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.


31 12 2017

It’s white everywhere outside, a thin, dry blanket of ice-dust muting out the tracks of squirrels and the neighbourhood cats trying to fill the gap, lying opposite-of-warmly over the stones that mark the cat-grave in the rose garden, decorating the pine boughs I put out there to honour a cat who loved Christmas.

The obvious metaphor would be false: this is a pristine white, not like the yellowed, grey-streaked white of the coat he’d bring home, ornamented in leaf piles, under cars, and up dusty barn-ladders. It’s a serious white, cold enough to burn, to freeze, to kill the too-small, careless, or unprotected, whereas our goofy space-ghost of a cat was rarely serious, flopping through the house, falling off the furniture, chasing squirrels up trees and leaping down again with wild twists designed to save his ass without a thought for dignity. And he was so, so warm.

The Christmas kittens are warm too, full of silliness and purring and tumbling over each other, us, and everything. Unrescued, they would have been killed by this deep, sharp, lasting, unforgiving cold. We are starting to really like them. But it isn’t love, not yet, and this morning, as she was lingering over her elevenses, Tabitha was singing my heart too, quietly to herself: “I miss my Gus Gus, I miss my Gus Gus Gus.”

The Ambassador

8 12 2017

One sure-fire way to make friends with babies is to steal their toys. Really. If you’re a cat, babies love this.

We called Gustav “The Ambassador” to honor his way of reaching out to everyone. In its original context, the name was a commentary on his diligence in luring our loud but somewhat reluctant feral into making a genuine effort at being a family cat. When we brought wild-thing Beorn in at the chilly beginning of a long winter, in answer to his insistent, pink-mouthed cries at the door, he was so terrorized by the giant hands and clomping feet that he immediately took up residence among the basement’s ceiling-rafters, creating for himself a maze of pathways along the top of the heating vents and a black, impenetrable cave between the wood beams above the foundation — impenetrable to the humans, that is. Gustav, who had been mad at the door to get to the little cat stranded outside in the cold, was no less devoted when we brought him in, and regularly leaped up into the cave to touch noses with and carry person-smells to the wild thing, one little gesture at a time, until our ambassador finally led the shy one up the basement stairs and into the warm light of the kitchen to partake of the magical gifts of meat snacks — a boon so inviting that Beorn’s given name would soon be forgotten by the entire family, who called him what I used to call to let him know a treat was available: “Meat Snack!” But Gustav wasn’t just an ambassador to this one feral cat.

baby visit supervisor

Supervising Holly’s first visit with tiny Tabitha, and securing himself a little slice of her heart forever in the process.

He planted himself lovingly in the lap of my father, who never cared at all about cats, stretched his head up to skull-bonk my father’s chin, stood up on his chest to nuzzle his face, and made himself a friend. He reached out curiously to Matt’s Maggie when she used to visit; he tried to make friends with but then settled on creating a terrifying and death-defying chase-game with Dad’s dog Betty, who still hasn’t made her mind up about cats, whether they should be friends or food (my dad reports that Gus used to wait in the woods between our houses, hunched down behind a tree, for Betty to come out, and when she’d get almost-but-not-quite close enough to catch him, bolt out and set her bark-and-running). He befriended Crista’s dog Lily with complacent good cheer, because she hasn’t a threatening bone in her fluffy little body. He walked right into the arms, laps, and suitcases of literally every human who ever came to visit this house (or the one before it), whether they were family come to stay a month or acquaintances just dropping off a borrowed object. He was like a one-cat outreach team from the land of Felandia to the rest of the human world, and we simply cannot count high enough to keep track of the number of people who told us, over the course of his big little life, “I don’t really like cats… but I love THAT cat.”

bat cat

Playing a little string-bat with baby Evanny, gentle as you like despite those big-clawed paws.

