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.

 


Jogging Memories

I could do this with my eyes closed, this jog around Wayne, Pennsylvania, though I’ve lived away from here half of my life. A step onto the front porch, and it could be any year, the trees are lush and big; the June heat thumps, even early in the morning. The two dogwoods in the front are gone, due to a recent storm. A burly maple fell from across the street, sparing my dad’s house by inches, but the front hedges and the dogwoods did not fare as well. There are no bushes on the side either to separate our lawn from the lawn of my dad’s “new” neighbors, who’ve been there at least five years. We needed those bushes when we were growing up next to “Ginny,” the old lady who threatened to shoot our golden retriever if he crossed onto her property, which he did often. Dan and Matt would play football in the front and purposefully toss the ball over the hedges, then make diving catches through them. It was not the dog that Ginny had to worry about—but she knew that; for some reason she just couldn’t threaten to kill the boys. We had a lot of action in the backyard, too, but the front seems a more poignant place, I think, as I stretch to touch my fingers to my toes: the place of prom picture posing, of chats with neighbors. It’s where I would sit to see my brothers coming home from big league baseball games, to see my dad coming home from work. It’s where my college-graduate sister stood, carrying a backpack bigger than she, before leaving for Europe. When my mom was home with hospice care before she was completely bed-ridden, she asked me to lead her to the front door. She sat there in her wheelchair, quietly taking in the view.

Sidewalks are a little worn, though that crack at the foot of our driveway—the one that would get skateboards airborne—has long since been repaired. A turn left would lead me up a small hill to the old bus stop; but a turn right is the running route, and my feet start mechanically in that direction. Two houses down from Dad’s is the big tree carved into a bear, the tree which was just a tree when I was growing up, but is now a 15-foot Flyers fan—an orange hat perched on its head—and a big favorite of the Lenehan girls when we take walks around Pop Pop’s neighborhood. The teenager who lives there now mows my father’s lawn every Tuesday. The teenager, Tommy Walters, who lived there before him also used to mow my dad’s lawn. Tommy was a quiet kid with a quiet father and a lovely, loving mom, and on Mother’s Day years ago, he called home from a pay phone as he was dying from a knife wound.

Lisa lived across the way, and when we were growing up, we were rarely separated. I’m not sure what I contributed to the relationship, but she had a Barbie and a three-speed bike. We often swapped bikes: hers for my single-speed, which by now may be en vogue, but back then, at least for me, having more of anything was better than having less. As I run by the military academy parking lot, I see the small wall I flipped over while road-testing Lisa’s three-speed. I may have totaled her bike, but I’m sure at the time the focus was on me and the “calamity” involving the “great wall”—at least that’s where I would have demanded the focus to be. My brothers called me “Bratty” for substantiated reasons.

I am heading towards the middle school, across Lancaster Avenue towards Aberdeen, the road to freedom, the road to Mary Kate’s house. We gossiped, spent our parents’ money tying up phone lines. We passed notes in homeroom. It was all wonderfully safe and cliché. Matt had a nickname for her as well, and as I was sifting through old letters in my childhood room, I found written in my brother’s scrawl on a scrap piece of paper a phone number next to the name “Mary Brat.” The school is unrecognizably new—no more roofed walkway attaching two aged buildings. Once when I was an 8th grader I was waiting for the bus outside of the main building when I saw a girl I thought to be my friend Sandra nearing the annex. I yelled something sassy about her questionable choice in outfit (maybe it was a dress-up day?) and realized only when she turned around looking bothered that it was not Sandra. That may have been an initial moment of adult awareness: I should keep some thoughts to myself…and get my eyes checked.

The public library across from the middle school looks the same on the outside; though built in the 1970’s, the building is still too modern a place to be attractive. I remember a summer reading contest when I just bled books. If I could have spent my middle school years in the library or at the piano, I would have. But the mean-girl stuff was an ever-present concern, and I was not always at the receiving end, I’m afraid. I was a worrier, a bit of a follower, some of the things I’d like my Caroline and Lexi never to be. I remember success in the classroom, though—a project in math involving a slab of wood, nails set in a geometric pattern, and colored yarn. Of course English: I spent hours working on one of Mrs. Santee’s projects, sitting in our backyard sketching a robin, observing blades of grass, identifying cumulus clouds, writing poetry. It is no wonder Thoreau struck a chord in college. It is a wonder listening to Caroline repeat Shel Silverstein’s “Sleeping Sardines” by heart and seeing Lexi at work on “Melinda Mae.”

