The Joy of Kid Talk: An Education in Language

As a writer, I can obsess over words; their placement in a sentence, their order, how many of them there are, even where they fall on the page.

Learning to speak, re-teaching Mrs. Bailey all about language

Throughout my career, I have worked to hone the art of speaking carefully, choosing words as precisely as possible. Under the lifelong tutelage of my father, I also learned the most important tool in business communication: stop talking. (As it turns out, not talking can get you further than talking at all.)

Adults who are not writers occasionally obsess over words. He said/she said/they said conversations are rampant on playgrounds, in lunchrooms and boardrooms.

But young children are, for the most part, gloriously free from the traditional constraints of language. Words mix and mingle, if a word is not readily apparent to them, they just sub something else that feels right. Parts of speech are mixed. Pronouns confused. Articles of speech go missing. Despite all of this, children have a beautiful and positively delightful way of getting their point across.

Secondo is at the age of emerging language. It’s one of my favorite stages.

Lately gems of deconstructed and re-imagined language have poured from her lips, their awkward construction pulling dearly at my heartstrings. They are too good to keep all to myself.

The innocence of her speech reminds me to remove the pretension from my words and encourages me to let go of some of the word obsession, and just speak and write from the heart. Thanks, Secondo, for teaching your self-obsessed mother a great lesson about language.

[While helping me pull laundry from the dryer.]

Secondo: I just smelled Daddy’s shirt and it smelled like handsome.

[After visiting someone dear who has just undergone chemo…]

Secondo: How does she take off her hair?

[Pause.]

I haven’t figured out how to take mine off yet.

[After hearing that several sun umbrellas were stolen from our Bailey Building & Loan…]

Secondo: What happened to your umbrellas, Daddy?

Daddy: Someone took them who wasn’t allowed to. They were stolen.

Secondo: What did you do?

Daddy: I called the police.

Secondo: (Exasperated) But Daddy, did you call the cops?

[Coming down from a bouncy-house-two-cupcake-juice-box-birthday-party meltdown…]

Mommy: Sometimes it is very busy at a birthday party. Everyone has lots of sugar and there are presents and screaming and playing. It can be hard to come home and relax and get back into the normal at-home routine again.

Secondo: Yes! (Her eyes light up, sniffing, tears rolling down her cheeks.) There were so many people there, (angry now) and it was loud and everyone was SCREAM-ing. It’s ex-HAUST-ing!

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Mary’s Moment

Since our initial love affair with It’s A Wonderful Life, and before I started this blog, I mentioned our affection for the film to a few people.

Folks seem to either love it, haven’t really sat and watched it, or they think it is a sappy, saccharine Christmas movie.

I used to think that, too, before life had blown me and my Mr. Bailey away with some very tough shots.

(Fast forward to 3:45 to see Mary make her move.)

But over the years, the emotion expressed in the film just hits a chord with me. And that feeling of identification with art – that soul vibrating resonance that brings one to tears, to laughter, to feel validated – is just about the best thing about any form of art, be it film, sculpture, painting, poetry, song or performance.

Some critics of IAWL think the characters are too archetypical, too clichéd. I would listen to that argument. After all, George is a big-hearted hero and Mary the faithful wife. Mr. Potter is nasty, mean and worthy opponent.

But there’s more to their characters that reverberates below the surface.

That really broke through to me this last Christmas.

After an evening of welcoming family members who had come from far afield to our home for dinner, people were getting kids in pajamas for the ride home and nursing overly full bellies.

IAWL was on television and we were watching and chatting, the way you do when company comes. Outside, it was raining, the coldest day in weeks. It was dark, so we thought it was later than it really was.

The movie was wrapping up. Clarence had taken his leave of George and George was running through the Bedford Falls streets, toward the twinkling lights of his home and Mary.

After greeting the bank examiner cheerily, George runs up the stairs to kiss his children, all the while yelling for Mary. As Mary comes through the door, having been out looking for him they embrace passionately and George covers her with kisses. She is brimming with excitement, relief and anticipation.

The Bailey home is decorated to the nines, the tree is topped and trimmed and everything screams Christmas. Mary is lovely, snow flakes clinging to her shiny hair, pearls in place, coat with two silver buttons cinched at the waist.

I imagine it smells great in that house, like the best of home — roasting turkey and sweet onions, a warm spice cake and plain old love.

