Thursday, September 28, 2006

"Sighed Mayzie, a lazy bird hatching an egg:
'I'm tired and I'm bored and I've kinks in my leg. From sitting, just sitting here day after day. It's work! How I hate it! I'd much rather play! I'd take a vacation, fly off for a rest
If I could find someone, I'd fly away free...'
Then Horton, the Elephant, passed by her tree.
'Hello!' called the lazy bird, smiling her best, 'You've nothing to do and I do need a rest. Would you like to sit on the egg in my nest?'"

This opening scene, from "Horton Hatches The Egg," by Dr. Seuss, somehow struck a chord with me as I read it to Esther last night. What a naughty little mother bird that Mayzie is. How much like her I have been feeling, I'm ashamed to say. On a smaller scale of course. Mayzie, that naughty mommy, cut out indefinitely, headed for an oceanside palm tree in Florida and stayed there lolling about in the breeze for months on end while Horton endured all varieties of hardship to keep that little egg safe. I'm just looking for a babysitter.

We've had babysitters, of course, with Esther, but not often and she was just one child. Now, the thought of finding a competent, trustworthy, available person to watch an almost five year old and an 11-month old baby who has a penchant for eating dogfood and trying to escape out the screen door, is more than daunting. It is paralyzing.

Ian and I just celebrated our tenth anniversary and I decided, on the morning of, that we should try to spend a part of it alone, with each other, having a conversation that wasn't interrupted by intermittent screeching, begging, tugging, whining, pooping, or life threatening situations. Imagine it. Just us, walking through the woods with a bottle of something cold and bubbly in our backpack, some bread and cheese maybe, and nothing else. We would talk, or hold hands and not talk, as we made our way up the mountain trail to the overlook to sit in the grass and gaze out across the green mountains in total silence.

Then, I woke up. Problem: Aside from a little bit of mother's helper time, I have never left Isla with anyone but my sister. She is right smack in the middle of what is considered to be, "stranger anxiety" time. And the likelihood of my sister, who has two school -age kids of her own, being available to take my two kids, at such short notice was not good.

Tenth anniversary. Nothing planned. What kind of wife am I? I thought of friends with exciting anniversary tales to tell. Dinners high above New York City, exchanging jewelry that sparkled in the candlelight reflected off crystal wine glasses. Trips to Ireland. Weekend cabin retreats complete with three-meal-a-day room service, hot tubs and massage... I should know from my life as a competitive athlete, it's never a good idea to pay too much attention to what other people (the competition) have done or are doing. I sometimes wonder if you looked up the phrase "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" it might possibly say: "An illusion which most people know not to fall for, but Betsy can't get through her head."

Instead of crystal wine glasses and hot tubs, it was us, all four of us, at the dinner table eating steak and french fries and acorn squash washed down with a too- delicious bottle of red wine Ian brought home, and which we slurped surreptitiously from too -large glasses lest Isla, who spent the meal in our laps, insert her fist in the lovely red liquid to see how it would feel again and again. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, and for us, for not having a "proper" celebration, I managed to open my eyes to the sublimity of the scene before me. Stubbly-faced daddy, as handsome as the day I married him, though a little more tired looking, with a lovely chubby baby girl on his knee and Esther, in a sleepy yet smiley mood, eatiing with her hands and grilling us about what outfits we, and different wedding guests wore to our wedding. She's still a bit miffed by Daddy's kilt.

Isla started to rub her eyes and I whisked her up to her crib, which she embraced without protest. And Esther fell asleep soon thereafter with her head on Ian's shoulder as he read her a Roald Dahl story on the couch. Two kids down and it wasn't even 8 p.m. ! Looks like we were getting a freee night after all, a gift from our thoughtful, exhausted children.

A gift! Yes, what about a gift. So out of practice are we in gift giving, we both hesitated to discuss out anniversary for fear the other might be put under pressure. "I do have a little something I wrote for you," I finally said. And ran upstairs to print a document I had been working on for two years, the story of our courtship and beyond in a fragmented narrative style. I handed him two flimsy pieces of paper with my words on it, taking solace only in the fact that paper is made of wood and wood is supposedly the material associated with tenth anniversaries. He didn't cry when he read it, as if, but I did imagine I heard a sudden intake of breath when he got to the last lines : "My heart flaps like a bird's wings when I see you with your daughters. Your hands are more beautiful than ever before when they are holding them; when they are holding us."

Not that I am in any way converted from the philosophy that mothers and fathers need to go on dates and take small breaks from their children in order to maintain sanity and lust for life, but it was nice to discover that, sometimes, those little oases of peace can be found right under your own roof.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

the kitchen sink

Yesterday while eating breakfast in the back yard Esther said, “ I wish I could run around the world, just once, then come back.”
I knew exactly how she felt. I have been tempted lately to just pour Esther that second bowl of cereal, make Ian that cup of tea, give Isla a big long drink from the eternal, milky spring and say,” I’m going out for a bit, two or three days maybe, but I will be back.”

I would take nothing with me. Not even a change of clothes. The ability to just leave the house exactly as I am, that is one of the things I miss the most about me.

The reality that I never leave the house empty handed really stared me in the face yesterday when I took a hike with Isla up a steep nearby mountain. Getting out of the house was a relative breeze since Esther wasn't with us. When we got to the trailhead there was one other car, a newish Subaru Outback, parked there. After taking close to ten full minutes gearing up, getting Isla in the Kelty backpack, stocking it with a spare diaper and wipes, snacks, water, sunscreen, and a dog leash, I walked passed the other car and looked in the windows for a clue about what sort of fellow hiker I might meet up with on top. The front seats were entirely free of clutter-- even the passenger side, which in my car is used as an all-purpose storage and waste bin. In the back seat were just three items: a yoga mat, a beach towel and a bikini. I stood there contemplating this unencumbered scene for far too long, just taking in the simplicity, the possibilities of it all. I tried to remember what it felt like to travel with nothing more than the clothes on my back and something to swim in. The yoga mat added intrigue. It said that this person, a woman obviously, had free time and the sense to do something completely selfish and self nurturing with it. The bikini? Well just those two tiny pieces of stretchy fabric held worlds of significance. And the way they were so neatly folded and placed on top of a folded towel……..

God, what have I become. A voyeur of the most boring proportions. I used to read books and magazines and marvel at the adventure and purpose that exuded from some people’s lives, now I look into car windows, see practically nothing, and my imagination runs wild.

But it is funny I saw that scene because just the other day, in the car again, I was thinking about this very phenomenon of stuff. What is it about having children that makes you feel as if you have to take half the house with you each and every time you leave it? I had been away for all of four hours, we went to watch a horse show, yet the back of the car was brimming with kid paraphernalia: chairs, stroller, backpack, diaper bag, sunscreen, water bottles, extra shoes, a Kleenex box, toys, books?.

When I left the house earlier that day, I was in such a stuff frenzy I had what could only be described as stuff anxiety. I actually whined to Ian that we should have a little kid-size umbrella and a kid-size chair for Esther. If I was a good, generous parent, I would have bought that little folding chair I saw at JoAnne’s Fabrics the other day. Honestly. I'm not sure what came over me. And for that matter, why isn't the pantry filled with multi packs of juice boxes and Annie's Whole Wheat Cheddar Bunnies?

I am a bit grinch like when it comes to shopping for anything other than clothes for myself. Esther has survived on very few big plastic toys. She has no Barbie Jeep to drive around the yard, she has no swing set, she has no sand box, she has no big wheel. Her birthday parties, to date, have been no- gift affairs simply because I am so averse to having our house filled with disposable plastic objects. The party guests always bring a sweet selection of handmade cards, rocks and leaves and Esther, so far, is always delighted.

Yet, I still feel overwhelmed by how much we do have and how much we have to tote around with us in order to feel secure. This is American advertising at its most effective. Even though I am aware of the trick, I remain vulnerable to the message that we need more, more more, things to make our lives more convenient and complete and to keep our children happy. My brain knows better, yet my fiber believes it. I exude irritation and regret when I am struggling to strap Isla into her carseat and cursing the twisted straps and imagining that, had I just sprung for the Britax Roundabout with the cow print for 75 dollars more, I wouldn’t be having these problems. I would be calm and cool and my hair would be perfect and my shoes would be impossibly hip. And those strollers with the standup bar that the women in Europe use to push their infants and toddlers around in...think of the cool competence I would exude if I only had one of those.

Then I always remember, oh yeah, isn't it the stuff that is making me feel so anxious in the first place? Luckily, while the marketing gurus are working overtime to create this fictional need, my children are working overtime to keep me from ever having the time to follow through with the purchasing of said need fulfillers. I try, pushing a bored, fussy Isla at high speed through K-Mart, stopping to examine items of great promise. But Isla gives the command to move on before I can claim all but the most blatant necessity for my own. It is as if she can sense my ambivalence and she sees it as a foolish waste of time. And she is right. For she knows that all of the things in the world won't make half the statement that rolled up yoga mat, bikini and towel did.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

peaks and valleys

Just to generate the illusion that we are one of those active, adventurous families, here is a shot of Esther and Isla in their chariot. They were whisked up McKenzie Pass by my former snowboard trainer on his bicycle during our recent trip to Oregon. The reason he pulled them is because it was six miles uphill and neither Ian nor I could have made it before sunset, or at all.

We trailed behind on our own bikes, unencumbered by our children but still very much encumbered. My coach's uber-fit wife also pulled a trailer filled with camping gear, chicken, beets and a lemon pound cake. No lie. We picnicked atop a stone tower, much like Rapunzel's, overlooking the three sisters and an endless stretch of lava field. Isla fell asleep on the way down as Esther held her hand.

The whole experience was proof positive that, if prodded and coddled in just the right way, even the most tired and apathetic parents can rally their way out of the valley and onto the peaks

Saturday, July 08, 2006

in praise of books on tape

Waiting for Esther to turn four before I had another baby was the smartest thing I have ever done. Mostly. On the best days, I have an amazing little helper, like Gopher on the Love Boat, who fetches me things and keeps Isla distracted so I can put her diaper on without having to twist her leg off. On other days, I have a sort of live-in mother in law casting judgement and challenging my every decision. “That’s not a safe toy Mummy,” she said in the car the other day. “Remember, Isla can’t have that toy because the nose is about to fall off and she could choke on it.”

