Legacy

She woke up and stretched. Something didn’t seem right. She hardly ever got sick but today her body ached and her throat itched. She coughed a little and tried to swallow hard to get rid of the lump in her throat. She looked at the clock.

“Six o’clock?” She jumped out of bed disregarding her feeling of being sick. She was already late by about a half hour and mornings had always been crunch time for their family.

She ran into the kitchen, hyperextending her back in the process as a subconscious effort to help the back pain, and started getting things together for breakfast and the kids’ lunch boxes. She thought about her husband’s lunch box. Ugh! That was the toughest.

She quickly made pancakes out of the box and started setting out the plates. Then she ran upstairs and woke up the kids.

Her kids had always been good about getting ready for school. She wondered why they didn’t cry or whine or ever give her a hard time. She knew she was lucky to have kids who hardly ever talked back or broke rules or gave her attitude. She watched them get up, three kids from ages 7 to 4, smile blearily at her before occupying the three bathrooms on the first floor.

She went to look at her fourth child, her six month old baby boy, who slept on in his crib.

As she looked at him with love so strong that her heart could explode, she felt the same wave of feeling ill come on all over again.

“May be I’m coming down with something”, she thought idly.

The kids had washed up and even her four year old had put on his clothes. She asked her oldest two, both girls, to help him with his breakfast. She watched as her seven year old and five year old took their little brother downstairs and heard them plonking him in a chair minutes later.

She decided to take a shower before the baby was up. She realized she was awfully cold. She felt chilly. It was August. She gave up on that idea.

She went downstairs to pack their lunches. Even though her kids were easy, packing lunch for anyone isn’t completely effortless. The constant conundrum of what to pack, what they took to school the day before, how to keep it interesting while nutritious was painstakingly hard.

Her husband’s voice echoed in her head, “Why do you make ordinary household chores look so much like a huge job? It’s not becoming”.

She busied herself with his lunch box. If truth be told, he was the pickiest of all. He didn’t ever want to take the same lunch two days in a row, it had to be something that he could eat with a spoon, fork or chopsticks and had to be very healthy. So of course sandwiches were out of the question. He didn’t like salad so an automatic healthy option was out too. She usually found herself wracking her brain over what to pack for him.

Soon she heard him strolling downstairs. She looked at him and smiled. He still looked like he did ten years ago when they had first met. He was five years older than her but could be passed off as a much younger person than her. He had the same physique, was just as buff and had been religious with his gym activities. His discipline and organization were enviable.

As Matt made himself comfortable in one of the chairs, Sarah quickly put in front of him his usual breakfast: Two boiled eggs with two wheat toasts. Then she poured his coffee.

He ate and chatted with the kids. The kids loved him. He was a great father. He loved them and talked to them and sometimes even played with them. Sarah considered herself so lucky to have chosen him.

He finally took a sip of his coffee.

“Ugh!” He made a face. “I take it that the coffee machine hasn’t been changed yet?”

She winced. He had a habit of speaking to her like she was his secretary.

She swallowed her pride and answered evenly,

“I went to get a new one but they’re out of them right now. They’re restocking them next week”.

“What about the mall? Did you check there?” He frowned.

“The mall? No, Matt! That’s a thirty minute drive”.

“Yes but you don’t have to WALK to the mall. You’ll be driving”.

“Yes”, she felt the familiar panic rise, “But I wanted to get lunch ready before the kids got back home. That took the whole day”.

“The whole day? Lunch took the whole day? What did you make for lunch that took the whole day? Chicken? That takes the whole day? Sarah! Sometimes when I talk to you I feel like you’re severely incompetent to run this household without help. And if I could get you an assistant I would. We just can’t afford it. But you look like you need help”.

Sarah felt her eyes getting wet. Did he really think she couldn’t do it by herself?

Momentarily forgetting the headache, backache, the tears and the queasy feeling in her stomach she focused on her kids and him.

“Kids! Get ready. We should’ve been in the car by now”.

The kids jumped out of their chairs and filed for the car. She went upstairs to get the baby.

As she was coming down, the baby wrapped in her arms, sound asleep, she heard Matt making golf plans for the weekend with his friends.

She wanted to remind him that they were driving to Connecticut to see her parents but feared his frustration with having to change his plans. She decided to deal with it when the weekend was here.

The day was so busy. She was aching and hurting all over but because the baby was teething, he refused to eat anything and fussed over the food endlessly. She finally gave up and fed him formula. She couldn’t eat anything. She knew she had a stomach bug. She had thrown up about six or seven times since morning. She felt dehydrated and dizzy.

