now, twenty years later, I have come to more fully appreciate John’s perspective. Not just about dessert preference, but about life. Although I still enjoy a good scoop of bumpy ice cream, I don’t always enjoy the bumpy life. Like chocolate chips and nuts in the bowl, things pop up. Obstacles in the pursuit of our goals, catastrophe, tragedy. Sometimes I just long for a vanilla day. Boring, predictable, and exactly how I planned.
But life is not smooth. I learned this at a young age. My earliest career aspiration was to be an Avon lady. I would marry a tall, dark, handsome man and live in a log cabin. In Hawaii. The best of everything. A part-time job that wasn’t too demanding and would set me up with enough bubble bath to last a lifetime in a cozy house in paradise. As I grew up and my world expanded, my goals did, too. They became more realistic. It’s not that there were obstacles to my becoming a door-to-door bubble bath saleslady, I simply changed my mind. I became an elementary school teacher and stayed in Connecticut. Sure, it’s far from paradise, but still pretty nice. Very nice, actually. I guess the lesson here is that dreams we set at the age of five are bound to undergo some modifications over the years.
But I did marry the guy of my dreams. There was nothing getting in the way of me marrying DJ, and if there were, I would have pummeled it like David defeating the giant.
After we were married, I remember lying in bed one night in our little apartment. DJ asked me, “How long do you think we’ll live here?”
“Five years,” I replied, without even thinking about it.
Three-and-a-half years later, we had a fire. It destroyed our home. We lived with DJ’s parents for a year and a half. No one plans a tragedy. The fire was part of a divine plan but not a part of that lazy, dreamy conversation we’d had just a few years prior. Thankfully, we were not home at the time of the fire; we and our twenty-one-month-old son Timothy were unharmed. Re prioritizing my life after the fire, I left my full-time teaching job.
At some point you begin to realize that as much as we enjoy trying to order our days, that’s all we can do—try. We are not the only authors of our lives’ stories. Not only is the Rocky Road life full of roadblocks and potholes, sometimes there are detours as well. When Tim was in fourth grade, he got in trouble for building things in his desk. Deciding he had an aptitude for creative tinkering, and he would be better served at home where he would have the freedom to do so, we pulled him out of public school and home schooled him. It became a way of life, and I educated David and Sarah at home, too. In fact, I home schooled for seven years. Talk about not in the plan! But it was great. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent with my kids. It wasn’t always easy providing for all their academic needs, but it was always a joy spending time with them.
After those seven years of home schooling, I made the decision to return to work as a substitute teacher in order to contribute to family finances, I enrolled the kids in public school. That was good, too. They did well, for the most part. Tim had a bumpy senior year, and what I thought would be a pretty vanilla transition to college turned out to be a detour. After being accepted at college and awarded a scholarship, he said he wanted to take a gap year. He and his girlfriend spent four months working on a farm. In Hawaii.
I believe that in some respects I’ve received immeasurably more than I could have asked for or imagined. Before we married, we dreamed of having children. Who knew they were going to be this amazing! Each of our children has a musical gift they did not inherit from us. Sarah plays clarinet. Tim plays piano and composes songs. David taught himself guitar, piano, trumpet, whatever he can get his hands on.
DJ and I are not gifted in art or athletics. David has been drawing since he could hold a pencil and scribble on the living room walls. Sarah practices gymnastics and is far more confident at thirteen than we were at thirty. And Tim, the kid who was chastised for building things in his desk, is majoring in engineering and talking about building an Earth ship. I think he’ll do it, too. Isn’t it sweet when life surprises you through children?
Things turned out differently than we had planned. The grand story, though already written, continues to unfold. We can sketch out a rough outline of what we’d like our life to look like, but life is chunky. Even though John was a strict vanilla ice cream guy, I hope he’s managing life’s disruptions ok. The unexpected happens. Maybe we shouldn’t be too stringent in our expectations. Leave room for divine intervention. It’s the bumps in the road that make us who we are. Shape us. Some days are bumpier than others. And, yes, I do long for a vanilla day. Though few and far between, I am grateful for the smooth, quiet times—moments, really. The incidental treasures. A smile from a friend, the kids laughing at the piano, an arm around the shoulder, DJ’s whiskers on my cheek. Those moments are even better because of the challenges we’ve been through. I’m even coming to appreciate the challenges. After all, those bumps in the Rocky Road are chocolate-covered peanuts. Life’s surprises and turns make it all the sweeter!