Growing Pains

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Penelope hurried over to me, eyes brimming with tears, her thumb and index finger wiggling one of her bottom teeth. She told me her tooth was loose and started to cry.

I asked her if she was bleeding or did something that loosened the tooth, but she shook her head. “Does it hurt?” I asked, and again she shook her head.

“My tooth is coming out!” She looked confused. “What if all my tooths come out? I won’t be able to eat my cereal?”

Here’s the part where I kick myself a little, and wish I had said something truly helpful. The wife walks into the room moments later, and when she heard the news, grew excited. “Wow! Look at you? You’re becoming a big girl! How exciting! You’re losing your baby teeth, and new big-girl teeth will grow in their place.”

Hearing this not only eased Penelope’s fears, but she became enthused at the prospect of becoming a big girl and about all the interesting things that would happen to her.

So, what did I say when Penelope told me her fears of losing all her teeth and not being able to eat cereal?

“Well, your Grandma lost all her teeth, and she has no problem eating. You’ll be fine.”

God I hope her mother is home when she gets her first period!

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For Mom, the Second Day of Kindergarten is Harder Than the First

First day!

Penelope waiting for the school bus on her first day of kindergarten.

(It’s the 50th blog post for “Growing Up With Penelope,” and I thought I’d celebrate by turning the page over to Bernadette. Since she’s written this post, there are two things I can guarantee. One, it’s a terrific read, and I’m sure you’ll love it. Second, this is a helluva lot longer than any post I would ever write!)

It’s the morning of the second day of Kindergarten, and the school bus has just pulled away. I’m mid-way into walking the beagles when it hits me, “Oh my God, she’s on the bus alone.”

Even though she’s not, of course, because all the neighborhood kids are on it with her.

And I have this panic attack – Will she get off the bus OK? Will she find her classroom OK? – even though I know perfectly well that the answer to both questions is yes.

I can’t call my husband for reassurance because he’s on his way to work sans broken cell phone. I can’t call my neighbor from across the street because I know she’s busy getting ready for an all-day PTA meeting. I can’t call my other two mom neighbors because they’re both at work.

So I do the only thing I can do: I take a deep breath, finish the walk, start a load of laundry, and sit down to write this story. But not before I post my freak out on Facebook, and learn from friends – not just acquaintances, but people who truly were friends in high school or college – that what I’m feeling is absolutely, positively, perfectly normal. (A newer friend, the mom of my daughter’s classmate and BFF, is on her third kid. She posts to reassure me that “the school is great. They will not lose her!”)

Rationally, I know all of this, but still I worry.

I worry that my daughter will have trouble making friends, though I know she has far more grace and confidence and self assurance than I ever did at her age.

I worry that my daughter won’t be kind to new kids who are afraid, though I know she understands what it is to be scared and different and in a place that is new and overwhelming.

And I worry that my daughter might get hurt, even though she survived two years of pre-K with only a few bumps and bruises, and I know there’s no reason to expect any differently now.

My husband emails me from work to tell me he’s found the folder he was looking for – one he thought our daughter had removed from his briefcase and placed in her backpack – and for a moment I’m disappointed that he’s found it because it means I no longer have an excuse to run up to the school, check our daughter’s backpack, and see with my own eyes that Penelope is truly OK.

An hour and a half after the bus pulls away, my mind is calmer. Writing, I know, helps; focusing on the screen as one word after another appears on it has, for me, always been a tonic.

And as I grow calmer, I find myself reflecting on the journey that brought us to this day. If you had asked me five years ago – before we began the adoption process that would ultimately lead us halfway around the world, to southern China and the most beautiful two-year-old you could imagine – I would have answered with the cockiness that only someone who has never experienced the agony of parenthood could.

“If I’m ever blessed to be a mother,” my childless self would have said, “I won’t be one of those overprotective ones who worries all the time.”

Ha!

I didn’t have to carry this child in my body for nine months to become a card-carrying, worrywart of a mom. I simply had to look at her, once, and to hold her, once. That’s all it took for me to be a goner.

I have calmed down in the three years since Penelope joined our family, but I do still worry. And I’ve learned from many friends, even before today’s Facebook post, that the worrying will never truly end. Not even, as my sister and sister-in-law are happy to tell me, when she’s grown and married and off on her own. They would know, having married off four daughters between them.

