Quality Time

    I pressed my foot harder against the accelerator. What time was it? The car clock mocked me by blinking 12:00 incessantly. Why hadn’t I worn a watch? Why didn’t I own a watch? My heart lodged in my throat, pounding: Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. I could envision their bodies, frail and bending in the wind, cold and shivering. How could I have been so cruel? I jerked the steering wheel to the right, screeched to a stop, and jumped from the car.
    The girls jumped from their swings and skipped to the gate, their ponytails wagging behind them. “Mommy! Mommy!” they called, with bright smiles on their dusty faces. Relief swept over me – I wasn’t late after all.
    Miss Nell, the afternoon teacher for the class of four-year-olds, marched toward me. “The twinz really shouldn’t wear flip-flops to school. You know, they can fall in them. You should have them wear sneakers with socks – IF they have them.” IF! The nerve! She had said it with a condescending tone, which grated on me strongly, the nasal arrogance. (Why, no Miz Nell, we jes’ too po’ fo’ no shuuz. I jes’ hafta sendum in them flippies. I don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout chillenz feet.)
    “They insisted on wearing them this morning.” Not to mention I’d been running late enough that morning to do battle with preschoolers. “Did they eat their lunch?”
    “Well, Sydney made a happy plate,” (images of dancing crockery) “but Gabrielle only ate her applesauce.”
    I brushed my hand over Gabrielle’s hair as she stood talking with her sister and another classmate. Jane-Holly still had not been picked up by her mother – the unfit bitch. Sydney showed the little girl her Finding Nemo book. “I got that movie,” Jane-Holly said.
    “We have the five disk ultimate edition on Blu-ray,” said Sydney, trying to outdo her friend.
    “We only have a DVD player.”
    The twins looked at the poor child with pity, which eroded quickly. “We have four TVs,” Gabrielle bragged.
    “Really?”
    “Yeah, but only one of them is high definition.” These kids weren’t mine. They belonged to Bill Gates.
    I loaded the twins in the car, and we were off. “Let’s get it started – HA! Let’s get it started in here!!” the car radio blared as the girls sang along. At the stop sign, I used the rearview mirror to examine the pimple on my cheek for the umpteenth time of the day – the pimple on which I had invested countless prayers and several tubes of benzoyl peroxide. Friends had said it was hardly noticeable, but that “hardly” bothered me.
    We drove to my grandmother’s to pick up daughter number three, seven-month-old Amy. I always have this urge to grab the baby and run, but I never do. It’s the guilt. What kind of person would I be not to sit and visit for a while, just to abandon her in that place – her place? My grandmother’s home is, well, shall we say for discretionary reasons, atypical. For example, she collects oversized boxes with which she furnishes her dining room. Nevertheless, I must admit she has made quite a dramatic decorating statement with her creative use of contact paper. Who knows? Maybe someday she’ll qualify for that show Hoarders.
    “How was Amy today?” I ask as I relocate a cat and sit down, the drone of her television echoing every syllable.
    “Oh, she was perfect. She always is. Look at this jerk,” she said with a nod at Glenn Beck on screen. Not sure why my yellow-dog Democrat grandmother opts to aggravate herself watching Fox. “Did you see that movie last night? I left you a voicemail.”
    Ye – ”
    “I thought it was really cute. I usually don’t like that kid.”
    “Really? Tom Hanks?” I ask.
    “Yeah, Tom Hanks. But he was in that Jack Nicholson movie I liked so well. It was awhile back. Do you remember which one?”
    “You mean Jack Lemmon?”
    “Yeah, Jack Lemmon,” she said, nodding.
    “Mass Appeal?”
    “That wasn’t Tom Hanks.” Don’t ask me how I figured this out. I guess after conversing with her in this manner for year, it starts making sense. But like the commercial warnings about “professional driver on closed course,” don’t try this at home.
    “If that wasn’t Tom Hanks, who was it?”
    “I – I can’t remember his name, but it wasn’t Tom Hanks.”
    She argued with me about this for a few minutes until I Googled it on my phone – Zeljko Ivanek, frequently confused with Tom Hanks – then the girls and I departed, relatively unscathed.
    Pulling up into the driveway, we were greeted by the relentless barking of our cocker spaniel; and as we walked in the door, delightful smells of dinner poured from the crockpot. I flipped through the mail: Bill. Bill. You’ve been approved. Still not here. Why would I expect it today? He was already a month late with the child support; and when he moved without telling me, I got the distinct impression he wasn’t taking his responsibility seriously.
    “Girls, take your shoes to your room.”
    “Mommy, can we watch The Sound of Music?” Gabrielle begged at my hip.
    I turned the movie on for them (45th Anniversary Limited Edition), put the baby in the playpen, and retreated to the bathroom to wash my face. I examined the bulging blemish intently and applied a large dollop of Maximum Strength Oxy 10. It just wasn’t fair. Women with stretch marks should not get pimples.
    Back in the kitchen, I began constructing dinner. The meat had been over-slow-cooked and was disintegrating as I fought to retrieve it from the crockpot. At that moment, Sydney came in. “Mommy?”
    “Huuuuuh?” I groaned, straining with the pot roast.
    “What’s a Jew?”
    I released the roast. This was a serious question from someone so young. The seeds of anti-Semitism can be planted early. The subject must be approached carefully. I stooped to meet her eyes.    “Well, sweetie, Jews are people whose families came from Israel. They were special people for God, and they wrote part of the Bible. Jesus was a Jew. But mostly, they are people just like us except they believe a few different things, and they have some different holidays.” Now my question. “Where did you hear about Jews?”
    Her big brown eyes stared into mine. “From the movie.”
    The movie. The Sound of Music? It was set around World War II, but I didn’t remember any mention of Jews. “When did they talk about Jews?”
    “That boy. He says, “A Jew. A Jew. To you and you and you,” she sang.
    I stood straight and sighed heavily. “He say, ‘Adieu…Adieu.’ It means goodbye.” I ruffled her hair and sent her on her way. (And yet, I am fluent in “grandmother.”)
    “Girls, don’t forget to take your shoes to your room.”

