Tuesday, May 19, 2015
I'll get back to some more diatribes on character analysis. But now, for a brief (not really), creative interlude:
I am one of four sisters. I am the second. In many ways.
My older sister, Mandy, is a doctor now, in the army. She’s Airborne, served in Afghanistan and left when her first son was just five months old. She has a thoughtful, intelligent husband with two little ones and works obsessively, trying to prove something to someone.
My younger two sisters are more confident and secure than my older sister and I. They have husbands and two sons each, and although they struggle in their own ways, they do not strive to work and prove themselves the way my older sister, Mandy and I, do.
But when we were young, Mandy always did things right. I tried, but by the time my younger sisters were born, I didn’t feel like I could do anything right.
I started writing. That was my right. It wasn’t always what was right, but it was right for me.
I went to visit Mandy and her family. Jake is five, Sam is two, and Mandy is pregnant with a little girl.
Sam is the second. In so many ways.
Mandy is an amazing mother. With two highly energetic boys, she harnesses their energy and focuses their attention like a director of music, making a pot of oatmeal with fresh blackberries picked that morning from her crisp morning stroll around the yard with Sam strapped to her back and her oversized belly impeding her efforts to get the highest berries. Back in the kitchen, she sips her morning coffee while she spoons up bowls for her two sleepy boys.
She is a Proverbs woman.
I try to help with dishes, but mostly I get in the way with the dance that she has perfected in the mornings. She is grateful for my efforts, and she smiles at me.
I still strain her. I always have.
She leaves for work before seven, and the small herd is still sleepily eating their meal.
I smile and walk to the door to wave good-bye.
I love her so much. I am so proud of her. I want her to relax and have a cup of coffee and tell me about Afghanistan and about her children and about her friends and about her life and about the things that matter to her most.
I know she won’t. She’s too much like me. She is withdrawn. She must work.
It’s a miracle that I am here to visit. It’s a miracle that I am here, not working.
I will work later this afternoon when I can spare a couple of hours when the little boys are napping.
Tammy, the miraculous nanny, has arrived. She is a little like a blond Mary Poppins with her magic and her patience, but she won’t leave when everything is right.
She puts little Sam down for his morning rest while somehow keeping Jake occupied with a rousing chorus of “Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.”
She turns to me and asks me what I want to do. “I don’t know,” I say.
“Let’s go out,” she says. The weather is nice, and it is good for the kids to get out and about.
I run around with Jake on the playground with pea gravel beneath the heavy four by four beams that form the exciting swings, slide, and climbing wall. We play on the swings and then make up a game tossing rubber, bouncing balls at each other underneath the swings in the stony pebbles. The goal is to throw them between the swings without the other blocking them. But I break the rules.
“You can’t do that,” Jake tells me.
“Can’t do what?”
“You are throwing the balls too fast. You can only throw one at a time.” He picks up three and tosses them between the swings. “I got one.” He calls victoriously.
“But you told me that I can’t throw more than one at a time,” I tell him.
“Well, I only got one goal.”
We continue the game, but I grow tired of Jake’s rules for me that he doesn’t follow. I feel a little like I am six again, Mandy is seven, and I don’t really understand the rules. I only understand that I’m not doing it right.
Sam comes out to find us. He is awake in a strangely alert and energetic way, and he is shyly looking around the edge of the house, waiting to join in the fun, dragging his blanket and clutching his whitish Teddy bear, which looks like it has been through a small war with its matted fur and missing eye.
“Hi, Sam,” I call. “Come play.”
“He can’t play,” Jake says. “This is a game for big kids.”
Sam is on the playground and listening. He takes out his pacifier long enough to say, “I know.” He nods solemnly. He leans over on one foot and puts his pacifier back in his mouth. He understands that he is not a big kid. Jake is two and a half years older than he is.
“How about we all play?” I say.
“No,” Jake reiterates. “This is just for big kids. Sam is just a little guy.” Jake says “little guy” like an insult, like a derogatory term.
Sam grips his Teddy bear. “I’m just a little guy.” He grimly nods like he has accepted his fate. “When I’m big like Jake, I’ll do all sorts of things.” His speech is still developing, and although he uses elaborate sentences, his enunciation is difficult to understand.
But I understand him well.
Then, Tammy is there, watching and listening.
“Let’s go,” she says.
“Where are we going?” Jake says.
“On an adventure,” I say.
The boys jump up and down, excited about the prospect of anything new.
Getting the boys together and ready is a little like a dance and a strategic battle plan put together. Tammy has already gotten spare diapers and wipes and clothes together, and the snack bag is handy with drink boxes and fruit snacks and little bags of peanuts and pretzels and dried apples. Once this is all in the oversized Tundra, Jake pops the back and climbs in the truck through the back hatch.
“I want to climb in the back,” Sam shrieks, but Jake has already pulled it closed. Funny, when Sam verges on a tantrum, his enunciation becomes clearer.