Yesterday, I was fine as I watched our daughter step onto the school bus for the first time, and without even a backward glance, find a seat and start chatting to her seatmate.

Now, 26 ½ hours later, I’m wondering exactly what sort of mother I am. Yesterday I was calm and collected; I didn’t worry a bit. Today I was, quite nearly, a hyperventilating basket case.

I’m blaming it on the adrenaline that’s no longer in my system.

The morning of the first day of Kindergarten was a whirlwind: getting showered and dressed, getting breakfast on the table, feeding the dogs, stuffing packed lunch and snack bags into the backpack, and asking Penelope if she’s nervous about Kindergarten. “No, Mama,” she answers. “I’m OK.”

Then we’re speed-walking down the driveway, video camera in hand, to wait for the bus with the boy across the street.

After a few minutes of picture taking and chatting with the boy’s parents, the bus arrives and, just like that, Penelope is on it and the doors are closing and I know with absolute certainty that if I’d allowed myself the time to think about how the years between now and college will pass in a blur of Daisy Troop meetings, sleepovers and first dates, I know I would have stood there crying as the bus carrying our little girl faded into the distance.

As it was, though, my husband and I had plans. We jumped into the car, drove to the school and parked, and sprinted across the parking lot and playground to the school’s front walkway so we could shoot photos and video of our daughter as she got off the bus for the very first time.

Mercifully for her, we weren’t the only parents who had this idea.

I stretched my neck and stood tippy-toed, watching for her cute little face to appear in the open doorway of the bus when suddenly, there she was: animatedly talking to the little boy walking alongside her, her fingers wrapped firmly around the straps of her bouncing owl backpack, not an ounce of fear or uncertainty anyplace on her face.

She was beaming, I was not crying, and my husband stood there smiling, part misty-eyed, part heart in his throat.

I knew, as we watched her walk down the long hallway to her Kindergarten classroom chatting to another little boy, that David was thinking exactly what I was thinking: how lucky he is, how lucky we are, to have this miracle of a child in our lives.

Superheroes, super aches

Super Penelope channeling her inner Batman at a friend's birthday party.

I learned some new things playing superhero at the park with Penelope:

  • The proper superhero flying pose is to make a fist and extend your right arm. Your left elbow should be held tight against your ribcage.
  • Superheros work on “school days” but not on “home days.”
  • Superhero duties include: chasing bad guys, helping kids in trouble and feeding dinosaurs.
  • Dinosaurs live under sliding boards and eat pebbles, but only pebbles from the area of the park farthest from the sliding board.

Penelope is running across a field toward a pebble-strewn track. I’m chasing behind her and dragging along our eldest beagle, who would prefer the comforts of her bed to playing the role of Superdog this chilly afternoon. I worry that Superdog’s only super power will be the ability to poop on my pillow while I’m in the shower. We gather a few choice pebbles and skip back across the field to feed the dinosaur. Penelope puts her hands to the side of her head: “Oh no! We need more dinosaur food!”

Oh boy! I take a gulp of air. This endeavor was supposed to wear the kid out, but I’m the one who’s likely heading to bed early. Back across the field we go. I’m huffing and puffing like a steam engine in pants. We make several trips collecting dinosaur food until Penelope pronounces the imaginary beast sated.

Galloping across the field, I suspect I’m providing a good chuckle for anyone looking out from one of the windows of one of the houses abutting the park. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind a bit. One of the unheralded bonuses of having a four-year-old is the chance to be a kid again yourself. If I tried skipping across the open fields without a kid, somebody would probably be chasing me with a net.

One other thing I’ve learned cavorting around the park this day: No matter how good I am about shunning Easter candy, there’s no way my caboose is wending gracefully down the sliding board. Nor will it fit comfortably on a swing. And, while we’re on the subject, didn’t any of these playground planners consider making the plastic tube that serves as a passageway from one side of the play set to the sliding board just a little bit larger?