Wanting to set up a cozy, festive scene, Mary hustles George and the children over to the front of the Christmas tree, in front of their dining room table, which is covered with any amount of household stuff, wrapping paper, bows, cups.

She sets George up and then, in a movement of sheer excitement and focus, leans over and pushes every last thing off of the table.

“Did you see that?” I said, grabbing the remote. “Mary just shoved everything off the table, just wiped it all off!”

I hit the button to replay the moment, pointing it out to my sister-in-law. There it was, again, perfectly clear in black and white.

And that’s when I loved Mary Bailey even more, and recognized her as much more than the perfect mother and iconic housewife Donna Reed later played on The Donna Reed Show. Remember, it was 1946 and wives were being asked to be perfect in every housekeeping, child rearing, self-sacrificing way.

But in that motion, I believed Mary knew she was imperfect and flawed. She was fully aware that the little things – like the table settings, meant nothing. What mattered to her, and you see it throughout the scene, is George; is holding him up in his moment of brokenness and becoming completely immersed in the joy of being able to fix it for him.

And all that matters to him, is her. He cannot stop kissing her or gazing at her or saying her name.

Saccharine? Perhaps, but also full of the kind of love you just want to wrap yourself in forever.

Gimme some green & Prima’s future as a makeup artist

If you stay at home or if you work outside the home, or any combination thereof, you have done it.

You have turned on the television or sent the kids outside to play and then ignored various calls for “Mo-AAm!” For awhile. Sometimes, a long while.

Hmmm, what? Mothers are driven to necessary neglect.

You swallow the guilt pill and do this because you just have to get a certain set of things done, completed, finished. To be fair, these are things you have been either avoiding or knowingly neglecting, and they can no longer be ignored.

And your otherwise watchful eyes and ears are checking in on the kids from time-to-time.

Desperate times…

Mr. Messy, good pal of Prima and Secondo

Such was the case the other day when I was glued to my laptop, working to accomplish a long task list.

I had started the morning with detailed prep work, how I needed the girls’ help, how I wanted them to entertain one another. They had been game, obedient.

Once I set them in motion, they were entertaining one another well. They were playing an elaborate game of…of…who knows? They were outside and they were quiet.

Of course, too much quiet can only be ignored for so long. But that wasn’t the case at first. Initially, there was a nice hum of activity wafting in through the open windows from the back yard. Then, nothing. Suddenly, my otherwise occupied ears piqued at the sound of swishy footprints skootching across tile.

I whirled around and spotted Secondo, in her bathing suit, with her hair all in front of her face. At least, I thought her hair was in front of her face. But then, her hair wasn’t a mixture of black and brown. In a moment, it registered. Her face was covered in an elaborate face paint conglomeration in the vein of a – kitty cat.

Mommy needs a moment.

“OH!” I said, smiling, “are you a kitty cat?”

Frozen and waiting to see my reaction, Secondo’s stunned face burst into a bright smile.

“Yes, Prima did it! Meow!”

Secondo's feeling it!

I laughed and took her by the hand. We went back outside to see Prima waiting for her feline younger sister in the paddling pool.

“So Secondo is a kitty, huh?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Prima said, similarly relieved.

“Well, Prima, it looks pretty good,” I told her. “You actually did a good job.” I chuckled and snapped a quick picture, sending it on to their father at work so he could see what his creative and cute girls were up to.

While I saw the face paint on the slide nearby, I figured they had sort of done themselves out. Let them play, I said to myself, they are so creative, and sweet and cute.

“Want to watch our show?” Prima asked.

“Meow!” Secondo called.

“Sorry, babies, I can’t,” I said, “I have to finish these jobs.” I congratulated myself on being such a warm, understanding and cool Mom. Let them explore, let them create, let them make their own adventures. We can clean it up later, I thought.

Daddy can handle it!

Then I dove back into it. I made phone calls, wrote notes and scheduled bills. Who knows how much time passed? When I emerged from this blissfully unaware and rather productive trance, I realized the girl party had moved inside.

The “meows” had been replaced by crying, some muffled words I couldn’t make out and – gulp – running water.

I jumped out of my seat.

“Secondo?” I called. “Where are you?”

I wandered through the house until I honed in on the girls’ bathroom door, half closed.

Pushing open the door, the scene unfolded. There was Prima, sitting on the bathroom counter, looking at herself in the mirror, telling Secondo to calm down in a rather disinterested tone.

