My memories of parenting are overlaid with a thick film of slop. When I try to dig around in the trough in an attempt to extract something concrete and useful, my neurological hands get sticky and confused and eventually pull out, memory-less. I forget which child did what, when, how and why. Trying to recall certain events is kind of like trying to remember a night of bad-beer shecanery in college–the late morning “I did what?!” response, followed by hearty disbelief and a vague sense of amusement. Apparently, when it comes to both parenting and keg nights, the brain punches “delete.” This is why I was excited to recently come across some writing that shed some light on my earlier mothering self.
I had written a couple of chapters for a new novel sometime after my first novel, The Outer Banks House, was published. The ideas for the novel have been marinating for years now, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the material again. Here’s a hint: it has to do with deer hunting, a disfigured woman, and urban sprawl. It’s supposed to be a thriller, a genre I’ve never touched before. I scanned over the (poorly written) chapters yesterday, and who popped out at me from the murky depths of the long, long years? My nine-year-old daughter Katherine, who must have been around four years old at the time I wrote the chapters. (My son, now 13, also makes an appearance.) Yes, it was some Harry Potter-Dumbledore-and-the pensieve kind of magic, to read about my sweet Katherine, apparently having done the same exact things that my third child Ellery is now doing. But it was also vexing to realize that I am repeating myself, over and over again, with no memory of it. I’m like a hamster on her wheel, rolling steadily and happily into nowhere. Warm keg beer anyone? Enjoy part of the (flippantly toned) chapter below:
It is morning. I hate mornings. We rush around, strapping on ammunition and checking our weapons.
“Mommy, I need help!”
“Do it yourself! You’re a big girl now, remember?”
Almost-four-year-olds should know how to wipe their own asses. How hard is it, really? You rip some toilet paper off the roll, reach behind your back and wipe the hole. It’s not like I’m asking her to darn a doily or aerate the lawn. It’s a crack. You wipe it. You flush.
But she really does have a phobia of ass-wiping, it seems. I often find crusty skid marks on the insides of her balled-up Hello Kitty underwear. Which leads to complaints about her sore butt hole. Many times it has brought her to tears, and I have to run for the cream. You’d think the chafing would reason with her, if nothing else.
I have seen this same girl climb up the longest curly slide at McDonald’s, wearing shiny red clogs. They are the opposite of sensible climbing shoes. Similarly shod, she rides a bike with training wheels and even straps a helmet under her chin without pinching the skin. She draws big-headed, smiling stick people, with arms sprouting from the sides of their circular heads. Little potato people. I have heard that these vegetable families are quite a feat for her age.
But she can’t grasp the wiping thing.
I trek down the hallway to the bathroom and stand in the doorway, hands on my hips. She sits on the toilet, completely naked. She is afraid of getting poo on her clothing.
“Let me see you try it, Edda. Just pull some paper off and wipe.”
She paws the roll of paper, unfurling it to the floor. She stops and whines at me.
“You can do this.”
She shakes her head and rests her face in her hands, elbows propped on her bare thighs. She looks tired.
So I do it for her. This is my life now, I think. I wipe asses. I clean up everyone else’s messes, all day every day. Shit, urine, vomit, spit-up. Spills, stray marker marks, scuffs from boots on the hardwood floors, bits of egg in the table cracks.
It is not how I thought things would go for me. But here I am, knee deep in the mess.
I pull her turtleneck over her head for the second time today. I put her legs in the pants holes too.
“Mommy, you have to unbutton my pants.”
“You mean button them. Not unbutton them.”
She blinks at me.
Edda also says the opposite of things. “Close my window!” means to open it. Off means on. And red is green, and vice versa. I thought a few months ago that she was colorblind. But now I think she just has an opposite problem, for lack of a more medical-sounding description.
I understand this, on a deep level.
I attempt to drag a wet brush through Ethan’s hair. Every morning, his strawberry-blonde hair looks like he has been standing on the edge of a pier all night in the middle of a hurricane. Every morning. Even a wet brush doesn’t tame the beast that lives atop his head. He needs a good dunking.
“OOOH, NOOO! Mom! You got my picture wet!” he groans. He lifts up the paper to show me its complete destruction. It is a drawing of a witch, with little cobwebs in the upper corners of the paper. The witch’s face is deformed, because of the water droplets. I think it looks cool.
“I’m sorry, buddy. I didn’t mean to. But look how spooky she looks now.”
He doesn’t buy it for a second. “Now I’m going to have to start over. Jeez, mom. Thanks a lot.”
Ethan is a perfectionist, even this early in the day. He wants to be an artist when he grows up. Every picture could be a masterpiece.
“Oh, and mom? Could you double-knot my shoelaces?”
I squat, and my knees snap like green beens. “You really need to learn how to do this. You are seven years old. This is getting ridiculous.”
My words are punctuated with small pulls on the shoelaces.
“But I can’t do it! I’ve tried, and I just can’t,” he moans.
I stand slowly, fighting off a head rush. I picture my son, sitting in a job interview, wearing a nice gray suit and crisp white shirt, a red, silk tie. And his shoe laces hang pathetically, untied. It could happen, and it would be all my fault.