The baby lays on the sofa next to her brother, gripping a warm bottle latched between her lips. Matthew digs his heels into the sofa, trying to get comfortable, somewhere between feeling antsy and still wanting to cuddle. His head is on my shoulder. Her leg is draped lazily over my lap. They are three and one year perfect on an unparticular day in December, just before the turn of 2012.
To start the day, we sing a bible song together to the tune of twinkle, twinkle little star over the drinking baby, blinking daylight out of her eyes. Her hair is getting so long, but we can’t figure out if we should cut it now or let it grow on for a little while. We sing a nursery rhyme I ask him to help me think of, and then a couple of funny songs that help us learn to count by skipping numbers or subtract silly animals from a barnyard. It’s something upbeat and happy that we can clap for when we’re done. Something to get us pumped up for the day, and something to make the baby feel included. Down By The Bay is one of our last choices, and without planning it, we spend the rest of the day thinking of words that rhyme.
We read a story that tells us about God and teaches us about tolerance, love and forgiveness; big ideas in a package that is short, sweet, and unpretentiously illustrated. Something easy, and fun to talk about when it’s over. As the baby finishes her bottle, tossing it with satiation to the side, I hold their growing hands in mine and teach them to say an easy morning prayer.
The sun is up and I am too.
Be with me God, the whole day through!
And with a clap, we’re off to get our fill of oatmeal and yogurt mixed with an apricot, pineapple puree I only tell him is “jam.”
Once we’re cleaned up from breakfast, it’s time to help momma gather the supplies we’ll need for today’s project. Today, it’s a Christmas tree out of a drawn triangle we’ll fill with green handprints, so that the fingertips stick out like branches. We decorate pom-poms and old pop-corn with glitter glue for adorning our tree once it dries. At her high-chair, Scarlett tries her best to battle over control of a purple crayon, making little more than accidental chafes of color onto the recycled paper underneath. She is unmistakably aware of how inept her coloring is compared to Matthew’s, and it pisses her off. She likes to hand him the crayons and watch him do it, then snatch it back and try again. She groans at her own fumblings, and repeats the whole process again, holding the crayon out for him to take back more begrudgingly each time.
Crafts are messy. We wait until they’re done to get dressed.
Then it’s floor-time, while I attend to some of my less appealing responsibilities. Floor time means that Scarlett gets pretty much free-range of the main floor of the house. She has a basket of toys tucked under the side table where she can reach and a basket of books at her disposal to explore at will, without management from mom and big brother constantly cramping her investigative style. I sit down from time to time to stand in as the human jungle gym we Mommies are a built to be between my own chores. Though sometimes, if I’m running behind, it’s just to lift her up for a big, noisy smooch and a quick pat on the butt. She wears herself out, and naps like a dream the moment I lay her down.
Matthew has a choice everyday at this time of reading aloud to me on the sofa, or playing computer games online with me that teach him kindergarten and first grade level reading or math skills. Today we match words to their word families, help a superhero climb the rungs of a ladder by spelling words out, beat the clock at reading 20 sight words in under a minute and a half, and rack up one hundred and forty four golden eggs on his game. We use them to buy a soda-can head and a black cowboy hat for his avatar (to match the real one he likes to wear), and a red couch shaped like a racecar for his avatar’s home. It goes between the arcade machine and the fish tank shaped like a television.
We use a USB cable to hook the laptop to the t.v. screen hanging on the wall, so that he isn’t stationed sedimentary in a chair the whole time. He can - if he wants to - shout answers to puzzles, riddles, and games in between back flips and other acrobatics three year old boys like to do on an open area of carpet. Backward as it might come off, it keeps his head in the game for much longer than he’d ever be able to stay focused for if he were asked to sit still.
When I can tell that he has had enough, though, he fights me on pulling him away. At such a tender age, it’s essential to me that reading not even have the chance to get boring. So I let him help choose from the free print-outs section of the website, and that snaps him out of his fuss. He races over the printer to snatch it up. “I’ll get it Mommy! I’ll get it! Don’t worry, I got it!!” he shouts over the beep and click of the printer coming to a halt.
He sits down at the table with it, his left palm open wide, holding the paper down while he draws something the directions he read told him to. I can’t believe how self-sufficient he’s becoming. He’s supposed to draw a man standing on a mat. The man has no belly today, but he has eye brows, pupils, irises, “rosy” cheeks, a nose, hands, fingers, a mustache, hair, a cowboy hat, and very long toenails on great big bubble feet. He is holding a rock, standing on the mat -- “and the mat belongs to his mom-mom,” Matthew tells me. “The rock was a present from her. It made her think of him.”
The baby stirs about in the blankets of her crib. And in a second, she’ll sit up to turn a lullaby on for herself. I come in with a fresh bottle of whole milk. And she sucks it down, studying her brother from across the changing mat with waking eyes, while I fasten her diaper, and Matthew asks if babies need tampons for their vaginas like Mommies do.
We read four stories while lunch bakes and some water boils for a side.
A little while after lunch we pack up the pear slices he never ate (that I’ll have to continue to pester him to eat), some veggie straws, a cup of water for the baby, and we head out for a short stroll. In the thick of a Delaware winter sometimes that’s all we can manage. It starts to drizzle halfway around the block and I forgot the umbrella. Matthew is downright angry with me for not taking the turn that leads up to the park. His arms are crossed exaggeratedly and his eyebrows are just as low down on his little face as they could possibly be. I ask him to help me collect some worms on the way back, and as if erased by magic words, all is forgotten.
