Good Neighbors

The snow arrived during the night as promised. By the time the gray morning light filtered through our windows, there was ten inches of light powder on the ground and more falling. The children woke phlegmy, still incubating their colds, so we planned another day indoors. I made French toast for breakfast from the left-over challah and the day slowly unfolded.

As I was clearing the table, Dawn spotted Mr. L across the street through the row of windows of our living room. He is an older man who lives by himself in a house twice as large as our own. Every morning, he drives to the gym to work out, returning before we have finished our breakfast. On warm summer evenings we sometimes hear the beautiful tones of his grand piano playing classical pieces, jazz standards, or even musical theatre with a visiting voice or two accompanying. He has his fair share of friends and family coming to visit, but mostly spends his time alone. On the street I have found him friendly, with just a smidgeon of New England reserve wrapped in his dry, self-deprecating humor.

For all his wit, musical talent, and social grace, I have noticed that he is not terribly sophisticated about landscaping. His attempts to keep up appearances are limited to driving his riding mower faithfully every week in summer time. However, the garden beds were so bare and neglected that his children lured him out of the house for the weekend and then came and replanted them all while he was gone. Next to his mailbox is a decrepit, stunted maple tree, a runt of the litter which has been pecked by woodpeckers and chewed by insects until it resembles a column of Swiss cheese, but if this tree occupies Mr. L’s thoughts at all, there has been no horticultural manifestation of it. And most interesting to me is how he holds his driveway in utter contempt. It is an innocuous enough driveway, about 100 feet long, straight as an arrow, and sloping gently uphill to a two-door garage. But in winter, that gentle slope can become intractable.

He rarely shovels the snow off of it, for reasons which are apparent after you have watched him try once or twice. He is a tall, straight-backed man with steady hands, but to watch him shovel snow is to see how time corrupts all flesh. Instead of shoveling the snow, he simply drives over it, compressing it into twin tracks of ice and ramming his asthmatic Ford station wagon through the berm left by the city snow plows. Some days, the berm wins, and he will resort to a snow shovel in a desultory, spit-and-duct-tape manner, moving the least amount of snow to get the job down. Some days, the ice gives him an unwanted hand backing out, and I am certain some winter morning he will break my mailbox to splinters. But it has not yet happened.

This particular winter morning the snow was fresh and deeper than usual. He had backed his car down his driveway until his rear bumper had plowed a wall of snow too heavy to budge. He was stuck halfway down his driveway, and Dawn, seeing him go in the garage and return with a snow shovel in his hand, predicted futility and disaster.

“Well,” I said, “I need to shovel our driveway anyway while it is still manageable. I’ll offer him a hand first.”

I dressed in layers, with waterproof gloves, a fleece cap for my bald head, and Sorrel boots up to my knees. In the basement I found my favorite snow shovel in our collection, and headed across the driveway, snowflakes melting on my cheeks. My boots squeaked like party balloons as they sunk deeply into the snow. Out of pure habit, I glanced left and right before crossing our one-block, dead-end street. The smooth landscape of snow had been violated earlier by a pair of tire tracks, already half-obliterated under new snow. I crossed and walked up his driveway.

“Do you need a hand,” I asked, holding up my shovel in a submissive gesture by way of explanation.

He was bent over his own shovel near the front tire with his back to the house. Though he must have seen me coming, he head snapped up as though startled by the sound of my voice. Pushing his hand against his knee, he stood up with a thoughtful expression passing over his face before he answered.

“Oh, hi!” he said, ignoring my offer for the moment, or not having heard it, or wishing not to have heard it. “Yeah, I just thought I head down to the grocery store this morning, but I’ll never get back up Towne Street in this snow. Not sure what I was thinking.”

“Did you need help getting your car back in the garage?”

“No,” he answered with a wry smile. “No.” he said again and looked up and down the driveway. “I guess I’m just going to leave it right here for the time being.”

As I watched him make this decision, I wondered if I had somehow provoked it. It occurred to me how unfortunate, how unwelcome perhaps, my presence was. My good deed was embarrassing him. It was rather unlikely that he could clear enough snow and ice to get his car back to his garage on his own, in fact it was obvious, yet that was what he was trying to do. I will admit now that I am projecting my own male-patterned thinking into his head, but I am certain that when he stranded his car, he got out and said to himself, “No problem. I’ll just shovel two tracks of snow up to the garage and drive her right in.”

You see, he was divorced and alone. He had lived without the company of women for many years. He had no wife or sister or daughter there to say, “You think you are going to shovel 100 feet of snow AND ice? In this weather? In your condition? Why don’t you call AAA.” I had not said those very words, but in my earnest campaign to be neighborly, I had taken over the role of his wife. My very presence insinuated that he was too infirm to handle the situation on his own.

Fortunately he was too polite, too diplomatic, or too kind to take the insult personally, so I quickly changed the subject.

“I hear we’re due for twenty inches total.”

“Yeah. Well, I got my snow blower back from the shop, so maybe I’ll pull it out. Thanks, though.”

