Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Sitting Up

Yesterday I picked the girls up from daycare. I went into Elaine's room first. Usually she's sitting in her swing or rolling around on the mats on the floor. Today she was sitting up at the table. The table is specially made for infants--there are little built-in seats within the table--so the babies can sit up and eat. And there she was, holding some plastic keys (she loves keys), kicking her little legs and smiling. Her teacher said, "She was lying on the floor, but then two big boys came and stood right by her head. She let out a big, scared squeal so I brought her up here with me. She likes sitting by the teacher, don't you, Elaine? Oh, and then we painted some." I walked over to her and she gave me her big 4-tooth grin, and I could see the remnants of the paint on her fat little index finger.

My Smoochie! She hardly even has hair, and she's sitting up, painting!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Mirror, mirror

Her little face is all over the magazine covers again. I hate to see it; I hate it. She looks so empty and soulless and lifeless, and it’s unbelievable that she has been dead for ten whole years. I hate even typing her name, JonBenet, like it’s giving the whole issue more press than ever when all I wish for that little girl is that she be able to rest in peace. At this point of course it matters if, in fact, her killer has been found. But so much of the damage was done before her little life was ever taken. The makeup, the teased hair, the adult clothing…what are people thinking? And of course hers are not the only parents who’ve done this to their little girls. There was a spate of special reports at the time, “Baby Beauty Queens” and the like, and we were all exposed to this bizarre phenomenon of taking your little girls and making them look like grown women, well, kind of like grown women—though most grown women look nothing like that. The saddest picture ever, to me, of JonBenet, was a candid Christmas photo that made it into some magazine, People probably, and she was finally dressed like a little girl—in a red velvet dress with white tights and Mary Janes. Her hair was straight, not teased into a bouffant. But her roots were showing. Plain brown roots, at least an inch before the platinum blond started. And I thought, “What kind of people make their child feel that her ordinary hair color isn’t good enough? At 5 years old?”

With the reopening of her case, there are more talk shows and moms interviewed who insist their daughters love being in beauty pageants. One mother (though I’m sure there are many) puts elaborate extensions in her daughter’s hair and false teeth. To cover over her wonderful, gapped, slightly crooked 8-year-old teeth. And the result is some sort of creepy fembot. A fembot who wins lots of awards for her beauty.

I think about this a lot as the mother of two girls. Before either of them were born, Darren and I confessed shamefacedly to each other, “I hope our baby is cute. I just don’t want an ugly baby!” Each of them—we were thrilled. They were so beautiful, Lucy like a gorgeous baby doll lifted down off a Christmas tree and petite Elaine, her little moon face with the dimples and the bright blue eyes. What a relief.

I don’t tell them this though. I don’t tell them how cute and beautiful they are. What an aesthetic treat for our eyes. I tell them how gentle they are, how generous, how funny, how good at hopping, singing, pulling their socks off, whatever. Anything but how pretty they are. They get it though. From well meaning friends and relatives and grandparents. And Lucy stands in front of her full length mirror sometimes after getting dressed for the day and asks me, “Mom, am I so, so pretty?” This is what I tell her, “Better than being pretty in the mirror, you’re so kind. You love your sister. You’re pretty on the inside.” She says again, “But do I look so pretty in this beautiful dress?”

I hope eventually she hears me.

Friday, August 25, 2006

For the love of John...

Music has always been one of my best friends. You know, Julie, Anna, Lori, and...Music. A friend of mine once gave me a cartoon that showed a gathering of people in evening wear, all wearing Walkmans. At the bottom she penned in her own caption "Alice's idea of a party." My taste is wide and varied and goes according to mood.

Of course when I found out I was pregnant the first time, I thought, "This baby will be exposed to nothing but the finest, most beautiful music. I will be the most serene expectant mother, piping Haydn and Brahams and Bach's cello concertos to my child in utero, and she will come out expectantly waiting for me to turn on La Traviata." So for the first four and a half months I played and played and played and played music. All the baby books said that the child would begin to respond to the music and move. Not mine. I played it a little louder. Nothing. I got out the Beethoven and tried to blast her into action with some overtures. Nothing.