Now that we are feeding Isla some solid foods, Esther is full of opinions. “The doctor wouldn’t say that was okay for her to eat,” she said this morning as I was letting Isla chew on some applesauce soaked spelt waffle. “Well Essie,” I said. “Isla can eat lots of things, as long as they are soft and not something she might be allergic to.” “Well that doesn’t look safe to me,” she pressed on. Did someone call "Super Nanny"?

I do find her concern for her little sister's well being endearing. She puts on her little mother face and voice as she wipes the pureed peaches out of Isla's ear and gently teases her about her bad aim. She fetches me clean onesies and picks out new outfits when Isla gets out of the bath. She oozes nurturance.

On the other hand, she can get a bit too bossy and too invested in this little baby of hers. "She doesn’t want to sit that way, mummy, she wants to sit this way. I don’t think she needs to nurse again Mummy. Stop crying so much Isla, it’s annoying me. Don’t eat so much Isla, you’ll get fat and that’s not healthy and if you’re not healthy you’ll be sick.”

It's surprising really, that Esther doesn't hate her little sister. Our book time has been cut in half as a result of Isla's noisy, sticky, fidgety presence in this house. I had thought she would just join the party and enjoy books as I read them to Esther but she is more interested in eating books, page by page, than reading books so far. And Esther is into some really involved books lately, like Roald DAhl's BFG, C.S. Lewis' the Magician’s Nephew and our latest, the classic Pinnocchio, which we borrowed from the library with its amazingly lifelike illustrations of old world Italy. These wordy chapter books are a challenge to read at the end of a long day when mind fatigue has checked in and patience has checked out. Esther is insatiable and, after 30 straight minutes of reading, will beg for just one more page. The other night I feigned a sore throat just to get her to let me stop. I know, I know, who is the boss around here.

You would think with two adults in the house we could work out a balance. Instead, when bedtime hits, it's the mommy channel, all mommy all the time. It's not for lack of trying. Ian has honorable intentions, which are rendered completely ineffective by his little problem with selective narcolepsy. While staying up past midnight staring at a computer screen is no problem for him, lying down to read a children's book to his daughter without falling asleep within five minutes is, apparently, impossible.

So, more often than not, I read a quick chapter to Esther and plug her into the audio version of the BFG or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, kiss her goodnight and sweep out of the room to rescue Daddy from an overtired Isla.

Last night I was so hot and sticky I refused to lay down with Esther on the same bed. “I’ll just lie over here,” I said, “and we can chat a bit.” I'm not sure what families do in Alaska in the summer time, but all this daylight makes us a little reckless. Who really wants to go to bed when it still looks like day out and it is as hot as it is most days and people are still mowing their lawns and daddy is outside pounding nails on our new barn.

A half hour after I left Esther's room she was standing next to me at the kitchen sink, like an apparition, in her little white underwear with her hair all stuck in sweaty strands to the back of her neck. “What’s daddy doing?” She asked as she slipped out the screen door and ran across the dusky meadow to the barn site. I surpressed the urge to be the bedtime sargeant and let her go without saying a word.

I watched her through the kitchen window and could just barely make out her half naked little self, looking like Mowgli of the Jungle Book, following her Daddy up a ladder to the highest point of the barn. I wanted to yell out my usual, "be careful" but the crickets and tree frogs and thick hanging air kept me quiet. I trusted that Ian was using his best judgement about where she climbed. She sees so little of him these days, I couldn’t let my fears prevent her from ending the day with her daddy.

When she came inside she was scratching like mad, having been bitten to death by mosquitos. When I finally got her to bed, after four ginger snaps and a glass of milk, I went back to our room to find a neat little pile of books she had picked out for Ian to read her earlier. The sight of them nearly broke my heart when I realized she had the evening planned and, as often happens, it all went awry and the tape machine went on.

I woke up around four to nurse Isla and there was a bayou moon, a perfect orange sliver, hanging low and sultry over the East mountain and I imagined, in better times, times with less flapping skin and less fatigue, I might have slid my hand across Ian’s smooth stomach and whispered in his ear, “Wanna play?”
Maybe next time.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


It is unbelievable to me that it is alreadyJune. I can vividly remember these days last year when I was pathetically pregnant and struggling to make it through the final days of school. Getting dressed each morning was a struggle. I remember thinking, “What would Humpty Dumpty do?” as I stared listlessly into my closet which seemed , strangely, filled with Barbie clothes. Whose tiny clothes were they? Certainly not mine.

At my worst during those times, I wondered how on earth I would find enough love and patience for another child. Now, at my best, I find myself comletely in love with Esther and entirely smitten with Isla, or “the culprit” as I like to call her. With Esther, I am amazed at the simple fact that she is one and the same with the snot-soaked ball of exploding emotions she was at three and a half. At times she is impossibly genteel with pleases and thank yous and excuse mes and don’t cry Islas. I am in love with the complicated little person she has become. With Isla, it’s purely physical. I am enamored with her softness, her pliant cheeks and translucent, rubber ears. I am addicted to the feel of her little body sprawled like a kitten across my stomach and her warm globe of a head resting in the crook of my arm. I swoon at the sight of her smiling mouth and sparkling eyes as she tries desperately to suck me into her world so completely that no outside distractions will lure me away.

She really is here. This morning Esther ran into the room and over to Isla’s crib to peer in through the bars at her pudgy little zoo baby and I heard this big, “pbbbthhhhhhhhh” sound. (Isla’s latest favorite sound, the verbal raspberry.) “Was that you?” I asked her. “No,” Esther laughed. “That was Isla.”

Welcome to planet earth Isla! I read in the book “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert that, in Indonesia, babies aren’t allowed to touch the ground until they are six months old. That makes so much sense to me. Isla, seven months old now, has only just recently joined us on this earth. She has come down, Mork like, from some distant planet and landed on her deliciously chubby rear end in our living room.

She has all of a sudden noticed we have a dog living here with us and that pleases her immensely. Each time Ruby comes into view, Isla squeals with delight as if she has never seen her before. Or as Esther says, “she bursts out in peals of laughter.” She is trying out her limited, but varied language skills on us with regularity. I pbbbthh at her and she ppbbttthhhh’s back at me. She clucks her tongue at me and I cluck my tongue back at her. And she is learning of her power to woo. And oh how she woos. How could such a tiny person have so much wooing power? If she keeps it up she will likely never have to buy a single drink at a bar as long as she lives.

I’ve seen some ridiculously whipped mothers, but never considered myself to rank among them. That is until now. We were driving to do some errands the other day and Isla managed to telekinetically force my eyes away from the road and onto her. I am not proud of this story but I will tell it just the same. It should be recorded, along with a long list of other inane things mothers with children do while driving, and used to educate unwitting young women around the world. There’s a reason there are so many jokes about women drivers.

So anyway, Isla’s car seat sits behind me diagonally. When she grows bored of gazing at the scenery as it speeds away from her, she turns her head back towards me and tilts up her chin to peer with one eye over the top of her seat. Her gaze is intent. I can feel it burning into the back of my head, willing me to meet it. When I look back, she laughs and her one shining eye squints devilishly, daring me to keep looking at her, rather than back at the road where anyone who values life should be looking. I turn my gaze back to the road and tell her I can’t. That I must stay focused on my driving. She wins, I look again. She squeals. I look straight ahead and tell her, "no more. Mummy is driving." She cries. I look back. She smiles through watery eyes. Okay, I’m a complete sucker, and an idiot. "That’s enough. You’re just going to have to cry. I can’t keep looking at you."

And cry she does. Loud, insistent, but fortunately short lived. She soon catches sight of her feet and the little flowers on her shoes. She kicks them up and down. She catches hold of one of them and brings it to her mouth. Mmm. Good.

Monday, June 05, 2006

words worth

I need to clean up my language. I'm not talking about swearing, I have a pretty good lid on that since marrying a man with little tolerance for behavioral sloth. This is a guy who grew up fearing the Queen might walk into his home or onto his playground at any time. This fantasy, cleverly planted by his parents and no doubt many British parents, was extremely effective. You could pick up the earth and shake it and the guy would quietly comment, "Steady on. Is it just me or are things feeling a bit dodgy around here?"

The creative, four-letter tirades that were once a staple of my 20-something vocabulary have pretty much disappeared. Venting was something that came naturally for me. It kept me connected to my family for whom “losing it” is a family trait, modeled expertly by my father. Ian only had to witness a few X-rated episodes and register complete disapproval on his very genteel face for me to realize that it wasn’t turning him on in the least. So swearing is not an issue. At least not a big one.

What is an issue is , like, my apparent inability to express myself without, like, using the word “like” several times in a sentence. Yikes. Just two years of teaching high school and I am , like, talking like a teenager. Now I hear Esther explaining her day to me and she says, “I was like, all fusterated and Tooti was like, not even listening to me and Everett was like, 'I was sitting there,' and Eva was like, 'No that is my spot.' Whoa. Hearing that kind of speech from a four-year-old is, like, painful. And embarrassing. She shouldn’t be talking like that already, should she? And where did she learn it? Do I say, “like” that much? Really? How, like, utterly horrifying.

I suppose I am not entirely responsible for how she talks but it's hard to look into that full length mirror being held up by my child once again and not be a little alarmed at my reflection.

And if it isn't coming from me, do I have any business finding out who it's coming from and worrying about Esther's exposure to it? I suppose this is where I as a mother start to realize that as long as my child spends some part of each day in someone else's care, I have to relinquish some control and hope for the best.

I have no intention of being the snobby kind of mother my best friend from fourth grade had. This mother apparently told my mother she didn't like her daughter playing with me because of the way I talked. My mother, baffled, could only guess that it was my woodchuck Vermont accent I had acquired from my very own father as well as from Grub and Homer the mechanics who worked in a garage on our street. I used to pass by there a lot on my bike and stop to chat to my two greasy friends.

