Growing (in the) wings

8 06 2018

A portrait of the Caleb as a young man: rather than be arm-twisted into like most boys his age, this kid lives for dressing up, and was delighted to hear that the weekend’s plans included a graduation to give him an excuse.

“Caleb, Caleb, Caleb!”

Can you hear it? The squeals of delight in little voices, the parental holler into the yard, the clamor for attention down the long hallway, the proud little players, sabers in the air, ready to join any game, the old friends calling up from the woods, the teasing Papa with some accusations of “mustard” to bestow?  While at first glance it might seem that he’s been upstaged, our boy who hasn’t had a post all of his own written in this blog since his first sister was born, if you look closer, you’ll see that he’s in almost all of them, no matter what they purport to be about.  His name is a song in this house, in these hearts, and his life is a central thread in every choice we make, every plan we consider, and almost every family story worth telling that we hold onto and drag out, time after time, to share for laughs and the careful, whole-family work of identity shaping.  We don’t get to do much front-and-centering of this one, for all that we’ve begged and argued, plotted and tried; three or four rounds of delays and promises later, he’s still at school in the north country, a few weeks from wrapping up 5th grade, and our “joint” custody math is still garbage: in the five and a half years since that first sister’s birth, he’s spent only about 16 months with us.  But those months, scattered and fragmented as they are, we live them.  Together.  And that boy, oh how we love him, each and together as well.  He may not be here every day in body, but in the soundtrack of our lives… “[his] name is a bell [we] hang in [our] hearts,” and we all, especially the girls, ring it over and over.

Quick captures of a decade of loving, part 1 (the correspondence isn’t exactly one-to-one; there’s a “3” missing, and the 5th is actually a “6,” but you get the idea).

If you’ve been following on Facebook, you’ve seen him, here all along, growing, glowing, being both despaired of and delighted in, just like you’d expect of any child.

Quick captures of a decade of loving, part 2: our princeling, our caper, our clown.

But he’s not “any child.” He’s our Caleb. And he’s amazing.

It’s kind of hard to even start explaining how or why he’s so amazing–if you’ve been following along, you have an inkling by now, I’m sure, but if you haven’t been?  Oh, boy.  The boy.  This dear, beloved boy, boy, boy.  Caleb is so many things to me–best to start there, I think, for a change; everything about this page has been so thoroughly hijacked by my daughters that I sometimes forget that I have a voice, an identity, relationships outside of mine with them, but I do.  And one of the best of those, because but way beyond and in advance of them, is my relationship with this wonderful boy.

This bright light doesn’t need a battery (his ornament does, though): tree-trimming day, 2017.

I fell in love with Caleb when he was about 8 weeks old (I can’t find the baby-baby photographs I took with my old camera, his blue eyes swimming in a field of blue couch-pillows, but they’re still clear in my mind), long before I’d ever had cause to consider building a life with his father); I rocked him to sleep in defiance of his crying, fetched him happy-faced back out of his crib post-nap for first bottles and then, later, jam mashed with bananas, took him on meandering stroller walks around Westcott to accompany me on a tutoring gig in the campus library or to the park to see the lilacs, read him Spot goes to the Farm 1000 times, put giant plastic coins into his little cash register for hours, and laughed while he danced his diaper-butt baby-dance in front of the TV’s music channels, hanging on to the cabinet for support before he could stand alone.  I fed him cake at his first birthday party, while his Mum chased down the needs of all the aunts and cousins and Matt took pictures and clinked celebratory beer bottles with the uncles and his mates.  I, too, stood with him in front of the mirror, trying to guess was “Apa” was just like Matt and Jenn did–it wasn’t apple, despite the aural proximity (later, we’d learn from Sangeetha that this was his approximation of an “atha” sound that recurred in a Tamil lullaby she used to sing to him while standing in the mirrored hall).

Early morning post-sleepover strategy gaming with Andrew and orange juice: our boy is equally at home with big-kid fun as playing with the little ones.

When his parents separated, there was a six month span during which I wasn’t allowed to see him (this wasn’t a legal ruling, just a Very Insistent Request from his mother that his father was respectful enough to honor), and I missed him dearly, in no small part because I assumed I’d be forgotten: six months is a quarter of your lifetime when you’re only two.  But there was no forgetting (and I only snuck out to Matt’s car to kiss him in his car seat during a grocery exchange once or twice); the picture above of him in that little yellow polo shirt was taken on Matt’s birthday that year, the first time we were permitted back into one another’s graces, and that easy smile never bobbled; by the afternoon, he was half asleep sprawled across my lap on a picnic blanket in the shade of a lilac bush, as if our lives had never been interrupted, and for the most part, that’s how it’s been forever since.  We’ve had our rough spots, times when he’s sunk into whinging for what feels like weeks on end, and I lose my patience, times when I hadn’t slept for months and was annoyed by everything and everybody (read: during the entire first 9 months of Angry Evanny’s pre-walking life).  We can fight ugly when it comes to the dreaded contest over whether or not a boy will practice for an assigned number of minutes at the piano.  I’ve kicked a toy out of his hands and broken it in responses to the sass spiraling out of his snotty little mouth (because Caleb can whittle spite into a dagger if he wants to; he’s sharp, fast, clever, and given to flares of vindictiveness when frustration’s running high).  He’s told me that his mom would do things for him that I wouldn’t do “because she loves me.” (The “thing” in this scenario was “go pick out and bring him down an outfit b/c he’s been told to get dressed three times already and wants to loll in front of whatever’s on the screen, anything, preschool Peppa Pig episodes at eight years old instead.)  “Why does Tyra always force me to do things I hate?” he’ll wail in writing to his assigned practice journal.

Fluffy-headed sweet-faced kitten-whisperer in the big bed, with just enough hands to go ’round.

But he’s smart-smart, deeply thoughtful, aware, and wise in addition to smart-mouthed, and when I come to talk to him after a fight, I find myself in conversation with a boy who has perspective and comprehends the ‘whys’ just fine, including the ‘whys’ of how he speaks his feelings even when they take the shape of words he doesn’t mean.  Considering how many adults I know who can’t do that–sometimes including myself–it’s a pretty impressive trait in a kid who can’t remember to put away the clean clothes in his laundry basket after a month of being asked six times per weekend.  The fights and headbutts are good, I think, in the bigger scheme: they’re what kids and parents do, as kids grow, and parents wrestle with the charge of balancing empathy and love with rigor and consistency in the process of guiding that growing.  When we fight, it’s the same way I fight with the girls, because he’s my boy just as surely: I might not be his mom, but I’m a genuine parental figure just the same.  And I reap the genuine rewards.  There’s no telling how long it will last, because even the snuggliest kids usually drop the regular practice of hugs and cuddles at some point in their tweens, saving them for particular moments of need or performative timing, and a lot of them have done so already by ten, but our boy, my boy, is still happy to hug me hello and goodbye, happy to snuggle down beside me on a couch or in my bed or his to be read to and chatted with, happy to be spontaneously grabbed and leaned upon, happy to yell “no!” around merry laughter if I turn that grab into a tickling, and happy to crawl under my covers for middle-of-the-night comforting when his dreams get weird (although he usually prefers to sit up for a good half hour telling me every detail he can remember before curling in to forget them, a preference his grumpy-cat-when-awoken-at-o-dark-thirty-by-children Daddy could do without!).  Regardless of how he might try to play the sass for effect, Caleb knows full well that I love him (enough to remind him that he’s capable enough to choose his own dang clothes), and I never doubt at all how much he loves me back.  His English class this year has been working on using poetry as a means of communication, and they’ve done a number of exercises for different holidays and situations where the kids are given a template or model that they personalize to by adding their own details.  For Mother’s Day, he made a template-poem for his mom in class, just like all the other kids did.  And then he came home to us for the weekend, and in his writing journal, where he’s supposed to be practicing his skills a little every day (which means 6x a month, so I’m not sure how much impact it actually ends up having on his skills, but I feel like the investment is more psychological than anything, and therefore worth it), he wrote me one too, having memorized the template so that he could re-apply it on his own.  

When you thought I wasn’t looking:

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
I saw you water the flowers
and I learned taking care of nature.

When you thought I didn’t notice,
I noticed you made me do my writing
and I learned to do things I don’t like

When you thought I didn’t care,
you let me cry when Gus died and did not stop me
and I learned crying was ok

When you thought I didn’t see,
I saw you smile at me
every time you brought me up to Mommy.

CWS, May 2018

Target? Check.  Large, dramatically sloping grass hill?  Check.  Sturdy plastic tricycle?  Check.  Rakish hat for style points?  Check.  Let the smashing stunts begin!

For the most part, Caleb-at-ten is a master of words, sometimes to his detriment, or at least to our ire and hairy-eyeball reminders that he might be failing at his assigned mission to use his powers for good.  Caleb can convince almost anyone of almost anything–especially up north, where his peers are simply not quick enough to keep up with him verbally (few kids his age are), his mother wants to believe the best of him, and his brother doesn’t really try yet.  His bad ideas are rarely very bad–he fibs, twists, and greases up his explanations for expediency rather than to do harm: getting out of chores/assignments, dodging younger-sibling company when he’s already made the “I need my space” appeal enough times for one day, scoring screen time, or arguing away a grim-faced mutter that, on second thought, he’d rather no one heard.  And his good ideas are really good: he’s a natural leader in imaginative play (the much-younger siblings have helped, I think, or at least provide a perfect setting for an inclination he’d have anyway), just as skilled at embroiling a group of smaller kids into any story-tale he’s inspired to enact as roping in the older ones who, without his influence, would think themselves too old for such amusements.

Mid-game, mid-lounge, contented kid.

It’s an endless source of frustration to me, as a writing teacher, to have in front of me this boy who is so rhetorically gifted, so good at putting language to use for any purpose he chooses, so strong at comprehension that I can read to him from novels written years above his reading level (we’re currently on the second book in The Dark is Rising series), but whose skills at putting words on paper are just dire: his handwriting is going to be eclipsed by his sister’s in a year’s time (and heaven forbid we ask for a word in cursive), he can’t spell, he can’t punctuate reasonably, and I’m not sure he knows what a sentence is (there’s a reason I typed out the poem above instead of inserting a picture).  And so I require the journals, and we fight about them.  I’m finding him an online typing course for the summer so that he doesn’t have to rely on the handwriting he struggles with, and I’m buying handwriting practice books so that he can work forward through the struggle.  And he’s taking an enrichment course at MPH during summer camp, as much because it’s an opportunity for him to learn from the teacher we were hoping he would have as a 6th grader as to specifically work on that “sentences” thing; I want him to be stronger in these areas, and I want us to have less to fight about, so I’m doing what I can about it. (Although to be honest, in a sense, this struggle is a relief too: he can remember the rules easily to a game he hasn’t played in years, he can tell you every single thing that happened in an entire novel he just read, and math concepts come as easily to him as breathing, although in later years his recall has started to suffer from stage fright, and he’s always had the words; he has an intuitive ability to remember history because he’s so gifted at the “story” part, he’s fascinated by science, he’s pretty good at whatever sports he tries–a kid has to have a tough time with some intellectual pursuit!)