Secretly, I became bored. I love classical music, but you know. The violins and the cellos and the flutes and the on and on and on. I secretly missed my driving music. And obviously this baby was immune to music. I would sneak it into the CD player. She would never know. I put in John Mellencamp's "The Best That I Could Do." Someday I'll devote an entire entry to my love of this man and how he is a Midwestern poet and his music forms the soundtrack of my life. There is only one person whom I would completely lose my chili if I ever met them, and it is him. Ahem. Moving along, I popped the CD in, and within the first couple of beats of "Hurts So Good," the baby began to kick. Fluke? I switched to "Jack and Diane." More movement, this time almost rhythmically. By the time we got to the "Authority Song" she was full out dancing. No lie. It got so that if I ever worried that she hadn't moved much that day, all I had to do was put on John Mellencamp, and she'd began to dance. She even got so that she could distinguish his songs from everything else that was on the radio.

During one of our many OB visits, Darren asked the doctor, "How can we know, how can we really know, even if our test results are negative, that the baby will be healthy and won't have Down's or spina bifida?" and she said, "You can't. The only time you know is when you're holding the baby in your arms." The she added, "I don't have too many worries about a baby who can dance to Mellencamp already though."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Fiftieth Anniversary

This weekend we celebrated my Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. My mom had originally planned on having a big family party with all the relatives and it lasting the weekend. Instead it evolved into dinner in the private room of a restaurant with our family and Bob’s brother Donald. The party was to be Saturday night in Fennimore, Wisconsin, so my parents rented us a room at the Governor Dodge Hotel in Platteville. I haven’t been to Platteville in a long time. It brings back a lot of growing up memories. This southwestern part of Wisconsin is filled with rolling hills. The drive there looks like a child’s drawing: emerald green grass, lazy black and white cows, puffy white clouds, brilliant red barns. We get to the hotel a few hours early, and we’ve promised Lucy that we’ll take her swimming. She immediately strips off her clothes and begins jumping on the bed naked (or “mekkid” as she pronounces it). When I was about her age, my Aunt Nan took me here on a little getaway. I remember doing the exact same thing and I somehow remember her calling my parents to tell them we had gotten there OK. They must have asked what I was doing because she said in her dry way, “Well, right now we are cavorting about in the nude.” It’s so funny to bring my own daughter here to these same rooms and watch her do the same thing.

The pool was a success, and I love to watch her and Darren together—she’s getting so brave after her swimming lessons, with her “Supermans” and her “Ice Cream Scoops” and jumping off the side of the pool into his waiting arms like a big kid. She wants to be with me, so we trade off, Darren with Elaine and Lucy and I, and I swirl her through the water on her back and tell her that she’s a mermaid and that Smoochie is a merbaby. This is entertaining for a few minutes, but she realizes Dad is more fun in the swimming pool than Mom. I take Elaine back and gently bounce her through the water.

We get ready for the party, and Darren realizes he hasn’t packed any toiletries whatsoever. Or rather he realizes I haven’t packed any for him (apparently my words, “I packed all of our stuff; now you’ll need to do yours” mean something different to him than they do to me) so he goes to Wal-Mart. I put the girls in their lavender party dresses, and I curl Lucy’s hair especially. Then I put on my own “party dress”—my vintage black with lace across the yoke—that makes me feel better than any dress I’ve owned.