I'm not too worried about redneck accents or even overreliance on the word "like" but I do have a major problem with the word "stupid." What is it about this word that sounds so, well stupid, when uttered by small children? It doesn't bother me in the least when adults use it, but it makes me cringe when Esther says it. No one that short should be allowed to be that judgemental.

Esther’s older friend Sarah stopped by one day last winter. She is five and a half and in Kindergarten. As soon as Sarah came through the door, they fell into each other like fast friends even though they only see each other every few months. After much screaming and running around, Sarah spotted Rody the rubber horse and vigorous bouncing ensued. With Sarah on the front and Esther hanging on to her waist in the back they bounded across the floor, around and around the chimney. They didn’t make it far without falling off every which way in a heap of giggling arms and legs. It was nice to see them playing so well together. Then it came.

“That’s a stupid horse,” said Esther. “Yeah,” said Sarah. “Let’s ride the stupid horse some more.” “Giddy up Stupid,” said Sarah giddily as they remounted and rode off again. “Yeah, Giddyup Stupid,” mimicked Esther. “We’re riding Stupid, We’re riding Stupid,” they both chanted.

Prickle prickle, went the hairs on the back of my neck. "Don't call the horse stupid you guys," I called out loudly. "Why not?" they asked together. "Well...." I stalled, "Because it's not a nice thing to say that's why." "It's not a real horse mummy," Esther said. "It's a stupid horse because we keep falling off," said Sarah. The obvious reply would be to point out that they are perhaps the stupid ones since they are the ones falling off. I keep this to myself. Was it really necessary for me to force these happy children to show some respect for a rubber toy? Does respect and consideration for beast and man start with dolls and stuffed animals? And if I continue to make a big deal about this taboo word won't Esther be all the more enamored with it? Why don't they teach this kind of stuff in college ?
"We don't call people or things stupid," I said. "Let's just think of another name for the horse why don't we."

A few nights later, we were eating dinner and I asked Ian how his day at work went. "It could have been better," he said, "If those stupid people had taken my advice and bought some sand for their stupid driveway."

I looked at Esther and she raised her eyebrows and smiled at me in this slightly smug kind of way. Where's that Queen when you need her?

Monday, May 22, 2006

plastic shoes

Just when I think I have rid our home of all the plastic, high- heel princess shoes, another pair, or two, shows up on our doorstep. They are delivered new by unwitting aunts or neighbors or used in tattered paper bags by not so unwitting mothers of grown pre-schoolers. New or used they are all the same. Evil.

Princess shoes haunt me. They are a curse. They are a menace. They are loathesome. They are my nightmare.

Esther loves them. They make that delightful, "I'm a horse," clippety- clop noise on our wooden floors. They can be worn Madonna style with just your underwear, Posh Spice style with jeans or, of course, with any of a variety of frilly, poofy princess dresses.
Harmless fun, maybe, yet there is a dark side. They're dangerous. She almost inevitably ends up on the floor in tears when she tries to do anything other than pose while wearing them.

And they encourage sloth. Sometimes she resists going outside to play because she knows it means she needs to ditch the fancy shoes. She asked me to buy some real high-heels-- yes they make them in her size-- in the second hand store one day. “Those shoes are silly, you can’t run in them,” I said. "That’s okay, I don’t want to run,” she replied.

Her most recent crash took place while running through the kitchen. I found her splayed out across the tiled floor- eerily reminiscent of those haute couture ads in which well-heeled women appear to have been assaulted- shrieking in pain and disgrace. After I established she had not broken any bones, I tried real hard to resist a lecture but my ire won out and out it came. “That must have been scary and I am glad you are okay,"I said. "but I need to tell you that I HATE those shoes because they hurt you and I don’t want to see you get hurt.” I might as well have told her I didn’t like the boyfriend she brought home from college and was planning to marry because she was crushed. She shut herself in the bathroom and sobbed dramatically for fifteen minutes.

God I hope Birkenstocks come around again once Esther gets to high school. We met a woman who owns a shoe buisness in London and she said, "Once a shoe girl, always a shoe girl. She'll love high-heels forever." This woman throws shoe-parties akin to Tupperware parties for stay-at-home moms, or "yummy mummys" as they're called in England. Her best selling high heels are what she refers to as "car to bar" shoes. They're not meant to be walked in but will take you from the car to the bar stool where they can be admired as you perch there precariously in hopes there isn't a fire, terrorist attack, ex- boyfriend sighting or some other such reason that might necessitate fleeing. Yikes.

Though it's all hers, I suppose I have nurtured my daughter's obsession with high heels. She raided her first closet, not mine mind you, when she was just a year old. She ran back and forth from the closet to the mirror wearing various colored pumps with two-inch heels. We laughed so hard we almost wet our pants. Little did I know this was the first of many catwalk sessions. Then there was the rainy winter day we ended up spending an hour and a half in the shoe department at T.J. Maxx. By the time we left, Esther had made friends with three different women and had helped them pick out the perfect pair.
"Those ones are too rocky," she said, referring to the three-inch platform wedge sandals.

It was cute back then, but now that she is older it brings up issues. I guess I have been a bit too confident that the obsession would pass. But what if it doesn't? I also guess that in some ways I envy her comfort with her feminine self. I still feel a bit like a man in drag when I try to wear high-heels. Perhaps Esther could teach me a thing or two about being a woman. Does it have to hurt?

Monday, May 15, 2006

giddy up

While listening to "Sound and Spirit" on NPR last night I heard this folk singer woman talking about the need for what she called "hostile rocking songs." Hostile rocking songs are songs that can be sung in a sweet voice with a sweet melody to a not so sweet, inconsolable baby. They sound like any other lullabies yet the lyrics offer something to the freaked out mother. A bit of help in a time when the unconditional love just isn't flowing.

These are the words of Rosalie Sorrel's hostile rocking song. "Today is the day we give babies away with a half a pound of tea. If you know any ladies who want any babies then send them around to me."

I have been singing this song ever since.

Esther has been suffering from frequent bouts of the giggles lately. Last night after dinner it came over her, as it does, without warning. Giggle-itis, you may vaguely recall, is manifested by an irrepressible urge to laugh for any or no reason at all.

One minute she will be calmly eating dinner, popping edamame beans into her mouth like they were M&M's and the next thing you know her voice starts to take on this slightly drunken quality and everything she says makes her laugh hysterically. It begins in spurts, where one minute she is fine then the next she is overcome. Then, as with labor, the contractions get closer and closer together until eventually she is no longer capable of speaking at all, or of sitting at the table, or even staying upright. She must retreat to the adjoining living room, sprawl out on the rug and just ride it out in a glorious sputtering heap of spontaneous joy.

Ian and I then become two joyless spectators. When I say joyless I don't mean we don't take some joy in the sight of this ridiculously happy child in front of us, but we can't really feel it. We're not really sharing it. Why? Because we can't. Because somewhere along the way from breezy childhood to stuffy adulthood we have built up an immunity to giggleitis.

This is a thing that comes up again and again. Esther will be racing from swingset to jungle gym to slide as the sun sets over the empty playground and I will simply stand there, shivering and pleading with her to get in the car. "Esther we've got to get home and make dinner," I 'll say. "It's getting dark, it's getting cold, let's go." The fact is, I don't want to be standing on the playground anymore. I want to be in my warm house, drinking a glass of wine and contemplating the miles I have to go before I can sleep.

When did I become such a complete drag? Was I not once a fun person? Do I not like to play? Am I truly incapable of letting go of the minutia of life if even for an instant?

I used to consider myself a playful person. Even into my twenties, late nights out would often end up on the swing set behind the elementary school, pumping ourselves as high as we could --on the swingset that is-- to the tune of squealing metal chains.

There is no more late night swinging. And there is very little giggling. Of course I snicker and laugh at Esther's antics or Ian's dry Brit humor, but true giggling, that evervescent giddiness that bubbles up from the belly and actually hurts, just doesn't come over me that often.

So I am left to watch my delightfully giddy daughter crack herself up to the point of tears and wonder what on earth has me so firmly anchored to sobriety that I can't just surrender to the gods of silliness. And I must take solace in the fact that this little girl can feel so carefree, so completely untouched by all that is serious, and try not to envy her too much.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

sap run

Like most people, I’ve had the same mother my whole life. But the funny thing is I only just recently got to know her. Since I became a mother, my own mother suddenly went from being mom to being a woman. And a girl. And a daughter. And a friend.

Each visit I have with my mother reveals something new. Like the other day when I noticed she wore a silk scarf tied stylishly around her neck. “I like your scarf,” I said. “Is it new?” “No,” she said smiling. Then she lowered her voice and leaned closer to me and added. “Rudy gave it to me.”

“Oh really,” I said smiling back at her. Rudy was the Swiss ski instructor my mother dated before she was married. Just imagining my mother before she met my father is hard enough. But a ski instructor! Who gave her gifts!

Then there’s the story of her cross- country car trip with a friend. The only time she’ll confess to having smoked a cigarette, or two. The friend, as it turned out, went on to marry a Danish Count she had met on the subway back in New York.

An only child, my mother has kept all her childhood friends. She remembers the first movie she ever saw, “Skippy.” She also remembers roller skating across the Brooklyn Bridge. And the day she had to call her father from Manhattan because the high heels she was wearing were killing her and she couldn’t even make it to the subway.

My mother’s memories are like little treats for me. They are pieces of a splendid puzzle that has been sitting untouched in a box for most of my life and now that I have discovered it, I am wondering what took me so long.

I want to work on this puzzle every day until it’s finished and then keep it out of the box to admire and show off to everyone.

I’m especially interested in my mother’s memories of parenting. How she raised five children without ever once being unkind. Most days I can barely handle two.

My mother never imposed her wishes and dreams on us. The fact that I spent the first twelve summers of my life topless didn't faze her. It sure gave the neighbors something to talk about.

She called me the other day to tell me how disappointed she was in herself for not making it all the way up to the bowl at Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington. She and dad had decided to hike up there for old time’s sake.
My mother will be 82 in June.

