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“Is there going to be a tornado tonight?”

This question as part of our bedtime routine for nearly two weeks.  Two weeks ago today, there were serious storms here. A tornado touched down in the valley below us. The Weather Channel said a tornado was headed our way. The four of us spent time in our windowless hallway, but then we headed to campus and went to the basement of a stone building. This, of course, was around bedtime, and there’s really no way to wholly cover your fears when faced with the possibility of a tornado. (Why are we hurrying out the door into the green-skyed night and carrying a bagful of things with us to campus when we should be putting you calmly and quietly to bed? Well, hmmm….) When we entered the basement hallway of a building on campus, we found that we were not the only ones with that idea. After tracking the weather online for a while, we deemed it safe to go home – and headed out into a major downpour. Well, it was better than a tornado.

The next day looked dicey, too, but nothing came close, and if there was rain, there wasn’t even too terribly much of that.

But every night until the 9th, last Friday, our girl would ask, as we were putting her to bed, “Is there going to be a tornado tonight?” She asked this in the same way that she asks, “What do I have tomorrow?” or “Can I watch Diego?”, like it was an everyday question, like it was something that might be on the horizon at any moment. When would we be rushing out the door next, trying to avoid the whims of the weather, its violent vicissitudes? How prepared did she need to be? How prepared DO we need to be? It’s a different matter, looking out for yourselves, just adults, during a storm. It’s another thing entirely to know that your decisions could – and do, and will – affect these small people who are under our care, who make our world seem fuller and brighter and sharper. Scarier, too, sometimes, when we look through their eyes.

Since then, we’ve watched a little about tornadoes and talked about how they don’t happen all the time. We talked about their color. “Tornadoes are red,” she said definitively, “in Chewandswallow.” She pulled out Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and sure enough, she was right! (It might have had to do with tomato sauce. I don’t think most tornadoes involve kitchen staples, however.) Tornadoes are not red in real life, I had to tell her. She talked about a tornado picking up Farmer Ben in her big book with the Berenstein Bears, and she’s right on that count, too – The Berenstein Bears’ Big Book of Science and Nature DOES include tornadoes in its section on wind. And it picks up Farmer Ben! “That’s when the big wind lifts poor Farmer Ben. It lifts him, cow and all, and then…It whirls him round and round again” (35). How does she remember these details from books, books we may not have read in months?

The bedtime question has dropped away. Now I’ve been wondering, though, what other storms we should watch for, what tempests of nature’s or our own making? I hope that we will always have a basement at the ready, the comfort of cement block walls surrounding us, of stone rising above.

*******
Berenstein, Stan and Jan. The Berenstein Bears’ Big Book of Science and Nature. New York: Random House, 1997.

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January 7: This is best done on the second day in a row of single-digit weather in a usually warmish climate, when getting out of the house just doesn’t seem like a good idea.

INGREDIENTS
One tube of yogurt, generally marketed for consumption by children or those on the go.

DIRECTIONS
1. Remove the tube of yogurt from the refrigerator.
2. Tear off the top bit of plastic as instructed; throw the trash in the trash.
3. Hand open tube of yogurt to your hungry preschooler. Be sure that the baby is nearby.
4. Direct your attention elsewhere while your preschooler is about to consume the yogurt.
5. Turn back in surprise when you realize the baby has taken the tube of yogurt into his hand and shaken it gleefully, like a hose in the summertime. 
6. Shriek, just a little bit, before tossing the limp remains of the yogurt tube into the trash and assessing the damage.
7. Remove all clothes from your preschooler; skip the hamper and put them directly into the washing machine.
8. Check your son for the tell-tale scent of strawberry yogurt; remove socks and zip-up hoodie. Take these directly to the washer as well.
9. Spot-check the rug for evidence; wipe at least three spots.
10. Laugh at yourself. What else can you do?
11. Remove an additional tube of yogurt from the refrigerator for saddened preschooler and hope for the best…

So much can go right in a day: the sun shines through the blinds just so, entrancing Baby Boy. Leading with his head, he can finally (as of today!) roll himself from back to front. Hooray! (He can sit for a while, too, and laughed for the first time at his big sister two days ago.) Toddler Girl sits in her room, likewise entranced by a book of Baldo comics (why, exactly, I don’t know – but I don’t question things that she loves that are OK for her). The deer creep through the yard, eating things that aren’t my hostas. Butterflies – swallowtails, this year – flit and flutter about, a substitution for the flowers and things that aren’t growing this wet, wet summer. 

But sometimes, so much can go wrong, even after so much goes right. 

