A funny thing happened last weekend. I turned on my computer to check email, and there were a dozen letters from Australia, each bearing kind Happy Mother’s Day wishes from down under. There were even more messages for me on Facebook. I was puzzled at first, but then the fifth note I read explained what was going on: “Your Gift of an Ordinary Day video is going viral in Australia,” a mom of two wrote to me.
Sure enough. I paid a visit to the YouTube link: 200,000 more clicks in just a couple of days — and suddenly my three-year-old video was inching right up toward 2 million views. (When I told this to my friend Ann Patchett, she promptly pointed out that Fifty Shades of Grey first went viral in Australia, too, which is probably not relevant, but who can say? I’m pretty certain her email is the only time the titles Fifty Shades of Grey and The Gift of an Ordinary Day have appeared in the same sentence, and that alone gave me pause.)
“But where can I find the words to your poem?” my Australian correspondent asked. “What I really want is the coffee table version of this video so I can read it again and again.”
I wrote her back, but I couldn’t give her what she wanted. The fact is, I didn’t envision the video script as a poem, but it isn’t exactly a direct excerpt from my book either. To write it, I did take some sentences from The Gift of an Ordinary Day. But then I thought about my children and and about ordinary days and all the things I worried about and loved and missed, and I added some more sentences in order to create a piece that could stand on its own. Then I tried reading the whole thing out loud to a friend. There were two problems.
Given that I was still smack in the middle of that raw and tender place of having sent one son off to college and knowing his brother would soon be gone, too, I couldn’t get through it without tears. And it took me over seven minutes to read out loud. “I know it’s way too long for a video. No one will watch,” I said to my friend. (The whole point of doing the video was to spread the word about my book — and everyone had told me that three minutes was the maximum amount of time anyone would pay attention.) But try as I might, I couldn’t find a line to cut.
In the end, I just went with it. I practiced a few times, so I could read about my children growing up without choking up myself, and then we filmed it. To my surprise, people did watch. And they shared with their friends, who shared with their friends, which is how a reading I did three years ago in my living room for my book group and my neighbors came to be seen by thousands of moms in Australia last weekend. (Turns out, they were also reading my blog, including my cake recipe from a few weeks ago, which gave rise to some more questions: ”What is a stick of butter? How many grams is that?” and “I wish I knew what a tube pan was!”)
Over the last couple of years, I’ve received many requests for the written words to the video, especially in the springtime, with the end of the school year approaching, graduations looming, and big life transitions right around the corner. For a long time, I held off (I was hoping people would buy the book, after all), but since there will never be a coffee table version, I decided the best way to answer the demand would be to just print the words here, for anyone to read and use. Three years later, and I haven’t changed my mind: the gift I still cherish above all else is the gift of a perfectly ordinary day. It seems, from what I hear, that mothers and fathers everywhere feel exactly the same.
The Gift of an Ordinary Day
by Katrina Kenison
You think the life you have right now is the only life there is, the one that’s going to last forever. And so it’s easy to take it all for granted — the uneventful days that begin with pancakes for breakfast and end with snuggles and made-up stories in the dark. In between, there might be a walk to the creek, a dandelion bouquet, caterpillars in a jar. Countless peanut butter sandwiches, baking soda volcanoes, and impassioned renditions of The Wheels on the Bus. Winter’s lopsided snowmen and summer trips to town for cookie-dough ice cream cones. Cheerios poured into bowls, fingernails clipped, cowlicks pasted down with warm water. Nose kisses and eyelash kisses and pinky swears.
Of course, I worried. I thought if I didn’t carry my four-year-old back to his own room after a bad dream, he would sleep with us forever. I thought, when one son refused to share his favorite puppet, it meant he’d never play well with others. When my first-born cried as I left him at the nursery school door, I believed he would always have trouble separating. Sometimes, out in the parking lot, I cried too, and wondered why saying good-bye has to be so hard, and if maybe I was the one with the problem.
“All the flowers bloom in their own time,” my 85-year old-grandmother said when I confided my fears. Of course, she was right.
There were disappointments — teams not made, best friends who turned mean for no reason, ear aches and strep throats and poison ivy. A cat that died too soon, fish after fish gone belly up in the tank. But mostly, the world we lived in, the family we’d made, childhood itself, felt solid, certain, enduring.