By the end of the afternoon, I’m feeling my age. My knee joints ache, and my back is barking at me. I strap Penelope into her booster seat and hoist the beagle into the back where she can plot her revenge. I pour myself into the car, grunting a half-hearted vow about getting in shape. But as I back out of the parking space, I catch a glimpse of Penelope smiling in her car seat. And suddenly, I feel super.

Teaching My 4 Year Old About Dr. King

Last night at dinner, Penelope told us she’s off from school Monday because it’s Malu King Day. We worked with her a few times, and were able to get her to pronounce his name correctly by saying, “It’s Martin, like Martin Kratt from the Kratt Brothers.” Hey, whatever works!

She said: “He lived a long time ago. Before anyone was born.” When I told her I was three when Dr. King died, well, she looked at me like I was 263 years old. And while I may look that age by the time Friday night rolls around, I certainly don’t feel it. Penelope wanted to see Dr. King, so I uploaded a slice of a YouTube video of his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The video lasted about 90 seconds, which I figured was about the attention span of a four year old, but her eyes were glued to the screen. When it finished she wanted to watch another video (she pointed to a postage-stamp-sized square of Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis).

Dr. King's final speech.

We listened to Dr. King’s soaring words. : “And so just as I say, we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around . . .”

“Dogs?” Penelope turned around and looked up at me.

I hesitated. “Well, you know how there’s that scary dog down the corner? He means dogs like that.”

Her head swiveled back to the video. When the speech ended, the video flashed to a grainy black-and-white photograph of a motel balcony in Memphis. Then the CBS eye and words “Special Report” flashed on screen. A smooth-skinned Dan Rather announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I knew what was coming next.

“Why did he die, Papa?”

I struggle when it comes to explaining to her the darker hours of our history and inhumanity. Our nation’s history sparkles with great moments, but is also littered with great tragedies. I wonder, what is the correct age to start teaching your child about these darker moments. Any ideas?

For now I want my little girl to enjoy her innocence of the meanness that lurks in this world. “It was a terrible thing that happened, Pop Tart. And someday, when you’re a bigger girl, we’ll talk about it.”

She nodded, and turned back to the computer just as the screen faded to black.

After dinner we drove to Buckingham Friends meeting to hear the St. Thomas Gospel Choir perform. As we settled onto the stiff wooden benches of the meetinghouse, I glanced around the room. The choir members, dressed in white shirts and jeans, were huddled on the far side of the room, perhaps in prayer or in preparation for their performance. The musicians were tuning their instruments. Friends greeted one another, and several children giggled as they clambered among the back benches. Penelope watched them wistfully, and asked if she could join them. We agreed, and told her it would be time to return when the choir members took their places to sing. She hesitated a moment, suddenly uncharacteristically shy, but Bern coaxed her. “Don’t be afraid, go ahead.”

It didn’t take long. Within minutes, she was giggling right along with two other children: a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl; an African-American toddler; and my Asian daughter.

The perfect image to remember Dr. King’s legacy.

Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

Dog Heaven Can Wait

I should never have refused to read “Dog Heaven” to Penelope. This book is supposed to help children — and adults, I suppose — cope with the death of a pet. It features big cartoon drawings of dogs sleeping on fluffy clouds and chasing geese in a park in heaven.  The book is one of Penelope’s favorites.

Bernadette’s childhood friend Stephanie gave her the book to console her after our Golden Retriever, Bailey, and elder Beagle, Hannah, passed away only four days apart almost three years ago. Bern deeply appreciates the book’s comforting message. I think the book is beautiful, but it makes me sad. So, one day when Penelope was choosing her bedtime reading and grabbed three books including “Dog Heaven” I told her no.

“This book makes Papa sad,” I explained. “You don’t want to make Papa sad, do you?”

She thought about this. I could tell because she tapped her index finger on her forehead and said, “Think, think, think.” (She gets that from “Winnie the Pooh” on TV.) She returned the book to the shelf and selected another.

However, the next evening, when I asked her to pick a book, an impish grin spread across her face. She ran to the bookshelf, grabbed “Dog Heaven” and waved it in front of me: “How about this one?” I again tell her how the book makes Papa sad, and back on the shelf it goes. This becomes a ritual with a different twist each night. One evening, Penelope hides “Dog Heaven” between other books. Next time its behind her back or under the covers. One night she slipped the cover of another book around “Dog Heaven.”