I can count the number of people who reacted with hearts and sad-face emoticons to the news that he was lost to us: 77, many of whom had met him only a few times, or only once, or only even online, where his presence was just as large as the bright contrast of his white, white fur, brightening dark winter days, dark times, dark newsfeeds, and dark nights. Thirty-seven of those people couldn’t let the announcement pass without a comment to record their love and sorrow–and some of his most avid fans, like Holly, above, and my mother, who was always threatening to steal him away, aren’t even current Facebook users. He was also beloved among the children in our lives (all of these still too young for Facebook too) — and as organizers of the neighborhood playgroup and as a family with friend-loving kids, we have lots of children in our lives. When playgroup meet-ups were just herds of toddlers, awkwardly chasing each other in circles around the downstairs of our old house, and Picabo would hide under an upstairs bed, and Meat Snack would hide back in the basement ceiling, Gustav would wander in and out of the playgroup, sniffing little hands, head-butting crawling babies to say hello, and playing hide-and-seek with Finn and Halden and Nathan and Lulu, dashing up the stairs to misdirect their thunder of feet, slinking back down when they weren’t looking, turning up under the babies’ playmat, dashing off through the cat-door to the basement when they chased him next, then coming back again to play hour-long games of fetch with soft toys chucked over the back of the couch.

cat bed 2

Convincing argument that there’s nothing more comfortable than being sandwiched between a stack of books and the heavy skull of an adoring 4-year-old.

He never scratched or bit, not when cornered, not when tackled, not when lain upon, not when Nate would pick him up by the hips, his skinny frame barely bigger than that of the long-limbed cat he hefted, and waddle him awkwardly around the house.  When the kids grew older, and liked to gather at the neighbor’s fire pit, they would do so with a white cat underfoot who liked to keep an eye on things, and who liked to wander into the neighbor’s house to say hello and watch TV with their children; once, we heard, one neighbor awoke from a mid-day nap to find Gus hanging out in his bedroom to keep him company. (“Is that white cat yours? I wondered why he was so friendly.  He let the girls pick him up and carry him around — I always told them not to, but he didn’t seem to care.  He’s a really great cat!”)  When the news got out, the most poignant consolations were from the children: the girls drew pictures of him with condolence notes for me, Evanny spent all the next day at school drawing (earless) blob-footed kindergarten cats, their friend Preston wrote the girls a letter — and hand-delivered it — to show how sad he was to hear the news, and their friend Oscar made us all cry by sending (via his mom’s iPhone) a video of himself singing “You Are My Sunshine” as a way to sadly say goodbye.


A typical morning juggling baby and cat in the kitchen, when somebody wanted up, and somebody else never wanted down.

I never meant for Gus to even be an indoor-outdoor cat — a designation that eventually, as we all knew it would, became the actual death of him. I signed a promise-form to this effect for the local Cat Coalition when I adopted him, and had every intention of keeping that promise, but one can only promise for oneself, not for the whims of every-creature-else. When I first brought him home, kitten-Gustav was afraid of trucks, and every time the rumble of an engine went by on the street outside, he would hide under the bed; how I wish that sensibility had stayed. Instead, he grew, and as he grew, he got cocky and curious. When Meat Snack wouldn’t stay in the house, but would escape time and time again, Gus started to follow him, and off they would run, leaping into the back yard ravine in a wild, unfettered game of chase that I loathed, every time. If he wasn’t back by nightfall, I would pace out front of and, alternatingly, out behind the house by star and moonlight, in slippers and robes, calling to him like a crazy cat-lady, and eventually (although sometimes I’d have to go in and give up and try again later), every night but two, he came home. (Those two, he was trapped, respectively, in our barn and our neighbor’s, having fallen asleep while exploring and gone unnoticed when someone closed up for the night.) I hated this game, and tried to put an end to it time and again, but he was fast and determined, and even the adults with quick feet for cat-soccer had a hard time keeping him from getting through; for toddlers and small boys bad at remembering to close doors at all, it was an impossible thing to ask.


What the heck is going on in this car seat?

When we moved, and found ourselves on a bigger road with faster, more frequent trucks, I tried again; Caleb developed quite a skill for chasing after him and catching our sweet cat, who never fought and clawed a child, not once, no matter how badly he might have wished to roam. When we gave up that fight too, we hoped that the acre and a half behind us, and the huge block of yards and houses to explore without needing to cross roads at all, would have been enough. I was afraid he was going to be eaten by the Rottweilers living behind our property or mauled to death by Betty, but I hoped he had the sense to stay away from that damned road, across which there was nothing a cat with a steady food source, a few acres of territory to claim and dispute, and all the love in the world could possibly need. Hope buys nothing, though, and the damn fool would cross the street — at the old house and at this one too — there’s simply no reasoning with cats. I can’t pretend I only hated it, though; there was a charming magic new to me in having a cat come and join me in the back garden (and he did, every time I went out there, appearing out of the woods or wherever he was to come in the gate with me and mill among the tangled rows).


