Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Timer


A month ago I bought a kitchen timer styled to look "vintage." I have had my eye on it for a while and after reading an article about timers and organization I decided I had an excuse. We moved to this apartment when our child was not quite five months old. It was freshly painted and empty. A small but inviting space. Images of the future rushed into the space the moment we walked in, while my daughter slept against my chest and my husband ran his hand along the mantle of the little working fireplace.

I immediately fell in love with the kitchen and decided it was my favorite room. It's a tiny kitchen. The small counter is at an angle and there is a big white wooden window over the sink. It doesn't look over much of a view, but that doesn't matter, it is actual daylight in a New York City kitchen. There are white shuttered doors that can be closed during all those imaginary cocktail parties of the future so that my husband can blend ice and gin while revelers relax in the living room.

I had many plans for this kitchen when my baby was five months old. I was going to find just the right plant to hang in the window and some old black and white photos of Europe for the tiny bit of wall space to the right of the counter and hang tea towels just so on white hooks above the sink. I entertained images of little iron hooks on which to hang white bistro style coffee cups and rows of herbs on that ledge from which to pluck seasonings for stews. I bought a French cookbook and a little wooden stand on which to place it. We don't own this apartment, but one never knows in life, if we were here for one year or for ten I wanted to enjoy calling it "home" while we could.

The stove is quite small and the refrigerator is half-sized, so hilarity and disaster has ensued in this tiny space as I have blended soups and my husband has baked cookies. It is always in need of being cleaned but there is never time. We get the dishes done each night and wipe down the counters and maybe once a week I give the stove and the fridge a good wipe-down. But of course, I had a baby and now I have a toddler. Tea towels and black and white photos will have to wait. Crumbs and stains have marred the clean breast of newness that floated through this apartment nearly two years ago like fresh spring wind.

Someday we will have an area rug and there will be framed photos on the wall. Someday my child will put her own crayons and pens in her desk drawer while her father makes dinner in that kitchen. Someday we'll find that hanging plant and drape it along the window. Someday I'll play WBGO radio while I make dinner without a two-year-old complaining that it is not The Wiggles. Maybe she'll even fall in love with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Strayhorn. Someday. We might even put cushions in the window seats that overlook the street. Someday. When she is a real little girl who will sit for an hour and read a book in that window ledge.

In the meantime there are cars both wooden and metal and stuffed dogs forever on the kitchen floor. There are phone messages piling up in our answering machine and books piled on the floor by the bed that I never seem to get to because I always fall asleep when my daughter does (at 11 or later.) The floor desperately needs a washing but someday, that perfect someday, there will be time to scrub and polish and give it a thorough clean.

We have lived in and loved this home already. We have not waited for "perfection'" in order to enjoy its charms: its beautiful trees outside the living room windows, its tiny but real fireplace, its diagonal kitchen with the white shuttered doors, the back alley we face from our bedroom which looks onto a brick wall and a dark alley onto which I can project fantasies of ancient European buildings and watch the pigeons on the opposite ledge hatch their squabs each May. We have lined up our books on shelves above our couch and really that is what makes an apartment a home. My daughter calls her bookshelf her "bookshop" and each night we go to her bookshop to choose stories for bed. We are most definitely home.

Still, I wait. I live a little bit in the future -- I believe in this forward-looking as part of enjoying the moments in the present. We all need something to envision. I believe it is what drives us to create and to strive in life and it adds seasoning to the tranquil joy of the present.

 I keep the timer pristine in its box and I wait, ironically, for it to be "the right time" for the timer. The right time will be when the kitchen is perfectly clean and there is some order in the house and we fulfill the right of this apartment to be the perfect place it longs to be: a place of order and seasonal celebrations and a variety of music singing from the radio on the window ledge.

Will it be when my child is three? When she is four? Will we have moved by then and the lovely little timer will never sit on that white window ledge in a spotless kitchen with a hanging plant? I would rather live with this uncertainty than take the timer out of the box. I like having it there, knowing that there will be a moment when the house feels clean and there is a bit more order to our days. When the kitchen is finished and just needs a touch of design to spruce it up.

I am not in a hurry, precisely because I know that this timer is in the box. It's a promise from the future. Someday we will fulfill the vision of this apartment, or some other apartment, if need be. In the meantime, we exist with candle wax ground into our carpet and dried macaroni under the baby's chair and plenty of dust and far too many garish child's watercolors taped to the wall because there is no way to clean and cook and care for a toddler and work long hours and make your home a hobbit hole of clean cozy perfection all at the same time. You have to find the coziness in the mess for the early years.

But the timer promises me that this perfection exists. Someday a bell will go off in my head. Maybe when I see my child putting away her own toys and sharpening her own pencils and sitting quietly to draw a picture by herself for half an hour I'll draw a breath and take the timer out.  Maybe it won't be until she goes to school. I am not in a hurry. I am happy in the present of scuffed floors and stuffed dogs wet with oatmeal and answering machines  filled to the brim with messages I forgot to check or couldn't hear because my daughter was singing or shouting.

Time has a way of expanding and contracting while you watch your child grow. When we lie in the dark after her nap, after she summons me for that afternoon cuddle, time expands and I exhale in the darkness. I feel the soft, worn sheets and the peace of a bedroom that is minimalist because there's been no time or money to decorate. I see the drapes moving in the breeze and I feel her chest expand against mine as she plays with my hair. Then when I see her dance down the hallway of the ballet studio, time contracts and my mind flashes back to the tiny pile of newborn mush curled into my arms only a minute ago --except it's been a year and a half.

Soon it will be our third Spring in this apartment. We've had two jack o-lanterns here, one Christmas tree, one menorah, lots of bubble baths and countless viewings of The Sound of Music. There may yet be a Spring here with cushions in the window seats and a little blue timer in a tiny clean kitchen. Or I may wait so long for the right time that it will have to move with us, still in its original box, to a new apartment.

The timer will go off in the future and it will remind me of all the lovely childhood messes of the early years through which it waited. It will be shiny and fresh, while my memories of my child's earliest years will be dewy and diffuse. The timer will ring from within the box and tell me when one era of constant mess and confusion has yielded to an era of more order and design.

You can be both perfectly content in the present and excited about the future. We don't need framed photos and paintings or hanging plants or fashionable timers on our window ledge right now. But I do need a dream, as symbolized by my little timer, as much as I need to stop everything and enjoy those lingering post-nap cuddles. The present need not obliterate the future. In fact, I think it is quite dependent on it.

At any rate, I won't wait forever. The timer is a part of my daughter's childhood memories. She just doesn't know it yet.



  1. You write beautifully. Also, I'm facing the same challenges but my response is a little bit different - I went ahead and, amid the messy countertops in the kitchen and over my toddler hugging my knees and running around and interrupting me in my very important endeavor, hung a few 'Spring' pretties on one wall of windows overlooking the small pond in our backyard. Sort of as a token to that future time when the kitchen will be clean for longer than 2 minutes between meals and we'll sit down together to read a book and relax with a cup of tea. Tea parties in our future ;) The present has its charms too, like you say.

    1. Thanks, Lejla. I didn't mean to imply we haven't done any decorating at all, we have a few photos on the mantle and my daughter's room has framed postcards from our trip abroad and there are a few touches here and there. I think I was just pondering this idea of "saving"' something for a different era and whether it is a trick we play on ourselves or whether it is nice to have a little fantasy in reserve. And oh my goodness,I am SO envious of your backyard and your POND!!! I'm sure there will be many spring picnics next month for you there!


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