Betty Duffy

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I'll spare you much further account of my vacation.

Once we get to the lake, it's the same almost every year. There are certain things that must be done, like my husband takes the big kids to Pierce Stocking to climb the dune. I've done it once, and don't especially enjoy it, especially when pregnant. There's also fishing, which I don't especially enjoy. Some of the boys like golf, which I don't especially enjoy. And there was the camping on the beach episode, which I didn't especially want to do again. Sometimes my brother brings his boat, but not this year. And sometimes I ride the bike or play tennis, but not this year.

So when we realized that time was passing and not everyone would get to do what they wanted to do, we made up a little calendar for our remaining days. My mom wanted to go to a farmer's market. My dad wanted to ride his bike around the lake and take the kids fishing. My husband had all the things listed above to do. And I had...well, I wanted to...hmm...

"Complain when everyone else does what they want to do," filled in my husband.

That was it! With the caveat, that I wanted to do it while sitting on the beach, which my dad shortened to B&B, for "Sit on the beach and bitch."

The trouble was, no one really wanted to do it with me.

Lots of people wanted to go to the beach and swim, however (B&S), like the eight children present on vacation, who wanted to bob around in the water from morning til night, masked in goggles, sheathed in sunscreen, pushing each other off the raft, and diving for zebra mussels.

I did get in the water at least once every day. There's not really anything better than being pregnant and feeling weightless, the pleasures of buoyancy from your head to your tropi-cobana toenails. So I'd float around on a noodle or something, until a school of children would doggie paddle out to me, soggy noses and teeth gritted just above the surface of the water.

"We're coming to enjoy your company, Aunt Elizabeth!"

"Well, dagnabbit!" I'd answer because the unspoken subtext here was that they would spend the next fifteen or so minutes trying to dump me off my flotation device. It never gets old.

Back on the beach, I could contemplate one of my favorite subjects of complaint: maternity swimsuits. It just never failed, that I'd emerge from the water at the end of the dock like Ursula the sea-squid, and someone on the beach would snicker, "What are you wearing?"

"Why, this poorly supported garment with failing elastic, was on sale at Target, but it almost covers my under-belly, and it has a skirt, so I'm not sure what's so funny about it."

I realize what designers of maternity suits are up against--they've got to fit women whose stomachs are increasing at a rate of about a centimeter a week, and the suit is supposed to fit all summer long. It has to stretch, but supposedly only in one place--around the abdomen (not the thighs and arms). It's a bit of an engineering dilemma, one that would cost a bit of money to remedy. But women don't want to spend much money on a suit that will only be worn one season. So...

B&B: I've never been much of a beach beauty. The bikini debate is lost on me because there has never been a time in my life when I've had the figure or the desire that might make wearing one an appealing prospect. I look better in clothes than without them, and so every couple years, there's another few inches or so that I'd like to keep covered. Several years ago I gave up on shorts. This year, I've been feeling the call to cover my upper arm.

Coverage is my friend, which has nothing to do with modesty. Just vanity and sanity--because going around half-or-barely clad for me would require a certain amount of self-deceit--weird self-talk like, I love my stretch marks because they remind me of the blessings of having children. This kind of stuff plays better in one's head than on the beach where the sun sheds light on the dimply truth whether we like it or not.

I have a hazy memory of a roommate in college who, by voluntary circumstances, found herself on the front lawn of a frat house wearing only her scivvies and wielding a hose at a huddle of jocks on the porch, while yelling, "Don't mess with the girl in the thong!"

Two things in this scenario are certain a) No one messed with her, and b) this situation could only have occurred to a girl who was absolutely certain she looked fabulous in her underwear. It really is a testimony to the invincible power of body confidence in the young and beautiful.

Though I remember feeling the pangs of injustice regarding her perfect figure in comparison to my own imperfect one, in hindsight, I consider it a blessing that she was she and I was me.

I do wonder, in the modesty debate, how much of the call for modesty in others is a back-handed expression of envy or inadequacy on the part of the moralizer. When I see other women, especially younger women who look dynamite on the beach, it makes me feel inadequate. Trouble is, dynamite-looking girls still look dynamite in a muumuu. And people who feel threatened by the youth and attractiveness of others will still feel threatened no matter how much fabric covers them.

I'm recalling a letter I received when I was twenty-two, and I had given a talk for a Regnum Christi event, wearing a tweed suit with an ankle length skirt. There was a slit up to the knee so that I could walk, and apparently, when I sat down, one of the conference attendees caught a glimpse of my slip. She then wrote to tell me that I was an obstacle to her husband's holiness and that I should not wear skirts with slits in them. I still have the letter.

I have to admit, I was flattered by it more than anything (though, on a side note, when I showed the letter to my spiritual director, she laughed it off and said that people were always complaining that the Consecrated ladies dressed too provocatively).

