At the park, a sense of the future

On Friday afternoon—our last of three days without Caroline, who was in San Francisco for the big annual demography conference—Jay, Wally, and I walked up the hill from our house to expansive Buhr Park.

Our first stop was the soccer field, where we knew we’d find our eight-year-old neighbor Joe at practice with his rec team.  The three of us trudged through an open field of wispy white dandelions and arrived behind the goal just as the young squad was completing its warm-up sprints.  I felt proud, by association, to see that Joe was the fastest kid on the team.

We watched the soccer team go through passing and dribbling drills.  Jay wasn’t all that interested—he preferred to concentrate on the thick cake of mud the wheels of his tricycle had picked up on the way over.  He picked at the mud, tossed it, and rolled it into little snakes.  Wally stood beside him, rocking the trike back and forth.  The surrounding dandelions came up past his belly button.

But I was intent on the practice.  The kids were doing a drill where they had to dribble out 10 yards, stop, turn around, dribble back, and pass to a waiting partner.  It was entertaining—and enlightening—to see the wide range of skill levels even at this early age.  Some kids dribbled as if the ball were on a string.  Several others were utterly clumsy.  I watched one pudgy eight-year-old trip over the ball as he attempted to pass it back to his teammate.

After watching the soccer practice we walked over the playground, which was crowded with kids from an after-school camp.  It was a muggy day and unpleasantly warm in the sun.  Wally and I found a patch of shade.  Jay walked over to the base of a tree where three nine-year-old boys were digging with sticks, trying futilely to unearth a root.

Beside us in the shade two girls, also maybe nine-years-old, were practicing a hip-hop dance routine.  One girl was tall and skinny, ungainly with her long-limbs.  Her movements were jerky, imprecise, and out of rhythm.  The other girl was shorter, a little thicker, and a much better dancer—so much so, in fact, that I felt a little uncomfortable watching her.  But even so, it was interesting to watch these two girls side-by-side:  The shorter girl just knew how to move her body; the taller girl just did not.

We had two more experiences at the playground that caught my attention.  The first was with a girl who had a little dirt on her cheeks and slightly unkempt blond hair.  She came over and sat down on our tricycle.  Wally was playing with it at the time, pushing it through the grass.  I told the girl she could sit on it as long as she didn’t pedal away.  When she did start to pedal I stopped the trike and asked her to get off.  She wouldn’t and eventually a camp counselor came to retrieve her.  This same basic scene played itself out twice more in the remaining half-hour we were at the park.

The second experience involved Jay.  For ten minutes he watched the three boys digging at the tree root.  Then one of the boys pointed at Jay and said to his friend: “Pour the water on him.” The second boy was holding a bottle of muddy water that they’d been using to soften up the dirt around the root.  He told the first boy that he didn’t want to.

Then the first boy turned to Jay.  “Do you know how to talk?” he said in an aggressive voice.

“Yes I do,” Jay answered.   I wanted to remove Jay from the scene but I was also interested to see how it was going to play out.

“How old are you,” the boy asked, in the same aggressive tone.  “Three? Four? Five?  I’ll bet you’re three.”  Jay, maybe sensing that this was the kind of situation where it paid to front as older than he was, told the boy that indeed he was three.

The whole time the aggressive boy was holding a muddy stick.  He was aware of my presence and knew, probably, that he’d get in trouble if he did anything too mean to Jay.  I watched as he twirled the muddy stick nonchalantly through the air.  It had the desired effect:  Drops of mud splattered across Jay’s face, arms, and the front of his shirt.  He gave the boy a quizzical look.  He didn’t really understand what was happening.

Over the weekend I thought a lot about our afternoon at the park.  What struck me most was how much more defined those kids were than Jay and Wally in terms of their personalities and their skills.  I could write volumes about Jay and Wally’s personalities, and I feel like I have some sense of the types of things they’re going to be good at.  But there would still be a lot of guesswork involved at this point.

But with the eight- and nine-year-olds we saw at the playground, many things were quite plain.  I could tell immediately who was fast and who was slow.  Who was coordinated with a soccer ball and who was not.  Who could dance.  Who was behaviorally troubled (the blond girl).  Who had a mean streak.

It’s exciting and heartbreaking all at once to think that in just a few short years Caroline and I are going to gain this same kind of knowledge about Jay and Wally—and that they’re going to gain it about themselves.

