Toof!

Thursday night is Dad’s Playgroup night, but it was canceled this week. So for Valentine’s Day, we stayed home and watched The Aristocats video on a fifteen inch screen. Samuel thought is was “a yittle scary”, but Rose giggled every time the dogs or Edgar did a prat fall, and Dawn got to say, “Where’s My Beddy-Bye Basket!” which has been her favorite line from the movie for nearly four decades.

We then had a grand tooth brushing party in the bathroom. I was pretty frazzled after a long day, so I had a bit of trouble getting the floss for Rose on my fingers. Rose’s dentist recommended a year ago or so that we floss between her first and second molars as they are quite close to each other. But tonight I just couldn’t do it. I got all confused, and couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to put the floss.

“Which molars am I supposed to floss between…. Oh my God!” I exclaimed.

I really need to get this phrase out of my vocabulary before Rose picks it up. I don’t want her to be one of those teenagers who say it all the time as a run-together, single-word phrase.

“What, Papa?”

“Rose, you have a new tooth. There’s an extra molar behind the other two on your lower right.”

“Let me see!”

Dawn looked up from where she was brushing Samuel’s teeth. Even Samuel stopped screaming in her ear.

“Did her six year molar come out?”

“Yeah! The whole thing is right there. I swear it wasn’t there last night!”

Turns out another one has the point sticking through. Her front tooth is still wobbly and has been for weeks, so I guess the molars got tired of waiting for their turn.

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Story Walk

Montpelier is a wee, sleepy, little town. Here, we roll the sidewalks up each night, and whichever Seventh Day Adventist is responsible for unrolling them in the morning, he or she tends to sleep late on Sunday. Yet once again, I solved the weekly dilemma of what to do with Samuel while Dawn and Rose were busy at Sunday School.

Which is to say that there isn’t much to do on a winter Sunday morning in Montpelier. The snow is usually too dry for snowballs or snowmen or snow forts, and the ice is never thick enough to skate on. Sledding outdoors and hot chocolate indoors is about it. So some creative people came up with an idea called Story Walk.

The plan is simple. You take a children’s book, rip out the pages, laminate them, and post them a hundred feet apart down some path until you’ve created a mile-long family walk outdoors. In the summer, Hubbard Park hosted a story of a bear waking from hibernation whose name I can’t recall. In the autumn, the North Branch Nature Center led us through the “Gardener’s Alphabet”. And now, throughout downtown Montpelier, “Olivia” graces the store shop windows.

Samuel was game for the entire walk. “Papa, can we go see another Olivia picture?” he asked after every page. I don’t quite think he got the concept that it was a book.

The streets were mostly deserted under the gray sky. We walked a short mile from store to store, all of them closed, and stopped to watch the North Branch River every time we crossed it.

For me, more interesting than the book itself, which I’ve no doubt read ten times to Rose in the last two years, was seeing which member shops of the Montpelier Downtown Community Associate chose not to participate. The bookstores were on board, with full displays of all the Olivia books surrounding whichever individual page they were assigned, but the NECI restaurants were sadly passed over. Each of the two competing hardware stores had a page, because neither could let the other get the upper hand, but the banks and real estate agencies found it beneath their dignity, I suppose.

We did the entire loop, reading every page, all the way to “I love you anyway too.” Then we cut across the street to La Brioche for a muffin, even if they were a non-participating NECI restaurant.

“What kind of muffin do you want, Sam?”

“Ummmmmmm…. Pumpkin… No! Corn!”

I ordered lemon poppyseed, and we spent ten minutes strewing crumbs over the small table and the floor beneath.

Dawn and I had a date that afternoon, once of the precious two dates planned for the month. Babysitter coming at 1:00 PM which was also the time Rose was supposed to be at a birthday party for a synagogue friend. It was rush rush rush until we looked out the window and saw the blizzard, the very first blizzard we’ve seen in Vermont. The sky rained ice and sleet and the wind tipped it over horizontal. We heard the thumps on our roof as large blocks of frozen snow fell off the pine trees branches a hundred feet up. From the front window, you could not see the street a bus length away. I quickly checked the internet weather report and read “Winter Storm Warning”, “Ice”, “Sleet”, “Thundersnow”.

Thundersnow? Really?

We were not going to drive our minivan in this. I called and told our relieved babysitter not to come, but by the time I hung up, the weather was calming. In another ten minutes, it had disappeared, leaving branches and snow everywhere. The roads were still a mess, but the wind had died down considerably.

“Rose, do you want to walk to the party?”

“Great idea, Papa!”

I called the hostess and told them we would be a little late. Then we dressed for the Arctic and headed outdoors, Rose thrilled and excited and chattering away. We walked down the steep slope where Towne  Street connects to the top of Main Street, and there was a police car blocking the road. A young man in uniform got out of the car.

