February 22, 2008
Four-year-old Gabrielle is teaching herself to read. Her eager little eyes peer over my shoulder as I sound out words with her older brother Stephen. I catch her later, mouthing the stories as she works her way through a stack of early readers. She is teaching herself to write, too. She sneaks bits of lined paper from our school supplies and practices her letters until she can phonetically caption her crayoned drawing: “PRITEE GRL.”
Long, sandy-brown pigtails hang down over the paper as she works. She wears princess dresses and buckles her own shoes. She can set the table, wash a window, and sweep the floor. (She has not yet figured out that Cinderella gave up doing these things once she became a princess.)
A mother can feel torn as she watches her children growing up and gaining new skills and independence. On the one hand, there is the joy and satisfaction of seeing their natural progression and development of new abilities. But then there is always a certain sadness, almost a feeling of betrayal, at the sight of our little ones doing so well on their own without us.
“My baby!” we want to cry out as we snatch them away from the world and hold them close until we can make them need us again. Senseless, maybe, but that’s motherhood for you.
Well, Gabrielle and I have struck a deal about her growing up. I will let her do it, I have told her, as long as she still lets me call her my “baby girl” sometimes. She agreed. And it’s a good thing, too. Because any mother knows the difficulty with which we give up such language.
Years ago, at an Easter Sunday family gathering, Gabrielle managed to commandeer a flowered, pink hair clip from one of her cousins. She placed it on her toddler head and there it stayed. Really. With the kind of nonsensical obsession only a two-year-old can exhibit, she wore that hair clip 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in the lake, in the tub, and in her bed, without ever once taking it off.
Sometimes she would feel it coming loose in her hair and a small panic would ensue. Her tiny hands would cover her head; “Oh no, Mama! Oh no, my pip! My pip!” she would cry. Only once it was securely refastened to her head would she calm down.
Of course I would have to remove the “pip” whenever I gave her a shampoo. And of course this was never well-received. With great fanfare, I would place it gently on the edge of the tub where she would watch it with a careful eye until after the final rinse when I replaced the precious “pip” on her head.
That is just how it was. And that is how I figured it would always be. I envisioned my daughter walking down the aisle on her wedding day sometime in the hazy future with a weathered pink “pip” beneath her veil.
But then came the day I bought some new headbands for my older daughter, Juliette. These beauties were made of sparkling plastic in a variety of girlish colors. They were pale pink and magenta. They were ruby red, gold, lavender, and deep purple. They were irresistible.
Off went the “pip” — for good. In its place, over time, Gabby has sported pink plastic headbands, velvet scrunchies, bejeweled barrettes, and all manner of girlie hair accessories, all the way down to today’s hot pink, butterfly-adorned pigtail elastics.
I remember finding the old, beloved “pip” on the vanity in the bathroom one morning long after it had been abandoned. I held it and studied it for just a moment in my hand. It was cracked down the middle and its lavender flowers were fading. It was just a tiny piece of metal and plastic.
So why did such a ridiculous thing make me ache inside?
Because some irrational part of me wishes that I could hold back time. Because some absurd part of every mother wants her children to remain exactly as they are forever. Because small changes bring to mind the bigger ones, the inevitable ones, the painful ones that are to come. Because God makes a mother to drink up and love every last tiny bit of what makes her children who they are — all the way down to the pip.