I put on a pair of beige Capri pants, a white headband, and a crisp white shirt with a collar that stood up like bat’s wings. I was trying to channel Laura Petrie. While Laura was bone thin and had spindly arms like Audrey Hepburn, and I have curves like a bell and breasts like a Latvian, today is my 49th birthday. It’s time to start doing what I want and being who I want, even if some think I look silly. I still remember being in 11th grade, an age when you begin to exercise your individuality, and walking out of my bedroom wearing army green parachute pants and high top sneakers with rainbow laces, and in front of my friend my mother said, “You’re not really going out like that, are you?” I think she was sometimes embarrassed about the way I dressed, or the way I swore, or how I didn’t send thank you notes when someone gave me a gift, because she felt it reflected poorly on her.
I’d already decided that in honor of my birthday, I was going out to breakfast with my 19-month old son, Eddie. It was a brave move given that Eddie’s now at the stage where he throws things constantly and sometimes yells so loudly and in such a high pitch, I expect glass to shatter and car alarms to go off. I decided to pack a lot of toys and get a table outside.
The bag of toys contained five plastic farm animals, four spongy rhinos, multi-colored nesting balls, a car with the button that plays rap music from South Central L.A., a couple of matchbox cars, and a little chipmunk that when you press down on his head says, “I’m Theodore. Ha ha ha.” As soon as we sat down, I lined up all the toys along the edge of the table. I then set out some peanut butter cereal puffs, placing one puff in each little groove of the table’s wrought iron design.
A young waitress walked by and looked at the display of toys. “You’re such a good mother,” she said. “Most mothers come in here with nothing and say, ‘Do you have a crayon and a piece of paper?’ ”
I smiled and thought, she doesn’t know the half of it. Just an hour earlier, as I was changing Eddie on the diaper table, I handed him a little plush lamb to play with, and he winged it at my face. So I threw it back at him. I didn’t throw it hard, and it was a fluffy little animal not likely to hurt anyone. But I threw an object at my child. I could hear my pediatrician’s voice saying, “He may start hitting you. Resist the urge to hit him back.” I did not resist. I rationalized that I wanted him to learn it’s not nice to throw things in people’s faces. The truth is, I was pissed he keeps hitting me in the face and throwing things at me. He looked up at me, his mouth made the little “O” shape that always precedes a cry, and he began to bawl. Heartbroken, I grabbed him and hugged him and began to cry, myself, and said, “Stupid mommy. That was really stupid. Stupid Mommy.” I then slapped myself lightly on the hand. “I should not have thrown that at you.” Great, I thought. Now he’s going to think I’m stupid. Or that he should slap himself on the hand when he does something wrong. Or that I’m cruel. Or that I’m erratic, throwing things one minute, and then crying and feeling badly about it the next. When you’re born feeling wrong, there’s nowhere to turn that feels right.
In the restaurant, Eddie played with the little animals I’d lined up, but after a couple of minutes, he tossed one of the rhinos on to the floor. And then another. As I bent down to pick it up, the waitress came with our food. I started to cut up Eddie’s blueberry pancakes into bite-size pieces, squeezed a thin stream of syrup on top in a circular motion, paused, then thinking I was being chintzy, squirt on a little more. I slid the plate over to Eddie, and he picked up a piece and put it in his mouth. He began to chew it and then started to spit it back out in a spray, as if to say, “I reject this.”
“Oh, c’mon. You like pancakes,” I said. I picked up a piece and put it in his mouth. He ate it and then he reached down for another and pushed it into his mouth. I watched him as he chewed, waiting for him to spit the food back out, but he swallowed it. I felt relief. I watched him eat another piece and swallow it, and then another. Phew, I thought. I can now relax and eat. I looked down at my plate and began to cut up my eggs when I felt a piece of pancake hit my arm.
“Eddie!” I said.
He picked up another piece and flung it at my shorts.
“Stop it!” I said.
He picked up another piece and threw it at my pressed white shirt. It left a purple blueberry stain just below my breast. There’s a commercial out now for a bank in which a baby is sitting in a highchair, and the narrator says, “But it’s more money!” The baby responds by throwing a fistful of cereal in the narrator’s face. The ad made me laugh. Not anymore. Eddie continued to throw pieces of sticky blueberry pancake at me like a monkey winging feces at passersby, until I grabbed his little fist.
“Enough!” I said.
I stood up and took his plate and placed it on the seat next to him, out of his reach. I sat back down and began to eat my breakfast. But I felt funny eating in front of him when he didn’t have any food. I tried to give him some of my egg, then a piece of corned beef hash, but as the fork got near his mouth, he’d push it away with his hand and say, “No!” I took out the bag of peanut butter cereal and put some out onto the table. He began eating the little puffs, once piece at a time.