She came home with a pair of collapsible ski poles that a man named Steve from Montreal gave her on his way down. He told her he didn’t need them and he was sure she had done nice things for people before. As he watched my mother slowly make her way up the rocky trail What did he see? A nutty old lady someplace she didn't belong? Or an inspiration. I am willing to bet, according to his kind gesture, it was the latter

It seems Steve noticed in an instant, what it took me 40 years to see. He couldn’t have been more right.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

baby talk

One half of a year has passed since Isla was born and it's difficult to really remember where it went. It is equally hard to accept that the 10 pounds of extra skin around my waist, the stuff that crinkles up like tin foil, hasn't disappeared with the same urgency.

I have brief flashbacks of spending hours on the couch with her at my breast. (You'd think I might be concave by now. ) I also remember arguing with Esther about why it's not a good idea to let the baby suck your lips, especially when you have a cold. There was also some arguing with Ian about why Isla was crying uncontrollably. Why is it by the way that the first thing a man thinks of when the baby is crying is to “fix it” by changing its diaper? It is something about man's need to believe that everything can be fixed. Meanwhile, mothers resign themselves more readily to the possibility that some things just can’t be fixed. Some things need to be cried out. Some things have no explanation at all.

She is not crying now. In fact she is smiling and babbling and doing that little Free Willy air blow out her nose accompanied by a grunt that is her laugh and basically enchanting us every day. Her developmental skills seem to be on fast forward like she is taking the fast track to adulthood. I’m not sure I like it. Just a few weeks back it was rolling over to her stomach, then it was “watch me eat almost a whole jar of sweet potatoes,” then last week it was “see me sit up unassisted for long periods of time before I bend over too far to check out that cool yellow dandelion and end up face down in the grass.” Being able to plop her down in the grass to watch the ants work their assembly line across the yard is soooo liberating. I can sit up in the patio chair and quietly observe for long stretches before she bothers to wonder where I have gone. Even then she will just look up at me, flash a little smile and maybe grunt out a little “oh there 's the lunch bar" then it is back to business counting blades of grass.

Esther enjoys this outdoor floor time too because it means she can flit by occasionally like a little lawn fairy to sprinkle crushed dandelion petals on Isla's head and “decorate her hair.”

The only consolation to all this rapid development is that she has left behind her most disturbing quirk: catnapping for only as long as it takes to boil some tea water or change into yoga clothes, and has retained her most endearing ones, my favorite being what I like to call the “Boho Dance” where she rocks and shimmies her bottom back and forth with her legs in a frog position. It looks like she is trying to wag her tail. I hope this one never goes, though it might not go over too well in high school.

It’s funny having a four-year-old and an infant in the house together. I sometimes forget who I am talking to and forget to adjust my speech patterns accordingly. With a baby, it's anything goes. The more exaggerated and repetitive the better. Isla just thrives on my happy face and high-pitched voice cheering on her every move. Esther, on the other hand, is understandably starting to find it obnoxious. Over the weekend we did a lot of bicycling and Esther rode her little purple Surfer Girl bike farther than she ever has. All the way up the long hill I egged her on and told her how strong she was and how proud I was of her while she just kept pumping away determinedly. Once she made it to the top, I reiterated, apparently one too many times, how amazed I was at her superior athleticism and cycling skills.

“Why don’t you just drop your happiness mom?” she said, eyes forward, still pedaling away. “What do you mean?” I asked, knowing full well what she meant but needing to hear it anyways. “Stop being so happy for me for going up the hill.” “You don’t like it when I am happy for you?” “It’s just too long.”

She was on to me. She has officially left behind that "first- talking, still trying to understand" stage and entered the “you already said that, or stop snowing I get your drift” stage. My excitement was not by any means unfounded or false. If you could have seen the hill. Yet, it was still too much, too long, too baby for her. Lesson learned. Let’s see, lesson number 6,892 or something like that?

Monday, May 08, 2006

being the tulip

In the car the other day Esther was feeling cranky because I had been rushing her. I tried to distract her by pointing out a bold bunch of multi-colored flowers on someone's yard. “Look at those beautiful tulips,” I said too enthusiastically. “I would like to have some tulips like that.” I saw her frown in the rear-view mirror. What had I said wrong this time? “All the time you say something is cute and pretty, I want to be that thing," she said. "I want to be a tulip.”

How very "mirror mirror on the wall." This got me thinking about love and attention and just how much we humans seem to need in order to feel secure. To think of the time I spend each day tending to Esther's every need. To think of the number of times I have told her I love her. To think of the countless hugs, cuddles, kisses, head stroking sessions and encouraging words. To think of the patience. And this child is worried I love a flower garden more than I love her? What am I doing wrong?

Is she going to learn on her own that life is filled with beautiful things and to feel threatened by each and every one of them is a complete waste of time and energy? And can I help to teach her this when, to some degree, I am still learning it myself? How often have I read or heard about successful people who have done or are doing great and interesting things and envied them to the point of wanting to be them? Okay, a lot.

So I launch into a lecture about how a tulip is just an object whose only value is its beauty, but she, she is a real live girl who brings 100 times more joy into my world than any silly flower could. A flower can't make me laugh or hold my hand or draw nice pictures or say kind things or make me proud. A flower just stands there and looks pretty for a while then droops and shrivels up and falls apart.

The intricacies of Esther’s personality are hard to keep up with. When she sits down at her little table with her grease crayons to draw pictures of fancy dresses reminiscent of high fashion sketches, I find myself beaming with self-congratulatory admiration. Then, in that same instant, she becomes overly frustrated about how the arms look. One of them is too long, and she wants some scissors to cut it off. And she wants them now. She is getting more and more agitated and will not take any consolation from me that her picture is just perfect. And she is melting before my eyes. Going from happy, creative girl to sad, frustrated, perfectionist girl who can’t seem to see the good in what she has done.

And I am envisioning not a hungry child spinning out of control but a future fashion designer. A tempermental artist that needs to be spoiled and coddled and catered to. A woman who gets away with childish behavior because her talent just blows everyone away. She eventually raises her picture up off the table and says, "This dress is fifty thousand five dollars expensive." My fantasy might not be too far off the mark after all.

And I will use it to help me deal with the yo yo girl that is my four-year-old daughter. Blissfully happy, profoundly sad. Giddily silly, wildly angry. Surpisingly polite and mature, astoundingly selfish and bossy. The cliché’d roller coaster of life seems to be set up in our living room and no one knows when that pleasant, slow climb upwards is going to meld into that wild, precipitous drop.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

dancing girl

I just found this picture of Esther in Ian's archives. It captures her so perfectly. She is wearing her favorite twirly dress that Granny made. The same dress that she wore every day for most of that spring and waited anxiously for each morning as it tumbled dry in the clothes dryer.

Ian took this picture a year ago as I lay upstairs debilitated by pregnancy. I was so sick --I had hyperemesis--I was the absent mother for close to 8 weeks. I was admitted into the hospital twice for dehydration and when I was home I was not really here at all. I was the ghost mother who dwelt in the upstairs bedroom and made intermittent moaning and wretching noises. Thus my little Esther retreated safely into her fantasy land of princesses and fairy queens.

When she needed a dose of something, anything feminine she would make Ian pretend he was me. This is one of my most vivid memories of that time, lying in bed with the windows open, hearing the spring peepers calling to each other from the swamp and Ian talking to Esther in a woman's voice. It was these times, listening to the conversation between my husband, sounding like something out of Monty Python, and my child that I managed to smile and feel that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't going to die after all.

I sometimes look at little baby Isla now, my blue-eyed Izzy Boo, and am utterly amazed at her happiness and healthiness. I hold her chubbiness up over my head and look up into her laughing face and tell her how worried I was about her. How sick she made me and how sorry I am about the scary pills I took in order to get myself off of the bathroom floor and back into the world. Each time I took one I felt weak and selfish but each time I tried to stop taking them the vomiting would return. It's all so far away now as I roam around the house stuffing my face with anything that can be eaten on the fly and struggle to keep Isla occupied until her next catnap comes on and I can get back to, um, whatever it is I do.

I am reading this new book, "Eat Pray Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert and am finding it provides the perfect escape in short digestible chapters that can be read while nursing. The author basically did something I always dreamed of doing-- travelling for a year, not divorcing-- but never had the balls to follow through with. As testament to my current, surprising sense of satisfaction, I am reading it only with interest rather than with envy. Phew. That could change tomorrow.

Isla is really digging eating lately. She is so appreciative of anyone who will sit down with her and spend just ten minutes spooning strange and delightful new foods into her mouth. She's been grabbing my glass whenever I try to drink anything with her in my arms. I gave her some sips of fruit smoothie yesterday. She clung to the glass like a little tree frog and kept pulling it to her mouth. I only let her have a few tastes but it was enough for her to know she likes it very much. Much more than rice cereal and breast milk. So much for introducing peas before peaches. I read that human's affinity for sweet foods exists at birth so I'm not creating it, just cultivating it. Right? Sometimes this whole idea that we play god for our children, that everything we say and do goes towards shaping the adult person they will become, is just too much for me to believe. I like the concept of nature rather than nurture. It lets me off the hook.

I still remember the first time I let Esther have some carrot cake and she dove into it with such fervor I imagined she was wondering why we ever bothered to give her any other food. In fact, why did any other food exist when there was carrot cake. why indeed.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

happy travelers

We’re home from our trip. Ten days of lollygagging about the green meadows and narrow streets of Great Britain. Ten days without pushing a vacuum cleaner or folding laundry or going to the supermarket. Ten days free of the pressure to keep my children intellectually stimulated because, in a foreign land, just turning on the light, the faucet, or the radio can be a learning experience.

I realized before we left just how difficult it is for a child to grasp the concept of time. The day before we left for England I finally made it clear to Esther that we were leaving “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow?” she said. ”How old will I be then? Will I be five then?” “No Sweet. You’ll be one day older than you are today. You’ll go to bed tonight after you eat supper and when you wake up, that will be tomorrow,” I said, not sure I wasn’t making her more confused. Then she got it. Her eyes got big and she said, “Just one more sleep until we go to England?” Then she turned to her little baby sister and said, “Isla, you’re going to learn how to say vitamin.” (think vittles, that’s the way her daddy says it.)

