In the morning, I’m the starfish of the family. Everyone else swims around me, girls scrambling over me to get at cereal or to sneak handfuls from the sugar bowl if I’m not paying attention. Lauri is ready to go when she wakes up, chatting with the girls, flipping pancakes on the stove with a spoon in one hand and a brush in the other, trying to tidy up the girls hair as they sprint past her. I have both hands wrapped around my coffee cup, looking out the window at our garden, noting that the mist seems heavier this year, almost like rain, and wondering if El Niño will bring us water. The girls slide in and out of my lap, little Lily trying to burgle some of my coffee, and I consider that they may consider me a piece of furniture, as reliable and stable as a rocking chair. This is not a bad thing.
It is early fall, the girls and I are on the trampoline in the backyard, lying down, looking up through the leaves of the valley oak and ornamental plum, the wisteria trying nonchalantly to weave it’s tendrils through the mesh of the trampoline. They jump up and start running in circles, CB one direction, Lily the other, the two laughing. CB decides they are horses, and she begins to neigh, then they are Pegasi, and she flaps her wings. Lily does not know yet what a Pegasus is but she flaps her arms regardless and neighs in unison. Finally, CB, decides that they are also part unicorn and she starts to bob her head as she runs and flaps. I’m sitting in the middle of the trampoline, providing commentary as directed, and they each take turns landing in my lap, then taking off. As the CB Pegasus Unicorn swoops low to regard me, her mane catching the afternoon sunlight, wings outstretched, she shouts “Daddy! Isn’t it nice to be this happy?!” And then she’s gone.
For that one moment, I have it. I’ve parented successfully, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to have done. I stamp HAPPY 8/23/14 into a gold plaque and hang it in my memory.
On Tuesdays, the girls are with me. Lauri works late, and I typically feed the girls, give them their bath, and get them somewhere close to bed. I am not always completely successful with any of these agenda items, but half-done is better than none done.
CB, Lily, and I are curled up in bed, a girl under each arm, reading. Then, something happens. This is gross. Like, totally gross. You shouldn’t read it. Really. You’ve been warned.
Dad: “Bon jour, Happy Lion, said the red squirrel, hardly loo–” Wait… CB, what are you eating?
CB: Nothing. It’s just some snot.
Dad: You’re kidding.
Lily: What are you eating?
Dad: Lily, don’t worry about it.
CB: It’s just some snot, Lily.
Lily: I want some snot.
Dad: Lily, you don’t want this. CB, that’s totally gross, stop that.
CB: It’s just, like, mushy boogers.
Lily : I WANT SOME SNOT.
Dad: NO. *facepalm*
Lily, CB, and I are on the trail, the sun low on the horizon, their fingers stained with blackberry juice. CB is trying to pick a tiny thorn out of her finger and holds it up to me for help. Afterwards, we look back and see that Lily has stopped for a few minutes on the trail, and is staring down. She picks one foot up, stomps it down, picks the other foot up, stomps it down. She breaks into a short sprint, stops, and looks down again at her feet.
“Look, Caitie, see what Lily’s doing? She’s discovering her shadow.” CB watched her sister for a minute, a broad smile crossing her face as her sister stepped and turned, peering at the little figure moving in unison on the ground. “I remember when you first discovered your shadow, Caitie. You were about her age.” Lily caught up with us, her head down, observing every motion as we entered the parking lot. “You see my shadow, Lily? Should we make our shadows hold hands?” I held my hand out and Lily took it. She shook our hands up and down. CB came over behind us and jumped up and down in the middle. “Yawoo!” she yelled, waving her arms.
I point to the three of us on the asphalt. “Hey guys, can you see? Our shadows are all the same color. Clothes, hair, skin, everything, we’re the same.” CB is holding one hand up, then another. “What’s your shadow’s name?” I pause. It had never occurred to me. “I don’t know hon, I don’t think I have ever given my shadow a name. What’s your shadow’s name?” “Hasha. She looks just like me, except that she’s my shadow.” “What about you Lily? Do you want to give your shadow a name?” Lily looks at her sister, and like she does so often, she repeats what her big sister says. “My shadow is Hasha.” CB prances across the lot. “You need to name your shadow, Daddy.”
Lily sprints over to her, and CB takes her hand. “I play a game with the other shadows, I try not to step on them. You want to play it with me?” Lily nods her head. The two of them leap and run through the shadows of the tree branches, the leaves whispering lightly in the summer evening wind, their images flitting through the upper branches of the darkened pavement, two ghost birds in flight.
My two young daughters have several dolls, and I have to say, I take issue with all of them. It’s not the comb-able hair, or all the outfits and accessories, or the whippet-like and over-sexualized Barbies. I don’t approve of those either, but in the end they’re the lesser evil. It’s that their dolls don’t move.