A family of four sat down at the table next to us. A man with a little white dog sat down at the table on the other side of me. I suddenly felt uncomfortable, fearing if Eddie misbehaved now, my parenting skills – such as they are — would be on display. I reassured myself that people go out to breakfast to talk amongst themselves. They won’t even notice me. And if they did, people are never as judgmental as I think they are.
Just then, a man road by on a bicycle that had a wagon attached to it, and sitting inside the wagon was his son. They were riding in the road, and as they passed our line of tables, the traffic light turned red and they had to wait. The man straddled his bicycle while his son sat quietly in the wagon sucking his thumb.
“Now that’s riding in style,” said the mother at the table next to me.
“Uh huh,” said her husband.
The traffic light changed, and the father and son took off, and before they’d even gone a block, the mother next to me said, “You know that boy should be wearing a helmet. It’s dangerous for him to be riding in the back like that without a helmet.”
“You’re right,” said her husband.
Soon, an older couple arrived and walked over to the table with the young man and his dog. The older woman was pushing a double-baby carriage with twin boys. Her husband sat down, and the woman tried to push the carriage up to the table, but the front wheel kept jamming. Her husband stood up and rocked the carriage back and forth until the wheel straightened out.
The woman, who appeared to be the children’s grandmother, took two juice boxes out of her handbag, unwrapped them and handed one to each child. Eddie and I watched them like it was a spectator sport.
“How old are they?” I asked.
“Two,” the woman said. “The terrible two’s.”
I looked over at the two boys, who were sitting there quietly drinking juice. The woman then took a roll of Ritz crackers out of her bag and opened it and handed a cracker to each child.
“Do they throw things?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. They throw things all the time,” said the woman’s husband. “They like to throw things over a barrier, like the porch railing.”
“Oh, yeah. He does that all the time,” I said, pointing to Eddie. “But no, I mean do they throw things at you.”
“Oh, at me? Never! That’s no good. You gotta nip that in the bud. Give him a little rap on the hand,” he said, rapping himself on the hand to illustrate. “Not hard. But a little rap. You have to be firm.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said. I looked over at his grandchildren, who were silently eating their crackers like little soldiers. I then turned to Eddie, who was jabbering nonsensically as he brushed the remains of his peanut butter cereal puffs onto the floor. I so didn’t want to be the parent who is embarrassed of her child’s behavior, who measures her child against other children and finds they sometimes come up short, and yet here I was, being, well, my mother.
I chatted with the grandparents for a little while longer, and after a couple of minutes, I gathered up all of Eddie’s toys and dumped our barely-eaten breakfast plates into Styrofoam containers. I then grabbed Eddie, and we were off. When I got into my car, I looked down at the blueberry stain on my pressed white shirt and thought, so much for Laura Petrie.
That night, my husband and I took Eddie down to the boardwalk to hear some music. Our small town has a summer orchestra that plays Wednesday nights, and I wanted Eddie to hear it. My son loves music. From the time he was four months old, I would hold him up on top of my desk or our kitchen table and he would sway to the beat of Santana. For his first birthday, someone gave him a drum, some cymbals and a tambourine. I’ll sometimes put on the Beatles, and he marches around the kitchen playing all three instruments in succession. He plays the giant leaves of our neighbor’s hosta plant as if they were a bongo drum. He plays my guitar like a dulcimer, holding it flat on his lap and plucking the strings and tapping the frets to make harmonics. He once found a rectangular piece of yellow plastic in our local park that had obviously broken off a child’s toy, and he began to strum it like a harp.
When we first took him to see this summer band a few weeks ago, I tried to introduce him to all of the instruments. I stood in front of the band with him in my arms, and when the flutes played, I ran over to the flute section and showed him what was making the sound. When the trumpets played, I ran over to the brass section and pointed out the trumpets. He saw a full drum set, and a standing xylophone, a tuba and clarinets. And he was enthralled. He would watch in silence, and at the end of each piece, he would applaud.
When we arrived at the boardwalk on my birthday, the music had already begun. The moment my son heard it, he began to stomp his feet and move his right arm up and down as if he were snapping his fingers. While there were several other children there, Eddie was the only one dancing. He stood in the middle of the boardwalk stomping and swaying to the music. He then began to spin. And he spun, and he spun, and he spun, like a whirling dervish. And as I watched him, I thought, my child is absolutely perfect the way he is.