Caleb, at ten, although more given to moody silences than at any point yet in his young life (and they’re not secrets: the only thing misleading about this photograph collection is the percentage of it in which he’s smiling.  In real life, we get no shortage of glares, eye-rolls, and gloomy half-lidded stares, but I only post those online if he loses bets), is still also blessedly goofy, and absolutely blooms in the spotlight of concentrated attention; in this particular pair of images, I walked in on him inflating a rubber glove to play with it as if it were a rubber chicken, and because the girls were already in bed and I had time for the reenactment, I was treated to the long version.  Really, this is Caleb’s favourite of all possible times: when Daddy’s out, so I belong only to the children, and the girls finally fall asleep, so I belong only to him.  (The same is true in reverse, of course, when circumstances conspire to grant him alone time with Daddy.)  This is when the Caleb I adore the most comes out: the one who wants to be read to, who wants to tell me about his school friends and how one interaction troubled him, how he managed another to everyone’s benefit, the one who wants me to check some mole (the pretext) and answer some burning questions about what his growing skin is doing, being ten, the one who wants to ask science questions and talk about the universe, brainstorm about careers, tell me in intricate detail about some invention he’s working on for a school project, share his worries about his other family members, especially his parents–because I’m both one of these and not of these, which creates a special separateness in our conversations that can be both about his family and in some ways outside it.  I can offer perspectives on why a parent might be doing one thing or another that don’t have to be their perspectives, I can listen to the impacts of the neverending school-placement argument on his thinking (it’s between and only between his birth parents, to determine what happens with him and school, so I don’t have to pretend to be outside it–I simply am), I can give him all the “maybes” and “how about this”es that nobody else might want to, because they might suggest the giving up of someone else’s needed ground, but I feel freer to think with him for him, because our closeness isn’t mandatory.  As he grows, and he keeps finding more and more complex things to reflect upon, these conversations and debates get deeper and more intricate; day before yesterday, he said something about the “Pledge of Allegiance” that started me probing about what he’s pledging to and why he does it, who he feels he’s doing it for, who he thinks he should be doing it for, all of which led us on an interesting meander about indoctrinating little kids into ways of thinking and systems of inequality.  And that’s fun–it’s not just playing “let’s have a conversation” with a little kid anymore.  It’s learning what someone you care about thinks about things you’ve never asked about before; it’s banking on existing closeness to set you on a path towards making more, and it’s a really cool journey.

Bossman C at peace in the center of the whirlwind (with cardboard tube “whomping stick” to help him enforce his cleanup-crew supervision)

With the girls, like between him and his parents, between kids and their parents everywhere, closeness is this strange mix of guaranteed and never-quite-to-be-believed, because it’s guaranteed: they love me because I’m their mommy, but the “because” there occludes the root.  Do they also love me for me?  Would they, if I weren’t their mommy?  (Maybe.  Probably?  They love Crista, and Nicole, and there has been some serious adoration for some babysitters along the way… but would they love me this much?) With Caleb, we know the answer to that question; because I’m not his mom, and because I don’t always agree (or pretend to agree) with his dad, about every possible category of things, I know he loves me for me–because he doesn’t have to.  And he knows in turn that I chose him, that I design our family’s choices around him because I want to, that I love him for him, that I don’t have to either.  Last weekend, we got up one morning while the girls were on the playset and Matt sipping his coffee, and we took off for the cemetery down the street to wander the rows and just chat about everything that came into his head.  He loved it: loved it so much he came back declaring this a new summer tradition.  “Let’s have Walking Wednesdays!”  It’s kind of magical.  (Just think about it for a minute.  Being wanted.  By one’s ten-year-old!)  And I couldn’t imagine a more terrific little boy to share the magic with.  So there are definitely perks to the whole stepmom routine (especially considering that I get to step-mother a boy who hasn’t ever seriously tried the “you’re not my mom” shtick–the few times he’s said a version of it, we’ve all known it was bullshit, him most of all), and when we’re talking, and he’s throwing himself into some description, gleeful and animated, I think that despite all the struggle, there are perks in it for him as well.  Of course he would rather–any kid would rather–have a unification of the people he loves.  But he balances well, sometimes stopping to draw attention to the different highlights of his different houses and how lucky he is to benefit from both, and although he resents the drive, he likes the chance it affords for conversation; I think, too, that he appreciates how having two homes lets him step outside the intensity of either one.  He’s responsible for himself in both settings, and he has responsibilities, but he’s the kind of boy who would take it all on, try to be the savior of the whole family, everybody’s answer to everything, and it would wear him down to bones.  This way, two-homed, he simply can’t.  He can only ever carry part of either family’s burden, and then he has to leave, and hand it back to everybody else; the heavy weights are always shared and passed around this way.  And in the process, instead of having to leap ahead to shouldering too many adult cares too soon, although he tries a lot of them on, when he gives them back again, our boy gets more time to be a boy.

Mad scientist making recycled paper with mashed pulp and a rolling pin.

Our boy “Caley” (“Boyo,” “Dude,” “Buddy,” “Love-bug,” and once in a blue moon, just for old-time’s-sake, “Pooh-bear”) is a quick-witted real-time inventor and focused, sustained embellisher of plans, skits, and activities, merrily wrapping Nathan and Andrew into a campout a few weeks back that only ended up lasting about 45 minutes before they spooked each other and came to sleep in the house, but which kept all three happy and busy with plotting and setup for the entire five hours before that.  When he’s being his best self, he can derail a dangerous or foolish idea put forth by one of his compatriots, revise it into something smarter, and still have the originator thinking that it’s his idea; he can take a three-year-old down to the play-set on assignment to entertain her for ten minutes, and thirty minutes later still be deeply engaged in some game they’re dashing around the yard in together, having forgotten that he’s on task at all, and is just happy, a kid outside playing with his sister.  And Caleb is an absolute rock star at “play with his sister”(s).  I’ve written in some detail elsewhere about how terrific he’s always been at this, but each time it’s with a sense that there’s a timer ticking down, and yet here we are, ten-and-almost-three-quarters, and nope: he’s still terrific.  He is growing up: more frequently than ever, he pulls away to be alone with earbuds in, listening to music or audiobooks (still The Hobbit, still alternatingly with anything by Roald Dahl) in his room, wants to come in at the end of a long week and talk with the adults before being mobbed by the preschool set.  But he is still more than glad to lose himself in the worlds of imaginative play with those girls–to them, he may be big, but he’s still a kid, he’s like them, he’s “one of us” in their world, and he has the grace and flexibility to extend the invitation the other way, too, working things out so that, during at least half of the play dates he enjoys with his own friends, collaborative games spring up that let the girls be “one of us” in his.

Fancy clothes don’t slow him down: here’s a dash-by in the middle of a rousing game of playground chase with Ben and Neve (a friend from last summer’s tap class and Tabitha’s teacher’s daughter).

Caleb loves to play: with little kids, with bigger kids, with grown-ups, with boys his own age, with girls his own age, with any willing kitten, puppy, dog or cat (he loves the cats like I do; he never looks more at home than when he’s in bed or sprawled on the couch with a book in one hand and the other idly ruffling through some soft kitty’s fur).  He loves board games, card games, ball-kicking, scooter-chasing, and every kind of make-believe: play-acting characters within a beloved fandom, inventing dramas and scenarios with little toys, world-building with blocks and cars and people (although I think we’ve finally, somewhat sadly, come to the end of the Very Long Phase wherein he always wanted to be the puppy in every made-up story, and maybe also to the many year run of his being a willing and cheerful player of “house” with Evanny (the easiest of all ways to involve Tab when she was too little to take direction–he and E could “parent” and she could always be the baby)).  He’s a screen addict in both good ways and bad: he loves movies and remembers plots and scenes characters for years, storing them in his data sets and using their details to create his own imaginary worlds.  He loves video games, particularly multi-player opportunities to hang out on kitty-corner couches or cuddle up on his bedroom floor with Finn to help and/or taunt-slash-kill each other in some virtual land (chatting the whole time and who’s doing what and what the next best move might be).  He loves “YouTubers” and learning from videos, although he mostly watches the ones where people play games and teach cheats, whereas I would much prefer that he followed better rabbits down more informative holes and learned about the actual world instead.  He isn’t as motivated as Andrew about making his own videos to publish, but he and Carson like create recordings of themselves enacting scenarios with toys, and when Andrew is around to lead the charge, he’s enthusiastic enough about the end product that he’s willing to push past his self-consciousness about the process.

Fountain-gazers after a movie: Evanny’s still trying to recover from all the fast action, Caleb’s trying to figure out how to get his hands on the coins at the bottom to play arcade games with, and Nate’s watching Caleb, because given his druthers these days, that’s what Nathan does.  Ostensibly, this outing was in celebration of Andrew’s birthday, but he’s wandered off somewhere.

At school, as best as I can reckon from his stories, he’s popular but not too popular (pretty much exactly as you want a kid to be): he has friends who really like him, he’s admired and looked up to by many of his peers, and he’s not really in with (and is privately disdainful of) the too-popular crowd of burgeoning assholes, but when necessary, can intercede with them on others’ behalf, usually without repercussions (because he talks circles around them).  At home, he’s sought after by both his own family and the kids he’s grown up among: part of my regular parenting work is fielding requests for his attention and scheduling meet-ups with Nate and Andrew, Finn, or Silas pretty regularly, and occasionally Will or Donald.  The Nate-Andrew dynamic is changing as they all grow up: what used to be firmly a “Caleb and Andrew vs. the herd of smalls” thing is now, often as not, Caleb-and-Nate-and-Andrew (and sometimes Evanny), and there are also days where it’s Andrew off doing his own thing and Caleb hanging more tightly with Nate.  This isn’t all that surprising, really; although Andrew shares with Caleb a closer match of age and interests, story-inclinations, reading preferences, and probably lots of other connections I’m not privy to, as Nathan gets older, and the age-gap shrinks, his thoughtfulness, quiet focus, pragmatic-yet-creative vision, and diligence with projects once they’re undertaken, coupled of course with the very rewarding way he looks up to Caleb, has started to position them more frequently side-by-side.  Andrew also takes things too far sometimes for C’s taste; there are days when Caleb’s drive to avoid conflict and Andrew’s aggressive streak push them apart as proverbially as oil and water.

Caleb and Evanny compare cookie-ball sizes in the kitchen (this is our more usual dramatic boy, that saucy hand on that saucy hip).

There’s also a little more complexity to manage with friends now that Andrew and Silas are classmates: they used to be Caleb’s friends who knew each other mostly through repetitive exposure at his birthday parties, and now they’re each others’ friends who see one another all the time and occasionally also incorporate him, if their plans happen to coincide with a weekend he’s with us.  As might be expected, this can go well or poorly.  Some days (and nights at Kira’s) the three of them are thick as thieves together, but there are other days when C find himself either feeling pushed aside (a sorry but inevitable consequence of shifting social groups) or disinclined to involve himself at all in something they think is a great idea but about which he disagrees (there was something once about a punching bag and a sort of basement bag-fight club with a membership task to complete that he was having absolutely none of?  These, I love: they’re proof of our boy standing up for himself and drawing his own lines, and for a kid as eager to please and as driven by social acceptance as he is, to be able to put down his foot in front of a few of his closest friends is a significant and very valuable accomplishment).  And he’s growing into that admirably: a kid with a stance, with beliefs he can tell you about, a kid with lines to draw for what he’s okay with and what he simply isn’t.  He can put his feet down in some awkward places while he figures out the details, like the time, a few weeks back, that he tried to argue about the behavior of his sisters, who were rolling down a hill and play-kissing in emulation of a romance they saw on TV: “Don’t you… it’s not… I just don’t think that’s appropriate at their age!”  This led us on a fascinating conversation once they’d been settled in a bath and there was space for talking just-we-two: who defines “appropriate”?  How much of that is social context (when there are places all over the world where children share rooms with their parents and witness sex as a healthy part of family life)?  At what age should playing at romance be considered appropriate?  And who decides whether it’s appropriate, and/or for whom?  (Sometimes these conversations are productive in terms of the politics they brush against, and sometimes they’re just bridges, a way to get into the stuff without starting with “I want to know more about,” because as a pre-teen who’s starting to grow new hair, he wants to know more about sex and human sexuality and human bodies in general, but his mom is a bit squeamish on these subjects, and that both keeps him from being able to comfortably ask at her house and rubs off on him, making him hesitant to ask at our house either.