But when you’re a housewife with little to show at the end of the day, except a happy family, there is little time to allow yourself. The race to get most chores done while the family is out gets to the best of us. It’s almost a race against time and physical endurance. It’s not healthy but housewives get a lot of flak for not being as productive and therefore are usually stuck proving their worth. Most days, Sarah felt the same. Some days, she wanted to quit.

But how could she quit? This wasn’t a paid job that she could just switch to a kinder and more understanding employer. This was her home. Things didn’t get done here if she didn’t get to them. She had contemplated hiring a house help several times but Matt’s already scathing attitude towards her poor management skills was a big inhibitor in the way of thinking for herself.

But it wasn’t just Matt. A part of Sarah also felt like she didn’t do enough. When she thought of how unrecognized her work was she also thought of how unrecognizable her worth overall was. She didn’t bring home a paycheck and she had long learned that wives who worked for money were valued a lot more than a housewife.

And it wasn’t that she didn’t want to make some money for herself. She hated depending on Matt and his discretion when she needed diapers for the baby or had to get a new cleaning supply for the kitchen. She hated that. It broke her a million ways when he interrogated her about small expenses and how they were occurring because of how she couldn’t be more efficient.

Ah, efficiency! The bane of her existence. She worked from the time the kids left for school, one mundane chore after another, feeding the baby in between multiple times and then dropped senseless in her bed at night. Sometimes she found herself hanging by the baby’s crib, apparently having slept there for most of the night.

Their sex life was nonexistent and Sarah knew that. She was always painfully reminded by Matt how this baby was a mistake and had created more distance between them. It hurt her because he was her child. How could Matt say that about their baby, she wondered.

But even though Matt complained of sex being infrequent and his clothes usually not ironed and his lunches less than creative, Sarah knew she was doing her best. She kept trying to do better but didn’t know how. People and chores sucked at her energy constantly.

One day Matt asked her casually,

“Would you like to come with me to an office party? Not your type but everyone’s bringing their wife and I thought I should bring you”.

You thought you should bring me? How nice! She thought darkly.

“I’d love to. What’s the dress code?”

“Formal. Do you have something?”

Sarah made a face. She had loads of nice clothes but since the baby her body hadn’t been the same. How could her body be the same? She had birthed four children, one high-risk pregnancy at a time.

But she knew Matt hated it when she discussed her weight problems with him. He blamed her weight on her eating and not working out regularly. She couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten and what’s working out? Who had the time?

So she lied,

“Yes, I have something”.

As she entered the party she felt immediately intimidated by the sea of people who looked powerful and important. She was momentarily mesmerized. What must it be like to be a part of this group? She couldn’t help noticing women standing just as tall as many men. This wasn’t an unknown breed to her. Her mother had been the CEO of the small town’s hospital and a very competent surgeon. She was a strong, hardworking and resilient woman. She was very proud of Sarah. Any doubts that Sarah had ever had about not pursuing a career outside the home, Barbara had squashed on the spot. “What you do at home is also very important. Don’t shortchange yourself”. She would say sternly.

Her mother was her support and her pillar to lean on. Until death took her. Sarah missed her and grieved for the legacy that she would’ve been to her grandchildren.

Matt introduced her to many people. Sarah was a little taken aback at the change in the demeanor of her husband. Matthew had always had the persona of an arrogant person. Someone who knew how smart, how good looking and how successful he was. Someone who didn’t think much of others but engaged them for the sake of manners. But tonight she saw him awed. Yes! Matthew Carpenter was awed and this was a first.

There was deference in how he treated the women. He revered them almost. In all her years with him, while she time-travelled from being a girl to the mother of his four children, Sarah had winced more than once when Matthew hadn’t shown respect to his family or her family. She had been apologetic on his behalf when he had snubbed people. His haughty disposition was enough to put people at a distance. She liked that about him because it gave her the pride of being married to a powerful man. It also made her sad. Matt didn’t have many human qualities. He definitely had never practiced humility.

But today he serenaded these women almost. He spoke with interest in his voice and a yearning in his eyes. He seemed taken. She wondered what it was.

The ride back home was quiet. Sarah hadn’t been to many parties since the baby and this one had been long and overwhelming. She quietly listened to the radio and watched other cars pass by.

Suddenly she remembered.

“Matt! Who was the woman in the pink dress who introduced us to her family? I believe she had two little daughters and a son?”

“Cheryl?”

“Yeah, Cheryl. She seemed so genuinely nice. I really liked her. You know sometimes I wonder how I would ever break back into polite society. My hiatus has been so long.”

She laughed at her own self-deprecation. Matt laughed too.

“Well look for someone more your type. Cheryl wouldn’t want to be your girlfriend, I’m assuming”.

