In Praise of the Goofy Kid

“Do you want to be my friend?”  Caroline looked at the little girl kind of funny, a small, slanty glance, shrugging her off in a—Are You Talking to Me? –kind of way.  Caroline’s used to being the shy one in a crowd while some of  her peers bust right into each other’s personal spaces.  Even at school surrounded by familiar, friendly classmates, it takes Caroline a while to warm up at certain events. 

So when the little girl with the round face who’d just arrived at the sledding hill went directly up to Caroline, stood an inch from her and asked, “Do you want to be my friend?” Caroline was thrown.  She looked at me.  I suggested that she ask for her new friend’s name and the new friend interrupted, “Do you like princesses?”  While Caroline was beginning a nod, the new friend said, “Because I like princesses.”  Caroline smiled, eventually made the point that she was going to go down the hill with her sister, and that was pretty much the extent of it.   No numbers exchanged.  No plans to be in each other’s weddings.

Even though I was never that kid, I like that kid–the one who announces it, keeps nothing inside, puts it all out there:  BE MY FRIEND.  DO IT.  IT’S THAT EASY.  That’s got to be a healthy approach to living, right?  That kid will not get ulcers or have panic attacks.  That kid will not wonder, What if I had just….because she WILL HAVE just about anything she wanted to do, on the spot, without worrying or speculating the pros and cons of it. 

I obviously like my kid, too—both of them.  And I don’t expect them to change.  I suspect genetics has something to do with their sometimes guarded approaches.  But I love it when they feel comfortable enough to let their guards down. 

Like at the bus-stop.  Lexi decided to roll out our old umbrella stroller for the trip to the bus-stop last Friday.  For the record, I was against it because what I bring to the bus-stop is sheer exhaustion, and a mug of coffee—that’s it.  But what I inevitably schlep home are all of Lexi’s “good ideas” from the morning: basketballs, stuffed animals, face-painting kits, bowls of cereal. 

Lexi and Caroline took turns pushing each other in the stroller.  They sang some goofy song, went from slow to fast then –“Whoa!”—turned quickly to a stop.  Again and again.  The kindergarten through second grade crowd was putty in their hands.  Bright smiles.  Crazy eyes.  Early morning giggles.  Funniest. Girls. Ever.

I noticed a 6th grader who waits at the same stop for the “big kid” bus walking by at one point–the Stroller Comedy Show didn’t slow her down at all.  She went through the little kids like they were mini-Jacob Marley ghosts.  Not a glance their way.  She walked right by, towards her peers: the lanky pre-teens standing around on the hill, listening to iPods, boys staring through drooping bangs, girls straightening with colored fingernails already straightened skirts.

I noticed, too, that Caroline and Lexi did not give the big girl an inch of attention. 

These days may be numbered.  But for now, praise be the 6-year-old, fast-friending on the sledding hill and stroller-derbying at the bus-stop.

6th grader, I say to you: Walk on by.

 


American Girl

Word Association: “American Girl.”

Tom Petty song.  The scene in Silence of the Lambs when the poor girl is alone in her car singing just before she meets up with Creepy-Guy-Who-Skins-People.

Steering away from serial killer.  Taking it back to Petty:  William and Mary, College Deli jukebox, $3 pitchers.  Cool guitar riff in “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Spontaneous road trip from Williamsburg to Norfolk to see Tom Petty in concert: Kim may have had a paper due the next day; Megan may have strong-armed a sorority pledge into driving us; I may not have initiated any trouble on this particular trip.

What I would not have associated with the phrase “American Girl” until this month are the following: pink cellophane hearts, reams of colorful fleece, elastic and beads, glitter-glue, acrylic paint on rocks, and dolls.  Meet Mollie, Kit, and Julie.  Meet Addy and Felicity.  The list goes on but I could only cover five dolls—one per day—when I taught two back-to-back weeks of American Girls and their Dolls camp this summer.  (Oh, yes I did.)  Classes were packed like a Rocks for Jocks lecture hall: 19 girls the first week and 16 the second.  Honestly, I did not know I had it in me.

There is a part of me that likes to claim I am not a doll person.  When I revise history, I glorify time spent on my childhood tire swing, on bike trips to the Village Market to buy Tasty cakes and Spree candies, on my explorations in and around Eastern College’s duck pond, or my hours logged playing catcher for my brothers’ wiffle ball games. 