In our blue bathtub sat her younger sister, crying. The kitty cat had completely vanished. Secondo was painted completely green. Face, arms, legs, even some of her impossibly curly hair were all emerald.

“Momma, momma, momma,” she cried, in a pool of green-colored water in the middle of the bath, “I don’t want to be a witch anymore! I don’t want to be a witch anymore!”

“Oh my gosh,” I breathed. “OK, baby, OK, you don’t have to be a witch anymore. Prima! Did you do this? Did you paint your sister green?”

She was halfway to the door, shouting over her shoulder, “she wanted me to do it, Mom. She asked me. She liked it at first.” Then, gone.

Green face paint was smudged incriminatingly on each part of the bathroom that would stand still.

I muffled a laugh and began adding clean water to the green bathtub sludge and wiping away lime-colored tears.

Hours later, Prima properly chastised, Secondo nearly back to normal color (except for her sage -colored eyelids, which she was rather pleased with, truth be told) – we were discussing, in a very general way, that people sometimes make mistakes they don’t mean.

I was illustrating this point to Secondo with un-related examples when Prima interrupted.

“Yeah, Secondo, like painting your sister green,” she said, matter-of-fact. “That’s a mistake.”

Correct.

What Prima & Secondo aspire to...

Broken by spring break?

The first time I truly felt gratified by our decision to live on one steady income was right after the new year.

My father called me in a panic situation. With Prima and Secondo at school, I hopped in the car and was on site in about 10 minutes. It was a bad turn of events. But I was there right away, and then all day and well into the evening.

As I drove home, my relief was palpable. It rained that night and I cried, exhausted from the day, and confident we had made the right choice at this point in our lives. We had sacrificed greatly but gained, somehow, much more with my freedom.

This week has brought another series of grateful emotions.

It’s spring break. Prima is off of school for four days, Secondo all week long.

It was the kind of week that used to brutalize my spirit.

Spring break in bed

Mrs. Bailey ponders calmly, "WHAT am I going to do over break?!"

First was the terror of the week to come. Oh no, the kids have off next week. What am I going to do?

That was followed by the specter of finding coverage for the kids; the discomfort of asking for favors, relying on our parents, our good friends, sitters, of racing to be on time for pickup, for drop off, of dragging them to the office with me, to the Bailey Building & Loan. No sleeping in and still packing lunches. That was followed by coordinating, changing schedules, and the mind-bend of keeping-it-all-straight.

Then we were rewarded with the guilt and sadness of the actual week.

“Mommy, it was so fun, we went swimming and lunch and then we went to play at our friends house,” Prima would report the entire day’s events in full detail. “But Mommy, I missed you. When can we do that?”

Brutal.

Without fail, holiday weeks, days off, long weekends, inspired plain old dread.

But this week it’s been, I daresay, fun, easygoing, even enjoyable. My turn, I think, at the end of the lengthening sunny days and cool evenings. We had playdates, went on walks, bike rides, met up with friends, played games, made smoothies. I even – gasp – sunbathed. Something I haven’t done on a weekday in probably five years.

Prima and Secondo are bickering and happy, playful and full of songs from Prima’s recent show. They are taking this break to consistently belt out, “Go, go, go Joseph…” or “So Joseph, tell ol’ Ph-AAA-ROH…”  [“Secondo! For the last time, darling, please stop singing while we’re at the dinner table.”]

I am happy and relieved again.

Time with Prima + Secondo

Time with Prima + Secondo

But not smug. At all. I’m not even confident those dreadful days are behind me for good.

And I leave that thought alone, because I’m here now.

There will always be a part of me, as a mother, who understands the pain of making the necessary compromises of long leisure days and memory-making activities to support her family. And as uncomfortable as those missed opportunities were, the weight of their experience has made me a better person, and a more grateful, humble mother of two future stage hogs.

P.S. If you love the cherub-cheeked beauties of Mary Cassatt as much as I do, you’ll love this website. I recommend a leisurely jaunt, particularly when your beauties are being devils, to remind you why you love being a mom.

Things that Humble Parents

  • When your kid is really good and polite.
  • When your kid is really bad.
  • When your kid repeats things you didn’t know they have absorbed.
  • When your kid has absorbed the art of guilt, just in case the guilt you felt automatically was not sufficient enough.

Cases in point:

Prima recently participated in a play at her school. There were five, count ‘em, f-i-v-e performances. There was a month and a half of rehearsals, a week of 7 a.m. rehearsals and a week of evening rehearsals from 6 to 9 p.m. She’s seven and usually goes to bed tuckered out at 7:30.

