Monday, December 26, 2011

Exotic Trips Made Easy

Before we leave for Illinois this Christmas, I hit the library. It is a whirlwind trip. I slap Sophia on the computer for 15-minutes while I quickly gathered enough literature to sustain us for the 32-hour round trip excursion we’d be embarking upon the next day.

First, I mine the books-on-tape. I’ve pretty much sucked the few shelves of audio picture books dry, relying on them for a five-minute reprieve from Sophia asking me, “Can you please tell me a story about Sophia and Curious George [drive me completely insane]?” But, to the right, are the chapter books. The big guns. Charlotte’s Web. 101 Dalmatians. Mary Poppins. Not the Disneyed up versions. The originals. I look at the back. 275 minutes. Hello, my lovely. I pop them into my sack.

“Soph, are you okay?” I check in with her.

“Shhhh!” she scolds me. “I can’t hear when you talk to me!”

She’s fine.

Next, I cruise the new books, helping myself to three pristine tomes: a posthumously printed collection of little known Dr. Seuss stories, a truly fabulous spoof of pulp fiction entitled, Boy Saves World from Giant Octopus (any book in which the father is a meticulously rendered drawing of Gregory Peck at his finest is an excellent book, in my opinion), and the Big Book of Families.

Then I scanned the holiday section, which has a two-book limit. I hold up three, deliberating. Larry, one of our favorite librarians, comes up behind me. “You can have three,” he whispers. “You guys are special.”

Being a regular has its privileges.

“Okay, Sophy Wophy. Put the earphones down.” She pretends not to hear me. I’ve got to get home, make dinner, and start packing pronto. This kid doesn’t understand that we have a SCHEDULE to keep.

“I’ve got Charlotte’s Web on tape….” I sing, holding up the bait. The earphones come off in a flash.

“Let me see. I want to see it!” I let her fondle the package, while Larry checks us out.

She’s wiggling as I try to strap her into her car seat. “I want to listen to Charlotte’s Web right now!” We should have been five minutes ago. “Sorry, Charlie.”

“My name is not Charlie! It’s SOPHIA!” Yes. I know.

The next morning, I’m getting everything together in preparation for take off. I’m rushing around like a maniac while Sophia happily plays with her dollhouse people.

“Gotta go, Soph. I have a million things to do before we leave this afternoon.”

“No. I want to stay here. I want to play Cinderella with you.”

“I’m sorry, Sophia, but we don’t have time. Put your shoes on and grab what you want to take with you in the car.”

“No! I don’t want to go!” Sigh. I pop Sophia in the car and throw in The Great Big Book of Families after her. We go to the bank, and then head over to the car wash. I try two before I finally find one that seems to be open. But no one’s around. I’m perplexed. It’s Hanunkkah, not Christmas. Do Jews own carwashes? I glance down at my watch. I’ve got a half an hour before Sophia has to go down for the nap and I haven’t even fed her yet. I walk into the car wash calling out, “Hello? Anyone there?”

“Yeah. The pumps broke. Can you come back in 15 minutes?” Fifteen precious minutes?

“Sure.” I take Sophia out for a bagel, which we eat in the car listening to holiday tunes. I’m sweating. She looks happy and peaceful, cream cheese smeared under her nose.

When we get back to the car wash, it’s still a couple minutes before it’s up and running, “This might take a few minutes,” the guy tells me, “I’m the only one here.” Fabulous.

“How come none of the car washes are open today but yours?”

“People don’t usually get their cars washed in the rain.” It was raining. I hadn’t noticed. Oh well. The car is filthy. It had to be done.

I take the Big Book of Families out of the car to keep us occupied while Green Car has his spa treatment. “No! I don’t want to read that!”

“Fine. I’ll read it to myself.” I retort, and begin to read aloud, full of feeling. Sophia peeks at the page from behind the book. I pause. Come on. Ask me for it.

“Mommy. Keep reading.”

“Oh? You want me to read to you, now?”

“Yes! Read it to me now!”


“Read it to me right now please!”