But I did have a rag-tag collection of dolls and stuffed animals; they populated my bedroom like Gabe Kaplan’s students filled his classroom in Welcome Back, Kotter.   I didn’t really soak in the spirit of The House of the Seven Gables as a 10-year old during our family trip to Salem, Massachusetts, but I did bring home a doll.  I was on the brink of devastation one Christmas when I did NOT see the Sunshine Family and their camper under the tree, but they were there, wrapped in the last box I opened.  My dad and his friend Father Jackson went to a conference in Memphis one summer weekend, and they both brought me home a “Memph”: one a brown ball of yarn with googly eyes, another, a green troll holding a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish!” sign.   During one phase, I would save my pennies, then wander through the Paisley Shoppe looking for the tiny-stuffed mouse that most appealed—I had dozens of them, all housed in decorated shoe-boxes.  It’s a wonder I had the time to watch as many Speed Racer episodes as I did.

So I had the doll-background in place to teach camp this month.  What I did not have was any previous knowledge of the American Girl industry.  I’d heard about the dolls and am a quick-learn when it comes to age-9 appropriate reading.  I liked the books I read.  But this, I discovered, this was an institution.  This was so much more than a book and a doll.

An American Girl doll and her correlating paperback will cost you $105.  A trip to the NYC store for dinner with your doll?  $26 per person, two seating times per evening, reservations recommended.   A Pampering Plus Package at the Doll Hair Salon? Over $30.   There are movies, Bitty Babies, Doll Hospitals, doll storage, and oh, the accessories: a baby grand ($150), Julie’s banana seat bike ($100 and is back-ordered until August 31, 2012), Mollie’s lunchbox ($28…I bought my daughter’s lunch bag last summer at Target for $9.99 and she’s using it again this year.).

I could go on.  People obviously do because of the absurd expense, because of the over-the-top branding, because the founder Pleasant T. Rowland writes that her company gives “young girls a sense of self and an understanding of where they came from and who they are today,” but in my camp experience, girls didn’t seem to know as much about the stories, about the times in history the stories are meant to teach them.   There are reasons for cynicism—of 35 participating campers, there were two girls of color. 

Now to set cynicism aside and tell you what I saw: each girl brought her own doll.  Some had several; many had only one.  All the girls carried their dolls carefully, dressed them impeccably, and loved them deeply.  We had a stash of donated items for the girls to play with including a flute set, a Victorian Holiday Sleigh, a Palomino horse, ten dolls, and at least 50 outfits.  Really nice parents dropped off really excited campers each day, and my two counselors and I didn’t even need to be in the room–the girls and their dolls would have played independently for hours.  We did provide them with art projects: we made friendship bracelets, heart-shaped glasses, sleeping bags, pet rocks, rugs.  We played games appropriate to particular time periods: Miss Mary Mack, Cat’s Cradle, I’ve Got a Basket, Pass the Ring.  And at the end of each day, we read from the stories….girls sat in a circle with their dolls and listened.

There’s a lot that could change for American children, girls especially.   But all that I hear about the state of the state—hours children spend locked indoors in front of screens; early puberty; Kindergarten entrance exams; deteriorating Middle Class; abolished arts’ programs; falling test scores; dismal economy– doesn’t take away from the fact that girls still play with dolls.   That was my ultimate take-away.  The girls at camp were polite, kind, and lovely.  There’s reason for hope.

Lexi had a beach-themed pool party for her 5th birthday this week, and right before we handed out the variety of cupcakes offered, Lexi’s friend Eliza chanted a little mantra to herself: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”  She got the basic ocean wave cupcake, and she walked away smiling.

Perhaps, despite all of the distractions, there are still nice kids creatively playing in America. 

Of course my own girls do not turn down a television show when it’s offered.  Caroline tears up when she watches, not because she’s emotionally overwhelmed but because she doesn’t blink.   We’ve managed to amble through this summer together without a ton of t.v. noise.  My house is in shambles because of obsessive fort-building.  I found my blog-notes rolled up as faux-kindling for a campout.  My girls do not have American Girl dolls—(their interests are piqued, I’m afraid, but for now…) they’re happy with Tink, Pink Doggie, Blue Bear, Puffin, and the rest of their own rag-tag collections. 

Earlier today they were using a discarded piece of fleece from American Girl camp as a rope.  Caroline stood on the staircase tossing it to Lexi, who was flailing around on the floor.  Caroline yelled, “Grab it! (pronounced g-d-aab, possible attempt at a rolled “r”?) and Lexi yelled back, “I can’t! (“can’t” rhymed with “want,” possible attempt at a British accent?).

Yesterday they spent a good couple of hours on our porch, watching four bright green caterpillars devour my potted dill.   

Caroline just handed me a walkie-talkie and walked out of the room.  A light flashes and the walkie-talkie hisses and clicks into life.  I hear her little voice: “Care-Bear to Momma-Sue.  Puffin is trapped under my bed.  Can you help me? Over.”

“Momma-Sue to Care-Bear.  On my way.  Over and out.”


Counting Colors

“Cerulean”: Caroline’s go-to blue Crayola crayon.

