“What year were you born?” my girl asked me, Sunday night, between bites of chicken strips.
“You’re old,” she said, without a shred of affect. Sometimes our kids remind me of Wednesday and Pugsley Adams. Not that my girl is the least bit fascinated by the macabre (quite the opposite, in fact), nor is my boy the least bit chubby, but the 180-degree juxtaposition of their personalities is definitely reminiscent of their cinematic counterparts.
“You shouldn’t talk about your dad like that,” I replied, pulling a casual swig off my soda.
My girl, who is my stepdaughter, narrowed her eyes at me, clearly prickling over what she presumed was my unauthorized use of the D-word in reference to myself. “Because your dad was also born in 1972. He and I are the exact same age.”
My girl’s face flushed. She tried to cover her smile. Whereas her step-brother, Sunshine Boy, was recently awarded a newfangled behavioral report for dropping trou during preschool’s “Circle Time,” my girl recently described every symptom of what could only have been a near fatal anxiety attack, complete with all the numbness, the heart palpitations, the dryness of mouth, when her 3rd Grade teacher warned the class that making an accidental mark outside the checkboxes of a Scan-tron test sheet could result in an incorrect answer.
Very different kids.
I grounded the boy for busting the Full Monty at Circle Time. Fearless, shameless, utterly without scruples, this is the same boy who, for reasons known only to him, made his own Halloween tradition of stripping down and dancing naked around the carved jack-o-lanterns at the very instant that “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead” was queued on the compilation cd. He cannot be embarrassed. Despite our daily efforts to affect him, he continues to have little or no respect for the power of nature, the rush of traffic, the danger of strangers. I had to go over his latest incident with the daycare director, up in her front office, where I was made to sign the newfangled behavioral report that "remains on file." It was a highly embarrassing situation and totally inappropriate behavior for a five-year-old, due in part to his extroverted personality and in part to our failure to recognize the potential for future problems by not putting a stop to things like the annual “Ding-Dong Dance.”
At the time (three years running), it was funny as hell. But at his age, and in this day and age, it cannot be allowed to funny anymore. On the way home, I asked him if the behavioral reports were part of a brand new system, or if kids had always been getting them.
“Oh, it’s a brand new thing. Just this week,” he replied.
“So, I’m guessing you were the first kid in daycare to get one of those new reports then, weren’t you?”
“Yep,” he said proudly. “I got to test it out.”
Very different kids. I’m still trying to explain to my girl why he did it. Evidently, the whole notion of flashing her entire classroom is something that just does not compute in her mind.
After Sunday’s dinner, I told my girl to go get ready for bed. She was shying around the idea of going upstairs all by herself by asking questions, twirling around, throwing out suggestions for the upcoming week. It was a weird night. I really couldn’t blame her for feeling off-kilter. She’d just spent the whole weekend with her dad. When he dropped her off, her mom had already left town on an overnight trip out to western Kansas for a funeral. My boy was with his mom. The house seemed big and empty, with lots of missing pieces. To top it off, a thunderstorm was rolling in--right at bedtime, as always.
As she passed through the front entryway, toward the stairs, she pretended not to notice all of the electricity pulsing in the dark and brooding sky, but I noticed her falter at the bottom step.
“Um, can I call my dad?”
“Sure. But go get yourself ready for bed, first.”
She eased her way up the stairs, eyeing the gathering storm over her shoulder. By the time she’d changed into her jammies and returned (about 15 seconds), the rain was pouring. I heard her stop behind me, in the entryway. I was watching the maelstrom through the storm door. “Ready to call your dad?”
“Um, I don’t think you’re supposed to stand by a window during a storm.” My girl backed away until she was standing in the middle of the living room, twenty feet behind me, in the precise spot in the house that was the furthest distance from any window. I could practically hear her brain calculating.
Although I was born in ’72, whenever I’m with this girl, I’m often the one feeling like the little kid, trying to convince an overprotective adult to go along with my harebrained schemes. Like last spring, when a cloudburst was just starting to let up, I asked the kids if they wanted to go on a rain-walk. Jillian looked up at me as if I had lost my mind.
I was baffled by her reluctance to do one of the things that I loved doing when I was a kid. I'd pull on my swim trunks and run outside, right after a storm, splashing through puddles, letting the water in the gutters rush around my ankles, launching leaves and twigs, my pretend boats, down the rapids. But my girl protested, suggesting we at least wear some protective rain gear, boots, and take along an umbrella. I explained that she was totally missing the point: you’re supposed to get wet. Meanwhile, her step-brother had already made it to the epicenter of the cul-de-sac, where he’d managed to locate the precise spot most likely to attract a bolt of lightning. He danced on the bull’s-eye, laughing up at God.
“Are you sure this is even legal?” she howled.
I assured her that rain-walks were perfectly legal. Somehow, I managed to talk her into it. We went out, and she splish-splashed, launched some leaf-boats, and even lied down curbside to feel the rainwater rush through her hair. Lo and behold, she ended up having a great time.
But Sunday night was different. It was black as the devil’s shadow out there, and the rain had turned to hail. I explained to my girl that the rooftop rattling would quickly pass, and that hail was a common phenomenon, every spring. But suddenly, the diameter of the hailstones increased to walnut-sized clods of ice.
I began backing away from the door. Behind me, my girl was hunkered down with her hands clasped over her ears. The noise was deafening. I can’t remember the last hail storm that came on that hard. Mother Nature hammered us with everything she had for about five or ten minutes, but it seemed like twenty. Sounded like the whole house would be pummeled into kindling. When it stopped, my girl was still scrunched into her protective ball, dead-center of the living room. She was trembling. I could hear her rapid breathing.
Looked like this was going to be one tough night, trying to get this girl to bed. She was already working herself up, coming up with excuses to delay bedtime, getting close to tears. I gambled by assuring her that the hailstorm was finished, and the rest of the night would be nothing but gentle rain. But she appeared somewhat skeptical of my forecast.
This was huge for her. It was waaaay out of her control. This is a girl who relishes the small, harmless and manageable. She’s tactile. She likes little things that she can hold in the palm of her hand, not vast and awesome spectacles that swallow the sky.
I dialed her dad’s phone number, handed her my phone, and then stepped out onto the porch to give the two of them a little privacy. I’ve learned a few lessons about step-parenting. One of them is that sometimes, only Real Dad knows just what to say, and I was quietly counting on him to pull us through. I placed my hands on the porch rail, and stared down at the strange coating of ice pebbles, smothering the lawn. When their phone call was finished, I came back inside.
I walked over to my girl and asked her to stick out her hand. She gawped fearfully up at me. Eventually, she extended her arm, and ulcurled her fingers. I reached out and dropped a hailstone into her trembling hand.
“Oh, my gosh!” Her face lit up.
I then revealed the whole bowl of hailstones that I’d been collecting, while she was on the phone. I picked out a good one, popped it into my mouth, and crunched it between my teeth.
“What do they taste like?” she asked, cradling her hailstone in both hands. They had already begun to melt. Water dripped through her fingers.
“Tastes like snow.”
With some degree of caution, she placed the hailstone in her mouth. It was small and harmless and manageable. She bit down, and she smiled at the sound of its crunch.