I Was Perfect, And Other Lies My Father Believed

Image uploaded from iOS (27)My earliest memory involves my dad.

In the memory, I am standing outside of my house in Cleveland, Ohio, on our lawn. I’m hurt and petulant about a dust-up with my across-the-street neighbor that ended in mutual bite marks.

My father gently encourages me to mend the fence when my playmate offers me an orange creamsicle as a peace offering.

I remember his kind assurances, and warm arm around my waist.

I refuse the peace offering – as my mouth waters and I imagine the golden creamy taste in my mouth.

But my father does not push me. He does not laugh, either.

He just accepts my stand and, probably, smiles sweetly.

* * * *

My dad recently told a dear friend of mine, in a conversation they were having about parenting, that he always thought I was a perfect child.

I was not a perfect child.

But I tried very hard to be.

I tried very hard to be sweet and quiet and peace-loving and encouraging and diligent and a great student and a good athlete. I was persistent and dedicated about my role in my family and I even gave thoughtful effort to holding my own space in my family. I wanted my presence and perspective as the only girl to be seen, to be understood, and to impact the men around me.

I did mess all that up at times, of course: Mostly by being very emotional and too tender and by allowing my temper to get the best of me.

I did bad things, too. Normal stuff and mild stuff. Stuff that made my Dad mad, and things he had to come to the rescue on.

Yet, some 22 years since my most rebellious times, my dad still holds to the idea I was perfect.

* * * *

It’s a miracle of life that when you have children, you have had no experience being a parent and you have no idea what you are doing.

The miracle part is that you do it anyway. You manage to learn on the job, and become better and better at it.

Even though I had great parents myself, the idea of becoming a parent terrified me.

Until I held 6 pounds and 8 ounces of my firstborn daughter in my arms, I was really, really scared of being a parent. Always slow to make a decision, it was the biggest, most irreversible thing I had ever done.

My husband didn’t seem a lick scared.

If he was, he never let on.

Even before our baby girl was born, his parenting energy was all confidence and excitement.

He has been the best father since before that day, and from that day, on.

Whenever I have been at a loss for what to do as the official source of parental guidance for these incredible humans entrusted to us, I tune into his instinct, into his love for them, and dive into his insight and huge heart, to determine the way.

In the last few years, I’ve witnessed such a beautiful evolution in his parenting of our children. He’s gone from the protective and possessive father of young children to a dad as comfortable joking with them as he is laying down the law on the things that matter.

In return, they have an abundant tenderness for him, and a trust in his love and strength that melts my heart and reminds me deeply of how I feel about my own father.

Isn’t that something? Another surprise gift of parenting.

The gift that sometimes, the halcyon, never-ending chain of love that began in the hearts of two lovers, two parents, can pass down in the love of a father to a child, who grows nurtured by perfect love, and one day finds love of her own, with a husband, a whole man, and then has a child, who is loved and adored as she was – in a way her father once did.

There are not many cycles in life that illustrate as much complete and pure beauty, as much smoothly realized potential as that.

This is the highest blessing of fatherhood. This is the fruit of men who dare to show the gentle and powerful among them, alike, the strongest and most vulnerable versions of themselves.

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Wonder of 5

Secondo and I are walking hand-in-hand across a snowy parking lot. Her chubby 5-year-old hands echoed by the puffy brown and pink coat she’s wearing, hood flung back, wide-open to the blue sky.

Photo by Michał Koralewski

Photo by Michał Koralewski

“I believe in God,” she announces as we weave through the icy spots, the dirty snow, the salt and grime of the lot. “And I believe in Santa Claus.”

I smile broadly.

“Do you?” I say through my grin. “OK.”

A day earlier, Mr. Bailey had pointed out to me that Secondo was in a stage of discernment and wonder. What she is learning in her first year in formal school and comes home in delightful and confusing, definitive and doubtful ways. It’s a glory to witness.

I caught her the other day walking around the house with the illustrated children’s Bible my mother gave me as a kid. She was pretending to read each story as she flipped through the pictures. She disappeared, then reappeared, saying, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” in the tone of voice reserved for questions like, “why do we sleep at night?”