“Cerulean”: From Latin caeruleus “blue, blue-green,” perhaps dissimilated from caelulum, diminutive of caelum “heaven, sky.”

“I had trouble sleeping last night, Mommy. So I counted the colors of the rainbow; then I counted the letters of the alphabet, and then I said, aaagh, I’m just tired.” Must be the engineering gene from her father’s side— Caroline’s got a knack for numbers. My head hits the pillow and churns in the way of an English major’s; sleeping comes second to sifting through the stories of the day. But I appreciate the cut and dry of numbers and am glad Caroline has found them. Mathematics, for me, is crazy Mrs. Carrazone jumping on tables singing of vectors, planes, and angles of inclination. It’s an 8 a.m. class in college I didn’t get too very often. It sometimes involves counting on my fingers. I joke with Dave that sooner not later, he’ll need to help the girls with their math homework.

For now I’m okay with shapes and sorting. Read the rest of this entry »


These Days

These days, when Caroline says, “Mommy, I have to go potty,” what Lexi does is drop whatever she is doing, shout “No! No!” and tear into the direction of our only downstairs bathroom. Mind you, Lexi is not really potty-trained. She will take off her diaper, sit herself down for hours, shed toilet paper into the bowl, flush, wash hands and dry, but she hardly ever goes. Going to the bathroom is all about timing for Lexi, all about when it’s least convenient for those around her—just before naptime, just before leaving to drive her sister to school, long after bed time, and right when Caroline announces that she needs to use the potty.

“Lexi, why do you do this?” My outside voice cried this morning as Lexi hurled herself by her sister, slicing herself between me and the Archie Bunker chair. Caroline had been slowly moving off of the couch, when I saw her sit back to patiently wait her turn. She said, “Maybe God painted her this way?”

Yes. Caroline at age 4 has more poetry and logic than I ever dared to dream of having. Poor thing went to the doctor last month to check vision, hearing, and to get the appropriate vaccines. When two nurses entered wearing gloves, bearing needles, it was all a little too James-Bondy the way they slid into the room in clandestine fashion, and I, in cahoots, felt awful about it. Caroline’s eyes widened and she started to scream. Afterwards I was babbling away trying to calm her, and I said, “That’s it, that’s it–just 4 shots. You’re 4 years old and you get 4 shots!” Without any hesitation she responded: “What’s going to happen when I’m 100?!”

During all of the snow this winter, we missed one then another day of gymnastics. The first week I said we could go to a make-up class. The next week, I said we were going to miss again and Caroline said, “It’s okay; we can go to the lipstick class.”

She sat at her art table flipping a sticker around and around then asked me, “Do you know what this square is doing?” “What?” I answered. “Trying to be a diamond.”

Eating an apple she said, “Mommy, look—I made a footprint with my teeth!”

We’re not homebodies; we’re “little inside butts.” It’s not a graveyard, but a “garden of stone.”

The girls were sitting on the couch and Caroline leaned over to hug her sister: “You’re so expensive, Lexi!” Once she advised, “Lexi, don’t listen to yourself; listen to Mommy.”

Just a few mornings ago, we were all a bit blind and groggy. I was feeling around for my coffee mug as the girls sat at the kitchen table. It’s always quiet when I first get food in front of them. (In fact, at a recent birthday party, I mused about how peaceful our house would be if around-the-clock we fed the girls cake and ice cream.) Lexi’s face was still red from lying on it, hair disheveled. She was crouch-sitting on account of a recently scraped knee. Caroline was at her own seat, back to me, and I had full view of Lexi’s crazy-cute profile. Caroline said calmly, “Hey, Lexi, did I tell you the monsters were going to eat us today?” Lexi looked at her, blank-faced, un-phased, like a dad looking up from the sports page, and all she said was: “No.”

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These days turn quickly. My eyes are heavy at 10:45 pm, and each room upstairs holds a laundry basket brimming with dirty clothes. There is a pile of old electronics on my basement floor, waiting for recycling, next to a pile of children’s clothing waiting for consigning. My saintly friend took it upon herself to complete my wedding album—a project now five and ½ years in the making—because I confessed to her that I’d organized the photos but never managed to get them in a book. Idling in cyber-Snapfish-space is a year’s worth of backlogged pictures of the girls. Thanks to book club, I’m reading on occasion. Thanks to friends and 24 Hour Fitness, I’m sane . . . with sore muscles.

I spend half a Sunday planning a menu, writing a shopping list, skipping from store to store, but it seems by Thursday, berries have gone bad and all that’s left is applesauce. Friday is always pizza night.

I keep a journal for each of my girls, and when they were even younger than they are now, I wrote to them often. I’ve been meaning to write to Caroline about her Princess and Pirate birthday party for exactly 76 days.

