Meet My Seven-Year-Old Daughter, the Orange-Belt Fairy Princess Badass

So when school let out a few weeks ago, my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do class had their promotion tests, but she missed it because she was home from school that day, sick with a fever. I could go into the details of how we had to go repeatedly back and forth to find a time when she could make up her test, but honestly, they’re not very interesting. Suffice it to say, it took a while, and she ended up having to crash a summer camp session at another school to do her test at the beginning of their class, or else just not be able to move past her white belt. And although she tried out Tae Kwon Do for a semester and liked it well enough, she’s thinks (at this moment, at least) that she’s ready to go back to ballet when school starts up again in the fall. We didn’t want her to have gone through a whole semester of martial arts and not get her belt promotion (i.e., closure), so we made the effort and got ready for the test today.

Now, when I say “got ready,” this primarily consisted of my reminding her every day this week to practice her moves so she could pass her test. We were going to have five minutes at the start of the summer camp class for her to accomplish it, and then leave. Win win for everyone, assuming she would pass.

Unfortunately, explaining the logistics of it to her made her a wee bit nervous. “Practicing” meant she would perform a single kick of some indeterminate sort, and then get distracted by wrackspurts or something and wander off to pick gurdyroots. In other words, no actual practice was happening. Well, fine, I thought, she’s seven years old and needs to understand why practicing something you want to do well at is important, and after all the stakes here aren’t particularly high and it’s a good lesson to learn on blah blah blah. So I didn’t push.

Well, we get to the camp today and get her changed into her gi, which is white and made of cotton. My daughter is growing so quickly, and the white cotton gi had to be washed in hot water with bleach every week this semester because just looking at it funny would make it filthy, and — you do the math. The pants are a couple of inches too short. And we hadn’t put her hair up this morning before she went to her camp (which is for Creative Writing, by the way, nothing physically athletic*), because she likes to wear it down. I offer to put it up for her before her test, but she isn’t interested.

So see if you can get a mental image: my petite, snaggle-toothed daughter (she is seven, after all, which is going into the prime of her tooth-losing years), in her slightly too-short gi and white belt, turquoise and purple glasses atop her nose (the ones with the colorful flowers etched along the arms), her long brown hair in piece-y straight tufts, barefoot with bright pink sparkly toenails…

…walks into a very large, unfamiliar room, greets her coach, then goes to sit down on the floor along the edge of the wall all by herself while the kids from the camp mob into the room for their class.  They are all bigger and older and blonde and tan, wearing shorts and t-shirts from their various camps with their rainbow of brightly colored belts that indicate they have been doing this a lot longer than she has.

My daughter stands out.

She looks at them. They look at her. They all loudly ask their coach who she is, then run to sit on the floor against the wall. From her perspective, they appear to be charging toward her en masse. She looks at me, no longer smiling or even a little excited. The terror in her face is masked only by her long hair falling into it, but I can see that anxiety, because I am still that frightened little girl sometimes in my nightmares, the ones where I have to play the piano in front of a huge audience (like The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson years) and haven’t practiced in, oh, about three decades and all I can manage to eke out is much-too-fast version of Bach’s “Minuet in G Major.” You know that dream? Surely you know that dream.

My daughter is sitting on the end of the row. The little boy next to her, scrubbed clean and buzz-cut, looking like he’s been on a beach the last couple of weeks, just stares at her. She stares back at him for a moment and then folds her arms and legs around herself and pokes her gaze out to me. I nod encouragingly.

The kid asks the coach, “Does she know ninja drills?”

Ninja drills? What?? I think, Uh-oh, she doesn’t know what that is, this is going to make her even more nervous —

“Yes,” the coach answers, “she knows ninja drills.”

Oh? That’s interesting. I wonder what those are…

Class begins, and my daughter dutifully stands and bows to her coach, just like everyone else. All of them, my daughter included, head for the punching bag stands and start their drills. All these other kids are tearing it up with their side chops and roundhouse kicks and neck freezes or whatever other Vulcan death moves they’re doing. They’re shouting hi-ya! like berserkers.

My daughter is pushing at the bag, gently, you know, so as not to hurt it.

