What I Take for Granted

Once, several years ago, our petite but mighty friend Wendy came for a visit. In the hatch of her sporty compact car, she had a gift for Jim: an apartment-sized refrigerator.

Wendy had wrestled that fridge out of her basement, shoved it in her car, and brought it 300 miles to Jim to use in ours. He was putting together a kind of man-cave. With a refrigerator and a microwave, he could even make his own meals downstairs.

“That is COOL,” said Jim, and he and his dad maneuvered that little fridge down the stairs, barking and yelping—never stopping to think how Wendy had done that, in reverse, all by her own diminutive self. They set it up and plugged it in; we wiped it down, and it immediately became the drinks fridge and the overflow freezer.

It settled into its new home, and it has plugged away for years, reliable and largely unnoticed.

Then, three weeks ago, our kitchen refrigerator, which wasn’t very old (maybe a day or two older than its four-year warranty) began to wheeze and moan, to get steamy, and to give up.

A helpful repair guy came to look, shook his head, and said he couldn’t gouge us for the kind of money it would take to fix that sad machine.

So we went out appliance shopping. The burners were slowly dying on the stove; we needed matches to light all but one. And we’d replaced the thing in the oven that regulates the temp (the regulator?) more than once.

It was time to buy a new stove and a new refrigerator. May as well get a pair that matches, we agreed. We looked; we conferred; we ordered.

The only problem was this: it would take two weeks for them to get here.

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And so, while we waited, we used the little basement fridge to salvage what we could from the defunct one. Because of that little, unassuming machine, we could keep milk and cheese and eggs on hand; we could have crisp lettuce and carrots.

It was a long two weeks, but you are imagining, I bet, that each day, as I ran up and downstairs, grabbing chilled ingredients for grating or chopping, for the putting together of lunch and dinner chow, I was feeling grateful. You can picture me saying to myself, “How lucky we are! If we didn’t have this little fridge, we’d be in a whole lot of misery.”

Right?

Well, that’s not exactly how I perceived the situation. In fact, I stomped up and down those stairs, glaring at people, and saying things like, “I am so SICK of stomping up and down these stairs!”

But the new refrigerator arrived and hummed into life, and the next day we loaded it up with a whole new batch of chilly Kroger groceries.

Now I can just dance from countertop to refrigerator, grab an egg or a stick of butter, find some ham or celery to chop, pull some ice cubes from the freezer.

Now I can say to myself, Let’s never, ever take having an upstairs refrigerator for granted again.

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It’s easy to take mechanical things for granted, to feel like, Well, of course, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do! That’s their job: to make MY life easier.

Only their absence makes me appreciate them.

For instance. When James and I moved to Ohio to join Mark (after his first year of law school and a year of distance familying that was just NO fun), we thought it would be really smart to buy a used mobile home. We would get it for next to nothing; we would revamp it inside and out, and we’d have a private place to live, with a lawn and a little porch and with no one pounding around or playing bad music overhead or below us.

We found the perfect situation. There was a tidy little trailer park right at the edge of town. And the first trailer on the backside was for sale. Our front yard would look out on the street; the back of the trailer bordered on an endless cornfield. We’d have one neighboring trailer, and in that lived the nicest young couple with a sweet baby girl.

The trailer had a dishwasher and it had central air, two things we did NOT have back home. It needed some work, but we were up for it. In fact, we were excited. We’d move in July; my new Ohio job didn’t start until the end of August, right about when law school started for Mark and fifth grade kicked in for Jim. We’d have over a month to get things in shape.

We signed on the dotted line and went back to our New York State home to start packing.

(Just a side note: one of Mark’s classmates liked our idea so much that he bought a trailer there too. He and Mark decided they would not refer to our new neighborhood as a ‘trailer park.’ No. At law school, they called where we lived a ‘planned living community’ instead.)

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It is no exaggeration to say we moved on the hottest day of that summer. When we drove up to the trailer in our convoy—Mark and Jim in the U-Haul, the dog and me in the car—it was about 2 p.m., and the thermometer said 96 degrees.

We had huge heavy things to unload; we had a boy and a dog to acclimate to their new home.

We grabbed essentials and unlocked the metal door of the metal house which had been waiting for us, baking in the sun, and we trundled our armloads inside.

I started putting refrigerator stuff away. Mark went to turn the AC on.

We held our breath until we heard the wonderful whoosh and whir of the system kicking in. A blast of cold air thundered out of the vent by my feet.

And then the air conditioning just died.

Nothing Mark could do would revive it. We found, finally, a repair guy who would come after dinner.

Being in a trailer baking in the sun is sort of like living in an empty tin can you left out on the driveway. We opened windows; we turned on fans, but it was HOT.

And we had to carry heavy stuff, and we were tired and anxious. That was not a fun day.

