(This is an old column of mine that originally appeared at Inside Catholic)
I was going through some old pictures online the other day. Organizing family photos is a project I assign myself on occasion in order to avoid doing real work. Nothing makes sorting through decades’ worth of jumbled digital images seem like quite so enticing a task as having real work with a real deadline looming on the horizon.
As I browsed the files, I found myself particularly drawn toward the pictures my oldest son, Eamon, has taken with his camera over the years.
Funny thing about boy photographers — they don’t bother to clean up messes before they start shooting. I saw picture after picture of cookie-faced, wild-haired toddlers with a variety of toys, stuffed animals, shoes, papers, dishes, and books cluttering the background. I watched dozens of video clips of goofy children where a very pregnant mother lumbered by in the background carrying a laundry basket. Sometimes she sat, reading the newspaper on a mail-littered couch. Other times, she called out that lunch was ready, or that the bathroom was a wreck — and who was in there last, anyway?
These aren’t my annual, carefully choreographed, Christmas family photos. These photographic memories are the real deal, perhaps even real-er than I am comfortable remembering. As I looked through them, I found myself wondering: What will my kids remember of this house and this family when they are grown?
They might remember messes. I wouldn’t blame them if they did. The messes are real.
The other day, for example, when I pulled into the playground parking lot and opened my van’s side door, an empty soda bottle clattered to the pavement, followed by a tennis ball that bounced several times before rolling beneath the van, out of my reach. A pharmacy receipt and a discarded hamburger wrapper, caught by the sudden breeze, floated through the air toward me. I clapped at them with both hands and leaped into the air to capture them before stuffing them into my jeans pocket.
I looked down to see the five-year-old exiting the van. With his pants on backwards. The six-year-old was close behind. In a pair of rubber boots, one yellow, one black. The eight-year-old followed her brothers, sporting a lopsided ponytail, a navy skirt, white first Communion heels, and turquoise butterfly knee socks.
A group of preschool models, who might have just finished shooting an Old Navy ad, and their 20-something mothers were gathered near the swings. Staring.
My life, I sometimes think, has been exaggerated for comedic effect.
As a mother of eight, I catch myself thinking “if only” a lot. If only the kids would keep quiet for 45 minutes, I could write a great American novel. If only the kids would wear paper sacks for a week, I could get caught up on laundry. If only I didn’t have a so much “help” all the time, I could bake a loaf of artisan bread to accompany a homemade dinner daily.
But of course I have help. When I begin any cooking or baking project, at least one of my three youngest is sure to drag a wooden chair across the sticky floors to climb to the cluttered kitchen countertops. To help.
During one recent baking project, I realized that I must have been saying “don’t touch!” an awful lot, because Gabrielle wound up telling me that she intended to be good now — and to prove it she held her hands behind her back.
Raphael was not quite so accommodating. I managed to knead a batch of dinner rolls, but as I was preparing the dough for the first rise, he slapped a small fat hand directly on top of the gooey mound. He grinned with delight at the feel of the dough within his grasp.
Something about the sight of that small hand with its widespread fingers reminded me of a French phrase I learned years ago: la main à la pâte. Literally, hand in the dough. Figuratively, however, it means active participation in the plans and preparations for any particular project. Hands-on learning.
Raphael has la main à la pâte, all right. All the kids do.
When children make up a significant percentage of your household membership, there’s just no way around it. Their wants, needs, ideas, preferences, and opinions become the basics around which the rest of your life is built. They’re in the dough.
To me, the messes in old photos are evidence of so much more than just large family life. They are evidence of this life we’re living. Really living. Together.
My children’s hands are in the dough. In the laundry. In the writing. In the kitchen cabinets. And under the seats in the van. Sometimes I get impatient, and I wish their hands were not quite so much a part of everything, but that’s only when I allow myself to forget. That my life is a recipe, and these kids are essential ingredients.
Whether they scroll through the old photos or not, when my children are grown, they might remember some messes. They might remember some noise. But as I watched a final silly video where several of their small bodies tumbled over one another and fell into a heap of giggles on the floor, I dared to think that they’ll remember love.
Because it’s in the dough, too. And it’s every bit as real.