My daughter, E, nearly nine, is growing up. It’s her job, and one she takes very seriously. I respect that and do my best not to get in her way, and to honor the young lady that she’s becoming.
This is a beautiful and startling age–and since she’s my one and only (aside from my almost-stepson), in many ways all of her stages are as new and fresh to me as they are to her. Now in third grade, E and her friends are growing in so many ways, and dramatically. Seems every time we turn around they look different, have edged up another two inches, their faces now showing real signs of what they will look like when they are older. At this age, they’re picking up information about life, culture, society and assimilating it with astonishing vigor. They’re able to absorb it with a new level of depth and understanding, allowing for deeper, more nuanced discussions about matters large and small, from what it means to be a good person to whether I like blue more than green. (It’s a tie.) They are growing ever more sophisticated and are demanding that we treat them as the young women they’re turning into before our eyes.
I respect that and feel it’s my job to acknowledge and celebrate the big girl she’s becoming. As her mom, though, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt a little. This past summer, driving home from camp one afternoon, E asked me if it would be OK if she called me “Mom” from now on instead of “Mommy.” Gulp. Did she hear that in the back seat? I wondered. My mind said, “She’s growing up. You have to let it happen. Can’t hold her back.” My heart said, “I’ve been demoted!” Were the mushy years behind us? Wow, that went quick. Of course, I agreed–suggesting that if she wanted to call me “Mommy” in private sometimes, or if she just so happened to slip and called me “Mommy,” I was totally OK with that. (Had to get that in.) But if not, “Mom” was fine, too.
Some of the mushy moments we used to have are now being replaced by my awe of all she’s able to do now. On Monday nights, I revel in watching her at her ice skating lessons–not only because of how quickly she’s learning the moves and the excitement and energy she has on the ice, but also because I’m reminded of how far she’s come these past two years, since she was diagnosed with ITP, a rare blood disorder. After her diagnosis in December 2009, for many months she was not allowed to ice skate, participate in physical education, or recess. The risk of injury was too great; any sort of head injury, in particular, could have been life-threatening. Now when I see her zooming around on two blades with abandon, my heart soars as I reflect on how far she’s come and what a big girl she now is.
But the truth is, I don’t want the tenderness of early childhood to end fully. And what she’s teaching me about this age is that those moments may be more fleeting now–and sometimes they seem like stolen moments from another time–but they’re still something we both need and want from one another. I hope that never changes.
This morning at the bus stop reminded me of this evolution. There we were, embroiled in our typical hair-brushing power struggle, she running away from me, me offering her three options: 1) Let me brush the knots out of your hair; 2) You brush them out; or 3) I will make an appointment for a haircut to end all of this fun. (I notice the calmer I say #3, the least-preferred option, the more results I get. Today I was calm, so she came back willingly and brushed her own hair.)
Then, a block away we saw the bus. We had only one minute. This is when I usually would give her a staccato kiss, saying something like, “Quick! Before anyone sees!” Humorously, but acknowledging her desire that this be a private moment. So we did that. But then, just as the bus arrived, in full view of her friends, she gave me a big, long, mushy, impromptu hug.
The aspirational “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is upon us and I, lame Jew of little knowledge, once again find myself in regular talks with The Big Guy in the Red Suit, aka Santa.
It’s a curious situation, one I fell into on happenstance with little preparation or knowledge. Growing up with my mom and brother, ours was a Hanukkah-only home, where we lit candles when my mom remembered (typically five or six of the nights). The gift-giving went like this: The first night you received a nice present, the next night you got a book or album, the rest of the nights you got . . . socks. Needless to say, I always had Christmas envy, and not-so-secretly longed to be Catholic, because then I could go to CCD with my friends on Wednesdays, and I loved singing in Latin and always found the stained glass/candle combination to be pretty in a mysterious kind of way.