“Is there a problem, officer?”

“Well, there’s black ice all the way down Main and two cars are off the road, so we’re not letting traffic through.”

Rose and I walked over the lip of the hill and saw the cars, nose deep in the snowbank where the road curves ninety degrees, drivers and passengers clustered about them wringing their mittens while another officer talked on his radio. A little further down the road, the sidewalk ended and started up again on the other side, so we skated across the empty road in our boots. There was a good half inch of slick, frozen slush, crusty and clear, as though a tanker truck full of Karo syrup had spilled its load at the top of the road. I could see swerving tire tracks in graceful, curved V’s, like a series of wave crests, bouncing off the curb on the side of the road. I felt bad for whoever had the misfortune to be out driving when the storm struck. Then a car pulled out of a side street in front of us.

As soon as all four wheels were on Main St., they began to spin, and the car listed to port. It crept up the hill slower than we were walking down it. The windshield began to fog up, but I could still see the young woman in the passenger seat, quiet, stiff, and wide-eyed. The driver rolled down his window to see better, and though the sidewalk was on the passenger side, I yelled, “Hey, it’s ice all the way up and the police are stopping traffic from coming down!” I left out the gratuitous “You Idiot.”

He heard. He managed to do a three-point turn in the road and get his car pointed downhill, yelling “Thank You” from the window as he passed.

In twenty minutes, we were at the party, where a half dozen girls from the Sunday school were sledding down a small hill in the backyard.

“Hey Rose!” they all yelled when she came into view, and she smiled but was too shy to answer back. She’s the youngest in the school by at least a year or two, but it is a small Jewish community and they all stick together. Not one is over ten years old, but you can already tell which one will be the comedian, the school paper editor, the leader of the pack, the quiet introspective, the pretty girl every boy wants to date. And you can tell that they think of Rose as one of them, which is immensely gratifying to me.

While Rose went sledding, I spent the next twenty minutes reviewing the frozen pizza and cake mix ingredients, apologizing profusely to the birthday girl’s father for the havoc I was creating. After our legendary trip to the hospital, I will not allow Rose to eat something that even says, “Made in a facility that also processes tree nuts.” I realize that Unilever and their ilk probably process tree nuts in all their factories without labeling it on their products, and I am therefore discriminating against those progressive companies that care enough to let me know the truth. But tree nuts are poison to her. Would you eat something with a label that said, “Made in a facility that also processes cyanide?”

Fortunately, the hosts were very understanding, possibly because they are only strictly kosher Jews in a fifty mile radius and are used to being as much a nuisance as we are. The father summed it in a very nice, spiritual fashion that he has. “Some people choose to be vegan or vegetarian, and others, HaShem makes the choice for them. HaShem chose for us to be kosher, and clearly He chose that Rose should not eat tree nuts.”

A half hour later I walked home. The ice was gone, crushed, pulverized, and melted under the unremitting traffic of persistent (You Idiot) drivers. There was traffic up and down Main Street now, without the slightest lurch or slip. Trudging up the hill through drifts of sloppy, unplowed snow in the sidewalks, I started to peel off layers of sweaty clothing. By the time I got home, it was as if the Little Blizzard That Couldn’t, in fact, Hadn’t, but it was too late to call back the baby sitter. So while Samuel slept, Dawn and I played Scrabble and finished off the last of the pound cake, even though our house rule is sweets are only for Shabbat.

Sh, don
‘t tell the children.

Vignettes

1. SHORT STORY

The scene: in the bathroom, brushing Rose’s teeth.

Rose: Papa, tell me a story.

Papa: Once upon a time, the end.

Rose: No, Papa, tell me a longer story.

Papa: Oooonnnnccceee upooooon aaaaa tiiii…

Rose: Paaapaaaa!

 

2. YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE

The scene: At the kitchen table, having mid-morning snack.

Samuel (singing along with Oh Brother Where Art Thou CD): You are my sunshine. My only … Rose, you are my sunshine.

Rose: Samuel, you are MY sunshine.

Samuel: No, YOU are MY sunshine.

Rose: No, no, no. YOUUU are MYYY sunshine.

Samuel: No! YOU!

Rose: NO! YOU!

Samuel: YOU!

 

3. SHORT STORY #2

The scene: in the bathroom, later that same evening.

Rose: Papa, tell me a story.

Papa: Once upon a time, the end.

Rose: No, Papa, tell me a story about me.

Papa: Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Rose. The end.

Rose: Papa!

 

4. DEFINITION OF SELF-CENTERED

The scene: Papa, walking out of his office to the living room where Rose is doing arts and crafts.

Papa: Rose, where’s Mama?”

Rose: I don’t know, but I can’t find the scissors.”

 

5. SHORT STORY #3

The scene: Night time. Papa is sitting in the glider, holding Samuel and rocking him before bed.

