Long before I decided to have children, Hope Davis gave me advice in case I ever did: “Leave the dishes in the sink, and get on the floor and play with them!”
I took her advice as gospel … until I had a child.
These days I am not always as present as I wish to be. Often, both as a writer and as a mom, I find myself winnowing away the day on housework (“I see a crumb!! What is a crumb doing on my countertop??”), and fussing over diapers and dishes. But all the while I hear Hope’s wisdom ringing in my ears (“Get on the floor!” “Play!” “Forget dishes!”)
But…but…the dishes are weighing on my soul, and I will have a much better time playing if I just wash them…and just load the laundry…and just tidy up these toys…and before I know it, my daughter is rubbing her eyes for a nap, and there goes the afternoon.
And against that backdrop, we have had a constant stream of visitors. This is a wonderful perk of having a new baby and families who love us, and also a challenge to be managed—especially for two new parents who are trying out working at home.
So, when one of my former students (I used to teach sophomore English to a bunch of awesome students who are now high school seniors) asked if she could come visit for a week to write her college essays, I first said yes, then felt apprehensive. Would this make more work for me? We didn’t know each other that well—would it be weird? Furthermore, my husband was traveling that week, so it would be just my former student Catherine, me, and an infant who was just learning how to eat solid food.
So I asked Catherine for help when she arrived. She was delighted. She has a bright open face and always a camera slung across her shoulders. She had never fed a baby and was excited to try it. I handed her the spoon and a bowl of mushy beets.
Suddenly, I had help. Oh boy! I thought. Now I can have time to unload the dishwasher and to fold laundry and put it back in its proper place. I was delighted to have somebody take care of my daughter so that I could housekeep. I blurred around the kitchen, focused on my tasks.
And then I stopped.
There was Catherine feeding my daughter. My daughter was covered in food, her cheeks smeared with beet, her tiny teeth raspberry-tinted. And there was Catherine taking it all in, observing the small beauties of my daily life. Her camera was out and she snapped photo after photo—the beets, the teeth, the tiny feet kicking under the table. I wondered: How does she have the patience?
And PING! The teaspoon of irony plinked me on the head. I had patience for housework (easy to cross off the list), but not for the endless and messy task of feeding a baby beets. Hope’s chorus rang in my head: “Play with them! They won’t remember whether the house was clean, but they will remember if you played!”
I put down the onesie I was folding and joined them at the table. There will always be more laundry, but this moment will only happen once. You can outsource any household task, but you can’t outsource love.
For the rest of the week, I learned from Catherine. As a high school senior who had never been in charge of her own home, Catherine found all of my daily tasks interesting. And I found myself feeling that she was right—they are interesting. We made pasta by hand, ran errands by bicycle, bathed the dogs, and with Catherine watching and offering to help, it all became an adventure. She took photos of everything we did and saw during the day, and then in the afternoons went off to write her college essays. She watched my daughter so that I could do some morning writing, and in the evenings we ate dinner outside and talked about her essays.
She left after a week with full drafts of all of her college essays. I felt refreshed, drunk with friend-admiration, and mindful of how valuable it is to simply pay attention. And Catherine’s lesson has stuck. A week after her visit, a Snapfish photo album arrived in the mail, full of over two hundred careful, beautiful, colorful shots of the everyday life of our week. Beet stains, wet dogs, dishes, both full and empty, and the untamed landscape of Idaho.
My husband and I turned the pages in awe. He appreciated the artistry of her shots, while I appreciated knowing that for all of those moments, I was there. I was present. I saw all that.
Catherine was the perfect guest. Not only did she leave me with a perfect week, but she also improved my home life, my ability to look at my life and see its beauty, not just its tasks.
“I wish all of our guests were like Catherine,” my husband muses occasionally.
So do I.
— Elisabeth Sharp McKetta