The Road Home

Count Your Cozies

Life and babies are gifts that pass too soon

By Caroline Hamilton Langerman

While you were napping, I picked up the house. It was hard to get started, but once I did, I went hard. I started with the baby books, looking fondly on one titled Calling All Animals, a page-by-page catalog of creatures and their plural forms: a flamboyance of flamingos, a pride of lions, and so on.

The mess was so vast that picking it up seemed only to reveal its depths: under a soccer jersey on the counter, a dribble of applesauce. Behind a turned-over kid’s chair in the family room, fingerprints on the wall. To make it bearable, I started a game of naming each mess. In the wicker basket near the TV, a slavery of stuffed animals. Under the kitchen table, a kingdom of crumbs. The blocks, Legos, play foods in the den: an apology of plastics. In the mudroom, a silliness of shoes. Everywhere, a confusion of creams.

The game was mostly sarcastic — I got a little jilt of pleasure every time I could aptly insult my new possessions. Three years ago I had been a size-2 young professional in New York, with my own office and a blissful ignorance of “sleep training.” The only thing that made me feel better about the whiplash of becoming a stay-at-home-mom in North Carolina was a trick I’d read in a self-help book, “name the negative,” which involved saying your bad feelings out loud in order to own them. I had always been an expert whiner; I could practically teach a course in it now. But my rhythm was broken when, on the floor of the mudroom closet, I came to a miniature brick-red jacket, made of softest fleece. Size 3T. L.L. Bean, read the little emblem sewed on the front breast. Three little snaps — just by looking at them, I could hear them pleasantly popping into place — led to an upright collar. It brought to mind your smile, your signature cheeks, the sweet cowlick of your brown hair that won salutes from strangers. “Great bedhead,” a hipster once said in our direction as we exited a pancake house. I’m pretty sure he was serious.

This jacket, everything it meant to me, was treasure. I needed a phrase to relay the dearness of its entire “family” of sweaters and coats that lay crumpled on the ground in the closet. A jealousy of jackets? A freedom of fleece? I held its sleeve to my cheek before adding it to the hanger. Nothing could quite relay the joy I had felt upon receiving one of its cousins, a matching white sweater-suit, when you were about 6 months old. “Isn’t that for a girl?” my husband had asked, when I took it out of the box. No, it was for a baby. The top was soft white yarn, crocheted and double-breasted like a pea coat, complete with a hood. Below it, little sweater pants that cuffed at the ankle. “Sweater pants?” he asked again, with one eyebrow up. Sweater pants! Life’s sweet reward!

I moved to the upstairs — tiptoeing over the creaky step and past the nurseries — to find a tide of toothpaste in the sinks. A harrowing of hairballs. There, in the master bedroom, a nightmare of nursing bras. When I saw the king bed with its rumpled covers, a scarcity of sleep.

But as I threw damp towels into the hamper, I also hummed with the happiness of all the fuzzies in the family. You’d worn a jacket with a pointy gnome’s hood to the King’s Drive Farmers Market in Charlotte, making you look like a baby fir among the Christmas trees. The white and red holiday sweater with a moose on it, and the tiny tuft of “hair” between the horns, was the perfect ensemble for a Radio Flyer wagon ride among the camellias and red maples in Myers Park. Your baby sister’s polar bear bunting and strawberry hat with a green stem, or her polka-dot pullover, cheery with pink and purple splotches, could turn a tantrum into a photo-op. Raincoats with flannel lining came in sizes so small they shouldn’t be allowed. “Put your hood up, Margaret,” you said to your sister, meaningfully, before Hurricane Florence pelted down.

I looked up from the washing machine out the upstairs window and watched magnolia trees bend in the wind. Something about nature could make me momentarily forget the current iteration of myself — so that I was not a mom, or a jilted laundress, but just the spirit of my core elements. Suddenly I was the baby, hearing the legs of my puffy pink snowsuit whistle against each other while I trudged in the yard. Next, my hand clutching a rosebud blanket, worn down to its fibers, that I dragged through the kitchen while something was cooking. And then came the unexpected textures, not soft but so loved: the familiar nylon of my dad’s wind-pants as he cracked open a beer after a day of college coaching. The scratchy wool of my mother’s kilt as I traced its lines with my finger in a velvet church pew. The pleasant weight of my brother’s mildewed ice hockey bag, which I felt honored to carry, out of the skating rink into the dusk. A pair of alligator mittens with black button eyes that my mother had knitted for me, poking over the vinyl school bus seat like a puppet show. One snowy night, I’d had the urgent desire to place a Kleenex on each of my stuffed animals. “Stay warm from the storm,” I repeated to each creature under my care. Warmth had always been elemental to me, and now it was my turn to give it.

When I heard you crying, then, the loud, low wail of someone waking up in a sour mood, I was this version of myself: 34 years old, tired as heck, but losing out to the knowledge that whatever warmth I could summon would last a lifetime. And to help me get there, I had a loving of layers, a significance of sweaters, a Christmas-morning of cozies. b

Caroline Hamilton Langerman has written for many publications, including Town & Country and The New York Times. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and two children.

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