Sunday, August 25, 2013

The in be tween

I look at her sometimes without recognition.

The teenager she will be in four short years has already wiped her muddy shoes on our welcome mat and made our acquaintance.

Become a little too familiar, even.

This strange new guest ransacks our daughter's room, stuffs dirty socks between couch cushions and chews on her hair until it's drenched.

Her hair – long and tangled, locks akimbo as strands attempt to escape their binding -- seems to have a will of its own as the mane flaps between her shoulder blades. A weightless plait of matted ravel.

She thinks it's perfect just the way it is, rats' nest and all. On this I do not fight her.

We are not so dissimilar.

She is small and large. She seems both young and old. She is a mixture of me and him, and yet, she is not really ours.

In the dressing room of her mind, she tries on personalities as if they were costumes for a future play.

But these days I never know which character she's in the midst of developing will walk out on stage.

Will it be the sweet sister? The helpful daughter? The social butterfly?

Or will it be the prickly pear?

We call that one Attitude-y Judy.

She wears sullen and moody like an oversized hat. She paws at it as it wobbles around on her forehead changing her expression. She adjusts the tilt obsessively until I demand she take it off. I know it won't be long until it fits a little too snugly.

More and more it feels as if we talk at each other. Neither knowing how much the other hears.

She can be a non-stop fount of questions.

Other times she's the know-it-all who has no qualms about telling strangers all the ways I'm doing it wrong.

She's my Best Friend Forever one day and my Best Friend Nellie Olsen the next.

Sometimes she's the little girl she used to be, playing with dolls and asking me to read a story from a favorite book.

Nowhere contains more evidence of her splintering self than her bedroom. A four-poster bed sleeps the girl and all of her favorite stuffed animals. A hanging chair, where she nests to read, has Barbie Dolls and back issues of Tiger Beat magazine. A variety of clothes are strewn about after they'd been modeled but not worn. They mingle with clothes of the doll variety, props modeled by diminutive doppelgangers simultaneously. The dolls still have subordinate roles in this new endeavor.

The strangeness, though, is not confined to her transformation. It has afflicted mine as well.

She sings a rambling song of repetition in a made-up language. I just want to shush her.

She tells me she wants to say silly things to a toll collector and I hiss: “Don't you dare.”

She gets a glint in her eye and snaps back: 'You said 'Dare'.”

But she doesn't dare.

Not yet.

For the time being, Attitude-y Judy is satisfied with just popping in now and again, snooping through bath cabinets and testing bedsprings. She doesn't feel completely welcome.

Not yet.

I know it won't be long until her visits seem interminable.

By then the welcome mat won't matter.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Are we there yet?

Six days before departure they've each packed two suitcases with essentials: She has all her dresses, a blue poncho, six pairs of earrings and a dozen shades of homemade lipgloss. He has four pairs of swim trunks, a broken snorkel and a boatload of impractical toys.

Daggers flicked out at me from his eyes when I plucked two plastic vials of a chemistry set and held them up between my thumb and forefingers … daring to question the need for experimentation during our annual sojourn to southern Maine.

He opened his mouth but said nothing as sharp as his eyes had already conveyed.

I gingerly put them back. I know this is not a battle I will win directly.

If I have learned anything since becoming a parent it's that children may be unable to measure time or distance with the precision of an adult, but that doesn't mean they are oblivious to the need to keep track of its cosmic forces.

“When are we leaving?”

It is a question I will have answered four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-fifty-six times before the car pulls away from the house on that magical day … five days from now.

Roughly four days after I'd washed every stitch of clothing in the house; three days after I'd run errands and returned library books, and one day after I'd repacked their bags to include practical summer attire, such as sweatshirts and changes of underwear.

We will get four miles out of town, and the question will change. Slightly.

“When are we getting there?”

Honestly, it's a question that has no correct answer.

We could say: “Four hours … if we don't stop … or hit traffic … or decide to turn this clown show around and go back home.” Four hours might as well be four minutes or four days. … and it's always losing pieces when taken in chunks.

“What time are we getting there now?”

We could make them work for it: “When the clock on the dashboard says '1:30' … if we don't stop ... or hit traffic … or decide to join the circus.”

“That clock is wrong,” my daughter reminds me.

“Then add four minutes.”

My husband sets his jaw and grips the wheel a little more tightly. He wonders why automotive companies don't make family vehicles that employ sound-proof partitions that can be raised and lowered with the ease of power window technology.

He also wonders how we managed to make children who can't be distracted with portable electronics.

“Hey! Let's play I spy. … or Twenty questions … or The license plate game,” he'll say as we inch along on the highway adding who-knows-how-many-minutes-to-this-ordeal.

Predictably, each attempt at entertainment ends in disagreement: “I saw it first” … “I can't think of any more questions” … “I can't read Indiana!”

He grips the wheel even tighter.

There is no way around it. No way to avoid stop-and-go traffic. No way to avoid the zillion and one questions about arrivals and departures and the tedious fights that break out over whose gaze trespassed beyond their side of the car.

I used to think vacation angst was a problem of planning. I wondered whether it was a shortfall of stealth.

Couldn't we save ourselves all of this angst if we said nothing, packed in the dead of night and took off one morning as if we were just going off to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread?

Wishful thinking.

The mystery of this thing known as vacation only intensifies after arrival. “Are we there yet” morphs into sixty million new questions, all of them leading up to the inevitable “When are we leaving?”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Little stinker

I had been fast asleep until I felt a nudge.

“Will you let the dog out?” he asked, in a voice that put the request clearly in the column of “I'll Owe You One” on the imaginary chalkboard of marital tabulations.

I hadn't even heard her barking. (Not that that's unusual. I have a tendency to ignore the obvious).

“What time is it?”

“For the love of Pete, it's time to let YOUR dog out.”