It had almost not occurred to me that older men might look at me, and I was sort of amused that this woman considered herself guardian and custodian of her husband's purity. How many such letters had she sent out? And was it worth it? Had she succeeded in guarding her husband's soul and changing the hearts of young women everywhere?

She hadn't changed mine. But where virtue is lacking, often time fills a void.

Now I'm planning next season's post-pardum swim attire, and I think I've found my swimsuit at Vermont Country Store.

I saw an older woman at water aerobics wearing this suit. If it could take the raw ingredients of her aged body--a mole-covered back, a thick middle, a thin layer of thigh-skin that in another suit might have looked like the gathered end of a raw hot dog--and make them look serene and graceful, that's the suit I want to wear.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Vacation, part 2: Camping in the UP

From Wisconsin, we drove thru Greenbay, and then north to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We aimed towards a campsite at Indian Lake, near Manistique.

Because our former tent had been ruined in a long early summer stand in the yard, my husband picked up a new tent on clearance at Dick's right before we left town. We didn't have time to practice setting it up.

Unfortunately, once we'd circled the Indian Lake campsite thirteen times in search of the perfect site, then changed our minds three times, officially, with the camp reservation seal on our receipt marking our location and effects (five children, one large tent, and a car), my husband was unable to assemble our shelter. It appeared to be missing two hubs, according to the instructions in the bag.

He went to ask the rangers for duct tape, or maybe a drill and a block of wood for makeshift hubs. By the time all the supplies had been gathered, we were in the midst of a solid downpour--thunder, lightening, streams of mud rolling through the area where we planned to lay our heads.

It was lucky we had put everything back in the car when we couldn't find our hubs, but we were still cranky, and at nearly ten p.m. the kids and I were staging a mutiny. My husband was intent to camp no matter the weather, and I, with all the whining will of five children behind me was planning to drive on through the night to the lake house, or at the very least, so as not to lave my husband stranded in the Upper Peninsula, to a motel.

Yes, I had seen on the radar that the storm was set to pass over quickly, but still, a wounded tent on wet ground, the assembly of which was to take place in the dark by the light of the car headlights. I was ready to stake anything on leaving.

When the rain lightened up, my husband set forth again to raise the tent. He found some instructions on his ipod, which indicated that our clearance tent had been packed in the wrong bag, so the instructions were for a different model (thanks Dicks)--ours did not require hubs at all.

The kids kept asking why we hadn't left yet, while their dad stood out in the dark wrestling with large panels of nylon. They were starting to get on my nerves--these people in the back seat, whose votes on the issue don't register, considering me in league with them against their father.

I got out of the car to help set up the tent, and the peanut gallery booed, saying "Don't help him Mom! What are you doing?" If there was any sign that God was on my husband's side, it was this: nothing is more likely to cause my defection from an issue I hold dear, than the loud specter of popular opinion. We were camping.

The sky cleared up. The tent slowly took shape in the dark. The kids gave up their stand and started bringing the sleeping bags and pillows out of the car to fight for their spaces on the floor of the tent. We'd switched sites one more time from a muddy one to a grassy one, and the new tent was mercifully waterproof. For me, my husband pumped up the air mattress.

We roasted some brats over a smokey fire of damp kindling and a few logs of purchased firewood. We ate two marshmallows apiece, then sticky with sand and melted sugar, we went to sleep in the cool northern woods, water dripping off the pines when the wind blew, and the moon very nearly full through the roof of the tent.

I enjoyed myself, and I believe everyone else did too.

A week later, however, when my husband and the boys, still pumped up on camping, proposed sleeping under the open sky without a tent on the shore of Lake Michigan, I declined, heading back to the lake house with my daughter.

They went on with their plan, and once again, after waking at dawn, they came home damp and sandy with invigoration, bearing donuts, talking about shooting stars and coyotes, and smelling vaguely like fish and fire.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Fruit Long-Despaired Of

For a lot of years in early motherhood, it seems like you accomplish very little except repetitive diaper changing, and the memorization of a handful of commands or requests that no one seems to hear. Then one day you realize that your children have acquired some life skills, perhaps in spite of you, perhaps because of you. Either way, the realization can catch you off guard.  My mom told me once that a lot of the things I thought were a really big deal when the kids were little, would turn out not to be a very big deal at all.  She was right. Everybody's growing up, and doing just fine.

My column at Patheos this week.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writer's Conference

I thought I might write up a play by play of my vacation. But if I keep waiting to do it right, I may never write again. We started off at the Gerasene Writer's Conference, hosted by the O'Brien/Johnson family at their farm in Wisconsin, with fellow attendees the Darwins, the Lickonas, one Ellen Finnigan, a couple priests, a couple professors, Grandpa Barney, brother Canisius, the lovely wives of our hosts and exceptional cooks, Cecelia and Marguerite, and roughly fifty children.