Her coach comes over and she tells him she’s nervous. He pats her shoulder reassuringly and reminds her of each move she needs to execute. While the others are warming up, she’s going to have her test. It takes her a couple of tries to get back into the swing of things, I suppose, but then she’s beating the snot out of that punching bag, shouting hi-ya! like the best of them! She chops, she slashes, she kicks, she punches, she elbows, she turns around and beats the thing up behind her back. She has gone, in five minutes, from trembling mermaid and unicorn aficionado to a freakin’ Power Puff Girl Rage Monster. Her coach smiles proudly, but in a relaxed way, you know, like he expected nothing else.

I’m grinning so wide I think I just might cry.

She finishes all the rest of the drills really well, and then the main event arrives. Everyone goes back to sitting along the edge of the wall, and this time my daughter doesn’t look so scared. The other kids are still eying her a little skeptically, but she just pushes her hair out of her eyes, lifts her chin up, and gives me a happy thumbs-up.

The coach brings her back up to the middle of the room. Everyone else is silent. It is time for her to Break The Board. When the other kids see the board set up, a couple begin stage-whispering about whether she can do it or not. She appears to ignore them. The coach asks whether she’s ready, and she nods her head, beaming.

She composes herself quickly, centering, taking a deep breath. Then she lifts her bare foot and brings it crashing down on that board. Hi-ya! It makes a crack as it splits in half and then clatters to the floor below. She stares at the thing in shock, the other kids forgotten. She picks up the pieces of the board and runs over to me, shouting, “I broke the board! I broke the board! Oh my gosh I can’t believe I broke the board!!”

I don’t know who’s beaming more, me, the coach, or her. He calls her back over and presents her with her orange belt, and she skips happily toward me, exclaiming that she’s so proud of herself.

Of course I’m proud of her, too, and I tell her that. We exit the room — her: skipping, hair swinging back and forth down her back — fragments of board and orange belt in hand.

Time to go to lunch with my Fairy Princess Badass.

***

*  I’d like to point out also that my daughter chose to do Creative Writing camp on her own. I didn’t make her do it. And she’s loving every minute! I am so proud.

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Kissing Barbie

One day in my early twenties when I was out shopping with a few friends, we happened upon a distressingly pink display of Barbie-related products in the middle of a store that wasn’t a toy store. Immediately my memory filled with all the evil wickedness of the feminine stereotype that Barbie had ever represented, everything from an unreasonable figure to ugly fashions to “Math is hard! <giggle>”

I glared with contempt at the precociously saccharine offerings and muttered, “If I ever have a daughter one day, I will never let her play with Barbies.”

One of my friends smiled at me as if she were trying really hard not to laugh. “How on earth do you think you can stop her? She’s going to play with Barbies. There’s nothing you can do about it.” She said it in her characteristically sweet lilt, a voice both mild and accommodating, but behind her mousy cuteness was something slightly more skeptical than outright disdain.

At the time, neither of us had children of our own; they weren’t even on the horizon yet. I thought, What does she know? I said, “I just won’t ever buy them for her or let anyone else buy them for her.” I think I might have even shrugged. End of story.

Parenting magazines ought to come with a recipe section for the various tasty ways one might prepare crow, meal for one or two.

***

The Barbies of today are not the Barbies of fifteen years ago. We’ve had other Bad Influences in the interim (hello, Bratz and Moxie dolls) to push Barbie into positively wholesome territory. And have you seen any of Barbie’s movies? Not only has she co-opted at least as many fairy tales as Disney (and taken just as much artistic license with them), she has done it in a way that Disney is trying to, finally: with a young female protagonist capable of making her own decisions without letting concern for what the male lead will think of her be her primary motivation. Instead, she’s motivated by thoughts of doing what’s best for her family, for her kingdom, for her pets. The generic Ken-doll boyfriend — who ends up admiring her for her compassionate spirit, independent nature, and oh yeah, good looks — is just icing on the three-layer bejeweled, beribboned, and be-flowered wedding cake. (I mean, come on, we weren’t expecting Barbie to give up her nature, were we? She’s just expanding it to include a little gray matter and a backbone.)

Don’t get me wrong: the Barbie movies are still awful. But rather than being insidiously damaging to a little girl’s burgeoning self-concept — and note I’m talking about the fairy tale ones here, not the high school diaries sort — now they’re just too goody-goody for my taste. But then, I am not their target audience, and I’ll endure the annoyingly catchy songs and cloying vocal inflection from the safety of the next room. And I do have to endure them, because my kids love the Barbie movies.