Then, one night as I was tucking her into bed, “God is invisible,” she told me, very matter-of-fact, then suddenly a bit angry, “WHY?”

At five, she is now aware of the larger world around her, even as she struggles to define it in a meaningful and ordered way. She knows the bliss of having her teacher point to her as an example of appropriate behavior – and the embarrassment of having her classroom card turned from green to yellow for pushing in line. Yet, she postpones her tears of hurt until she’s away from school, ensconced in our car, sobbing, “I was going to get only green all year long!” Secondo basks in the warmth of loving friends’ attention, flinging her arms wide and singing at her Thanksgiving performance of “Any Turkey Can Tango” or “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” on Christmas Eve. Yet, she’s also run headlong into a shower of hurtled sand, thrown hard in her face by someone she assumed liked her. She even knows the embarrassment of having a recess accident.

This would be Secondo.

This would be Secondo.

For weeks, at night when I tucked her in, she told me she was dizzy and couldn’t fall asleep. I gave her a comforting placebo of lavender cream that took away the dizziness. Even as she doubted the efficacy of this little invention, she insisted I apply it religiously at the same time, each night, waking from a dead sleep if she’d dozed off in the car, to ask for her “dizzy cream.” Then suddenly one morning she sauntered into our room and announced she didn’t need it anymore, her dizziness was cured.

On the day before Thanksgiving as Mr. Bailey prepared the turkey to take a long briny bath, she walked into the kitchen and stopped as she caught sight of the dimpled white fowl sitting on the counter. “Who killed that?” she deadpanned.

She’s exploring the poles of human experience – the agony of the yellow card, the ecstasy of Christmas morning and well, the mysterious muddle of faith, death and life for which none of us have answers.

Even better than this journey of hers, is the opportunity for Mr. Bailey and I to watch the world swirl around her tiny frame, as she strides boldly into each new day, and then settle softly every now and then.

Up, up, up goes Baby

This year Prima’s classroom teacher invited parents in once every week to be a guest reader in their classroom, reading favorite books that tied into that week’s lesson.

Prima was pumped at the prospect of her mother as the guest reader. (Mr. Bailey had earlier in the year brought down the house with his reading of Shel Silverstein’s A Giraffe and a Half.) Luckily for me, the writer, and sometime poet, I was slated to drop in during the classes’ poetry unit.

The night before, Prima and I leafed through books of our favorite poets and poetry. We marked our selections with bright orange scraps of paper. A bit nervous, I wanted to make sure what I was reading was on the level of my third-grade audience. My worst fear was my reading would be dull, babyish or boring.

Being rather protective parents, Mr. Bailey and I disavow kids programs on channels other than PBS, Justin Beiber fever, and subtly sexualized, childhood-infringing crazes being pitched to girls not even near the tween years. So when it comes to being babyish or mature we’d always prefer to err on the young side. The world will infringe on our little bubble soon enough, I always say. Except in front of my Prima’s third grade class, where babyish could certainly be warped to embarrassing or be used as a tool to tease Prima for her intense fondness for Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman instead of The Hunger Games.

That morning, I was dressed and ready on Prima’s early bird schedule. I hung out in the classroom during announcements and morning work and then found myself getting a touch nervous. When it was my turn, I headed to the front of the classroom, books in tow.

My nervousness melted away, poem by poem. Jeff Foxworthy’s Dirt on My Shirt book of silly poems went over well. Shel Silverstein killed and a couple of longer pieces from a poetry text pleased. I was wrapping it up when Prima, usually rather demure, shouted out.

“Mom! Read that one!” she said eagerly pointing to the textbook.

I thought I knew which one she meant – a silly poem about a baby going up, up, up in the air (presumably in a parent’s arms) and then coming down. It was in the first chapter, which was titled, “Here Comes Baby.”

“Huh?” I demurred, playing dumb.

“Mom, that one,” she insisted, coming of her desk, and finding the marked page, jabbing a chubby finger at it and nodding, her big brown eyes aglow.