“Why?” She asked, surprised.

“Why?” He laughed sardonically. “Come on honey! Look at her. Look at you. Where’s the commonality? Every friendship or acquaintance needs some common ground, something to bond over, something to form a connection about. What’s going to be your connection with Cheryl?”

Sarah couldn’t get why two women couldn’t just be friends . She was sure they had loads to share.

“Well, I don’t think it’s quite like you put it. We could talk about kids, marriage, husbands and the future. We could talk about fashion. We could talk about her career and my…….”. She stopped. She painfully remembered she didn’t have a career.

Matt didn’t even notice.

“Sarah! Women like Cheryl don’t mix with women like you. She must have her own circle of women who are high-achievers and have huge careers. Do you know she’s the youngest CEO in a century in the country? Why would she want to be friends with you? How is she going to have a stimulating conversation with you unless she wanted to know how many times to burp the baby after every feed? I think you should look around in the neighborhood. You’ll find other housewives. Cheryl is a different class”.

The rest of the ride back home was quiet and prickly.

Two days later Matt came home looking happy and excited.

“Guess what? Cheryl asked me if we’d be happy to join them for dinner this weekend. I can’t believe it. She’s so private. But she always did speak to me a lot more than others. She likes me. She specifically asked me if the kids could come. I say let’s take the girls and leave the boys”.

Sarah stayed quiet. She didn’t quite understand why her husband was so taken with Cheryl but she had learned a long time ago that Matt didn’t like it when people disagreed with him. Her previous enthusiasm of knowing Cheryl or spending time with her had fizzled out. She realized that Cheryl and her didn’t have much in common.

To humor him she said,

“I’d love to meet Cheryl. But why can’t we take all the kids?”

“God you’re stupid”, Matt exclaimed exasperatedly, “This is the first time we are going to someone’s place. Do you want to take our entire zoo with you? No! Leave the boys. Hire a babysitter for the night and let’s take the girls. They have girls Sasha and Gabby’s age”.

With that he turned on his heel, having issued his instructions, and went upstairs.

Several hours later, Sarah and Matt were in bed, the baby fast asleep in his crib. In a rare, romantic mood, Matt drew her close to him.

“Imagine, Sarah, being someone like Cheryl. I mean imagine the legacy she’s going to leave her kids. Strength, organization, laser beam focus for a great career, high powered life, a life of achievements and accomplishments. Just imagine that just by having her as their mother her kids could turn out completely different from ours”.

Sarah listened with baited breath. She waited for more insults to follow. She knew Matt didn’t think he was belittling her. He had gotten away with it for so long that he didn’t register when he treated her as someone beneath him. Actually as someone beneath other women also. He was raised by patriarchy and had never really understood that by living and breathing patriarchy everyday he was just perpetuating a bad cycle for his children.

She sighed but ventured against her better judgment,

“But a legacy doesn’t always have to be an attitude of professional drive or academic accomplishments. A legacy could be of truth, love, kindness, beauty….”

She heard him snoring softly. She cursed at herself for getting affected. She got upset with herself. The baby cried. She got up to feed him. Ten minutes later she was lying on the couch, her body contorted, the baby fast asleep atop of her.

Cheryl’s house was nothing how she had expected. It was a simple and homey. There wasn’t much furniture except the necessities and they actually ate on the kitchen counter. Cheryl’s husband was a realtor, a job that didn’t seem particularly high-powered to Sarah . But she couldn’t ignore how in love they were. They had both prepared dinner together and the serving could’ve been better but the dinner itself was delicious. Sarah enjoyed herself despite feeling a little distant and inadequate.

She met Cheryl’s daughters. They were exactly her own daughters’ age and were very excited to get friends over.

Cheryl was however a little bummed,

“You have a four year old, Matt? Why didn’t you bring him? And why didn’t you bring the baby? Charlie would have loved to play with them”, She pointed towards her youngest child.

Matt laughed. “May be next time. My son is very rambunctious. And the baby cries a lot”.

Cheryl rolled her eyes.

“Mark! Tell them how much our kids cried. We still dragged them everywhere”. She asked her husband.

As Mark regaled them with stories after stories of their kids being total trouble makers, Sarah wondered how relaxed this conversation was. Despite all the tall ideas that Matt had about Cheryl’s legacy for her kids, she and her husband were really like Sarah and Matt.

They left after fixing a date for next week at the skating rink. Cheryl insisted that they meet with Matt’s boys too.

On their way back Matt was unusually quiet.

Sarah and the kids chatted all the way home about their dinner with the Phillips. Finally Sarah touched him gently on his arm and asked,

“Is everything okay, darling? Why are you so quiet?”