Their concept of Barbie is nothing like the Barbie of my childhood. When I was a little younger than my daughter’s age, in the late 1970s, I scored my first Barbie Doll for Christmas. I actually received two dolls, the first one a Darcy doll, who was taller and more proportionally realistic and had lush dark brown hair to her elbows. I liked Darcy just fine. She was pretty and had dark hair and eyes just like me. Her clothes were cute. I played with her and appreciated her, but on some subconscious level which I was too polite and obedient to express or even understand, I knew she wasn’t Barbie, and my friends had Barbies.

In fact, I didn’t even recognize that I’d wanted a Barbie, much less how much, until I opened the wrappings off that pink box and saw the yellow and white name. Kissing Barbie. She was new that year and all the rage. And now she was mine.

Kissing Barbie’s golden hair, long and silky, was pulled back from her ears in a tony ponytail at the back of her head. She came with a pink heart-topped tube of inky magenta lipstick as big as her torso, a petite bouquet of dark pink roses, and a layered chiffon evening gown (we’d now call this a maxi dress with pouffy sleeves) of pale pink decorated with magenta pucker-lipped kiss marks. She was a vision.

But the best part of Kissing Barbie was her function. Yes, she had one other than looking pretty. She actually kissed. You could ink up those smoochers with the enclosed tube of lipstick, press a large button in Barbie’s back, and just marvel as she would leave a kiss mark on Ken-doll’s cheek. Or on you. Or on your little brother. Or on your pale pink Easter dress, over and over again, until it resembled Barbie’s frock. Or on every sheet in the box of typing paper in your mom’s office. Or on the sofa, on the dog. Oh, the possibilities stretched as far as the heavens!

More Barbies followed as the years progressed, though none ever held quite as special a place in my affectionate heart as that first one. And when I was a teenager, being educated in the social-justice-oriented bosom of my all-girls’ Dominican high school and learning about the subtle shades of feminism from those faculty members who knew how to slip it into the conversation, Barbie and her comic-book-like proportions began to take on a different meaning for me. She was no longer the feminine ideal. She was instead a monster of the Male-Dominated World, a woman who, had she been alive, would have been seven feet tall with a giant head, so top-heavy in her bosom and so minuscule in her feet that she’d have had to crawl around on all fours.

Barbie became the freak of nature that chased the other dolls, who ran screaming in terror from her outlandish physique as she tried, unsuccessfully, to plant magenta-ink kisses upon them.

***

As I’ve said, Barbie now is not Barbie then. Barbie is now a different sort of freak. She dresses badly when she’s not in a generic evening gown. She and Ken impersonate popular characters such as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (and I think you know how I feel about them). She wears stripper-shoes and leggings, so ugly golfers wouldn’t wear them, to astronaut camp. And though it looks like math is still hard, apparently veterinary medicine is not. And her movies, well, they’re palatable if not my particular taste.

And for those of us who prefer the dark side, there’s always Monster High.

***

I should note that my daughter has had many Barbie dolls, most of them fairies or mermaids. She even got a Monster High doll for Christmas this past year. But because she sometimes quickly Moves On To Other Things, all of those dolls held her attention for only a little while, and eventually, all of them became grossly unkempt, hair tangled like sticky straw, clothes in one state of disarray or another. The collection of them, if you were to dig them out from the corners of her room and closet, look like some sort of horror scene from a sex-ploitation movie war zone.

And if I wait long enough to dig them out of the mess, my daughter will acknowledge she doesn’t want them anymore, and I’ll fix the little dolls up, clothe them and brush their hair, collect their pink belongings into neat bundles, and send them back out into the world, presentable and redeemed. I have become a one-person Barbie shelter. Perhaps subconsciously, in an environmentally responsible sort of way, I’m making up for the fact that all my childhood Barbies probably ended up in the garbage.

Or maybe I just feel bad for her. Barbie’s old. She’s had a lot of growing up to do. And poor girl, she’s done the best she could to evolve without losing herself, without denying her core nature, without becoming unrecognizable. And isn’t that what so many of us try to do? She’s just going with the flow as best she can, trying not to drown.

So come here, Barbie, before you go, and give us a kiss.

