“There!” says Rory, pushing flaxen strands of hair away from her face and waving a sheet of paper in the air. “My birthday wist is done!” I have been watching Rory work on this list for half an hour, divining birthday inspiration from the air with a wandering pointer finger, her tongue poking out sideways from between her lips. She turns five in April. Her wish list includes happy face balloons, a “Barbie Girl cake from Target,” bowling, Angry Birds (the pig is worth 105 points, she adds; the bird, 109), a scavenger hunt, pizza and Cheetos, Wuggle Pets, and a 6-volt battery-operated princess convertible. “And that’s all I want on my birthday!”
Rory was born sweet, almost preternaturally so: communicating her pleasure with the wiggles and flexes of her toes, pressing herself into the tucks of our arms, asking to sit in our “waps” and begging to be tickled. She surrenders herself to mischief and joy; she laughs with her entire body. Her latest infatuation is tricking my husband into looking away – usually by distraction – and then punching him in the face. (I warned him not to encourage her, but he finds it endlessly amusing and so, apparently, does Rory.) Her sweetness makes it difficult to deny her of the objects that captivate her, which typically involve bright colors, princesses, Hello Kitty, or sparkles – sometimes all at once. Financial necessity demands that I be strict, though I don’t want to be: I love to revel in the radiant glow of her smile. When I turn her down, her eyes brim with enormous tears. Her shoulders slump forward as she walks away, slowly dragging her feet along the floor, the picture of defeat. But even then she remains sweet to the core. “I wuv you, mom,” she says, curling into my lap at the end of the day. “I wuv you even though you didn’t get me the Wuggle Pets at Target.”
My mom used to tell me that I was a sweet little girl. I wish I had pressed her for specific details. Did I sing the way Rory does: a soft birdsong that warbles and flaps like a little finch in the spring? Did expressions light my face, eliciting enchantment from anyone lucky enough to witness the flutter of bright golden green eyes or the freckles I adore so much in Rory? Did I cup my thin fingers over my mouth while giggling, or waggle my elbows while doing the chicken dance around the dinner table? Did I smile to wake up each morning? Perhaps, as with many things, the overriding impression supplanted the precise details and mom wouldn’t have remembered. But I should have asked, because now there isn’t anyone to answer these questions the way my mother would have.
Being able to stay home with Rory is a treasure for which I am immeasurably grateful. I missed an important chapter of my son’s youth while I worked full-time, precious years of Kai’s toddlerhood I can’t ever recapture. I remind myself of this whenever I start to feel guilty or anxious about my decision to be, first and foremost, a mom. Staying home allows me to celebrate Rory’s lovely, tender beauty. I get to witness her kindness: how she tucks in her stuffed animals each night; how she treats her favorite toy – a tattered grey-blue Eeyore hand puppet that she’s had since she was born – like her child, eagerly ascending the stairs to see it and calling out, “Oh, Puppet Eeyore! I’m hoooome!” I see Rory as an emissary for good: delivering hugs, high fives, and muppet-like cheer (in her inexplicable New York accent) to the students who attend the school where my husband works. I live in a blessing.
I’ve kept a journal for Rory, committing myself to actively remembering the details I know I will forget. (I also keep one for my son, Kai.) I’d forgotten how, as a baby, Rory smelled like French bread. She gave me such powerful cravings in utero that I referred to her as the Barracuda. I forgot that she was born on Good Friday and slept through the night at two months. She flapped her arms like a bird for the first time at seven months and hasn’t stopped since. I forgot that Kai used to refer to her as “Beddy Woody” (Baby Rory), and that Rory used to call her Eeyore “Yeye.” I don’t want to forget that this morning, Rory lifted the edge of the living room rug, found a penny, and exclaimed, “Hey, mom! Wook! I’m a wucky ducky!” I don’t want to forget that these ordinary, seemingly uneventful days will become the deeply rooted memories that shape their growing lives. The journals help me remember.
Rory has been picking out her clothes and dressing herself since she was three. I usually do not intervene because I respect how she chooses to express herself. She coordinates her clothes by color and theme, and she is quick to compliment others on their fashion choices. Rory knows how to rock a look. Last week, her preschool hosted pajama day. Rory opted to wear her two-piece, neon pink, button-down Dora pajamas, though she has several other pairs of pajamas that are much easier to put on and are more comfortable. She accessorized her pajamas with blue and white snow boots and a pair of purple Hello Kitty sunglasses. On that day, her clothes did not match, but it didn’t matter because she didn’t care… and neither did I. Rory strutted.
We went to the grocery store after I picked her up from preschool. I handed Rory one of the store’s wheeled baskets. She pulled it behind her as we shopped, backing it up (“Beep, beep, beep!”) and maneuvering it from side to side. At checkout, she almost toppled over as she lifted a gallon of milk from the cart, insisting: “I can do it, mom. I can do it!” She placed the pork loin, basil leaf, blueberries, and sliced provolone on the conveyer belt. The cashier smirked at me over the register. As we left, Rory said, “You carry the milk, and I’ll take the bags.” I dutifully carried the gallon of milk. She hoisted a bag in each of her hands with a Schwarzenegger-worthy grunt, and carried the bags out to the car. When we arrived home, she brought in the bags, set them down on the beige kitchen floor, smiled up at me, and said, “I’m a good shoppa, right mom?”
“Yes, dear, you’re wonderful,” I said, reaching out to smooth her hair, which wisps in a perpetual shroud of static electricity.
“I’m a good cooka, too, right mom?”
“The best,” I said, smiling. “You keep cooking with me and you might become the next Julia Child!”
Rory nodded. “Okay!” Retrieving her apron from where we’ve tied it to the pantry, she put the apron on and said, “Okay, so first we put our hair back and wash our hands, right?” Then she went to the bathroom to get her step-stool.
We assembled the necessary ingredients and made small cheesecake-inspired fruit tarts to hand out to students and faculty at the school. The tarts were a hit, but it was Rory’s response that pleased me the most. She licked the cupcake liner clean and gathered the crust crumbs that had fallen on the table. “Mommy,” she raved, “this is the most dewicious cheesecake you’ve ever made! I can’t bewieve how good this is!”
My mom didn’t have the luxury of staying home with my sister or me; as a single mom, she did everything she could do to survive. Now that I have had the opportunity to work from home and be present in the lives of my children as they grow, I understand what a luxury it truly is to view life as a celebration of emotional and spiritual well-being, a repository for memories that I would never dare erase. Rory reminds me everyday.