Matthew points out a Christmas decoration in a neighbor’s front yard and calls out, “Rojo, Mommy! That Santa is Rojo!” We make a game of finding everything rojo!, rojo!, rojo! we can at the first few houses, then verde, then blanco. And when we get back to the house we dance to Feliz Navidad!, and let the rest of the Christmas songs play on.
Matthew asks me to pull a math game down from the closet. He asks me about the story of Moses we read earlier, and I’m so proud of him for taking an interest. At the end of the game, he needs a time-out for shouting over me when I put my foot down about it being time to clean up.
The rest of the day is his to do with what he wants. He picks up an old, beat guitar that we’ve let him stake claim of. He holds it like a cello and makes up songs for over an hour, thumping away at the bigger strings he likes best. Not everything rhymes, but a lot of it does. His song is about the things he sees around him, and what we’ve done today. I resist that strong urge I have to grab my camera and I reach for his harmonica instead, pretending as well as he does that I know how to carry a tune on it. Scarlett picks up an old toilet paper roll I had sitting on the stool for tomorrow’s craft, and she’s toddling up to us, humming into it’s side. She’s rendered it useless to us for tomorrow, squishing it between her gums and making it dark with saliva, but this is a better use for it I think. It’s killing me not to have the camera.
Five minutes into Mary walking in the door from school they’re fighting over the guitar. She shoves it back at Matthew, shouting, “I was just holding it for a second, GOD!!” and has to apologize for hurting him, while he tattles on her for saying GOD instead of GOSH. Her homework buddy is in tow, as usual, and they both tell me something about a boy on the wrestling team beating a kid from another school “in her honor.” She says she did pretty good on the DCAS test today and that I have a paper to sign for a field trip. She kisses Scarlett and yells at Matthew to stay out of her room while they work.
For the rest of the afternoon, Scarlett empties all unlocked cabinets of their contents. Someone left the diaper bag unzipped and I chase her down for a pack of Bubble Tape. There are diapers littering the carpet around it but they aren’t a priority. Neither are the bottles of distilled vinegar, and lemon juice or the box of cereal bars on the kitchen floor; the box of new checks in the middle of the hallway; or the abandoned book jackets blanketing a portion of the living room -- I have to start dinner. I’m at the mercy of the kids while my hands are dirty, so I dread doing it. By the time it’s in the oven, I have to clean up at least a portion of every room of the house.
Mary helps but not before groaning and rolling her eyes and getting bitched at for it.
Matthew pulls me into his room every five minutes to study the things he just built with his bright, chunky lego blocks, while I fight with the clock over how much to get done before Spencer comes home. He’s built four different structures and positioned them around his bedroom in various locations, spaced equally apart. It takes him a minute and a half to give me a rundown of each one and I feel like I’m counting the seconds; He tells me it’s function, how he built it, and why it had to be built that way. He’ll tear them all down the second I leave, build four or five new ones and then call me in again to give critique of his architecture - which, as far as he can tell, I take very seriously. A lot of things I will readily admit to doing out of sheer obligation. But this? Even as it pulls me away from other things I’d rather do in peace, I do because I truly love to see what the kid can do with a monotonous old pile of pegged plastic. Believe it or not, they are actually really cool, and he gets so into them. They have elevators and diving boards and fleets of rescue boats attached to their sides like the titanic. I am taken aback by how much I love him right now, even though he’s the chief culprit for my running behind on dinner.
When Spencer gets home the kids are in their pajamas, dinner is finishing up and I feel pretty satisfied. Scarlett’s happy to see him, but already rubbing at her face, knotting up her hair, and battling a hard sleep. She needs a bath, but it’ll have to wait one more day if she’s to get any time at all with Daddy before bed.
Matthew can’t wait to show him all of his artwork, and to tell him what he learned today about space and word families and tampons. At dinnertime we all say, “Thank you God for this yummy food. Amen!” He begs us to let him stay up to watch the Harry Potter movie, but the answer has to be no. Spencer’s already struggling to stay awake and it’s getting late. They take a shower together, and then Spencer lays in bed with Matthew and reads him Scooby-Doo while Mary wraps her hair in front of the bathroom mirror before bed so that she can wake up with curls tomorrow for school.
From down the hall, over a fresh ten cups of water for the coffee tomorrow, I hear them say in their big and little voices:
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the lord my soul to keep.
And If I die before I wake,
I pray the lord my soul to take.
They’re caught up in conversation for a minute, Matthew and Spencer, and I realize it’s the first time all day I’ve thought of him as a baby. Something about hearing his voice, I guess -- so comparatively small, wrapping itself into his father’s like that. It takes me back to the reality that in the grand scheme of our life as a family, this is all still so new.
The things they’ll shape around them. The connections we’ll make with them. The nuances of their personalities we’ll learn to navigate. And the places we’ll take in their day-to-day growth -- at times being all they consider, and other times blending farther into the background, just one small part of a bigger noise. Every year the experience will be a different one.
Someday every facet of this day, which was so huge on the day that it happened, will all just blur together with a hundred more small, December days just like it. It’s enough to make a person feel kind of torn. Torn between feelings of fortune that so many days just as happy as this are waiting for me to reach them somewhere else in my life too, and feeling sad that every subtlety of this one can’t be held onto forever. Eventually, almost every fine distinction will be lost.
And that'll be a real shame. Because there are so many pieces of this one, right here, right now, worth never letting go.
But then, I suspect that will probably pretty often be the case.