Samuel: Papa.

Papa: Yes?

Samuel: Papa, I’m going to tell you a story.

Papa: Great!

Samuel: Once upon a time … I went to use the toilet and … and … and the toilet ran away. So I went to use another toilet. And I peed. The end.

 

6. HOW TO SURVIVE A TEN DEGREE SNOW DAY

Wear pajamas.

Bake banana bread.

Bring out the Play-do.

Thread beads.

Shovel snow.

Play Hawaiian music on CD player.

Shovel the 12 inch ice berm the city plows deposited at the end of the driveway.

Read Asterix Le Gaulois out loud – first in French, then translate.

Play hide and seek (help Samuel count to 30).

Serve leftovers for dinner with banana bread for dessert.

Sing “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” while the children bounce around the living room.

Sledding

If April is the cruelest month, then February is the most loving. The snow, which had been shyly getting to know us since November, suddenly let go of all its reservations and embraced us with amorous delight. Snow fell for weeks, day after day, in bursts. An inch one day, two inches the next, perhaps a lax half inch that melted right away, followed by a stealth five inches overnight that put our morning routine behind schedule with an unplanned shoveling spree. Snow piled on the roads, and the city plows turned them into one-lane canyons. It piled on the trees weighing down the branches of the pines and hemlocks till they touched the ground and were buried under more snow.

Dawn and I liked the shoveling, and fought over who got to do it, until we realized that it would be better for the children if we modeled sharing and took turns. After all, an hour shoveling is an hour of fresh air, open space, a gentle unmoving landscape, and a blessed, soul-filling silence. Even the winter bird song – the raucous complaining of the crows and the confused “Spring’s Here!” trill of the fevered chicadees – was muffled by the ramparts of snow accumulating on both sides of our driveway.

Our driveway is its own optical illusion. The lawn on either side rises from the road to our house, so the driveway appears to descend through a tunnel of slate, retaining walls into the garage. But were you to dump a bucket of water on the driveway, it would ooze towards the street, not the driveway. It would be an interesting experiment to see how much of it, if any, would make it to the street before it froze. Our rustic idea of entertainment for a Saturday night. W00t.

When we walked out the garage door to shovel the first snowfall of the year, we had to clear the four foot retaining walls on either side. Over time, that wall rose to eight feet, which is the limit of how high I can toss a shovel full of snow, even the light fluffy stuff that cannot be packed into snowballs. So last week I took out the telescoping roof shovel and pulled the fortifications down onto the lawn, so I would had room again for the driveway snow.

By Sunday I was feeling very fit and virtuous. Once the ibuprofen kicked in, that is.

Our neighbors, who are not our neighbors anymore, have children the same age as our children. When they lived next door, our children used to play together all the time, but recently their family moved into a rental house while Dad “upgraded” the new house they had bought. It was supposed to be minor rehabilitation but has turned into major Superfund reconstruction, thus the intermediate rental. It was the familiar long story of the greedy, unscrupulous seller taking advantage of the naive, trusting young family, only with a few odd twists. The moral was “Never tell the seller the value of his house according to the appraisal you paid $350 for.”  Which led to the next moral of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” Lawsuits may or may not ensue, and there but for the grace of God go I.

I would feel bad for them, only they don’t seem to feel too bad for themselves, so who am I to judge people with pity?

After a few weeks, when we tried to get the girls together. They missed each other, especially our neighbor’s daughter, who was isolated in the Vermont wilderness. Their rental home was in Plainfield, a small town not far from Montpelier, very rural and very hip due to the liberalizing presence of Goddard College across the state route. The town was small, a one road watering hole, but compared to Montpelier, it had better pizza, a more authentic food co-op, and the original Central Vermont Montessori school in a 150 year old school house building. They had organic farms with pick-your-own strawberries, and a beautiful town hall where I once played guitar for a contra dance. If you fell within the correct demographic – liberal, folksy, idealistic, easy-going – Plainfield was anything but plain. But if you were the five-year-old daughter of the correct demographic, Plainfield was exceeding provincial and boring.

A sledding party was arranged and then postponed after their younger daughter got sick. Illness seemed to always strike their children with the force of a tidal wave. No mere sniffles, but raging fevers and multiple, leaking, bodily fluids. We were parents too. We knew that a respiratory infection won’t slow-down a pre-schooler’s energy level, but it will redirect that energy into a bad-tempered crankiness that rivals PMS. Dad was working long days rebuilding the new house, so Mom was home alone with the sick children outside a rural town where she didn’t know anyone. Since you can’t divorce your children, or even leave them inside alone for a lovely, head-clearing hour shoveling snow off the driveway, Mom would not postpone the sledding event for long. Just a week.

