I’d start with the quote that was on my mind when I nestled my Capri jeans into the worn, blue paisley cushions of my white wicker love seat, but my subconscious filtered the opener out on the basis that it’s now cliché. Once dismissed, my frontal lobe surrendered to the cerebral cortex’s cues and chose to focus on the pleasure of a cool night in Downtown Hampton, my wind chimes silent like the rest of the street. Neurons fire, and I fight the ever-present narrative that breeds in silence: “This might be the last time…”
Certainly, it’s the last time I’ll see the azalea bushes framing my front porch alternating blooms for nearly two months. These are concessions my brain readily accepts. It has enough to process. Last night, watching my nephew effortlessly recite lines in his first play, with dinosaurs no less, I was moved to tears. The staging was good, the songs were great, the little actors were impressive – and still, I found myself hoping this wouldn’t be the last time I saw him walking in his father’s footsteps onto a literal or figurative stage. Three years in Germany starts soon. And it’s real, now.
Charming is already making arrangements for his start date in just a few weeks. In two months’ time, I’ll join him. We’re looking forward to a week vacationing with family and close friends prior to the ceremony, and we’re trying to stay optimistic about the massive move that underscores the typical joys of a pre-nuptial season. While I’m trying to grade poetry quizzes and prepare the yearbook supplement, the reality of our overseas relocation nags at me. Beautiful weather seized us all. Even my juniors seem to have senioritis. School seems to be the required location for our bodies, but our brains are skipping school this spring, or so it seems.
No, the alliteration didn’t escape me. That’s something else I learned in school that didn’t change like the use of a quote as an attention grabber. Synapses fired for a few paragraphs before the connections brought me back to where I began. Nestled between myriad bookshelves and a piano my brother still plays brilliantly, my sister-in-law tried to carve out a corner that would beg her kids to select an adventure to sit and enjoy. With or without piano, story time is a cacophony these days. The twins are hedging in on four about the time they’ll precede down the aisle before me in miniature, white gowns. They aren’t just read to anymore; they want to read to me, not just identify like a year ago. They will interject with their own plot twists and ultimately follow their creative streams of consciousness wherever it takes them, regardless of whether adults present can keep up with the Power Wheels ride.
My brother’s children don’t need to be begged to pick up a book. While J.J. already dominates the elementary academic arena, his sisters are sure to follow suit. They constantly surprise and delight me with the things that they say. After baths tonight, I tried to read Katarina a story beneath the words in the living room that Gabrielle had carefully selected and mounted: “The more you read, the more that you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you will go.” Dr. Seuss’ brilliance isn’t lost on toddlers. Kat was tuckered out, lured away before a finished book by the flickering T.V. screen entertaining her brother and sister, but she’d already taught me more than a story’s worth tonight.
In attempts to keep the house quiet while my brother is teaching his online class in the office, Gabrielle and I often wrangle the twins one-on-one. Kat was my charge, and I spent our pre-bedtime routine time asking her questions about daycare. Last week, she’d looked deep into my eyes and exclaimed with a wonder and awe reserved for small boxes at Christmas, “They’re brown! Mine are blue.” The excitement, unmasked, was as endearing as this child’s heart already is to me. Then, at J.J.’s play last night, she looked at the row behind us where Gabrielle’s best friend and her daughters were sitting and disrupted the musical score to cry Eureka: “You the same. You match hairs.” Almost before I could digest the cuteness and quiet her, Kat almost shouted, “Is she your best friend, too?” Gabrielle’s brunette buddy giggled with me at the question that seemed only too logical to Katarina.
Granted, I recognize this isn’t model behavior for her brother’s performance. It was her mother’s job to quiet her, and so she did. As an aunt, I simply marveled. I could guess at what Kat might be learning about in daycare, things like body parts, colors, and making comparisons; asking her was bound to lead somewhere. In all her three-year-old strength of character, Kat told me that she’s learning how to behave. How do you behave? “Listen to the teacher. Obey. Be good. Follow the rules.” Why do people like you? “Because I’m special.”
Kat’s too young to see or recognize the irony in our training. She basically summed up society’s current functional model while getting stuck in the sleeves of her nightgown. To be good, conform. To be liked, be unique. Maybe it’s not that simple, but it seemed that way with the bath water draining a few feet away. I asked her a few more questions, and I could see that the concept of cause and effect relationships was to be added to her growing tool kit of inspiring skills. Moreover, the nearer we grew to bedtime, the more evasive Kat became. Eventually, she no longer pretended to be answering me.
When you’re three, if you don’t want to answer a question, you say the first thing that pops into your mind. I knew our “discussion” about Katarina’s recent daycare learning was over when her reply to, “What does it mean to be good?” began with a frustrated “Behave, but I want to play with the pink pen.” There is a modicum of uncontrolled impulsivity that we tolerate from toddlers. Sometimes, I wish I could be as honest. Unfortunately, adulthood turns pink pens into sacrificial offerings. If Charming asked me a question about packing boxes and I evaded with an admission of how much I’ve been craving Anna’s pizza, we’d both conclude I was running from something.
Part of me wants Katarina to keep holding on to those pink pens; that tenacity and focus, when wielded in the right way, will be weapons of choice for her. These kids read, and because of that, they know a lot more than I expect them to. Learning, however, isn’t restricted to the reading corner in the living room of my brother’s home. As a reading specialist, Gabrielle’s passion for literature is deep-seeded in the DNA coding of these tiny humans I love so much. Likewise, it’s true of my other brothers’ families as well.
The more they learn, the more they will grow. There will be so many more firsts for my nieces and nephews, soon to be seven of them, scattered along the East Coast. For the next three years, I can resolve my mind to accept that I will miss some of these firsts. Like my writing growth has taught me over the past three years, learning is exponential, and there will be thousands of firsts waiting for me on the other side of a thousand days on another country’s soil growing a new life with my new husband.
A toddler taught me what I need to know for the moment, to quiet my moving worries and woes. I need to listen and obey and follow the rules. I will be good if I behave. I will be liked if I’m unique. Dr. Seuss was always a favorite author of mine, long before Gabrielle featured his legacy in her reading corner. He played with imagination, showing children why to color outside the lines.
I see the cultural paradox: a constant propulsion of sameness, oneness, uniformity, and conformity as the behavioral management of society’s classroom juxtaposed against the creativity and imagination that will be required of individuals to distinguish themselves in a twenty-first century working world.
I pray that while Katarina learns about the similarities and differences in the eyes, hair, and skin color that she also learns the value in her desire to use that pink pen, that the world won’t stifle all the impulsivity and will and spirit that makes her impossible not to love.
Charming and I share that love of reading, too. I’ve watched him prop a couple kids at a time on his lap and give it his all. I admire that. We read, we grow more. We learn, we go places. Dr. Seuss may not have had Germany in mind, but my subconscious has been there most of the evening while I’ve been writing, I’m sure. While my nieces and nephews are racking up their firsts, I think Charming and I will find a few dozen or so of our own to fit into a thousand days abroad.
I can only imagine the places we’ll go, that the little ones will go, before we’re back in the photographs for a week’s family vacation in the Outer Banks.