Monday, February 13, 2012

Lessons Learned from My Own Daughter

I had lunch Friday with a friend from 28 years ago. We’ve lost and found each other many times in all these years, usually exchanging letters or cards at Christmas. Now she lives just thirty minutes away from me, and we made time for each other.

As always, she had less to say about herself while asking many questions about me, my husband, our travels, and our daughter. After each tale, she said, “You’ve written that down, haven’t you?” And I nodded in the affirmative because I’m pretty sure that I have. But it’s possible that I’ve told and retold the story so often that it exists in print only in my mind; her question reminded me about the hours we spent together, the time that brought us close.

We were colleagues, peers as faculty at a community college in a rural area. Our students were veterans of Vietnam, wives trying to earn a degree while raising children, and recent high school graduates with no place else to go. The area offered little in the way of industry or careers. It was in the heart of an Oil Boom gone Bust and dry plains for dusty cattle.

My friend left all of that behind. She said she might run for public office, but she never did. She led in other ways: as a spiritual seeker and mentor, a stellar mother and grandmother, an artist, and writer. For the latter, she asked me to help her. At first, tentative, she asked if I thought her ideas had any merit, if she should write them down. I encouraged her to do so, to tell the stories of her childhood, of her children’s ancestors. Thereafter, she wrote and I offered advice. From our time, she developed two books that she published herself; each one has a place on my bookshelves, each telling the stories that she wanted to get down on paper before she forgot, before they were lost for all time.

I realized that telling my mother’s stories is not enough. I should also be telling my own for my own daughter. So from this date forward, I will write as much about myself than I do about my own mother. I will tell tales that my daughter and I lived together in the hope that one day, she way recall them and enjoy.

Today, I tell the cautionary tale of polka-dot clothing:

Spring nudged winter out of the way as the day progressed, but my daughter had fallen in love with her winter clothes: red, wool mittens; a pink knit cap; and a heavy red jacket with corduroy pants below. I tried to talk her into something lighter and cooler, but she was having none of it. Already at three, she was headstrong about her appearance and dress.

So dressed for frigid weather, we set out for the pre-errand Saturday morning treat: McDonald’s pancakes and playground. Below her knit cap, sweat beads appeared, and I told her we’d need to go home for lunch where she could change clothes, putting on the new polka-dot Capri-pant set that my mother had given her. She set her jaw, and I knew the planned change-of-clothes would not go well.

My daughter never particularly cared for my mother. Even at three, she was very reserved--even wary--around her grandmother, and that never changed. My own child preferred the company of my husband’s mother, her dear, sweet Nan. Whether my own mother was hurt or jealous or both, I’ll never know; I didn’t ask. Mother has since and often said how much she admires my daughter's grace, drive, and courage. Mom has even congratulated me for my parenting.

Whether is was because my daughter didn’t care for Mother or that, at three, she had already decided against polka-dots, I'll never know for sure. Whatever the reason, my child refused to wear those polka-dots. She cried, and I asserted my will: “She would wear them or we would not go to the park!”

I’m ashamed to admit that she wore those polka-dots to a small neighborhood park with a Dig and Delve toy in a large sandbox and a nice slide. No one else was in the park at high noon. I knew that few people used that particular park, but it was also noon on a Saturday. Many people would be at home, eating lunch.

My daughter noticed the absence of others, and asked at the top of the slide, poised for the downhill run, “Where are all the other mommies and kids?”

“I imagine they’re at home for lunch.”

“Hmmm,” she said, then scooted her bottom to the edge and down. At the bottom, once she’d stood and looked round once more, she said, “Maybe their mommies made them wear polka-dots.”

Ouch! Humility stings! My daughter had informed me that she felt conspicuous and alien in polka-dots. She had made my will to wear a gift from my mother small and petty.

I now display a picture of her in those polka-dot capris, seated at the Dig and Delve toy. She isn’t smiling. I wince as I look at it, remembering the little girl who simply wanted to choose her own patterns, perhaps assert her own will over me and my mother. That photo has helped us relive that day more than once, but my daughter still does not choose polka-dots until recently, on Christmas Eve, when my daughter presented my husband and I and her in-laws with a small, sparkly black gift bag, pink and white polka-dotted tissue paper sprouting from within. Inside was a pink ornament with silver handwritten words on each side. One side read Merry Christmas; the other It’s a girl. My little girl is having a little girl in early summer. May she know better than to make her own sweet daughter wear polka-dots if she doesn’t like them.