He’d rather use the snow blower than accept my help? I must seem like some loathsome boy scout to him.

“Uh, OK. No problem. Call me if you need a hand.”

“You bet. Enjoy the snow.”

I turned around and crossed the street to clear my own driveway. I thought that if I started lifting heavy loads of snow, tossing them over the retaining wall, it would be adding salt to his wounds, so I worked the easy part closer to the street. I needn’t have bothered. The first time I turned around, he was already gone, the dirty red paint of his car slowing vanishing in a mound of soft white snow.

I worked steadily for a half hour, and by the time I had worked my way down to my own garage door, another inch of snow had covered the far end where I had started. I went inside, flush and damp from the exercise, and told Dawn what had happened.

The snow continued to fall, heavier, with large, flat clumps like gauzy parachutes out every window. I picked up a novel and began to read. Dawn folded clothes. The children were drawing with pens and crayons. I have no idea how long we were comfortably engaged in our quiet endeavors when we heard the unmistakable guttering noise of an engine.

It was coming from outside the house, which meant it had to be fairly loud. Our windows block out a great deal of sound. We barely hear the city snowplows when they scrape by, even when their blade tear up chunks of asphalt from our street. We went to  the window and found our neighbor clearing our driveway with his snow blower.

My first thought was that I had not merely embarrassed him with my charity. I had truly insulted and angered him and he was exacting a suitable and fitting revenge.

The only justification I can offer for this unappreciative, paranoid response is my deep hatred of all two-stroke engine apparatuses. They are noisy, smelly, and incredibly polluting, far worse than automobiles. For ten seconds, I let several familiar ranting thoughts have their way with me, befor

e I worked my way back to “reasonable.”

Because, to be fair, he is exactly the kind of person who ought to be using a snowblower – an elderly man living alone, maintaining his independence, someone still able to drive but who needs his winter driveway clear and safe. If I were put in charge of handing out snowblowers, he would be at the top of my very short list.

So why had he felt it necessary to clear my driveway? There was only four inches on the ground, nothing I couldn’t have handled on my own. His own driveway was clear of snow, and the car still sat in the middle, waiting to be be parked inside. Could it be that he was just truly being a good neighbor? I mean, of course, that had to be it. So why was I so cynical about it?

I opened my mouth a couple of times before I finally managed to say, “Well, that’s very nice of him.”

Dawn rewarded me with an ironic smile. She knew exactly how I felt, but at least I said the right thing in front of the children.

I went to the bathroom, and by the time I came out, the noise was gone. I looked out the window, and the snow blower was gone too. But something was odd.

Only a third of our driveway had been cleared. Why? What was going on? I mean, it wasn’t as if he had to do all of my driveway. He didn’t have to do any of it. But why go the trouble to do only part of it?

Then I saw his car, still stranded in the middle of his driveway, start to move. My whole curious family was at the window now, watching. He slowly backed all the way down his driveway, and then crossed the street and backed into our driveway too as far as it was plowed. The engine gunned and sputtered a bit. Then he floored it.

Now I understood. His motive had been neither revenge nor charity, but expedient self-interest. What he needed in order to get his car back in his garage was momentum. He needed his car to build up enough speed to make it all the way up his driveway without losing traction. And he couldn’t do that from the street because the city snowplows hadn’t come yet.

An old Ford station wagon is not going to build up much speed over a hundred feet in the snow, but he eeked out as much as he could. Our driveway and the street, both being made of old but serviceable asphalt, had been swept clean by his snow blower. He had lots of traction until he reached his own driveway, a crushed gravel and dirt surface that the snow blower could not clear completely. It had certainly not removed any of the ice. As soon as he hit his own driveway, the car swerved and skidded, but he was a good driver. He kept the wheels pointing in the right direction and saved as much momentum as he could. Apparently, he had practiced this maneuver before.

He was halfway up the driveway when two things became obvious. The first was that, despite a maximum velocity no greater than ten miles an hour, he was definitely going to make it to his garage with momentum to spare.

The second was that he had not opened his garage door.

We watched with growing horror as the automatic door opener began to lift the door with rusty sluggishness. We saw the rear brake lights flash, but the car did not really seem to slow down until a two feet before the entrance when, hitting a clear patch of ground, it bucked like a horse. It did this a couple of times, and when the car finally did stop, the bottom of the front windshield was six inches below the still-rising garage door. There the car sat impatiently spewing exhaust until the garage door cleared the top of the roof. Then car and driver vanished inside, and the garage door, with barely a pause at the top, reversed itself and sealed them inside out of our view.

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Quarantine

Rose has definitely not had a cold for the last week. No, really. She felt fine, not sick at all, plenty of energy, “still perky at thirteen o’clock.” For a week, I listened to periodic coughing and occasional congestion, but I could never capture the incriminating fever on a thermometer. She wasn’t quite sick enough to stay home from school, so she continued to go while her fellow students dropped like flies, and I stain-treated the snot smears on her sleeves each evening and waited for the inevitable collapse. On Thursday night, she even went to gymnastics, returning home with dark circles under her eyes and a bout of nausea after dinner. She registered 99.4 on the thermometer, and we decided to keep her home from school on Friday.