I’m circling the town of Wayne, rather than heading into its hub. I like the perimeter. There were kids who’d hang out in town, but I always went there with purpose: for slices at Real Pizza, for a movie at Anthony Wayne, to Kaleidoscope to buy stationery or the Paisley Shop to buy post earrings. WaWa is now so close I can smell the Amoroso rolls, as I again approach Lancaster, heading back towards North Wayne. I am stopping to pick up coffee for Dave and me, so once I cross the street, I’m free to walk, but I sprint to the finish in case there are any old boyfriends around. I leave WaWa, a sweaty mess balancing two massive cups of caffeine in a 4-cup carry tray.

The last time I was in the Baskin Robbins to my left was when cancer had destroyed much of Mom’s appetite, but in true Regan form, she still loved her ice cream. We left the house for a root beer float and then a pedicure, and we happened to see Mrs. Walters at the nail salon. I’d not seen her in years. She looked older and sadder, but then again, so did I. I felt like since we used to go to her Christmas party each year, since I used to babysit her kids, that I should explain to her why my mom was now so thin. I should tell her how sorry I was about Tommy. But the moments passed, and she left, and Mom and I came home from the last outing we ever had together.

True Value, next to Baskin and Robbins, is now South Moon Under, but the hardware store served a higher purpose by connecting me with my future husband. I worked there half a summer in college, inventorying paint among other things, and a neighbor of mine walked in one day to buy a gallon of Smoky Mauve exterior. He told me I could make a dollar more an hour painting houses and that’s all he needed to say. I quit before we completed our conversation and was enjoying prime tanning, listening to WMMR, and taking long lunch breaks before I could say “Phillips Head or Flat Blade?” The only person obstructing my way to a stress-free summer was the foreman, Dave Lenehan, that guy from my swim club and church who had attended a neighboring high school. Mom said something about him having a nice family because she played tennis with a friend of his mom’s, but Dave was a tad too attentive to his job to get a lot of attention from me. He was not unfriendly and kind of cute, so I married him 15 years later.

He must be in desperate need of coffee by now, I think as I cross North Wayne Avenue for the sidewalk under the train tracks. The walls beneath the tracks are smooth and black like tar; I’d forgotten. The thought of touching them was always slightly alluring, and when I did, I found them to be dry and cool, not slimy like they looked. When I was feeling brave as a child, I would avoid the street altogether, opting for the tunnel path underneath the tracks. Rumors of dead-people buried, smells of urine, darkness, and sounds of approaching trains all triggered imagination, which would without fail, cause me to quicken my pace when I took the tunnel. I am close now: past John’s Market, where hoagies flow; past the big evergreen where neighbors would gather to sing Christmas carols; up the street that winds with the crooked creek. Two more blocks to Dad’s, and the coffee’s still warm.

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As we leave to return to Annapolis, Caroline walks off of the front porch slowly. She and Lexi had collected leaves and pinecones for Pop Pop and left them in a pile on the porch. She eyes them now then turns around and raises those blue eyes up to scan the house before her. She grabs my hand: “Oh, Mommy, this is such a beautiful home. Why does Pop Pop live here all alone?”

When my mother was first gone, I shared the same concern, but I feel differently today. There was nothing solitary about my morning run. I had plenty of company. My dad reads the paper; he goes to work; he cooks a pork chop; he watches the Phillies; and I’m sure there are moments when he feels alone, possibly lonely, but I understand why he stays put. He’s easy to locate on Woodland Avenue. Memories know just where to find him.


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.


What Caroline’s Been Saying . . .

“No, Mommy you can’t have it—it’s for big girls.”