Like Saturday August 24th. We had a great day at the pool – and I do mean a great day, with friends and snacks and toys, going through the lazy river and feeling warm and happy and lazy ourselves. With Toddler Girl on Daddy’s shoulders and Baby Boy in the carrier in my hand, we were on our way out. The door nearly shut on another girl, and as he leaned forward to keep it open, she leaned back. And in a moment, you can imagine your whole, happy day – your whole, happy life – coming to an abrupt and sudden stop. Nothing would ever be the same.

He leaned forward more to slow her already-in-slow-motion-horror-movie-like fall, and it was as if she were trying to roll or cartwheel her way down, a circus in motion. But of course, she wasn’t. She was a three-year-old falling from a rather great height, and she landed on the pavement. We – we and our friends and our friends’ kids – froze. 

Then, my girl cried. No quiet, no unconsciousness – just crying. I’ll leave out the fears and the worries, the guilt and the additional worries – but she was, by and large and to our immense relief – and “immense relief” does not do justice to our feelings – fine. A goose egg that was really more like a chicken egg rose on the left side of her forehead accompanied by a scrape that looked like a little bit of road rash. Forty-five minutes of crying. Questioning her about her name, waking her at night – even the doses of Tylenol (two) were minimal. Even now, she has what either looks like a very dark circle under that eye or a little bit of a black eye, but I don’t even think it would be noticeable to anyone other than us. 

So much goes right, but it only takes one wrong thing to change everything.

And so we marvel and snuggle, kiss and stare, and feel an incredible sense of gratitude for these children of ours: for the little things, for the big things, for what is, for what could have been but wasn’t. For them.

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Sitting in the computer chair, in no danger to myself or anyone else, my sweet, sweet daughter came up to me and said, “Honey. Honey! You has to be cazhul [CAY*zhul – careful]!” 

Kids are mimics. This comes as no shock to any parent or to anyone who’s spent much time around children. Nonetheless, hearing your words come back to you, thankfully (this time!) in such a sweet and unexpected way, is always a bit of a surprise.

How much of what we say does she soak up? How much of what we say lingers with others? It doesn’t hurt to be the best possible version of ourselves as much of the time as we can. I’ll have to remember to be cazhul…

“I will hold my Boo-Boo!” she orated, standing on the bed in the semi-darkness, wispy blondish hair splaying out from her head as she shook her head from side to side. “I pat Boo-Boo!” The head shaking continued, accompanied by a serious look not unlike a teacher looking down her nose, a dare for me to interrupt her. I did not. She added more about Boo-Boo eating cat food, then added bits about her being sick, then “I pat her.” Her arms were drawn forward, towards the now-only-remembered feline.

My daughter turned down my kind offer to put her to sleep early, so we left the semi-darkness of the bedroom for the quasi-darkness of the living room, and here I sit, typing; her daddy just came home. As he opened the door, the fading light of evening framing him, she shook her head again, emphatically, and said, “I won’t pat Boo-Boo any more.”

And she’s right. She can’t. She was there, way back in December, four months ago, for Boo-Boo’s last moments. But where does this…this knowledge of the world, all this memory, come from? In my almost two-year-old?

“I won’t pat my Boo-Boo any more,” she said, minutes later.

No, my sweet girl, you won’t.

As a new parent – and even before that, as someone pregnant – you get warning after warning. Don’t eat lunch meat. Avoid eat blue cheese. Stay away from the wine. Babies can’t eat honey until they are one. Babies must sleep on their backs. Babies can’t actually sleep with any of the one hundred baby blankets, store bought or home knitted, crocheted, or quilted, that you receive. Keep children away from pets; they could get hurt. (Of course, they will – our cats nip our daughter occasionally, but it’s never been anything serious, and I really believe it’s taught her a lot about reading the emotions of others. It’s quickened her reflexes, too!) Crib bumpers may look cute but could cause death – so you might want to consider not using them. Unless you don’t love your baby.

Well, my daughter has finally found a good use for the crib bumpers, at least one section of them at a time: they make a giant, splendid, easy-for-a-toddler-to-carry cat toy! Much as she learned how to use the cat’s toy early on, waving it for the cats to play with until I thought my heart would explode with the joy and sweetness of this act done solely for the pleasure of another, she learned, too, that the cat liked this. Better yet, she learned this on her own. She created this game, and she squeals with delight as she drags it around behind her. She wraps herself in the Pooh-adorned cushiness of it, a small queen more cute than regal. Sitting on her small dais, with no apology to Piglet or Tigger hiding under her bum, she looks at her one furry subject, our younger, more active cat, Pepper.