I’m still amazed at how smooth the whole trip went. The prospect of a six-hour Transatlantic flight with a five-month old and a four-year old had been looming huge and scary over my world for months. I lay awake each night with Isla at my breast as all these twisted thoughts about the irresponsibility of taking small children so far from home, and so high in the sky, buzzed around in my head. There is no worse time to ruminate than in the middle of the night when you’re surrounded by the kind of endless darkness that sucks all rational thought right out of you.

Now here I am back home, staring at the mile high pile of dirty laundry and the parched houseplants, wondering where we can go next. Okay, it wasn’t stress free by any means --and the ultimately bad decision to surpass downtown London to see a few lions and a giraffe at the zoo will haunt us for months--but the whole car, taxi, airport, airplane, train routine wasn’t so daunting after all. In fact, I might even feel inclined to pat myself on the back for being such an adept traveling parent if it weren’t for the couple on our flight (significantly younger and calmer than us) who were traveling with four children. As with athletic prowess or artistic talent, it’s good to remember the art of parenting comes naturally to some people.

If I had to attribute the success of our trip to one thing, I would say………snacks. To narrow it down even further… string cheese.

Like magic, the plane pushed off from the gate just minutes after we settled in and we were in the air quickly. Esther was fascinated by all of it, especially the flight attendants shoes, and sensing her wide-eyed excitement helped me to focus on the wonder rather than the horror. She did fall apart briefly after dinner and started to exhale violently out of her nostrils, like a dog with a bee up its nose, in response to the dry air. This snorting is an annoying little quirk of hers that I would rather keep at home. Luckily most passengers were wearing headphones. She started whimpering for me so Ian and I switched seats and I got her to put her head on my lap and fall asleep. Just two hours into the transatlantic flight that had filled me with anxiety for weeks, we had two sleeping children, some trashy magazines to read and no turbulence. In short, bliss.

Three hours later Esther woke up refreshed and still excited. Most of the passengers were asleep and it felt like we were floating along in this quiet, slightly humming little bubble. “Why does it feel like we’re not flying?” she said. “ I have no idea,” I said. “But isn’t it cool.” “Are we in Londond?” she asked adding that extra “d” that she thinks belongs on all words ending with “n.”

The sky grew lighter and pinker as we hurled towards the rising sun. As we descended into London I saw Windsor Castle, the Eye, the neon lights of Picadilly Circus, and the river Thames winding its way like a dark ,glossy snake across the landscape. As we neared touchdown, Esther had her arms outstretched like wings as she watched the screen that showed a pixilated plane inching towards the land. The plane heaved and shook as we touched down and I checked Esther’s face to see if she felt even the slightest bit of apprehension. “That was the earth that made that noise,” she said. “That was us hitting the earth.” Nothing but sheer awe in that little four-year-old brain. As it should be.

Arriving in London after being in Boston is like going from nobody to royalty overnight. That is, of course, if you are traveling with small children. As soon as we got off the plane velvet ropes dropped, secret doors opened and official looking people waved us past the throngs to the front of lines. How simple this is, yet how novel. Obviously no one wants to hear screaming babies while waiting in long lines to go through customs so why not just let them all through first. Would they ever think of this in America? Not in the airports I have traveled through.

As soon as we got off the airplane and into the long corridors that led to the baggage claim I began searching for a place to change Isla. Just a few hundred steps later a sign appeared in front of me saying “Mother’s with Babies Room.” I opened the door to find a big clean, tiled room with a chair for nursing, and a long, clean changing table complete with clean pad, a clean roll of paper liner and a clean sink and garbage bin within arms reach. Ahhhh. Did I mention how clean it was? I soon learned that these mother havens are all over Great Britain. They even have family bathrooms so you don’t have to play the logistical children juggling game when trying to get everyone, and yourselves, to the toilet.

On the way to baggage claim, we passed the family with the four kids and saw a still sleeping four-year-old riding on top of a crying two- year -old in a one-child stroller.

Ian’s mother was delighted to finally meet little Isla and have her quiet house filled with noise and clutter for a while. Within ten minutes Isla was in Granny’s arms happily sucking her thumb and Esther was down on the rug playing make-believe just like she does at home. The only difference was how often she used the word “quite” and “rather”, words she apparently picked up in the short car ride from the airport with Ian’s sister Jenny. ‘The queen was quite angry and her horse was rather wild,” she said to no one in particular as she cantered her My Little Pony around the living room.

Would it sound bad if I said the best thing about the English, besides their respect for families, is pubs? There were two of them within walking distance from where we stayed. This meant that Ian and I had our first date since Isla came into our world and it was as easy as putting the children to bed, putting Granny on alert, walking out the door and down the brick footpath. I told Ian’s older sister about our date, the next day and she asked, “And did you find something to talk about?” Funny she should say that because it was a bit dicey in the beginning , coming face to face with my husband and feeling a strange awkwardness of not having children around to keep us from focusing on each other and not immediately having a lot to talk about because we are soooo out of practice. But we soon got onto the fruitful topic of the queen. God Save the Queen.

Friday, April 07, 2006

agony and ecstasy

Isla grew again when I wasn’t looking. I’d like to keep her under constant video or photographic surveillance to see it actually happening like you do in those frame- by -frame images of a plant sprouting from seed. I noticed last night as I transferred her into the crib --yes I finally admitted that it was time to say goodbye to the bassinette before I needed a shoehorn to get her into it. I stooped over to slide my hands underneath her ever so delicately and once my hands were in place, ready to lift, I froze. She lay there on her side all chubby and long, calves and forearms bulging out beyond her pajama hems. I felt like I had never seen her before. Honey I blew up the kid.

She has also grown cheeky and squirmy. Three a.m. can find her regularly manhandling me in bed. She sucks vigorously away while pushing off her legs again and again, using my stomach as a stairmaster. She is cocky with my breasts. I can sense it in her body language. The way she plays with them, turning her head away for long periods of time then zooming back in like an owl on a field mouse. No longer mere sustenance, they are objects for manipulation. Most of all, they are hers and she knows it. Isla has grown so confident in her status as boobmeister that she has become nonchalant about nursing. She sometimes gets me to whip them out then makes a show of sucking her hand instead. Other times she is more discreet. She slides her hand up her face while nursing, covering her mouth and nose, shielding my vision, then slips her thumb in, leaving my nipple cold and rejected in the open air.

I read somewhere that four-year-olds can tend toward obnoxiousness. Be it the power of suggestion or be it human development, but we are certainly resembling that remark around here. They say that this is the age of humor. Esther has always been a giggler. But her giggling is more goofy, slapstick kind of humor, or just plain giddiness, rather than any intellectual perception of something as funny. The thought of us all having a similar sense of humor is encouraging. I was delighted to hear Esther burst out laughing while we were reading Pippi Longstocking the other night. “We’re going to the Circus,” little Thomas and Annika tell Pippi. “Do you want to come?” “I don’t know,” Pippi replies. “Does it hurt?” Esther even repeated the punch line at breakfast the next morning. “Does it hurt?” she said, cracking herself up all over again.

We laugh a lot around here. But sometimes we cringe. Esther’s blossoming identity isn’t always funny. It often entails trying out new personas, complete with voices and body language, and ends up as a frightening mixture of all the characters she has ever seen or heard before. Let’s see, a dash of Veruca Salt, a pinch of Violet Beauregard, a half teaspoon of baby sister Isla, a heaping tablespoon of the BFG, a quarter cup of Snow White’s vain stepmother and two cups of every demure princess she has ever read about. Mix that together with a good dose of older boy cousins’ megaphone volume and obsession with the words “poop” and “stupid” and you have a major personality train wreck.

Fun and games are good. When you know the rules. Dinner time, which used to promise a bit of civilized conversation, is now, apparently, game hour. Not just any games, these games are Esther’s games. Conceived of and moderated by Esther. Her newest game is a guessing game. She talks into her hand then we guess what she said. No context, no clues, no hints, just pure guessing. She buries her face in her hands. “Guess what I just said,” she says, mouth full of chewed up chicken tender peeking through grinning teeth.
“Uh, I’ve really no idea Essie,” I say.
“Mum, you have to guess okay,” she says sternly, looking as if she might be imitating me. “I’ll say it one more time.”
Her face disappears again. No sound, not even mumbling.
“Can you guess?”
“Umm, you said you can’t wait to take a bath and get into bed,” I venture.
“Nooo, silly. Guess again”
“Did you say you love your baby sister?”
“Did you say you want to mop the floor?”
“Noooooo. Keep on guessing,” giggle giggle.
“Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Macrament.”
“Nooooo. Guess again.”
“Eat your dinner Esther. It’s getting cold,” I say, cringing at my own motherese. “Muummmmm. Guess what I said.”
“I have no idea what you said Essie,” I bark. “This is kind of a silly game don’t you think?”

Food-exposing grin disappears, giggles stop. It is like that moment in a movie when the overly sweet character you had a bad feeling about snaps and the true, nasty person comes out. I feel instant regret. “It is not a silly game you BAD mummy,” she screeches as she pushes back her chair, hops down and runs across the room to sulk on the couch. “Esther come back,” we both say at the same time. “You haven’t touched your dinner.”
“ I’m sad," she says. "I wish I never had any parents like you. I never should have choosed you. I’m not going to be your little daughter anymore.”

High pitched, pleading, back pedaling damage control ensues. “It’s not a silly game. I’m sorry I said that," I say. "Maybe we could just change the rules a bit so it is easier for us to play?"
I feel so whimpy doing this. Having to take back every insensitive, but often true, thing I say. Nothing in life prepares you for this. Except maybe, dealing with your moody, teen-aged older sister when she has just woken up from an afternoon nap. I can remember trying real hard not to make my voice sound “funny” or, heaven forbid, look at her just a second too long.

