This is one of my favorite pieces. I tweaked it in February to audition for the uber-cool Listen To Your Mother show (alas, wasn't selected). I wanted it to have a home, and gave it to my fabu editors at New York Family.
They used it for the "Last Word" section in the October 2013 issue. They had to edit it a bit for print and to make room for the very snazzy illustration, so I've posted the wee-bit longer version here. Head honcho Eric Messinger gave me one of the best comments yet about my writing, calling it maybe "the most deceptively profound personal essay we've ever run about being a parent."
“How many more blocks is it?” My 6-year-old daughter’s words teeter precariously close to The Whining Zone.
It’s Friday, the end of a week, a week that seemed longer than others. We’re walking home from a play date. She is tired. I am too. I almost turn the question, my answer, the conversation into a teachable moment (such a wince-inducing parenting phrase) to reinforce those math skills.
But I don’t. I stop. I block myself.
“Five,” I say. Up ahead, large blocks of concrete (or other sufficiently hard material) make up the structure we call home. “Can you see our building?”
“Ooh! I can!” she says. Home’s proximity knocks on her mind’s door, enters and energizes her. She starts to skip. I keep her tethered, holding her hand, my grip, as always, tighter than needed. Others march past us, carrying tonight’s dinner, burdens, cares. Eyes, of course, carefully averted. Interpersonal contact blocked. A city habit learned by many. Not by her…yet.
The light turns red. “Mailboxes,” she says, motioning with her chin. I see the blue letter portal on the street corner, another missing element she must add to It.
The It in question is a permanent fixture that she’s built atop her bookcase at home. It takes up the length of her room. It has, among other things, five apartment buildings, a water filtration system, a sushi restaurant, an art gallery, and a lighthouse. Rumor has it a Trader Joe’s is coming soon.
It is Kitty City, also known as Cathattan. Current population: 41 cat Squinkies, 17 Hello Kitty figurines.
She built Kitty City with, among other things, 12 empty Kleenex boxes, 30 old paper towel tubes, nine Starbucks cups, three water bottles, one Rubix Cube, and 23 rolls of tape.
“Of course, mailboxes,” I respond. “What will you use to make ‘em?”
She shrugs. She doesn’t know…yet.
At home, dinner is scarfed, PJs are donned, snuggles begin on the couch. “Only one show,” I say, dictating another block—this one of time.
“One, babe. It’s late.”
“Two?” This time she remembers to add, “Please?”
“One and a half.”
Pause. She thinks. “Deal.” A sleepy sigh escapes from her, burrows under my arm and nestles itself between us. We all sit, entwined, together. One show ends. A half of one show ends.
She slides off the couch, and pads into the bathroom for teeth-brushing. Her blankie trails after her, a river of cloth comfort, the one who blocks fears when I cannot.
We cuddle in her bed. The sound machine flicked on to block noise. The curtains closed to block light. The comforter pulled up to block chill. I say I love you, twice, then once more, to block any doubt she may have that I do.
In the kitchen, I pour myself a glass of wine. I take a sip, yet it happens again. The race that is repeated many times, daily. Anxious thoughts speeding to that familiar part of my mind, finding the infinitely tall tower, built with blocks of fear and tiles of guilt. At its center, constantly flashing: a neon-bright beacon of worry.
Over the years, there have been a few short visits of depression. Thankfully, not a usual guest, yet one that makes itself at home quickly, unpacking bags stuffed with subtle numbness, which oozes over everything, even, eversoslightly, her.
“Maaaa-maaaa!” She beckons from her bed. I’m at her doorway. “You know Daddy’s floss?” Her voice lassos my wrist and gently tugs me into the room.
“The green flip container thingy it comes in. I could use that for mailboxes.”
“Great idea, babe. It’s time for sleep though.” I kiss her. Again. “I love you.” I say it. Again. To block any doubt. Again.
I carefully navigate another structure on the floor: the Island of Meow-Meow, where Kitty City citizens vacation. As I pass, a few wooden blocks wobble.
Through tired eyes, she sees this. “You know, it’s good to knock the blocks down, Mama.”
“I can rebuild anything,” she says. “And make it even better. Like you always tell me.”
I laugh a little. “Glad you were listening, babe.” I pull on the door until she gives me a thumb’s up; the proper open-shut ratio has been reached.
It’s good to knock the blocks down, Mama. I replay her words, to remember when I encounter my own blocks—those invisible ones that often seem too big, too permanent to topple.
Not how I thought it would happen, or who I thought it would happen to, yet there was a teachable moment tonight.
I don’t wince.