In our home, we like to joke that our son doesn’t know life prior to the BH era. Before Hank.
As a four-year-old, he’s new here and has questions about everything. Can I be a toaster for Halloween? Was I there when you and papa got married? Help me wipe my butt? Why couldn’t I go to your wedding? Time, to him, exists only as far as his pint-sized memory can reach, and a world in which a life, or a day or a thing, occurred before him seems downright absurd.
So as his questions grow and meander, as his brain mulls over the notion of an us before the us he knows, I spend a lot of spare time thinking of those before days. The days when life was littler—in square footage, in patience rationed, loads of laundry cycled, worries wasted. The years when time was frivolous and we were starved to unwrap all the what-ifs ahead.
That life is hardly recognizable now, for a lot of reasons. Things changed in big ways. My husband, Nick, and I had a baby, the one mentioned above, who, without our permission, too quickly grew into a little boy. We moved from the small home we first shared in Minneapolis — blocks from where the world was forced to look, square in the eyes, all its cruelty and injustice while spilling out kerosene tears. We stood six feet from other stunned, scared creatures, and sanitized our doorknobs, and wore masks over our smiles to sturdy ourselves against a raging pandemic. We lost the people we still can’t imagine being without. We lost jobs. We lost sanity.
Things changed in miniature ways, too. We wake up tired. We’ve unwantingly memorized the words to the Puppy Dog Pals theme song. We made fewer dinner reservations, loved bigger, and now habitually cut grapes in half, just to be safe. This metamorphosis of our lives feels, at once, like the only way it could have possibly unfolded — like a stock image of the family we had forcefully hoped into existence — and like a fictitious tale we’re grateful to have happened to us, of all people. So, when Hank asks these questions, the best I can do is share the stories I’ve plucked along the way, paired with a few photos of that "before" life.
I think what I’ll tell him will go something like this.
We had fun. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of fun with you in tow, too (usually), but this was a different breed, with the easy thrill that only happens once — when a relationship is new and strange and sublime. It is a freaking thrill to find someone in this world that gets a kick out of living just as much as you do, and I hope you find that in many places throughout your life. With friends, a special friend, a dog who’s a best friend, with us, but most importantly, with yourself. Have some friggin' fun, will you?
We traveled. Better yet? We traveled on a whim. We’d pick a spot, pack our suitcases. These are some of our favorite memories — sitting under an exact complexion of light that never happens back home, walking 'til our heels bloodied and blistered, grumbling because one of us got too hungry. We traveled and it was a luxury and we knew it was and it was divine.
We introduced ourselves to all the different meanings of home. The faces and kinds of hugs and plates of foods that make up very specific coordinates. We shared our families, shoved up our sleeves to reveal the toothy scars of life’s bites on our flesh, we ooh’d and ahh’d over the landscapes that create all the vastness of a person. We used descriptive words to dream up the kind of home we’d want to build one day — the kind we are hoisting up the load-bearing walls to now. The kind we hope to cram with so much love you’ll always feel comfortable and safe enough to be even your worst self.
We fell stupidly, stupidly in love.
We got married. And, maybe it’s just me, but the event of getting married is weird in ways, even with stories and pictures, I can hardly articulate. It was a day that felt blurry and, even though we made it small and pomp and circumstance-free, a little showy. Being married, on the other hand, is awesome (though, if you’re lucky, also sometimes weird).
Here, I’m able to ... remind myself of the pieces I never, ever want to forget.
We did a lot of boring stuff that, turns out, is the best stuff. We slept in, we read, tearing through pages with a gluttony I sorely miss, we dawdled in record stores and spent entire afternoons making laborious dinners. We went to museums and happy hours, binge-watched the shows people told us to watch, promptly recycled our junk mail. Boring, but blissful.
Some parts of that life went slow, and we waited. Sometimes it went way too fast and we scurried.
Reaching back to tell my son all this, I realize it’s not just him I’m telling. It’s these exact fistful of years that were the most central for all of us. For me, my husband and, yes, even Hank. It’s a time that will never happen twice. It’s a time I insist on placing under a glass coche (or, at the very least, an album) to preserve and admire, no matter how many chapters we turn or corners we take. Here, I’m able to show him a part of his parents he’ll never meet and remind myself of the pieces I never, ever want to forget.
The act of collecting these photos for safekeeping - and all the tales that accompany them - took me from something that first resembled work (the number of pictures a single person can amass since 2013 is astonishing at best, overwhelming at minimum). Then, ebbed more and more into what felt like a welcome indulgence.
Some parts of that life went slow, and we waited. Sometimes it went way too fast, and we scurried.
In all of the mania of the last few years, it’s occurred to me that it’s been a minute since I’ve had a project. Or, that I’ve even had the energy for a project. I’ve been relatively fine with that, too, in the unthinkable (and totally unwinnable) Rubik’s Cube of being a human being during a pandemic — let alone one who has a toddler and is clinging, with very chipped nails, to a career she wants to keep and any small scraps of mental stability she can salvage. Projects were the least of worries. It was nice, though, after a lengthy hiatus, to have something of my own to chip away at again.
I made pit stops at some of my favorite insignificant moments that were never insignificant at all. That gas station food in Portugal. That scarf that still smells like firewood. The co-mingling of hard covers, then bathroom shelf space, then colds and a mortgage.
While indulging this little's unending curiosity, I found something for myself (and, of course, Hank too): space to glance back, but really, a chance to pick my head up and look forward to looking forward again. All the love and admiration, the appreciation and promise, the painfully mundane and laughably exceptional — it’s all still here. Grayer and sleepier, but fuller and less wobbly than ever.
All those befores? They don’t just make up our origins story, they’re the roots of the afters that are going to wallop and dazzle the three of us for the rest of our lives. The kind of thing worth putting on the coffee table; a linen-bound reminder of the us, before us.
While indulging this little's unending curiosity, I found something for myself...
Find time for yourself.
Make space for your stories.
About the Author
April (Swinson) Smasal spent her formative years in Wyoming, where it seemed her career options were limited to rodeo queen or writer. Foregoing the lure of an impressive belt buckle collection, she opted for the word thing. Now, she’s a writer and creative director living in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Nick, and kidling, Hank Danger. She goes back to Wyoming to visit often, but her name never appears in any rodeo programs. If mediocre French Bulldog photography is your thing, you’ll love following along on Instagram.