“Really?” I said, back against whiteboard, my nervousness returning, my palms sweat intensely. I looked around at the 8 and 9-year-olds in the classroom.

“Yes, MOM!” she said, exasperated and returned to her seat.

Come on, Mrs. Bailey! Spit it out!

Twenty-five pairs of eyes bored into me.

“OK!” I said, probably a little too loud. “By request of Prima.”

“Look at Baby, Up, up up goes Baby,” I read, my animated voice scrolling through every tone, intonation and emphasis combination my brain could conjure in an attempt to somehow make the poem appropriately ironic or meta.

“Going up so high, Look, look, look at Baby,” I continued, “See my baby fly” Giggles. A few laughs.

Crap, I thought. I was right, they are laughing at my precious Prima! But one look at my audience showed good humored interest.

What? I clear my throat.

“Turn, turn, turn goes Baby. Spin my baby round.” More laughs.

“Down, down, down, goes Baby – right down to the ground.” Full-throated chortles of third-grade laughter greeted me. I looked up amazed, at Prima, who was sitting back in her chair, basking in the glow of the response she had knowingly created.

“That was funny!” someone said.

“Good one, Prima,” another child shouted out.

I was laughing, too, in relief, and in spite of all of my anxiety.

“Well, Prima,” I said, “You really know your audience.”

The teacher thanked me and even asked to borrow the poetry textbook.

As I left the class to its next subject, I felt elated, if not a bit stymied by this totally unanticipated turn of events.

The magic of parenting is about all of the things you can’t anticipate; mostly because you are so busy anticipating something else tragic or detrimental or silly. Its paybacks reside within that ephemeral place where you are protecting your child, best interests at heart, and they are simultaneously feeling confident and in control of their world and completely themselves. And, somehow, like a big gust of wind, all of that is all unfolding despite you.

But instead of stripping you of power, somehow it’s elating.

Those little slices of balanced bliss provide bewildering and glorious parenting highs. For me, the highs provide a sense that for all of my worry, my hours of preparation for the birthday party, or agonizing over the field trip or fretting through the play date, there is something bigger, grander in control, unfolding with ease. That Mr. Bailey and I, we might be on the right track, but that the track is just a track, grounded, human, and prone to error. But that what’s flying above us is what is making the magic happen.

Up, up, up…

Prima: Master of Destruction – and Invention

All kids destroy things. I knew this when I had children because growing up my father used to tell us he had figured out our mission as his kids: to destroy everything he owned. (We would laugh and shake our heads, and occasionally feel guilty because we had just wrecked a car or broken a plate or destroyed a brand-new skateboard.)

But I didn’t truly comprehend it until I became acquainted with Prima and Secondo.

Prima tries to keep us from her latest creative destruct---er---invention.

Prima especially. While all kids destroy things, Prima has a special gift at the creative, systematic and, Mr. Bailey and I should face it, total annihilation of her things.

Cutting Barbie’s hair? Boring. How about cutting her sister’s clothing in cross hatches in the back as they played fashion designer? Coloring on walls? Snore. How about working down her sidewalk chalk into a fine paste that she then uses to create a mural on the back of the house? Then uses a stencil and a bit more water to “paint” chalk letters onto the playroom floor? Not. Kidding.

If Mrs. Bailey has found this, there's more (and more and more) of it elsewhere.

Sneaking real food from the kitchen to play with in her playroom kitchen? Amateurish. Prima instead snuck cinders out of the fireplace (inconveniently located in the playroom) and created a sink full of ash consommé she ladled into bowls and served to her stuffed animals. Yup, oh, and she was only 2 at the time.

Give this child 10 minutes out of sight and she will use what she has at arms length to go anywhere her imagination leads. Mr. Bailey and I adore this about her. It also drives us absolutely batty.

Soil from potted plants becomes coffee mixed with water and infused with flower petals and grass for her drive-through coffee shop on the back patio. Boxes (some still in use) are broken down or built up into sets for plays. When the script calls for snow for several scenes, a tiny rip in an old stuffed animal is capitalized upon and a thorough dusting of white fluff decorates her stage.

