A Chief’s Wife Doesn’t Whack Weeds *

The other day, someone referred to me as “a chief’s wife.”

The next day, as I was working on why being referred to as “a chief’s wife” would stick in my craw, there was a guy whacking the weeds directly outside my open window, and he seemed to follow me into every room.  I tried to be thankful that I don’t have to do the yard work, but the two things–the comment and the weed-whacking–seem connected in some way that captures something important about our transition from west Texas to Long Island.

The weed whacker is one of the many “perks” of living at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, which is where we’ve landed after the whirlwind that was west Texas.  I put “perks” in quotation marks because, well, the perks of living here are very real and also qualified.  Like: I don’t have to whack my own weeds, but I also don’t get to plant flowers in my yard.  Or a garden.  (Historical integrity!)  Living here also means that we can afford to live on Long Island at all, but, at the same time, it means (for Martin, at least) literally living at work–and in what often feels a bit like a fishbowl, since we live in the maintenance yard, and there are, very regularly, men doing noisy work right outside my door.  They’re nice guys, and they don’t peek in the windows or anything, but still, it’s a little weird.

We lived “at work” in west Texas, too, when, for five weeks, we got to crash in a one-bedroom (!) duplex at Guadalupe Mountains.  Our next door neighbor, Christie, became one of the boys’ treasured buddies, along with Brian in the duplex in front of ours, and Delco, who lived just down the road.  From these guys, the boys learned how to block and dodge punches, ding-dong ditch, and handle themselves around mules.  They ate elk for the first time and played with real (unloaded) rifles.  They got to ride in Delco’s rattling Jeep and Christie’s big, gleaming truck, and one time, Brian left a “warning” on our car (he’s law enforcement), which the boys found great delight in leaving on his in return.  They got to walk Edna’s sweet little dogs (so much giggling), and Felix, especially, got to know Sara and Bridget in the Visitor’s Center, where he hosted a table of please-touch animal artifacts and rang up purchases at the cash register, and they made sure he felt like he belonged there, with the grown-ups.

The boys would have been content if, along with our stints at volunteer work, including opening up Pratt Cabin and Frijole Ranch and chatting up the visitors, all we ever had done at GUMO was hike–up to the tippy-top of Texas, down Devil’s Hall, up to the “secret” cabin, and around the Bowl.  But luckily, they got way more than what just Mom and Dad could offer.  What I hope the boys will remember most about their time at GUMO is that they met a lot of genuinely interesting and caring people who made them feel welcome in a community with no other kids for miles around, (except those visiting the park).  They blossomed through this experience of being treated, by adults, not as if they were (mini) adults themselves, but worthwhile companions, nonetheless.

We were there just over a month, and no doubt, if we had gotten to stay longer, living in the middle of nowhere would have felt oppressive at times, particularly during the summer months of 100+ degrees every day.  Then again, it’s difficult to feel closed-in under a west Texas sky.  Waking up every morning to jagged mountains cutting through a heartbreakingly blue sky, and going to bed every night under a blanket of stars (a cliché, I know, but so apt), I felt a kind of peace that is hard to come by elsewhere.  Guads

Don’t get me wrong, our regular challenges (as individuals, as a family) persisted.  A west Texas sky is not a miracle cure for all that ails you.  But the experience of being there was unparalleled in my life. It was a time when things converged in just the right way.  And I will keep the memory of it close.  As I slog through the rain, humidity, and traffic of summer on Long Island.  😉

Because now I am “a chief’s wife.”  Where once I was “Melissa” (the best way to be) or “Professor Schoeffel” (inaccurate, but fine, whatever) or “Mrs. Schoeffel” (inaccurate in an upsetting, my-mom-is-not-here way) I am now “a chief’s wife.”

What.the.fudge.  [We’re trying out a new non-swearing approach in our family.  Don’t worry, though: I get a pass when I’m driving, otherwise I’d owe about a thousand dollars to the swear jar, which Felix claims I created in order to “get rid of some spare change.”  Oh, that one, he’s a charmer.]

For whatever reason, being referred to as “Felix’s mom” or “Alfred’s mom” has never rankled.  It most often comes from their peers, and really, there’s nothing more fun for me than walking into a grade school classroom, for example, and being greeted with “Hi, Alfred’s mom!” or “Hey, it’s Felix’s mom!”  Love it.

And I love my husband, too.  But I don’t really want to be his “wife.”

No, that’s not precise or true (most of the time).  I was “Martin’s wife” at Chamizal and GUMO, and it was alright.  At Chamizal, I suppose, I still felt like a person in my own right.  At the very least, I was still working at maintaining a (mostly) full-time position as a college-level instructor, still traveling down the career path I had chosen over a decade before, so even if I had been “a chief’s wife” there, it would have felt like a pretty small part of who I was.  At GUMO, I had already knocked down to teaching only one online section and was no longer operating under any illusions about maintaining my career path, for sure, but I also didn’t get the feeling that anyone felt compelled to be nice to me because of whose wife I happened to be.  When I met people, we became friends (or not) because of something other than my marital status (even if being “Martin’s wife” was why I ended up there in the first place), or my professional life, for that matter.