Something So Simple

I had a strange conversation last summer with my daughter.  We were driving home one afternoon.  My son, then four, was napping in the sun.  My daughter was watching the scenery out her window, and we were both listening to the music playing on the radio.  We hadn’t talked for several songs, just having a mellow car ride home.  Then all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, she tells me in a dreamy voice, “Mommy, I love Ferdinand.”  This is a boy in her class.  (Please note, Ferdinand is not his real name.)

“You do?” I asked, thinking this was something to investigate, but not freak out about, not yet.

“Yeah, I do.”  She was wearing the kind of smile I could imagine the Mona Lisa wearing, if she had been struck with pleasant infatuation at the age of six and had just eaten a chocolate bar.

“That sounds nice,” I said, trying to figure out how to evaluate what she meant by “love.”  I decided to abandon subtlety.  “How do you know you love Ferdinand?” I asked, keeping my voice even, light, relaxed.

“Sometimes I just feel like he’s here with me,” she said with great contentment.  “Sitting next to me, talking to me, taking a nap with me during movie time.”  (The sleepover phenomenon had just started among the kids in her grade, but not boy-girl ones, thank you very much.)

She hadn’t seen this kid in a couple of months.  “And do you like to imagine he’s here with you?”

“Yes,” she said, that same sweet smile still gracing her lips.

“So…what about him makes you love him?”

She flashed a really big grin at me.  “He’s really funny.  He makes me laugh.”

This is a good start, I thought.  “That’s an important quality in someone you love,” I said.  “And does Ferdinand love you, too?”

“Oh, yes, he adores me,” she said with the kind of self-assurance most adults don’t have when they answer this question.

“That’s very sweet.”  I smiled at her in the rearview mirror.  “Has he said that to you?”

“No,” she said peacefully, undaunted.

“Then how can you tell he loves you?”

“Because when he sees me, he gets this really big smile on his face that he doesn’t get for anyone else.”

I was struck by the simplicity of her answer, by its grace.  I did not freak out.  She was beaming, and in this moment I was hopeful that these two children really did have such a genuine affection for each other.  I was immediately reminded of Linda from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the instincutal affection Timmy and Linda have for each other at the age of nine, a fondness they don’t have the vocabulary to explain and yet somehow, don’t need in order to feel or express it.

“We should tell Daddy about him when we get home,” I suggested, and she nodded her head and continued smiling out the window at the scenery.

I wondered whether Daddy would freak out.  Considering he started grumbling at boys he saw walking down the street as soon as we found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I guessed he would.  But, I wondered, should he?

Something of the self-assurance my daughter exhibited in the car that day gets lost between childhood and adulthood; I think it’s probably burned away in the crucible of adolescence, and unfortunately, young adulthood doesn’t do much to replenish it for most people — or at least, most of the people I’ve known or observed.  How horrible.  And I say this without too much irony.  Even I, in my rock-solid life filled with blessings and a happy marriage, haven’t completely regained that sense of confidence, at least not 100% of the time.  Sometimes I wonder if I ever will, or if my brain just isn’t hard-wired that way.  It’s a conundrum.

I’ve been thinking lately about love and what it makes us do, how it makes us feel, and how much I desperately wish everyone in the world could experience it on a daily basis.

***

One of the most important things I learned when I had children was that one’s capacity for love only increases.  Exponentially, in fact.

I worried when I was pregnant with my son that my and my husband’s love for each other and for our daughter would be divided when our son was born.  Mostly I was worried that my husband’s affection for me would diminish down to a slice of his attention as he lavished all his emotional wherewithal on the kids.  He’s such a good father that I didn’t see how it would be possible for him to focus on all of us at once, or together.  I sat on this anxiety for too long, and when I finally, tearfully, expressed my fears to him, he smiled and put a gentle hand on my swelling, kicking belly and explained to me in the most loving terms possible that I was a hormonal, raving lunatic.

“That’s just not the way it works,” he said.  “Why on earth would it be?”  He reminded me that I didn’t love him any less just because our daughter had come along.  He asked whether I intended to reduce my affection for him once our son was born.

“Of course not!” I sputtered, indignant.

He shook his head indulgently.  “Then why are you worried?”

That, I didn’t have a good answer for, and in the absence of clarity, I just kept my stupid thoughts to myself.