Things can go from swimmingly grand to wretchedly wrong in a heartbeat when you’re four. That is what happened the other day as we gaily traipsed through the woods to grandmother’s house. Esther was breezily chasing our dog Ruby around in circles, giggling, falling down, getting up and running again. We were moving along at a good pace, a miracle in itself, when, all of a sudden, fate intervened. She ran too close to me and hit her head on the metal frame of the backpack I was carrying Isla in. Game over. She shrieked, collapsed into a heap and started to wail. I felt for her. I know what it is like to hit your head. It hurts. There is a direct neural pathway between the skull and the brain. When your skull is fondled, inner peace results. When it is thumped, rage and irritation rise up and roar. Yet the screeching, the writhing, the waterworks coming from my four-year-old are a bit too high pitched. A bit too dramatic. I wasn’t prepared for this. I am still stuck in the delightful levity of the moment directly preceding this one and I want it back. I want to hold the pain and frustration at bay, so I try to dismiss it.

“Whoops, I bet that hurt,” I chirp, doing my best to kneel down and hug her without tipping over from the weight of Isla on my back. “I am so sorry you hit your head but it is still a beautiful day and we’re still having fun.” Of course the baby starts fussing at this point, so I get up and start walking. “I’m tired,” Esther says, testing my concern for the baby vs. my concern for her. “I want to sit down right here on this rock, she announces. I can't go any further. ”
“Here we go,” I think. Resist, dismiss. "We're almost to Papa and Zsa Zsa's. They’ll be so happy to see you.”

She sits down and takes her shoe off, like she is challenging me to a duel. A battle of moods. I keep walking, desperate to keep Isla from throwing her own fit. Esther puts her shoe back on and trails behind at a glacial pace. Every time I stop to wait, she stops too. I can see the little wheels turning in her brain. Should she continue the downward spiral or let it go? “Let it go,” I coach under my breath. “Let it go.” Just then we round a bend in the trail and Papa and Zsa Zsa’s cozy little house comes into view. I can see my mother sitting on the front steps reading the paper and I can hear my father’s chain saw buzzing up on the hillside. Esther runs past me towards the house. Towards her grandmother. We’re out of the woods. For now.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

to London to look at the queen

I was relieved to wake up this morning and find myself in bed rather than in a jumbo jet about to make an emergency landing on a remote, tree-lined highway somewhere. Airplane trips gone awry have become a recurrent theme lately as the departure date of our trip to England approaches. I don’t know how I became such an anxiety-ridden basket case but I suspect motherhood has something to do with it.

If I could get past the visions of irritated passengers, a sleepless infant and a whirling dervish four-year old high on Gummi Bears, I might actually look forward to the trip. It might help if I hadn’t recently heard the story of a friend of a friend flying with her toddler son who whined, “out, out, out” the whole way to Chicago. We do, according to Esther, have quite an impressive itinerary.

“Are we really going to see the queen?” she asked this morning, her mouth filled with Gorilla Munch. “Well we probably won’t actually see her, but we can see where she lives,” I said. “But I want to see her,” she insisted. “The queen has guards at her house and they don’t let just anybody in,” I explained. “Will she say to her guards, ‘go and kill that little girl?” she asked, her expression turning serious. “No Sweet, she could tell you weren’t dangerous by looking at you.” “Well we can just sneak around to the back door of her house then.” “That’s an idea.”

“What does a Queen do all day? Just go to balls and wear long fancy dresses down to here,” she said, reaching down to her feet.

She pensively ate a few more spoonfulls of cereal, then continued, “So we’re going to see the Queen, Mary Poppins and Madonna in England.” “Well, Daddy told you Esther, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) lives in New York City even though she is from England.”

“And Madonna lives in England, even though she is from New York City,” she said proudly, connecting the dots. “Well yeah, something like that.” “We could go to Trafalgar Square and feed the birds, like in the “Tuppence” song,” Ian chimed in, hoping to get the conversation on a more realistic track. Dear old Daddy.

The Madonna saga continues. I made the mistake of telling Esther that Madonna lived in England, that she has horses and children. We have been discussing it daily ever since. “Can we go to Madonna’s house?” Esther asked in the car the other day while we were listening to “Jump” for the fifth time. “No Sweet,” I said. “We don’t know Madonna and you don’t generally go to people’s houses unless you know them.” That was the wrong answer. “But I do know her,” she said, getting angry. “ Well you think you know her Honey, but you don’t really do you.” “But I want to see her little daughter and her hair and her shoes,” she pleaded.

You would never know that I was a tomboy, completely indifferent, if not averse, to all things girlish until I discovered preppy hair ribbons at age 12. My little girl, on the other hand, is preoccupied with fashion and femininity.

It started early. I still recall the day I first recognized I had a fashionista on my hands. She was in the mudroom, throwing a tantrum about how her jeans were fitting over the tops of her shoes. She whined and tugged at the hem of her jeans. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “My pants won’t come down,” she sobbed, her eyes full of tears. “Last time they went over my shoes like this, but now they don’t.” Suddenly it hit me. Yesterday she was wearing the girly bootleg jeans, handed down from her friend Samantha. Today, she was wearing the Old Navy boy jeans inherited from her cousin Rudy. She may have been just 2 and a half, but she knew the difference. And she wasn’t having it. Off came the straightleg jeans and out of the hamper came the bootleg jeans.

“I don’t even know where Madonna lives,” I continued, trying to get myself out of this conversation quick before Esther burst into flames of frustration. “Well, we could just drive around, we might see cars,” she whined. “Okay Sweet,” I relented. “I’ll tell you what: We can ask Camilla (Essie’s teenaged British cousin) if she knows where Madonna lives and maybe, if we are lucky, we can see her house.”

To think of all the wholesome, cultural things we might do in England and we are planning to stalk Madonna instead.

Friday, March 24, 2006

baby delusions

This might sound weird but I love bringing babies to regular checkups at the pediatrician's. It is an opportunity to bask in the glow of dutiful parenthood and show off your exquisitely healthy baby to the medical community. I particularly like the part at the end when the doctor says what a beautiful baby I have. Sure, they say this to the hundreds of parents a day, but I will suck up any bit of praise I can get.

Sometimes the doctor visits can have the opposite effect. As the nurse went through the checklist of baby skills and behaviors at Isla's recent four-month appointment, I descended lower and lower with each question until I was deposited gently on the ground to walk with the parents of all the other four-month old children the world over.

It's fun to imagine that your baby is doing something special, something that no other baby is capable of doing, no matter how mundane. “Oh, look how she makes such direct eye contact, she understands us.” or, “Do you hear her talking? She just said, ‘hi’, did you hear that?” “She laughed, did you hear that? Can you believe she is laughing already?” “Look at how she holds her head up and looks around.” “Look at how well she can hold and shake that rattle, she is so coordinated.” “Look, she is bouncing to the music. She's got rythym.”

Sound familiar? Then, you go to your check up and the nurse starts asking questions. “Is she holding her head up while on her stomach?” “Yes” “Holding toys?” “Yes.” “Is she smiling, laughing, cooing, squealing and wiggling?" "Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. "Does she get distracted by noises while nursing?” “Yes. How did you know?”

Because it’s written in an early childhood development text book somewhere. The exact description of my baby’s skills, skill by skill, month by month, year by year. So each day I consider so special, so unique to just us, is being repeated throughout households around the world, again and again, like clockwork since the beginning of time.

Then, to make things worse, the pediatrician comes in and asks how it is going. I tell her that the baby is bubbly, happy and delightful to be with for the most part. “Yeah,” she says. “Babies are great at this age.” "Babies?" I think. "We're talking about my baby, not all babies." As if all babies were equally great. How could she imply such a thing?

Well no matter what the professionals say, I'll go on considering my children to be extraordinary. I find it particularly clever how Isla gets her bearings before settling in to nurse. When her little blue eyes lock into mine I could swear she is trying to say, thank you. And then at night, in the darkness of our bed, the way she takes a second to let her eyes adjust, to make out the outline of my face to be sure I am not some imposter. I can sense her taking me in, her round head bobbing back and forth, her eyes wide as she slowly hones in on the waiting milk dispenser that is my engorged breast. Then she turns her head at the sound of her daddy’s ragged breathing behind her to make sure he isn’t really a wild animal waiting to pounce on her when she is distracted. Only once she is absolutely sure of the situation will she commence to nursing.

I'm sure this behavior has been written about in some text book or other but it doesn't make it any less remarkable. Any less cool.

suburban renewal

There is only so long a country family can survive on mornings by the fire reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books and taking nature walks spent hunting for creatures that just aren’t there. “Mummy where are the salamanders?” They are sleeping deep under the ground honey.” “How come I don’t hear any birds?” “The birds have flown south to find the sun. They’ll be back any day now.” “What about the toads and the slugs?” “Umm, they’re sleeping too, they don’t’ like the cold so they crawl under rocks and stay there until spring comes. Kind of like us,” I mutter half under my breath. “What did you say Mummy?” “Oh nothing sweet. I just realized how much like reptiles we really are.”

I hate to admit it but sometimes the only way to beat cabin fever is to drive 70 miles to the nearest settlement of big box stores. I don’t know exactly what comes over me, but when it hits it’s undeniable. I need, need , need to walk among other aimless lurkers, mostly women, through long , fluorescent lit aisles of brightly-colored consumer goods.

The drive in itself is appealing. The children are strapped down in the back seat, visible only through the rear-view mirror, and trained not to “bother” mummy while she is driving. When Esther finally gets tired of asking questions and requesting her favorite song over and over again, she resigns to quietly looking out the window or taking a cat nap. Since she discovered her mirror, Isla is content with talking and smiling at her cute little baby friend that always seems to appear when she gets in the car. Once again, I have found a way to keep my infant entertained and stimulated with minimum effort on my part.

Most times I agree the beauty of living in Vermont lies in the fact that there are only two malls and no Target stores. Some days I feel the problem with living in Vermont is that there are only two malls and no Target stores. Yesterday was one of those days.

Since the closest mall and selection of big boxes is so far away, I have to create a reason that will justify wasting that much time and gas. That’s easy. We need art supplies. Can’t get those at the supermarket. Guess we’ll have to go to Target. We also need more diapers and wipes. We can get those at the supermarket but they are oh so much cheaper at the big box stores. Okay, reason enough, we HAVE to go to Saratoga. Just like that, we are out of the house and into the car, toting a bag full of snacks and a diaper bag full of enough diapers, wipes and extra outfits to last us a week lost in the woods.