“But I don’t feel sick. (Sniff)”

Samuel went down hard that night. He woke at three in the morning with a spiking fever, and went back to sleep in the rocking chair with Dawn and a teaspoon of Tylenol. The next morning we called the school to let them know Rose would not be there, and we learned that her teacher had left Thursday afternoon with the flu.

—–

On a normal evening, the truant hour begins after the children are in bed – eight o’clock, 8:30 at the latest. That is the hour when Dawn and I play hooky from parenthood. We read books, play Scrabble, ignore the laundry, and eat the leftover treats that we have told the children they cannot have until Shabbat. But illness spoils the rhythm of the day. Starting in the afternoon, the children’s fragility increases. There are crying jags and tantrums over small things all the way to dinner time when they pick at their food and stare vacantly at the walls.

Friday night, Rose spent the truant hour in bed coughing, random fits that lasted longer and sounded worse as the hour progressed. At last I came in with a bottle of cough syrup, spoiling for a fight.

Rose does not like the taste of the cough syrup medicine, even when it is diluted in grape juice. She reacts exactly as Dawn’s cat did years ago when, in anticipation of plane ride and on the advice of a veterinarian, we wrapped her up in a towel and syringed 5cc of Benadryl down her throat as a tranquilizer. She spit it all back up, bubbles frothing at the mouth, and whined incessantly for an hour afterwards.

But it turned out I need not have been so anxious. My sleep-walking daughter turns out to be a sleep-cougher too. Without once mentioning the existence of the medicine, I was still unable to rouse her. I watched a coughing episode in situ. Her eyes did not open, and her body rocked with the spasms unresponsively as though she were asleep on a moving train. I decided to leave her be and wait until the discomfort woke her, but instead the coughing went away not long after.

This morning the thermometer read a dispirited eight degrees. We did not leave the house all day, not even to get the mail at the end of the driveway. The children rose a little later than usual, but well-rested, with their usual zest for life. Samuel wanted to go outside, but I explained he was too sick. Then he explained that it was his brachiosaurus doll who wanted to go outside, not him, so he was just going to carry it outside. I explained that this is how the dinosaurs became extinct. No, not really, I didn’t say that. I just refused to help him open the heavy mudroom door, and then I distracted him with breakfast.

It was Saturday, Shabbat, the day we usually walk to the library and visit neighbors. But we were self-quarantined, with no TV or video or CDs or phones. How could we spend sixteen hours in this tiny house without going crazy?

We read books.

We put together a marble run game.

We ate soup and challah and raisins and pound cake.

We put out a large corrugated cardboard box, lined it with blankets, and let the children nest in there and play hide and seek.

Rose got out dolls, blankets, pillows, and other toys and played Clara Barton. She made cots from the pillows and blankets, laid out her wounded soldiers (baby dolls), and then she and the three nurses (faux-Barbies dolls) fed the soldiers bread and potatoes (play toast and potato chips) and tried to be cheerful and encouraging.

Dawn slept in the morning and spent much of the day reading The Golden Compass trilogy in between feeding, diaper changes, and refereeing sibling rivalry. I played with the children much of the morning, and then I napped with Samuel in the afternoon. He woke with another spiking fever which we got down again with Tylenol.

Later, Rose took Samuel’s rocking chair and placed it behind Samuel’s rocking horse, asked me to tie long ribbons to the bridle, and then she and Samuel went for a sleigh ride in Samuel’s room.

Just before dinner, the children went running up and down the halls pretending to be fairies. “Stop Samuel. Now we have to change back to human size. OK, let’s go!”

Somehow the day passed without a smidgeon of boredom, and we got the children to bed in time for the truant hour. I’m sure there will be midnight wake up calls (“Bartender. A round of Tylenol for everyone!”), but in the meantime I trounced Dawn in Scrabble tonight, and she is no slouch in Scrabble.

Off to bed. Ten to twenty inches of snow is heading our way tomorrow afternoon.

Nightmare

Both children had been sleeping through the night for at least a week, and then suddenly we had a disastrous evening of where both children woke up multiple times. At three in the morning, I took Samuel back to his room, unaware that Dawn had done this twice before me. He understands now that it is not wake-up time until the digital clock begins with a six, so he kept coming into our room to check the clock then and waking us up and asking us to tuck him back in bed. So I tucked him in his toddler bed, and fell asleep on the floor next to it where we have pillows laid end to end for just this purpose. A half hour later, I woke up.

The house was quiet. Samuel was sound asleep. My eyes were adjusted to the dark, so that the night light illuminated the entire room in soft tones. My foot was on the rocking horse rocker. The other rocker was wrapped in cloth diapers held on with rubber bands. The wooden end had split, and this bandage was to prevent splinters until we could repair it, but in the dark, it looked like an odd equestrian amputee.