***

My mother is ten years older than my father.  After he graduated from high school in 1970, he went to a business school, and she was his computer programming teacher.  She had been a programmer, working in the industry, for a while and hadn’t been teaching long.

He was smitten from the first moment he saw her.  He was young and she, beautiful and confident and in a position of respect and authority in a male-dominated industry.  In the early seventies, that was a really big deal.  He was smart enough to recognize that.

My dad comes from a produce family.  They owned a grocery store which boasted some of the best produce in this part of the country (along with pretty much everything else).  He brought her an apple every single day and repeatedly asked her to go out with him.

She was downright rude in response.  “Absolutely not,” she told him.  “Go sit down and leave me alone.”

On the last day of the term, he asked her out one more time.  He told her, “After today, I’m not your student anymore.”

I like to think my mother rolled her eyes at him, although I suspect she was too straight-laced and proper to do such a thing.  Finally she said, “If I go have coffee with you, will you get off my back about it?”

“I sure will,” he assured her.

She grudgingly agreed.  A couple-few years later, they were married.

***

Love makes us do silly things.  Wonderful things.  I think about my early twenties, when I got to witness some of these stunts firsthand.  That inner joy for humanity made Steve buy a motley collection of exotic flowers and go around on Valentines’ Day handing one out to every girl he saw.  (Mine was a bird of paradise.)  It made Jason dress up in a cloak like one of the Three Musketeers and go deliver a CD of the soundtrack to his friend’s favorite TV show, wrapped in comics and adorned with a red rose, to her while she was working the dorm security desk in the middle of the night, just to keep her company.  It made Konstantin slough off his stern demeanor long enough to let me paint his fingernails black with silver glitter.

“Look, Konnie, it’s the night sky,” my roommate Amber and I told him, laughing, while he grumbled in Bulgarian, then when that didn’t deter us, in Russian, which also failed.

And then he even let us take his picture, even though he and we all knew his students (mostly ten-year-old girls who were also math geniuses) would tease him about it the next day.

***

Lately my daughter, who is six, has been giving me folded pieces of paper on which are written, “I love you.  From:  ?” next to a cartoonish sticker of a smiling, heart-shaped cupid.  She hands these notes to me as if I were meant to believe that she has just discovered them somewhere, mysteriously, with the intuition that they must be for Mama.

Obviously she has made these love notes but wants me to believe otherwise.  Her sly grin and hopeful dark brown eyes encourage me to play along.

“Oh, I must have a secret admirer,” I say each time.

“Yep!” she always replies, as if newly discovering what those words mean.

I thank and hug and kiss her.  I tuck the love note away in a box full of special cards and letters.  It will be only a couple of days before the next one comes.

I adore love notes.  Writing them has become, sadly, a lost art, and I’m pretty sure I can blame the rise of email and other electronic communication for that.  Remember when we all wrote actual letters to each other?  I had one friend in college who slipped into formal, yet passionate, Nineteenth Century diction when he composed his.  Those letters were something to see.

You should write a love letter this year.  Go ahead.  It’s not that difficult, actually.  Just pretend you aren’t going to send it, and then it’s much easier to write.  If you’re feeling really inspired, write a poem.  You’ve got a week to do it.  Go on, get started.

Happy Valentines’ Day.

The New Twelve Days of Christmas

My husband and I rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for your holiday enjoyment.

***

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me

A whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Two bossy six-year-olds

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

One the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Eight ornaments breaking,

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Nine candles dripping,

Eight ornaments breaking,

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Ten latkes burning,

Nine candles dripping,

Eight ornaments breaking,

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Eleven lights a-shorting,

Ten latkes burning,

Nine candles dripping,

Eight ornaments breaking,

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me

Twelve minutes resting,

Eleven lights a-shorting,

Ten latkes burning,

Nine candles dripping,

Eight ornaments breaking,

Seven shoppers macing,

Six kids a-screaming,

Five unwrapped gifts,

Four crowded malls,

Three houseguests,

Two bossy six-year-olds,

And a whining four-year-old boy.

***

Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Yule, Happy Human Day, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Joyous Saturnalia, and Happy New Year!

Feeling Like a Poem This Weekend

So Friday night I went to a book launch reception and a spontaneous poetry reading broke out.