Minding the baby, like ya do, when you’re a guardian angel.

There was something delightful about watching him run the length of the yard to come when I called to him.  And it was an exquisite mercy not to have to guard the door, but just to be able to leave them open to the summer breezes and the children’s and builders’ and project-makers’ tromping feet without having to worry about where the cat was this time, but I never forgot that those pleasures had a price.  So when the girls and I drove home Monday afternoon and found him in the front yard, we were launched immediately into all of the regret and sorrow our little hearts could hold, but the shock held no surprise. “Stupid, stupid cat,” we’ve all said lovingly, tearfully, over and over, day after day since it happened. “You stupid, stupid beloved wonderful cat.”


Our three small people, ages 5, 2, and 3, respectively, demonstrate Gustav’s tolerance over the years for the small-child-squeeze.

I’ve tried dwelling on mythologies, to make this loss more palatable, but it hasn’t taken a lot of dwelling, really; the part of me that loves a good angel-story had cast him in this part long before we had to wonder at the beginning of this awful week where his heart was needed more. You see, right from the very first, Gustav chose this family: he came to us with determination, despite my intentions at the time, he wrote his own job description, and he took his responsibilities so seriously that he developed some anxiety from trying to do it too well, and had to take a little kitty-Prozac to keep himself at ease. He came when I was fearfully working my way through my second pregnancy, having lost the first so early that I knew nothing about what was to come, but only knew the worry about another failure. He came to warm my sleepless nights and soothe my predictions about the terrors of birth, to prepare the way for a baby, and then another; he came to shore up a worried, lonely, sleep-deprived new mother; he came to soften and sweeten the challenge of learning to nurse a difficult baby with difficult tools; he came to sleep with and cuddle and protect a little boy who was right in the middle of being jolted from having only-child status in two families to having it in none; he came to warm and delight and bring sweet, early pleasure to a tiny, angry baby and then to spread the love around to the next one, when there weren’t always as many empty hands on hand as she’d have liked: “don’t worry, eh,” he seemed to say, curling up beside one tiny body to keep it warm while I tended to the needs of the other, “I’ve got this.” And I was delighted by each of these gifts, but they, too, weren’t really a surprise. Because although they weren’t so obvious to those who weren’t looking very closely, he came with tells: among the scattered black spots his mostly-white Van Pattern body wore, some as small as pen-marks, he had a pair right on his shoulder blades (one was obvious, the size of a quarter, visible to all, but its match a kind of secret, only about six hairs there, easy enough to find when he was tiny, but when his thick adult fur grew in, it took a quest to even find it). And to a girl who grew up watching The Last Unicorn, wherein Amalthea’s human face, when her magic was engaged, bore the star where her horn had been, those spots were obviously the calling-cards of recent wings.


Want to see that two-handed move again?

Gustav had a French name because the tabby in him peeked through in two places: his grey-and-black striped tail and the top of his head, where his asymmetrical patch seemed to give him a jaunty beret. He had black spots on all four white paws, on his back, on his lip, on his legs, and on the roof of his mouth, but for all intents and purposes, he was a white cat: he was a brilliant glowing light in the twilight, and could be seen in the back woods from inside the upstairs windows. He was a yin-yang opposite to Picabo’s tuxedo-coloring. He was a luminous spot of life in a dark house; the others could disappear in the center of a dark room, but he could not have even tried. We called him Space Ghost sometimes, and we giggled about how he was Sprinkles from Girls With Slingshots — aka Doom-kitty, both in terms of being a dazed idiot and in terms of being an absolute love. And, of course, being long and skinny and white with pink inner ears and a black tail and a dark beret and black spots in random places. Doomkitty Gustav as a baby loved the stuffed tiger Piddy-the-cat used to love, except where Pids would treat the object in Ways of Unspeakable Affection, Gus would hold it and purr and suckle its fur. He would chase many things for one or two throws, but would chase the fleece-ribbon-on-a-stick or a tossed fuzzy pipe-cleaner for one or two hundred. He loved to sleep at the foot of our bed, and Caleb’s, and Tabitha’s, and sometimes Evanny’s; when he was little, he slept in cribs and bassinets to be always near the babies, but he was a cat: he also slept on chairs and couches, in the forsythia bramble in the back yard, in a cardboard box full of old papers in the cold basement, in the dolls’ bunk beds, in a toy box full of stuffed animals, on top of suitcases or stacks of boxed hand-me-downs, on my pillow, on the kids’ mini-couch, in their bed-tent and crawling-tunnel, and sprawled across the heating vent.