The good thing about Saratoga is there’s a Children’s Museum. So any guilt about subjecting innocent children to the unsavory environment that is shopping malls and big box stores can be assuaged by a few hours spent perusing the edifying, hands-on exhibits.

When we got to the museum, it was filled with other families just like ours. There I was, chasing Esther around with Isla strapped to my chest in the Baby Bjorn looking at at least seven other mothers, babies strapped to their chests, eyeing pre-schoolers. I couldn’t help wonder how many of them were hoping to end their outings in Target or Barnes and Noble as well. It could have been my imagination but many of them had that glazed look in their eyes mothers get when they are not entirely present or sharing their children’s joy at playing “ride the trolley” or “pioneer tea party” for the umpteenth time.

After I whined our way out of the museum and in to the mall by telling Esther how hungry I was, I really perked up. I let myself dream of bargain fashions I might find at H&M with its wide selections of hip-length shirts that are just the thing this post- natal mom needs to keep her poochy belly from peeking out above the low-rider, stretch jeans that allow her to actually button her pants despite being still 15 pounds overweight.

Once at the mall, I threw a sleeping Isla, car seat and all, into the Snap'nGo, grabbed Esther by the hand and swept them towards my favorite Swedish department store. As soon as we set foot inside I was overwhelmed by color, possibility and bargains. I began grabbing things left and right, anything that looked remotely suitable, and hanging them off the stroller. All the while promising Esther we would end up in the kids department so she could find some things too. Esther whined the whole time about it not being fair that I went first, so I had to move fast. We whisked into the kids department and found some cute skirts for Essie and headed for the fitting room. We got situated in a fitting room and I whipped off my shirt and pants. Then Isla started to wail.

Determined, I sang and cooed to her, all the while frantically robing and disrobing at high speed, like a supermodel backstage at a catwalk show. Finally her little baby dino cries got so insistent I picked her up, sat down on the bench and put her to my breast. Seeing myself in the mirror like that, topless, belly drooping, bare-legged, white and blotchy under the unforgiving lights, was enough to put a lid on my retail fantasy. Just like that, reality hit. “We’re supposed to be saving money. I could be getting so much done at home. Why am I still so fat?” I thought to myself.

“What are we doing?” I said out loud to my reflection and to Esther, as if a four-year-old could fully comprehend the question. “We’re playing dress up,” she answered, posing in the mirror, eyes fixed onto her own reflection. “Oh yeah," I sighed. "Dress up." "Couldn’t we be doing this at home?" I thought. "Better yet, we could be reading a good book by the fire, or taking a nature walk."

"Let's go home," I said. "Just a few more minutes mum," Esther bargained. "I really like the way this lovely skirt twirls."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Hello Madonna goodbye Julie Andrews

Isla is four months old today. It has been four months since she arrived through the passageway, sort of like coming through the wardrobe. I imagine that this world so far is as strange and magical to her as Narnia must have felt to Lucy and Edmund. I wish life could stay that magical for my children forever. Too bad about the White Witch, that would be me.

There is no danger of Isla’s bubble being burst any time soon but Esther is another story. With her growing capacity to grasp concepts comes the gradual seepage of reality into her otherwise fantastic world. She heard a friend of mine talking about a mammogram the other day and said, “Mummy what is a mammogram?” “It is a way for doctors to take pictures of your boobies to see that they are healthy,” I said. “Why wouldn’t your boobies be healthy?” “Well sometimes people can get sick and it starts in your breasts,” I answered. “Boobies can get sick?” she asked. “ What kind of sick?” I was already at a loss for words. Ian jumped in with the word “disease.” This only started a whole new set of questions. “Dis-whats?” she asked. “What are they?” “It isn’t something you need to worry about Sweet,” I interjected, trying to put an abrupt end to the conversation. Must she know at age four about the ravages of disease ? No, I think not. I should have simply said that a mammogram is a message that comes from a place called Mam and left it at that.

Speaking of breasts, our penchant for dancing has inevitably led to Madonna. Esther loves her. Esther carefully studies the kaleidoscope of images of Madonna on her CD covers from her “Like a Virgin” days to her tantric “Ray of Light” stage. She is mesmerized by the chameleon that is Madonna in the photographs. She is intrigued by the daring lipstick and the way Madonna’s hair can change from short to long, black to platinum to red. I tell her that when you are as rich as Madonna, you can have any color hair you like at any given time of the day. Esther thinks this is funny.

I feel like we have turned a corner that I wasn't yet ready to turn. Where once our evenings were spent singing along with Mary Poppins, the Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, they now find us gyrating and posing in front of a throbbing loudspeaker. Who needs Julie Andrews when you can have Madonna?

My four-year-old has gone from worshipping a nun and a nanny to emulating a hyper-sexualized, self-promoting queen of reinvention. Hey, I buy her albums and admire her biceps just like anyone, but, now that I am the mother of girls, I am conflicted. On the one hand I think that Esther is just being exposed to a bold woman who has the world by the tail and molds it to suit her needs. On the other hand I see a questionable role model whose most impressive achievement is having the discipline, and free time, to work out four hours a day to keep her 47 –year-old body looking like that of a 20 year-old’s. I'm not exactly sure what Madonna is doing, if anything, to advance womankind but she is certainly helping us get through those tedious, late -winter afternoons.

Perhaps I am reading too much into all of this loss of innocence, but it is hard not to want to expose your potential-filled little girl to all the right things and none of the wrong things. Granted, Barbie is in the house, but she doesn’t walk, talk, or sing. Esther does this for her rather imaginitively. Madonna leaves no room for the imagination. Her message is loud and clear. And Esther responds to it by strutting around the house in her leotard and dress-up heels singing, “ I don’t want to hear, I don’t want to know, please don’t say your sorry, I’ve heard it all before, and I can take care of myself.” And, scarily, it looks as if like she can.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hey You

It just occurred to me that the reason Isla is so vocal is because she knows that if she doesn’t make noise we might forget she is there. She’ll be sitting in her little bouncy chair on the kitchen table, or swinging slowly back and forth in her swing, looking nervously around for us, these faces that entertain her. And we, her family, are all too enrapt with the tasks at hand, cooking dinner, playing make believe, bringing in wood and building the fire, to notice her. It kind of reminds me of that vulnerable feeling of being alone at a party and finding yourself just outside of a group of chattering people. You try to insert yourself-- get "taken in" per se-- without seeming too desperate. There is that awkward moment when you are just floating out there, smiling nervously and eavesdropping. If you fail to bridge the gap in a matter of minutes, you have to just suck it up and move on to the next group and hope nobody noticed you standing there like a fool.

I need not worrry about Isla's social skills. Or maybe I do. She has devised a foolproof solution to being ignored. She screams, real loud. Out of nowhere this sweet, patient little girl will let out a high-pitched, baby Teradactyl screech and all heads turn to look at her. Mission accomplished. Then she smiles and coos as if to say, “Just checking to see if I really do exist.”

The plight of the second born. She is so appreciative of the smallest amount of attention. And if you really stop to talk to her, read to her, stroke her cheek or, better yet, give her a baby chair massage, she is your slave. Just showing her a picture book makes her arms wave about wildly and little gurgly sounds come from her throat. And the chair massage elicits baby ecstasy. She stretches her arms up over her head to let my hands slide underneath her shoulder blades, arches her back and flashes her gums. As I work my hands down her back, describing to her what I am doing all the way down to her toes, which I squeeze one by one, she rocks her head wildly from side to side.

It seems so rare that I take, or make, the time to do this. That I actually let myself stop for a second and focus, really focus on the blossoming little human in my midst. In those fleeting moments when I can resist the pull of domestic minutia and surrender I am always duly rewarded. I don't get that kind of full-body reaction from the clothes I fold or newspaper I stare at or from the dishes I wash, or for that matter, from Ian when I stroke his stubbly face.

And then there's her newfound laugh. She has this little laugh, so suppressed, like air escaping a balloon in small spurts. It comes from somewhere deep in her chest and she makes you work for it. Usually fake sneezes do the trick but sometimes I have to resort to vigorous, under-the-chin tickling.

I think we are formally out of the murky forest that is a baby's first three months. Isla has developed a new flavor of cuteness. She can sit up and lean back a bit when we hold her. She turns her head and rests her cheek against my jawbone and looks around quietly in my arms. The feel of her, so substantial and strong, so safe in her high perch, is pure baby bliss.

Grow up mom

Isla is three months old. She slept eight hours straight the other night. She was an angel. It won't last.

Now she is the devil. She is upstairs yelling while I crank Jimmy Cliff “The Harder They Come” down here in order to drown her out. I have tried everything: sling carrying, diaper change, nursing, massage, singing, reading, fresh air, dancing. Nothing satisfies. Her crying is so high pitched and insistent our house sounds like the set of Scream III. She hasn’t slept more than 15 minutes at a time all day. I don’t know what is the matter but it is making me crazy.

It's no surprise that Esther is now walking around the house reciting her newfound phrase, "I just can't take it anymore." Ouch. Somedays I am honestly just not capable of being the adult. Being mature 24/7 in front of my children is the hardest thing I will ever do. It makes me realize it isn’t just kids who fall apart without food and sleep. I become an instant child when I am hungry or overtired. I am impatient, petulant, petty, irrational and aggressive. And, just like a child, I can only think of myself. I hate Isla right now for not being soothed by my breast or my words or my touch. I hate her for interrupting my plans, for interfering with my agenda, for being a helpless baby. She is so incredibly sweet one minute, smiling playfully up at me, then her little face contorts and twists into a grimace, her skin grows red and the high pitched, indignant scream comes pouring out of her throat like a skill saw. And I am powerless. Relinquishing control, it seems, is not my strong point. I have been watching the clock since noon. Where is my relief pitcher?