This was the Mutabilis Press event for Improbable Worlds.  It was a lot of fun catching up with old friends I hadn’t seen in a while.  I was pleased to see some of my students out there, too; it’s nice to provide a little real-world context for what we do in the classroom.  And I admit I like it when they have a chance to see me as an author and not just as a teacher.  Even though this is no doubt all in my imagination, I get the sense this lends me a little more street cred come Monday morning and I’m back behind the podium.

I had really wanted my children to come to the event, too, but it just wasn’t practical.  It’s actually more important to me that my kids see me out in the world being an author, so that they can have some context for when I have to tell them I can’t take them somewhere or play with them or sit and watch cartoons all Saturday morning because I have to go to a writing date or a writers’ group meeting or poetry reading.  But taking them to The Jung Center this past Friday night just wasn’t practical.  Ah well, someday.

In the meantime, here’s a quick little poem I wrote a while back (speaking of my kids).  It started off as an exercise, but it turned into something, sort of.

***

A Hand-Drawn Card from the Girl Who Does Know Better But.

after Craig Raine after John Berryman

 

I am the girl who does know better but.

I am desperate for your attention.

I am apologizing for pushing the little brother in the yard.

I am planning the next push anyway.

I am pulling the long hairs of the cat when your back is turned.

I am shouting a song to the sleeping baby while you nap.

I am offering the hamster a fruit snack.

I am changing clothes a dozen times a day.

I am adding extra sugar to the lemonade when you are not looking.

I am wishing you had brought me to school a little early so I could play.

I am wishing you had ironed my clean dress.

I am insisting I can brush my hair myself.

I am happier when you brush my hair for me.

I am asking you five times a night for one more bedtime song.

I am breaking and entering in your nail polish drawer.

I am impatient to grow tall enough to build my own sandwich.

I am asking for potato chips for breakfast.

I am sad when you go to your party.

I am trying to learn how to read.

I am pushing the little brother off the couch.

I am waking you up with kisses.

I am loving you, loving you, loving you.

I am trying to be patient for my sixth birthday.

I am plunging my face into the bowl of cake batter.

I am waiting for you to giggle with me.

I am looking like you every day.

I am turning into a little lady.

I am hoping you’ll take me to tea in my new hat.

I am five and loving you so much.

Hallowe’en Routines

My son awakened me the other day, his beautiful blonde dumpling noggin very close to mine at the side of my bed, saying, “Mommy, I didn’t have an accident.  I need fruit snacks.”

It was still dark outside.  It was so dark, in fact, that the sun wouldn’t be rising for a couple more hours.  Groggily I registered this fact, and then reflected on the relative merits of pushing the kids’ bedtime back a little bit so they wouldn’t wake up so early.

“Mommy, fruit snacks,” he continued, reminding me of the bribe we’ve offered him for not wetting the bed.  (And yes, that method is the current expert opinion.)  “Mommy, please.  I didn’t have an accident.”

“Okay, sweetie, just a minute,” I said.  “I’m proud of you for staying dry.”

“Me too.  Can I have my fruit snacks now?  I even got myself dressed.”

I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them, thought I bet I’m going to need glasses soon, and then finally saw that he was in fact dressed for school.  Even his little leather belt was around his waist.  It was over his untucked shirt instead of through his belt loops, but we’ll take that.

By now Daddy was awake, too, and lauding our little man on his morning’s accomplishments.  Our son is four years old, and these little milestones are a big and welcome deal, one that, in the not-too-distant past, we felt like we wouldn’t ever see.

I rolled out of bed and paddled down to the kitchen to get the fruit snacks, rewarded him, and then decided it was in fact late enough for me to be up and in the shower.  The morning routine commenced, and I was grateful it didn’t start with whiny, sleep-deprived children resisting the sullen call of the Wake-Up-For-School Fairy (also known as a cranky parent who really could have had another three or four hours of sleep, too, thanks very much).

They say that, when training one’s very young children, three days of a consistent pattern establishes a routine.  So sleep training and potty training and brush-your-teeth training and stories and songs at bedtime, as well as a host of other things, need only three days or nights in a row to become habit.  This is delightful rhetoric, an optimistic forecast that many parents will probably laugh at in hindsight.

As much as I enjoy a certain degree of spontaneity in my life, I have to admit I am a creature of habit, one who appreciates routine and order, even if I’m not great at maintaining them myself.  Routine and order are predictable, stable, familiar.  They are a safeguard against anxiety.  They make enormous tasks conquerable.  They give us something to hold onto when our lives go spiraling out of control.

