Earlier this week you turned nine years old. When I picture you reading this years from now I want you to know that you really are my favorite person in the world. No, I’m not dissing your sister in any way by saying that. She’s also my favorite person in the world but for totally different reasons. Do not argue with me and say that I can’t have more than one favorite. I checked both the Constitution AND the Bible and there isn’t a single word in there about it being illegal or immoral to have multiple favorites. So both The Constitutional Convention and Jesus Christ will back me up. Don’t mess with those dudes. They own guns.
One of them can actually do magic.
In fact, you have multiple favorites, too. Like when you say that blue is your favorite color and then quickly add, “And purple, too. Purple is also my favorite color.” You like blue because it is the color of the sky, and you like purple because the deep tone of it wraps you up and makes you feel safe. And me? You are my favorite because you are so generous. Marlo? She is my favorite because she can burp louder than a foghorn.
I’ve told you this many times as I’m tucking you into bed. When you were younger I would read you stories and then turn off your lights, but those days are now gone, gone along with your infatuation with pink princesses and the refried beans you’d eat for breakfast. Now you are old enough to put yourself to bed (and eat actual breakfast food for breakfast), but I still get to put my hand on your face as you sit down to read and say, “Listen. I love you. You are my favorite person in the world.”
You always ask me why, and my answer is always different.
“Because of the way you laugh.”
“Because of the way you make me laugh.”
“Because of the way you treat your sister.”
“Because you knew I needed that hug today.”
“Because of my butt.”
I know. You hate that. You always will. Which is why I won’t ever stop doing it.
Your ninth year introduced me to the diversity of issues I will face as a parent of the mother of an adolescent, issues I couldn’t comprehend when the majority of my day was making sure you didn’t choke on drool. Issues like what to say to you when you ask me why I won’t let you watch a certain movie.
“There are things in that movie that only adults should watch,” I’ll say.
“Like, what things?”
“Like, mature things.”
“Like, what kind of mature things?”
And there I am trying to figure out a way to explain that there is a scene where more than two people are engaged in a sexual act without having to explain what a sexual act is. Sometimes this is a lot more mentally taxing than my brain is capable of handling at 6:30 PM, and so instead of coming up with a brilliant, award-winning answer that they will put in parenting books I’ll just say, “Spiders.”
You’re becoming a lot more socially aware now, a lot more in tune with how kids treat each other and what generally triggers such behavior. For instance, a few months ago you asked me if I minded that you eat cereal for dinner. I told you that I didn’t care at all, that I loved that you had found something you liked to eat. Your eating habits and my hand-wringing over them have gone through many stages in your life, but all that came to a screeching halt in the last year when I wanted the time that you spent with me to be free and clear of that specific power struggle. And it had become exactly that: me wanting you to eat something green and you so clear about your feelings for food that is green that you were willing to torch the entire Northern Hemisphere to express them.
Sorry, Europe. Leta doesn’t like broccoli. Hope you have fire insurance! Wait, you’re socialists! OF COURSE YOU DO.
“If I eat too much cereal for dinner,” you continued, “will I get fat?”
HOOOOOOHHHHHHH. The real hard work of raising a healthy daughter? ACTIVATED.
“What do you mean? Where in the world did you get that idea?”
“I don’t know,” she answered. “But, I don’t want to get fat, right?”
You must have heard something about “fat” at school or on television because that is not a word we use at home. I like to think that the mothers of my generation have been through so much in terms of body image that words like SKINNY and FAT stay out of the conversations we have with our children. Whenever you ask me why I go to the gym or eat the way that I do I tell you, “Because it makes me feel good.” And that’s the truth. I do it because it makes my mind clearer, because it wakes up my body. I have a better attitude about life after working out. I don’t feel tired or sick when I eat the way I’m supposed to eat. These things make me happy.
That question instantly threw me back to the years before and during middle school. Kids used to call me “Skeletor” and “Bones Brigade” because of my scrawny figure, because all of my clothes hung awkwardly off the bony frame of my body. They used to sneak the folders out of my backpack and draw skulls across the covers because my chin and forehead were so pronounced. I felt totally freakish, especially when I grew a few inches taller than every boy in my class and they’d laugh when asking me how the weather was up there. Little did I know that I could have probably lifted them over my head and given them a good toss into a dumpster.
When they invent a time machine, maybe I’ll go back and threaten that. Also, I’ll tell them to find a more original insult.
Kids made fun of me because I looked different. It’s what kids do, yes, but at the time I would have given anything to camouflage those awkward elbows and shoulders, to shrink a little closer to the ground. I would have given anything to blend in.
I so badly want to go back and give that Heather a hug. I was perfect in every way and had no idea. I just as badly want to protect you from this type of treatment, even though I know that’s not possible. Because it doesn’t matter what size or shape you come in, that size and shape may stand out just enough that kids will draw attention to it in uncomfortable ways. Hence: “I don’t want to get fat, right?”
I knew that my answer to that question could quite possibly be one of those sentences that gets hooked in your brain and will replay itself again and again when you’re doubting yourself. Like the time an adult in my life pointed to a woman whose body filled out every inch of a bikini and said, “That is what a beautiful woman looks like.”
I looked nothing like her.
So I leaned forward on the table as I gathered my thoughts and said, “If you’re hungry, I think you should eat until you’re not hungry. If that’s one bowl of cereal, that’s one bowl of cereal. If it’s two bowls of cereal, it’s two.”
You wrinkled your forehead a bit and then pushed harder. “But what if two bowls of cereal make me fat?”
“You know what?” I said. “If two bowls of cereal fill you up then dinner was a success. It doesn’t matter what you look like.”
“It doesn’t?” you asked.
“No,” I answered. “You want to know why? Because you’re absolutely perfect and always will be.” I then lifted up one of your arms to make a point. “Even if this hand right here grows to be as big as a house, it will still be a perfect hand.”
You giggled and shook your head. “I won’t be able to pick up a spoon and eat cereal if my hand is THAT big.”
“Well then, I’ll get you a bigger spoon,” I said.
This seemed to satisfy you, but I wanted to make sure that these words lingered long after that meal. “Leta, you are my favorite person,” I said.
You swallowed a bite of cereal and completed the ritual by asking me why.
“Your arms and your legs.” I answered, “The shape of your nose, the way your glasses fit your face. The green of your eyes. The way your hair jaggedly falls down your back when you get up in the morning. All of it is perfectly Leta. All of it is perfectly you.”
I could tell that you were relieved that I didn’t say, “Because of my butt.”
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