I tiptoed out and gently pulled the door to without closing it entirely. I did not want to risk the noise of the latch closing. But when I got back to my room, Rose had taken my place in bed. Grr, growled this baby bear to himself, Someone is sleeping in my bed!

Rose is simply too big to sleep in our bed anymore. The three of us can fit, I suppose, but we won’t all sleep. I carried her back to her room, and tucked her in.

“Papa, I had a bad dream,” she whispered.

“What did you dream?”

She yawned, grabbed her Snuggle Bunny, and made herself small. Even though it was night time, her night light illuminated the entire room like a fog lamp. I looked around for lurking shadows and sinister silhouettes but I found nothing alarming, nothing that could grow monstrous in the imagination of a five-year-old.

“Do you want me to turn off the night light?”

No answer.

“Do you want to tell me about your dream?”

“I was at gymnastics, and I was reading a scary book,” she began slowly, as though in a trance, looking into the mystic glow of the night light. Her voice stopped, and she did not seem inclined to continue. I kissed her good night and went back to bed.

At breakfast the next morning, I got the story.

“In the book in my dream, we were on the ice, on a hovercraft because you know some hovercraft can go on the ice, Papa. And then the hovercraft broke and we had to get out. And there was a person on the ice, and he could see and he could walk, but he wasn’t alive. It was like he was alive … and dead … at the same time.”

Ohmigod, I thought. Where could she be learning about zombies from? Someone at school, probably. The names of certain miscreants pop into my head, bad elements in the preschool, future punks of America.

“And he was under the ice. And he was swimming under the ice. And he had a fork. And he was trying to eat the other guy.”

“What? Wait. Which guy, Rose? The dead guy was trying to eat someone?”

“No, Papa! The man under the ice was trying to eat the dead guy.”

“With a fork?”

“Uh-huh. There was a hole in the ice, and he came up and the dead guy tried to get away in our hovercraft, but it was broken.”

“Was he a merman?”

“No, he was just a person who breathe under water.”

“Oh,” I say, confused. “That, um, that sounds scary.”

“It was, Papa.”

“Are you scared now?”

“No!” she laughed as though I was being obtuse on purpose to make her laugh. “It’s not scary when I’m awake.”

Toilet Training

We received an email from Rose’s Montessori preschool.

We are looking to our January enrollment and would like to set up an interview with Samuel to meet with K on Thursday, January 3rd. What an exciting time! Would you be able to come in at 9:45, 10:30 or 11:15? Please let me know. Thank you.

I showed this to Dawn whose eyes opened as wide and wet as oysters.

“January! But … but … I was thinking maybe March, at the earliest. We don’t even know if we can afford it, and he isn’t toilet trained yet. I mean, I know in some ways he’s ready, but  … but …”

“But you’re not.”

“NO! He’s my baby! They can’t have him!”

It was her own fault, which she was well aware of. This is Rose’s last year, and Samuel should start next September, but Dawn had asked them for some overlap this Spring to ease Samuel’s transition. Years ago, Rose had had a miserable two-week transition from home-all-day to preschool, but Samuel is not Rose. He missed Rose during the day and wanted to go to school, and since separation anxiety didn’t look like a problem, we forgot about early enrollment for him.

One time, Dawn brought him into the classroom when she had playground duty, so Rose’s teacher brought out the math beads for him. Samuel put the one bead and the ten bar and the hundred square and thousand cube together, and he took them apart, and he put them together, and he played with them over and over and over. When it was time to go outside, he pitched a small fit. “Just one more minute! I don’t want to go to the playground!” Clearly he was ready in every way for Montessori.

Except one. He is not toilet trained.

Or rather, he has not learned to use the toilet. Because when it comes to toileting, it is the parents who get trained. We notice the antsy, wiggle-butt dance, the electric frisson that rattles their compact frames, the reflective pause that arrests even the most sugar-amped frenzy, and we associate these signals in a deep and Skinnerian-negatively-reinforced way with extra work on hands and knees with a stiff brush scrubbing carpeting or furniture or a pair of pants and socks and shoes. Let’s face it. When I scoop up my child and rush him to the bathroom screaming “Hurry, hurry!” it is not the child who has been trained.

A child learns toileting in three grammatical steps: I have peed, I am peeing, I will pee. These steps are learned, in this order, weeks or even months apart. Until the child can discern the future tense and care about it one way or the other, there’s not much point in showing them how to use the toilet. In my humble opinion. (Hey, it’s my blog.)

However our Montessori school requires that children know how to use the toilet before they enroll. Samuel was somewhere between present and future tense. They would cut some slack for “almost,” but January was coming very soon and I didn’t know if Samuel was even at “almost” yet.

At this point, he could pee on the toilet like a champ, sitting backward with his legs spread wider than I shall ever be able to do again in my lifetime. He preferred this position, which was great for us because it meant we didn’t need a potty. We didn’t need to shove a child-sized toilet seat with us. Dawn would take him to the playgroup at the Rec Center or to gymnastics, and he would ask to use the toilet to pee, because he had figured out that if he peed in his pants, he would be out of the game for much longer. But at home, he didn’t always ask in time. Or he didn’t ask at all. And he was still very possessive of his poop.