baby you can pull my tail

“Baby you can pull my tail… ’cause, Baby, I love you.”

He loved to run up-and-over the kids’ plastic slide, to leap onto Picabo from around corners, to perform acrobatic stunts around the tall, narrow rails of beds and cribs and playpens.  He tail-chased in chairs and on the changing mat and in the middle of the floor, but also in precarious places like the corner of the loft-bed or on top of a dresser he would then fall off of, scattering papers and quarters and neatly-folded clothes awaiting placement in the process.  He killed mice in the house and voles and squirrels outside; he once proudly brought a dead bird into the kitchen. Then, of course, he kissed us with that face. He jumped up on things (the mantle, the hall-table beneath the display shelves, dressers and high shelves everywhere) and broke things (a camera lens, the beanbag chairs, and Matt brought that glass home safely in a suitcase all the way from Barcelona) and played the piano — both the kids’ electric toy one and the real one, often in the middle of the night.


Working on his ornament-chewing skills while a very little Caleb practices some kindergarten workbook exercises.

He was a vocalizer, always with a chirp or miaow to announce his presence and/or comment on the world; when he was small, I used to call him “Peru” for the sound that he would make every time he came to greet me — and since he’d follow me around the house, and wander out of rooms, and then say hi again when he’d wander right back in, there were a lot of greetings. But ambassadors are greeters, and although the habit got quieter, it never dimmed: as a foolish outdoor cat, he would follow me around on frosty mornings when I dragged the trash — two cans — and the recycling — sometimes four bins’ worth — out to the road, waiting in the driveway and running up for a pet, tail high, on repeat, just as eager each time I came around the corner to grab another load.


Watching over the sleep of and falling asleep with, near, and under the sleeping bodies of our daughters (the boy’s bed is much harder to photograph such scenes in, but they happened there too).

As the children’s protector, Gus was simply unimaginable: no one could have predicted or invented the investment and devotion of this cat.  We say, like it’s a family joke, although it is 100% completely true, that Gustav safety-tested every piece of baby gear to ever enter this house before any babies ever used it.  I have (more) pictures: he napped in the cribs, the bassinet Evanny used, the pack-n-play, and later the rock-n-play sleeper and co-sleeper Tabitha slept in.  He rode in the stroller to test it out when we first picked it up at a neighbor’s yard-sale: there’s video of my mother pushing it around the house with him gamely along for the journey.  He swung in the baby-swing.  He bounced in the bouncer.  He lounged in the fabric-sling bathtub.  He slept and played both on and under the play mat.  He climbed into car seats — and once he started ranging outdoors, would climb into the car to give everything there a careful consideration too.  And he didn’t stop once the babies came; he slept with them, always conscientious about giving them enough room to move, always attentive to their wakings and wiggles, and he oversaw the nursing process, especially with Evanny, like the most diligent lactation consultant on Earth, watching me pump at 4 in the morning, lying in the bed with his furry head against her bald one while she suckled, or lying across my neck while I held her to the breast, a double-decker armful of warm, small bodies on mine.  But it wasn’t just the babies: he climbed the ladder up to Caleb’s loft at least once a day to make sure everything was ship-shape, and on nights when Caleb was sleeping here, would bound up into the bed after him and do a round of tiptoeing all the way around the railing, all four corners of the rectangle, before settling in for a snuggle, a foot-warming curl of sleep, or a sequence of both in turn.  When we installed a play set a month or two ago, and broke the ladder before we could put it together, he taught himself to climb the climbing-wall hand-holds so he could safety-test the tower and pace the railings up there too.  He was never content with the babies’ doors being closed for sleeping; we had to leave a crack so he could push them open and include their spaces in his nightly patrols.  When Caleb was small enough to be afraid of monsters, Gus would lie with him every bedtime, and only jump down the ladder to go check on everybody else after he fell asleep.  When we moved here, and the girls moved into their shared room at the top of the stairs, he would come in every night when I was putting them to bed, check the closet for monsters, lie on the floor for a while listening to storytime, and then go out again to continue his rounds; if he wasn’t at the foot of the bed when I’d get up in the middle of the night, I’d often find him in the dead-center of the hallway, lying on the floor at the top of the stairs where he’d be the first to intercept anything that might try to reach the family.  He was likely to do this a couple times a week in general, but if Matt wasn’t home, he’d be at his post each night without exception.