Pepper also delights in the many ties that flap and flutter as my daughter runs. Every morning, Pepper looks longingly out the windows, tail bushing as she chases squirrels and birds from one window to another. She even made a quick escape last week, bolting out the front door and halfway up the front redbud tree. Then, she stopped. It was as if she realized that she didn’t really like the real thing, and she came back without a fight in my husband’s arms. She prefers the nature show to nature itself.

Now, she chases the bumper’s ties as if they were a small flock of birds brought inside for her kitty pleasure. She pounces and leaps, scratches and nips, and all the while, my daughter squeaks and runs, smiling and completely happy.

I could warn you about the dangers of babies being scratched or bitten by cats, leaving behind a mark like ballpoint pen but sadder, but I’ll leave that to the professionals. I say cats and babies make great companions, and my daughter would tell you the same.

As an English teacher, I’m used to homophones giving students trouble – usually more than they should, and enough so that they really should know better. Whether and weather, to and too, a part and apart, everyday and every day (the former is an adjective, as in “my everyday shoes”) – even granted and granite once, but thankfully, only once.

For the little ones learning to speak, the number of homophones is far greater than for those of us who are, say, capable of reading this blog. Multisyllabic words shrug off prefixes and suffixes. Difficult consonants, like “s” and “l” and “r,” are dropped in favor of whatever follows them.  As we walk past the library, my little lovely points out the “bee,” and after I reinforce her efforts, saying, “Yes, that’s the library!” she proudly tells me that there are “booh”s there. “Yes, there are lots of books there!” I tell her. In our spoken language, I often understand her perfectly. If we’re looking at a picture of a bee, she will also say, “bee,” but in context, it all makes perfect sense. As teachers tell you, and as I’ve often said myself, context clues are important, and this is a lesson I am learning in very different ways than ever before.

Every day, her daddy wears a tie to work. He used to drape them over the bookcase when he got home – until she began mangling them, pulling them down and carting them around, gripped tightly in a hand of  questionable cleanliness. (Ties, it seems, are really not meant to be cleaned; they are meant to stay clean, which is difficult with something worn around the neck, in line of fire of soup, water, or globs of mayonnaise.) “Tie,” he would tell her. “Tie.” After one tie suffered particularly, he set it on the shelf near her crib. After her nap one day, I went in, and she pointed. “Tie!” Yes, honey, that is a tie.

Many times a week, we can be found walking to the student post office, or SPO, to collect our mail. It’s a familiar path, lined with many landmarks, some of which move and some of which don’t: chickens which peck, gravel which is fun to play in, a swing that we go on together, bikes (“bike!”), and a particularly large section of bark mulch which is a major draw for her.  “Tie!” she’ll often say as we embark on our small journey. Once at the SPO, we visit with the very kind people behind the counter, who ooh and ahh over her and let her do things which in most circumstances would be annoying, like ding the small bellhop-style bell over and over and over again. Before we leave, she’ll point and say, “Tie!” again. We walk back and gaze through the glass in the door and into the darkened pub, where a former carousel tiger has come to rest. He sits on his perch, mouth open in a silent roar. She’s entranced. “Tie!” she points as we stare through one door. We walk to the other of the double doors. “Tie!” she says again. “What does a tiger say?” I ask. She lifts her hands above her head, a little like the dancers’ hands in the Thriller video, and says, “rawr”. It is, perhaps, the least fierce roar one has ever  heard. The tiger silently roars back and stares with dark and glassy eyes. Depending on the day, as we walk away from the tiger, she’ll cry. The tiger, proud and aggressive and strong-jawed, has become her favorite from-a-distance companion, and she hates to leave him for the walk home.

But as we look through those doors before we take our leave, she says, “Tie!” and holds up her index finger, usually her right one. When paired with earnest head nodding and direct eye contact, she wants it to be perfectly, undeniably, and absolutely clear: she wants to see the tiger one more time. “Tie!” she’ll say as I try to walk away. “Tie!”

“Tie!” she’ll say, as I put her on the potty before she goes to bed at night. We’ve read our stories, we’ve said our prayers, we’ve said, “I love you,” and she’s nursed. I might head to the crib, or we might be curled together on the bed, her feet above the covers because she’s kicked them off. “Pee!” she’ll shout, often vigorously signing for the potty. Usually, she’s right. She has to go. It doesn’t matter it you put her on the potty right before washing her up and helping her brush her teeth, she probably does have to pee again. If I think she has to poop, I’ll read to her while she’s on the potty to encourage her. Sometimes, it’s a ploy: we’ll sit, and the potty, too, will sit empty. “One more time,” I admonish, holding up my index finger, as we begin our final reading.

