Sunday, May 30, 2010

Her bags are packed, she’s ready to go

I don’t remember what things I packed, but I remember the red plaid and black vinyl, soft-sided suitcase I’d dragged to my first ever sleepover at a friend’s house when I was in third grade.

It was the same piece of luggage I’d hauled to the mailbox the evening I ran away from home a few years earlier. The mailbox was as far as I’d gotten since I was only in Kindergarten and not allowed to cross the street.

Historic occasions, I figured, call for handbags with a history.

Nevertheless, the things I assembled and squashed into that old suitcase were probably similar to the possessions Ittybit packed into her princess backpack with the telescoping handle and rolling wheels.

I couldn’t help but smile when I unzipped the top and found the little pink mouse she calls "Mini" sitting atop two changes of clothes, a favorite night gown and about a half-dozen books. No toothpaste, no hairbrush anywhere.

Although, I must admit she’s probably more prepared than I ever was as a traveler.

She is only six, after all, and she thinks about outfits and spills and changing her mind.

I’m *cough-cough-clears-throat-much-older-than-six* and I’m patting myself on the back for checking her overnight bag and inserting the missing items for basic hygiene. Last summer we asked her to pack her own bag for a family vacation and, because I didn’t bother to check her work, I didn’t realize until we got to our destination she’d packed nothing but toys, books and winter shirts.

Sleepovers, however, always seem to be more of a kid-pestering readiness decision for parents as opposed to something that is based on chronological age.

Geography is also a likely determining factor as to whether a child is ready to drag their blankets and other lovies to some strange house and sleep there the night.

After all, no one wants to drive too far at 2 a.m. to retrieve a crying child. Likewise, no one wants to impose a lengthy period of waiting while another parent has to sooth your homesick sprog.

Parent readiness can’t really be overlooked in the decision, either.

Which brings us to where we stand now, quivering on the bank of new territory as Ittybit dips her toe into the shallow waters of independence.

(OK. That's a little dramatic, mom.)

"It's not a big deal. It's just a few hours," I tell myself.

But there's no denying this waking desire for independence is also a trickle in the river of emotion that will one day separate us.

(Again, with the drama!)

It’s not as if she’s packing for college or moving to Tibet. This is more like taking her first big-kid amusement park ride all by herself.

I could have picked some age as a benchmark that she would have to reach before she could ride this particular ride.

Yet, unlike an amusement park regulation, I know any measure I create would be arbitrary.

She's ready now.

She is brave and willing to explore — now.

She’s confident and comfortable with her friend’s people. She knows she can tell them she’d like to go home and no one with think "the worser" of her for it.

I figure the excitement of the novelty may keep them awake and giggling far longer than will be humorous to the other parents, but when she finally closes her eyes, she'll likely sleep through until morning.

If I'm wrong, it's only a few minutes of lost sleep and a few miles in the car.

But I am not wrong. When I go to pick her up the next morning she’s happy to see me … for only a moment. I recognize the expression on her face immediately as the best kind of "I can do it" pride. And then she remembers why I’ve come.

"Just five more minutes, mom … please-oh-please-oh-please-oh-please?."

"OK. Five more minutes then. I’ll get your bag."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Leaving the future in her hands

As soon as I saw her with the paper contraption my breath caught in my chest.

Where did she get that, I wondered wordlessly when I saw the most feared thing in the history of pre-adolescent feared things — A paper “fortune teller” — twirling around in her fingers.

And here my daughter was wielding it with the skill of an expert.

"Pick a color," Ittybit said to her friend, who promptly selected pink and sat patiently as my daughter opened and closed her fingers, silently spelling P, I, N, K.

"Now choose a number."


Surprised, I looked over Ittybit’s shoulder as she started the arduous task of counting to 17, reciting the numbers faster than she could open and close the flower-like origami game.

Whoever made this particular device, which was now fuzzy and frail from use, had decided against the predictable one to eight sequence, opting instead for double digit numbers on every flap. Extended play or drawn out torture, depending on how you see these things.

"Pick another number," she continues.

Her friend obliges … this time. I can tell she has had enough of the suspense. The next time a number choice is offered she declines. "I don’t want to pick another number" a great deal more sweetly than I would have if I were in her place.

A strange de ja vu washes over me as I watch my daughter lift the flap. My whole body tenses.

Nothing has been written inside.

"Oh, It says here you have no future," she chirps gaily.

THAT was what I was afraid of.

How many times in my primary school years had someone opened one of those hateful things and told me I smelled? Or that I will be married to a garbage man, have 300 children and live under a bridge? Too many to count.

It all came rushing back.

“WHAT?! That’s a terrible thing to tell someone," I rage at my daughter as I snatch the thing from her hands. "Where did you get this?"

She is silent. Confused, probably.

She didn’t see anything wrong with the reading. She didn’t mean to hurt her friend. She was just stating the obvious.

The paper was blank. Blank meant nothing. There’s nothing wrong with nothing. It’s just … nothing.

But to me, nothing can be everything. It is why, for no logical reason, I allow an intricate series of superstitions to guide me when fate disables control … it is the ladder I walk around, the salt I toss over my shoulder, the wish I don’t say aloud and the fears I voice over and over.

