Dec 30 2012

Unnecessary Narration

It is inevitable that spending several consecutive days in close quarters with the people you know most can be disastrous – even though you love them – if you don’t get a little space from each other. Vacations, they say, can make or break a couple. Too much togetherness reveals our most interesting habits. I remember an early getaway trip with De-facto; we went skiing in Switzerland and then took a train to Naples where we rented a car and drove around the boot of Italy. There was a moment during that trip when I said to myself, he’s a nice guy but obviously we are not going to work out. I’m not sure exactly what happened to turn that prediction around, but (I think) I’m glad for it. family_on_bridge.jpg

There have been some parallels on this trip, our holiday in Africa. They are a nice family but obviously this is not going to work out. I’m not afraid to admit to an occasional fantasy that they are absent from my current reality. It is short-lived, but a luxurious thought. It is free of little voices and constant questions. There are no demands for help to find or fix something that all of a sudden is dear to them, and then ten minutes later it is left behind on the floor for me to trip over. Most of all, in this fantasy, there is quiet. The chattering in the back seat ceases.

“She won’t play with me,” Buddy-roo complains even though she ignored her sister’s overtures to engage in a game, less than twenty minutes earlier.

“Can’t you just be quiet?” Short-pants screeches, even though an hour ago she was the one driving us all batty with a constant stream of words, attributing wild animals to her favorite literary characters by their first initial: “Hermione and Harry are hippos, Ron is a rhino, Neville is a nyala…”

Now it’s Buddy-roo who keeps on talking, spiteful in her aim to punish her sister. “Look! We’re all wearing something blue except Papa! I’ve got blue shorts, you’ve got blue pants, and mama has a blue shirt…”

From the backseat a litany of inconsequential facts continue to pour out of Buddy-roo like water from a fire hose. Everything is delivered with authority, especially the facts that she makes up on the spot. As an extrovert, she only really knows what she’s thinking if she says it aloud. She requires constant stimulation and if something isn’t filling the space, she will.

Short-pants, on the other hand, is a bona-fide introvert, à la Susan Caine, and if there’s too much of anything for too long – too much talking, music, tree_roots_entangled.jpgnoise, chaos – the meltdown can be impressive. But she has a sense of her own preference, usually removing herself from an over-stimulating environment with a polite, “I think I just need a little alone time.”

It’s hard to remove yourself politely from the backseat of an economy car in the middle of a wild game park, so the meltdown is unavoidable.

“Enough!” Short-pants slaps the car seat hard with her hand. “I’ve had it with the unnecessary narration!”

De-facto and I glance sideways at each other, suppressing our laughter. Her angry outburst shocks Buddy-roo into silence, bringing a temporary peace to the car. Two beats later, the both of them start crying in tandem.

~ ~ ~

When Short-pants was ten months old, we took her to the United States to introduce her to our family up and down the east coast. De-facto’s brother loaned us his 1970’s Volkswagon bus, an iconic touring vehicle that broke down every other day. Half of the photos from that trip are of De-facto with his head stuck in the rear of that bus, trying to sort out why the engine wouldn’t run much faster than 45 miles per hour.

It was slow going, but Short-pants was a good sport. When she got a little fussy, I’d entertain her with a crew of little plastic wild animals that had been given to us by one of our friends who hosted us along our route. There was a tiny impala, a giraffe and other wild, hooved beasts. Short-pants was fascinated by them, especially when I moved them up and down her legs and thighs, as though they were walking across her body. We must have discovered this simple distraction while near our nation’s capital, because I started humming Hail to the Chief as those little hooved creatures made the trek around her lap. I did not know the words to this anthem, so I used crooner syllables dah-dah-doo-wah throughout the entire song. I played this game with her for hours, while she kicked and giggled in her car seat.
Six months later, Short-pants’ was on another trip, this time to South Africa where De-facto and I were working at a conference. Our hosts organized a game drive and we took her along, on my lap. The open-to-the-air truck barreled down a long dirt road beside a grove of trees and made a sharp 90-degree turn. Right in front of us, in the middle of the road, stood a tall giraffe, nearly twenty feet tall. The truck halted and we all lurched forward, staring up, speechless, at the long-necked creature.

“Dat-doo-waaaahh!” Short-pants’ little voice expressed the awe of everyone on the drive.

That was when we realized she’d associated my lyrics of the President’s theme song with the little plastic animals. Now that she’d seen a real one, it had been named. Our family has its own words, and this is one of them. We don’t say giraffe; we say dat-doo-wah.

It happens now and then, these days, that she’ll mention a dat-doo-wah in the company of friends who then give her a blank stare, not knowing the folklore of this word in our family. She’ll laugh nervously, at her own joke, wondering why nobody else is laughing with her.

“You can’t just blurt it out,” we remind her. “You have to tell the story, or people won’t get it.” In this case, a little narration is necessary.

~ ~ ~

This morning the two siblings were attached at the hip in an amicable game of pretend fairies, but now they’re at each other’s throats, having strung up shirts from headrests of the car seats to draw the boundaries that shall not be crossed in the backseat of the car. The tears have abated but their sniping continues, an ongoing (and unnecessary) soundtrack of stay on your own side! and don’t touch me! dahdoowahThere’s nowhere to stop and let them out to run off their angry energy; we’re an hour away from our camp and we have to get there before the gates close, in just about an hour.

As if on command, a long, lanky giraffe appears on the side of the road.

“Look! Up ahead.”

Short-pants and Buddy-roo lift their eyes to see what I’m pointing at.

Dah-doo-wah!” their voices in tandem.