Memory Update: Keeping Track of What Jay Forgets

Last October I wrote a post called “Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?”  It was about Jay’s memories of Philadelphia and particularly his daycare in the city.  At the time I wrote the post, Jay was bringing up his daycare from time to time, in random ways, like recognizing the lid of the plastic container we used to use to bring his lunch to school.  I was curious to see how long it would be until Jay had forgotten daycare completely.

Well, earlier this week Caroline conducted a follow-up experiment and it seems that those memories are gone.  While I was out running she showed Jay pictures of him with his daycare teachers.  Blank. Nothing. He couldn’t produce their names and he gave no hint that he even recognized them.  She did the same with pictures of our friends from the city.  Same result.

Of course, pictures aren’t the same as seeing a person in the flesh, in context.  We’re visiting Philadelphia later this month and Caroline plans to bring Jay by his old school.  We’ll see if that jogs anything in his tiny hippocampus.

Here’s another example of the rate at which Jay’s memories slip away.  From April 2011-August 2011 I read Jay the children’s book Caps for Sale just about every single night before bed.  It got to the point where I could pause anywhere in the book and Jay could fill in the next word.  And not just major nouns like “lunch” and “tree.”  Even little tiny words like “and,” and “on.”

One night a couple weeks ago Jay and I were picking out his bedtime books. I pulled out Caps for Sale.  It had been at least six months since we’d read it.

The easiest single line to remember from Caps for Sale is the jingle the peddler shouts as he walks through town, “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.”  I prompted Jay with it on the first page.  He just looked at me.  Then we came to the first turning point in the story, where the napping peddler has his caps stolen.  I asked Jay who’d taken them.  When he answered, “I don’t know,” I thought maybe he was playing with me.  A minute later I couldn’t believe I had to tell him that it was the monkeys.

Slate recently ran an interesting summary of research on childhood memory called “I Remember Mama and Dada.”  The article, by Nicholas Day, says that babies form memories at much earlier ages than conventional wisdom would have it.  They don’t carry those memories with them into adulthood, but they do carry them for a while.

Day writes, “Even infants are aware of the past, as many remarkable experiments have shown. Babies can’t speak but they can imitate, and if shown a series of actions with props, even 6-month-old infants will repeat a three-step sequence a day later. Nine-month-old infants will repeat it a month later.”

The article further notes that while two-year-olds can recall memories of events that happened a year earlier, most people’s earliest permanent memories don’t set until about age three-and-a-half.

The article also cites research which argues that there may not be a strict biological limit on how early in life we’re capable of forming permanent memories.  Parents play a big role in this.  Day writes that parents who spend a lot of time retelling stories from a child’s past can help a child form permanent memories of those stories.  “Conversational style matters, because when children remember and talk about the past, they effectively relive the event—they fire the same neurons and reinforce the same connections. They are buttressing their memory of the event.”

Of course, this raises the obvious questions that attend all early life memories—Do we remember the event itself or do we remember the photographs of the event and the stories we tell about it? And where is the line between buttressing a memory and creating a new one?  They are fun riddles to entertain, even if it seems clear that all memories, even my memory of what I had for lunch yesterday, are refracted through the process of remembering them.

Returning to Jay, halfway through writing this piece I went downstairs to make tea.  While I was at the stove Jay, Wally, and, Nicole, their nanny, came back from library story time.  I wanted to confirm that Jay didn’t really know Caps for Sale anymore so I asked him a few questions:

“Caps for sale…” I began.

“…fifty cents a cap,” Jay finished.

“Who steals the peddler’s caps,” I asked Jay.

“The monkeys,” Jay answered.

“And how does the peddler get his caps back?”

“He stomps his feet and jumps up and down,” Jay replied, as if it were the most commonplace knowledge in the world.

I was stunned.  We’d only read the book once recently and that was more than two weeks ago. How did Jay reacquire this knowledge all of a sudden?

Then Nicole came into the kitchen.  “Do you know that book, too?” she asked.  “Because they read it at story time today.”

Wally 2.0

A couple weekends ago Wally lost his curls.

In the late afternoon the four of us went upstairs to the bathroom.  I took Wally on my lap.  Caroline had the clippers.  Jay played the part of court jester, jumping up and down and making funny faces to keep his little brother entertained as the sweet, soft curls fell to the tile floor.

Wally was a boy transformed with his close-cropped hair.  It was a reminder to me and Caroline of how much he’s changed over the last ten months.

All along, the line on Wally has been that he’s smiley and cheerful, a boy with just two moods: happy and tired. It took two tries, but on the second infant we got one thing Caroline had been hoping for three years ago: a baby we could bring anywhere.

This was the simple story we told about Wally and just as it is with many narratives that parents tell about their children, we continued repeating it long after it had ceased to be true.