Now that we’ve landed here, where we expect to be for a good while, I’ve had to begin grappling with what my life is going to be, for real, now that it is no longer what it was.  I’m “a chief’s wife.”  And as a chief’s wife, I’ve experienced a really strange mixture of being ignored because I’m a woman–like the time when the whole family was being introduced to a man who shook Martin’s and the kids’ hands, but didn’t even look at me–and feeling like I’m being accommodated because of whom I happen to be married to.

Talk about being unmoored.

I’ve known this was coming.  I’ve tried to shore up some internal resources for dealing with such a major shift in my sense of self.  Becoming a homeschooler has been part of the shoring up and making the transition meaningful.  I get some of the same pleasure from homeschooling as I get from paid teaching, and some of the same grief.  What I don’t get is any recognition of myself as a person outside of my roles as wife and mother, or much time with grown-ups overall (especially when half of them pretend I’m not there).

It was my choice, I know.  And though I knew it was coming, this change in how I’m perceived in the world, chalk it up to my inferior mental powers that I am nevertheless perplexed and disheartened by it.

What to do?

What I’ve begun to do, now that I’m “just” a wife and mother, is dig deeper into the homemaking arts.  (If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em??)  I maintain a “starter” now, with which I make bread.  [Two loaves under my belt qualifies me as a “breadmaker,” I’m sure of it.]  I have carrots fermenting in my pantry and probiotic lemonade in my fridge.  I made cream cheese. I can now roast a chicken (no small thing for a vegetarian-up-until-last-October), make broth with its poor chicken carcass, and have plans to make homemade mayonnaise, among other various and random things. I’ve made my own bug spray, with which I will squirt you when you come to visit, because the mosquitoes out here are nuts, and I can’t let you spray all those toxic chemicals on yourself.  So there’s that.  And it helps.  And it will continue to take up more space in our lives, which is good enough, for now.

I fear I’ve given Sagamore Hill a bad rap in my waxing nostalgic about my former self–and Texas (!), of all places.  It’s a good place, this little pocket of history.  I am happy we are here, where we have easy access to New York City and wilderness areas with views of the Atlantic Ocean that cannot be contained in even the most rapacious eye (or a photograph).  FireIsland

Long Island is not too shabby, folks.  And I already have a friend!  She is lovely, and is also negotiating being “a wife,” when she used to be, you know, a person.

I know, have known from the start, that in the midst of this ruminating on what we have lost, I will be better able to see all there is to gain in our adventure.  The most important of these things is a deepened appreciation for all my friends–old, new, and yet-to-come.


* Just to be clear, our yard work is off-limits to me because the house we live in is a historic structure.  It really has nothing to do with being a chief… or a chief’s wife. 



One of those days

Yesterday was one of those days.

It was one of those days that made me think, “Hey, maybe this was a good idea.”  What was a good idea, you ask?  Well, primarily the decision to homeschool.  But also everything that came with it that got us here, to this point–a homesick Wisconsin family living in the suburban desert of West Texas. Because yesterday was one of those days when it was really good to be a family, together, in the middle of nowhere.

Felix has been busy making movies lately.  Well, mostly movie trailers (I think the trailers outnumber the actual movies 3 to 1.)  We recently downloaded the iMovie app onto the boys’ iPads, and while Alfred finds iMovie to be a snarl-inducing frustration, Felix LOVES it.  He’s been a movie maker for a while, but his early work was done with a digital camera and a laptop running Windows Live Movie Maker.  Switching to iMovie on the iPad (with its own built-in camera) has had quite an impact on his productivity.

Even without it, though, Felix is one of those people who can maintain concentration on a project for a really sustained amount of time.  If he wants to make a movie, he makes a movie, no matter if friends come knocking on the door or his mother is yelling at him to get dressed/eat something/clean up/get ready for bed/etc.  It takes him hours.  Days.

He is driven, persistent, creative, and a really good storyteller.

These are some of the qualities that make me lean toward what the folks call “unschooling” as I continue trying to figure out how to make homeschooling work for us.  Unschooling is theorized (and ideally practiced) as a learner-driven approach to education, where the kids follow their own interests and parents/teachers serve as guides on their journey.  It means that the parent’s attention is focused differently–less on curriculum development (or curriculum-purchasing) and more on how to support what the child is interested in learning about.