Protest-children pausing in the middle of a heartfelt chant for someone’s rights to grab a quick selfie with Daddy (I wasn’t on this outing, having taken the middle child off to a birthday party instead, so I’m not sure which particular rally it was at)

Encouraging this necessary foray into the education of a sensitive young man whom I sometimes catch holding unconscious inklings of disturbing conservatism, including the occasional flare of disparagement toward woman (thanks, north-country backwoods family) is a part of my step-mom job that I take very seriously.  And it is always unconscious; if asked, he’ll tell you he believes deeply in equality for everybody, that gay people should have the same rights as straight people and girls are just as good as boys (and boys just as entitled to wear “girl” colors) and judging people based on what they look like or the color of their skin is stupid, so I try to poke a little at the places where the beliefs and the concerns and critiques he voices don’t match up, because I trust his heart and mind: he’s smart enough to straighten out the disconnects once he sees them, and kind enough to always revise in the direction of more equality, more sharing, more kindness.To this end, he hates the sitting President and all the nightmares being furthered in his name (at least the ones sheltered white kids in pro-military communities hear about), but instead of just hating him quietly, Caleb goes to rallies with his family, explores the fun of inventing satirical nicknames with his friends, and butts heads with the little Republican parrots in his class (who also happen to be the same asshole kids who figure into his other stories: coincidence?  I think not).  His first was Syracuse’s Solidarity rally during the 2017 March for Women, where he climbed on top of a downtown sculpture waving a homemade, stick-figure sign around that said “Keep your hands off my sisters!” (and included some large sleeves with tiny hands reaching in from one side, a first public foray into political lampooning/cartooning).

Kitchen-helper telling stories while the mixer squeals (Evanny’s background side-eye is the best)

Other things that ten-year-old Caleb loves include learning to cook and helping in the kitchen, especially where baking is involved, solo bike-rides around the block, and other opportunities to practice his independence (although he has made quite clear that this appreciation will not extend to learning to do his own laundry this summer).  He seeks after and rejoices at the chance to take $5 to the Rite Aid up the street because we’re out of ketchup or toilet paper, revels in those tiny little tours around the block on the too-small wheels of the bicycle Matt yard-sale-found him too many years ago, and was beside himself with pride the time I sent him forth on foot with a map and his almost-overdue library book to find his way to the library and take it back himself (it’s not far; Evanny could probably have done it, but Evanny isn’t even six yet, and I don’t let her decide for herself when to cross the road, so she’s got at least a year and change before I’d let her try.

Three pies for one breakfast? Yes, please! (Thanksgiving leftovers make up for having not been here for this year’s baking-fest; next year, he’ll be helping me bake, a trade for the bi-annual miss/delay of Christmas)

These journeys make Matt a little nervous (less because he doesn’t think Caleb can handle himself and more because there’s always a specter of “but custody!” hanging over his head, adding a layer of drastic consequence to any possibility of danger), but I insist.  He’s already ten.  He’s only getting older, and will rapidly be confronting a whole host of situations, social and otherwise, that he’s going to have to rely on himself to get himself through and/or out of, so I grab at chances to help him cultivate independence and self-reliance.  Sometimes he encounters new challenges when he’s off on his own–he has to decide, for example, whether to say “hi” to the packs of bigger kids on bigger bikes who school up and down Papa’s street, and one week, he brought home a ball he’d found, and when we talked about where he’d found it we decided it might have still been in play and so he’d be ethically responsible to take it back.  And sometimes the payoffs are delicious; a couple weeks ago, we let him and Andrew walk up to Gannon’s together with a few dollars and no time limit, and they bought themselves treats, sat down at a table, and just talked, and ate, and talked, no parents, no little kids, just two young fellows making themselves a place in the world with a little friendship and some sugar.  As moments, these are minuscule, but together, they’re starting to lay groundwork for the teen and someday man he’s going to be.

Luke & Leia 2017

At ten, Caleb’s favorite fandoms (that I know about) are old school and somewhat literary: everything Star Wars, of course (where he’s starting to show signs of finally emerging from a half-decade of always championing the bad guy–his LEGO sets and stuffed pillow are storm troopers, his bedsheets feature Kylo Ren, and he was a Star Wars villain for at least three consecutive Hallowe’ens), and everything Hobbit/LotR, but also a longstanding soft spot for Minecraft and Plants vs. Zombies.  He’s seen every animated movie released during his lifetime and many from before, but most of them just pass him by; he says he likes the old Mickey Mouse from the jerky, ancient animations better than the spastic modern Clubhouse version he and his peers were raised on.  He spent a year deeply invested in the music from Hamilton, but I haven’t heard it playing in a while (in part, no doubt, because he keeps getting his music-player confiscated for sneaking games or internet videos after he’s been told to put it away).  He’s such a sucker for anything shiny, still game to watch whatever age-appropriate-for-them silliness the girls have on the TV, that it’s hard to tell what he really cares about, but he was markedly enthusiastic to get The Greatest Showman back on screen several weekends in a row while he and the girls were learning it word-for-word; we might just have a family weakness for musicals emerging.  He’s gotten less willing to share those appreciations, though; his lovely singing voice took him to a regional choral performance last year, but it rarely comes out in the car anymore, and instead what we’re likely to see is his dark glare at his sisters for still being at ease enough to sing (Matt and I feel exactly the same way about this: first off, we have a house rule that nobody tells anybody they cannot sing, and secondly, if someone is annoyed by someone else’s singing, we pretty much always turn up the volume and jump in to make it worse).

When Tabitha captioned this picture, it sounded like a children’s book: all those C’s!  “It’s Caleb!  On the Couch!  With Cohen!” (And a Comic, for that matter, although she doesn’t have such discriminating book-classifications in her lexicon yet.)

It’s kind of always been this way: we push and mess with and needle him, trying to thicken up his tender skin (as much for our own sanity as his future mental health, b/c lord we cannot abide the whining, and lord knows the world doesn’t need more whiners).  We make this home of his a rough one, rough like a roller-coaster ride: bumpy but exhilarating, challenging and a source of pride, leaving coddling to be somebody else’s job, but we absolutely positively could not love him more.

As evidence, a re-print; I wrote this for Caleb when he was four, before Evanny and Carson were born, (and long before he started writing poetry at school), when he was still my only child (and everybody else’s), and six years on I wouldn’t change a word or thought about it:

The child poem
(January 2012)

It probably starts with the hair:
Golden halo tousled into horns by sleep,
Then the sweaty neck, tongue thick and consonants soft
At awakening, the sun through the window where you kicked
Aside the curtain as you napped. It will remark
On the stuffed cat, or maybe the plastic wheels
Of the favorite green truck, and then,
With a metaphoric sweep, it will scoop you up and make you,
Despite your late arrival to this rich life already underway,
Generative, key, and instrumental:
‘You are the seed,’ it might intone, ‘that taught me how to grow,’
Or maybe, as befits the rhyme, ‘the star
That taught me how to shine.’

And I’ll grant, you’ve taught me plenty,
But to follow form, you’re meant to be the poet’s
Child, and despite your father’s sentiments, O
Monkey-mine, you aren’t (and your mother,
For all she bore you easily and burgeons, even now,
With the burdens of a brother, can’t bear
The thought of me). Still, like any pair
Who love, we have our ways of claiming.

It was to you I gave away the music I’d been saving
For then two-thirds, now going-on-three-quarters of my counted years,
To sing to sleep my someday child. And you
Were barely two when first you flung
Possessive pronouns around my denim calves,
Captured in the circle of your stretching reach.
It probably ends with a promise, the poem—
To hold you, to rock you, to set you free to burn
Your rocket-trails across the starry skies
You’ve just begun to draw, and of course
I’ll give you those gifts and a million
More, but the difference is it’s ending
That we don’t believe in, and we’ve
Already made the only promise
Either of us needs to stay on course:

For I’ve said, and you’ve said, and nobody remembers
Anymore who started it, that I’m
Forever yours.

Bicycle.  Football.  Sometimes it’s showtunes and tap class, and sometimes it’s the more traditional trappings of American boyhood that hold his attention.

Caleb loves to tackle hard questions but hates being asked to repeat, aloud, whatever he was muttering about when he was mad (which I would also categorize as a hard question, albeit for very different reasons).  He loves pie and hates cake (he says, “haven’t you ever noticed that I only eat the frosting?”  “Of course,” I said: “but so does every other kid I know.” –and I also know I’ve seen some significant enthusiasm when a promise of cupcakes comes out), loves (most) fresh vegetables but hates zucchini so passionately that he’d rather give up screen time all summer than be forced to confront it ever again, loves sleepovers but hates how they leave him sleepy, loves staying up late and hates getting up early (which he defines as any time before about 10:30).  He loves to dance (tap and modern improvisational do-what-you-want-by-the-stereo are his genres so far) but hates to be watched onstage; he loves to sing but hates to be heard until he’s ready for an audience. He loves to be fashionable by his own standards and hates to be badgered about everybody else’s (no matter how many times, for example, we swear that holey jeans are a thing, he’ll have none of it… but has no qualms about leaving the house with that fedora on top of his golf hat).  He loves being good at things (piano is only our most oft-used example, not by any means an exception to the rule) but hates to practice getting good at them.  He’s recently discovered that he likes improv acting and Magic: The Gathering, and thinks it might be time to retire his Pokemon collection.  He loves to outsmart his sisters (and everybody else) and hates to be outsmarted; he loves the water, pretends to hate the splash pool, pretends to loathe being splashed by his sisters, and loves splashing his sisters.

Working out solutions to a puzzle game under his nearer sister’s adoring eye.

Really, like anybody would, he loves pulling anything over on anybody, especially his ready mark set of sisters and hates retaliation of any kind; this is a source of both amusement and irritation to the grownups in the house, who find it very hard to rescue him from retaliatory efforts, even Matt, who swore that, as a parent, he would never pick on his eldest the way he felt he was picked on–“Adam got away with everything!”  We really do want to be on his side sometimes.  We don’t want to spoil the small ones rotten just because they’re small.  We certainly don’t want our boy to feel like he’s an outsider and the girls get everything their way.  But because Caleb is such a great teacher–naturally, intuitively, and not only intentionally–every single pesky, annoying thing we see his sisters do to him (it’s almost always Evanny to him, and then, when he’s not there, so that it doesn’t tarnish her reputation as the kinder one, in his eyes, Tabitha to Evanny) we have to shake our heads and say “she learned that from you, Dude.”  “Who do you think taught her that trick?”  “Where did she learn that one?”  “Rrrrrrrrrrrr!” is all we’re likely to hear back, because it’s true–and he knows it.  And we warned him at the time.  And he knows that too (“If you get sassy with her, watch out; she’s watching you.  She’s learning from you how to be a sibling.  And when she’s bigger, she’s going to sass right back at you”).  Fortunately, for him, and them, and all of us, sass and snark aren’t all they’ve learned from watching him.  His sisters have also learned to hold engaging dinner time conversations about school and outside interests, to make amends after a fight, to tickle and giggle and create and imagine, to clown when someone’s down to try to coax a smile, to snuggle up close to share a show, to be gentle with animals and small things, to be careful with fragile objects and wild with rugged ones, to put their heads together and look out for the others when the grown-ups are being jerks, to deal and negotiate to shared advantage… and as they grow up together, looking up to him, the list is only going to grow.  But the number one lesson at the top of it, taught to the girls by their brother, taught to us, over and over again, by our boy, taught to me, as I’m learning from him what it’s like to love and fight with and treasure and really listen to a child at each new stage of childhood, is to love your people, love everybody, love your people more, tell them often, touch them often, and always, always let it show.

Taken by their father, this photograph of our beloved bookends is so iconic I want to sing it an 80s song: “You’re the best…AROUND!  Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down…”


The big five: and, oh.

8 06 2018

Any good kindergarten graduation ceremony is immediately followed by a playground “picnic,” wherein adults set out food children are far too busy to eat, and children run and climb and scream and play in their familiar stomping grounds instead.  Here, we’ve caught our graduate stopping for just one breath and a survey of her fading domain before swooping down the bar and dashing off again.

Milestones begin to blur at this age: no longer in the baby-toddler climbing game of days into weeks into months, of first acquisition of major motor skills and tiny, perfect bubbles of words sailing forth from tiny, perfect lips, Evanny at five is completely a kid now–and not even always a “little kid.”  Often as anything, considering the makeup of our little tribe, Tabitha (and often Darcy) are designated as the small ones to be minded separately, while “the big kids” go off to do something big-kid suitable (like attend a Cirque show with Mummy in the city, or sit (mostly) still long enough to watch the latest Star Wars! in the theater!).

