MY CHILDREN MY SELF

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Before junior high I always felt like a girl inside but to many strangers I looked like a boy. Unless I was in school or church clothes, both of which required a dress, I wore dungarees, sneakers, t- shirts and sweat shirts and I had very short hair. It was the 1960’s and when many girls my age had long hair my mother insisted on keeping mine very short. I was the only one of my sisters who befell this fate on a consistent basis year after year until I entered eighth grade and she backed off and let me decide how to wear my own hair. My high school freshman yearbook photo shows an adolescent working hard to grow out short hair. This class photo from my kindergarten class gives you a pretty good idea how different I looked from other girls. I am second from the right in the back row next to the teacher. It also shows you who the photographer felt should not be in the front row.

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When I had children of my own I remember looking at photos of me and my young son at various ages and it was remarkable how similar we appeared. Jackson and I have small close set eyes and big ears that stick out a little at the top. So I usually kept his hair a bit longer. It was a reaction to my own insecurity that developed spending a decade with my ears exposed.

“See how much he resembles me?” I would ask people when I placed our pictures side by side from similar ages. When Jackson was in the fourth grade he started wearing glasses and then puberty started and any obvious similarity ended.

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Conversely I have perpetuated the belief that my daughter looks nothing like me. I have always resembled my own mother to a certain extent and I was surprised when she did not. Instead she resembles my husband’s sister except in coloring. She has large, wide eyes and a small nose and ears. She recently measured her face according to the golden section in a math class and discovered that the proportions of her face were “perfect.”Image

I added this item to the long list of things my daughter and I will never have in common. For example I always hated school and she seemed wired to succeed at it from birth. She was a pretty natural swimmer and I struggled throughout my childhood to learn the skill. She read early and often and I didn’t pick up the habit until I was almost seventeen. These are the things that sit at the forefront of my brain when I think about my daughter being connected to me. It’s as if she could do so much better than be like me.

Quinnie’s enduring hairstyle throughout childhood has been to part it on the side without bangs and cut it blunt across her shoulders. This isn’t terribly interesting except I recently uncovered a colored snapshot of me taken in 1967 when I was in the third grade.(Note the date on border. Film took a long time to get developed in our house.) The photo stopped me in my tracks. It reveals the one small window in my entire childhood when I had somehow managed to grow my hair to my shoulders before my mother shuffled me back to the hairdresser for my routine pixie.

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When I look at both of these eight year old girls I see the things the viewer cannot. Our difference in age is exactly the same as my mother’s and mine. We are both the youngest and have a deep fondness for little things like fairies, trolls and gnomes. I see our imaginative selves that wrote poems and drew expressive people dressed up in fancy clothes or the beginnings of countless comic strips where girlfriends said banal things to one another. I see our love of Little House on the Prairie books and the caretaking of numerous dolls that needed more attention than we each had time to offer. I see  both our childhoods played out against an exurban backdrop.Image

I remember longing for the late afternoon to arrive so school could end or the Saturday chores were finally over and my mother would relax and serve a late day snack, free from the pressures of housework. I recently learned Quinn’s least favorite time of day is between 1 and 3 PM. She has always had a longing for a little four o’clock tea and biscuit which helps transition her into the evening. I suppose I encouraged and nurtured this habit.

I can’t say anymore that we are more different than the same or we never resembled one another. The pictures reveal that what we believe and what we remember aren’t always reliable indicators of the truth.

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THE PERFECT GIFT

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In 1993 my father stepped off the airplane carrying an oversized wrapped birthday present. My husband Rob loaded it into the back of the car and noted how heavy it felt.

“That’s the perfect gift,” my father had said proudly. “The perfect gift.”

I was expecting my second child in a few months and imagined the box contained a massaging pad for my sore back.

The next day after dinner and cake I opened my presents. Rob gave me a pair of Birkenstock sandals. “See, you can adjust the straps as your feet get wider.” Obviously the fact that I had removed the laces from my sneakers had not gone unnoticed.

Our three-year-old son Jackson kept asking when he would get his present. Rob unsuccessfully tried explain that it was his mother’s birthday and there weren’t any presents for him. Jackson thrust his head in my large lap and sobbed.

My father, always eager to keep the fun moving, had the answer. “Hey Jack,” he said, gently tapping his shoulder. “Wait till she opens my present. You can share it with her.”

Realizing this was his best shot at a gift, Jackson stopped crying.

“This is really for everyone,” my father proclaimed as he rested the box at our feet.

Jackson and I unwrapped it together and stared at the contents, which included four heavy red balls and four green balls and one tiny white ball.

“Oh, it’s a bocce ball set,” Rob exclaimed. Rob, who is of Italian descent, is always approving of anything made in Italy.

“That’s right!” Dad said. “Isn’t this the perfect gift?” he said again. He suggested we go play.

“Right this minute?” I asked, feeling weary at the thought of it.

This prompted my father to dive into our exploits of croquet from when I was a child. Our lawn in Illinois had been large and flat and covered in an even bed of perfect grass. The court had been regulation and my father always won.

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Our current apartment was in a house that faced the Palisades and the terrain slanted downhill towards the Hudson River. The yard was bumpy and filled with plantains and crabgrass. My father explained that unlike croquet, bocce could be played on any surface. We paired off and played. As the shiny wooden balls bounced along our yard my father rewrote the rules of bocce.

“You see,” he said, pointing as a ball hit a divot and bounced off course. “That’s just part of the game now.” After we had finished he said, “You’ll play this for years to come.”

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A few years later we moved to an apartment in a small neighboring city and sold off all our lawn items except the bocce ball set which we stored inside an opaque plastic box. A few years after that we bought our first house which was on a lake in Putnam County. The house sits fifty feet above the water and the yard snakes down to the dock along a foot path that runs through a wooded lot. A friend remarked during our housewarming party, “This isn’t the kind of yard you could ever play anything on.”

Once when my father was visiting he pointed out the only level strip of land in the terraced yard and we bandied about putting in a skinny bocce court. In the end we abandoned the idea because of cost and size.

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The summer before our daughter left for college she held a yard sale. She was told she could keep all the proceeds from the sale for herself in exchange for doing all the work involved. As she gathered up our junk she discovered the bocce set under the basement steps.

“What about these?” she asked, peering down at the dusty balls.

My father, who had been dead for almost four years, wouldn’t have known the difference and we hadn’t played with them since before my daughter was born. I picked up one of the heavy balls and wiped away a thick layer of dust with the edge of my t-shirt. I tried to picture all the gifts my father had ever given me but could only remember this one. The weight of the ball transported me back to that birthday and how pleased he had been with his gift. I admired the red wood that still contrasted against the patterned white lines circling around the ball and saw for the first time how utterly beautiful the balls were.

“No,” I said, returning the ball with the rest. “I want them.”

“But you never use them,” she argued mildly.

“Well your father and I plan to start playing just as soon as you leave for school.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” I said.

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