The restaurant and room for the party are much nicer than I imagined. There are fairy lights everywhere and little bridges over fountains. Lucy is entranced. My mom takes Elaine because she is dying to show off her new baby. They are there already—Aunt Alice and Uncle Bob and Donald. I watch my aunt especially to see how she is, to see how much more the Alzheimer’s has eroded her as my mom says it is doing. She seems sweet and a little lost. She recognizes us and is thrilled with the baby. She admires Lucy’s party dress and is charmed by Elaine’s chubby plum cheeks and little bare feet. It is one of those parties that is awkward and hard to get going. Chuck and Rome arrive with a beautiful bouquet of roses from all of us. The party begins to get going as Lucy passes out the favors. I made these—gold-wrapped truffles in gold tulle with ribbon and vellum tags with the anniversary couple’s name. It was also my job to pick up the cake, and of course I’ve misunderstood and haven’t picked it up at all. It’s 40 minutes away by the hotel. In an unexplained and serendipitous move, the waitress comes out of nowhere with a cake lit with candles and chocolate covered strawberries. Lucy begins to charm everyone by climbing up on Aunt Alice’s lap and talking to Alice and Bob. It’s her usual three-year-old stream of consciousness; I hear her describing how her piggies are painted as she crams chocolate strawberries in her mouth., but it is wonderful for them. I love her for this. She is so like Darren, so warm and loving and approaches the world with open arms. I remember being so timid and shy at that age, at any age really, and I see how this little girl’s prattle warms them.

She takes Uncle Bob by the hand and asks him to take her to see the fountain, talking energetically the whole way. I follow them to take some pictures—I think of my parents, so full and loved and surrounded with children and grandchildren, and I think for a few moments it is lovely for this elderly man to walk with this little girl through the restaurant. As soon as they return, she runs to Donald to ask him to view the fountain too, but he and Bob have found a better idea—we’ll all go to the attached “saloon” and play the player piano. Donald tells me, “We’re going to play the piano for the little girls!” and he adds with a rueful grin, “And for the big boys too!” The piano plays, and my mom dances with Lucy, and we all leave the restaurant on a high note.

At their home, my mom rummages around and brings down a small green album with their wedding pictures. Their sister, Pearl, fancied herself a photographer at one point, and as none of the sisters had any money, Pearl took all the wedding pictures. These are actually beautiful. We women crowd on the sofa and exclaim over the 50s fashions, and my mom tells Rome and me that Alice bought the lovely, pale pink full-skirted wedding dress (she bought it in pink instead of white so she could wear it again)—one of her first and only store-bought dresses. She was a beautiful seamstress, and she made my mother’s green satin bridesmaid dress, but hers was special for this day—a boughten dress. We laugh and tease Uncle Bob—he looks so nervous in the pictures, was he nervous? “Aw, I didn’t care a thing about it!” he laughs, and young—“You look like a little boy here!” my mom cries. “He WAS just a little boy!” Aunt Alice exclaims earnestly and we laugh, and he looks over at her fondly. She’s sitting on the arm of the sofa, looking at herself in her beautiful pink wedding dress, in the pink dress my mother has bought her for her fiftieth anniversary. Pink is her color. Mom gave her the dress the day before, and Alice doesn’t remember that it’s for a party. She keeps asking, “What do I have do to do to this dress?” and Mom patiently explains time and again that she’s bought it especially for her, a size 4 petite, it will fit her exactly. Other than her wedding dress, she’s never owned a dress that she hasn’t had to tailor or alter or make from scratch.

We leave to go back to the hotel, and Lucy hugs and kisses them and says “Congratulations!” in her earnest little way. They love her, and they touch Elaine’s baby face and arms and legs one last time as if they can’t get enough of her. We drive away in the starlight, and we’re playing Marc Cohn’s first album in the car. We tell Lucy that this was what we always listened to the first summer that we met, and we look over at each other and smile and hold hands, remembering that summer. It takes me back—the night and the stars spinning in the universe and driving to music—our own song “Perfect Love” with James Taylor harmonizing in the background. I’m filled with nostalgia, and I miss those days. I look in the back and see the little girls, so like their dad, and I fall in love with him and them and the night all over again. Today is even better than then.