The following weekend, we left the house late with the children. Is this tautological? Parents of preschoolers are always late because children do not understand “Get with the program.” They have their own program, and it works for them. By the time your first child is five, you’ve usually figured this out and adjusted by planning on extra time for getting out the door. If you haven’t figured this out by the time your child is five, I truly pity you (with judgement, of course).

Papa, tell me a story, Rose asked. So I told her a story.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Rose. Rose was a pretty typical child. ‘I am an average child,’ Rose would say. Well, one day, Rose’s family was getting ready to leave the house to take Rose to school. “Come on!’ her mother would say, ‘let’s go! We are going to be LATE! Where are your socks? Where is your back pack? Why aren’t you dressed? Go get your shirt on!” Rose went to her room to get her shirt on and then her father said, “Rose, I need you in the bathroom to brush your teeth.” So Rose hurried to get her shirt on, only she had to pick one, and it had to be the right shirt, one that matched her pants, and while she was doing this, her Papa called, “Rose! Where are you? I asked you to come to the bathroom.” and Rose yelled, “Coming!” only Papa couldn’t hear her over Samuel screaming “Lalalalalala!” down the hall so Papa said, “Rose, when I call you I expect you to come!” and Rose answered, “In a minute!” in a Give-Me-A-Break tone of voice and then her Papa walked to her room, grumbling because she has made his forty-plus-year-old bones get up and move, and he appeared at the door and said, “I expect you to speak to me without that rude tone of voice,” and before Rose could answer, her Mama appeared at the door and said, “Rose, why isn’t your shirt on yet? Come on, we’re going to be LATE!” and Rose grumbled to herself while her parents wondered out loud to each other why Rose was so fussy and contrary and rude.

“Rose come to the mud room!” they called, and Rose came and got on her socks while her Papa dressed Samuel and her Mama looked for books and stuffed animal friends for the car. Then Rose waited and waited and waited, and her Papa said, “Rose, get your boots on, come on, we’re going to be LATE!” and Rose put on her boots while her Papa ran the diaper bag downstairs and her Mama put milk in a straw cup for Samuel. Then Rose waited and waited and waited. Then Papa came back and said, “Rose, why haven’t you put on your coat. Come on, you know the drill, we’re going to be LATE!”  So Rose put on her coat while Papa dashed off to get his wallet and keys and Mama went around the house looking for her keys which were lost again, and Rose waited and waited and waited for them. Then Mama appeared and said, “Where are your mittens and your hat. Hurry Rose, we’re going to be LATE!” So Rose got her mittens and hat and Mama and Papa were nowhere to be seen. So she started talking to Samuel, saying silly things and trying to make him laugh and before you knew it, they were both climbing the stools in the mud room and laughing really loud
at something silly they had invented and maybe screaming because they liked the sound of the noise, when suddenly Mama and Papa appeared and said, “What are you two doing? Are you ready to go? Where’s your backpack? Samuel stop that. Rose, don’t egg him on. Come on you two, we’re going to be LATE!”

And Rose just smiled to herself. She wanted to tell her parents that they took far too long to get ready to go, but she didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

Rose really liked this story.

At the last minute we realized that Rose was too big for the inflatable sled which meant a last minute detour. Halfway down Main Street, we realized we didn’t have the directions to our neighbor’s rental house. So Dawn dropped me off at the Hardware Store (the only place open on Sunday at 9:30) to buy a new sled, and she drove home with the children to get the directions.

“Have you got any sleds?” I asked inside.

“Just what you see,” the supervisor clerk said, raising a hand to the molded plastic sleds suspended from the ceiling over the counter behind him. They dangled like butcher carcases, like the skeletons of criminals hung for poaching on the King’s land. One was almost as long as I was tall and blaze orange from head to foot. The other was black and even longer; the store clerks referred to it as “the coffin.” In truth, they were runner-less sledges, which is to say, they were shallow plastic boats meant for hauling logs and equipment through the woods. I swallowed, picturing my daughter’s disappointment whether I bought one or not, and said, “Well, let me see one of the orange ones.”

A younger, freckle-faced clerk headed downstairs and came back with one, saying, “We also have some circular disk sleds down there. Would you like to see one?”

It was perfect. Dark blue, gently curved like an enormous contact lens, with handles on the sides separated the right distance for Rose’s arms. And it cost a fraction of the sledges. I was so pleased with myself that it did not occur to me until I was outside the store that I had just bought an overpriced garbage can lid, something we already had at home.

We drove to Plainfield and found their house in the countryside at the end of a long driveway with plowed walls of snow on either side up to our hips. There was a large house to our left where a brown dog on a snow swept porch barked incessantly at our car going by. Our neighbors rental house was small and beautiful, filled with light from banks of windows and an Adirondack ceiling which gave the impression of space and tall ceilings without wasting heat. The owner, a local professor, left town each winter and, having no children, the house design was simple and efficient, custom built of pine wood with cherry accents. The benches and tables were made from boards of some dark, polished wood retrieved from an old boat and banded together with iron. It thought it was lovely and unique and said so, to which my neighbor replied, “until your child spills something.” There was no subfloor, so spilled milk went through the spacing between the table boards and then through the spacing between the pine floor boards and then rained down upon all the open boxes in storage in the basement.