Playing with the camera and the mirror in her classroom at a parents’ observation night.  There’s a lot of Grandma Jenny in this face!

There are a few five-year-old traditions to note: in addition to being the Year of First Cinema Star Wars in our family (Matt saw Empire; Evanny saw The Last Jedi and had a bonus gift in the subsequent release of Solo, and Tab is already holding her breath for the right-timed release of Episode IX), in our family, five is the Year of First Being Allowed to Chew Gum (yuck), and at the girls’ Montessori school, five is the Year of First musical recital, First graduation, and most excitingly, First Field Trip: the kindergarteners piled on a bus earlier this week and drove out to the school’s “Land Lab,” a patch of meadow, woods, and pond in Pompey where they waded in the mucky water, tried to catch tadpoles and salamanders, picnicked together out in the wilds, and even did some canoeing, all with just each other and a handful of teachers.  Evanny, rich with experience already, was nonchalant about the canoe–“I’ve been on a canoe before,” she reminds us, and the distinction of having only done so before with a parent seems irrelevant to her–but excited about the salamander, since that was something she’d never seen before “in real life.”

She’s a wind-tossed lilac dancing down the front yard path with a fist full of some game-specific mystery I can only guess at

At five, Evanny’s imagination, despite 2 1/2 years of schooling in a system where learning about the real world is stressed and distracting fantasies quietly discouraged, is as bright and loud as ever: while most of the time it’s “let’s play [x fandom]” and then a long and cheerful debate about who has/gets to be each character, there’s also plenty of house-with-sister mixed in, and small toys and baby dolls and often inanimate objects are frequently recruited and re-purposed to take part.  Some game from the other morning had both girls in the front yard busily plucking the seed-heads off the plantain weeds to gather in a giant pile for the feeding of I-don’t-know-what: usually Evanny still takes the lead in deciding what to play, but she’s learning to yield her ground, slowly.  Over the course of this year, I’ve heard a lot of the phrase “then I’m not playing,” sometimes followed by “with you” and even sometimes the extreme form: “ever again!” It’s almost always about disputes in game-vision, but its frequency is decreasing (although whether this is due to an increase in appreciation for her sister or of an advance in negotiation skills, I’m not sure).  Evanny likes to play by herself sometimes, but Evanny loves to play with her sister and/or brother (the “and/or” there is a busy conjunction: sometimes Caleb wants nothing to do with them (or isn’t here) and it’s all sisterlove, sister-fever, sistercorps; sometimes he’s willing and Evanny tries to gatekeep him, hoarding big-kid time against Tabitha’s short legs (although this never lasts for long, and soon it’s all three wildly throwing themselves into the snow or the grass or the scattered collection of broken light sabers squirreled behind furniture throughout the house).

Still that same gaze: he only sees the pest (“stop COPYING ME!”), not she looks to his eyes to see who and how she’s supposed to be.

Caleb is a source of consternation sometimes, these days; while Tabitha’s love for her “Caley” knows no bounds, and is loudly and frequently proclaimed, Evanny is quieter about it.  He teases too roughly for her heart sometimes; because she’s bigger, she’s becoming competition, a kid alongside his kid-ness rather than a baby sister easy to entertain.  She has her own opinions, her own drives, and she doesn’t follow him blindly anymore, sassing back instead, and then being deeply stung when he takes the swipes as mean and strikes mean back.  Evanny adores her brother, with every little part of her soul, every bit as much as she did as an infant, when his appearance was the highlight of her little week and his disappearance would make her mope through every Monday, but she doesn’t trust him as freely as her sister does; in seeking to please him, which most of the time she still really, really wants to do, she’s more likely to go quiet, back off, move away.  The other day the poor boy had the whole family railing against him in the car because he was grumping about the girls singing–just like he was wont to do through both their ages, thank-you-very-much–and Evanny, who had already stopped, admitted that that was why she didn’t sing much in the car anymore, not if he was around.  “No sir,” we said: “house rules.  In this family, everybody is always allowed to sing.”  But our rules don’t matter as much as her big brother’s opinion, and even after we were very clear about how he did not have permission to shut it down, she would only barely whisper to her favourite songs.

A rare capture of Evanny’s sheepish, shy face, the one that comes out when, for example, Mummy is teasing her about choosing a book just because she has a crush on one of its movie-characters.

Her heart is a more tender thing these days than it has been before.  She’s still got ferocious in her, especially on the soccer field, where her Daddy is teaching her to use her elbows to stand her ground against the bigger kids and keep the ball, but she’s easier to bruise, and it isn’t just her brother.  At bedtime, if her sister messes about so much that I threaten to leave, Tabitha squeezes out crocodile tears to stop me, but Evanny’s are genuine, and she’s been sneaking back into my bed in the mornings after a few months off, feeling small, perhaps, in the onslaught of transitions.  Earlier this year, she came home one day telling me about some name the kids were calling her on the playground–something I can’t even remember, because it was completely innocuous, not an insult, just a word, like (but not) “rabbit,” but whatever it was, it bothered her, because it singled her out, and because she couldn’t make it stop just by saying so.  She takes to heart her struggles with the piano some weeks, and is ashamed to even walk up to the bench when it’s time for her lesson, not wanting Sara to remark upon her failures.

Diploma-acceptance hugs for the amazing women who’ve spent the past three years helping raise this proud yet verklempt child.

She’s been a bit of a wreck about the impending end of the school year: for weeks, preceding graduation, she would tell me “I’m going to cry.  I’m going to miss everybody so much.  I can’t stand it.  I’m just going to die.”  (At the actual ceremony, she only got a little weepy once, but mostly held it together, and managed a number of smiles too, and apparently she’s not alone in this as a developmental response: “We do this on purpose,” her teachers explained, about holding graduation a week before the end of school.  “This way, they know they have more time with their friends to look forward to–otherwise, they all just cry through the whole thing.”) She’s been nervous about starting first grade at a new school next year–not worried that the teacher or the kids won’t like her, because she already knows one or two of them, and she’s Evanny, anyway; everybody likes her.  But she’s afraid the work will be too hard, that she won’t know what she needs to know, that everybody will be ahead of her and know things that she doesn’t, and the worry nags at her despite my reassurance that she’s as well prepared as any of them, and more than most, since she and Lucy are coming in with cursive, which the kids already at MPH don’t even learn until their third year in.  Even Tabitha can wound her, although Evanny has enough perspective, and Tab’s tantrums are common enough, that she quickly shakes off such little barbs as being roughly rejected after attempting a morning hug (when one was wildly welcomed yesterday).

Here’s the love: a chilly “Spring” garden party cuddle with the girls of Maple Cottage

But you can’t keep her down for long: if Evanny has a motto (not that she even knows yet what a motto is), that would be the one.  Knocked down on the soccer field?  She’s up again, fists clenched, and back into the fray.  Sad about graduation?  She’s a deep breath and a warbling continuation of her recital song.  Discouraged about a failed attempt to draw or write or make a thing?  Walk away, redirect, mull it over, and then come back and try again: that’s Evanny.  The only really sustained tantrums I get these days are about practicing piano (like her brother, there are days she’d rather invest 3 hours into fighting against doing it than 10 minutes into just getting it done); the worst sulks (and most frequent tears, of all the ridiculousness) are over being told “no” to candy or ice cream.  For the most part, Evanny is a beacon of cheerfulness: she’s cooperative, eager, helpful, attentive, and quick to respond nine days out of ten (on the tenth, she’ll drag her feet and balk instead, about anything, which by whatever perverse mechanism controls the moods of little girls will guarantee that her sister will suddenly perform her Very Good Girl act like a professional), and makes a genuine effort to spread her goodness around: “C’mon Tab,” she’ll say, uncountable times a day, trying to rally her sister into moving faster so that some reward will finally fall within their grasp.

Still, at 5, it’s “Evanny crinkle-face.”  I mean, really: who could say “no” to THAT crazy, happy, crooked-smiled, feral little thing?

And unlike her siblings, her Eeyore brother, who never trusts that a good thing is going to stay good, and her watchful sister, who keeps her biggest pleasures secret for herself, Evanny is wild to celebrate every success, show off every accomplishment, and share every joy.  “Mommy, look!” she came into the kitchen hollering two nights ago, and I had to follow her to the living room so she could show me that she’d finally gotten her spaghetti arms to hold up that heavy head in an actual bridge.  She’s all about that body these days, finally tall enough and growing strong enough to do the things she’s wanted to be able to do for years: pump herself on the swings (she’s finally learned to listen to the pendulum and follow its rhythm instead of fighting it with spasmodic motions at some arbitrary pace of her own), make that bridge, kick up onto the hang-bar, skin the cat on the rings; even her cartwheel-quest has gotten as far, so far, as a round-off, and she’s got three months before that September birthday comes around, so my hopes for her are high).  Her dad describes her as fearless, but she isn’t: she’s just brave.  She’ll admit to fears, and sometimes be temporarily, wholly defeated by them, but it’s the temporariness of those defeats that might be her very best quality.

Second day trying out roller skates at Lola’s, and Evanny is already striding away from hand-holds and hand holders, eager to do it alone.

She’s afraid of sharp cat-claws, strange dogs, diving underwater, and the ripping-off of band-aids, as well as the corollary “walking at all if with skinned-bloody knees,” but she still hugs the cats, will still be coaxed into coming up to greet the dogs (after her sister leads the way), will jump into the pool with her swim instructor standing by but without a hand in hers, will scream about the band-aid ripping but them shake it off and go run down the hill again where she fell and got scraped bloody last time.  Sometimes she’s the leader, and sometimes her sister is, which works out beautifully for both of them; nothing makes you feel safer than being reassured by your sister, and nothing makes you feel braver than being the one reassuring her.  And Evanny at five is still a fantastic sister.  It’s not always “big” sisterhood so much as sister-hood itself, although there are certainly days and ways in which she has to lead the way.  But in many ways, the girls are so well matched that contests, physical or verbal, end in dead-end after dead-end: Ev’s limbs might be longer, but Tabitha’s body is more daring, and Ev has the bigger vocabulary but Tabitha the stubbornness and volume.  When they’re getting along, which is most of the time, the two years (almost) between them often disappear completely.  Evanny is too tall for strangers to ask if they’re twins, but they often pretend to be in the imaginary families of their games together.

At the center of the circle, Evanny leads five playmates in a mimic-dance (Ella’s just outside the shot) to music they seem to all be hearing in their heads.

Evanny is a leader, in mind as well as action: she has her father’s and brother’s magnetism, drawing people to her without effort, but unlike them (at least so far), she doesn’t question this ability or worry that she doesn’t deserve the attention.  Instead, she just puts it to use–sometimes straying a little too far into the bossy, and needing a talking-to to remind her to make sure everyone is having fun (and if they’re not, to listen and to change the game)–but usually doing an easy and elegant job of keeping whole throngs of classmates, friends, and neighbors entertained by her ideas.  She’s also learning to let others lead, even when the others are her own age or smaller (this was unthinkingly part of what was just done, when mostly she hung around with Lulu and Char, but in her current groupings, she’s one of the big ones if not the biggest, and so she and the little ones alike usually just assume that she’s in charge).  It doesn’t always happen, but I do see Tabitha’s ideas carried out once in a while.

Great big sisters push their little sisters on the swings–even when “little” seems like quite a joke based on the length of those dangling legs.

Evanny’s interests range through intellectual pursuits (math problems and astronomy questions at bedtime, curiosity about words and their meanings, brief investments in Olympics sports histories) and physical challenges (gymnastics stunts, both official and playground-random, soccer skills, skate-balance, bicycle-stalking, swim-accessories, imaginary ballet (they haven’t had a chance to try out the real thing yet), imaginary luge (her favorite Olympic sport to dream of joining), activities (drawing, crafting, climbing, running, writing, building, planting, watering, watching, and always, always pretending), the names of characters, the details of (and imagined additional details that ought to belong to) characters’ relationships.  The schoolwork she has brought home this year, so recently a rainbow of coloured-in circles forming a caterpillar (to practice the circular motion of moving the hand in advance of making letters later), is the labeled body-parts of insects and animals, multiplication facts, addition-practice with carrying, adding numbers five and six digits long, stories written in progressively more readable cursive (and illustrated with increasing deftness), numbers accompanied by a chart of their squares, drawn, colored, and labeled maps of South America (by country) and the whole Earth (by continent).

