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.
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).
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.