A couple months ago Caroline and I started remarking to each other that Wally seemed to be whining a lot and that he’d become more demanding.  He was always scampering across the floor and pulling up on our pant legs or complaining loudly when we put him down.  He’d started to become possessive, too; more than once he melted down when I pried a fork out of his hands.

And each time our once placid Wally expressed his displeasure, Caroline and I asked each other: Is he teething?  Tired?  Does he need to eat?  What’s wrong with Wally?

A few nights ago Caroline and I were in bed and we admitted to each other that Wally had started to feel a little like a stranger.  He clearly was no longer the simple, smiley guy we’d known since his birth.

The new Wally—the one Caroline likes to refer to as Wally 2.0—is more spirited and energetic.  Spunky is a word we find ourselves using often to describe him.  At mealtimes, in his booster seat, he creates a cacophonous racket when he spies bits of food on other people’s plates he’d like to try.  And sometimes, when he’s done eating, he’ll rock back and forth in his seat so hard we’re afraid he’s going to tip the chair over.

As I’ve written before, Wally gets around pretty well.  He’s quick on his hands and knees and he pulls up like Spiderman scaling a building.  He’s also got a good sense of balance.  I love watching him on the floor.  He’ll go from crawling to sitting up on one knee and then pick something up, turn around, and crawl back the other way.  It’s all very fluid and controlled.

Wally’s favorite obstacle is the dishwasher.  After mealtimes he makes right for it.  He climbs up on the opened door and grabs hold of the tray.  Then with one hand hanging on for balance, he uses the other to send dirty silverware scattering across the floor.

When Caroline and I talked in bed the other night we also realized that we haven’t been paying very much attention to Wally. It’s rare—in fact, incredibly rare we realized—that either Caroline or I, or the two of us together, spend time alone with Wally.  Jay is around for pretty much all of Wally’s waking hours and Jay is pretty effective at controlling our attention when the four of us are together.

So over the last few days Caroline and I have each made an extra effort to spend time just with Wally.  Yesterday afternoon I set Jay up in the playroom and then brought Wally upstairs for his nap.  But instead of putting him down right away the two of us played for half an hour.  Wally spent a lot of the time crawling on top of me.  Then he crawled out of the room, turned around, and crawled back in. He had to do it two or three more times before I realized he was playing a game.

Even when I can’t get time alone with Wally I’m trying harder these days to see him—to make sure that in the thrum of our days I let my eyes and thoughts rest on him a little longer than I might have.

And what I’ve realized so far is that Wally is still cheerful and smiley—but that’s just not all he is anymore.

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Wally at the window

A Way to Remember: Celebrating Grandma Jane’s Birthday

Today would have been my mom’s 56th birthday.

Every year on this day for the last six years I’ve tried to figure out how best to remember her.  The first year after she died I placed a picture of her in the breast pocket of my shirt before I went off to work.  Another year my brother, sister, stepfather, and I each went out and bought yellow flowers.  Three years ago I made zucchini bread, my favorite of all the things she liked to bake.

None of these gestures ever felt right to me.  I think the problem was less in the pictures, the flowers, or the bread than in the nature of the day itself.  Anything I could do in honor of her birthday felt insignificant compared with how much I missed her.  That insignificance had the effect of accentuating her absence and I worried that I was failing to commemorate her in the right way.  As a result, I always felt a small sense of relief when my mom’s birthday had passed.

But today, for the first time since her death, I woke up eager to celebrate her birthday.  In fact, for more than a week I’ve been talking with Jay about how Grandma Jane’s Birthday is coming up soon.

A little before 8am I propped Jay on his changing pad and tried to tell him a few things about his grandma.  It was hard to know what to say so instead I demonstrated how hard Grandma Jane would have hugged him and I told him that she would have given him so many kisses he would have never been able to wipe all of them off. (Jay relishes wiping off the kisses that Caroline and I give him.)  Then I tried to explain just how much Grandma Jane would have loved him if she were still alive.

After dinner we sang happy birthday and Jay got a cup of ice cream.  While he was eating it Caroline brought over a photo that we keep on the fridge, taken just before my sister’s rehearsal dinner in 2006.  Caroline asked Jay to point out Grandma Jane, which he did.  Then a few minutes later, as he was scraping up the last of his ice cream with his spoon, he picked up the picture again.

Jay doesn’t understand, I don’t think, what death means, but he does know it’s something serious and outside the realm of his experience.  I’ve thought hard about how to describe the look on his face whenever he brings up the fact that my mom isn’t alive anymore.  It’s seems to me like a combination of bravery and an intent desire to understand.