——

Thursday night – Dad’s playgroup. Samuel had been checking in with me since Tuesday to make sure we were really going. He put his little fists together under his chin and shivered with delight when I told him, yes we were actually going to playgroup tonight, Samuel and Papa and Rose. “But not Mama?” he said, and the question was rhetorical because he knew. “Of course not, then it would be Mom’s playgroup,” I explained, and he gave me the Oh-you-silly-Papa face.

Samuel loved playgroup for the cornucopia of toys, as many as he can ever pull off the shelves and dump on the floor in an hour and a half. Rose loved playgroup because her friend Ruby was always there. Dawn loved it because she got left behind for a whole 90 minutes. And I loved it because we got home too late for bath time; just slap some toothpaste in their mouths, slip on the PJs, and toss them into bed with a kiss and a wink. And they slept like stones after all the exercise.

At 6:00 PM, I walked out of my bedroom office and say, “OK, let’s go!”

But we were not ready. Toys were strewn about the floors, waiting to stab some late night wanderer in the arch of their bare foot. Children were running about without socks or shoes. The diaper bag had not been restocked with essential elements.

“Rose,” I said to her as she loitered by the bedroom door. “Do you want to go to playgroup?”

“Yes!”

“Then get some socks on!”

“OK, Papa!”

But somewhere between the door of her bedroom and the sock drawer five feet away, she got distracted. I asked her again, and she repeated, “OK, Papa,” and got a little closer before picking something off the floor. Like some bizarre Calculus word problem, I watched the interval between my requests diminishing at the same rate as the distance between her and the sock drawer, both tending to a limit as time stretched out to infinity, but never … quite … reaching it.

So, we gave up on the toys. We dressed the children because sometimes keeping your temper is more important than providing your child with a learning opportunity. We rushed through the mudroom, wading through tubs full of boots, hats, gloves, and scarves. We rushed down the stairs, at the speed of a two year-old stumbling and jumping down each narrow step, his hand firmly clamped in his father’s. I almost left without the diaper bag.

“Don’t you want it?” asked Dawn called from the top of the stairs.

“Didn’t you say you never need it at the Rec Center?”

“My rule is go nowhere without a change of clothes.”

I sighed. Now I was jinxed. If I didn’t take it, I would inevitably need it.

We were late. I clicked the children in their car seats, took a breath, centered, and calmed down. It had taken them fifteen minutes to get on socks, shoes, hats, and coats, but I reminded myself that my children were, in the words of Bill Cosby, “brain damaged.”

Dark comedy with an element of truth. Their brains really did work in astounding but (from an adult perspective) limited ways. My five-year-old daughter can recite most of “Bad Sir Brian Botany” from Now We Are Six, but she could not stop talking long enough to remember a simple request such as, “Would you please put on your socks?” My two-year-old son had spent months amassing an immense vocabulary, at the rate of twelve new words a day, in what is still a foreign language to him, but he could not follow a simple instruction such as, “Come here, please, I want to get the jelly out of your nose,” even if I repeated it eleven times. When I remembered that they have no attention span, that this particular part of the brain has not yet developed, it was much easier not to take their foot-dragging as personal disrespect.

The night was dark and tranquilizing as we drove at a horse trot through the hills and residential roads of Montpelier to Vermont College. For a change, we found a spot in the parking lot and shaved  five minutes off our tardiness. The Family Center was in the basement of Schulmeier hall, and as soon as we entered the linoleum hallway and spied Ruby at the far end, Rose dashed down to meet her, screaming, “Ruby!” and leaving a trail of coat, mittens, hat, and even boots behind her. I set Samuel on the floor and let him scamper to the first toy he saw, knowing he couldn’t do much until I freed his hands from the mittens stuffed inside his coat sleeves. It took three tries, but I finally got Rose to pick up her clothing and deposit it neatly in a pile on the benches.

I herded the children into the play room. During the day this room was an active pre-school, and so it changed in slight ways from week to week, and season to season, so that if you missed a month or two, it was unrecognizable when you come back. There used to be a large sandbox, and a hammock in a ten-foot-cube crate-like space, but those were long gone. There was a new black board with several long pieces of colored chalk that, over time, multiplied into even several more pieces of shorter chalk. There was a reading nook with racks of books, a play kitchen, boxes filled with toy cars and magnetic blocks and pieces of red, green, blue, and yellow translucent plastic in wood frames, and a mosaic of carpeting and interlocking padded foam tiles. The piano had been wheeled out into the hallway weeks ago and buffered with short bookcases to protect it from the tricycles that wheeled up and down the hallway. There were tables and child-sized chairs for eating, and a separate table laid out banquet style with tomato soup and grilled cheese. We had fed the children beforehand knowing this meal would not appeal to them.

