It’s a perfect Sunday morning in January. Mati and I slept in late.
With the luxury of lounging in bed, today I read a David Sedaris story that made me laugh – literally – until I cried. It was a scene from his childhood in which he and his sisters laugh uncontrollably at their flatulent grandmother at the dinner table, until they are snorting and spraying milk out their noses. This immediately took me back to our kitchen on the farm, giggling at great Aunt Mame, a 90-something distant relative from England. A ‘spinster maid,’ as my mom said, who was shipped around to various family members who put her up until their patience was drained.
A city dweller all her life, Aunt Mame was miserable on the farm, enduring endless weeks spent staring out the kitchen window to the barren cornfields. “Three cars passed by today,” she’d report to the family at dinner. After dinner she washed dishes for my mom, a white apron tied over her floral dress, thick, flesh-colored stockings wrapped like bandages around her bony, vein-trodden legs. My brothers and I crawled stealthily around the kitchen cabinets to watch her, holding back giggles and waiting for her to start farting. She emitted long, deep, whaling noises, the sound vacillating as she shuffled from the sink to the cupboard, clutching a dish and a rag. We’d shriek with delight then run and tumble back to the safety of the living room where my parents watched the evening news.
“Leave that poor old lady alone,” dad shouted. And suddenly the memory was vivid – the acrid smoke from the fireplace, my father’s voice, the sensation of sliding on stockinged feet across the wood floor, my brothers slugging and shoving me. It came rushing back, so real, and my hysterical laughing turned to sobbing. A time when my beloved father was still here. A time when my brothers didn’t hate me, I thought. And there flashed a vision of me at 9 years old. The introverted, straight-A student. The mousy but helpful – “I’ll clean the bathroom!”- only girl in the family. And I realized that nothing had changed, they’d always hated me.
After a good cry I immediately identified the scraping sound that came from outside my light-blocking curtains as snow shoveling. I pulled back the curtain suddenly, like Ebenizer on Christmas morning, and there it was: the snow covered wonderland that we love, Mati and I. And of course, that was Adam outside shoveling the driveway – the only kid in the universe who wakes up spontaneously at 5 am. Mati is convinced he does this just to annoy him personally.
I creep quietly down the hall to Mati’s darkened room and peer around the door. I’m a big proponent of letting a kid sleep in, something I’d vowed to the universe as a child when my father roused us on weekend mornings for chores – the animals are hungry! When I would momentarily regret ownership of my ponies and pet sheep, the chickens and ducks, the cow…
As I enter his room, Mati shoves his cell phone under the comforter and I pretend I don’t see. “Morning, sweetie.” I curl up on the bottom bunk with him, planting a kiss on his warm cheek. “There’s a decent amount of snow outside.”
“Nice,” he says. “And let me guess, Adam’s out there, trying to impress you.” Eye roll.
The atomic clock in the kitchen says it’s 10.07 and 43 seconds by the time we are downstairs. Sky, our obese, former barn cat turned city glutton, is curled up shivering on the outside window ledge, nose pressed to the glass, meowing incessantly.
“Me, me, me!” he wails as he rushes inside, shaking snow off his paws, indignant. He slinks past me and up to Mati for a pet, then trots off to investigate his food dish. Mati slumps into the recliner with his phone.
“What about no-screen Sunday?” I say, truly not trying to be the most obnoxious parent ever.
More eye-rolling as he puts down his I-Phone, waiting for me to get involved in something other than monitoring the development of my 14 year old experiment with human life.
“Tu veux du chocolat chaud?” I ask him.
Aside from my fear that YouTube videos are sucking his brain dry, I also panic periodically that he is losing his French. Yet another vow, made when I studied in Paris in my early 20s. The shame of my incapacity to speak and the excruciating pain of irregular verb conjugations drove me to swear that I would save my future children from the inhumanity of learning French in school. They would learn it organically, preferably while still in the womb.
And so, when my adored only son popped out of me at the University of Chicago Hospital, I greeted him – bonjour mon petit bonhomme. While pushing him in a stroller at Wicker Park, I babbled to him about les arbres et les oiseaux. At the park we watched children jouer sur les balançoires. Since no one around me spoke French, they naturally assumed I was a native French woman speaking to her infant child, not some imposter suffering from French school PTSD, obsessively babbling in what might pass for Sorbonne Level-1 French. And when, while taking a bath at 10 months old, the second word my son ever utters after Maman is canard (duck), I replied fittingly in full midwestern accent – Bravo mon petit bonhomme!
Now at 14, when I ask him if he wants chocolat chaud – or hot chocolate – he replies, “Yeah, sure, thanks.’
I deliver the hot chocolate to mon petit prince who is stretched out stroking the cat.
“Mati! Parle francais s’il te plaît! Speak French please!”
He looks up at me – “Ok, fine. Can I have a croissant too, please?”
“What?!” he replies. “What could be more French than a croissant?”
There is a pounding at the door.
“Come in!” I yell. Another knock. “Come in!” both Mati and I shout.
Stomping and shuffling ensues as parkas, snow pants, and snow boots are shed.
“And Abel,” Abel chimes in.
I start fixing chocolat chaud for everyone.