I find myself really having to work on the patience thing lately. I have been losing it daily. Esther always asks me, “Why are you talking with the mad voice?” She picks up the nuances in my voice so readily. According to her, I also have a “tired voice” and a “fusterated voice.” She told me the other day that I was being grumpy when I brushed her hair as we were rushing out the door to go skating. “I know,” I said. “Mummy gets stressed out when we are trying to leave the house.” “But you’re always grumpy,” she shot back. Nothing like getting a mirror held up so you can behold your imperfect self day after day.

Turns out, I am sick. I have been nursing a raging sinus infection since Christmas and have tried every "nursing friendly" holistic remedy from acupuncture to Neti Pots to no avail. I knew I wasn't operating at 100 percent capacity but didn't realize just how much it was affecting my job performance. Finally, my boss, that would be my four-year old, had to call a meeting and point out that something wasn't right. How many times have I witnessed her displaying erratic rage or irrational behavior only to find out within 24 hours that the poor girl was sick? And it took two months of this to recognize it in myself. How old am I?

Up the road

It's another balmy Sunday morning. We walked to the Fenton farm after breakfast. It was beautiful on the way. Dark dramatic clouds and black trees were lit up magically each time the morning sun poked through. It was the kind of morning that reassures you that living 10 miles from the nearest supermarket is not a sign of insanity. When we reached the farm, we went inside the dairy barn to watch the milking. Inside the long, low milking parlor, it was dark and warm with the heat of live animals. The aisles were filled with water from the extended January thaw, yet it still felt cozy inside. The milking machines hummed and the cows chewed.

Matthew, the three-year-old farm boy, jumped off his Big Wheel and proudly led Essie up a little splintered wooden ladder to the stall where he kept his new pet, a two-week-old calf. Esther was impressed with the litte farm boy and his older sister who get to spend every morning in the barn surrounded by warm and fuzzy animals.

I love knowing that we have this small family farm, the last of a dying breed in our part of the world, at the end of our road. Yet we rarely go there. Instead, we drive miles and pay admission to sterile tourist farms like Billings Farm or Adams Farm when the real deal, the true essence of Vermont, is just up the street.

It's been a going joke in our house since I was first nursing Esther that whenever we hear the milk truck come grinding down the road at six a.m. we pretend it's coming for me. But, honestly, the sound of that truck passing our house each morning has become a source of comfort and I dread the day I no longer hear it.

I’m not sure why it takes having kids to appreciate small farm life but I can see how it takes having kids to access the world of farms and animals. I never would have dared to ask the farmers to come inside to watch them milk if I didn't have my kids with me. It would have felt too weird, them slaving away at their livelihood, me watching like it's a spectator sport. Going to the zoo in my single years just made me feel sad for the animals. though I still find animals in cages a bit disturbing, our most recent trip to the zoo in Stuttgart left me stunned and amazed, like a child, at the diversity of the animal kingdom. I also couldn't help noticing how similar our family's behavior was to the chimpanzees.


Esther has so many questions lately. Hard to answer questions. Questions that I can only reply with, "That's a good question." Questions like: “How does glass get colored?” “How does Julie Andrews make her voice go away?” (I'm still trying to figure that one out but it has something to do with the concept of Julie Andrews the actress vs. Julie Andrews the nun and nanny.) “Why is Sara in the Little Princess’ hair curly then straight, then curly?” “What are teeth made of?” ‘What is paper made of?” “How do you make a newspaper?” “What are bones made of?” “How do you make metal?”

Then there are the more delicate questions:“How did Isla get in your tummy?” Or the simply unanswerable questions: “Why do men like to fight and kill each other so much?” (Perhaps we are listening to a bit too much NPR.)

I love my daughter's mind at work, but with each question I feel she is stripping away at the omnicient facade that makes us the grownups and her the kid. She is gradually getting the picture that Mommy and Daddy don’t know everything after all. And by the time she is ten she will realize that Mommy and Daddy know nothing. How disillusioned she will be.

Sometimes, when the stars are lined up just so and the earth is tilting at that perfect angle between day and night, Esther and I are almost like lovers. She strokes my hair and asks me to read her a book. I tell her I will, just after I check on Isla to make sure she has fallen asleep. I lean in to kiss her nose as I rise and she grabs my left arm to feel the moles that grow on its fleshy backside. Those moles that have been her security blanket since she was a baby. She clings, I linger, breathing her in, all of it, her , me, us. She says, “Mummy I want you.” I say, “ I know Essie, I won’t be long.”

I can’t help thinking about young lovers going through the ritual of goodbye again and again before it sticks. They keep coming back for one last kiss, one last lingering, swaying embrace, one last whispered endearment. This is nice. I love how close we can be without smothering each other. It is not often that two people can be so comfortable with each other. It will fade, I know. It will end. I am not like this with my mother. Esther won’t be like this with me forever. We will become physical strangers someday. I will annoy the crap out of her with my incessant questions, constantly trying to pry information out of her. And she will shut herself up tight as a clam, for fear of being misunderstood, judged, criticized. Our love will become more obligatory, more cerebral, less passionate. If I am anything like my mother, it will be something that is unspoken, always there so as to go unnoticed, taken for granted. I am not looking forward to that time. In the meantime, I will enjoy this little passionate love affair of ours.

The other afternoon Essie was playing, “nap.” She had applied copious amounts of lipstick to her face and climbed into bed this way. She propped herself up on pillows like some sort of movie star. When I went to kiss her, she smiled and turned her head, presenting her cheek so I wouldn’t mess up her make up. This move was so natural and unscripted, I am convinced she was a Hollywood actress in her past life.

Her ego is so strong. She was waiting for her boy cousins to come over last week and it was as if she was starring in her own movie. She had the perfect outfit picked out and was rehearsing arrival scenarios to pick the best one she wanted them to find her in. She ended up perched on the arm of a chair with her favorite music of the week, Brigid Boden, playing like a soundtrack. She crossed her legs and placed her hands in her lap, looking lovely and aloof like a grown woman in the body of a four-year-old girl. Watching her wander around the house, so immersed in the music and the emotions it conjures, I see a teenager. I see myself. yikes.


Esther is officially a pre-school dropout. She told me she hated school one too many times so she doesn’t go anymore. Why should a kid learn to hate school when she is just barely four? She shouldn’t start hating school until she is at least 12. So far, she hasn’t really noticed that she doesn’t go anymore and I don’t know if she will. She was so proud to be a schoolgirl the first week she went, but the novelty wore off quickly when the reality that there were strict rules, a tight schedule to follow, and a "time out chair" set in. The harshest reality was that she was hustled out of the house by her dad in the early-morning hours while Isla and I stayed curled up in front of the fire. Esther, good surrogate mother that she is, doesn’t want to miss a moment of Isla’s development. She likes having a say in what happens with her little sister.

So she spends her three flexible mornings a week at Martha’s house where most of her friends are anyways. Martha’s is four-year-old heaven. Martha has raised just about everyone in this town under 42. She has forty years worth of dress-up clothes and walls lined with books begging to be borrowed. All the rooms of Martha's old home are child-friendly and open for roaming. Martha has a record player with lots of records and an old piano in the living room but no T.V. Martha has enough Legos to make a tower that reaches the ceiling. Martha takes the kids outside for fresh air everyday no matter the weather. I want to go to Martha's. So do all the other mothers in town. You can tell by the way we linger during drop off and pickup, hoping to soak up some of the wise sage aura that is Martha. They do plays like Peter and the Wolf and Firebird and Three Little Pigs at Martha’s. I can’t think of a better place for my daughter to be. School can wait.

Isla has really turned a corner and is now the great smiling baby. She no longer ends each nursing session in tears but instead pops up off the boob to smile at me and coo and gurgle and mouth words unknown to us both. She is happy. Thank god she is happy. I have been worried, after all the anti-emetic drugs I had to take during my pregnancy from hell, that she would come out all wrong. I have been afraid that she was going to be a whiny, serious, fussy baby who was easily upset and who didn’t smile. I've never felt comfortable with seriousness. Without a certain degree of silliness in every situation. But smile she does. She flirts. She squeals with glee when I bend down to her and let my hair brush across her face. Her little arms and legs wave madly about and her smile turns on and off like a neon sign with a short circuit. It makes life here alone with her so much more pleasant. I am not longer pacing the floor with a crying, joyless baby. I am dancing around the house with a happy, appreciative, comfy baby.


I was thinking last night about how my passionate relationship with Esther was forged from the first few weeks she was here. I can remember walking the floor with her, dancing, waltzing, swaying, bouncing her little fussy body around well past my bedtime while she was going through what we liked to call her “witching hour” thing. Every night, just as Ian would be getting home from work, she became maddeningly inconsolable and we, neophyte parents, became baby jugglers in our very own family circus trying to find some way to get her to stop crying. Of course each of us thought we had the secret touch but in all actuality, neither of us had a clue. Ian would be convinced she needed the daddy "football hold," and I would try my lounge singer routine, going through my sad repertoire of old Bonnie Rait, CSN and Bob Marley songs again and again.

I can remember one night when I was seeing double with exhaustion and Esther wouldn’t settle down. I paced back and forth in the bedroom like a drill sergeant using heavy steps and abrupt turns. My rage was palpable. Ian luckily intervened and I all but slammed her into his arms and ran downstairs crying and ashamed of myself. I then had to go outside and take deep sobbing breaths of icy January air to still the demons. Even then I had to keep my hands over my ears to stop the sounds of her car alarm wail.

I think of this night, and many other similar nights, and how Essie and I have a tinge of anger flavoring our relationship. Her anger towards me this summer while I was pregnant was extreme and I can’t say I didn’t feel it too. Then Isla came into our life and her effect was like a gauzy veil of peace had been draped over our home. The yelling stopped, the arguing stopped, and the anger dissipated. Isla, it seems, is our little peacemaker.

I took her out in the front pack on snowshoes this morning. I might be imagining it but I think she likes the sound of snow crunching underfoot. She seems to smile and get all peaceful as soon as she hears it. Her little cheeks grew pink as we walked. Stray snowflakes floated down to meet them. In the front pack her face is always turned up towards mine, so all she sees is mummy's face and sky and snow.