So much for Owing Me One.

It certainly didn't take long for his sense of humor to wear thin. I had barely swung my legs over the bed, let alone found my slippers, before one more plaintive bark caused him to transfer ownership and cancel any late-night goodwill.

How fickle we are.

It's his dog when she's all cuddly and cute on a winter-coming evening before we break down and switch on the furnace. She's my dog when she eats the bath sponge and vomits soap bubbles and blue foam bits under his desk.

In truth, though, she is MY dog.

I was the one who thought she was special. I was the one who saw her face on the shelter's website. I was the one who dragged the family to meet her. I was the one who pushed for her adoption.

It was also me who worked with her (with varying degrees of success) this past year on not peeing in the house; not chasing the cat, not chewing up all of our insoles; not shredding toys, or pillows, or old plastic bags; and not barking at us for no apparent reason whatsoever.

When she walks at a heel I take full credit.

But not on this night.

This night, as I stumbled down the stairs, somewhere between awake and asleep still wondering what time it was, I wished for fish. Quiet, docile fish.

I didn't even realize my mistake when I opened the door and the dog burst out into the backyard, a writhing, snarling, barking blur.

The noise abruptly coming to a halt with a yelp.

It wasn't until I re-opened the door and she streaked inside on a wave of acrid air that I truly woke up.

It was evident she had been skunked, and I couldn't ignore it in the same fashion I ignored her barking in the first place.

But that didn't stop me from trying.

I slipped back into bed. The foul air had followed me up the stairs and into our room, even though the dog had made a B line in another direction: The kids' room.

How could I sleep knowing what I knew?

I'm not sure,” I lied. “But I think the dog got skunked … and that first rule … the one about not letting a skunked dog back inside the house? Well … yeh … too late.”

That woke him up. In fact, he bolted out of bed and into the hallway searching for the dog, who had abandoned the kids (thankfully) and was in the bathroom trying (unsuccessfully) to remove the rancid smell with her tongue and forepaws, and a basketful of dirty laundry.

She stopped what she was doing and sat upright, a cowering mass of stench and oily fur. It was as if she calculated her mistake and the potential consequences of it, and was using the remnants of her shelter-dog experience to beseech our mercy.

Please make this stop. … I'll be a good dog now. Don't send me away … I can do laundry. I think.”

He gaged and then relented. I couldn't feel my tongue. “Poor dog.”

We worked silently.

I measured the amounts of peroxide, baking soda and dish soap called for by Dr. Google.

He found a cloth and rubber gloves.

An hour later – and two rounds of warm, soapy water -- the air still tasted bitter. There was nothing left to do, so we tried to sleep.

“Someday you'll laugh about this,” he said as he drifted off.

But it wasn't my sense of humor that worried me. It was chalking the nebulous “Who Owes Whom” tab that would keep me awake.especially since the dog was surely MY dog since she was exuding a choking olfactory sensation all around us.

“As long as we can reclaim our sense of smell,” I told myself. “I'll be happy.”

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Story of my life

Telling a story is an art.

An art I have never seemed to master. Not in so many spoken words, anyway.

It's been this way since I was a kid.

“Can I say something?” I'd ask at the dinner table, and then follow up with a long period of silence.

Predictably, conversations would continue without me.

I'd sit there, fuming. “No one ever listens to me.”

Grumble, grumble, grump.

“You need to jump in,” my mother would say, annoyed. “You have to start talking. You can't wait for an engraved invitation.”

“But then you say I'm interrupting,” I challenged, completely confused.

“You have to wait until people stop talking before you jump in. Then, you have to keep their attention by saying something interesting.”

That's some tough love for a child of five.

Sadly, I don't think I have ever arrived at the right conversational balance.

I still can't seem to hold my own when it comes to small talk.

Take, for instance, the chat I had with another mother, recently:

She had marveled at the colorful confections I proffered for the community theater bake sale table. They were perfect, she said, for a children's play centered around Dr. Seuss.

I beamed. My iced vanilla cupcakes topped with red striped marshmallow hats were a hit.

She wondered how it was that I came to think up such a confectionary novelty.

And then I made the mistake so many of us make when faced with a smidgeon of attention.

I explained the process … in excruciating detail.

I first told of my internet research, and the trials and errors of completing the very first batch. I told of lopsided hats, grocery store chats and an accounting of marshmallows fed to the dog. I used my hands and minced several words pertaining to the final construction.

And though I could see her eyes glaze over somewhere between “Pinterest search” and “prototypes,” I couldn't stop talking.

By the time she was able to wriggle away to attend some imaginary task, I knew she was never coming back.

I didn't feel bad about it, though. I've been in her place. Quietly rearranging my closet as someone tells me their life story, complete with weather forecast, after I had smiled in their direction and remarked about having a nice day.

My son has been showing some of the same proclivities in his storytelling pursuits.

One night, at dinner, as we were discussing plans for the summer, he broke down in tears.

“No one ever listens to me,” he lamented after repeating “You know what?” about a gazillion times.

Grumble, grumble, grump.
I try to stop my mother's words from forming in my throat, but couldn't hold the words in check: “You need to jump in. You have to start talking. You can't wait for an engraved invitation.”

He just looked at me with tears streaming down his face. Evidently the equivalent of an engraved invitation is necessary:

“Go ahead. We're waiting.”

He sniffled and brightened.

“Did you know sharks really like meat and they're often mistaken. If they see a surfboard, they might think it's a fish, but when they take a bite they eat the human instead. It's real. You can look it up.”

He didn't wait for a response, he just went back to spearing his steak with his fork, happy to have gotten that morsel of information off his chest.

In the stunned silence that followed it occurred to me that perhaps effective storytelling has more to do with paring an invitation with a non-sequitur than it has to do with art.

Well, that and brevity.