Even greater big sisters agree to be the tutu-wearing horsie for their tutu-wearing little sister AND her best friend, at the same time!

In screen-land, she’s still deeply devoted to Star Wars, more recently to Guardians of the Galaxy (“Peter!” ) as a subset of a growing, Dad-fueled interest in Marvel superheroes, and starting to move onto “bigger” kid cartoons: she’s traded Mia and Me and Spirit for the modern reboot of The Magic Schoolbus and a cartoon version of Spy Kids, and it’s already hard to remember that she was ever satisfied by Puffin Rock or Goldie and Bear.  Also, I’m told, she “is kind of growing out of” (on a good day) or “hates” (on a surly one) anything to do with Tinkerbell, Strawberry Shortcake, Elsa (although the recently acquired giant dolls are still popular, she was wearing the hat just yesterday, and I haven’t heard a peep about taking down the poster), and My Little Pony (unless there’s only one plastic pony in the car, and then those are suddenly the best thing ever). Dragons are still cool, though; she brought Toothless in to be dressed in his Batman costume just this morning.  As she’s starting to read on her own (really just Bob-books so far, but they’re a step along the path), she’s taking a much more focused interest in chapter books while being read to: substance and continuity are gaining in importance.  She still loves a good picture book, and will settle down happily with her sister to listen to just about anything, but this year we’ve also been checking out great stacks of Rainbow Fairies and Rescue Puppies/Rescue Kittens from the library, at first working through them a chapter at a time over many bedtimes, and more recently getting into the habit, at least with the former, of swallowing them in at most two gulps but usually a single sitting (and sometimes more than one).

This is the manic face I sometimes see at bedtime, when “bedtime” is going to be something like a greased-pig chase with screaming.  Danger, Will Robinson.  Also pictured: one of about fifty of the hundred-plus Rainbow Fairies books we absolutely had to read this year, but which library obsession seems to have faded away unnoticed: no one has asked for one for two months now.

Now, at the end of kindergarten, the formulaic pop-readers are being pushed aside a bit themselves: by request, in the last month, we’ve finished Charlotte’s Web, started Stuart Little, and almost finished James and the Giant Peach.  It’s real books time around here, folks–and that starship goes only up, up and up forever.  It’s more work, but it’s the best work in the world, and I for one am delighted: I cannot wait to read EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD to this bright-eyed wildling (and her sister).

And then, you know, there’s me.  Delighted is a good catch-all, if you had to catch it all in just one word, but it’s so much more than that.  Evanny, I notice every day, and I tell her many days, and she giggles and says “no, I’m not!”, is my miracle.  She’s so bright, so full to the brim of electric energy, of love, of words and ideas and drive and desire, that she cannot help but brighten any day, even the darkest one, even when she’s also the kid stubbornly dragging her feet, refusing to cooperate, air-punching her fists toward the ground at me in rage and frustration because of some or another horrible Mummy-injustice I’m perpetrating against her (this morning, it was “please clean up the mess you just made in the dining room, and please find the lid to the milk”), that she’s usually the one who breaks through the cloud, for herself and anybody else it’s clouding.  Since infancy, Evanny’s ironic self-awareness has charmed me, and it’s still vivid; when I catch her doing something foolish, usually related to treatment of one’s sister and struggles with sharing, and she tries to rage at me about her reasons and her side, all I have to do is raise an eyebrow at her, and nine quarrels out of ten her mouth will twist into a “damnit, you caught me” sort of smile.  This isn’t just a cute quirk; it’s a magic power that will take her anywhere she wants to go in life.  She knows, without ever having been taught, how to make people feel like they’re a part of something, that they’re with her, like they’re in on the secret, part of the game, whatever the game may be; this is why her teachers wanted to weep at her leaving, and the three-year-olds in her class will remember and miss her for years.

A pensive moment at play, in which this little girl draped in an adult pair of Wonder Woman costume-pajamas could be mistaken for one of the Fates, for Morgaine crafting the world around her into legend.

And she does it with me, has always done it with me, since long before she had words to go with the expression.  It looks to everyone like Tabitha has me wrapped around her little finger–their father will use those exact words–but I know the truth: I let myself be manipulated by Tabitha’s three-year-old demands because she’s my last three-year-old, and because I know how much she’s just like me.  When Tabitha gets older, if she stays as me as she seems to be, she’s not going to tell me anything.  She’s not going to want me anywhere near the matters of her heart; I’m going to be pushed aside and left behind to do the laundry and complain, just like my mother did, about how she and her friends use my house as their hotel, so I’m basking in her attentions while she’s still here to give them.  Evanny, though… it’s Evanny whose little body bears my heart-gone-walking, who wears my mad, new mother in-love-ness like she wears my hair, as part of who she is, part of who she was born as, and part of who she’ll always be.  It’s Evanny I can’t imagine life without–not because I want to imagine losing her sister, but because I don’t have to: I was a mother without Tabitha, for 22 of the longest months of my life, months Evanny and I had to struggle through together, and cry and want and learn and grow and redefine ourselves.  And we did; we made it through together.  We would both be different people, mother, daughter, woman, girl, if that struggle had been different; we’re the fires who forged each other.  And thus the oh, the oh, oh, oh, of watching her move into the world, winged and wonderful (and sometimes hesitant, and sometimes back-and-forth, and sometimes weeping in the bathtub about moving forward when she’s not quite ready yet: “I don’t want to leave preschool!  I don’t want to leave preschool!  I want to go back!  I don’t want to leave Juliet!  And Noelle!” “I know, my love, I know,” I said, wrapped over the porcelain wall like an octopus, half in and half out of the water, hugging her little wet body while she wept, tears disappearing into the freshly rinsed sheen of her face).

Stance.  Expression.  They’re a package deal.  This brought-to-life embodiment of joyful ferocity, she’s going places.

People have been saying “you did it, Mom, you got her through kindergarten, good job!” like it was a challenge, but Evanny drove herself; all I did was follow, love, and do my best to nurture her around the rages (and to hug through those as often as she’ll let me).  (And teach her plenty of curse words in the process: I’ve definitely done that.)  Marking the difference between infancy and this great child is poignant, but I haven’t hit a milestone–there are no stones, just winds of change and growth that ask and ask for me to bend, bend, bend.  “Graduating kindergarten” means very little to me, but sending her to first grade at a new school next year will mean a whole new group of names to learn, stories to try to process, blindfolds to don: I knew the language to translate Montessori, but already, still five, she’s going to be going places I’ve never been, places I’ll only be able to know as much about as she chooses to share (and as effectively as she translates).  I won’t be sitting there next year, on the little chair, to watch her shyly, proudly set up works for me, or have all the words at hand to coax an explanation of her day out of her (“Did you work with the sandpaper letters?  The pink tower?  Wow, the thousands chain?!”).  I want these things for her, of course: experiences of her own, dreams to chase down; I’ve put the money down for the introductory ballet classes she begged for and signed them up for a week of summer day camp.  But I want to be there, to see and join and do it all alongside her.  I want to be everywhere she goes, not to oversee and limit what she gets to do but to get to live the wildness and the kindness and the beauty of the life she’s started building.  The challenge is standing still.  And it’s that that squeezes at the heart the most: knowing that she can only bloom if I leave her to it, and that leaving her to it means she’s always leaving me behind.  She wouldn’t want to, if you asked her; she’d be weepy and apologetic (and she shouldn’t be, so please don’t ask), and she’d cling to me with all of her strength in a demonstration of just how solidly she loves her Mummy, but it’s what the wild-winged things are born to do.  And I don’t know of any thing more wild-winged than this one.

Acorn, tree.

7 06 2018

I may say a lot about how Tabitha is so like me in temperament, but sometimes it’s startlingly clear how much Evanny is also a child of my heart.  Allow me to offer an example: when I was three, I was standing in my family’s garage, leaning against the door jam of the side-door into the yard, and the wind blew, slamming that door shut on my hand and breaking my middle finger.  At the medical center, the doctor we saw, trying to sweetly communicate with a toddler, explained to me that he was wrapping two of my fingers together tightly so that the broken one “didn’t get lonely.”  At three, and so far an only child who had been communicating almost exclusively with grown-ups, I was a little scientist fascinated with dinosaurs and stars, and I was pissed at that man for doing something so stupid.  Fingers don’t get lonely; even toddlers know this.  I bore it until the bone healed, but I can still remember my anger about that dumb explanation for what he was doing.  Later, when I learned a little more about how bones are healed, I understood that he was splinting one finger against the other; if he had just said so then, I would have been perfectly content with the solution and its explanation.  But for goodness’ sake: “lonely”?

Post-dental work, laughing at herself awkwardly chewing this soft banana like a post-novocaine zombie

Fast forward 41 years to Evanny, age 5, in the dentist’s chair being administered Novocaine in advance of a round of fillings: the doctor has pricked her once or twice after some ridiculous explanation about the little pinch that will put “bubbles” on her gums so they don’t feel anything.  She’s starting to protest, and he’s trying to get her to sit still for whatever his next move is.  “Okay,” she says around all the plastic and metal wedged into her little mouth, “but just tell me: are you done with the shots?”  Clearly, this practice full of stuffed animals and cute critter paintings on the walls trains its people hard against the language of “shots” and other painful concepts (Nitrous is “nice smells” and the kids get to pick a “flavour”–bubblegum, maybe, or watermelon), so he says to her “You’ve done a great job with the bubbles.  We’re all finished with that part, and now we’re just going to–” “No,” she interrupts him sternly.  “I said, are you done with the shots.”  The poor guy had no choice but to meekly say “yes.”  And me?  I was a bit weepy with pride.  You hold them to the truth, baby girl.  Don’t accept any nonsense in the place of knowledge.  And stand firm about being informed before anybody messes with that body of yours, so that your consent can be given fairly if at all.

Three: a last refrain

23 05 2018

“Catch it, quick,” I tell myself: in another two months, the smallest will be four, all three threes grown beyond their head-count age forever.  So here’s Tabitha, the three-est of our three threes; the three-est three we’ve ever seen.  She’s…


Same park, same swings, same pigtails, same impulse for arm-flinging flight: wholly different kid.

