This morning as I stood in front of Eddie’s high chair feeding him breakfast, he stuck his hand into his bowl of oatmeal and banana and grabbed a fistful.
“Noooo!” I exclaimed and yanked the bowl away.
He looked at me, paused, and then let out a wail. I considered putting the bowl back in front of him and letting him swish his little fist around in it, but my neat sensibilities wouldn’t allow it.
I don’t seem like a neat person. My hair is sometimes unruly. My shirt tails stick out in the back. I’ve dropped a dab of food front and center on so many of my shirts, it looks like a family crest. But the thought of Eddie having food on his face and hair, and of cleaning it off his high chair, was too much. I ran over to the paper towel rack and grabbed one, held it under the warm water, and ran back to the high chair before his porridge-encrusted little hands could cover any more ground.
I don’t know if I’m supposed to let him root around in the food with his hands. I can’t tell if it would be a freeing exercise that would embolden him and give him a sense of independence, or if it’s a bad habit I should nip in the bud. I handed him a spoon. He threw it on the floor.
I tried to make up for having pulled the bowl away by waiting until it was nearly empty and then holding it low enough for him to reach in. “Go ahead,” I said and braced myself. He looked down at the bowl and then up at me, and he let out a wail.
My husband, Bruce, lets Eddie play with his food like it’s finger paints. Perhaps that’s why the baby likes Bruce better than me. But Bruce doesn’t have to clean up the high chair afterward, digging into its seams and holes that have gotten plugged up with sweet potato and broccoli. I do. Bruce makes an effort to clean the chair, but it’s like the effort he puts into making the bed: whatever can be done with one hand and one eye in less than one minute. I usually have to give the chair a once-over after Bruce has cleaned it, to get the remaining bits he missed.
Every afternoon, the babysitter is here, and I’m upstairs in my office working for a few hours, and when I emerge, I find her sitting in the middle of the living room floor with Eddie, surrounded by all of his toys. The three different kinds of blocks are blended together. The plastic boat has been dumped and all of its primary colored shapes – the red squares, blue circles and yellow hexagons – have been scattered. Pieces from three different puzzles are in different parts of the room like families that have been separated by war.
I love the sight of it, the randomness, the freedom it exudes. If toys could sing, they would be belting out a discordant note but boldly and happily. And yet after the babysitter leaves, I spend the next 15 minutes putting the puzzle pieces back in their respective slots, the circle-, square – and hexagon – shaped plastic pieces back inside the boat, and each of the different types of blocks back into their respective boxes. The toys then go back into the toy chest we use as a coffee table — though I place the two wooden puzzles and the bead maze on top of the toy chest in case Eddie wants to play with them. I like the way it makes the room feel like a kindergarten classroom – though one you might find on the cover of Country Living magazine.
I like the boat with the primary-colored shapes. It appeals to my sense of order. The boat has colored windows that match the colored shapes, and I like pushing the shapes through the appropriate windows. In fact I have a hard time playing with the boat with Eddie because as soon as I’ve dumped the shapes out on the floor so we can play with them, I’m putting them back in the holes and cleaning them up.
I clean up everything. I gave Eddie a bowl of dry Cheerios this morning. Four times he dumped them out on the floor as he was eating them, and four times I picked them up and put them back into the bowl. The upside? He would get excited every time he saw the bowl filled anew. The downside? His mother’s a wing nut. I might as well be following him around the room with a brush and dustpan.
It’s not hard to see where I got it. My parents were neat and orderly. My father tried his hand at painting once by drawing a grid on top of a playing card and copying the image in each box onto a canvas until he had replicated the card precisely. My mother loved to do crafts, but everything she made had a pristine little bow on the front of it like a birthday present.
There’s a story in my family folklore in which my mother and I were at my paternal grandmother’s house, and when my grandmother went to feed me soup for dinner, she spilled it onto the floor in front of me.
“What are you doing?” my mother shrieked, to which my grandmother replied, “It’s going to end up on the floor anyway. Why not start it off down there.”
“My daughter is not an animal,” my mother said. She told on my grandmother when my father got home.
I like the babysitter’s scattered approach, but it comes at a cost. She takes a similarly scattered approach with her personal belongings. She’s lost her wallet, her keys, and her coat in the short time I’ve known her. And she always brings a black and silver coffee cup when she arrives but rarely remembers to take it home when she goes. Yesterday, she left her cell phone on our counter.
I try to make up for my Stalinist approach to toy-playing by being zany. I acquired the giant Easter Bunny Eddie once saw in a shop window, and when the light in it didn’t work, I replaced it. A glowing bunny now stands three feet tall in our kitchen, next to the Christmas bubble lights and the light-up Chanukah lights I strung in the doorway. I pull out the bubble wand and surround Eddie in a cloud of bubbles when he seems blue. When he pulled all of the tissues out of a new tissue box, I didn’t scold him. I held a few of them over the heating vent until they floated up in the air and then danced to the ground like feathers.
Yesterday, our babysitter sat Eddie inside a little seat in one of his toys. It wasn’t really a seat but rather an indentation in the toy that used to be covered by a plastic piece that’s since broken off. After putting Eddie in there for a moment, the babysitter picked up his Winnie the Pooh doll and placed the doll in the seat. Eddie looked at the bear, pulled him out of the seat and neatly placed him back in the toy box where he belonged.