by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Chris Nickels
I make lots of things.
I make my grandmother’s cinnamon bread. I make memories. I make mistakes. Then I make repairs. I can make shit happen. Other times I make false starts and lame excuses. I make changes when necessary. I can make my mom’s cannelloni. I make a respectable roasted chicken. I make birthdays into national holidays. I can make it work. I can make a difference, especially when I’m paying attention. I make lemonade out of life’s lemons, and can even make a pretty good margarita when life gives me limes and throws a little salt in my wounds.
But maybe one of the most important or meaningful things I’ve managed to make is a home.
“Homemaker” feels like an antiquated term. It reminds me of the old articles that tell wives to have the children clean and quiet, dinner on the table, a sexy dress on, and a drink in your hand when your husband walks through the door after work. Homemaker is a word that doesn’t really match with all the things that women do, the hats we wear, and all the balls we juggle and keep (mostly) in the air. And yet, whether we work in an office or stay at home, whether we have kids or step-kids or no kids at all, many of us are expert homemakers.
With my oldest son leaving for college this month, I have been thinking a lot about the home I’ve created, the nest I’ve feathered that in a mere two years will be labeled empty. I have to say that I dislike the term “empty nest,” as though your life’s work is rendered vacant simply because you have met the objective of having children in the first place. They are designed to leave you; that’s how it works, most of the time anyway. Empty seems too minimizing a term for a time and space filled with everything that’s ever been real.
So what does it really mean to make a home today?
How would I describe the modern version of homemaker to a young bride or mother? Looking back from the vantage point of middle age, I wonder what I would want to say to my younger self.
Make traditions and keep them, even in the eye-rolling seasons.”
I would probably tell myself to listen to the sweet old lady pushing her cart very slowly through the grocery store, who looks longingly at my cart exploding with sticky, noisy toddlers and preservative-laden snacks and tells me to enjoy every minute, because it all goes too fast. I wasn’t too open to her in my frustrated, tired haze of trying to make it happen, but oh how I hear her now. It goes too damn fast. I would tell myself it’s fine to watch cartoons in the middle of the afternoon, piled on a sofa on top of piles of unfolded laundry. It’s also a very good idea to eat pancakes on paper plates under the dining room table, in a fort constructed by sleeping bags and a bedsheet. It’s also good to pretend my bed is a raft and fall asleep with three small children and a white dog curled around me, because one day that won’t happen anymore and you never know it’s the last time when it’s the last time. I would tell myself to spend the bulk of my money at the grocery store and let the kids have friends over all the time. Cook and bake and have a house that smells like food and love when you walk in, and people will keep walking in. This will matter very much to you when they are teenagers, but you can’t wait until then to create it. Fresh flowers in a vase mean more than you think, little reminders of beauty in the midst of ordinary. The laundry room cabinets and Scotch tape make a perfect art gallery. Alone time with each kid cannot be overemphasized. Make it happen — it is the field that yields the harvest. Make traditions and keep them, even in the eye-rolling seasons. No one forgets going to Mozart’s in pajamas, drinking hot chocolate under a blanket, watching the light show, and reading our pile of Christmas books. Or the trail of construction paper numbers from the bedroom door of the birthday child to the kitchen filled with balloons, baby books, and presents. Or white chicken chili on the day we have our first fire in the fireplace, marking the cozy start of winter. These seem like little things, or even sometimes unnoticed effort, but they end up being everything in the end. Get in the pool and swim with them, chlorine on highlighted hair be damned. Go to every game and play and Thanksgiving class feast you can, because as it turns out, there aren’t very many. Read to them, even if you’re tired and have emails to return. Take a long, deep inhale when your little kids are bathed and in pajamas and smell like childhood.
I will never regret the investment of my heart over these years. I won’t regret the money I didn’t make, the career path that got detoured, the graduate degree I haven’t completed yet, the girls’ trips I passed up because it was a kid weekend, the second marriage I haven’t found yet, or the step-family I never got a chance to try to blend. I will not regret the time and money I spent making a home. Because in making our home, I ended up making our life. And coming back home means so much more than pulling in the driveway.