  • hysterical, as in “makes us laugh a lot,” and
  • hysterical, as in “prone to histrionics”; she’s
  • temperamental, as in “throws fits a lot,” and
  • temperamental, as in “varies widely in temperament”;

and oh but she’s miraculous: quick-witted, loving, generous, thoughtful, empathetic, nurturing, creative, artistic, imaginative, stubborn, ferocious, furious, independent, mercurial, defiant, infinitely derailing, and yet so, so gentle.  She will go to war over a pair of shoes (kicking me for trying to help her put them on because they are the most painful, wrinkly, terrible shoes ever and then going full-on Berserker not two minutes later when I drag her downstairs to choose different ones instead because only those will do), will swear up and down the hall, after some minor disagreement in a game, that she’s never playing with her sister ever again and then be impossible to pry off of “Sissy!” the minute I suggest separate activities.  She’s the sassy-mouthed-est of the lot at this age, screaming “NO!” at me so often that I’ve had to give up fighting it, screaming “I WON’T DO IT,” screaming just to scream, hitting a pitch I can feel vibrating my ear drums (and, I’m sure, helping destroy my hearing).  I’m supposed to put my foot down and say “I won’t let you speak to your parents this way,” I know, but for crying out loud (so, so loud): if I put a foot down every time I heard that “no,” my feet would never leave the ground.  She’s also the one most likely to say “I love you” on any given day, and “I just want to hug you,” and “Snuggle!”  She’s the most into picking flowers, and also the most strident in her protests if I dig up a weed to make room for a planting: “DON’T KILL THEM,” she’ll shriek, and we’ll be making holes under the play structure to re-plant mock strawberry vines and fragile, uprooted bluets (just like the ones she merrily tore from stems to gift me with the day before).  Tabitha loves animals–to pet, to croon to, to carry, to coax, to watch, and to learn about, whether that’s inspecting a drowned caterpillar carefully and fearlessly in her hands or clamouring for a show with “killing!” when I offer to put on an episode of some nature program lovingly narrated by David Attenborough: she loves the baby animal scenes, but she’s also fascinated by the predator and prey dynamic of the world and undaunted by its gristly reality; when we found a dead deer in the forest, she was the first to ask to be carried over the brambles to take a look.  She loves fruit, meat, veggies, starches, some sweets (but not with the butterfly-intensity of her sister), her stuffed snow leopard, a few favourite TV shows on Netflix, a handful of well-beloved movies, getting to move at gymnastics, learning and playing at soccer, playing outside with or without her sister, climbing on her Papa, helping Papa care for the garden, listening to music and singing with Daddy, being pushed on the swings, swinging by herself and showing off her stunts, proudly showing off her school work, chatting with and helping out our neighbor Scott (“DON’T YOU EAT THOSE CHICKENS,” she tells him sternly about the meat-chickens he’s raising in his yard), and everything to do with water–the bathtub, the hose, the splash pool, swim lessons, rain, puddles, even the idea of beaches. Tabitha also tells me she hates most foods, hates the garden (“Ugh, why is EVERY day PLANTING day?”), hates school, hates soccer, hates gymnastics, hates playing with her sister, hates this or that show or movie (if it wasn’t the one she picked)… she’s mercurial to the core, but there are exceptions: I never hear that she hates the outdoors (although I do hear that she hates the winter, after about month 6), and I never, ever, ever hear any hate for water from my water-baby.

Although she excels at solo work, Tab-at-three also adores working on projects with her favourite people, especially her school friend Suzanna and her siblings: here’s Caleb, early-gingerbread-house-season, controlling the icing glue while Ev just watches but Tabitha carefully places candy pieces.

Of all our threes, Tabitha is the hardest worker, although like her siblings (and most other people) she has much more staying power on tasks she chooses than on those asked of her by someone else, and is the most intrinsically motivated: by far the likeliest to sit down by herself to do something just because she wants to, to finish a task without showing it off to anyone, and to focus for a long time, alone, on a project serving nobody’s purpose but her own. She’s also the most likely to just disappear, as an idea strikes her fancy and she sets to implementing it without ever considering that she might want to ask or inform somebody of her intentions or intended whereabouts.  In a blink, she’ll go from snug in bed to puttering around a dark kitchen on her own, in search of a banana so she can solve her own problem of “hunger,” from in the other room singing to herself to utterly vanished, and then a message will appear on my phone to inform me that she’s just appeared at my Dad’s house (a short journey through the back yard) on some mission or another.  We’re working on “tell people before you just leave,” but it’s hard for her to remember, because of that intrinsic motivation: she’s doing a thing for her reasons, to meet her own needs, and if no one around her is intrusively needing her to do something different, why would she think of them at all?

Littlest, peering out from under too-long bangs while nurturing something littler, in this case Christmas-kitten Bowie, who is now three times the size of that lap.

Tabitha is inventive, coming up with genuine possible solutions to problems encountered by others, empathetic to the feelings of creatures large and small (likely at any moment to be seen fetching a phone for a tired daddy, a towel for a cold, wet sister, or dinner for milling cats, without anyone having asked for anything), and deeply invested in the details of stories.  Our bedtime practice of Mummy lying in the dark telling a story every night is a challenge every night because of two traits of Tabitha’s, that of needing to kick and roll around the bed (and thus kick and roll into my body) to expel the last of the wiggles, and that of needing to revise, add, or attempt to negotiate a hundred details in every single story, sometimes confounding me so completely that I forget what I was even talking about, because it’s all I can do to keep up with her suggestions, tangents, corrections, and strong-willed visions of how the stories ought to go (and what the characters should be named, and whether they should be human, and if they need older brothers, and how this is like we went swimming that time in the sea in England and also we got there on a plane and on the plane she nursed and nursed).


“Take a picture of me with BB-8,” she requests, matching beloved pjs with a beloved gift from a special solo shopping trip with daddy one day the big kids were off doing something else she was still too small to join.

True to the family mold, she takes her fandoms seriously: too young for Star Wars in the theater yet, she nevertheless looks eagerly forward to movie-night showings at home, and a year and a half after we bought her this pajama-set as a Halloween costume to honor her then-adoration, still cheers whenever BB-8 is on the screen.  She loves to love shows with her siblings: they were into the How to Train your Dragon shows and movies, so she was too, declaring a deep and abiding love for Stormfly (the blue one); Caleb got them watching Skylanders Academy instead, so she loved that, fighting with Evanny over who got to be Stealth Elf (the only girl character in the show, because they’re still doing THAT with adventure stories) so fiercely that Mummy finally had to intervene and declare that Stealth Elf had a twin called Elfa so they could play together.  The three of them fell in love with the music of “The Greatest Showman” together a few months back, and at least the younger two haven’t stopped singing it since.  But she has her own loves too: while Evanny enjoyed the Klimt-artscape fairy-elf fantasy “Mia and me” enough to watch the series through once, Tabitha stayed hung up on it alone for months and months thereafter, asking for an episode whenever her sister was somewhere else, fantasizing about theme-based birthday cakes (I think we’ve decided on something involving blueberries and stingrays this year), and inventing bathtub adventures with a once-generic plastic unicorn who is now thoroughly named Onchao.

Taking on the challenge of the flip-ladder at her brother’s Get Air birthday party last November–she didn’t master it or anything, but she was definitely the only three-year-old there willing to try.

Tabitha at three is both the most artistically inclined of the crew and is the most physically confident, both perhaps factors of being the youngest and having close-in-age role models whose achievements were only barely out of reach (and not for long): she was drawing noses on human figures before her sister was, and was the first to hang upside down by only one leg on the swinging bar on their backyard climbing frame (I’m not sure Evanny has succeeded at this yet, but I am sure Caleb swears he can’t do it and isn’t even going to try); she can pump herself successfully on the swings already (although still demands a starting push, as does her sister most days), whereas Evanny, whose moves she followed, only mastered this skill a month or so ago, and her brother was at least 6, maybe 7, before he could pump reliably. (Evanny got to hanging upside down at all first, and hanging upside down by only knees, no hands–she says she was copying Claire, who’s 8 and everything that Evanny aspires to be–but once her legs were long enough to get as far as on the bar at all, Tab pushed the next two envelopes in immediate succession and jumped ahead). On the field, Ev may be bigger, better, stronger, and faster, but Tabitha is progressing more rapidly in learning soccer skills, her dad reports (I try to avoid soccer, since both girls play more and whine less when Mummy isn’t on the sidelines), because she listens to the coaches and makes a deliberate effort to implement their instructions.  The difference is also due to simple perseverance: unlike Caleb’s intense and Evanny’s moderate allergies to any sort of practice, Tabitha can be found deliberately engaging, time and again, in activities she wants to get better at.  She pulls out the balance beam just to walk on it.  Picks up a pen just to practice her letters.  She’s better at drawing for the simplest reason of all: given her choice of activities in her Montessori cottage, Tabitha draws.  Every day.  Some days, that’s all she does.

Self-portrait by Tabitha, age 3.  Note that while most of her figures still lack arms, which Evanny was adding some time ago, Tab’s figures have both bodies and legs, and her faces include not only the hair, eyes, and mouth of her sister’s age 5 habit but also noses and rosy cheeks.  Her other specialties include flowers (with stems and leaves, not just faces), butterflies (with four wings and antennae), and Stormfly… but most of the time, when she draws, she draws her sister.

Her balance is tremendous, and she and Evanny are about on par with trying to pick up cartwheels despite Evanny having been moved into a higher class where these are specifically taught; in swimming, Tabitha is probably ahead of her sister, skills-wise, and is definitely ahead in enthusiasm, although she’s far too small yet to bump up to the next level and probably will be for years (this observation should not be taken as implying that Evanny lacks enthusiasm for swimming–or, really, for anything–but rather as a note of relative degree. Evanny approaches swimming with a gleeful “Ya-hoo!” whereas Tabitha is so enraptured that I keep expecting to see her dissolve into the water in a spray of magical sparkles as she turns into a mermaid on contact. “No, Mom,” she’ll correct me, saving “Mama” for when she wants something, “I’m a STINGRAY”).  Tabitha’s legs are shorter than everybody else’s in our backyard pack, whether we’re hanging with the Mumford kids, the Barretts, the girls next door, or some combination thereof, but she can climb anything they can climb, leap off anything they can leap off, crash into anything they can crash into–and she’s sometimes not the slowest runner either.  She’s fast with a tricycle and already eyeing the two-wheelers, even as her sister is just starting to feel compelled to try one out herself.

School-day lunch with Lola–on today’s plate, alongside a bowl of vanilla yogurt and a glass of water (by far her favourite drink) are leftover fried potatoes from a weekend breakfast, apple slices, kalamata olives, carrot slices, and of course the daily dose of ranch for dipping the carrots in.

Her memory is amazing, as is her attention to detail; if there’s an idea she wants you to understand, she will painstakingly describe each step in the process to be sure that you see what she sees (in application, the inundation of language can sound a lot like her siblings’, but they’re different: Caleb’s explanations are preceded by almost-infinite backstory, as if he’s afraid you’ll complain that his story is lacking unless you understand every element of explanation for why he’s telling it and how the situation came to be.  Evanny’s are more on-point but also more repetitive, as if even when she’s alone with her listeners, she feels like she’s competing with one talkative sibling or the other and needs to reiterate her ideas to be sure you’ve heard them.  Tabitha wants every word she thinks about her topic to be heard and understood, and nothing enrages her faster than being cut off when she’s partway through an explanation, even when it’s an explanation for why she wants another drink of water after you’ve already obligingly put the bottle in her hand and it’s an hour after bedtime). She’s an excellent conversationalist; although there are still times when those less familiar with her speech need quick translations (as is the case with all three-year-olds everywhere), it’s mostly a matter of not recognizing accent/pronunciation quirks fast enough to keep up (since it’s still a mix of CNY-regional, somewhat time-dimmed south-English, and Texan).  But if you’re listening, and you’ve got the quirks, you’ll find she’s a delight: unlike most small kids, she doesn’t overwhelm her conversation partners with blather about her own day–she’ll maybe bring one or two excited new experiences to share–but instead will ask about yours, inquire into your pets’ health, ask follow-up questions about something you told her weeks ago, and listen carefully to the answers so she can follow up again a few weeks forth.  She practices these skills with her Lola almost every day: they have a lunch time habit developed just for this special year of half-day school and being three.  Every day we’re home after school (which is most of them), Tab asks for her lunch and her Lola: she helps me choose a healthy selection of foods to put on her little plate, and then we prop up the iPhone on the clutter guaranteed to be on the kitchen table, FaceTime Lola, and they merrily chatter lunch away–occasionally with a question for me (usually it’s my mother yelling “Mom!  We need a tissue!” in response to a snotty little nose viewed large on her computer screen at home) but for the most part I can wander off, get my own lunch, do some dishes, switch the laundry, and leave them to it.  They like to talk about Lola’s bees, Lola’s cats, our cats, Tabitha’s school activities, and best of all, food: what was for snack at school today, what’s on the lunch plate, what is Lola having for lunch or making for dinner, what combinations can be made with these items and how would those taste and how do you know if you like it before you try?  (Lola has determined that one of her responsibilities as a grandmother is to always push the envelope of the kids’ taste buds, so she never lets an opportunity pass to nudge them into trying a new gustatory experience: the day the photo above was taken, she taught Tab the curious deliciousness of dipping apple slices in sweetened yogurt.)


