Last night after Jay had finished dinner Caroline gave him the same talk she gives him every night: “First we’re going to brush your teeth, then you’re going to get in pajamas, then it’s playtime. But if you don’t cooperate you’re going to lose playtime.”
Despite the warning, Jay bungles his way to an early bedtime a couple times a week. Usually it’s for small-time antics like refusing to open his mouth for his toothbrush or holding his arms stiff when Caroline tries to change his shirt.
Last night was like watching one of those crash test commercials, where the car plows into the cement wall in slow motion. After successfully brushing his teeth Jay ran downstairs instead of going to his room to change. “If you don’t cooperate, you’re going to lose playtime,” Caroline reminded him again as he two-footed his way down the stairs. Jay just shrieked with defiant delight.
“Alright, you’ve lost it,” Caroline said as she swept him back upstairs. Jay screamed like the world had come to an end. He sobbed and sputtered. Then when he realized that wasn’t going to work he got sweet.
“Here Mama,” he said, handing her his nighttime diaper. Caroline thanked him. Then in her sweetest voice she made it clear: His fate was sealed.
As I listened to this, I remembered a feeling I’d had often as a kid: the feeling of desperately wanting to take back something I’d just done. Jay loves playtime. If he were a rational beast he’d do anything to preserve it. But he’s not a rational beast. He’s a manic late-stage toddler.
So last night he went to bed knowing what Jack Handey, the old Saturday Night Live character, knew: “If you drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ‘em go, because man, they’re gone.” Except in Jay’s case he didn’t drop them. He threw them.
I have a theory, which may be wishful, that I remember my childhood better as I grow older. Time and experience negate memory, but they also prompt it. As I watch Jay develop and I think about his experiences like the one last night, I’m reminded of sensations that had slipped away so gradually I didn’t even know they were gone.
This has happened a few times recently:
- At story hour last week the theme was Autumn. The librarian asked, “What falls from the trees when it gets cold?” Hands shot up. The librarian called on a trembling four-years-old. “Leaves fall from the trees,” she said. The excitement in her voice reminded me of what it felt like to be called on, to be right, and to think I understood how the world works.
- On Saturday afternoon we went to the park. While Jay was playing I walked over and watched the end of a youth lacrosse practice. The kids were scrimmaging. The coach yelled out, “Next goal wins.” One kid broke from the pack and launched the ball against the baseball backstop that served as the goal. His teammates mobbed him. They screamed in triumph. I felt a rush in my stomach, reactivated like muscle memory—the pure joy of winning.
- A couple Saturday nights ago Caroline and I went to a friend’s house for dinner and left Jay with a babysitter. When he realized what was going on he begged us not to go. “Mama stay,” he said over and over again. As we hurried out the door, his pleas reminded me that I used to feel equally desperate when my parents would leave. In those moments I couldn’t comprehend why it was that nothing I said could change what they were doing.
All of these were sensations and memories I hadn’t thought about in years. When you’re a kid there’s so much going on that it’s hard to know what’s worth remembering. Plus, you’re always looking ahead, so remembering’s not something you really worry about.
But watching Jay is like returning to a place I’ve visited once before. The first time I was there I had no idea where I was. But on a second visit landmarks stand out, streets feel familiar, I have a sense of what’s around the corner. It’s a nice feeling to watch Jay with that kind of perspective, and to use his childhood as a map for revisiting my own.
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