It got even less fun when the repair guy came,–late, after all retail was closed—and did a thorough examination and told us the central air was certainly dead. He wouldn’t, he said, even look at another central system for a building the size of ours; he’d buy economical wall units and save ourselves the cost.

We agreed that was a fine plan, but by then it was 9:30 on a Sunday night, and nothing within thirty miles was open. And none of us felt like getting in the car and driving anywhere anyway.

We took turns taking showers—a momentary relief—and then we flopped onto mattresses on the living room floor—putting beds together was a TOMORROW thing. Mark noted that the temperature was only down to 88 degrees; I barked at him that it was so REASSURING to know that, and then the three of us fell into disgruntled, sweaty, muttering sleeps.

The next day we followed the repair guy’s advice and went out and got four AC window units. They worked perfectly to cool that little abode, and we settled in and made the place comfortable—a kind of funny, loveable, temporary home.

But I swear to you that, since that day, I have never taken my central air for granted. In the heat dome we’re currently under, I come home from my early walk to hear the AC shoooshing on, and I say thank you to the gods of chillers.

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There are machines—like refrigerators, like AC units, like cars and washers and my trusty Kitchenaid mixer—that make our lives so much BETTER. I love what those machines make possible. I try not to take them for granted.

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A big, big difference between OUR pandemic and the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 is technology. Imagine what life would have been like, sequestered at home with no phone, no Internet, no TV, and no computer.

But we are so lucky. Mark and I get up each morning, take our meandering walk, then come home to hot coffee and a good breakfast.

Then, “Goodbye, dear,” Mark will say. “I am off to work.”

“Will you be home for lunch?” I inquire.

“Oh yes,” he says. “Yes, I WILL.”

And he walks to the door of what we grandly call the Florida room (and is more truthfully known as ‘the side porch’), opens the door, and sits down at his desk. He fires up his laptop, pulls out his phone, and goes to work.

On the other side of the wall, I boot up my desktop, check my college email, and go to work myself, planning, responding to emails, and grading papers.

Because of technology, we’ve had no disruption in our jobs.

Because of technology, I have virtual coffee with friends I miss via Zoom.

Because of technology, we have weekly touch-base calls with friends and family.

It’s hard to remember life when we didn’t have this kind of efficient technology.

It’s hard, isn’t it, not to take it for granted?

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But machines, technology…those things make our lives so much easier, but they are not the big guys. PEOPLE are the big guys, and, oh, how hard it is to not take people for granted, to think that they will always just BE there.

I think back to that trailer, for instance, to a July phone call from my brother Dennis. We hadn’t talked in a while, and he was worried that our law school move would create a wedge, a distance, in our relationship.

“That will never happen,” I assured him, and he allowed that we would have to work hard not to let it.

And then (enough introspection), he started telling me about a job fair he’d orchestrated that spring, an event that was a huge and unexpected success.

Before he hung up, Dennis asked me if there was a campground nearby; maybe in September, he and Judy, his wife, would bring the camper and stay for a long weekend or even, if they could work the time out, longer.

I gave him the name of a little park I passed on my way to work every day, and he said he’d check it out online.

And then we signed off and plunged back into our separate busy lives, and the thought of calling Dennis tomorrow buzzed around the back of my head.

Less than a month later, he was dead.

There are still days when I think, “Oh, I should call Dennis!” It’s a knee jerk-y kind of thing.

I took it for granted that he’d always be around, that we’d sit around a campfire and laugh and compare notes over cold beers, solving, between the two of us, all the world’s ills.

The people we think will always be there for us…well, I remind myself every day not to take that companionship, those relationships, for granted.

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I stumbled on a website about coming of age experiences six months ago; the rites, from around the world and from cultures within the US, were fascinating.

And meaningful.

I used the website as the basis for a practice comparative analysis activity in Comp II; last semester’s students liked the concept so much that I built it into the curriculum this summer. Then I had the students write their first proposal paper on the topic, too; they had to suggest a coming of age ritual for a group of children, who could be their own kids or any kids they felt could benefit.

One mom wrote about a ritual for her own children, who are boys, and who are also Black. “I’d like to create a positive ritual,” she wrote. “Their father and I have already had to tell them about being a Black male today. We have taught them what situations to stay away from. We have taught them how to extract themselves from dangerous situations. We have taught them when to keep their mouths shut and when it’s best to just give up and run like hell.”

The boys, I think, are 5, 7, and 10 years old.

The mom went on to describe a beautiful coming of age ritual for each of her boys, but those introductory words just kicked my butt. She wrote, that student, so matter-of-factly about the danger her boys needed to learn to avoid. I am the mother of sons; I cannot imagine having had to train my boys the way she has to train hers.

I take that safety, that privilege, for granted, and it is time for me to stop.

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The pandemic has slowed things down, allowed time for mindfulness to take up residence in my days. I have had time for pondering, and I have had time to realize how much I take for granted.