The next song comes on, “True Companion,” and it’s one of the most beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. It got played a lot at weddings around that time, but of course in the summer of ’91 we thought it was just for us: “Baby, I’ve been searchin’ like everybody else, can’t say nothin’ different about myself; sometimes I’m an angel and sometimes I’m cruel, but when it comes to love I’m just another fool. I will climb that mountain and I’ll swim the sea…my arms are reaching out across this canyon: I’m asking you to be my true companion…”

Then I think of the lovely young couple—the young man so nervous and the beautiful brunette in the pink dress, smiling into the unknown future.

When the years have done irreparable harm
I can see us walking slowly, arm in arm
Just like that couple on the corner do
‘Cause girl, I will always be in love with you
When I look in your eyes I still see that spark
When the shadow falls and the room grows dark
And when I leave this earth
I’ll be with the angels standin’
I’ll be out there waiting for my true companion

You are my true companion.

Frog & Toad

On our long drive home, I continually hear the request: “Can we listen to Frog and Toad”? Are you familiar with Frog and Toad? Frog and Toad are best friends, created by Arnold Lobel. They’re sweet and kind and gently funny and have a wonderful friendship. Arnold Lobel himself reads them on audiobook, and it makes you feel happy, like you’re having a big glass of milk and a warm chocolate chip cookie, just to listen to him. Of course on the way home I just want to hear music. I’d love to hear Lucy ask, “Mom, can we listen to Fleetwood Mac?” just ONCE. But…Frog and Toad it is. Lucy settles down in her carseat with Rabbie and her thumb firmly in her mouth, sort of like me putting on Darren’s basketball shorts and my favorite extra large-dark-green-but-it’s-been-washed-so-many-times-that-it’s-grey t-shirt with holes in it, emblazoned with “Arizona State University,” putting a Twizzler in my mouth, and settling down with my feet up to watch “Bridezillas.” (No one knows the origin of this t-shirt. Neither of us nor anyone we know has connections to Arizona State. It’s a mystery.)

Anyway, back to Frog and Toad. The more I analyze these stories, I think that I am like Frog and Darren is like Toad. Frog is basically a glass half full kind of guy while Toad is glass half empty. Frog is so optimistic and cheerful and always thinking something wonderful will happen, like when he hears spring is just around the corner, he actually goes around corners hoping to find it there. Plus, he’s an early riser and would like Toad to be as well. Toad says things like, “Blah. I’m down in the dumps” and “Wake me up when it’s May.” He worries that all the other animals will laugh at him in his bathing suit. He obsesses because he loses his to-do list or his button off his jacket. (Needless to say, Darren was not particularly flattered by my parallel of us as Toad and Frog. “Sure, you get to be the cheerful, fun one!”) However, Toad is intensely loyal and a fantastic friend. When Frog wants to be alone on an island so he can just sit and be thankful for Toad, Toad worries that he’s done something to offend him and packs a picnic basket with iced tea and sandwiches and canoes out to Frog to beg his pardon. He goes to extreme limits to protect Frog. When Frog is late coming over for Christmas Eve dinner, Toad imagines him lost in a ditch or being chased by a wild animal, and he rummages around finding a rope to pull him out of the ditch and a frying pan to knock all the wild animal’s teeth out. (Frog’s just late because he was wrapping Toad’s Christmas present and is obliviously unaware of the consternation he’s caused.)

Darren’s just one of those lovely worriers, but he’s so funny about it at the same time; it’s utterly endearing. (For example, Lucy’s great Constipation Plague of ’06 when he said, “I just don’t want her to die like that guy from the BeeGees!”) The other night he was talking about a little incident that had happened during her swimming class. He was recounting everything in detail, he said, “She’s so innocent. She’s just having fun at swimming. She’s not even aware that someone might not want to sit by her. It’s killing me. And do I make her aware of it? Do I let her know how people can be in this world? How will I be able to handle when someone is really mean to her and tells her they don’t want to play with her? She’s just a little girl. Should I just have kept my mouth shut?” I look at him and listen to him—loving our daughter and struggling with what I’m sure most parents do—how to protect them and also let them develop fortitude, how painful it is to watch that little person take any kind of hurt.

And I want to tell him that being like Toad is a pretty good way to be.