Tuesday, February 17, 2009


The pleasure of the second child is that each stage brings two joys. It’s the achievement of this milestone, yes, but it also refreshes hazy memories of this miracle wrought once before. Like scanning an old photograph whose colors have muted, and with one click: voila! ah yes, remember that afternoon on the veranda? You were smoking that pipe and I laughed at all your jokes. And you laughed at mine and we danced until dawn, out there on the veranda.

The pleasure of the second child is the opportunity to revel in the details we might have been too busy, too uncertain, too tense with am-I-parenting-right? to find revelatory.

The pleasure for the first child is that All the World’s a Game of Follow the Leader. Need an audience? Convince your parents to have another kid.

The pleasure for the second child is that The World is Your Oyster, Already Spread Across the Family Room Floor. And the Kitchen Cabinets. And Waiting in Large Bags in Your Closet. Ready for the next size socks? More stimulating toys? Books just the size of your hand? We have them, pre-gathered, kid-tested, Sister-approved.

L discovered lift-the-flap books this month. She carries them around, little square things of cardboard, and as soon as she corners you you know you’ll be reading the same eight flaps over, and over, front cover to back and flip it over again. I remember how her sister loved these books. Reading them gives me delight just as it gave me delight with E, but I don’t remember taking the time to be aware of the delight with E as I am doing now.

Behind each flap is an animal. As we await the surprise, no matter what we’ll find (deer, frog, rabbit), L makes one of two sounds: oooh!, learned originally from the owl, or quaah quaah, from the duck. So this is what the L soundtrack for “reading a book activity” sounds like: Oooh! Quaah quaah. Oooh! Quaah quaah. Oooh!

And we have book club, where we discuss what we’re reading.
Me: “ ‘Who’s jumping in the stream?’ Let’s lift the flap. Look! ‘A frog.’ A frog says ribbit. Can you say ribbit, L?”
Her: Quaah quaah.

But I love these stupid little cardboards now, because of how much E once loved them, because of how much L now loves them, because we’re very satisfied to find our children loving books as much as we do, and because of the overblown maudlin sentimentality so physical I see it wrapping like gauze around any object that has meant something to both of the girls.

Still, you should have seen the four of us loose together in Barnes & Noble this weekend. E had a gift card from her birthday to spend there. We told her it would buy (more or less) two books. She made her selections considerately, slowly. Once satisfied, a little desperation crept into her eyes as she realized that her selection of two books meant there were still thousands we weren’t taking home with us. I really, really think we should get L a book, too, she said, her eyes sagacious and serious. And since bookstores are like candy stores and I was deep in the thralls, I thought, sure, doesn’t she deserve at least one little flap book that’s new to her? E and I picked out a little animal book with a sheep on the cover. We handed it to L, who clutched it tightly and said Dis? Ooh! in excitement. And then, noticing the three-dimensionally fluffy sheep, Quaah quaah!

The pleasure of any young child is in bringing delight to her face. So we ourselves our responsible. We set up these loops. I’m sure, by now, L could say ‘ribbit,' or something like it. But she loves the exasperation in my expression. She squeals at it, and I exaggerate my features, and she squeals some more. It will be a disappointment to her tongue, now, to utter the sound of any creatures neither owl nor duck.

We set up these loops. She knows how cute most adults find her. She often waves at strangers, not, I’m sure, because she’s so inherently extroverted, but because she knows what grand reactions she’ll elicit. It was both amusing and a little heartbreaking yesterday while we were at breakfast to watch her wave, furiously and determinedly, at a table of soulless businessmen who never returned the greeting. But she should know, I thought, that it’s not the job of every human on the planet to find her smile-makingly endearing. But why would she know that, I thought, when nearly every person out there does reward her waves with exaggerated enchanted reactions. We’re all complicit. We set up these loops. Animal behavior is all we are made of, all we have to teach, to mimic.

The loops we establish were on my mind when E took her icky ear-infection medicine this morning, for which she is bribed rewarded with two M&Ms after she swallows it. Blue and brown! she asked as she walked over to me, outreached hand already open in front of her. From nowhere, her mini-me fell into formation a step behind, arm outreached. We create and reinforce these loops, and because it’s easier not to face her tantrums, every time L’s noticed E receiving her two M&Ms she’s received one, too (but usually orange, because we have a glut of them). Nevermind that it was still 7:something AM and that those chocolates were the first food to pass their lips today. I looked at them, big and little, marching through the kitchen, and half expected that phrase I heard teasing me all weekend:

Quaah quaah!

And though it never came I watched their toddly maneuvers, their undulating path around strewn toys and large furniture and shoes not yet on feet, the one happy to be in charge and the one so happy to chase, with their same faces and same shoulders and same tushies and same gait, and they reminded me strikingly of a book we amazingly don’t have.

They are a living re-enactment of Make Way for Ducklings.

I’m not raising a family. I’m raising a flock.
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