“One tie!” she said one day, holding up her index finger and shaking it a bit for good measure. I don’t think I even managed to hold in my laughter; I couldn’t resist the mimicry or the charm of a little girl earnestly asking to be read to as she sat upon her bright yellow potty.  “One tie!” has been reduced to “tie!”, and it now happens every time we put her on the potty. We’ve taken to keeping a small stash of books in the bathroom. (Of course, being an independent-minded girl, she often wants the same book four times, not four books once each, which is what we’d prefer.) Sometimes, I’ll still tell her that I’ll only read something one more time, and I’ll stick to it. “Tie!” she’ll beg, if seventeen-month-olds can beg. “All done,” I’ll say and sign. Leaving the bathroom and its books can be as heartbreaking as leaving the tiger.

Repetition is key, apparently, to enjoyment: lots of books, lots of the tigers, lots of ties. Repetition’s good for all of us, I suppose: we learn by doing. We learn with practice how to use the proper words in context. We learn by reading. “Tie!” she said today, after we read Sandra Boynton’s The Going to Bed Book for the first (and second) time. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, claims that all good readers are rereaders, and maybe this is a lesson that my daughter is learning earlier than most.  I just hope these early lessons stick with her, whether – not weather – or not she remembers.

She chokes. She gags. She stops breathing for a moment. Her eyes rim with red, making her look a bit like Uncle Fester, highlighting the fairness of her skin in contrast. She gags again in earnest, then the vomit comes, clear with chunks, onto her high chair tray. I hold her angled downward so she doesn’t choke again on the thing that’s already choking her.

All this from trying her first very small, unground, not-cooked-to-a-pulp piece of cauliflower.

Some parents, I’m sure, see solid foods as their ticket to freedom: no longer tied to the bottle or the breast, they can travel lighter and begin the process of helping their children fully enter the world of the grownups. As for me, I know I’ll miss this intimate time with her, this sweet together time. It is a freedom of a different sort to be able to go somewhere without packing any food other than what I make myself, every moment of every day. Besides that, beginning to serve solids, we’ve found, is an activity fraught with peril and not for the faint of heart. Choking lurks behind every lunch, and a potential allergic reaction follows every new food.

We started with avocados – if you don’t include the apple slices we let her suck on. She loved those, but again: what if a piece broke off? Choking hazard. What if she managed to get a bit of peel in her mouth? Gagging or choking hazard. I’d let her hold them, but only if I was watching her. And only when I gave up blinking.

Peas: gagging. Green beans: gagging. Carrots: good. Sweet potatoes: good. Mashed potatoes: vomiting.

And that happened twice. Really? POTATOES are the food that makes my baby vomit? Something that is, in most ways, flavorless, that takes on the taste of whatever it’s mixed with? Yes. Thanksgiving day, the first attempt brought up the bite of potatoes and whatever came before it. A month later, we tried again, making the potatoes even creamier this time (with potato water, not milk): vomit. We’re giving up on potatoes.

Peas: still gagging. Apples: good. Pears and mangoes: good. Turkey vegetable dinner: gagging. Cheese: good. Egg yolks: gagging. Barbara’s Hole ‘n’ Oats: good. Puffs: good. Yogurt: good. Bread and crackers: good. Lentils and rice: questionable. The list goes on.

Even the “safe” foods, however, have their moments.

She was eating an O-shaped piece of cereal. Leaning forward, she squeezed the O between her thumb and forefinger, her grip solid and steady. She’s come such a long way since the fumbling-grasping of a month and a half ago! She carefully maneuvered her fingers to her mouth and released the O in time to keep it in her mouth (many of its shipmates had jumped overboard already, bobbing on the blue splat mat below). And somehow, she managed to choke on the O, the food shaped in a way to keep children from choking. Wasn’t anything safe anymore?

As a parent, you ready yourself. Will you have to put into effect the lessons you learned for infant Heimlich? Will you need to call 911? Should you pick her up and angle her downward so that gravity works in her favor? I did, but did I do the right thing?

Mealtime is when families come together, when everyone is in the same place at the same time. Food is a unifying factor. The three of us sit down to enjoy a simple meal together, a family, no longer just a couple. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

But when a baby is one of the three, even the simple things aren’t so simple:  mealtime is fraught with peril. Look out for the cauliflower and potatoes.