This guy loved him too. (That trailing kitten-foot, y’all.)

Gustav was the kids’ guardian and playmate, the family clown, and an equal source for Matt of charm and exasperation, because the breaking-of-things, the minute but recurring bother of popping a pill down his throat every night, the peeing-on-stuff when he wasn’t medicated, the worrying me every night by needing to be called and coaxed and sometimes dragged back into the house, the waking of babies, the demand of complicated air-lock house maneuvers to get away on trips without him ending up trapped outside instead of in, but Gus had no qualms about loving Matt, offering up bellies for rubs, nose-touches whenever, and the occasional post-shower beard-drying service.  He was Picabo’s annoying little brother, the one she was supposed to like better when he got older, but five wasn’t old enough to be old yet; he played chase with her, entertained her, inspired her off her dense bottom to run around, and earned more than his share of dark glares pretty much daily.  I saw them sleep close enough to touch each other without reaching paws out (which she would have never done) exactly once, only a month or so ago.  Perhaps they were on their way, and perhaps it was an accident; this we’ll never know.  But more than he was everybody else’s everything, Gustav was my “babbers,” the Bristolian-for-baby nickname Matt gave him when he first came home, a scrawny slip of a kitten who liked to nap in an empty birdcage and would perch in my lap-desk’s cup holder like a cup.  (This was both a private truth and a wildly public one; I would whisper “och, me babbers” at him in the stupidest fake accent ever, when he was tucked up in his trademark spot beside me, but also use that name when yelling down the street, so the neighbors all heard me shout it at least as often as “Gus-Gus!” (which rhymes with couscous) “Where are you? Gooooooose? Doo-doff.  BABBERS!”)

bathtub games

Bath tub. Toothbrushes. Toddlers. Playmates.

Gustav, my sweet, pig-headed, road-crossing babby-cat did what I thought would be impossible when I met him: he moved into the little cat-shaped space in my heart that Pids had vacated, the closer-in one that Picabo never really wanted, the one that shares storage space with pursed, milk-sweet baby-lips, the smell of my grandmother’s perfume, the stuffed faux-velour dog I had when I was an infant (and rubbed all the fur off of before I was four), Christmas jazz in my mother’s house, & the warm weight of a trusting, sleeping head lolled against my shoulder.  That space.  He started by push-pulling his way in through my skin and hair, as a kitten, kneading my flesh with his long arms outstretched, purring loudly enough to catch his rhythm on video — I know because I made Matt record him doing it, so that since I wasn’t allowed to take my cat to the birth center with me, a rule I felt was quite unjust, I could still bring at least his purr, the most relaxing music I know in the world.


A little under-the-tree Christmas swordplay was never amiss.

Five years later, he didn’t always come up for a nightly cuddle anymore, only usually, and he didn’t always stay for one if I went to fetch him, only almost-always, but when he did, every time, it went just this way: I would invite him up onto the bed with tapping or scratching fingers, the universal air-kiss of cat-luring, or simply plopping him there after extracting him from some or another nest or window-sill.  I would get under the covers and lie on my side, making a space for him beside me, open armed.  In cold months, I would hold the covers open to offer a den.  He would walk up, sniff the offering, stalk past it as if ignoring me, turn around on the nightstand or on my pillow, mill his way down to the end of the bed or across the dresser and back, and then he would lie down.  In lying down, he would face me, his back feet curled to tumble between his chest and mine, then scooch around until his top was lined up just the way he wanted it: with his head pressed against my chin, tucked up against my neck just so, and his long arms stretched out to either side of my neck in an adorable, gigantic, claw-carved hug, where he would proceed to close his eyes, purring loudly, and relax into a cat-shaped puddle of softness.  Most times, he would get up and head for the foot-sleeping space after a little while, preferring to do his deepest sleeping without somebody messing with him, but sometimes we would both fall asleep like that, and I’d wake to him moving hours later — or wake hours later to some sound made by a child to find him still in place.


