True South

The Child Files

Kids say, well, whatever pops into their blessedly sweet heads

By Susan S. Kelly

Whenever “the world is too much with us,” as William Wordsworth so prettily put it, or current events and crises and confusion threaten to crumple me, I first read Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” taped to my computer monitor. Then I pull up YouTube, and Hugh Grant’s voiceover opening lines of Love, Actually. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport . . .”

Then, naturally, I head for my Child Files.

Next to my Miscellaneous File (because where else do you stash something like “Mules and mushrooms have no gender,” and “New wallpaper smells like Band-Aids”?), my Child File is the thickest. Sure, I dutifully listed all minutiae in their baby albums — first word, first tooth, first haircut — but the Child File contains far more pertinent information. It’s a kind of record, repository, evidence of, the skills my children came by, created, and/or appropriated for survival as adults. Darwin’s theories had nothing on my three kiddoes (and what you told me about yours).

On avoidance: When I lecture my oldest, he clips a pen to his leg hair.

On socialization: “If you miss lunch, you miss everything,” my daughter complained if I scheduled her doctor’s appointment late morning. She also whined if the carpool came too early, thus denying her another op for elementary school drama. In addition, the all-day sulk because she’d forgotten it was a dress-down day and she’d worn dress code to school.

On negotiation/the art of the deal: My son receives a $10 gift certificate at Harris Teeter for a tip, and then tries to sell it to me for $9. Why nine and not 10? I ask. “I’m trying to sweeten the deal,” he says.

My 16-year-old is cleaning out his collection of . . . liquor bottles. His 8-year-old sister wants the cool Absolut vodka bottle, for which he makes her pay him $2 and smell his feet. The amazing aspect to this sibling transaction is that it takes place without my ever being aware. No one pleads; no one fights. Both think they got a good deal. Later, my daughter shows me the newly acquired bottle with pride, and tells me how she came to possess it. With no trace of humiliation.

On growing up: My son and his post-college roommates bickering in a Costco aisle, then resorting to rock-paper-scissors to determine what they’ll buy. As far as I can tell, rock-paper-scissors informed 90% of his decisions at that age.

Other son eating pancake batter because it was the only thing he could afford at that age.

Daughter asking, “How do you know when you’re grown up?” Oldest child immediately answers, “When no one writes your name in your clothes anymore.”

Nephew who composed an outline before he wrote the thank-you note to his girlfriend’s mother.

On higher education: My son’s announcement that his teacher told the class that every Emily Dickinson poem can be sung to the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Other son’s announcement that he has dropped Statistics 11 for the History of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Son’s wholly serious question the night before second grade begins: “Mom, do I have to take math this year?”

Nephew’s entire essay content on What I Like About People: I like their houses and toys and that’s about it.

On ownership rights: The handwritten note left in the dried-up, sugar-stiffened, flake-crusted Krispy Kreme box containing a lone doughnut: DO NOT EAT THIS IT IS MINE.

On illness: “I blew my nose so hard that air came out of my eyes,” my son informed me.

On coping with ennui, from my daughter: “When I get bored, I either like to organize things or try on clothes.”

From my son, who is tired of me reading all the time: “Watch. I can predict what Mom is reading right now, I’m psychic. She’s reading ‘the.’”

Same son, leaning over lawn mower and breathing in the gasoline fumes: “Watch, Mom. I’m getting dumber.”

The 9-year-old daughter and her friend are playing a game called Make Me Laugh, which involves putting on some music and dancing. How nice, I think; how cute. When I come downstairs, the Make Me Laugh laughter abruptly ceases. Slow dawning of humiliation: The pair are dancing and laughing to my music, finding it all just too, too hilarious.

Older, non-eyeglass-wearing brother to younger brother, who’s finally, gleefully, getting contact lenses: “The first thing the doctor does when they measure you for contacts is give you a shot in your eyeball.”

(Actually, that entry might go hand-in-hand with the sibling argument it interrupted, wherein the two combatants were arguing over who had peed last and therefore had to go back upstairs and flush the toilet.)

Bless the child, then, unwitting antidote for adult existential angst. OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.

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