A caterpillar’s return
What’s your earliest memory? My sister and I often joke that we’re not sure what we actually remember and what we’ve just seen in home movies. Our parents have chronicled all the big and small moments of our lives through video and photos, so Katie and I have footage of most Christmases, birthdays, graduations, vacations.
Those “big” days are fun to watch — but not what appeal to me most. Our world centered around the Waldorf home in which we grew up, and most videos were filmed in the very living room in which we’d later watch them. Kate and I loved to make note of background furniture that had since been replaced, toys we’d loved and lost, old board games with long-missing pieces.
What’s happening in the background of these videos is as interesting to me as what’s happening at center stage. The dayto-day commercials we watch and snacks we eat make up a life as completely as milestone occasions like a wedding day.
I’ve always studied the bits and baubles of daily life: less glittery, certainly, but just as important.
Hence this whole column. The conversation in my first memory isn’t captured on video, which is why I trust that it probably is my first. I’m sitting on the old playset in our backyard with my mother, who is pushing me on a bench swing. Mom is telling me I’m going to be a big sister. That a baby is coming and I won’t be able to play with her (or him) yet, but someday we’ll be best friends.
Is that too cheesy and perfect to be my first memory? Maybe. But it’s so sharp that I don’t doubt it. Katie was born five days after my third birthday, so I was probably around two and a half: the same age my son is now.
When my husband and I dip into our collective well of patience and discover it’s run dry, I think about how we can be great, even-tempered parents 90 percent of the time and just have to hope the ugly 10 percent goes unnoticed. Oliver won’t remember this, I think. Hadley can’t remember this.
But we’re reaching the edge of brushing off those battles. Ollie certainly has no trouble remembering where we’ve stashed the leftover Halloween candy, so it’s reasonable to assume he’s going to recall more of our day-to-day moments.
That’s a good thing — and a scary one. He will soon have a concept of time. If I say we can do something “tomorrow,” I’d better be prepared to deliver. Same for “later.” Or “in a few minutes.”
It is really amazing to see Ollie’s sense of cause-and-effect developing. As my mom likes to say, he’s reaching the age of reason: we’re starting to discuss ideas of “if/then,” which is really cool.
If you finish your chicken nuggets, we can watch “Up.”
If you put on your socks and shoes, we can walk outside.
If you stop going stiff as a board and accidentally kicking me in the face as I wrestle you into your car seat, we can look for school buses on our drive to Mom-Mom’s.
And so on.
Spence and I have been trying to enforce stricter screen time rules, which . . . has not been going well. We’ve been letting Ollie watch his children’s YouTube videos while I make dinner, then turning off the iPad when we sit down to eat.
Last week Spence turned off Blippi, Oliver’s educational video hero, and the ensuing meltdown was one for the baby book. Note the time, date and place: Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, approximately 6:30 p.m. Ollie had a three-hour-long freak-out that drove me to the brink of sending a postcard from Bora Bora. Only the thought of my baby daughter and loving husband kept me from hauling my suitcase to the driveway.
Kidding. Sort of. I love my son fiercely, but it takes him only seconds to find and push every single one of my buttons.
I think about how Oliver’s earliest memory could soon be me dumping his uneaten dinner in the trash with an exasperated sigh, or a less-than-patient moment of demanding he locate his sneakers when we’re late getting out the door.
That grounds me. There are many first-memory-worthy moments being made, but we all tend to remember the rain more than the sun.
We’re into week two of Ollie sleeping in his toddler bed, and the evenings have gotten easier. Storytime has finally become a solid routine. I’ve written many times about encouraging my son’s love of reading, but books can be a tough sell to the modern child. Heck: they’re a tough sell to many modern adults.
I like quiet. I’m trying to find more of it. The nightly stories are as soothing to me, I think, as they are to him.
We bounced between books last week, but finally settled on a classic that has become a nightly request: Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I have memories of reading it in the library at Arthur Middleton Elementary, stretched out on my belly inside a log cabin constructed right by the shelves. I got two copies at my baby shower.
When Oliver was born and immediately hospitalized, I stashed a few books in the diaper bag we shuffled between Baltimore and home. Babies know their mother’s voice. I read because his NICU nurses encouraged it — but also because I’m made of words. Brimming with them. Reading low and slow was familiar to me. In an unsettled world, that was something I still knew how to do.
The first story we shared? “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
Of the hundreds of children’s books scattered around the house, I don’t think it’s an accident that Ollie has taken to this particular one years after I first whispered the words in that sterile hospital room.
He was practically weightless then; mighty, yet still so fragile. Now Oliver is a brick, curly-haired and wild: so solid, charming and real that it hurts.
I’ve read Eric Carle’s story enough to have it memorized: easier to murmur the words as my child studies the pictures, running his fingers across three plums, four strawberries, five oranges.
“The end,” I’ll say gently, and he’ll look up with wide eyes to ask “again?”
Ollie talks me into one more reading, and then one more. I yawn, thinking of the ice cream waiting for me downstairs, but stay.
Decades from now, maybe my son will think of this: a very hungry caterpillar and his mother’s soft voice in the dark.