Toddler Time, Defiance, and Lessons Learned

We hid the eggs only three days ago, but I’m feeling nostalgic for Easter–for the leisure, specifically, all those unstructured hours traipsing around the neighborhood, guided by my toddler’s tiny hand. I rarely, if ever, allow myself to lapse into “toddler time,” a dangerous space of irresponsibility and glee, yet when I do I feel lightened in a way that feels instructive.

On most days, toddler time mandates inconvenience. Walking late into daycare, say, Ella will stop for an entire minute to inspect a pebble.

“Pebble,” she’ll say, pointing. “Pebble, pebble, pebble…”

And so on, until I yank her arm away.

Or perhaps we’ll be crossing 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, hand-in-hand, and Ella will stop, look up to me, and say, “Hug?”

If I’m not careful, I might lose tens of minutes in this zone of pebbles and hugs. Prying Ella’s lank little arms from my neck, I find myself late to another appointment, another task unaccomplished, the day creeping to its inexorable reckoning, the moment, after dinner, when I survey the dirty dishes, my marriage, and feel deeply my life with its preposterous flaws.

On Sunday, I lost myself for hours in toddler time, in what W.G. Sebald calls “a childlike mood of craving marvels,” lazing about in the morning and afternoon with my wife and mother and daughter, hiding and hunting eggs, stopping only for hugs, and little conversations, and sips of green tea.

When we arrived at Easter dinner, hours later, I was relaxed in a way that felt elemental, as if massaged to the bone, drugged on my own blood.

We ate Easter dinner at my in-law’s. I cooked the meal: roasted lamb loin chops, halibut, boiled potatoes, asparagus, and salad. A simple meal, deceptively simple, for eight–or nine, if you include Ella, who’d seemingly subsisted all day goat milk and the promise of chocolate.

We arrived early, around five, so I could prep the meal and cook everything by six-thirty. I asked Karen to perform one task: zest the lemons. I did everything else.

Breezy and calm, I chopped the pecans and parsley. I tossed the pecans with olive oil, brown sugar and sea salt, parsley and lemon zest, and toasted the mixture in the oven until fragrant. I emulsified the olive oil and vinegar for the salad dressing. I seasoned the lamb with sea salt and fresh ground pepper. I tossed the asparagus with olive oil and lemon. I boiled the potatoes. I scattered lemon slices on the halibut.

Around 6:00, I placed the the loin chops in the top oven–the oven reserved for meat. In the bottom oven, I placed the asparagus and halibut.

Around 6:10, just as my father-in-law opened the first bottle of Malbec, the oven let out a shrill alarm, and shut, dead. The alarm proved to be amazingly stubborn. It just wouldn’t stop.

My brother-in-law and mother-in-law wasted minutes trying to no avail to reset the oven, to silence the alarm. I paced nearby, scheming alternatives.

Meanwhile, my mother milled about, eating crackers. My sister escaped with Karen to smoke a cigarette. My father-in-law asked, “What’s that sound?”

“Noise,” Ella said. “Noise, noise, noise…”

And so on.

I remained surprisingly breezy. My day had relaxed me to the core. And besides, I’m the type of sadistic cook that thrives on chaos.

Finally, the circuit breaker tripped, the oven declared dead, I moved the entire meal to the four burners on the stove top. As the meat and fish sizzled away, I felt the kinetic energy of real cooking: the heat and anger, the fatty smoke.

And yet, even as my family asked the familiar questions–“What about the salad?”;  “Are you sure that’s done?”–I calmly set the meal on the kitchen island, platter-by-platter: the lamb and fish, the potatoes and vegetables, the salad with the toasted pecans to die for.

Surveying the meal, I said, just once, the two most important words in my life’s repertoire, “Dinner’s ready.”

I refuse to repeat these words. I must be heard this first and only time. I think my family understands my feelings. And so they came, plates in hand.

As my family tottered to the kitchen–a bit too slow, I thought–Ella, standing below me, cracker in hand, asked, “Hug?”

“Not now,” I said.

For Ella, eating, or not eating, has become an act of defiance. Each night, just as we sit to dinner, she asks, “Chocolate?” And each night, I point to her chicken nuggets, and demand, “Eat.” So she’s taken to eating nothing or stuffing everything into her mouth at once.

By Easter dinner, I swear, she’d eaten zilch all day, yet when I said, “Not now,” she felt a feisty need to stuff something into her mouth. A cracker. An entire cracker.

She choked instantly, sincerely, without pretense. She choked as if she might die.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, exploded from my adrenal gland, tensing my muscles. 

I picked her up, and hit her back hard. She opened her mouth wide, yet continued to choke. I hit her back hard again. She put her fingers to her mouth, choking.

My family stood frozen. I thought of my wife and sister brazenly smoking outside.

Ella’s complexion transformed, from toddler-pink to scary-blue. I hit her back hard again, and the cracker sailed from her mouth into her hand. Then, in one swift movement, she placed the cracker right back in her mouth.

It was then, with a hostility that surprised even me, that I stuck my own finger into her mouth, and removing the cracker, shouted, “Ella, bad girl!”

She burst into tears. Squirming away from the father who’d just saved her life, she pleaded to her grandmothers, to her uncle Mike, to anyone who might listen, “My cracker!”

Last night, under a darkening sky with spots of sunlight, I took Ella for an after-dinner walk to Knight’s Park.

Halfway down the block, our neighbor, the knife sharpener, called form his porch, “Storm’s comin’.”

Hoping to abort our mission–and to return home to my tasks–I pointed up, and said, “Look, Ella, storm’s comin’.”

She took off, as she does, running down the sidewalk, her arms flailing, her little shoes never touching the ground, her body leaning forward, her momentum at any moment threatening to propel her into the pavement.

“Running,” she squealed. “Running, running, running…”

“Careful, Ella,” I said, chasing her, as I do, ready at any moment to scoop her up.

I let her run up and down the neighboring blocks, diverting her, until her sense of direction bettered my misdirection and we found ourselves at Knight Park, standing before her favorite swing set.

Just then, the sky rumbled deeply. 

“Go home?” Ella asked.

I scooped her up. “Storm’s comin’?”

“Storm’s comin’,” she affirmed, wrapping her arms around my neck. “Go home?”

And so we walked under a leaden and supernatural sky, as the clouds billowed, and a strong wind sent the wind chimes clanging strange music, and Ella, holding tight, asked, “Go home?”

“Go home,” I said, lying. “Storm’s comin’.”

As a steady rain broke from the clouds, we walked down an alley, peeping into our neighbor’s windows, to the bright kitchens. When we passed a rickety shed with its windows lit red, I said, “Look, Bunky.”

Burrowing her head into my shoulder, she said, “Scared, Daddy.”

“Daddy’s here,” I said, hugging her tightly. “Daddy’s here.”

I do not believe it is my duty to teach Ella to fear. However, in my selfish heart, I do believe it is my duty to teach Ella that the antidote to fear is her father.

In any case, we headed home. It wasn’t until we hit our street, when I saw Karen standing on our front porch, peering out to the street, worried, that I felt a selfish need to commemorate the occasion.

I set Ella down on a stoop and snapped a quick picture. I’ve been looking at the picture all day. Her expression surprises me; it defies my memory. To me, she looks like her usual sly self. I see no fear at all. I can’t help thinking: perhaps she wasn’t scared at all. Perhaps I walked down that alley, in the opposite direction of home, because I needed her to hold me tightly. Perhaps I needed to feel myself protecting her. Perhaps I needed the inconvenient hug.

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