Twizzling dandelion seeds into the evening air, grubby-faced, in her third outfit for a day that isn’t even dirty, clomping through sticks and dry grass in rain boots just because, bangs pulled out of her face with a rubber band because we’re growing them out, which kind of breaks my heart, but there was just NO WAY to keep them trimmed without cutting her every hair off well above the ears and shaving the bottom, 1988 skater-style, and neither one of us was into that.

Tabitha is so herself–fiercely, truly, screamingly–that in frustration her daddy will say “Tabitha! Would you just stop being so… so… Tabitha!” (perhaps while trying to get out the door to go somewhere she wants to be, the zoo perhaps, while she’s freaking out about the exact wrongness of a just-seconds-ago deeply desired sparkly shoe).  She’s frilly dresses and rain-boots, baby Groot and Yoda t-shirts, blueberry stains and jam-stuck dreadlocks, pigtails and character-inspired haircuts, songs and movie-quotes, stories and scripts, dares and challenges, hugs and pushes, tickles and kicks, wildflower bouquets and singsong butt-wiping requests down the stairs.  She’s still little in a few precious ways, mispronouncing things adorably (“Gardens of the Gaxy!”) wanting to be picked up and carried (“I’m feeling small”), asking to have her back scratched and feet tickled at bedtime, sometimes being so tired that she still asks me to brush her teeth, and just sits in a flop on the bathmat, her little mouth trustingly open, her little nose equally spattered with subtle, pollen-colored freckles, dirt, and actual pollen.  She’s the smallest one in her gymnastics class (but not at all the baby of the group in terms of skills and behavior) and the shortest kid on her soccer team, but.  She’s not the smallest cousin anymore (thanks, Brooke!), is no longer the baby of her school class (other, smaller threes have joined the group, and anyway it’s two more days until the year ends, and she’ll be in the middle set in the fall, Pre-K4 & full-day), and tells me all the time: “I’m not that little, Mom.  I’m almost going to be four.  When is my birthday again?”  It’s soon, little lady. So, so soon, although it’s going to feel like a hundred years to you, because you’re still blessedly littler than you know, and the summery days stretch delightfully before you.


A New, Familiar Magic

2 03 2018

The girls, growing daily in their solidity and solidarity as “girls” and not as babies, toddlers, “Littles,” or even “the little kids” any longer, crossed a new threshold two days ago.  It’s important for me to write that down; most of these gaps in the hedge of childhood that they pass through, leaping forward, or leaving something back, they do without my notice, and while I find myself aware, later, that they’re doing a thing, I’m not sure by the time I write it down (if I remember to write it down at all), when, exactly, the path was trod.  But this one started in the car, on the ride to school, on a Wednesday morning when February was pretending to be Spring, a few days before a deep storm at the start of March would plunge us back, headlong, into winter: Tab secured her 5-point by herself, Ev leaned back to let me do her booster-buckle for her (it’s a struggle, still, to reach that far around and behind herself), and then as I started up the engine, backed down the drive, and headed, windows down, up the street in our daily, school-ward migration, I glanced back to see them lean against their straps in a coordinated meeting-of-minds, prompted by no cue I saw or heard, and start to whisper.


Not about anything big, yet–they were setting up some imagination land, and I could still catch scraps (they’re yet unpracticed)–but the impulse was undeniable: whatever it’s about, however significant or trivial, this was sister-business, not for the Mummy who’s known about every thought, idea, curiosity or stray scrap of language to cross their minds since they gained language in the first place, until now.  I don’t know who knew it first, and shared it with the other one, and sharing is so ingrained in both that they might already have forgotten that detail themselves, but it’s theirs now, the giddy joy of choosing which impressions, imaginings, intentions, and inventions to gift to whom and which to withhold, that dizzying power of realization that you can close an idea off from anyone and not include them in it, that the mind, too, is a clubhouse, maybe the ultimate clubhouse, and you get to choose whom you invite to which fairyland tea party inside and who (Mum!) just gets the job of brewing the tea and staying outside, relegated to the silent land out past the door.

(Here, at the end, I’m probably expected to talk about how I’m starting to process the long-term implications of the feelings of rejection this new start stirs, but it’s not time for that yet.  I don’t feel it.  I will, I’m sure; there’s no denying the basic truths of every mothering, that the child will grow, and go, and you’ll be left behind, but for now, it’s too much fun to watch them flex those little wings, delighting in their abilities and gains, to spare the time or fuss to worry about the inevitable loneliness it will someday bring about.  Yeah, yeah, it’s sad, I get it, I’ll be woeful later, but for now… guys.  They’re so amazing.)

Stretching outside the nest

20 01 2018

[This one’s a bit delayed in parts: I wrote the beginning a year and a half ago, and then lost it in the stacks of Things to Do, and only just finished the ending this morning, but it’s all still true–it’s just the emphases might be a little screwy, in reflecting the timbre of a “now” that’s stretched taffy-wide across a couple years.]

One of the developments I’m having the most fun with, watching Evanny move firmly out of her toddler years and into childhood (and watching Tab echo her steps two years behind but always seeming to be copying fiercely and closing in fast) is friendship starting to emerge as a distinct concept.  We always used the word “friends” to refer to the moms and babies who came to baby-playgroups, but those were mostly just occasions for the adults to talk while trying to troubleshoot the sometimes-happy chaos of babies playing independently in the same room as one another.  When Ev was the toddler coming to Katy’s a couple days a week, she would list her classmates as members of her vaguely defined “family” in our evening chats: “Who do you love,” I’d ask her, and after Caleb, Daddy, Mummy, Tabba, and the cats (and sometimes the grandparents, but sometimes they came after) she’d smoothly continue: “Lulu, Char, Jimmy, Jace, Finn, Nathan, Andrew, Kieran, Mary Grace…”  Now [2016] it’s Tab who does the listing.  “Who are you going to play with at Katy’s today, Tabba?” “Darcy.”  “Just Darcy?” “No!  Play Darcy, Miles, Mary Grace, Georgie, Merritt, Maddy, Michael, Leon, Emmett…” (She, too, consistently lists the entire Mumford family as members of her own: her family is “Mummy, Daddy, Caleb, Evanny, Tabba, Darcy, Nate, Andrew, Lydia, Dan, Papa, Betty, Gus-gus, and Picabo.”)


Swings and contemplation: exploring the shared silence as a facet of friendship with Lulu.

Sometime after that stage, so organically that I don’t know when it happened, wanting to have a playgroup to be around other kids turned into wanting to have a play date with specific other kids.   At the start of last summer [2017], we were able to arrange a couple of play dates with Lulu and Charlotte, Katy’s daughter and the other little girl who used to be at Katy’s when Evanny was, during the transformation phase from when she was most often a toddler who followed them around extraneously to when she was mostly a member of a trio.  On these play dates, there was still some back-and-forthing about whether she was big enough to really do whatever they were doing (Char and Lulu were both already 5, and Evanny still 3), but when we got back from travel, Evanny was firm about wanting to have another, and while the two or three times they’ve seen each other since our return, the dynamic has oscillated similarly, watching them, I get the impression that this is mostly because Lulu and Char spent most of the summer together and are thick with inside references, like any little girls would be who saw each other for half of every summer weekday, months of weekdays in a row.  When the school year started, and we developed this year’s transportation pattern, it turned out that twice a week, Evanny was coming with me to pick Tabitha up from Katy’s, and “pick up Tabitha” pretty instantly (from day 1) turned into “stretch pick-up into an hour-and-a-half-long Katy-day supplement wherein Tab staggers in circles a bit with Miles and/or chases the bigger girls while Evanny and Lulu change clothes seventeen times, playing elaborate games of princess or rock star or family,” and when they’re a two-some (or a two-with-toddlers), the age-gap dissolves almost completely.  (It’s still evident to some degree in how Lulu does the leading, but it’s also her house and her stuff, so that’s wholly to be expected!)  It’s not complicated yet, friendship: it’s just playing together.  It’s just taking turns suggesting, then keeping or rejecting ideas to run with or replace.


Another cool kind of friend, especially for the already-biggest (yet still little) sister: Claire playing the role of the Big Girl who can paint your nails and give you something to look up to and stretch our your little hands to try to reach.

There’s no real ego invested, so there’s nothing to fight or cry about, but there’s a developing sensitivity to mood and interest: when Evanny arrives, some days they just leap into one game or another, but sometimes there’s more feeling-out first, and one of them will have to ask, somewhat tentatively, if the other wants to play.  The answer is almost always “yes,” and it’s a risk-free question anyway, because if either one says “no” or “not yet,” both of them have siblings there to play with instead.  Evanny’s answer, last week, when Lu asked, was “In a minute; first I want to swing with my sister.”  And there’s something very rewarding and encouraging about watching them experience and learn to both suffer and deliver safe, friendly rejection (if more of us were better at this, how much simpler our lives would be, and have been, especially during the infected-ego era of our dating years).  This isn’t to say that she’s totally immune to the notion that friends can hurt our hearts, especially when we invest in expectations.  A couple of weeks back [2017], we were expecting the Mumfords over for an afternoon get-together, and all three kids were hanging around the house for half the day just waiting with all of their attention, egging each other into excitement about the fact that their friends were coming over, and building up their arrival into an intense necessity.


Ev and Nate do a little pond-surface foot-skimming to grab and capture summer in a forever kind of way.

There’s about a 60% chance, these days, that at the start of any play opportunity, Nathan will spurn Evanny to chase the older boys instead, and this time was no exception to probability.  Except instead of being momentarily puzzled and then chasing the bigger boys too, Evanny, worked up into anticipatory glee by her brother’s desperate excitement to see Andrew, was holding her whole little heart in her hands when that boy passed her by, and burst instantly into hot little tears.  (There’s also about a 95% chance that, before the play date is over, Ev and Nate will be thick as thieves again, and this gathering was no exception to that statistic either, so everything ended well–and the next time we got together, not only did they start out well, but they spent the middle of the play-date running up and down the upstairs hallway in costume-hats shrieking, and this time she got teary at the end instead, sad to see him go.)


On a walk with a new kind of friend: Evanny and Juliet, her best school friend, with whom she works on projects, gets in trouble for talking, and has begun to dabble in coordinating outfits with.

These individual little loves are going to shift and grow, of course. Today, Preston coming over to play is such an exciting promise it’s worth running through the house screaming about, and going to Noelle’s house to spend an afternoon among her ideas and stuff and sisters is something she’ll ask me for day after day after day after day until she makes it so by force of will alone.  Wrestling with Halden or playing dress-up with Oliver doesn’t happen so often anymore (the latter has been pretty firmly replaced by his sister, and his superhero capes collection out-desired by Addy’s princess dresses), although trampoline time is still a hit.  By thirteen, she might not know any of these kids, and who knows whom she’ll be chasing and adoring in their stead. But the act of loving, and all of the little languages it takes to do it well: that, I know, she’ll still be busy at, and it’s these kids, these open hearts, these fits and starts, these little lessons in how to grab a “yes” and tear across the yard, waving it like a streamer in the wind behind you, how to softly hold a “no,” wish it were different, and then just as gently let it go, these are shaping who she’ll be forever. So thanks, moms-and-dads of these kids, from now-and-future Evanny, and now-and-future me.