By show No. 5, our darling Prima was exhausted, and, just for extra parent bonus points, Secondo had three-apple-juice-boxes-plus-a-box of-Sour-Patch-Kids-induced diarrhea, which is why we hustled everyone out after the last performance, (before the cast party could start).

Cast Party? What cast party? No idea.

Mothers are always innocent. Until proven guilty by their children.

But a friend of hers spilled the beans on us.

Said Friend: Prima, after you left the play, there was a party and everyone started signing their shirts. All the cast did and I got everyone’s signature.

Prima: Really? Oh.

(Ten minutes later after Said Friend had been dropped off. )

Prima: Mom, after we left, guess what? People started signing shirts…

Me: Yes.

Prima: But I didn’t get mine signed.

Me: I’m sorry. We had to leave because your sister had explosive diarrhea.

Secondo: Hey! I just had di-AH-rEEE-HA?

[Pause.]

Prima: I guess that I’ll just have to sign my own.

I was flabbergasted. Age does not a guilt mistress limit. I laughed out loud in spite of myself.

Case No. 2

Secondo is at the age she wants to dress herself. Skirts have been conquered. She’s mastered shorts, socks and almost shoes. But dresses and shirts are remain troublesome.

I can understand her challenge. There are three similarly sized holes – right in a row. With two arms and a head to navigate through, basically blind, it can be a puzzle beyond the abilities of a 3 year old.

If I could help her, I would. But she flat out refuses any aid from me.

“Leave me AH-lone!” she screams at me as I reach for an arm hole.

Soap for Secondo? Or Mrs. Bailey?

“Fine,” I relent, standing, glancing at my watch. Seven minutes until preschool starts. I thank my lucky stars we live three minutes away.

I go to load the dishwasher before we bolt out the door.

I overhear sobs, slowly abating to sniffles.

She marches out, dress on, torso forced out in front of her, arms pumping away at her sides. In a sizzling Secondo state, she huffs over to the kitchen table and sits down.

“You did it!” I smile, encouragingly.

“Yeah, except I look like a nut job!”

Ummm, OK. I didn’t realize she actually overheard me the 10,000 times I have used that term for what I interpreted as an appropriately over-the-kids-head descriptor.

But.

Apparently not.

Becoming modern George and Mary

It happened one evening in the dead of winter several years ago. Winter is when our Bailey Building & Loan is bustling with orders, bringing in the lion’s share of the income.

It happened after Mr. Bailey had called me earlier in the day to say the computer crash on the businesses’ main hard drive had not been a minor event. The tech geeks he had shipped the hard drive to in Minnesota had called him back.

“They told me the loss was,” a pause, a breath, “catastrophic,” Mr. Bailey whispered tearfully.

Catastrophic loss

Exhausted by this major setback and without a solution in sight, run down from working the many jobs of a mom and dad of two kids and done-in by the Christmas triathlon of baking, shopping and wrapping, Mr. Bailey and I decided to stick our heads in the sand for an evening and headed for our couch. We settled in to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

It had been years since either one of us had done so.

Gradually, we were drawn in anew by the plot points. A young George Bailey endures a slap from a distraught Mr. Gower, even as he keeps the chemist from poisoning a customer. It brings us both to tears. We exchange smiles.

George sits at the kitchen table before his brother’s graduation party. George is raring to go to college after working four years at the Bailey Building & Loan to save the money. But his father subtly sends the longing message he would approve if George would choose to stay in Bedford Falls in his current position.

My Mr. Bailey and I grin as George resists, bound for multiple adventures in the great wide world.

True love bears all things.

We are enchanted during the party scene when Mary and George reunite, among friends. This is not so different than the first time my Mr. Bailey asked me on a date. We’re warmed with our own memories.

We well up with tears when George leaves Mary naked in the prickly bush because his father has had a stroke. My Mr. Bailey has lost his 59-year-old father just months before.

Then the wedding day drive that only gets as far as Bailey Building & Loan, which is overrun by Bedford Falls town folk demanding their money.

As much as George wants to escape the BB&L, Mary doesn’t hesitate to hand over the honeymoon cash and he hastily uses it to save his family business. Tears stream down. My Mr. Bailey and I stepped in to run our BB&L after his father died.