Baby touch: it went both ways.

All cats are have a little something one-in-a-million about them, but he was a one-in-a-cat-million cat, a character the likes of which I doubt I’ll ever meet again, and it’s really, really hard to stop looking for him every time I walk into a room, or past a back-yard window, to a car, or in or out through the back door (which happens about 100 times today): I keep expecting to see him looking up sleepy-eyed from a nap in some uncomfortable-looking place, coming cheerily up the path from the woods, eyeing the driveway from atop the stump in the neighbor’s yard, slinking out with a long stretch from his favourite outdoor snooze-spot under the dining room window.  IMG_6309I wander the house at night trying not to look for him, pretending the white blur of a pillow in the office-chair is his curled-up form so I can fool myself to sleep.  I don’t even want to go into the back yard, because the last time I took myself down for a quiet swing, he came with me, tried to walk out along the top of the swing-set to peer down at me like the proverbial ceiling-cat, and fell off, because he was also a clumsy idiot.  Every squirrel-sound in the leaves, every wind-tossed plastic bag caught in a branch, rain-bleached face of cardboard mulching the back garden, or scrap of paper demands a rebuke: he’s not there, and he’s not going to be.  Every time I pull a car up to the stop across the street — and all the school trips make this a near-constant activity, one I’ve done already thirteen times in the four days since we found his body — I find myself looking at the spot where he was lying, wishing to see time running backwards, wishing he were there, all tail-up from a scamper, to be scolded one last time about that f*$%ing street.


Ambassador Gustav would like to recommend the lights: a rare delicacy, especially when nibbled still warm.

We’ll be having new, only, always indoor (if I have to keep them in cages, for Pete’s sake) kittens for Christmas.  There’s no choice, really; Gustav loved Christmas.  He loved to sleep beneath the warm lights, nestled in the felt of the tree-skirt between packages under the tree.  He loved chasing ornaments, batting at the little dangles, making the chimes on the bottom branches ring (I’ve hardly heard them this year; Picabo doesn’t care about the tree until the packages come out, as her chosen holiday vice is eating bows).  And like me, he liked to just look at the decorations; in a dark room bathed in tree-light, I would find him doing what I liked to do: sitting just quietly, watching things glow.  I don’t want to do it without him.  I don’t want to do anything without him.  Like giving birth, the hardest part about all of the traveling we’ve done these past five years was always leaving him behind.  I hate him left behind.  Somebody has to trash this tree and learn to crash along piano keys at 3am, dammit.  But I harbor no illusions about this: we’re having kittens because they’re a distraction, and because this is a house that’s happiest with cats, and Picabo alone just isn’t cat enough. (In the six hours I’ve spent writing this, I’ve only seen her twice.  She wandered in once, looked at me, perched on the back of the chair across the room to look out the window hoping for somebody else, and left again.  She walked by another time, watched me from the other room for a couple of minutes, and silently vanished.)

goodnight cat

On my nights of best-sleeping, this would be the last sight I’d see. I just never thought the last time would come so soon.

We’re having kittens because chaos keeps one busy, and busy people don’t have time to cry (again) about spilled milk and lost loves.  We’re having kittens because silence is lonely.  But we’re not having kittens to try to take any-kitty’s place, because for a cat like Gustav: his place was so high up in the stars that any aspiring replacement would have to start the quest by learning how to fly.

And we’ll be jolly friends

24 11 2017

As an example of what I’m saying below, this picture, which is not staged in any way. They’re playing school; one doll is a teacher giving the other a lesson, but they’re trying to settle what kind of lesson. Teacher-Tab suggests flower arranging; student-Ev says that, by kindergarten, she should be doing something more challenging.