But despite the cold, short, winter days, the house was sunlit and open and the sledding hill went straight down from the porch outside the front door.

The kids had a wonderful time. The girls preferred out garbage can lid to our neighbor’s hi-tech, molded plastic sleds with steering and brakes. They piled on top of each other and whooshed down the driveway, bouncing off the side walls and spinning like a drunken top. They spent hours together outside and after a warm lunch of lentil soup and foccacia bread, they wanted more. Dawn took Samuel home for a nap, and I stayed with Rose, reading indoors and occasionally glancing up through the enormous picture windows to watch them test the cold-defying limits of their snow suits. For perhaps twenty minutes. Then the girls insisted I come outside and catch them on their sled at the bottom of the hill.

Afterwards out neighbors drove us home, tired and smiling. A perfect day.

A Dream

I was in a store, an art gallery in a shopping district catering to out of town tourists. The walls were weathered lumber, ransacked from some abandoned, crumbling, Vermont barn. Modern “distressed” shelves displayed local crafts. Triangular, tower-shaped, display cases and hard-wood posts break up the small space, limit mobility, and encourage leisurely browsing. Through the windows I could see a covered wooden porch running the length of the front of the store and beyond. Presumably there were a half dozen more stores on either side. A few shoppers are considering the merchandise, occasionally fingering a piece of jewelry or examining the line work in an intricate etching. The loiter with interest but without any more intent to buy. The afternoon sunset through the window gave the room the dusty ambience of an attic full of treasures, without the mustiness or mildew.

Then, as can happen in dreams, I suddenly remembered that I needed something. Something that I did not have with me. I am fairly certain that it was a specific item like a wallet or a checkbox or an acetylene torch or something, and I am also fairly certain that in the dream, I knew exactly what the missing item was, but in the dream-dispersing light of day I can’t recall it. What I do remember is that I walked through an opening between rooms in the stores and found, between myself and the outside door, another customer  blocking my path.

He wore no shirt or shoes. I could see his thick, muscular arms and a hairy, barrel chest complete with faded and blurred tattoos, but his spine was deformed and his legs were thin. His hair and beard were long, unkempt, and greasy. At first glance he seemed a homeless hunchback who had wandered in to look for a warm place to sit down, but he was in fact intently studying a painting low down on the wall at his eye level. He seemed oblivious to my presence.

“Excuse me, sir.” I said as pleasantly as I can manage. “May I pass by to leave the building?”

He turned to me with a thoughtful look on his face and said words that I say to my children at every opportunity they give me,

“What very nice, polite words you used.” And he shuffled aside and let me pass.

Stealth Observation

“Papa, would you hold me?” Samuel asked, with a lump in the bottom of his throat, a cry just ready to leap out. He sounded so plaintive, so sad, and yet trying to be brave at the same time. I wanted to scoop him up in my arms right then, to hell with the traffic lined up behind my minivan.

“I’m sorry, sweet boy. Papa is driving right now. I’ll give you a big hug before you go into school.”

Samuel has started Montessori pre school. We had intended to enroll him in April when he turned three, so that he could have a couple of months with Rose in the classroom to adjust to life away from home without Mama or Papa. But they called us December, did an interview in the first week of January, and told us he was ready. We knew he was ready. He had spent a half hour in class once which he spent intensely focused playing with the math beads. He had cried when it was time to leave and play on the playground. He wasn’t done with the beads. But Dawn wasn’t ready to let him go. “My baby!” she cried. She tried every excuse she could think of.

“He’s not completely toilet trained.”

“He’s doing better than many children in the class.”

“He has food allergies.”

“So do half the children here.”

“My baby!”

So off he went, crying at separation time every morning for three days when he got sick and had to stay home for a week. Now he was back in the saddle again.

“Papa! Papa! Papa!” he called from the back seat as we pulled up to the gate. The dam burst. The crying began. From the far back seat, Rose sighed at this interruption. She was in the middle of her latest library book, “Junie B. Jones And That Meanie Jim’s Birthday.” She doesn’t remember two and half years ago, how she spent the first two weeks of Montessori pre-school bursting into tears at the door when Mama dropped her off. She doesn’t remember spending two weeks of sitting by the window, looking out over the parking lot waiting for Papa to come pick her up.