* * *

Hallowe’en is one of my favorite holidays — second, in fact, only to Christmas.  I consider it the official kick-off to the holiday season, the very best time of year.  In the autumn, the weather is better, everything feels festive, the semester is winding down to its glorious end, and people in general are more generous and kind and happy.

Yes, of course I’m generalizing.  I’m sweeping broad strokes across my palette of existence.  This leaves me able to appreciate the specific details of every holiday season in a fresh way, since those details tend to shift around in surprising little moments.  Most of the time they are happy or pleasant at least.  And yes, “real life” still intrudes sometimes.  But if I pan out from the scene and look from a wide angle, I will see that life is very good, and I will count my blessings and be grateful.  I don’t want to forget to do that, though it can be easy to do so in the crazy-hectic routine of every day.

* * *

When I was in eighth grade, my social circle consisted of very few people.  There were a couple of other kids in my class at school whom I was sometimes friends with, but mostly I was dramatically unpopular.  I had been at that awful school since kindergarten, and although I’d had friends in the elementary grades, over the years they’d moved away, been held back a year, decided I was just too weird for them — whatever.  By eighth grade, all I could think about was graduating and moving on to high school.  Sure, most of the kids I had gone to junior high with would be there with me — the girls at least:  this was Catholic school, after all — but all the other Catholic grade schools in Houston and some of the public ones, too, would be feeding in as well, and so the potential for friendship would yawn wide like the Grand Canyon.

I did have two very good friends, however, though neither was my age and neither attended my school.  They were two of my first cousins, Meredith and Chuck.  Chuck was in sixth grade, Meredith in fourth, and because our large extended family tended to get together a lot on the weekends, I could reliably depend on something like a social life, and so the trauma of having to go to school every day where I was, for all intents and purposes, treated like a bug, was lessened a little bit.

On Hallowe’en, that year I was in eighth grade, my twelve-year-old cousin Chuck died.  It was unexpected.  He’d been in the hospital three days.  He’d been diagnosed earlier that week with what my mother referred to as “acute adult leukemia,” and then in the hospital he’d contracted strep throat.  That afternoon — it was a Saturday — they’d turned off his life support, and the shell of a precious boy who had once been my cousin was no more.

* * *

I would spend the next six weeks crying myself to sleep, unable to articulate to anyone what I was going through, but the days following the death were undoubtedly horrendous for everyone.  I remember the tortured face of my Great-Aunt Mary, leading the San Antonio contingent, climbing the steps to my cousins’ front porch with arms flung open to embrace my grieving uncle.  I remember Sister Jane, the principal of the high school I would be attending next year, coming over because Chuck’s older sister was already in ninth grade there, and Sister Jane knew it was her duty to come.

The monsignor at my school, Father James Dinkins, did not come to my house, or to my cousin’s house.  At the All Saints’ Day Mass Monday morning, his homily in front of the entire school was about an experience he’d had as an adolescent, when his twelve-year-old cousin had died of leukemia.  I remember nothing else about his sermon except that it seemed strange he would have had any experience like mine, and I assumed he was making it all up, straight out of The Catcher in the Rye, directing his homily at me without making eye contact, without offering me or my family a word of direct support, even though we’d been in the parish for years longer than he had.  He appreciated my family’s tithes, that much I knew, but that was where the social contract ended.

That afternoon, he paid a visit to my eighth grade class, and after a few words of pleasant greeting with everyone in general and a little discussion about what everyone had done for Hallowe’en, he walked right up to my desk and said jovially, “I understand you had a very interesting weekend,” as if I’d gone white-water rafting or deer hunting for the first time.

“Yes,” I said quietly.

“Do you want to tell us about it?” he asked.  I glanced at my teacher.  She looked taut, ready to spring into action, assuming her help would be needed or welcome, or permitted.  The priest was between her and me.  I shifted in my desk.

“My cousin died,” I said.

“What was that?” he asked, leaning his ear over.  I could detect whispers in the room around me.

I cleared my throat.  “My cousin died.  He was twelve.  He had leukemia.”