“Run,” yells the elder, pink-clad in some school dress she wasn’t wearing when I saw her last, as they scamper down the stairs together deeply embroiled in some imaginary adventure (it’s 7:40 in the morning, but we’re already on at least our third outfit and have already eaten both fruit and pie).  “No,” says the smaller, scrunching her tiny face into a snarl.  “Fight!”   They turn as one to face an invisible foe.  Ev steps forward into a lunge, throws a straight arm forward, and hollers “Blast!”  Her sister capers up to her heels, then grabs her arm.  Some confusion ensues about the hem of Tab’s dress, and then they’re off again, back upstairs to the other setting in their re-envisioned house geography.

It’s growing all the time, this dance of theirs.  This morning, it’s full of synchronicity, complement, harmony.  Two little voices chanting in sweet, perfect unison: “paper, rock, scissors, shoe!”  Two little voices weaving in and out of one another’s, trying to re-remember Moana’s memorized introduction to Maui, which last summer they could have done in their sleep, but it’s winter now, and the sea seems far away.  Two singers at different pitches chanting the lines of “Say Say O Playmate” and flapping their hands ineffectually at each other, since no child of mine (the ten-year-old included) has ever mastered even Patty-cake, let alone a more complicated slap-rhyme.

Right now, they’re helping each other arrange their hair with stretchy headbands to try to achieve some effect seen in a show; in the time it’s taken to type these paragraphs, they’ve already shed the pink dresses and are in white tank-tops and leggings, the same white tank tops I found scattered all over their room last night when I went to get them ready for bed, trying to maneuver around the plastic Christmas tree they’ve already set up in their doorway and decorated with loose beads and pom-poms that will be all over the house by the end of today.  It’s November 24th.  Breakfast was leftover pie, and the chocolate layer might have something to do with how merry and manic this game is, or maybe not, as it’s not that different from most other days.

There are, of course, oil-and-water moments of screeching disharmony, and sometimes those “moments” seem to last all day, Ev roaring “TABBA!” in booming fury when her sister dares to bump her elbow, Tab bursting into tears and fleeing the scene because Ev has put on a necklace she likes to wear herself, both of them kicking each other happily one minute and screaming about never playing with the other again the next.  Now, they’re yelling “hoy-ya!” over and over and leaping around in the foyer, where there seems to be some kind of imaginary-rules karate-derivative-sportsball going on: “No, no, we won, we got one point,” Ev just cried up the stairs, to a Tab who was about to retreat on account of feeling slighted by something.  “Chaa-la!” Tab  just shouted herself, getting back into the game, and then the scamper-rush on the stairs yet again, and they’re gone.

This afternoon, we’ll read another chapter book together, snuggled together on the couch (they’re currently absorbed in Daisy Meadows’ Rainbow Fairies), after which they’ll run off to play that, instead, although they’ll probably have a stall at the start while they squabble over who wears which wings.  They’ll be back in another few minutes for second breakfast.  At some point today there will be a fight about practicing piano (Evanny vs. one or both parents) and a fight about choosing a TV show (Evanny vs. Tabitha); over the dishwasher, I can hear somebody keening now, and it’s almost undoubtedly Tab, and she’ll almost certainly be over it before I see her next, although there’s always the chance she’ll be upset enough to run all the way down here, bump me woefully and say “Mama,” whinge through an explanation of how she was wronged, run out of steam before she’s all the way finished, and take off up the stairs again yelling “Sissy!” with renewed enthusiasm. At some point today, there will probably also be a tea party.