I traveled back and forth between the hallway and the room, following Samuel’s itinerant whims and distractions. First to the cars, then the puzzles, then the play kitchen, then the blocks, a large crateful on a shelf above his head that I caught just before he tumbled it down on his crown, and then off to the tricycles in the hall. In the process, I gathered bits of gossip and local news, the pulse of the real estate market in town, the wry political character assassinations of local governmental officials, all in bits and snatches of conversations with other Dads.

Samuel ran up to me from one of the hallway where he had abandoned his third tricycle, and said something so breathless and excited I could not parse a single word.

“What was that Samuel?”

“I want to pee on the toilet!”

“OK! Let’s go!”

At the end of the hallway, on the left was a large, heavy, blue metal door that led to an enormous, gray, unfinished store room lit with naked, overhead incandescents. This was where they kept the big stuff – the playground equipment and the scooters and the tricycles and the interactive, electronic learning centers whose batteries died out during the Clinton administration. In one corner was the walled off bathroom with the door wide open.

I hustled Samuel inside and closed the door. Even here, in this dingy room, things had changed. Yes, the padded changing table was still there, with its wooden frame accumulating veins of dark, tacky grime. A few foot stools lay stacked in a corner on the gray-painted concrete floor. The wall mural – trees and clouds and yellow and red daffodils – had not been painted over, but something was different. Or missing. Or out of place. I did not have time to investigate. Samuel was wearing thick slippers and socks and blue jeans over a cloth diaper and wrap, and I had to get it off as quickly as possibly before he got it all wet, because I realized I had not brought the diaper bag with me, and could not even remember if I had even brought it in from the car.

The toilet was the worst possible. Large, wide, high off the ground. There was no child-sized toilet seat, no stool high enough for him to stand on, and even he could not sit backwards on this throne with any comfort. Opting for efficiency, I pulled down his pants, un-velcro-ed his diaper letting it slide down between his legs, and then held him over the toilet hoping he was pointing in the general vicinity of the bowl. It was a compromised position in more ways than one, not least of which was the strain it put on my back and abdominal muscles to keep him aloft while keeping myself dry. My general strength was ebbing in the oozing and unusually strong vapors of the toilet.

A little bit of pee came out. Hardly any, though it all went in the toilet. And then he was done. He told me so.

“That’s all. You sure?”

“Yes.”

I put him done on the floor, and that’s when I noticed that the smell was not the toilet. His open diaper was full of poop.

“Oh,” I said, “oh oh oh oh oh. Oh no. Uh….Samuel,” I said his name as calmly as I can. What happened? He never poops at night. Never. “Just .., uh, don’t move.” I said this like he was lost in a minefield, and he didn’t know he was in a mine field and I didn’t want him to panic, but I wanted to make it extremely clear that he mustn’t move. I carefully slid the diaper out from between his legs and set it on the floor out of the immediate danger zone, all the time repeating my mantra, “Don’t move, Samuel. Stay perfectly still. That’s right.”

I had to keep saying this over and over, because I know exactly how long his attention span was. There was poop in his jeans too so they would have to come off, along with the socks and shoes, but first there was poop all over his bottom which had to be removed.

I looked around the room, and that’s when I figured out what is missing. The wipes. The spare paper diapers. The plastic baggies. All the paraphenalia of this usually well-stocked, if disorganized, bathroom were gone.

I made a meager attempt to clean him with toilet paper, but the poop was already too dry on his bottom. Some got on the back of my hand. Samuel was beginning to get distracted.

“Ok, Samuel. Don’t … Move! Ok. Samuel? Stop. Samuel, please stop!” But he was already trying to get to the sink to wash his hands, because he knew this is what you did after using the toilet. With one hand I held him steady. With the other hand, I removed his shoes, his socks, and his pants. My hands were full of soiled garments, and Samuel was no longer tethered. He began to explore his surroundings, picking up dirt from the floor. Then he saw the wooden stools. Then he saw the toilet. Then he wanted to see inside the toilet. He started pushing stools around. His oversize shirt flipped down over his bottom. It was probably soiled now too, and in my mind I tried to design and construct a crude diaper out of it.

I was trying to get the soiled clothes in a manageable bundle, but there was no place to put them, and Samuel, seeing I was distracted, ignored my calm steady refrain of “Samuel. Don’t move.”

Then I discovered, at the very top of the back wall, a new wooden shelf with a row of labeled baskets: Wipes, Diapers, Gena, Bags, First Aid. I didn’t know who Gena was, but with a grateful heart, I sang her adulation. Gena, Goddess of the Changing Table, Patron Saint of Idiot Fathers.

I said, “Aha!” out loud, and this captured Samuel’s attention who followed my gaze. He stopped and watched as I transfer the soiled clothes into one hand, and reached up for a baggy, into which I deposited the clothes, and then got down the wipes and a diaper.

I cleaned him up. I cleaned myself up. I cleaned the floor up. I rinsed the diaper in the toilet and added it to the bag with the clothes. With a sense of undeserved triumph, I flushed the toilet while Samuel covered his ears – he didn’t like loud noises. Only, there was no loud noise. There was an anemic spurt of water, a gurgle, a temporary sinking of water like a plugged drain, and then everything stopped. The toilet was backed up.