“I’m just thinking that I had Cheryl pegged as one of those women who live a different life. You know, like more dynamic and powerful. She looked so much like…….you”.

Oh so that’s the problem? Sarah thought bitterly.

He continued his reverie in silence .

The weekend came again and before they knew it they were all at the skating rink and having the time of their lives. Cheryl and Mark loved holding the baby in turn and feeding him from the bottle. Sarah couldn’t believe how much she had with Cheryl in common. They were both mothers at the bottom of it all and had so much parenting stuff to discuss that it became a full conversation between them. The conversation shifted to marriage and they talked endlessly again. But soon they ran out of things to say and Sarah thought,

“This is it. We’ve run out of topics”.

Cheryl was saying,

“Sarah! It’s so nice to make friends with you guys. Really I’ve never had girlfriends between school, work and kids. I’m so glad I met you. Why don’t we meet on our own too? Without the husbands and the kids? Would you like that?”

“I’d love that”, Sarah said enthusiastically.

“Then it’s done,” Cheryl’s voice matched her enthusiasm. “Wanna meet on Monday? We could go get pedicures together”.

“Oh okay”, Sarah said, slightly bewildered at another outing so soon planned after her current one, “If I get a sitter then absolutely”.

“We will do it after work,” Cheryl said like she was stating the obvious, “Matt will watch the kids”.

Sarah’s heart hurt. Matt never watched the kids.

But when she mentioned to Matt later he readily agreed,

“Oh yeah? She invited you? Yes you should go. I believe being friends with Cheryl is going to pay off in a big way at work. She’s my boss. She can help me make it”.

Sarah and Cheryl met for pedicures. They had a lovely time. They talked nonstop about so many things and when they were quiet, their silence was comfortable. Sarah felt safe with Cheryl. She was starting to realize how important it was for her to be friends with another woman.

Cheryl came back home with Sarah. Sarah insisted she stay for dinner. Cheryl didn’t object much. She promptly threw on an apron and announced that she was going to help too.

Sarah, however, sent her to the family room to be with the kids and relax. She told Cheryl that dinner was almost done and she only needed to fix the salad. Matt came and took Cheryl with her to the family room.

Thirty minutes later, Sarah served dinner.

They ate and laughed and talked. Cheryl was a very warm woman with a particular way with kids. She especially loved holding the baby.

She asked Sarah about when she got the time to fix dinner because she had spent all of her evening with Cheryl.

“After coming back from the salon”, Sarah said slyly.

“You liar!”, Cheryl punched her arm playfully, “You said it was all done and you just had to fix the salad”.

“Okay let me explain!” Sarah said. “I have the whole week’s meals planned out and half-prepared. So I just had to throw this chicken in the oven. I had it in the marinade since Saturday. Doesn’t it come out so tender and juicy?”

“It’s lovely. You prepare meals in advance? Wish I was that organized. I’m just so in awe of how you manage a great home and four kids and have a great marriage too. Not many women can do that. It’s a gift or may be you have acquired the skill of being efficient and productive through time. You inspire me so much.”

Then she turned to Matt,

“Matt! Imagine how lucky your kids are to have the legacy that Sarah is leaving behind her. Imagine how they’re picking up on their mother’s skill at being organized and available and emotionally supportive. I mean, isn’t this perfect? Just perfect? I can’t believe how well-rounded these kids will grow up to be with the type of role model your wife is. It’s inspirational really. And she does it with love and patience. That’s the best part. She doesn’t look tired or upset ever. And your kids are being raised so well. Just watching the values that she models is such great exposure to humility, compassion, efficiency and being industrious. You are so lucky. We worry about leaving behind money and education and a social status for our kids. But we never think about leaving the legacy that truly counts. That truly makes all the difference”.

She looked over at Sarah again,

“Even though you do it effortlessly, it’s not easy to do it all alone. No one can do it all by themselves. If ever you need help, I’m here for you. Just ask for it. Anytime you guys want to go for a date night or a dinner or something casual, let me know! Mark and I would love to watch the kids, including the baby”, she said bouncing the baby on her knee.

Sarah looked over at Matt. He was eating faster than usual. He was sitting across from Sarah but couldn’t meet her gaze. He looked stumped at Cheryl’s monologue of Sarah’s legacy. Sarah knew he had her pegged as a woman with limited potential and use. He had her as his means to kids and a domestic life. He didn’t appreciate it. Frankly, she had lived this life long enough to care about it anymore. But it felt good to be acknowledged by another woman. It felt good to have another woman tell her that she was leaving behind a legacy that another woman saw as powerful and useful.

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