When I was younger, single, teaching high-schoolers, waiting tables, waiting for things to come, the impermanence of the days was obvious (but also a little impossible). There was always a place to go—a road ahead—a something to do beyond what I was doing at the time. Now, impermanence is an annoyance, a song I can’t get out of my head, the devil on one side, tapping me on the shoulder, snickering in my ear. I know they’re only young for so long. Do you think I can’t see how far Lexi’s legs stretch down from the baby swing? Do you think I can’t hear Caroline one day say “puddle” when she, each day before, had always said “pubble”?

When I get antsy about not getting something done, I step back and think about what I have done: I’ve spent some time with Caroline and Lexi. These days turn so quickly, I thought to myself tonight as I snuck outside in my pajamas to close the car windows. Their room was dark above me, shades drawn, and I couldn’t wait to get back inside, just to share the house with them again.

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Caroline once while eating toast and jelly said, “I used to remember that I had this before.”

Caroline once told me: “You love us better than purple.” Yes I do.


Now I Know

Most of us secure the details of the day we were born early on. We hear the story and repeat it enough that we’re pretty confident about the specifics, even though we weren’t taking notes at the time. No shock to my siblings, I always thought my birth was an important one. I was a c-section baby. My mom was on bed-rest for weeks. I was a month early. Someone in the storytelling said that my mom stood up the moment she got the “okay” from the doctor, and that I was born immediately after. I pictured her placing her feet on the ground as the ambulance arrived for the escort. It all ran pretty smoothly in my mind. Paula, Dan, and Matt had unimaginable fun at our neighbor Lucy’s house, staying up late eating green noodles, while Mom and Dad welcomed their new little and lovable bundle on the 1st of April. Paula, the adoring big sister, thought it was a joke and that she really had another brother.

What I have come to understand is that no matter how smoothly things may run, c-sections are uncomfortable. The green of Lucy’s noodles was spinach-inspired, and what so captivated me about them was the pool of butter and parmesan in which they swam. As for Paula, the novelty of having a little sister has long since worn off.

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The couch I’m lying on is sprinkled with sliced almonds. The monitor beats and bleeps, practically dancing on the kitchen counter as Lexi voices little interest in sleeping, and the mommy moments continue past the PBS special I was meaning to watch, past the book I’m dying to finish. Dave’s hair is graying but his eyes still laugh as he rolls them at me from the brown chair: “What is up with this kid?” I was up with her, in her room, for much too long, and now all of the parenting books I’ve ever read glare at me from the bookcase: “What were you thinking?” I hear them say.

But, when Lexi was napping earlier that day, Caroline and I curled on the couch, listening to stories on cd. Caroline in her light blue ballerina dress, worn and washed so often, its tulle tutu a lot less puffy than it once was, its sheer overdress shredded with holes. A straw purse fell from her shoulder. Over that, sprung pink fairy wings; and somehow simultaneously over and under the wings, wrapped a practical green cardigan she’s just learned to button. Her hot pink tiara sat low like a visor, its sides secured with masking tape. She wore a sullied pair of pink tights and sparkly shoes having long since lost their luster, one pink and one red. She, my little fairy bag-lady, and I, as far from down-and-out as we could possibly be, resting together.

So tonight I spent equal time with Lexi, resting with her on the bed in her room, when really I should have given her the kiss and the hug and left her to fall asleep on her own. She was telling me all about her pink doggy, and how he can stay with us on the tow-blow (pillow), and she stretched beside me, her blue eyes approving as I closed mine tight then opened them wide. She lifted her head slightly saying “Shtopp, Mommy” but I knew she wanted me to peek-a-boo a bit longer. She left her pillow to share mine, and I thought how beautiful she is and how she and her sister do something to my heart—fill it; I guess it’s that simple. Simple enough to go from empty to full. Simple enough to dampen the sounds of a heart that once echoed and ticked like a motoring clock, with the soft, certainty of love for these busy little girls who’ve taken me over.

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As we crossed the walking bridge towards Mom’s hospital room, Dad told me they called me “Baby Grand” after I was born, because c-section babies were not cheap. I loved it—I’m the kid who plays the piano—how perfect. How did I not know this before? And he told me, as the hospital doors opened for us, about the idiot nurse who said something about not hearing the baby’s heartbeat as they were wheeling my mother in for surgery. She came out of the operation convinced I was dead. But my dad told her, no, what must have happened, the doctor said, was they were registering only one heartbeat because my mom’s heart and mine were beating at the same time.

I grabbed that image and tucked it away as we tapped on her hospital door.

Our visits were not long. I don’t remember if that was for her benefit or ours. As Dad and I walked out that day, I told her I loved her, and she said, “I love you both.” Then just as loudly, though in a movie scene I would have imagined this second part as a whisper only she could hear, she said, “You’ll never know how much.”

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Dear Mom, I know now.