What I loved most of all was a boy on my lap, the Johnsons baby shampoo smell of just-washed hair. I loved my sons’ kissable cheeks and round bellies, their unanswerable questions, their innocent faith in Santa Claus and birthday wishes and heaven as a real place. I loved their sudden tears and wild, infectious giggles, even the smell of their morning breath, when they would leap, upon waking, from their own warm beds directly into ours.
For most of us, the end comes in stages. Baseballs stop flying in the back yard. Board games gather dust on the shelves. Baths give way to showers, long ones, at the oddest times of day. A bedroom door that’s always been open, quietly closes. And then, one day, crossing the street, you reach out to take a hand that’s always been there — and find you’re grasping at air instead, and that your 12-year-old is deliberately walking two steps behind, pretending he doesn’t know who you are.
It hits you then: you’ve entered a strange new territory, a place known as adolescence.
Arriving on these foreign shores, you feel the ground shift beneath your feet. The child you’ve loved and held and sacrificed for has been transformed, en route, into a sullen, alien creature hunched over a cereal bowl. And you wonder where you went wrong.
The thing is, you can’t go back and do one single minute of it over. All you can do is figure out how to get through the rest of the day, or the midnight hour when your mind keeps replaying the last argument you had with your tenth-grader, and wondering: How can I do this better?
Slowly, you begin to get the lay of this unfamiliar landscape, just as it dawns on you — the life that once seemed like forever has already slipped away. The old routines don’t work anymore. Instead, every day now, it’s like you’re learning to dance all over again, with strangers, spinning faster and faster. Holding on, letting go.
You do what you can to keep up. You fill the refrigerator, drive, supervise, proofread, and fill the refrigerator again. You negotiate curfews and car privileges, fill the refrigerator, confiscate the keys, set new limits. You celebrate a part in the school play, a three-pointer, a hard-earned A-minus. You fill the refrigerator, and you fill in every bit of white space on your calendar: SAT s and ACTs and SATIIs, playoffs and performances and proms. You ignore a bedroom that looks as if it’s been bombed, write lots of checks, try not to ask so many questions. You fill the refrigerator, count the beer bottles in the door. You willingly give up the last ice cream sandwich in the freezer, buy pizzas when their friends come over, keep the dog quiet on Saturday morning till you hear feet hit the floor upstairs. You learn to text, and to pray.
There are many nights when you trade sleep for vigilance. You become an expert in reading the rise and fall of a phone conversation muffled behind a door, the look in their eyes as they walk through the room, the meaning of a sigh, the smell of a jacket, the unspoken message behind the innocuous, “Hey mom.” “Hey,” you say. “Hey, hon.”
Before you know it, you’re in the homestretch of high school — and face to face with a truth you should have known all along: this time of parents and children, all living together under one roof, isn’t the whole story after all; it’s just one chapter. Hard as it is to live with teenagers, you can’t quite imagine life without them.
And yet this time of 24/7, zip-your-jacket-here’s-your-sandwich mothering by which you’ve defined yourself for so long, is coming to an end.
So, you remind yourself: Learn the art of letting go by practicing it in the present. Instead of regretting what’s over and done with, savor every minute of the life you have right now: A family dinner. You and the kids, all squeezed onto the couch to watch a movie. A cup of tea in the kitchen before bed. Saying goodnight in person.
If motherhood teaches us anything, it’s that we can’t change our children, we can only change ourselves.
And so, instead of wishing that the kids could be different somehow, you try to see, every day, what is already good in each of them, and to love that. Because any moment now, you’re going to be hugging a daughter who’s turned into a woman. Or standing on tiptoe, saying good-bye to a son who’s suddenly six-feet tall, and heading off to a college halfway across the country.
They leave in a blur — packing, chatting, blasting music, tearing the closets apart in a desperate last-minute search for the gray sweatshirt or the Timberland boots. And then, too soon, they really are gone, and the house rings with a new kind of silence. The gallon of whole milk turns sour in the fridge, because no one’s home to drink it. The last ice cream sandwich is all yours. Nobody needs the car.
You look at your husband across the dinner table, which suddenly feels way too big for two, and wonder, How did it all end so fast?
The bookshelf in my own living room is full of photo albums, nearly twenty years worth of well-documented birthday cakes and holidays, piano recitals and Little League games. But the memories I find myself sifting through the past to find, the ones that I’d give anything now to relive, are the ones that no one ever thought to photograph, the ones that came and went as softly as a breeze on a summer afternoon.
It has taken a while, but I certainly do know it now–the most wonderful gift I had, the gift I’ve finally learned to cherish above all else, was the gift of all those perfectly ordinary days.