And so I read. We come to a page about vacations. “Families take all kinds of vacations…some can afford to take exotic vacations….while others stay close to home.”

I snort.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?” Nothing. It’s just that I can’t wait for my vacation to be over.

That night we drive up to my mother’s, do Hanukkah, sleep, attend the preschool holiday show, and finally get on I-80, Illinois bound. To her credit, Sophie is a gem. Barely a peep out of her. She’s looking at books, listening to her music, chattering away.

For insurance, I’ve come armed with a bag of wrapped items. Small gifts to reward Sophie’s patience along the way. Each was specifically chosen for its portability and absorbing qualities: Fancy Nancy Colorforms, Disney Princess Color Wonders Coloring Book (proof that I do not practice complete princess deprivation), an Encyclopedia of Words sticker book (over 600 stickers!), Princess Mosaic sticker-by-number. The grab-bag items prove to be so engaging, we only have to give her two the first sixteen hours. Of course, we punctuate these activities with music, I Spy, 20 questions, word games, napping, snacks, and bouts of silliness. About halfway there, Sophie’s face lights up. Suddenly she asks,

“Daddy, are we on an exotic vacation?”

I think back to the exotic trips (albeit few) that I’ve taken in the past. Latvia. Prague. Jamaica. And line them up against this endless stretch of highway to our Midwest destination. I snicker.

But perhaps, compared to our brief jaunts to Philadelphia or North Jersey, in Sophia’s world this is exotic. We’ve seen a log cabin on the back of a truck. We’ve flown by acres of farmland and expansive sky. And tonight, we’re sleeping in a hotel. One with a pool. I can remember this as being the height of luxury. The pampering experience of eating chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP. Of waking up in a bed that’s not your own (which, now, skeeves me). Of having all the HBO your optic nerve can stand.

Finally, I’m ready. Ready to slow down and join Sophie on her exotic vacation.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Red Shirts for All

A friend recently asked me what was my take on holding children back a year from entering Kindergarten…. (This one’s for you, Stephan.)

Perhaps I should have been held back. Born in August, I was always the smallest, one of the most socially awkward students in my class. I cried every single morning from Kindergarten until third grade, when, I was either finally mature enough to be in school or had a teacher who was so engaging, I forgot to cry. (Thank you, Mr. O’Brien)

I remember, in Kindergarten, my teacher leaning over with me, pleading, “Melissa, if you keep crying, all the other children are going to drown in your tears.”

Another kindergartener had a gentler approach. She put her arm around my shoulders and said, sympathetically, “Don’t cry, honey.”

And in second grade I had a teacher so mean, so incensed by my tears she once hissed at me before we watched a movie, “you better cry through this entire movie. If you don’t, I’ll give you something to cry about.” And boy did I cry. I sobbed. I wailed. It was remarkable that the other children could hear the movie over the din of my blubbering. But when the movie was over she came over to me and said. “I didn’t hear you cry.”

“But I did cry!” I insisted, tears rolling down my face.

“No. You didn’t. You enjoyed the movie like every other rotten child in this room, and now you are going to be punished.” She dug her nails into my scalp, and led me, cackling, over to the chair in the corner, underneath the pencil sharpener. (F*** you, Mrs. Sable)

My friend Emily came over with a fistful of dull pencils, to keep me company and offer her sympathy.

But, because I was academically on par with my peers and an early reader, my parents believed that holding me back would only serve to hold me back, I started kindergarten when I was freshly five.

I’ll say this. At least I got out younger too. I think I’ve finally recovered.

But, it was uncommon to leave children back then. The times, they have a-changed. Now, it’s not only done without hesitation, it’s rampant. So much so there’s a name for it: red-shirting. (Redshirting has its etymological origins in the college practice of delaying an athlete’s participation in sports in order to extend his/her period of eligibility. Traditionally, these students wear a red jersey in scrimmages with the other, actively playing students.) Redshirting became more popular as demands increased for a higher level of school readiness…but in towns like mine, parents will also do it to give their child an edge in sports. So they can be bigger, stronger and more skilled then their no-so-same-aged peers.