Prima works chalk into a fine paste for multiple taggings throughout the Bailey home.

Was I this – ahem – creative when I was a child? I ask myself, as I scrub Secondo’s skin to rid it of the “I love you” in black acrylic paint across her belly.

Prima explains to me she painted it across Secondo’s pink leotard, salvaged from the dress-ups, because they were playing American Idol, and, sorry Mommy, the paint just leaked through onto her skin.

Sigh.

The graffiti artist caught red-handed.

In efforts at sanity, I have tried to corral her spirit into less destructive play. The playroom rules I posted encourage, “Please use only pretend water,” and “Please do not cut up tiny scraps of paper.”

But these attempts at setting reasonable limits have only spurred her inventiveness instead of curtailing the damage to our home.

To console ourselves, Mr. Bailey and I try to imagine what her ability of seeing new possibility in old things will bring Prima in her future – maybe she’ll develop unconventional therapies to help cure cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease or perhaps she’ll work for NASA, inventing equipment for a Mars landing or maybe she will create materials to make commercial airliners destruction-proof.

This helps. At least until the next mangled, dismembered, destroyed, or dissected thing is discovered.

Battles of will won and lost

Typically the occasional stubborn brat-iness of my dear Zuzus create the most baneful moments of my sometimes quite long days.  Once in a blue moon, however, luckdisaster strikes and that same stubborn brat-iness has saved my keister.

The Baileys can relate. Can you?

Case in point: Last Sunday was turning out to be a day free from the recent stressors maxing out Mr. Bailey and my collective patience as parents, home-owners and partners. Roofers were putting the finishing touches on our already paid for new chocolate brown roof. We were not obligated to run any errands or provide any tangible moral support to our family or friends. But, we had no food in the house (no surprise there) so we decided to head out for breakfast.

We took some time getting ready, but the girls were volleying ideas of where to go and what to do in moments. Unfortunately for them, Mr. Bailey happened by the door to their post-apocalyptic playroom and made a snap decision.

“We’re not going anywhere until this playroom is picked up,” Mr. Bailey announced after assembling the allied forces.

Ka-boom! Their worlds shaken, there was lamentation, wailing and woe. There was finger pointing, blame-grenade hurling, procrastination and multiple tongue lashing trips before us, the tribunal, sitting peacefully on the couch, listening as the soldiers pled their cases. We did not budge. Minutes amounted. An hour neared. Prima was particularly upset. Secondo was blatantly defiant. Still we did not cave. The room must be cleaned. Mr. Bailey and I, still calm, felt as if we held the high ground.

All the while we heard the click-pound-smash of the roofers installing the last shingles our house would need for another 15 years.

Then a somewhat smug Prima paraded in to tell us, that, did we know water was pouring down the side of the wall into the playroom and the floor was all wet?

Crap.

Controlled chaos ensued. Water was indeed rushing down the side of the wall the playroom shares with the master bath. Water mains were switched off, frantic phone calls to contractors, on-call plumbers were made. It turned out a roofer’s nail had busted a misplaced pipe above the master bathroom.

As the water was sopped up, we regrouped. “You were lucky,” the plumber told us. “I’ve seen this where the homeowners have been gone all day long and entire parts of the ceiling have collapsed on furniture and beds and ruined everything. It’s a good thing your daughter noticed.”

Right. So I asked Miss Prima how she discovered the leak waterfall in the playroom.

“Well, I was cleaning up and I felt something wet on the back of my head,” she began, her sincere brown eyes becoming even more round in the telling, “and at first I thought it was, you know, just my — tears.” She emphasized the word to remind us of the torture we’d inflicted.

“But then I felt the wall and it was all wet.”

Later, Mr. Bailey mused we had lucked out by choosing that moment to assert our hardcore parenting skills, and that the kids complaining and exaggerating what was a simple task had saved us a ton of pain and property.

“But,” he said, his voice growing deep and quiet as he peered around the room furtively, “we can never let them know that.”