My grandparents are in town. Oma brought homemade cookies. I ate six this afternoon. That was probably a bad idea.
We drove into town for a walk. It’s a battered but charming area with buildings dating back to colonial times, cobblestone streets, and a standard Southern allocation of churches: one Presbyterian, one Baptist, one Methodist, and one Episcopal. The nearest major city is over an hour away and our town is the county seat. People from the surrounding farms and villages flock here for government business and any items Walmart or Dollar General can’t provide. As we walked back toward the car an older gentleman in worn jeans and a plaid flannel shirt nodded hello and drawled:
“Howdy! Gettin’ to be ’bout time to start butchering hogs, isn’t it?”
I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the fact that hog butchering = a casual hello around here, or the fact that I actually knew he was wrong – hog butchering time was back in late autumn. Just give me a can of chewin’ t’backy and I’ll fit right in.
My family always lived in fixer-uppers and worked together on repair and construction projects, but having your own place kicks skill-building into high gear. Since moving in over the summer I’ve stripped wallpaper, repaired broken toilets (four times! we have hypochondriac Loos) , spackled walls, finished steps, wired a new plug into the dryer, fixed the washer twice, caulked, painted, built window screens, and much more. Every dusty, sweaty, noisy minute is oddly satisfying as the child, grandchild, and great-grandchild of engineers.
Dad explained and diagrammed basic home electrical wiring when he visited in the fall. Today with Opa’s guidance I got my first hands-on lesson. We rewired the front porch light from a programmable automatic timer to a regular on/off switch. Opa is patient, and it was fun, relatively easy, and very addictive. I got in good practice identifying wiring, detaching the old setup, testing the circuit, stripping wires, threading them onto existing wiring, attaching them to the switch, putting everything back together again, and checking that it all worked. I didn’t even electrocute myself or start a fire! Ugly ’80s light fixtures beware: I’m armed with wire cutters and I will show no mercy.
I’d forgotten how much easier work is with help. When a spouse deploys, work you’d normally split falls on your shoulders – bills, taxes, house cleaning, a full-time job, yard work, church obligations, house projects, financial details, trip planning, repairs, errands, family gifts, car care, meals, and a million random details. Every day is a race between fires. You realize pretty quickly why the the U.S. Army Deployment Cycle handbook warns us against playing the “Who has it worse” game. You’re both overworked and stressed in very different, hard to compare ways. You’re both relaxing in different ways. Someone takes care of Carl’s laundry and food. There are no chores. None of the paperwork and administrative details that lace day-to-day home life affect him. He has time to work out and read. On the other hand, he’s stuck in a razor-wire rimmed dusty compound surrounded by people who like blowing up Americans. Peoples lives depend on him 24 hours a day of every day, every week, every month. He sleeps in a cramped space with a roommate and depends on the unreliable whims of Army supply for basics like soap, butter, or telephone access. The two sets of benefits and stresses are so different it’s hard to stand in the others shoes, and pointless (heh) to point fingers.
Anyhow, it’s really really really nice having my grandparents’ gracious help this weekend. I didn’t actually put them to work. I asked them to relax. They wouldn’t. In a day or two I expect a scolding from my neighbor because my over-70 grandmother was out raking without me. My answer? “Have you ever tried to stop a determined German?” I’d forgotten this wonderful feeling of someone else doing work so I can get other things done. It’s nice. While Opa and I went to the hardware store for supplies, Oma raked most of the back yard. While we re-wired the front porch light, she mulched our back tree line. While I finished up the raking, Oma picked up sticks and Opa took apart the shed lock so I can replace it (the key got lost in the yard this fall). After I cooked dinner, someone else did the dishes. That’s a nice sweep of to-dos off the list. Lets politely ignore some other outstanding items like the still-not-mailed Christmas thank you notes.
After lunch at a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant we crashed for Saturday afternoon naps. On the periphery of my sleep-fogged consciousness, someone kept revving an engine over and over and over again. It turns out that was Opa snoring in the next room.
Visitors are a great excuse for baking adventures. I made an almond cake filled with pureed apricot preserves and glazed with rich chocolate. “Rich” in your average American dessert means sickeningly sweet, but this was rich in the European way – lusciously flavorful mouthfuls of savory almond cake batter, tangy apricots, and sharply sweet chocolate smoothness. A skinny slice with a cup of hot coffee makes a perfect snack. The English have afternoon tea. Germans have Kaffee. Both highly civilized and addictive traditions.
Oma and Opa don’t know I’m writing this, but they’ll see it once they’re home. Hi! Thanks for coming! I’ll eat some more cookies in your honor!