To redshirt or not to redshirt? I have pondered this question from the other end of the spectrum—should I push Sophia into school early? Sophia, like anyone born after October 1 in my corner of the world, misses the cut-off date, which means, by the time she’s eligble for Kindergarten she’ll be almost six.

So, if I follow convention, she will start public school having attended my mother’s preschool for four years. How’s that for school readiness?

On the one hand, given the local tendency to hold kids back, she might just find herself on par with her peers—social-emotionally, intellectually, physically, and in actual years. But, in the meanwhile, I wonder if she get bored. Feel unchallenged. Start to act out.

I weigh the options. She’s not a shy child. Oh, she’ll bury her face in my leg for all of 60 seconds before getting thisclose to another child and demanding that he play “sick kitty” with her in our pediatrician’s waiting room: “Okay. Let’s pretend kitty has a banana stuck in her ear. No, a banana stuck in both her ears. No, no no. Wait. A banana stuck in both ears and her heart. And you’re the doctor.” She’s kind of a social vigilante. Forcing strange children to play with her.

Academically, she’s good.

As for maturity. She seems almost too independent for me, pushing me away on the escalator, “I can do this MYSELF mommy.” Ordering me from the back seat to drive, “Mom, the light is green. Just go.” Always walking away without a backwards glance.

I think if I sent her to kindergarten tomorrow, she’d tread water. She’d do what she always does. Try to usurp the teacher.

But on the other hand, I wouldn’t mind keeping her around for one more year. Enjoying this fleeting thing called childhood. Having the luxury of my mother popping into the storage room where I work to say, “Melissa…you’ve got to see this…she pretending she’s a miner… she’s practicing her part for the play…she’s in the kitchen with Marie…she just wrote her name….” Having one more year to play. One more year of freedom. One more year before the demands set in: To sit. To attend. To listen.

And then there’s the research, which says there’s no long term harm, and often short term good in holding kids back. Which makes me wonder: maybe we’re sending our kids to school too soon in general. What’s wrong with another year of childhood, before being swallowed up by the great machine that is school? Maybe everyone could stand to benefit from one more year in the school of life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

First Friendships

Walking out of her classroom at my mother’s school, Sophia hands me the 12th birthday invitation she has received since September. I slit it open. It’s from her friend Marie. She’s turning five.

“Please can I go mommy?” Sophie pleads, her brows knitted together hopefully, worried that I’ll say no. To be fair, Sophia rarely asks me to attend a party. If she doesn’t know the child well, she’s the one to suggest that we decline.

But Maria is special. Each week, at school, she greets Sophia effusively. Their faces light up when they see each other. They embrace and head straight for the trunk of dress-up clothes. Unchecked, they would play in the housekeeping all morning, dressed in discarded evening gowns, Maria cooking, Sophia serving plastic facsimiles of food.

I hesitate. “I don’t know sweetie. It’s not on a school day when we’re already up here. Marie lives really far away.” Four hours round trip, to be exact.

Sophie, dejected, instantly reacts with anger, “You aren’t allowed to say that! She’s not too far away! She lives close!”

Though I know better than to argue, I let a snotty little, “No, she doesn’t,” slip out. Sometimes, it’s hard to be the grownup.

We run into Marie on the way out the door. “Sophie’s Mom? Can Sophie come to my birthday party? Please?” She clearly did not hear the conversation that just took place between Sophie and me.

“I’m sorry, Marie. I don’t think so. We live really really far away.” Marie literally hung her head. She looked crestfallen. “Oh man!” she said.

Then, the two of them clung to each other as if they would never see the other again. And they kissed, just barely missing each other’s lips.

I watch, struck by this truth: their friendship matters.

I flash back to when I was six years old and best friends with Judy Kelly. We were as close as six-year-olds could be, playing exclusively together on the playground, visiting each other for play dates. Our teacher, Miss Stonehill, would put a cardboard box around my desk to try to keep me from talking to her in class. Judy had invited me to her seventh birthday. It was going to be a sleepover. We were so excited, we couldn’t stop talking about it. I got my first sleeping bag for the occasion.