I put the car in Park and wait for someone to show up. In a Montessori classroom, a teacher greets your child at the door and walks them in. It is part of the philosophy; the school is the children’s space. Everything is their size and their height, and they are responsible for keeping it neat and ordered and beautiful. Parents cannot barge in whenever they please; they must be invited to observe. This helps the child own the space and want to cherish it and take care of it and not share it with adults. In this sense, I think of it as a precursor to the teenage bedroom.

The teacher comes to your car, opens the door, unbuckles your child and walks them in. It’s certainly convenient, and Rose is already unclicked with her bag on one shoulder ready to leap out when Jen opens the door. Samuel cried. He wanted a kleenex. He wanted me to hold him. I knew the drill. One of the nice things about a mini-van, one of those things that you wondered how you ever lived without, is that you can get out of the driver’s seat and walk to the back seats where the children are without leaving the car. Thank God they didn’t have mini-vans when I was growing up. All the times my father threatened to pull the car over and spank his mis-behaving children – can you imagine how often he might have actually carried out that threat if he didn’t have to get out of the car to do it?

I untethered Samuel from his seat while Jen was helping Rose out.

“Papa! PAPA!”

I gave him THE BIG HUG.

“OK, Samuel. Time for school. I love you and Mama will come pick you up at noon. Have a great time!” I tried to sound enthusiastic, but it was 8:15 in the morning, and I had a small child screaming two inches from my ear drum. At least I was not impatient or surly. I rolled him over the folded seat in one neat motion. Jen was ready and caught him in her arms, like clowns in a circus act.

“Good morning, Samuel!” she says, a lot more chirpy than I could ever manage. “Let’s go inside. Are you ready, Rose?”

“I sure am!”

“PAAAAPA…” and Jen slid the door shut. Rose duck-walked over the frozen slush. Through the car window, I could hear the crunch of Jen’s feet, weighted down by my crying son, as she crushed the rime of corrugated ice on the gravel. She opened the white picket fence, now gray from months of dust and debris blown off Route 2, and they walked through the play area to the front door. Other cars full of tethered children and parents late for work were in line behind me, but I paused until the children were inside the door.

ThenI pulled a U-turn and circled around the parking lot. In the back, out of view, I found a spot to park the minivan. I pulled on my gloves and hat and walked the long way around to the office door.

The Montessori office and the classroom share a single wall about twenty feet long, broken only by a large double French door that is always open and a picture window, three feet tall by four feet wide with a see-through lace curtain. Between that wall and myself was a set of floor to ceiling bookshelves that went halfway across the room. As long as I stood by the entry door, I was invisible to everyone in the classroom, and they were invisible to me. A woman I did not know was inside at a desk, and I explained I was there for an observation that I had arranged with Kristen. She nodded and shrugged apologetically. She didn’t know anything about it. She was a substitute, just there for the day, standing in for some of the staff who were ill. She excused herself and disappeared behind the bookcases into the classroom. The rest of the staff were either outside greeting children or inside guiding them in their work for the day. For the moment, I was alone in the office.

In order to properly spy upon my children undetected I would have to get to the lace curtain, where I could observe the children without being clearly seen, assuming they did not look directly at the window and scan me carefully. Since there was more light in the classroom, it was unlikely they would see much, and since they were usually engaged in their work or the other children, it was unlikely they would even bother to notice. My children at least have inherited their father’s honed ability to tune out and ignore the rest of the world. But there were other potential problems. The bathrooms were on my side of the French doors, and if any child needed them, they would be able to see me as they went by. But even more problematic, in order to get to the curtained window, I would have to walk around the book cases, temporarily exposing myself to the classroom through the French doors. I would have to time things just right.

I peaked with one eye around the corner of the book cases. Fifty feet away there was a low, half wall that ran perpendicular across most of the room. I knew that on the far side of this wall were the cubbies and hooks and benches where the children left their coats and boots and hats and mittens before coming into the classroom proper, and as luck would have it, Samuel and Rose were still there. Samuel was still upset, though not crying quite as much. Jen was removing Samuel’s winter clothes while Rose was trying to distract him. She was bent over, and though I could not see them, I knew her face was not more than two inches from Samuel’s, as she reverted to patronizing baby talk.

“Does Samsy want to pway with the poke-ee-pine?”

“Ooh,” cooed Jen. “That sounds like fun. Let’s get your boots off first, though, okay?”

Both children were out of sight, save for the very top of the sea-anemone tassle of Samuel’s fleece winter hat sticking over the half-wall. Rose was completely out of view. I walked quickly and quietly around the corner and then stood out of view next to the window and counted to twenty. When I dared to peek through the mesh of the lace curtain, I saw that they had already entered the classroom proper, searching for a project. They had not seen me. I let out my breath.

Already the class was filling up with preschoolers. Rose and Finn are the oldest children, the only kindergarteners, the only ones who will “cross-over” this year, which is Montessori-speak for graduating to the next peer group stage. At that moment, Finn walked through the French doors, turned to me, smiled, but before he opened his mouth, I put my finger to my lips and raised my eyebrows. Either he understood me, or he didn’t remember who I was and wanted to get away from this stranger, but in either case he went back into the classroom and did not tell Rose that her Papa was here.

