by Amy Condra-Peters

I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, a city whose name evokes images of lush Magnolia trees, ruby red daiquiris, and the indulgent debauchery of Mardi Gras. I moved away from that dangerously seductive place three years ago and have yet to reconcile myself to my present home in snowy New Hampshire. Anticipating the bitter winter ahead, John and I grabbed the girls and flew south to spend our Christmas with my family. During our visit my mother and I spent our mornings outside on the porch, soaking up the Louisiana sunshine and taking long, leisurely sips of chicory coffee. As I rocked back and forth on the swing in my grandfather's backyard, my mother reminded me that this was the swing I have taken rides on since I was a toddler-- and now here I was again, 28 years old, pregnant with my third child, and happily rocking in the same old swing, under the same old oak trees, chatting mindlessly with the same old people. My mother, my brother, my uncle, my grandfather:these are among my favorite people in the world.

One day my mom took me, my stepsister, and my daughter on a "Creole Christmas Tour" of the French Quarter, a tour which included graceful old homes that have been restored to their former opulence. Since American history is one of my passions, I hung on the guide's every word and forced my mind to take a hundred snapshots of the Charles X brass candle cylinders, the Venetian chifforobes, and the hand-painted wallpaper:furnishings that have been bought with money raised by both benevolent society figures and serious historians in the desire to resurrect the elegance that once flourished within these uninhabited houses. Their attempts are successful; these houses are breathtakingly beautiful, and our tour group wandered through their rooms in respectful silence.

Many of the old homes in New Orleans are not restored in this way-- many of the apartments in the French Quarter and the mansions along stately St. Charles Avenue are still home to some of the city's established residents. Their opulence is only enhanced by the faded elegance found when one steps inside their shadowy interiors. The same brass candle cylinders and Venetian chifforobes are arranged in unswept rooms where wallpaper has been stripped and never replaced and where wooden floors remain unfinished. The effect is an enigmatic blend of frayed glory and noble refinement. To me, the beauty of these rooms is achingly affecting.

And this flawed beauty reminds me of my connections to the family I am visiting.

Our family is like most other families-- we laugh and embrace; we rant and rave and scream at each other. One day my mother is my trusted confidante and the next day I am whining to my friends that she is driving me insane. One day my father, my husband, and I drink wine while we discuss exotic locales we'd love to visit one day, favorite places we've already been, what we hope to accomplish in the future... and then the next day I am scribbling furiously in my journal that these men are real jerks who don't understand me and never will! Another day, another spin on these familiar relatives-- the one and only truth that is never reevaluated is my love for all of them.

I don't have perfect parents, and my parents don't have a perfect daughter. Have we all been shortchanged? To me, it is the shouting and screaming that lend validity to the embraces. It's not that difficult to pretend that you are perfect; you just need to smile a lot and keep your mouth shut. I'd rather know my family and have them know me. We may get on each other's nerves, but I also like these people. I know that they will laugh at my jokes (well, usually) and that I will laugh at theirs-- intimacy lends itself to a shared sense of humor, as well as to sincere concern and appreciation.

I recently watched a taped interview with Nora Ephron in which this acclaimed author and screenwriter jokes that being a successful parent entails raising your children so that they can pay for their own therapy.

I would add that being a successful parent means instilling in your children the strength to deal with their own (and our!) inadequacies. One day, my daughter may complain that I never baked enough cookies; I hope that she forgives me this lack of domesticity, and appreciates that we read a staggering number of story books.

I hope that my daughters forgive me because right now my maternal guilt has emerged as an integral aspect of my psyche. Only last night my friend and I spent hours discussing our fears that no matter how much time we spend with our children, and how much time we spend furthering our own desires and ambitions, we are dissatisfied with the eventual balance. Sometimes I kiss my two-year-old and my eyes fill with tears-- my baby is growing up too quickly! Then she bites her older sister and my ears ring from the ensuing holler, and suddenly this childhood seems to be dragging mercilessly on... All I can do, and this is often wholly unsatisfactory, is to keep guessing, take one day at a time, and try to keep following my gut instincts.

It is inevitable that Zoe and Emma will be disappointed in some aspects of their upbringing, no matter how long I breastfeed or how carefully I screen their television programs. I am already anticipating this, and I plan to spend my daughters' adolescence respectfully listening to their complaints. I hope that once those tumultuous teenage years are over, however, my children will reach the stage that I have clawed frantically toward-- acceptance. My family is, ultimately, like the faded old rooms of a creole cottage:battered, beautiful, and beloved.

Amy Condra-Peters was born in New Orleans in 1969. Being raised in a military family provided her with the opportunity to live abroad and travel extensively throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States; travel remains one of her primary passions. Amy attended Loyola University/New Orleans and the University of New Hampshire, where she majored in Women's History. She currently lives in New Hampshire with her husband and their three daughters, and is the publisher of The Mother is Me, a progressive mothering magazine.

© Copyright 1997 - Amy Condra-Peters. All rights reserved.