“Oh, that’s very interesting,” Father Dinkins said, standing straight again.  I excused myself to the bathroom and didn’t come back for a while.  When I returned, he was still chatting pleasantly with the class, no doubt about something dogmatic and theological.  He and I did not make eye contact again.  I heard from my parents later that when the news of our family’s tragedy broke, our pastor said, “The Jamails are a big family.  They will console themselves.”

* * *

I didn’t know how to mourn something so profound as the death of one of my best friends.  I quit playing the piano and even stopped, for a while, writing stories.  I began wearing black on the weekends.  I tried to find as many pictures of my cousin as possible to make a collage for my room until my mother scolded me not to build a shrine.  Everyone was sad, my grandmother explained, enfolding me in a hug and telling me I needed to stop crying.

At school a couple of boys who sat next to me in science class asked me, “Are you mourning?”

I nodded my head.  “Yes, I am.”

“Are you nighttime?”  Their punchline, hilarious to them, stung me just the way it was supposed to, and I swallowed my grief down, understanding that it was not a safe thing to show.

Eventually, what saved me from a crippling sadness was stoic routine.  I had things to do.  Tests to study for.  A school newspaper column to write.  Essay contests and spelling bees to win.  That grade school to put behind me as I embarked on a hopeful time, high school.  Eventually, life continued on at its genial pace, and all the grief I and my entire family was feeling got tucked away into the corners of our traditions, one more new wrinkle to incorporate.

* * *

I got back to celebrating Hallowe’en slowly at first.  Even though I still dressed up and participated in parties and trick-or-treating, it was a long time before I could look at my candy bucket and not remember the handfuls of Jolly Ranchers and tiny Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that had been dropped into my cousin’s casket with him by his classmates.  I spent about a decade letting my grief for him be the go-to sadness I defaulted to when I was feeling depressed, the thing I most remembered when someone else died, the gravitas that I, as a young adolescent, could not shake and which fed my Otherness.

I’ve never been much of a drinker.  The only time I’ve ever drunk alone was on what would have been Chuck’s twenty-first birthday.  I had just broken up with a boyfriend whom I should have kicked to the curb six months before.  He wasn’t dealing well with the break-up and wanted really badly to be friends.  I went to a pub and ordered myself dinner and an imposing pint of Ace Pear in honor of my cousin.  The boy I’d just dumped showed up at the tail end of it, invading my solitude, and I let him listen to stories about my cousin.  He looked eager and supportive and hopeful.  I told him good-bye and left him at the table without even a glance over my shoulder.

Later, at home, I launched myself into my routine, locking my grief back into the recesses of my heart for what I hoped would be the last painful time.

* * *

It’s been nearly twenty-five years since my cousin died, and here I am writing about it — which I hadn’t really intended to do when I sat down to write today.  Hallowe’en is a big holiday at my house now.  And in my immediate family.  Again.  My parents picked the holiday back up once I had children of my own.  Traditions, you know.  Comfortable, familiar habits.  Costumes, candy, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of treats that will bring the little ones joy.

We put out decorations every year:  witches, spiders, pumpkins with knowing grins.  And always ghosts, the representation of our collective fears and hopes about the afterlife.  We traipse around on what the old religions tell us is the night when the veil between the worlds — those of the living and the dead — is the thinnest.  We light candles.  We don’t tell the kids they can’t eat candy before bedtime and with breakfast the next morning.  We watch Tim Burton movies.  We dress ourselves in costumes, costumes, costumes.  My girlfriends are I wear pointy hats to tea.

And then we put it all away until next year. We focus on Thanksgiving.  The guest list, the order at the butcher’s market.  The sculpted turkey with a double-fan scrollwork tail I put on the mantel for decoration.  The ceramic pumpkin tureen and little pumpkin bowls which will hold my famous creamy pumpkin soup in just a few short weeks.  And the discussions with my husband over what we’re going to get the kids for Christmas this year.  The ghosts recede, and this too is their habit.

Ah, routine.

Happy Hallowe’en!

So celebrating Hallowe’en, in my house, takes several days.  And while I could have spent a lot of this weekend finishing up my blog post about traditions and rituals, I elected instead to spend that time participating in the holiday festivities with my family.  More substantive prose will be coming along soon, but to tide you over until then, please enjoy this really entertaining video my friend Emily sent me.  (Thanks, Em!)

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone.  Stay safe and don’t get a tummy ache from too much candy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAXMtUCcp7o&feature=channel_video_title