Rose is the only big girl in her class, an unprecedented chance at being the responsible big sister to twenty children. We hear stories from her teacher all the time about how she loves to help the younger children. I have often found this difficult to accept, because when she comes home from school, she usually wants to read books and be left alone, especially from Samuel. So I was amazed to watch her alter-ego blossom. She helped Samuel carry a tray all the way across the room where they set up the porcupine – a wood model with toothpicks that can be inserted in small holes on the back. The two of them played with it for ten minutes together, Rose lovingly helping him and praising him. No more tears, no anxiety, no crying. Samuel was completely absorbed in the work, in the classroom, in the environment. Next they brought out some paper and colored pencils and began drawing, and then Rose was off on her own, helping other children and doing her own work. Samuel finished his drawing and proudly showed it to every adult teacher and aide in the room.

After twenty minutes or so, when both children seemed completely engaged in their activities, I slipped back around the bookcase and back to the door where I had left my coat. I had just put on my hat and gloves when Michael appeared in the office wearing his trademark jeans, plaid flannel shirt over a T-shirt, and a knitted hat. I have never seen him without that knitted hat, and I wonder at times why his unkempt, curly, brown hair hasn’t grown and tangled through it. He is the Head of School, a half-time position, and fills in when other teachers are sick. He had seen me behind the curtain and stopped to say hello. We chatted briefly about the school and the potential for an elementary Montessori starting up in the future. I spent a year on the board as Secretary, when Michael was treasurer (before he took the Head of School position), and I always enjoyed talking with him. He’s a good six inches taller than me, and perhaps fifty pounds heavier, but I have never felt intimidated in his presence, even when I felt he went around rules to push his agenda. His heart was always in the right place, and his speech was never anything but gentle.

“Did you see Samuel come up to me?” he said, as though a rainbow had appeared in the sky.

“Yes, he was showing you his picture.”

“He knew my name! I don’t think we’ve ever spoken before, and he just came right up to me and started talking to me. Most children won’t do that. That’s phenomenal!”

I kvelled. What else can you do when a Montessori professional calls your child “phenomenal.” Then we were interrupted.

“Michael, we need your help.”

It was Rose. She and another student were walking into the office. She was walking with her head down as she often does and hadn’t quite made it around the bookcase. Michael was between us, so I tapped him on the shoulder, held up a finger, and disappeared behind the door of a private office next to us.

“We can’t find any glue and we’re trying to put this together. Can you find us some in the classroom?”

“Well, let me see… How about this glue right here? Will this work?”

“Yes! That’s perfect! Thanks!”

I waited, peaking through the crack in the doorjamb until Michael retrieved me.

“Is she gone?”

“Man, you’re fast.”

“Well, it’s her space, right? I didn’t want her to think I was trespassing.”

“Did she see you?”

“No, I didn’t give her the chance.”

“Then how did you know she was coming?”

I shrugged. “I can pick out my daughter’s voice across any room full of children.”

We shook hands, and I dashed out before Rose or Samuel could catch me.

———-

Two days later, I dropped the children off at school. This time, we were early. No one was ready for us, so I turned off the engine and unclicked the children from their car seats. Samuel was starting to get sad, so I read him a book, but I only made it to page two when Jen appeared, walking from the front door. She saw Samuel and started playing peek-a-boo through the car window which made him smile. By the time I get the door open, Samuel was right behind Rose, ready to leap out.

“Jen!” he said, in his enthusiastic two-year-old way where the thoughts run ahead of the words, “this morning we heard the birds saying, ‘It’s cold! It’s cold!'”

“Really!” she laughed. They head into school with Rose leading the way. I called out “Goodbye! I love you guys!”, but too late. I get no answer and they were already through the gate.

Loose Tooth

I moved the stool, the wooden one with the hinged top, up against the sink cabinet. Sliding the shower curtain out of the way, I sat down on the bathtub edge and squeezed half a pea’s worth of Tom’s of Maine Silly Strawberry toothpaste on a Dora and Diego toothbrush, closed the cap, and placed the tube back on the counter. I was ready.

“Rose! Come to the bathroom for tooth-brushing!”

“OK, Papa! Coming!”

I was still astounded by this response. Not six months earlier, we were dancing the annoyance and avoidance ritual at tooth brushing time. She would whine, hide under the blankets, declaim how unfair it was that her teeth needed brushing. She would demand her plaque-defense rights from one end of the house and to the other.

“I don’t want to brush my teeth!”

To which I would always answer, “Fine. I’ll brush them for you.”

She was not amused.