Her friend’s father, who has been a good sport about it all, offers us both a way out. "You could say, ‘Your future is what you make of it’. … Or you could say, ‘Your future is wide open’."

Ittybit, as a matter of course, apologizes and hugs her friend ‘goodbye.’ She disappears for a while after we close the door.

We’re not done talking about the incident, though. As we start the journey upstairs, into her room and toward the Land of Nodd, I remind her about how easily disappointment comes and how hard it can be to smooth hurt feelings.

Later, after she is tucked in and sleeping peacefully, I realize this is just the beginning of all the secrets that will be in our future. No doubt we will be blindsided by what’s underneath our flaps, be they hurtful things or empty spaces.

With this in mind, I go searching for the paper device with half a mind to rip it to shreds. I find it in the center of the dinning room table. But instead of crumpling the thing, I am drawn to lift a flap. And then another … to find underneath each one she’s colored in crayon hearts.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

In our house, love and hate play side by side

"I don’t like you any more," he tells me without provocation one morning as I’m making lunches and trying to coax some breakfast into the kids. I look at him blankly and he quickly rephrases: "I hate you."

The way he says it is curious, "I hay-te yoooo."

I probably should feel hurt, but as he stands there with his hands on his hips the right side of his face twists into a squint of cartoon proportion and I have to force myself to swallow a choking amount of laughter.

"It’s NOT FUNNY!" he rages. "I HAY-TE YOOOO."

"You don’t hate me," I say as matter-of-factly as possible and turn back to slathering peanut butter between two slices of bread. "You don’t hate anyone."

Technically, I know that’s not true either.

He hates a lot these days: the dog who steals his food and the cat who wakes him up at night; he hates the slightly mean characters on his favorite television show, as well as the charming ones; he hates pizza when he wants pasta and pasta when he wants pizza; he hates wind and rain and glaring sunshine. He hates pretty flowers and flowers past their prime. He hates taking baths and changing his clothes and wearing socks. He hates being barefoot.

I’m not the only one who has caught his wrath, either. He hates the babysitter and his grandparents. He hates his sister, who hates him right back. He hates when people "bother" him. He tells his sister from sun-up until sun-down he wants her to leave him "a-woan" as he cheerfully goes about playing with her things.

Hate, he’s learning, can be some powerful stuff.

Hate gets a lot of attention.

Of course, he also hates being alone, which is usually what happens when the smoldering volcano of animosity erupts between siblings, spewing fiery words back and forth until mom or dad is forced to use the nuclear option of peacekeeping techniques: "Go. To. Your. Room. NOW!!!!"

Afterward - for a moment - there is silence followed, usually, by the sound of four angry feet pounding up the stairs.

And then the screaming resumes.

I can tell from the direction of the insults hurled from one to the another, what the problem is now: They’ve gone to the same room — HIS — to serve out their sentences.

"It’s my room!"

"But I sleep here, too. These are MY stuffed animals."

"Go away!"

"No, you go away!"


And then it happens — giggling.

It starts slowly — I imagine it may have begun as a smirk on Ittybit’s face — but soon turns into peels of laughter, followed by dancing and bed bouncing. Elephant could have made less noise.

By the time I get up the stairs to check on them, they are holding hands and swinging them back and forth together.

Soon it will be bedtime. After I’ve wrestled them into taking a bath, brushing their teeth and putting on their pajamas, they’ll sleep together on a staggered trundle. Hers on top, his along the floor.

The arguing will start again over books, and music and the bedtime games we play.

"MY monster has pink hair and eats pink grass and wears pink pajamas," he’ll say stubbornly.

"Well, MY princess wears pink shoes and a pink dress and eats pink ice cream sandwiches."

"My Princess," he retorts, "gets eaten by a shark and has ..."

She interrupts.

“It’s my turn now. If your princess was eaten by a shark she is gone. End of story."

Oddly, he is satisfied with that explaination. He smiles.

"I missed you when you were at school," he tells her.

"I missed you, too."

"I hate you."

"I hate you, too."

Sunday, May 09, 2010

What’s unsaid is what often really matters

“A mother understands what a child does not say.”

- Jewish proverb

Dear Ittybit,

I barely recognized your voice when you crept up behind me as I was unloading the supermarket haul.

"Can I help?"

"Sure," I said, happy for just the company as well as the extra hands.

I smiled as you remarked on every item you touched, taking it on its final journey from shopping tote to refrigerator shelf. It's just now dawning on me how long your reach has grown.

"I love these kind of pickles. ... This juice is heavy, I'm not sure I can lift it myself. ... Oh! You got the yogurt I like, thanks mom. You're the best mom I ever had."

I'm laughing a little as I climb on the step stool to stack boxes of pasta in the cupboard.

I begin my usual response: "I'm the only mom you've ever had, and don't confuse consumerism with competency. ...

You snort, and wave your hand in the air. "I know, I know, I know. ... You're still the best."

I wonder when you got to be so big. It wasn't a month ago that I still saw your baby face beaming at me from behind an alphabet book. Your limbs seem to have branched outward in recent days. You are long and lean, more graceful than gangly.