That night, Mary Bailey jumps off the screen at me, making a worldly hotel and honeymoon suite out of a broken down house George hates. Mr. Bailey and I honeymooned in a friend’s condo in the mountains for a few days; it was an exotic three-hour drive from our first home together, a sweet townhouse in what we lovingly referred to as “the ghetto.”

Then there’s Mary, telling Sam Wainwright and his girl to go on to New York without them after presenting the Martini family with gifts for their new home, tucked into a dusty, optimistic patch of land George has dubbed Bailey Park.

Go on, have fun. We'll always have Bailey Park!

Mary is all parts devotion and acceptance, longing and uncertainty. And all of it so — true.

Keeping calm and carrying on while her children are sick, bickering and playing that song on the piano — over and over and over again – all the while working behind the scenes to fix what is broken for George.

I just fall in love with Mary, right then. I understand Mary Bailey. And I know her, I am her.

Suddenly, the love that binds George and Mary and the challenges they face are not just creations invented to facilitate a quaint Christmas flick. Instead they become touchstones for us as we trod a similar path filled with forks we never thought we’d navigate as a couple.

We’re the modern George and Mary, I think.

Then the last thing happens, which is, of course, the best thing of all.

I remember, as a girl, I had an imaginary friend. The friend wasn’t a traditional imaginary play-mate, rather more of a supportive-devoted-successful-handsome-accommodating-enlightened-husband type of pal.

Really, I did.

This was probably from age 9 to 13. He was perfect in every way. He supported my career as an actress/singer/fashion designer, knew just what to tell me when I chickened out of the talent show or only got picked as an alternate cheerleader in middle school. When I envisioned our future, he attended every black tie gala, raised our kids and was, of course, fabulously rich and kind.

His name, for some inexplicable reason, was George.

An evening in the Bailey home

Mr. Bailey sighs, content. Focused, yet relaxed.

He extends his long, strong index finger slightly out in front of him and uses just the tip of it to press tenderly. His eyes light up, a soft smile plays at his full lips, his eyebrows push up in anticipation and excitement.

Then he slowly strokes his finger down the smoothness with a precise pressure.

Late in the evening, at the end of a long day of rushing around with work, civic duties, running errands, here in the darkness of the day passing, it’s time.

It’s time for some intimate contact with his new iPhone.

“Hhhmmmnnn,” he sighs.

It's love! It's his iPhone.

It's love! It's his iPhone.

He doesn’t even know he’s made that blissful sound. But I, Mrs. Bailey, do. I see him there, his head cocked at that certain, I’m-looking-down-at-my-phone-leave-me-alone angle, his eyes illuminated blue by his personal screen.

“I love this show, don’t you?” I ask.

Silence, more stroking, and pushing the screen apart to zoom.

“He’s so good in this role!” I note about one of our favorite actors.

I am dust in the wind and the iPhone completes him.

To be fair, we’re watching television together, so I am not 100 percent focused on him either. But this TV watching, it’s kind of our thing. It’s our unwind, chit-chat, catch-up and laugh moment that comes as a reward at the end of our beehive days. Sure, we get absorbed in shows, but we’re absorbed together. And we talk about them later. It’s fun.

But not anymore.

I take a moment to attempt to balance the jealousy and irritation I feel with the following:

  • how hard he works
  • what a good heart he has
  • what a good father he is.

(Nope, still on iPhone.)

I know he’s dying to see the next episode of Parenthood just as much as I am and he’s about to turn it off or put it down.

(Nada)

He’s really not a techno geek, so I am sure, any moment now he’ll put it down.

(Crickets)

Rationalizations: failed.

I must face it.

The other woman is his iPhone and he is out of his mind for her. Just accept it and move on.

I suppose the good folks at Verizon held out as long as they could, (thank you for that) but right now that provides only a little consolation. How long will this love affair last? How hot will it get? Will I even be here when he returns from his pleasurable side trip, device packed with apps he only uses for the two hours at the end of the day we spend together and, even then, “just to test them out?”

Really? You have to watch that YouTube clip now? It’s imperative you show me that odd maternity photo some girl you knew in high school has posted to her Facebook? Now is a good time to download that application that scans logos to tell you exactly where you are? (Pssst, babe, we’re at home!)

Relax, I tell myself. Yoga breaths. You are a well-spoken, 21st century, tactful Mary Bailey, respectful, understanding, and a kind partner. Handle it the best way you know how.

“Can you PLEASE put DOWN that $^&*@ PHONE?!!!”

Ahem, thank you.