Looking back almost four decades is rather like peering through a spyglass, the small end pressed to your eye, the broad end exposing a suddenly wide field of memories, visual, visceral, intellectual and emotional. A time travel machine would be the most ideal mechanism for these journeys but as those remain a fantasy, I rely on my memory and my photos. I suppose it wasn’t a surprise that our toddler had early on developed a strong interest in music, as from birth we’d placed her little portable bed right beneath our stereo speakers, hoping to ensure that we’d be able to continue keeping up the volume which was part of daily life for the previous decade before she showed up. She started with one-hit wonders, particularly those that had catchy hooks like Mickey by Toni Basil, Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners, Whirly Girl by Oxo and My Sharona by The Knack. I think Michael made her first Greatest Hits cassette when she was just a little thing. More sophisticated tastes would evolve over time.
We’d heard all about the terrible two’s when the adorable little baby whose every move was precious suddenly turned into a contrarian, a toddling dictator who challenged authority from morning until night. Certainly our girl tested the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but for the most part, as older parents, we were rarely undone by her flexing her burgeoning skills and powers. She was attending a new day care center closer to home, a comfortable facility whose policies reflected our childrearing philosophy. Even at this early age, certain character traits which would remain consistent as she grew, began to manifest themselves in this setting. Her teachers told us that though she appeared to be happy, she often seemed separate from her classmates, frequently an observer rather than a participant. She was generous but also a bit remote. She was an irrepressible flirt who alternated between adoring her three favorite boys, Ira, Cody and Jason. She was an early talker who was verbally challenging, loaded with questions and very curious. Michael and I found her company endlessly entertaining. Her frequent ear infections caused high fevers which rarely made her grumpy, instead stimulating endless delirious chatter as she sat burning on our bed.
She liked reading and was physically active. Generally we felt she was an easy little kid. She could entertain herself and was quite specific about what she liked to do. Her favorite toys were little plastic Fisher Price people who had holes in their centers, perfect places for small fingers. She’d slide them onto every one but her thumbs which we’d then arrange for her. She’d walk through the house, clacking them all together until she decided to line them in neat rows on the window sills. When she built towers they were always taller than she was, straight up with few levels involved. Kind of like her orderly, straightforward practical approach to life.
We took her with us everywhere. We went to Chicago to visit my family and to Florida to visit Michael’s parents. An unfussy traveler in cars or on airplanes, we were comfortable hauling her around to petting zoos, pumpkin farms and swimming pools. She was under two years old when she took her first train trip with my sister and me. Her two year birthday took place in her room in her day care center. By three, we were hosting all her classmates at home. I still remember using two old doors as outdoor tables so the kids could sit on the grass while they ate. I also remember doubling the recipe for a giant chocolate sheet cake which I dropped on the kitchen floor where it immediately cracked in half. I picked it up and piled layers of frosting on the seam to hold it together, adding an M&M border around the edges and the middle to disguise the break. Miraculously no one got sick after eating their slices.
Perhaps almost as interesting as E’s personal growth was ours, both as people and as parents. Those first few years with our baby had drawn Michael and me all in as dad and mom. We still made sure that we had regular date nights together so we could nurture us. The ability to do that was mostly thanks to the young employees from his music store, who were eager to be in a house instead of a student apartment in addition to making some extra cash. But we wanted to spend plenty of time with our kid since we were apart from her during the work week. We also wanted her to be surrounded by family and friends. My younger sister and her husband lived in our community which was a wonderful gift. Our friends embraced our daughter which provided the bonus of having interested adults who read to her, played with her and poured affection on her.
But as we built our family unit, our relationships with our families of origin shifted. For the most part, my parents were wonderful to all of us. They were generous with both their time and with helping us if we had hard times financially. The primary issue I had with them was their overarching fearful approach to life. They were nervous and superstitious, traits that had powerfully affected me as I grew up. I was constantly waging an internal battle against their admonitions, trying to overcome their warnings about the perceived dangers lurking around every corner. Always a person who thought carefully about my choices, in their eyes I seemed reckless, simply for doing what so many people would deem normal. I was determined to not infect my kid with these irrational ideas. So I often found myself pushing back on their opinions in a more assertive way than I’d done prior to being a parent. I still remember my mom saying, “what happened to you – you used to be so sweet?” I wanted my daughter to be free of all those mental and emotional fetters. As for Michael, he got along well with my parents, sharing genuine affection for them and they with him. The good news was that we were in agreement about most of life’s big questions.
Despite those residual reservations about “the fear factor,” when I finally decided I could stand to be away from our little girl overnight when she was just over three years old, we left her with my parents in Chicago while we took off for a long weekend in the quaint historic town of Galena, Illinois. When I anxiously checked in to see how she was doing she was too busy enjoying herself to speak with me. I felt lucky to have people I trusted watch our kid while we took a break.
The relationship between us and Michael’s parents was far more complicated. Frankly, I have no idea how he emerged from his household. He diverged from them in virtually every way, emotionally, intellectually and politically. He was a mystery to them, a person who defied their expectations of who their son should be. His analysis was that they were so busy trying to mold his older sister into their image of her that by the time they turned their attention toward him, he was already beyond their reach. When we met early on in Michael’s and my relationship, I knew immediately that we had virtually nothing in common but him. I also learned about the complexities of the parent/child dynamic. As much as they annoyed and disappointed Michael, he couldn’t fathom abandoning his efforts to be family with them. As the years passed before we had our own child, I was able to let their irritating behavior and social attitudes roll off my back. But when we had our daughter all that changed. From the beginning, what was clear was their desire to mold her in the same way they’d tried and failed to mold their own children. I loved Michael and was willing to try making things work but not at the expense of my principles and certainly not at the expense of my child. And so began a delicate balancing act of coping with these deeply irritating people. I distinctly remember the first shots over the psychological bow when my mother-in-law insisted that our girl needed a Cabbage Patch doll because they were the rage and all little girls had one. We requested that they not buy it but they showed up with one anyway. A small thing, to be sure, but one which foreshadowed future conflicts and an ultimate breach in the family. But that’s a later story.
In the meantime, aside from those issues we were leading a happy life. Michael and I put our kid to bed and spent evenings at home with friends, playing cards with friends at our dining room table.
We enjoyed our summers, spending time in our yard and at local parks.
We took E and her buddy Ira to the county fair in the summer where they rode kiddie cars and ate cotton candy.
I became a Halloween costume maker, a butterfly one for age two and a ballerina one for age three. Those were fun things to do which went a long way in comforting me during those times when I felt sad at being away at work so often. Time moved so quickly.
Michael was an attentive, engaged dad, not always 50/50, but a good 40/60. The whole growing a family thing was settling in well with all of us.
The year 1984 ended with the annual holiday party at E’s day care center. She and her oldest friend whom she’d met when she was eight months and he was ten months old, played the parts of Mrs. and Mr. Claus in the staged performance by all the kids. Next up – 1985 and age four.