Last month, as part of our big Midwestern roadtrip, my kids and I stayed for 10 days in a gorgeous five-bedroom turn-of-the-century lake house in northern Michigan, a home swap with the older couple who live there and, in turn, stayed at my apartment in Queens.
The kids and I drove more than six hours from Niagra Falls that day, still fresh road warriors a mere few days into the adventure. As we cruised by Toronto and up through the fields of Michigan, I thought a lot about a good friend whose mother recently passed away. There was a line in her obituary that got me:
“They lived in Biloxi, M.S., Fulda, Germany , and Rapid City, S.D. In October, 1968, they returned to Illinois to continue to build their life and family together.”
Build their life.
A lot of the time I am happy in my single-mom life. The kids and I have a good thing going, they're turning into great people. I am building my business, and as a family we have friendships and family relationships that grow. But a whole lot of my time and energy is spent dating guys who are not part of my family. People who pass through. While they might be fun or interesting or help me figure my stuff out, I am not building anything with anyone. Much of the time, I feel I am just passing through motherhood and family. Doing a fine job keeping the ship afloat. But building not much.
At our Michigan destination, the Subaru cruised into the beautiful resort town just as the son was setting over Lake Michigan, and pulled into the driveway of our temporary home. It was 9 p.m., we were all hungry, but ran through the rooms of the this giant house, which was far lovelier than the online pictures (I found the arrangement through the very excellent HomeExchange.com — which costs $199 per year — and allows you to connect with other home swappers, including my host in Copenhagen, where I am spending three weeks for, essentially, free). Being from the Midwest, I have known many big old homes, and this was an excellent one, the kind with solid walls and surrounded by giant Sycamore trees, both of which leave the house cooler inside than outside in the summer.
Scattered throughout the house were many family pictures of the hosts, Harry and Nancy, in their 70s, and glowing and smiling alongside four of five grown, blond children with their handsome spouses and a mess of blond grandkids of all ages who appeared to excel in nautical sport.
The home was so lovely, filled with very good antiques and lots of floral bedspreads that coordinate perfectly with drapes and rugs without being stuffy — but rather call to be featured in Traditional Home magazine.
This is a real family home, I thought. I imagined this couple must have known each other since college. That she must have stayed home with the kids and devoted herself to this beautiful place and her beautiful blond children and her smiling, committed husband with whom she is nuzzled in the silver-framed photo on the walnut dresser in the giant master suite that I now occupied. This is why women stay home. To create all this wonderfulness.
While my own kids ran through the rooms, turning on all the lights and deciding which rooms would be theirs (sharing a room in our apartment, they opted to sleep in the same queen bed all week), I hit the kitchen, outfitted with an enormous assortment of good china, endless baking tools and a second refrigerator in the adjoining pantry where Nancy, clearly a prolific cook, kept an overflow of excellent cheese, beer and condiments.
I could hear the kids squabbling upstairs, and in the kitchen I, too, felt exhausted and ornery. The car would need to be unpacked, towels located. But first I had to feed my kids. My children were hungry. I wasn't at my quickest. Not sure what foods might be rude to use from the kitchen. What would be quick and tasty to cook. The assortment of bottles and cans and boxes and pans and utensils was so vast, so overwhelming. Harry and Nancy were so perfect. I was such a mess. I couldn't even feed my children in that moment, much less build a life for them. I am a failure in this moment. And I am a failure in life! I thought, and a giant, desperate sob overtook me before I was able to collect myself and boil some expensive, imported pasta in a shape I had never seen before.
The next day I called a contact Nancy had left for me, and the lovely woman who contributes to the local magazine came by to chat about kids and writing. I asked what she might tell me about my hosts. “Oh Nancy was a divorced mom, too — for many years,” she said. “Her first husband was a terrible alcoholic, and she was a successful real estate agent here.”
I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because, really Nancy. Oh Nancy! I had told myself so many stories about who you are, and they had nothing to do with anything at all except for my own bullshit. My own bullshit about not being or doing enough. That everyone has it better than me. That out there, somewhere, there is a perfect family in a perfect big house on the lake that a stay-at-home mom decorated and bakes all the live-long day so that her gorgeous, functional extended family can come together for weekends and drama-free holidays.
When I got done laughing, I started to see. I saw that yes, Nancy, you have some lovely traditional oil paintings that coordinated perfectly in your rooms that are indeed traditional, but also so graciously laid out and in colors like bright apricot or the palest of lime green that are quite modern and sophisticated. Your art collection was not what it first appears, but includes sly folk pieces, like a painting featuring a 3D papier-mâché woman with the hand written words: “She looked in the mirror to find her youth had disappeared. The bitch never even bothered to say goodbye.”
Your books throughout the house — a wall in one of the sitting rooms, on end tables, not to mention the cookbook collection spilling from the kitchen to the breakfast room — say a lot about a person. But in the master bedroom, between two windows opposite the king-sized bed, is that narrow shelf of titles that I could not help but imagine are your favorite. Carson McCullers, Memoirs of a Geisha, biographies of Hillary Clinton and female Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Nancy, you are smart, and you are edgy. Complex. You've been through it, just like everyone. Just like me.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.