This Wisconsin farm life--this is the life I always fantasize about living--a dirt road block from my parents and grown siblings, all of our children running back and forth from one kitchen to another, and out to the barn to milk the cows, feed the chickens, or check on the status of the latest litter of piglets. Neighbors sharing produce and dirt and immune-system-strengthening microbes, lamenting or rejoicing together in the weather, running the music ministry at Mass on Sunday, and every once in a while, just for kicks, throwing a writer's conference. These people are doing it.

On the kitchen counter in the big house, there's a bowl for the compost, a bowl for the slop, a bucket of milk coming in from the cows. Marguerite and Cecelia are filling many many bowls with chopped vegetables and roast ham. Animals feeding people; people feeding animals. Life begetting life. And a sheepskin-covered easy chair (!) in the corner, for the cooks to sit down and rest, or nurse a baby, or for interlopers who want to be near the ladies without a knife and a vegetable in their hands (this kitchen easy chair is an idea well-worth taking to the bank).

At morning and midday, Marguerite, pregnant with twins, jumps a fence to bring in the cows for milking. This is something I have never seen in my life--a pregnant woman jumping a fence--a gaggle of children following her in hopes of getting a hand in the milking action. A couple of kids, always mine it seems, have climbed up the rock wall in the woods again and are hovering precariously over the ledge of a slippery moss-covered hunk of granite. Your life, Kids--live it or lose it--but I'd really rather you come down.

At night, I walk around collecting the shoes my kids have dropped all over the yard, then collecting the children themselves--which is slightly more difficult than finding the shoes. There's a ceremonial hand and tooth washing, which makes approximately two small areas of their body relatively clean. And then the kids are to bed. It's damn late already.

Cecelia, Marguerite and various hands have cleaned up the dinner, which was long in preparing, but so quick to eat, and then the farm wives lead their kids from the big house back to their own houses for bed. All that work-- I wish they'd at least stay up for the whiskey. Tired or not, I will always cast my lot with the late crowd. But they assure us that the whiskey has been uncorked for quite awhile, and they're ready to call it a day.

Here the poetry reading and playacting begin in earnest, along with song-singing and general merry-making-- the conference part of the conference. A chapter was read from Mrs. Darwin, a play by Matthew Lickona, a poem by Joseph O Brien, an orphan opening from Mr. Darwin. I had thought about sharing bits of this dumb book I've been pulling out of drawers and putting back in for about ten years about my experiences with Regnum Christi--(I imagine there are many who could write this book, and probably are working on it much more efficiently than I)--but there is the whole "I" problem with my writing, that I don't mind hearing the "I" in my head, but that "I" sounds like such an idiot on someone else's lips. I chickened out.

In the morning of the second day, after two nights of late readings, and two full days of lectures and listing around the kitchen and the porch, from cooler to cooler, conversation to conversation, we stopped in at the O'Brien house to say our goodbyes. The late crowd was barely awake, myself included, a bit parched and spotty. But there, surrounded by boys in baseball caps in various states of repose, was Cecelia, white robed, hair around her shoulders, the sun reflecting off the wood floors and bookcases and casting her in warm light. The trolls of the night had pursed lips and puffy eyes, but Cecelia was queen of the morning, and laughing.

There's something very invigorating about watching people work for their rest, and then seeing that  rest has accomplished its purpose. I'll always be a troll, most likely, but my husband set to work reading Wendell Berry again once we'd hit the road and exhausted the first shift of driving. He becomes more and more the early riser, the one trying on a conversation in the morning while I'm pulling the blankets over my head. Nevertheless, seeing how agrarian life actually functions when it's done, not just in bit parts as it suits us, but in its entirety as suits a large hungry family and the beasts of burden in its care, made us both ripe for a stroll on the Berry guilt trip we've been on so many times before. Maybe we should just do it. We've got a place for goats and chickens. We've had big gardens we've both ignored.

We got to the chapter on spouses contributing to the family economy by engaging in small crafty enterprises, like writing or woodworking, the chapter where Berry recounts how he doesn't have a computer, but rather a wife who types up all of his manuscripts, the chapter that makes feminists go bonkers, and actually, makes me a little nuts too. And here we came to an impasse, because we couldn't agree whether he should type my manuscripts for me, or whether I should plane his boards for him--so we settled that things actually work ok for us as they are, and that instead of going all agrarian and quitting his job and starting a small business, we'd just buy a deep freezer and fill it with meat for the winter. What we need is a fence-jumping farm wife.

Home now, we've purchased said freezer. It's plugged in the basement, waiting to be filled.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pardon me...

...While I ignore my blog for just a bit longer. We're home from vacation, the house is a mess, and the kids start school tomorrow.

All is well!