I found a plunger hidden behind the trash can. I plunged and plunged and finally heard the satisfying gurgle, the rush of water, that signaled we were free to leave the room. I grabbed the baggy and opened the door for Samuel, but he only looked at me.

“Wait, Papa. We forgot to wash my hands.”

Cool Whip

My wife is a wonderful cook.

Note I did not say she cooks well, though she does that too. Many people in this world cook well. Even I have been known to “jump” an omelette or make a passable (note the double entendre) pie crust.

But Dawn can do more than that. For her cooking is, if not an art, than a craft which has fascinated her since before she could read. She is interested in food and cooking in ways that go beyond making the perfect omelette or pie crust. We have an entire floor-to-ceiling library of cookbooks and journals, references and memoirs. Hardly a week goes by that we do not pull down Harold McGee’s classic “On Food and Cooking” during a meal to answer such obscure questions as, “where does fruit pectin come from and by what process does it gelatinize liquids?”

She has a collection of cooking magazines that have traveled with us from Seattle to Anchorage to Montpelier, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you that they weigh ninety-five pounds, thirteen ounces. With degrees in botany and biology, she understands the complex chemistry, biology, and physics involved in taking a set of unrelated raw foods and applying heat, cold, moisture, pressure, grinding, shaking, beating, slicing, light, and occasionally prayer or profanity as needed, to transform them into something luscious and sensual and worthy of a marriage proposal.

One of my earliest memories from our courting days is the first time she invited me to her apartment for dinner. At that time, we had known each other for several months as “friends.” We were young twenty-somethings still feeling our shaky independence in the world. For whatever reasons, she could not admit to herself any attraction to me, and I could not admit to myself that it mattered.  Our nascent, platonic friendship had been a treacherous landscape of white lies, insecurity, and self-denial, with various emotional burns and bruises. But we finally got the tandem pedals of our relationship in sync, and then Dawn invited me to dinner.

I had earlier spent a year living in a housing cooperative where once every three weeks I would cook a meal for twenty or more people, large casual affairs with even larger appetites. I perfected a routine for making cake, lasagne, salad, bread, and sauces in bulk. So I knew something of cooking from the trenches using an eclectic mix of rummage sale cookware, the detritus of other’s people kitchens. It was always a hack job that relied heavily on the freshness of the produce, the richness of the cream, and the good will of my politically-correct, vegetarian audience. We were not lacking in taste, but it was hardly refined.

So it was something of a shock when I walked into the Dawn’s shamelessly epicurean and very bourgeois kitchenette. At the time, I had known Dawn only as a svelte, blond folk dancer who dressed better than anyone else I knew in long sleek dresses and heels (the folk crowd generally eschewed such raw displays of fashion). I was not prepared when she answered the door wearing this usual outfit, but with an apron over the dress and plush, quilted oven mitts over her hands. My bridled lust felt obscenely shamed viewing her in the housewife uniform of my mother.

I followed her to the kitchen but stopped at the entry. I was unsure of my status in her life and unwilling to trespass without permission. Inside, brightly colored vegetables I did not recognize bubbled in cobalt blue pans with the earthy fragrance of fresh herbs. Small shapes the color of fresh butter, like plump moth wings, simmered in a small cauldron (remember this was the 1980’s when Americans ate spaghetti, and pasta was still a relatively unknown word in Italian). She opened the oven and the soft, yellow light of the oven lamp glowed through the escaping steam of  something promising and rich for dessert. There were other delicacies on the dining table, and several tools and implements lying about on the counter and sink whose function I could not fathom.

The main room was combination living room and dining room, the largest room in the apartment, but clearly it was a meagre vestibule for the kitchen which was the room that mattered, the beating heart of her private retreat. From the table I watched her stir and test and spoon and eventually serve and sit.

Somewhere between the antipasto and the galette, I shed all my doubt about Dawn’s depth of feeling for me. It would take weeks of time, and an unintentional clout with a stick to the bridge of her nose, before she would admit out loud that she loved me, but as I surveyed the table and calculated the hours of work it represented, I already knew. I ate all the strange, exotic food she set before me, dishes I would have never dared to order at a restaurant, had I even known how to pronounce them, and I do not remember how a single one tasted.  She had taken her apron off.

 

Flash forward eighteen years.

“OK, family,” I announced. “It is time for dessert!”

Rose and Samuel, immersed in their various lego projects, spring into action like jack in the boxes.

“Yay! Yay! Papa, I want peppermint ice cream!”

“Me too! Pep-mint ice cream!”

“Hold on!” I bellowed. “Your Mama made a ginger bread cake, and we need to finish it off. You only have one option. You may have ginger bread cake for dessert. That is all we are offering.”

Rose’s winning smile did not fade. She was already steps ahead of me. “Can I have it with peppermint ice cream?”

Dawn, in the peanut gallery, made a small “Ew!” noise. “That’s not a good combination, Rose.”