Saturday, the morning of the sleepover, I got a phone call from Judy. Mom brought me the phone. “Where were you last night?” Judy asked me. She sounded really upset.

“What do you mean?”

“My party! Why didn’t you come to my party!”

“But it’s tonight!” I protested, an awful feeling rising up inside of me.

“No! It was last night! You missed it. Why didn’t you come?” I didn’t know what to say this. I was so overwhelmed with disappointment. I started to cry and dropped the phone. Judy’s party! My first sleepover! How did this happen?

I was too young to realize this was not my mistake. I blamed myself. Even when I think about now, thirty-five years later, I can feel the disappointment and shame.

Sophie was not going to miss this party.

I found a way to make it work, logistically, and then I told Sophie. She was elated. The next day, she told Marie. Marie was ecstatic. The two hugged each other and danced around.

My hope is not that Sophie will remember the party. I doubt that it had any great emotional salience for her. It was one good time among many. But I do wish that, no matter how many people she meets in her lifetime, no matter how many relationships she moves in an out of, this early friendship will hold a sweet place in her heart.

Love, in any size, at any age is the most important thing.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hanukkah v. Christmas Smack Down, Part III (Yes, Sophie, There Really Is a Santa Claus)

I have been avoiding the fat man in the red suit.

I hurry past the North Pole, whenever I pass it in the mall. I avert my eyes when I walk by the bell swinging Salvation Army recruit in front of the grocery store.

I am so conflicted about Santa.

Mind you, I have nothing against him. In fact, that’s my problem. I grew up with him. I love the idea of him. What is more magical than the idea of someone who travels the world in one night, his sole mission to bring you whatever you want most? To wake up and discover, yes, indeed he came. The proof is under the tree. What was barren is now laden with gifts. Everything seems to sparkle.

But I still want Sophie to feel the primacy of her Jewishness. It’s something I struggle with every year. But this year I have a new challenge.

This is the first year that Sophie gets the Santa thing.

We were in Pottery Barn Kids and I surreptitiously made a holiday purchase for Sophie while she trashed the joint with some friends. As we walked out of the store, Sophie asked, “What’s that, Mommy?” indicating my bag.

“A surprise…”

“What’s my surprise?”

“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s for Hanukkah.”

“There are no surprises for Hanukkah! Santa brings surprises. You’re not Santa. You’re Melissa. I can know what you bring!”

Interesting logic, but what really struck me was that she knew Santa brings surprises. Where did she pick that up?


He’s on the radio. He’s on my neighbor’s front lawn. And most recently, he was in her nursery school. Apparently, one of the teachers had been warning another child that if he didn’t behave, Santa wasn’t going to bring him any gifts. “He knows if you’ve been bad or good,” she warned

Sophie, who would make an excellent spy if anyone could get her to do it on purpose, reported this tidbit back to me. I think she was looking to have me weigh in. The whole idea of it disturbed me. In general, I don’t like manipulating behavior via the whole “he sees you when you’re sleeping” thing. For one, it’s creepy. Secondly, it’s passing the buck. If you don’t like the kid’s behavior, say so. Don’t make Santa the heavy. And third, don’t threaten something you won’t make good on/have no control over. Really, what is this teacher going to do, tell the parents to cancel Christmas because their kid wouldn’t sit in his seat?

I assured Sophie that despite her inability to sit in a chair, Santa was not going to stiff her.

Yes, Santa will be coming. I can’t avoid him for too long. He’ll be visiting us at Grandpa’s house, not ours, because, as Sophia understands, Grandpa is Christian and celebrates Christmas. And, not so secretly, I will enjoy it. Just as I have enjoyed participating in Christmas every year as long as I can remember. Truth be told: I want Sophie to feel the magic too.

As for Hanukkah, which we’ll celebrate several days before, there may be no magic, no surprises...

...but at least I’ll get all the credit.