In an instant, the bitterness between them gives way to excitement. The words they exchange now are enthusiastic. Together they admire the elegant animal standing tall before them. Short-pants reports that the dah-doo-wah has the same number of vertebrae as a human. Buddy-roo wonders how this could be true, with such a long neck. Their chatter, as constant as ever, but at least the incessant narration has turned friendly again. Obviously, if this is going to work out, that was necessary.

Aug 20 2011

Keeping and Telling

“Don’t worry, it’s locked from the inside.” I heard Buddy-roo from behind the closed door. “No-one can come in. Our secret will be safe.”

The authority in her voice quieted her sister and her cousin, both girls older than her, but in this case, entirely compliant. I stepped to the side so I wouldn’t be visible through the crack beneath the door.

Were they doing something forbidden? Should I hover and try to hear what they’re up to? Should I knock and make my presence known and see if their response is a welcoming invitation or the sounds of scurrying about to hide something? If their secret involved some kind of contraband, it would likely be something evil only to their teeth, like sugar packets or stolen cookies. I couldn’t imagine a dangerous secret being harbored behind that closed door, so I let the girls have their little private moment. I continued up the stairs of this enormous, several-storied and multi-decked rental house that’s ours for the week, and said nothing about it, not to De-facto nor to anyone in his family who’s here with us. (Later I was told, unsolicited, how they’d been initiating their cousin into the secret fairy circle, affirming my hunch.)

In a few years, when they are outright teenagers, I could make the very same call and pass by that closed door only to miss the fact that they are piercing their own bellybuttons or cutting lines of cocaine on a mirror. I wasn’t much older than them when I went through a phase of smoking cigarette butts under the bathroom fan. Who knows what mischief is ahead for them – and what headaches for me – and whether I’ll choose to knock on the door and intervene, or walk on by.

~ ~ ~

The jet lag means I wake earlier than the rest of the household, so while De-facto’s family sleeps, I rise and turn on the coffee pot that my mother-in-love set up as good-to-go the night before. I write in my journal, catch up on some blog reading, attend to email, all before 7 am. Short-pants was up early this morning, too, so we walked down to the beach and took a stroll along the shoreline, pressing our bare feet into the wet sand just at the point where the sea water stretches its webbed fingers before it ebbing back into the ocean. We held hands and said nothing, partially because it’s hard to hear each other over the sound of the surf, partially because we had nothing to say.

Not far from the steep wooden stairs that lead to and from the beach, we found several empty canvas chairs left out in front of one of the beachfront homes. Since we were not yet ready to return to our house and the people who by now would be up and about making more coffee and eating cereal, we sat in them and watched the surf. Short-pants carved shapes in the sand with her nimble toes.

“What are you thinking about in your mind?” This is something my father used to say to me, just to make conversation.

“Nothing,” she said.

This is not her typical response. She usually volunteers some tidbit of information: a joke she made up, a poem she’s writing, a counting game she’s playing in her head.

I didn’t press her. The question is slightly impertinent and I never really expect an answer. Only now that I hadn’t been given one, I wondered if this is possibly the beginning of the unraveling that will occur between us, part of the necessary uncoupling of mother and child. The tell-all intimacy I’ve enjoyed up until now will take a hiatus for those teenage years, still far away but snarling at me from the future, like a secret behind a closed door.

~ ~ ~

Don’t we all have the right to some private thoughts? Our secrets, benign or malevolent, are the things that keep us company in our isolated moments. The private thoughts we keep to ourselves contribute to the richness of our inner lives. I cannot know everything my daughters are thinking and feeling, as curious as I am. Just as I have a need for my own private thoughts, they must, too. This is all part of letting go the reins, the walking the talk part of meaning it when I say, and I often do, that they’re just guests in my house.

I had a number of secrets from my mother. Maybe not deliberately hidden secrets, but things that never seemed necessary to mention. Not because I didn’t love her or trust her, not that I didn’t want her to know who I was. When I was a grown woman I tried to tell her more than she wanted to know. (She was expert at changing the subject.) But during the delicate sequence of tender teen years, and up to and through college, I cherished my secrets. They separated me from her, distinguished me within my family. They were rarely of any consequence: some boy I’d dated, some recreational drug I’d tried but didn’t care to use again, a class I’d opted to take pass/fail. Driving down to this beach house (we’re at the Outer Banks) I recalled a spring break where my friends and I did a drive-away to deliver a car in Florida without any inkling of how we might get actually get back to school in Rhode Island. (We ended up, miraculously, running into some classmates we vaguely knew and they let us make the 24-hour return-trip in the back of their station wagon.) My parents never knew about this.

There are probably hundreds of little stories like this – not bad, not good, just things I knew that they didn’t. There was never any real reason to tell them.

~ ~ ~

In the taxi on the way from Paris to the airport, the driver, a chocolate skinned man with an elegant West African accent, watched in his rear view mirror as I conversed with the girls. They had asked me a question about the riots in London and I attempted to answer in a way that gave them enough information to address their question but didn’t over-explain. Later he said, “Your children listen very attentively to you. You must tell them all that you really want them to know, now, while their ears are still open. Then it will remain firmly inside them, in the coming years, when they cease to listen to you so closely.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this little gem of advice, how it could be that there is a window of time to plant the words and ideas that might reinforce their future character and the decisions they make. They still listen to me now, but soon enough they’ll stop, just as they’ll stop talking and telling me things, too. And before you know it, they’ll grow into young women with secrets of their own, possibly with rich inner lives, and hopefully a few good stories to tell.