“You have to go in the side,” Tammy says. “Get in your car seat.”
“I want to get in the back like Jake.”
“Get in the side,” Tammy says, her tone not rising. She has done this before, and her movements show this. She holds the door open, waiting for Sam to get in while patiently looking through her purse for some imaginary phone or set of keys.
Sam is on the verge of a fit. His frustration is uncontrollable. I can feel it in my chest. I understand it.
I shouldn’t interfere. I know that Sam is at the age when frustration rises easily. He wants to do what Jake does. He wants more. He will get to do more and learn that when he gets older.
But I interfere. I have breath mints in my bag that he calls “crunchy gum.”
“Sam, you can have a piece of crunchy gum. Let’s go on an adventure.”
His elephant tears are already rolling down his cheeks, and I can feel his frustration quelling as he feels validated, noticed. He is noticed in a way that Jake is not. Jake does not like crunchy gum.
“Yeah, I want some crunchy gum.” He crawls into his seat and reaches for the round, bright blue pack of Ice Breakers that I hand him. “Can I have two?”
“Of course.” I briefly wonder if Sam really likes the flavor. Even if he didn’t like the mints, he loves having this moment, this special adult treat that Mandy and I share with him sometimes.
I doubt he would give this up even if he hated the flavor.
And we are on the road.
Tammy tells me about her own son, about her house, about my nephews, and about Mandy. Strange, the nanny tells me more about my own sister than my sister tells me, but that is the way my sister is.
I know this.
We arrive at a pottery painting shop. The sign offers wine and coffee, and I suddenly wonder if I could order wine. This might help.
But it is only eleven in the morning.
The boys run into the shop, lapping around the wooden floors and varnished, blond picnic tables and shelves of delicately painted pottery. Tammy calmly yells. Ornate cups and dishes sit on the shelves, patiently waiting for a careful and magical artist to create a beautiful masterpiece. A young attendant with black and turquoise hair and a tattoo caved into the center of her chest that I don’t care to examine enough to find out what it is, well, she glares at the boys, and I try not to glare back.
Several displays sit in the windows. They have green whales and delicate pink swirls and ornate orange flowers. The boys are thinking of the beauty they will make.
“Let’s make bowls for your mom,” Tammy says, choosing two large pasta bowls from a shelf.
The boys are so excited to create something beautiful for their mother. Jake possesses a solemn, stern nod that makes him appear suited for politics or fatherhood, but Sam, well, Sam bounces when he nods. His whole body nods. Certainly, his head is nodding, but the agreement spreads into his shoulders and into the balls of his feet because he bobs up and down, eagerly wanting to do something good. Eagerly wanting to please.
Tammy spreads out a palette of different colors, and Jake carefully selects cool colors, swirling them onto his bowl in careful pinwheels of blues and purples and slight accents of green.
Sam is young and not so discerning with colors or fluid motion in paint strokes. He experiments with yellows and greens and reds and purples, but the marks become overlaid with the distinguishing brownish purple of child artwork.
He looks at his bowl and looks at Jake’s. I am a little frozen, watching him, knowing what he is thinking. He tries to swirl the paint, the way Jake has done, but the tacky paint will not cooperate.
He finds more colors. Blue and purple were clearly the best for Jake, I can see him thinking this with the intent and focus on his face indicated by his pursed lips and bulging eyes, so Sam reaches for those. He globs on more paint to try to cover his unique expression with an imitation of his brother’s.
The paint is too thick and tacky.
And Jake is finished and ready to go.
Sam has lost his patience, but he wants to make something beautiful, something like his brother’s. “Can I help you?” I offer.
Tammy takes away the paint and says that he should be done. She is right. He begins to whine, asking for more paint, and his voice reaches dangerous pitches and shrieks, threating the few other people’s nerves in the room.
“Just a little blue?” I say.
“Okay,” Tammy agrees, and Sam greedily takes the wooden palette. Blue is his favorite color. He swirls it all over the bowl, but the tacky paint underneath absorbs the new layer like toothpaste.
“Put his name on the side,” Tammy says, and I nod. I have some artist talent, but like Sam, I need time, and I grow frustrated when it doesn’t come out the way I want it too.
I try to swirl his name carefully on the side, beautifully writing his name the way his name should be honored. The way I want him to feel.
The way I want to feel.
I mess it up.
Sam is starting to scream and wants to paint more, but he is mostly making a mess. I am too.
“Time to go,” Tammy says.
On the way out, I pick up Sam and hold him in my arms. I don’t think he gets held much anymore, and I think he is grateful for this.
“You can come pick up the bowls in a few days,” I say. “Your mom will be so happy.”
“No, she won’t like mine.” Sam says this like a matter of fact. He is calm in my arms.
“Of course she will.”
“Jake’s is prettier.” He looks at me and nods.
“Yours is beautiful.” He nuzzles his face into my neck, and I want to cry.
“Jake’s is better.”
He says this like fact. He has accepted this. He is second. In so many ways.