There are longer pauses between your words now. You understand more than you say, and with this comes a kind of power that can be frightening.

You are beginning to see that reaction bites on the heels of words in a never ending chase. You understand that ticks and twitches, not to mention tears, can give you away. Even a smile, in the wrong place, can work against you.

Your ability to hide your hurts from others comes a little more easily now. Moments of silence, pursed lips, hands tangling hair, a catch in your voice … all things a stranger might overlook.

The alarm on the refrigerator sounds. The door has been open for too long.

I turn to see what the trouble is, envisioning you wrestling a melon into the crisper drawer or trying to alphabetize the mustard jars.

But you are gone and the light from the refrigerator is shining on the empty bags, shapeless and slumped on the floor in front of it.

Your part of the task is over and you have moved on to something else.

I shut the door and begin to smooth the shopping bags. I hear your voice — the one I've known since your first words — bubbling through the kitchen doorway. It's coming from a far room that has been filtered through two other spaces, and it’s followed by the unmistakable sound of children jumping on a bed.

"Let me help you with that," I hear you say to your brother.

I am reminded how time is fleeting.

Soon you will be grown and, inevitably, the silence between us will have grown, too. This relationship of ours — mother and daughter — will not always be easy.

Even if it is a comfortable quiet, when I am gone you may still have regrets — as we humans tend to have — for that which remained unsaid.

Don’t hold on to those regrets though sweets, because we moms ... we already know.

With love and fancy yogurt,

— Mommy

Write to Siobhan Connally a

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Jumping off the deep end to be neighborly

He was up to his knees in pond scum and discarded pool toys. He'd been there for most of the day. If the windows were open I'm sure we would have heard some choice words.

Things were not going well.

I've been calling the backyard pool area "Gray Gardens" for obvious reasons.

At one time it must have been a splendid respite. Evidence of elegant landscaping is still visible in spring as a blanket of daffodils and tulips push their way through the lawn, which any other time of year is choked in weeds and neglect. A stone patio meanders around a small in-ground swimming pool, its plates, in dire need of resetting, shift at dangerous angles. Large trees lean above it all, regal though untamed. In a perfect summer the pool would get sun but the parents would get shade as they performed their lifeguard duties.

When we moved into the house last year we didn't even bother uncovering the pool, which had been derelict for who knows how long. There were rumors the pool had been in use within the last several years, and we’d have liked to believe them. At least until we were ready to see for ourselves.

There will be time enough next summer, we decided, as we worked to get ourselves settled. Other structures in need of repair in our new home required our full attention. There were so many things needing nailing down that seemed to be coming up here and there: A leaky roof, broken doors, cracked windows, the acquisition of new appliances. … The list is never ending.

I must admit the decision not to take on the pool yard made me happy. I do not particularly like the idea of owning an outdoor pool. I don't see its value in the northeast, where perhaps a scant three months of use can be extracted from its watery depths. I’d just as soon fill it with sand and call it a lawn.

Always a Cassandra, I can only see the expense of repairs and maintenance, not to mention liability. I don't even want to think about the potential for disaster with little ones still running around. So frogs frolicked in the pool last summer instead of our family. I came to admire the nature that encroached as their chirping multiplied night by night. These noisy guests were no match for the mosquitoes, however.

Chlorine would have helped. Maybe. Fewer rainy days might have helped more.

"I really want to get that pool going," my husband mused as the extra warm days of spring came early this year. It became a kind of siren song, calling him to peel back the cover of the pool to finally see what's what underneath.

So I wasn’t terribly surprised one Saturday afternoon to find my husband dangling what appeared to be a gigantic tea bag (made out of the pool cover and containing everything that had been holding it down) over the pool from the hook of his crane truck as the kids and I return from errands.

The kids clamor to the back of the couch, jumping up and down with excitement. This is a spectacle worthy of fresh popcorn and a guy selling balloons on sticks out of a shopping cart, not to mention couch jumping.

"Poor neighbors," I think, turning my attention from the kids to the folks next door who were holding an "Open House" in hopes of selling the stately, renovated home. "No sale likely today," I say to the groceries as I put them away ... "not with the Clampetts living next door, experimenting with their C-Ment Pond, anyway."

RIP! CRASH! @FLUST #ubl@chute!

More choice words flow out with the detritus from the tea bag as it rips over the deep end.

"If they're smart they'll hold their next Open House when we're away," I continue to grouse over granola. "I should probably let them know now when to expect a vacation from us."

My husband slogs into the house with a grim look on his face. "I think something may have broken the pool."

The water is expectedly murky, though, and doesn't give away the damage caused by the accident. The ring left when the water recedes two feet overnight is the canary in that coalmine.

"Maybe we should check the basement to see if it’s flooding," I say, trying not to sound alarmed as I use the royal "we."

"No, the water’s not going there," he replies, with a tone that I interpret to mean he’ll check the cellar when I’m not looking.

"We'll it's got to go somewhere. ... Let's just hope it stays away from the neighbors'."

Write to Siobhan Connally at