“Sissy” might be Tab’s favourite word (that or “coyote”): this morning Ev wedged herself into the bed between Matt and I quietly but forcefully while Tab was a rabid wolverine of cover-kicking on my other side, screaming at me and the blankets and the universe until her father fled the room, disgruntled as usual about the fact that our usual alarm clock is a rabid wolverine.  Once this ousting was accomplished and they had enough room to thrash about the whole queen with only me in the middle, I was almost instantly eclipsed for each one by the other.  “Sissy!” the little one cried, launching herself onto her sister like a whole-body face-hugger, and they giggled and rolled and choked on inhalations of each others’ hair.  When the smaller bonked an ear on her sister’s elbow (or something–they were a blur and it was dark, so I have no idea what was actually bonked on what) and set up a repetitive “AENH, aenh, aenh” sort of wailing, the elder one leapt back in time a day or three to a dinner interaction that had somehow wound up being a game of Tab making that same noise and Ev repeating, in response, the phrase she dragged out this morning, thirty times if it was said three: “Don’t cry about broccoli!”  “Aenh!” “Don’t cry about brocolli!” “Aenh(giggle)!” “Don’t(giggle) cry about(giggle) broccoli!” And thus, voila, they have inside jokes.  Giggle-inducing insider references to their own illogical sources of giggling.  And thus, voila, a magical transformation has taken place.  They aren’t just sisters now, you see, these little people who were not-so-long-ago tiny pink creatures without word or thought or memory.  They became family at birth, the first mine and her father’s and brother’s, the second both ours and each others’, but they’re not just family anymore.

They’re friends.

The Great Pumpkin lesson

30 10 2017


This morning, my Montessori-daughters, after entertaining themselves deliriously making video recordings with me of themselves fumbling a slap-rhyme and giggling about it, spent a good twenty minutes completely occupied with the task of washing the paint off a painted pumpkin. This is their schooling in action: Montessori believed that children are happiest doing real tasks instead of pretend ones, and their classrooms have small sinks, rags, and soap ever at the ready. They wash their snack dishes, help younger kids wash snack dishes, and wash any other thing they can get their hands on. Sometimes they spend all morning dirtying a thing and washing it again (which is why Tabitha rarely comes home in the clothes I sent her in: for other three-year-olds, this is commonly a sign of peed outfits, but we’ve had only one of those. Her plastic-bagged clothes boast sticky soap-swirls and sleeves soaked to the shoulder).

It’s also part of a larger story about social learning and friendship for Evanny, though. The pumpkin in question was a “gift” from an old schoolmate, her friend Preston (now in first grade somewhere else, as last year he joined the rock-star cast of “graduated” playmates). (Really, it was a gift from his mother; Preston was tired at the end of the play date when it was acquired and had a little trouble letting go, but he managed to rise to the occasion.). Evanny was charmed enough by the gourd that it had to go to school for show and tell–a pumpkin! During pumpkin season! From Preston! (It was apparently very popular.) And then a few days later, at another play date, her dear friend Nathan, who is quick to catch fire with inspiration, reluctant to ever let a good idea go, and very firm in purpose once he picks a path, announced that they should paint it.

Evanny and Nathan have a complicated relationship. He’s her first love from babyhood, and used to adore her unconditionally in turn. But he’s a year and a half her senior, has an older brother to shadow, has mostly boy friends now, and is particularly taken with Evanny’s brother, so if the bigger boys are available, he doesn’t have much time for her these days. When they aren’t, however, these two are still a happy little house-on-fire of inventing and making, doing and playing, and she treasures those opportunities. She knows they’re a little fragile, though. Which is why, after saying “no” a few times, because the Preston-pumpkin was precious to her, she yielded to please him: because shared projects with Nathan are also precious to her. I could see the reluctance on her face give way to regret as she helped him decorate the pumpkin with craft paint, but I didn’t interfere. There are some lessons in life you simply can’t learn from your mother.

After Nathan had gone home, and Daddy had complemented her on their painting job, and said quietly to me, “Mom, I didn’t want that pumpkin painted.” “I know, baby doll. But did you have fun painting it with Nathan?” “Yeah,” she said. “Kind of.” “If you want,” I told her, “that paint is pretty washable. I’ll bet we could clean it off. Would you like that?” “I think so,” she said, “but not right now,” and off she ran to play. That conversation was a week ago; I hadn’t heard a peep about the pumpkin since. But clearly, it was still in her mind, turning and steeping, and today she made her call.

Ultimately, I’d call it a win for all. She still has the gift-gourd, she got to do the activity with her friend, and she got to share a fun washing-task with her sister. But she also got a hands-on chance to wrestle with peer pressure, and with it a small-scale version of the bad feelings that accompany giving in to something you don’t want to do just to please somebody else. Now if only, if only there were a way to be sure she would carry it with her, like a little emotional flu-shot against too-quick acquiescence to actual bad ideas she will certainly be tempted toward in the future.