11 01 2018

Tabitha at bedtime tonight was full of a these-days-common mix of kicking and possessive squeezing: kicking the covers off at least three times (some nights it feels like thirty), screaming about the light-up stars her sister wanted to look at (because they weren’t her idea, and so they were utterly abhorrent), rolling and tossing under the covers like Whale Wort, and then gripping my arm vice-like and demanding the instant her sister asked for me to do anything else (tuck her in, for example.  For the third time).  It’s the now, and the now is three, and three looks like this, at least lately.  With Tabitha, bedtime is like a series of waves, an unpredictable variation among a gradually shifting set of behaviors, the befores coming less and less often in a sequence of minute moves forward that leave each night feeling just the same, until you look back and realize that you used to do this thing, and that thing, and this other one, and have to say that all the time, and none of it is true any longer.  There was a good long span of months during which, every single night, part of the bedtime routine was her lying beside me in the dark, her face close to mine, rubbing at her forehead while frowning in consternation, then tracing my eyebrows, then failing to connect with her own again, until I moved her hand (when she’d let me) to line her little finger up right with her downy little wisps.  “I can’t find my eyebrows.” “They’re right there.”  These kinds of assurances are helpful, I suppose, when you’re small and the world is very big.  Moms can find things.  All kinds of things.  Even the ones that should be yours, and easy enough for you to keep up with on your own.  Nowadays it’s all about that arm-grip, which somehow is never right–she wants the arm that’s beside her when we lie side-by-side in her twin bed, but she wants it to curl around her like the other one would, and tries nightly to bend it backwards, tries the other one instead, shifts around, kicks off all the covers again, and goes several rounds of each before finally settling with some less-than-perfect compromise which is somehow the exact same position every time.  Once she’s settled, every night (but it might be different next week) she then pulls her feet back out of the covers, pulls up the legs of her pajamas and asks me to pet her legs with feather-light finger-strokes, tucks her legs back in and pulls the arms of her jammie-shirt up, one by one, making the same request, and on the really long ones, also asks me to pet her belly or chest, her neck and face. It’s cheeks, though, just for the softness of the touch; I’m never asked these days to find her eyebrows.  Three weeks ago, for the first (and last) time in months, she wept at lights-out for a sudden want of apples; that one’s gone, and with it all commentary about skins and the size of bites resembling the ocean. I’m supposed to tell them a story every night, and every night it’s a barter: “I would love to tell you a story, but I can’t until your sister (to Evanny) stops kicking me and lies still” or “until your sister (to Tabitha) stops talking and puts her head on her pillow.”  I’ll pick something out of the Universal Story Hat (there’s no such thing, but boy on tired nights do I wish there were) and start, and stop, and start and stop while we try to wrangle the bursts of word and energy, but usually she tries, usually she settles, usually, eventually, she stops trying to hijack my story by telling me what to say and who the characters ought to be.  And then she’ll pop upright out of the silence, or leap into a million-word jabber right over top of the storytelling, to describe a movie-scene she’s just remembered, or ask about some detail from some recollected experience, like “One time, when we were with Grandma in England, we went to the ocean, but it was all rocks.  I didn’t go swimming.  But Caleb did.  Someday?  If we go to England again?  When we go back to that beach I want to go swimming.” “Okay, kid.  That was like a year and a half ago, and it might be another twenty before we have enough money saved to all go back again.  But yes, if we make it back, you should totally go swimming.  Now, shhhh, for heaven’s sake, before you wake your sister back up.”  “Okay, Mommy.  Tell story?”  Sometimes there’s begging for a second story, and I try to oblige, although usually with something deliberately lame (“Once upon a time, there was a red monkey, who took a bath, cleaned his teeth, and went to bed”).  Sometimes she even tries for a third, but by then I most likely give up, refuse, and fire up my phone to lie beside her playing a repetitive puzzle game (“Dots & Co.” is the current fave) which she’ll watch until her vision blurs and I start to forget she’s watching, and then I’ll realize that I’m still playing, but she’s snoring in my ear.

And then part two, because almost every night has one: she comes pattering into my room in the middle of the night, crawls into the covers between me and the edge of the bed, and usually nestles down with her head cradled on my arm before falling back asleep–an act that often concludes with her flinging an arm out across my body so that her tiny hand whacks me on the face and stays there; I wake up to a blur against my nose that is her thumb and cupped fingers.  These are the good nights, and they’re fortunately the more frequent; on the bad ones, she climbs into bed, then decides she wants to be in the middle, then climbs over me, then kicks her father and I both digging in, then says it’s too hot and throws our covers off, then pitches a fit when we try to pull them back up, then crawls out in a huff and ends up snoring, frog-butt in the air in child’s pose (they call it that for a reason) on the foot of the bed.  I, of course, am supposed to pretend I hate this.  I’m certainly tired all of the time, because it was exhausting to have such ferocious interruptions so often even before we had kittens, who tumble through the bed and wake up sleepers with their leaps and licks and needle-claws caught by accident in skin, but on the rare nights that she doesn’t come, of course I miss it: the sleepy weight of her, the safe little whisper of her snore, the soft hair against my cheek, the soft skin of her cheek against my lips, that tiny hand thrown across my face, that little knee tucked against my belly when she falls so deeply asleep that each limb flops out careless as a ribbon tossed across the floor.  When morning comes and she isn’t there, my arms revel in their ability to stretch at the same time as my heart seizes at their emptiness: she won’t be small forever, she won’t be here forever, and someday soon as Sunday I’ll be old and empty-armed, struggling to remember what it was like to hold the tiny body my strong or square or willowy grown daughter used to wear.

Evanny gets the short end of the deal most nights, because she’s the better-behaved of the two, squeaky wheels being what they are.  Most nights, I tuck her in, plant a kiss on her, yank my arms free of her cling-on ones (because the longer the hug lasts, the louder Tabitha yells about it), kiss her again to compensate for the snatching, and then lie down with her more demanding smaller sister; the flimsy compromise is my lying with Tab but with my feet propped up on Ev’s higher bunk so she can hold onto them while she’s falling asleep if she’s feeling lonesome.  And most nights, worn out by long school days, recess, gymnastics, arts and crafts, math, reading, writing, dancing, talking, singing, bouncing around for no discernable purpose, and generally being manic and five (are those terms redundant?), she passes out long before the sister who doesn’t have a school recess and who usually still naps against her will during the afternoon car-ride.  But when she manages to outlast her, and Tab snores first, Evanny cashes in big time, calling me up to crawl in to her higher bed instead, and there, she says “tell me something about space, Mom,” and we’ll talk about nebulae, the moon, shooting stars and wishing-stars. “What do you believe?” she asked me the other night, when one of those conversations ended up being about God and aliens and the possibility of fairies, because sometimes that’s what needs to happen under the blue projection-stars and the Tinkerbell comforter.  I gave her a list that went something like this: “What do I believe?  I believe that there’s a lot of stuff in the world that I haven’t seen, but that that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  I’ve never seen a fairy, but I believe fairies are possible.  I’ve never seen a unicorn either, but I believe there could be unicorns.  I’ve never seen dragons or talked to God and heard an answer either–” “Well, right,” she said, interrupting, “but that stuff is real, somewhere.  What do you believe, like stuff that other people would say is not real?”  I told her I believe that “God” is just one of many different names for something real about the world that’s too big for us to really understand it, something so many people feel and recognize that it has to be a real thing, and that everybody’s belief system about it is a true way of tapping in to that bigger truth, which in case you ever wondered, is a great way to lose a five-year-old and prompt a shift in conversation to something more tactile and comprehensible, like “where did the moon come from?”  Meanwhile, she’s waging her own war with the exact fold and placement of my arms, just like she’s been doing since basically birth, still poking me with those sharp fingernails we never seem to find a chance to trim, but she just wants to be cuddled these days–and I don’t know anymore when the patting ended, although I know there was an actual day when she first said “No pat–just be there.”

She still part-twos me too often for my expectations of five, but not by much; Matt insists her behavior is highly unusual, and doesn’t believe me when I remind him that, at five, her brother used to creep in every day, crawling straight up the center of the bed so as not to disturb my nursing of baby Evanny on the bed’s edge, and fall back to sleep between us, usually with a little arm flung over his father’s neck (since my body was so thoroughly already occupied).  When Evanny comes in, it’s the same quiet feet, and, if the spot is empty, the same side-of-the-bed curl-in as Tabitha uses, with the same results (although usually the falling-asleep part takes longer and involves more knees and elbows, because Evanny is a live wire and everything she does with her body is an electrically charged flurry of knees and elbows).  If Tab is already there, she’ll crawl on top of me and wedge her way into the middle instead; one time in five, she’ll manage this gracefully enough that Matt can sigh and stay asleep, but the other four, he’ll grumble and groan his way out of bed and down the hall to spend the rest of the night in the guest bed in my office, which we keep not taking down after friends’ and grandmas’ visits for just this reason.  If I’m lucky, then both girls fall back asleep, and my only problem is the suffocating heat of being penned between them.  If I’m not, and somebody’s restless enough to wake the other, or god-forbid they wake each other in the first place and arrive together, the bed becomes a seething shark-tank of wails and kicks and Daddy cursing (one which eventually comes to the same conclusion, but with additional bruising).  Because it’s more rare, it’s all the more the gift when the sun comes up and she’s still there beside me (once in a great while I’ll be so un-awake when she crawls in that I’ll think she’s her sister, and be surprised to wake to the length of her), her hair as dark as shadows and as bright as sunrise clouds alighting on the pillows like a tangle of wing-feathers, her beautiful face so surprisingly still that I can count her freckles, her dreams already so thoroughly peopled and dialogued as to be unimaginable to this boring old lady who would only ruin them with her want for writing-down.

And then for round 3, weekends and holidays, on his lucky nights (often this task falls to his father, because the girls take so damn long to go to bed, or sometimes gets bypassed altogether, when I’m home alone with the three, and he passes out on the couch with a book and a cat while waiting for me to come for him) I crawl up into Caleb’s loft to read a chapter or two of Over Sea, Under Stone, or kiss his dangling hand that’s slipped through the loft-bars while he begs for details about the next day’s plans (what he really means is “Can I see Andrew?”), or linger on the ladder while he confesses a missed element from some story he’d told about something his mom said out of frustration once–“she came back later and said sorry and she shouldn’t have said that.  I forgot before, but I want you to know she did say that”– or dissects the whole day’s catalog of twinges from some small injury.  This past weekend, it was concern because there was a hardness in his belly he wasn’t used to, and he wanted to share his hypochondria and know if he was normal.  “Those are your abs, my dear.  You’ve been playing basketball, doing different kinds of exercise at school, and growing.  You can feel them now, where before they were just soft.”  “Cool!  Does that mean I can get a six-pack?  What is a ‘six-pack’?” And off we go–insert mental image of a cartoon rocket ship launching into space (except here, it’s a metaphor, whereas with his sister, it’s literal).  Recent bedtime conversations have interrogated his tattletale behaviors at school and their implications for his friendships (and, in particular, his chances at impressing the new girl), his likes and dislikes of different aspects of intramural sports, his curiosity about the human body and the internet, his insecurity about the correct way to pronounce “puberty,” his concerns about how his body might change (he’s especially terrified that he might pudge up before he gets taller–for some reason, despite having had a perfect body for every minute of his young life, having a father who’s fit and athletic, having a brother who’s just as skinny as he is, and having a mother who’s in perfectly fine, healthy shape, he’s obsessively worried about the possibility of getting fat), and, of course, always, communication with his mother.  But we also talk about his brother’s schooling, his extended family, his emoji use, his knowledge of (and the limits he needs to exercise with regards to) internet safety and how to learn things he wants to know about without falling down the rabbit hole–If I followed every tangent he came up with, that child would soak up attention past sunburning all the way to blisters and never sleep at all.  But sometimes, especially if his dad isn’t home to mind, so there’s nowhere else we need to be, I try, for at least a while.  Because I know his days of wanting me to hear and help his fears and worries are growing fewer quicker than he would imagine.  I know there won’t be many more times that he comes in to our bedroom, that nappy-furred wolf wedged under his arm, looking for a cuddle and a reassurance in the night after some dream has haunted him awake (as for years now, it’s always my side of the bed he appears at when this happens; he saves crawling in for Daddy snuggles for post-daybreak sneaking, after the girls and their energetic loudness have already dragged me downstairs to facilitate bananas and Cheerios and I’ve put the coffee on); I know my days of being wanted in the head and heart and hug of this little boy who isn’t really all that little anymore (but he is, in so, so many ways, he really is) are numbered (for all of them, really, but with the girls I’ve still got a ways to go, and no time to try to count so high; with him, by now, I might have been born with enough digits to mark off what’s left in months, and then he’ll wake up one day a teenager and shrug me off for a decade before I’ll get another happy Christmas hug.  It’s not likely, really; he’s a tactile person and never seems to have his fill of hugging, but they’re a strange breed, teens, and you never know how yours are going to grow.