After ice cream we opened presents.  A few years ago my sister initiated the tradition of exchanging gifts on our mom’s birthday by sending Jay an illustrated version of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, a lullaby our mom sang to us when we were young.  This year we sent her one-year-old son Peter his first Grandma Jane’s Birthday present: A paper punch that makes cutouts in the shape of a butterfly.

Caroline, Jay, Wally, and I sat on the floor in the living room.  We opened Wally’s present first.  It was a book about animals that has textured pages, so you can feel the deer’s rubbery nose and the baby bunny’s soft fur.

Then we opened the box containing Jay’s gift.  It was a kid-sized chef’s toque.  I thought it was cute and appropriate given how much my mom liked to bake, but Jay, after a week of eyeballing the sealed box, was underwhelmed.  He discarded the toque and grabbed at Wally’s book.  Several times during the rest of the evening I heard him say to himself, “Why did I get a chef’s hat?”  When I called my sister tonight to tell her about his reaction we laughed so hard we cried.

I know there’s only so much I can do to make my mom a part of Jay and Wally’s lives.  If it’s hard as a kid to comprehend how much your parents love you, it’s close to impossible to appreciate how much someone you never met would have.  To a large extent Grandma Jane will always be an abstraction to Jay and Wally, someone they see in photographs and hear their dad talk about but not more than that.

Jay and Wally may never know how much their grandma would have loved them but that doesn’t mean she has to be completely absent from their lives.  Joining her memory to the giving of presents and the eating of ice cream seems like a good start.  I hope her birthday will become a family holiday and that the force of tradition will help Jay and Wally keep in their lives a person who by every measure but physical proximity is an essential part of who they are.

For me, celebrating my mom’s birthday with Jay and Wally has meant something else: A chance to think about her in joyful terms that let me feel closer to her than I can when I try to approach her memory directly.

It’s close to bedtime in Ann Arbor but I don’t want to turn out the lights just yet.  It feels good to be able to say that I’m not quite ready to see my mom’s birthday go.

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Jay believes completely in a dad he cannot see

Last Thursday and Friday Caroline was away giving a talk at the University of Western Ontario.  (You can see the poster for her talk here– she’d probably prefer I not post it, but I’m too proud.)  While she was gone the boys were good, but after I’d gotten them into bed on Thursday night I slumped on the couch, imagining myself as a superhero who’d exhausted himself in the process of exercising his superpower.

Sitting on the couch, I noticed how quiet the house felt. Most nights are pretty quiet around here, but there’s something different about being the only adult in a house—the stillness is denser, heavier.  It more closely resembles what it’s like to be alone in the woods. Altogether, I don’t mind the feeling.

Fifteen minutes after the boys had gone to bed I was still sitting on the couch when Jay called out from his crib: “I want my blankets on.”

It’s funny: For two-and-a-half years Jay slept every night in a completely empty crib. But a couple months ago he was sick and we gave him a pillow to elevate his head. Since then he’s filled the crib with just about every soft thing in his room: the pillow, eight stuffed animals (that he refers to somewhat creepily as “pets”), four blankets.

As I walked upstairs to his room I thought about a conversation I’d had the first semester of my freshman year of college. It took place in the stairwell of my dorm and maybe six or eight of us were there.

The topic was whether the certainty you have that someone exists changes depending on whether they’re standing right in front of you or are on the other side of a door. A few times over the course of the conversation someone would walk out the front door of the dorm to dramatize the point: As soon as he disappeared from view, the argument went, the people inside had to downgrade the likelihood, even just a little, that he still existed.

The conversation lasted until dawn. Even at the time I remember thinking that it was almost too classically the type of thing you’re supposed to do your first year of college, though I loved being a part of it anyway.

When I got to Jay’s room I found him lying on his back with his hands behind his head. He repeated his request. I layered the blankets on top of him like strips of phyllo dough. Once the last blanket had been placed he looked up at me. “Is this a nice bed?” he asked. We both knew the answer to that one.

As I went back downstairs in the quiet house, it occurred to me that when Jay calls to us from his crib he has not a single shred of doubt that we will be there to hear him. You can tell by his voice—there’s not a tremble of uncertainty, not even the hint of a question. He’s no less certain of his own name, or of the existence of his right hand, than he is of our presence in the house as he sleeps at night.

This is a wonderful thing to give a child. There’s something in it for me, too.  I think Jay believes in my existence even more than I do- and his confidence has a way of fortifying my own.

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Tonight to fall asleep