But she was now a big five year old girl. The Mantle of the Malcontent has passed to her younger brother, who had months to observe, see how it was, and improve on the technique. He would artfully dodge our attempts to brush his teeth in new and insidious ways. One of his favorites was to simply let his body go completely limp on the stool. The Devil on my shoulder would repeat Bad Parent Temptation Number 5 – let go, let go, just let him fall onto the hard tile floor of the bathroom. He won’t do it again. I resist.

I don’t understand the intense dislike. What’s wrong with having someone twice your size grind a glob of white goop all over your teeth with a bristly stick? Why can’t they sit peaceably with their hands in their laps, their mouths open, and their tongue still and silent? And why, for God’s sake, do they feel that this is the most important time of the day to begin talking?

Rose really turned around a few month ago, after a summer visit to the dentist. She sat perfectly still while the hygienist scraped and poked and polished and finally touched a tooth with her stainless steel claw and said, “This tooth will fall out first. I believe it is starting to wiggle.”

That was all it took. For a month after that, Rose let us know every night which teeth were loose, which ones were wiggling, and what she intended to do with her tooth fairy money. Sometimes she was the selfless benefactress who planned to buy all sorts of things for her family and friends. Sometimes she was the frugal financier, putting aside a certain amount for college, which, by the way, she had decided that she was going to complete in a single year and then move back in with us. But most of the time, she was an impulse consumer, letting us know exactly what she was going to buy and when.

Her teeth had other ideas. They clung to her jaw, full of separation anxiety, while her friends teeth abandoned the nest in droves. It was a bit discouraging. Soon we heard less and less from her about that fickle tooth fairy.

“Here I am, Papa!” she said, arriving in the bathroom and taking another sixty seconds to get her bottom on the stool and her mouth open. I lifted the toothbrush, but before I could insert it between her canines, she said, “Papa. Can you tell me a story? About a fairy… Named Milicent… And a Princess… And they go to gymnastics together… And they meet my teacher.”

Read that sentence again. At each ellipses in that sentence, insert an attempt by me to put the tooth brush in her mouth.

I began telling her stories at tooth brushing and bath time because it kept her quiet and distracted. It worked, but I don’t multitask well in the evening (or any time of day, as Dawn might say), and my stories were filled with odd, mid-sentence pauses that Rose impatiently punctuated with “Go ON, Papa!” Some of those stories ended up pretty good. Most were so-so, but she liked them all. So much so that we cannot do any mindless task together anymore without her begging for a story.

“No,” I say, “I don’t have a story tonight. Please open your mouth.”

Party-pooper Papa. It was the end of a long day, and I wasn’t feeling particularly creative enough to invent a story. She let me off the hook this time. She knew Papa stories are hit or miss, but it never hurts to ask.

“OK, Papa.” I started brushing her teeth. I get most of the bottom ones done.

“A-a. Wan I et y oot…”

“Rose spit in the sink.”

She stood up, climbed the stool, and spat into the sink, wiping her mouth on her sleeve before remembering to use the towel, which she then did also. Then she came back and sat down again. “Papa, when I get my tooth fairy money, I’m going to put some of it in a piggy bank and with the rest, I’m going to buy a scooter.”

“That’s great, Rose,” I said, inserting the tooth brush in her mouth. I began making little circles on her enamel. I tried to talk to her to keep her distracted, but another part of my brain was trying to count to twenty on each tooth without getting lost. Did I mention multi-tasking is not my strength? “but … I thought … you didn’t … have a loose tooth yet.”

“I oo a-a.”

“What?”

She leaned back to get the toothbrush out of her mouth and swallowed the flouride toothpaste. I winced.

“I do, Papa. I have a loose tooth.”

“U-huh. Which one tonight?”

“This one,” she said and put her right index finger on a top incisor.

“OK, Let me see.”

She opened her mouth for me, and I put my finger on the tip of the tooth and pushed. It moved about a sixteenth of an inch back. I gently pulled it forward, and it moved an eight of an inch the other way.

“Oh… My… God.”

“What, Papa? What?”

“Rose! You have a loose tooth!”

She looked at me with a strange mixture of excitement, pride, and exasperation at her hopelessly obtuse Papa.

“Yes, Papa. I know.” (Are you deaf? What have I been telling you for the last six months?)

“Do you want an apple?”

“What for?”

“To get it out. You bite on it, and it sticks to the apple and comes out.”

“No, Papa!” (Are you crazy?)

‘Let me try that again,” and I reached up and wiggled her tooth. This was so cool. I had a new toy. It really wasn’t about to come out, but it was definitely wiggling.

“No, Papa! Stop!” she laughed.

When I finished brushing her teeth, I asked, “So, what’s the going rate for the tooth fairy these days?”

“Papa! How should I know?”

“Just curious. I can’t even remember how much she gave me at your age.”

I guess I have some research to do.