Thursday, April 7, 2011

They Were Marvelous, And They Were Ours

Every afternoon at 4:30 I would gather all my little chickadees around me and we would play ‘Clean Up For Daddy.’ We had a routine; I would hustle them all in from outside with hollering, cajoling, pleading, threatening, wheedling and lots and lots of just plain ordering they would straggle back home, a rag tag, dirty faced bunch of adventurers with the knees torn out of their jeans, their shoes untied, laces flopping behind them, sun kissed cheeks and tales to tell.

First things first; the littlest was stripped down right in the kitchen and plopped in the sink. Dial soap and a clean rag were applied liberally, revealing a cherubic contenance with a merry smile.  Curly hair would be sudsed down and rinsed with the kitchen sprayer resulting in gulps for air, squeals, head shakes and furious blinking. The semi permanent ring of dirt under their double chins and the crust behind their ears were banished along with the Georgia red clay stains on their knees and the grime between their toes. After many years of practice I could give a complete sink bath in about 2.5 minutes flat. When my three youngest were tiny I would run them, assembly line like, through this process, letting those that finished run naked through the kitchen until I had finished them all. One, two three, they were flipped onto the floor, diapers or Underroos which had been strategically placed were whipped out and on them before they had a chance to gripe. I ran a comb through their curls, pulled clean t-s and overalls and bam, 15 minutes and they looked and smelled like children you might want to hug. Soggy, dirty clothes were kicked into the laundry area (which happened to be in my kitchen), the sinks were rinsed out and I would put dinner on while I reciting the mother’s mantra of “Pick up your toys. What did I tell you about that? Please don’t suck your thumb Freckles are angel kisses. Well, what did you THINK would happen? Put your shoes away, DO NOT PUT THAT BEAD UP YOUR NOSE! Please quit hitting your sister. Did you do your homework? I said no TV! If I see you touch that wall with a crayon again you are going to scrub this whole house top to bottom mister! Who snuck an Oreo and left the licked cookies on the counter? NO, no Lego! Dammit, help your brother pick up the Lego. Who hit the baby? No, no Kool Ade until dinner. Don’t forget to flush! I don’t believe the baby did it! Why? Because the baby can’t walk… I think you look beautiful, I said quit hitting each other! Listen to me lovey, red hair is beautiful, truly, Mommy has red hair!”

Now and then I would actually hazard a peek around the corner to confirm a suspicion or judge how much of what I was saying was having an impact. Inevitably one child would be in mid swing at another’s head or back, one would be jumping on the furniture, one would be spinning in circles or dancing about while pretending to cry and tattling on the only kid who seemed to actually be trying to do what I was asking.

All the while they would be telling me about who said what in school, what magical game they had invented with their friends in the common yard, what injustices had been done to them and which injustices they had committed on others. Every day someone had a crisis, ran a fever, threw up, had nightmares, lost a best friend, hurt themselves, got in trouble “but it wasn’t my fault” in school, broke or lost a favorite toy. Every day someone needed my undivided attention for a math problem, an English essay, a field trip permission slip. Every day someone had a deeply personal private matter which meant life or death to them. Every day they all needed to come first.

I would cook, peeling potatoes, browning meat, tossing a salad, setting the table, making the Kool Ade, stirring, sniffing, tasting and testing for doneness with one child on my hip and one child sitting on my foot and hanging onto my leg for dear life as I drug them back and forth from stove to sink to table and back.

Somehow, by 6 when their father came in from work, smelling like oil and exhausted, they would all be more or less calm, dinner would be just about ready to put on the table, the toys would have been for the most part thrown in the toy box and only two or three pair of shoes would litter the living room floor. After only an hour they would still be fairly clean (excluding of course, the Oreo spit stains on the baby’s onesy and the marker dotting the older one’s faces) and still have essence of Dial (the yellow bars) wafting about them. They would surge forward, shrieking “DADDY” as if he had bee gone for a year and grab him, some high, some low, as if their very lives depended on his staying exactly where he was. That rush, that human tide of love which washed over him at the end of a long hard, dirty day is what kept him getting up in the morning. It was a glorious, a wondrous thing to watch. I always felt a pang of jealousy at these crushing homecomings. I was the mom, I was always there, I made them pick up their things and wash their hands and apologize to people they hated. I always thought this unfair until my husband pointed out that when they needed something, for school, for play, for a broken heart, they always came to me, no matter what he offered. If I wasn’t there they would wait, tell him it was okay, daddy, mommy would take care of it.

We always ate at the dining room table. (My mother told me when she was 75 that she had never not eaten at the table in her own home. I found this amazing then and I find it amazing still.) My husband and I sat at either end, everyone passing food and talking or laughing. All of the stories I had heard while I was preparing dinner were trotted out again for their daddies consumption, usually enhanced in a manner geared toward his sensibilities. The boys were bigger, stronger, braver. Where they told me how much a fall had hurt and showed me their boo-boos for smooch-aid, they told him how they hadn’t even blinked, how they, actually, had done it on purpose in pursuit of some thrill or on a dare in defense of their honor. My daughters talked about their studies, how (gloriously!) intelligent they were and how well they were doing at school, with their friends, how jealous every one was of their curly red hair. We both knew reality sat somewhere between the version they told me and the version they told him and that suited us just fine. They were marvelous and they were ours.