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When we make it to Mass, we usually stand in the entry “Romper Room” near the Baptismal Font where there’s plenty of space. The girls can walk around and stare at other kids, and we don’t have to worry so much about noise control. We keep saying we’ll sit in the church soon. Weeks ago we gave it a try, but lasted only a bit as Lexi made her longing for motion abundantly clear. We were there long enough for Caroline to fixate on the Crucifix behind the altar. She was really interested in it, and I thought the image was making her uncomfortable, but after a little time she pointed to it and said, “Look, Mom, there’s Steve.”

“That does kind of look like Steve, honey,” I whispered.

“Get him down,” she said.

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Caroline while I was putting her in a cream-colored turtleneck: “It feels like vanilla.”

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We have a children’s book about Easter, a cute little sing-songy number. It allows for the bunnies, the candy, the wide brimmed hats and the parades, but it gets down to business, explaining what’s really important about that certain Sunday. This is the first Caroline heard about Jesus dying to save us and about God being in us all. Pretty heavy stuff though packaged lightly. I picked up the little book on a whim, thinking I could introduce the story and that Caroline would get a kick out of the round-faced little girls hunting for eggs and trying on dresses. Months after Easter, after the book had been missing from the prominent shelf places, Caroline walked into the kitchen and calmly handed me the book announcing, “Mommy, I found God.”

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“I’m not running; I’m just galloping!”

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“You always do that sometimes.”

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My doctor sent me to a physical therapist for a while because pains were shooting up my left let through to my back. The pt said that two C-sections busted open my “core” and she gave me tons of stretches to do in order to get my body back in balance. The stretches seem to be working, but at one point, back a few months, nothing was working. I couldn’t sit on the rocker in Caroline’s room. I couldn’t sit in general. So, I was kneeling down into Caroline’s face trying to muscle my way through a bedtime story. She said, “Mommy, does your leg hurt?”

I said, “Yes.”

She put a hand on my cheek and said, “I’ll save you.”

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We were reading “Twas the Night before Christmas” for only the second time, right as the holiday hoopla was beginning. Caroline pointed to Santa on the colorful page before her: “Who’s that Little Big Man again?”

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We play the “pee-nan-o” and we eat “bee-nan-as.” When we’re not dining at home, we sometimes go to a “rench-a-rench” and we head to the pool in our “bathing soups.”

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Caroline was walking around the kitchen, carrying the phone with one hand, leaning it against her ear with her head slightly slanted. She was talking to the friendly witch, or the friendly monster, or it might have been her friend, Owen. She let out a flirtatious little giggle and shrugged a bit: “That tickles me!”

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Caroline was looking down at her new jumper, an adorable blue/green plaid with pockets that tilt inwards: “The pockets are lying down.”

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We were sitting in the rocking chair before Caroline was going down for a nap. I was closing my eyes and she asked why. I said I was tired. She said, “I will follow you to sleep,” and she closed her eyes.

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Caroline was jumping on a stool, dancing in a wacky way—moving her arms, opening and closing her fingers, tilting her head back. I asked, “What are you doing?”

And she said, “I’m doing the sillies!”

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“Oh, a crowd of blueberries in my bucket of oatmeal!”

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“Mommy, look, I made a bunk bed!” Two pink princess shoes on top of each other.

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“Saturday is my favorite day, too.”

“Why?”

“Because it has a lot of words in it!”

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We were reading Angelina Ballerina, and I asked, “Do you know what ‘graceful’ means?”

She nodded, “Love.”

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“Look Mommy, do you see what I’m doing?”

“Tossing chalk all over the floor?”

“No, I’m making snow!”

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“Mommy?”

“Yes, Caroline?”

“Why do tongues move like that when we sing, ‘La la la’!”?

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I asked, “Caroline, why didn’t you nap? What happened?”

“I just kinda crumbled out of bed.”

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The evening sky was a glorious combination of blues and purples. It was an uncommonly warm night in January, and we were taking a walk right before dinner. She pointed up at the colors and yelled, “Let’s go there!” Then she said, “Oh, look at the boo-ti-ful sky! Maybe I can dance under it!”