This is a pretty basic definition, one that doesn’t do unschooling justice, really, and one that will no doubt get more traditional homeschoolers irritated with me for making it seem as though they’re not interested in what their children are interested in learning.  That’s not what I’m saying.  What I’m really getting at, I guess, is that there is a different kind of attention paid to children’s interests, and that it demands a different kind of structure to our “school.”

Yesterday, “structure” meant packing up the majority of the boys’ stuffed animals, some Lego characters, and some Cars cars, along with the model T-Rex skeleton (named “T-Dex,” in case you’re interested), and driving two hours to shoot the photos necessary to make several Felix productions.  Guess who made this happen?


The boys have been wanting to go back to White Sands National Monument since the last time we went (1 year ago?  2?).  If you’ve never been, we’ll take you there when you come to visit.  What is super-fun about White Sands is that you can go sledding.  On the white sand.  That looks and, more or less, acts like snow (that never melts).  Except that yesterday, for example, it was 80 degrees out and everyone was barefoot and in shorts and t-shirts.  So, we had been planning to go to White Sands on Saturday anyway for some sledding and hiking, but after a few days last week of Daddy coming home from work to the screening of yet another Felix production (I think it’s Toymaster Films, officially), he asked Felix if he wanted to shoot on location.  Then, together, the night before last, they gathered everything Felix would need to complete several of his filmic visions.  And yesterday morning, we headed out “on location.”

Here are the boys, post-sledding, scouting the best location (the biggest boy is Daddy, “assistant to the director,” which means he carries all the gear):


Felix has never been an “easy” child.  It’s what comes along with being driven, creative, persistent.  So, to create events, situations, entire days, when he is thoroughly engaged and … happy–no, happy is not the right word, even though he was definitely that; he was in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”–is a challenge.  Yesterday, he was fully himself and thoroughly enjoying it, even though it was hard work.  And witnessing it was pure joy for me.

And key to his happiness, his state of flow, was his father’s role in it.  They did it all together.  Alfred and I amused ourselves as best we could and stayed out of the way.

Here are Felix and his dad, shooting some scenes in the sunlight.IMG_0196

While they set up, photographed, took down, and started the process all over again, Alfred and I doodled in the sand.  Without Grandma living nearby, there’s been a sad lack of art-making in Alfred’s life, so we were both happy to have this chance.  IMG_0198

And I got a whole bunch of love notes out of the deal.

   IMG_0200 IMG_0211 IMG_0213

It was a perfect day.  And it would have been perfect even if almost all of Alfred’s artwork hadn’t been love notes to his mother.  It would have been perfect even if one of Felix’s movie projects hadn’t turned out to be “Lost In the Dunes: A Father-Son Story,” which though not fully made yet, promises to be a beautiful tribute to this time he had with his dad.

Our days with them as children are already so numbered.  Felix will be 10 in two weeks, and I know he feels himself to be turning a corner of childhood. To have this one day was such a gift.  And it couldn’t have happened any other way.  We had to have made these terrifying changes to get to this point, and (for today, at least) I am so grateful we did.


El Paso observation

When the weather is cloudy and in the 60s (with a scattering of raindrops, no less), people around here bundle up in scarves, jackets with hoods, and gloves.  I think it’s adorable.  It’s probably why, unlike me, they don’t all want to commit murder when the temperature rises above 80.

getting up

I woke up this morning thinking about how I don’t really have any real reason to get out of bed.  No job to go to, no friends to meet, and the kids can pretty much fend for themselves (prefer to, actually, because when Mom gets up and pays attention, she makes them do boring stuff like write and learn and do math).  This is why I decided that today is the day I would start “the blog.”  Maybe it’ll give me a reason to get out of bed.  You might say, “But Melissa, you can write a blog in bed.”  Indeed.  But still, metaphorically, I need to get out of bed.

I’ve actually been thinking about writing this for a while, thinking about the title for a while, because so many things have happened lately to make me feel “unmoored.”  I quit my job (not all the way, but enough to mean a significant change in my sense of professional self), took the kids out of school to become homeschoolers (what was I thinking?!), lost my sweet dog (she died), sold the one and only house we’ve ever owned in a neighborhood and city I love, and moved away from my friends and family (this last one is so much of a heartache that I can’t make its phrasing pretty or interesting).  I left the water of Lake Michigan behind, where my ship has been moored for the great majority of my life, to come to this strange place in the desert, where the water, I’m convinced, literally makes me sick.

There’s a heady sense of freedom that comes when you leave behind what you are moored to and “head West” where the only things to moor yourself to seem about as substantial as a tumbleweed.   But since I’ve never been particularly interested in seeking out adventure or being an explorer on a quest for “freedom”–mostly, I’ve always wanted to stay home–this heady sense of freedom just makes me feel dizzy.  And, let’s face it, sad.

Hence, the not feeling very much like getting out of bed.  At least there, if I’m feeling dizzy, I have a soft place to land when I fall.