My mother worried about my impending conversion so much that I was forbidden to attend Midnight Mass until my senior year of high school. I’m not sure why she thought the Catholic Church would be interested in adding me to their roster, but when I was 17 she relented, my era of impressionability seemingly expired. She no longer was concerned that I would succumb to the pressure of Father Rob at St. John’s, the church down the block where many of my friends attended, in whose rectory I smoked my first cigarette at age 12.
Fast forward to 2003. Now 33, I became mom to a child who would celebrate Christmas and yes, believe in Santa Claus. My relationship with Santa–though relatively short-lived–is an intense one. You see, I have been bestowed with the mystical powers of a telepathic connection to SC, even in December, his busiest month. I know not to overuse this power, as he has a lot of lists to read right now, and is overseeing multiple elf-filled production lines to check them all off. Santa’s got a hard deadline, I’m well aware. So I keep it brief, these conversations.
It does come in handy, being able to talk directly to The Man and hearing his quick responses, always of the reassuring kind. You see, my Santa is a New Testament kind of guy. He forgives most kids their trespasses, as long as they’re good most of the time and they try really hard to be kind to others, even their almost-step-brothers, and don’t leave all of their doo-dads all over the house. The threat of coal-filled stockings is not one my Santa uses often. That’s saved only for truly evil children, and I know none of those. Truth be told, my Santa is a softy, a wise friend, a green lighter of wishes large and small. He offers constructive criticism but his overarching theme is being pleased with the progress. He’s an affable, big-picture guy.
While Santa came to me through marriage, after we split up, I was left in the dubious position of winging it with the Santa rules. Kind of like when you get a surprise essay test and try to psychobabble your way through it, not realizing that the more you write, the larger the hole you dig for yourself. This is all fine and good until your child reaches a certain age where they start to compare notes. Or when you end up in a blended family where your partner has more definitive rules (and scoffs at your made-up ones). Then you find out other protocols, such as:
- The aforementioned almost-stepbrother who, once a year, receives a phone call from Santa. This led to a heated discussion on cell phone reception in the North Pole. [I suggested that Santa came down to the U.S. for that call, which he does occasionally for test runs and to map out his route. This explanation was met with befuddlement (the boy) and affirmation (the girl).]
- The letter from Santa, all in cursive, that E’s friend received (who complained it was too long. Obviously not my child.)
- In my ex’s family, under “From” on the adhesive tags, it would read, “Santa, Mom and Dad.” Except for the big presents–those would just be from “Mom and Dad.” They didn’t want the Big Guy to get sole credit for any of it.
- In my fiance’s family, however, most of the gifts are from Santa alone; only one or two of the big ones are from us, with no Santa involvement whatsoever. We continue to negotiate our way around this sticking point.
- In fact, I’ve only uncovered one “universal” rule in all of this Santa-lore: Always leave the cookies out for him–and make sure he takes at least one bite, because there’s no better proof that The Big Guy was there.
Now that my daughter is almost nine, though, she may be onto some of my tricks. When she noticed some Amazon packages delivered to our door, she was quick to accept my lame explanation that some things are just too heavy for SC’s sleigh, what with all of the other presents and Donner having back issues lately. So he has them delivered. She also suggested we get wrapping paper, under the guise that since the elves are working 24/7 now, sometimes he asks me to finish the job. Seems my early fear–that she would one day be traumatized and angered by all of this mythology and deception–is being proven unwarranted. If she knows, she’s not letting on, because the payoff of believing–or seeming to believe–is just too good.
This would all be OK except for one complication: K, her 10-year-old almost-stepbrother who lives with us half the week, is a true believer. So Santa–with all of our conflicting protocols–remains a key part of Christmas. At least for now.
Before all that, though, comes Hanukkah. Today I will resurrect the menorah from the basement and vow to light the candles at least 60 percent of the nights, as I was taught long ago. E likes Hanukkah, and she likes socks, too. On some level, she knows she has it good, especially this time of year. Her only complaint came last week, upon exiting the school bus: “Mommy,” she implored, in that tone of half-annoyance that eight-year-old girls seem to master, “Why don’t we celebrate Kwanzaa?”
Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy Kwanzaa. And a Happy and Healthy 2012.