“Papa,” interjected Samuel, who had climbed on the couch, “I want my cake plain.”

“OK, Samuel and Rose … No.” I said this before she could object. This was one of those times as a parent when I had multiple reasons for saying No (because you just had it last night, because we don’t want a major sucrose surge an hour before bedtime, because we don’t want to eat the left over cake and peppermint ice cream sludge you’ll leave behind). She did not whine, or even ask, Why? (Samuel did, but I ignored him) As I said, she was already a step ahead of me.

“Well, how about some Cool Whip, then?” she asked, now pulling back to the negotiable target she intended all along. She knew that we have, in the past, allowed her and Samuel to have cool whip on their cake, a habit engendered from several visits to her grandfather, her maternal grandfather (oh, the irony).

Dawn rolled her eyes, and then shrugged her assent, but Rose didn’t see this.

“Rose,” I began to explain – before saying Yes because she wouldn’t hear anything after I said Yes – “Your Mama and I have decided that after we finish off this container, we are not buying any more Cool Whip…”

“Why not, Papa?”

“Rose, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Cool Whip that is good for you. It has … wait a minute…” I pulled the container out of the refrigerator and read the ingredients to her. “It has corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil which is the unhealthy kind of vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, xanthum and guar gum … Rose there isn’t anything in here I feel good about you eating.”

I wanted to go on. I wanted to tell her why hydrogenated oil is bad. I wanted to tell her how we just read that high fructose corn syrup messes with your appetite sensors so that it doesn’t make you feel full, which is why people can now drink a two-liter bottle of soda in one sitting, a feat they could not do when it was manufactured with sugar years ago. I wanted to tell her that the entire package is essentially made of corn, a standardized, hybridized, mediocre strain of corn that has been chemically altered into the syrup, the oil, the gums, the stabilizers, the preservative. The only ingredient in Cool Whip which was not bio-engineered corn was the water.

But I didn’t say any of this. She’s o
nly five years old. I do occasionally remember this.

Rose waited a second before answering. She knew what she was going to say, had known it before I opened my mouth, but she gave me a moment of silence to let me believe she had listened to and considered what I said.

“Then, can I finish it off?”

Dawn is no food snob. She loves Cool Whip as much as the next American. “That’s my girl!” she said proudly.

I laid out the ground rules. “Rose, yes, you may have cool whip with your…”

“Yay! Yay! Cool whip! Cool whip!”

Samuel, who watched the whole conversation pivoting his head like a spectator at  a tennis match, now joined in on the chorus, jumping up and down on the couch.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” I yelled. “Listening ears! I want your listening ears! You still have to eat the cake, OK? I don’t want this going to waste.”

“OK, Papa!”

“Are you sure, Rose? You aren’t so fond of cake, you know.”

“I’m sure, Papa!”

“Shall I give you a little taste first, just to make sure?”

“OK. Good idea!”

I cut the last strip of cake from the 9×9 pan into three equal pieces and then I cut one of those in half. I put them on four plates and took a small bite off and handed it to Rose. She popped it in her mouth, said “Mmm! Delicious!” and then chewed and swallowed. I was not convinced, but at least she swallowed it.

The table was laid and we gathered, the children descending like the sugar vultures they are. After a bite or two of the cake, a really fine moist cake with a strong, but not overdone, snap of ginger, I looked up and saw Rose was half way through her Cool Whip, her cake unmolested.

Samuel looked up too and, seeing Rose, asked, “May I have some Cool Whip? Please?”

“There is no more Cool Whip, sweet boy,” Dawn answered.

“Rose,” I said, “Can you please give you brother some of your Cool Whip? There isn’t any other left.”

“OK!” Rose said cheerfully. She had good three cubic inches of Cool Whip left on her plate, so she took her fork and carefully trimmed a neat corner off, about the size of a pea. Then she looked up at us, checking the emotional radar for the parental approval report. The forecast was cloudy with a chance of reprimand, so she said, “Wait” and added another half pea.

“Rose, I was thinking more like half of what you have left.”

“Oh, O–K–” she relented, miserably.

I picked up her plate and gave half to Samuel, who said Yippee or some such. When Rose got her plate back, she said, indignantly, “Hey, he got more than I did!”

“Rose, eat your cake.”

She polished off the rest of her Cool Whip. Then she spent some time casually digging a small trench across the top of her cake, eating little nibbles with her head resting on one hand, elbow on the table.

“Papa, may I be excused?”

Most of the cake was left. I knew this would happen. But I could not stop channeling my father, raising my voice, and uttering some horrible threat like, “Young lady! You will eat that piece of cake and you will like it!”

No, not really. I just thought it. And anyway, Dawn said, “Yes, sweet girl,” before I had a chance to say anything.

“Me too!” cried Samuel, watching his big sister head to the Legos.

I washed Samuel up while Dawn finished off Rose’s plate. “What?” she asked as I sat down with a wry smile on my face.

“Oh, just laughing at myself.”

“You knew this was going to happen.”

“Absolutely.”