Yesterday you turned thirty months old. For the past few weeks you have enjoyed nothing more than chewing a piece of gum. Sometimes it is the first thing you ask for when you get up in the morning, a piece of gum, and I have been trying to use your fascination with gum to teach you how to ask for things nicely. Usually you will ask for something, in this instance a piece of gum, a piece of gum, a piece of gum, A PIECE OF GUM! A PIEEEEEEECE OF GUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMM!, and when I tell you that you’re not asking for it the right way, you’ll claw at your neck as if poisoned and yell, “I SAID PLEEEEEEEAASE!” Ah-ha! But you didn’t! You didn’t say please! I know because I was paying attention. That’s my job.
When you scream please like that it doesn’t count. That’s like thinking you’re giving someone a compliment by saying, “You’d be really pretty if you weren’t so damn ugly.” You’re father is fond of putting his hands on his hips like a grumpy old man who wants to shoot the neighbor’s dog and telling you, “I know you want a piece of gum, but you know what? I want a million dollars! Boo-hoo!” One day you’ll learn to appreciate just how absurd that whole scene is because more often than not he’s standing there in white athletic socks pulled half-way up to his knees and black clogs stained green from having just mowed the lawn. I’m waiting for the day that you shake your head and say, “Dad, there may be a very good reason why you don’t have a million dollars.”
Once I’ve successfully guided you into asking for it the right way — with a please in the original request and maybe a kind word or two about my hair — I’ll give you a piece of gum and then check up on you at regular intervals to make sure you haven’t swallowed it. I never realized that learning to not swallow something would be a skill you’d have to work at. I can count several times when I have asked you where your gum is, and you’ve stuck both hands in your mouth to search for it only to give up after gouging your gums for thirty seconds and say, “Um, I swallowed it?” Um, yeah. Thanks for researching that one.
A few weeks ago you and I attended a music group with 12 other mothers and kids. At one point the teacher walked around to each child to let them blow bubbles through a straw into a glass of water to demonstrate the musical sound it makes. When she got to you I watched in slow motion as you reached into your mouth, pulled out your gum and cupped it like a precious jewel in your left hand. A few people in the room giggled, but the majority of them were so repulsed that they cringed. My first reaction was, hey! Look everybody! She didn’t swallow her gum! And then immediately I thought, you know, if you’re that grossed out by a piece of chewed gum then you probably won’t mind if I take mine out of my mouth and stick it in your ear.
One afternoon last week your father and I took you to the grocery store, and while we were standing in the parking lot loading bags of food into the back of the car I set you down so I could help lift a jug of orange juice. After turning my head for only two seconds to look at the car I glanced back at you only to find that you had found a cigarette butt on the ground and had put it into your mouth. A discarded cigarette butt. Some mothers would be mortified, and I felt a little bit of that, but the strongest emotion I felt was gratitude. I was so glad that there wasn’t someone nearby taking photos because then I would have to explain why I let you smoke cigarettes. And the truth is pretty simple, really: We’re country. My Mama used to let me smoke cigarettes while I sat on her lap in the front seat of a moving vehicle. Many times she would accidentally hit a raccoon with the car, and we’d take it home and put it in the refrigerator. No big deal.
This month your obsession with keeping your hands clean has reached a new level, and more than once you have touched a piece of food and then refused to eat it because it dared to have a texture. Yesterday you were staring blankly at a plate full of French fries — and let me take a moment here and say that one night a couple weeks ago I was hanging out with an incredibly intelligent group of women who were patting each other on the back about the fact that none of them let their children eat meat with hormone additives, and that sometimes, in a moment of weakness, they might let their child eat a fruit snack, and I snapped like a dried twig and told them they were all batshit insane, we consider it a good day if our kid is willing to eat two bites of a chocolate pop tart — and the moment you dipped one of those fries in ketchup your entire body went completely rigid. Your father and I had no idea what was going on, maybe you accidentally got a drop of ketchup on your hand, so I immediately handed you a wipe. And I am not making this up, although I wish I could take credit for it, you took that wipe and used it to clean the ketchup off the french fry. YOU WIPED THE FRENCH FRY CLEAN. Leta, one day you are going to be someone’s boss, and they are going to have a hard time resisting the urge to write about you on their website.
Last week I had to go out of town for several days, and although I have gone on business trips in the past this one was by far the most difficult in terms of being away from you. Ten minutes after you and your father dropped me off at the airport I wanted to go back home, and I continued to call your father every hour for the next five days. Each time he would tell me what you two had been doing — swimming in the pool, eating popsicles on the porch, changing Elmo’s diaper — and I felt as if I were missing out on years of your life. During one phone call you realized that your father was talking to me, and I heard you reach for the phone and say, “I want to get you, Mama.” That’s how you tell me that you want me to pick you up, want me to hold you when you’re hurt or sad. You say it while reaching up to me with both arms open. I sat alone in my hotel room and cried thinking about the few times in my life I will get to hear that from you.
I want to get you, too.