There’s no knee or elbow joints. These dolls are immobile and helpless compared to boy’s action figures, that, even when I was young, could move in 500 different directions. The girl dolls can’t be configured to run, jump, kick, climb– to do, really, anything other than model clothes. Even the Dora the Explorer doll’s knees and elbows are fused and unmoving, undermining everything Dora herself stands for.
Worst of all, they all seem uncomfortable in their own bodies. Barbie seems almost paralyzed with the fear of embarrassing herself with an ungraceful move, her face frozen in a mock smile. She can’t even sit down properly.
When I was a teenager, my dad pointed out an aspect of girls fashion at that time, which was to wear over-sized sweatshirts. The girls retracted their hands into, and clenched the ends of, the sleeves from the inside. They became essentially handless, and, at that moment, appear completely unable or unwilling to do anything but stand there. It was an affected helplessness, and after he pointed it out to me, I saw it everywhere.
This concerns me, because, after teaching 6-9 graders for several years through a summer program, I saw many girls on the first day of class that were mortified of saying or doing anything embarrassing, to the point of simply remaining silent. The boys cavorted like a pack of dogs, oblivious. The girls looked worried that someone would stab them if they did anything unseemly. It’s that same terrified paralysis.
I’m on the lookout for dolls that move like my daughters move, that can scale trees, jump on trampolines, or sprint like gazelles. I don’t want my daughters growing up horrified by their own bodies, their limbs rigid and bound as the Bride of Frankenstein’s.
Author’s note: this first appeared as part of KQED’s “Perspectives” Series. An audio version can be found here.
Dad is heading to the garage. CB follows him out there.
CB: What are you looking for Daddy?
Dad: I’m getting the snake for the drain in the bathtub. It’s plugged.
CB: Can I help?
Dad *grabbing the snake and heading back into the house*: This is a daddy job, honey, it’s kind of hard to turn the snake. But… in a minute, I’ll pull something out of the drain that will be TOTALLY. GROSS. You wanna see?
CB: YES! Lily, Daddy is going to show us something gross!
Lily: YEAH! *runs into bathroom*
Lauri: What? Ew, I don’t even want to know. Don’t even tell me about it. I’m going for a walk.
Dad: See, we feed the snake down through the drain… I think the plug is pretty close…
CB: MOM! Daddy’s putting the snake into the drain! You want to see?
Lauri: NO. I’m getting ready to go.
CB: Daddy, what do you think is in the EWWWWWWW!
CB: GROOOOSSSS! MOM! YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!
Lily: EWWWW! GROOOSSSS!!
Lauri: I’M LEAVING. I DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.
CB: EWWW! WHAT IS THAT?!
There is, hanging in the long hallway of my parent’s house, a large painting.The painting is hung high enough for my two young children not to see it. I suspect that this is intentional, though I’ve never asked. I’ve never spoken to my mother about the painting until now.She has pulmonary fibrosis, and is now on oxygen 24-7. She is an award-winning artist, and there are paintings that I have questions about, images from her art that have stayed with me over the years, and I’m looking for answers about this one.
Most of her work over the past decade has been pastels, vibrant ultraviolet landscapes that prove to me that she can see ranges of light beyond the rest of us. This painting, however, is in black and white, except for one crucial detail.
The painting is from a photo in William Stevenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s of a woman named Madeline, the first woman British WWII radiotelegraphist who transmitted from occupied France. She was caught by the Gestapo. She sits naked and emaciated, one of the Gestapo men holding her head up for the photo. There are no faces other than hers, just the legs of the men standing behind her. In the photo, she looks away, and does her best to cover herself before execution.
The painting has a secret. Up close, at eye level, you can see, in the shadows of Madeline’s eye sockets, that my mother has painted two tiny red dots. I wanted to know about those two dots. With those two tiny dots, my mother has transformed Madeline, from victim to something else, a force of vengeance. The man’s hand, holding her head, has rotted away, every man in the picture now dead and defeated. Madeline wears a halo of amputated limbs. She is victorious and unmoving, an eater of evil souls. The painting is as beautiful as it is unsettling, it reminds me of the true power that an artist has to re-forge images of despair into those of triumph, even a horrible triumph, and I love my mother even more for painting it. I imagine in her the same burning coals, the unflinching stare, as she faces the disease slowly taking her breath away.
Ill little kinder
Hot as a cinder
The blanket, the bottle, and bear
Will not stay this fever
And I’m no believer
In preachers, or pulpits, or prayer.
I’ve lost one before you
There was two, now too few,
Now with you, I sleeplessly share:
Let moon howl, let sun crow
As you go, so I go
To Eden, to undone, to air.