Finally one night I figure, “What the heck?” It’s just a story. Maybe if I read it, it’ll actually help me better handle the loss of a pet, something I’m lousy at. Back in the late 1960s, shortly after my grandfather died, my parents inherited his cocker spaniel. The dog’s name was Teddy (for Theodore Roosevelt).  When a four-year-old boy gets a dog, he thinks it’s perfect. He throws a squeaky toy around for the dog, pets it, chases it around the backyard. At least, that’s my image of Teddy.

For my parents, the dog was something entirely different. You see the dog was raised and trained by my grandfather: A cranky old man with a splinter’s talent for getting under someone’s skin. At least that’s how my father described him. Teddy mirrored my grandfather’s personality. If the dog only smoked cigars, the resemblance would have been eerie.

The dog ran away every chance it got. Take him outside and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom; bring him inside and he would immediately poop on the nearest bed. My parents eventually lost their patience and returned the dog to my grandmother, but told me it ran away. I spent much of that day looking for that dog. About two years later, my quixotic seven-year-old brain saw a dog with a slight resemblance to Teddy (the dog was actually a labrador retriever), and I — missing him still — chased him for a half mile.

I guess I haven’t changed much over the years: It’s three years later and not a day goes by that I don’t remember – sometimes fondly, sometimes sadly, often both – Bailey and Hannah.

So, I took a deep breath, tightened my jaw, screwed up my nerve, told myself I was being a total idiot . . . and promptly went to pieces. Damn book! At about this point I could feel my voice quivering: “When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.” I paused, took another breath, and plowed through the last few pages.

“Sorry Pop Tart, but I am never reading that book to you again. Sorry.”

Then something happened I will always remember. Penelope took the book from my hands, looked at it, then looked at me.

“Papa, you sad. Let’s read another book. You’ll be happy. Let’s read the Grinch. I’ll get it.” Penelope clambered off the bed, and grabbed “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” from a pile on her dresser. She handed me the Grinch book, and looked at “Dog Heaven” in her other hand.

“I’ll hide this. You won’t be sad then,” she said. She took the book and slid it behind her toy barn. “See. Gone.” She spread her arms wide. She climbed back in bed, settling under the covers. The she hugged me.

She curled up next to me as I began reading the Grinch. Just as a smiling Grinch raised his carving knife to the roast beast, I could hear Penelope’s breathing deepen.

And the next morning, I was just waking up when I heard Penelope reading “Dog Heaven” to Sammi and Rudy, current Beagles in Residence, as they lay snuggling in their bed. Which, by the way, is in our room.

Perhaps she thought the story might comfort them.

On a Snowy Presidents’ Day….

Penelope woke up before the sun again this morning. As usual, the first words out of her mouth were: “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” She hopped into our room as giddy as a spider monkey with a tennis racket much to the sleepy chagrin of Bernadette and I.

In my daze, I told her that in 10 years she is going to want to sleep until noon, and that’s when I am going to start the family tradition of the “Saturday Morning Let’s Vacuum the Upstairs Hallway Party.” She liked the idea. You all are now my witness to that.

I think Presidents’ Day has confused Penelope a bit. When I told her why I wasn’t going to work at the office today, she grew very excited and I could not understand why. Then I realized she thought I had said “Presents Day.” I then told her that we celebrate today because it’s near Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. (That’s the president she knows. Well, she also knows George W. Bush, but thinks his name is “Jackass.”)

Her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she began clapping and laughing and begging us to take her downstairs. She started babbling a bit, and it took me a few moments to get the gist of her words.

I had to explain to her that Presidents’ Day was different from the last holiday we celebrated. But she understands now that Lincoln did not come to the house last night and leave presents in the library. Although,  when we later clomped down the stairs for breakfast, I saw her cast a hopeful glance through the library doors. Fortunately this little kid bounces back quickly and the promise of a cheese stick and Mickey Mouse revived her spirits.

Maybe today her and I will swing past the local Borders to find a children’s book on Abraham Lincoln. I would imagine such a book exists. Yes? It’s not like I’m seeking “The Adventures of Millard Fillmore.”