    Dinnertime. I turned off the TV and manipulated Amy into her highchair. The dog had not ceased to bark since we had gotten home. “Cobaka!” I yelled. “Will you shut up!” She stopped for approximately fourteen seconds. The twins sat at their miniature table and I placed plastic plates before them, pushing a kitten away from their food. I stood and fed myself and Amy concurrently, well-knowing that if I sat down, I’d be up at least ten times before the end of the meal.
    “Mommy, can I have another napkin? This one’s torn.”
    “Mommy, can I have a spoon?”
    “Mommy, Sydney put her finger on my potato.”
    “Sydney, don’t touch your sister’s food.”
    “Mommy, can I have more milk?”
    “Mommy, can I have a spoon, too?”
    “Mommy, Sydney spilled her milk.” Before I could make a move to clean up the spilt milk, our three cats were lapping it up. At least they were good for something.
    “Mommy, can we have dessert now?”
    Sydney had made a “happy plate,” but Gabrielle hadn’t touched her food. “Gabrielle, why won’t you eat?” My child looked like she was either from Ethiopia or a concentration camp. Everyone had tried to get her to eat, all to no avail. I had bribed her, threatened her, told her she would never get breasts. Not a bite.
    “I don’t like it. It’s yucky.” Same mantra every night.
    I decided to appeal to her respect for authority. “Mommy made a ‘happy plate.’”
    “But you’re not pretty.”
    Shock, astonishment, even horror overwhelmed me! “You don’t think your mommy is pretty?” She shook her head. “Why not?”
    “Because you have that big bo-bo on your face.”
    My hand flew to cover the source of my angst. “Gabrielle! That’s a terrible thing to say!” I tried to make out my reflection in the oven door. “Do you really think it’s that noticeable?” I hated my so called friends. I had actually gone out in public like this. My own child – ashamed of me! She had probably been teased by her classmates (“Your mother has a big ZIT on her face!”), the weight of my blemish on her tiny, thin shoulders.
    Sydney stood and wrapped her arms around my legs. “I think you’re beautiful, Mommy.”
    I hugged her back. “Thank you, my sweetheart.” My nice daughter. “Gabrielle, I’m going to remind you of this in about ten years when you have overactive oil glands.”
    I dealt out bear-shaped cookies. Amy grabbed hers greedily and banged it on her highchair tray and sang to it. “Bababababababa.” As I washed the dishes, one of the cats, Little Kitty Went to Bed – so named by Sydney, who doesn’t know the difference between a name and a sentence – frantically rubbed around my ankles, meowing to go out. The twins argued over who should get the broken bear.
Mommy, Sydney hit me! Bark, bark, bark, She hit me first! Bababababa. Uh uh! Meow. Mommeeeeeeeeee! Meow. Bark, bark. Babababa.
    Finally, I screamed, “Calgon, take me away!” like those women in the commercials from my childhood, and spun around three times, hoping to be magically transported to a sunken, adult-only bathtub overflowing with bubbles. When I stopped spinning, I found myself still in the kitchen, and the girls were all staring at me in perplexed silence.
    “Mommy?”
    “Yes, Gabrielle.”
    “Little Kitty Went to Bed tee-teed under the table.”

    Together we watched the end of the movie, and then the clock struck the magical hour: Bedtime. “Girls, take your shoes to your room, brush your teeth, and get ready for bed.” I hauled Amy to the nursery for her final diaper change of the night. She refused to be still. Babies have rigid standards they must maintain. First, if Mommy has plans to go out one evening, they should resist sleep at all costs. Next, they should make every attempt to spit up on Mommy right before she walks out the door. Third, they should save bowel movements for public places. And, finally, they must never be still at changing time.
    Of course, parents’ behavior is held to high scrutiny as well. Changing time should be “quality time.” Parents must use this opportunity to converse pleasantly with their offspring. Naturally, this is difficult to accomplish when the object of these pleasantries is rolling away and one is left face-to-face with two chubby cheeks just freed from the restraints of a diaper.
    I grabbed Amy’s short legs and pulled her back to me. “Amy,” I said, shaking a Vaseline-clad finger at her, “be still.” She smiled a big, gummy grin, and I smiled back. She giggled at me, and I couldn’t resist blowing on her tummy, sending her into peals of laughter. After several minutes of giggles and kisses and, finally, the securing of a dry diaper, I laid her in her crib and turned off the light. Whew! One down; two to go.”
    I walked back to the kitchen to throw the diaper away and spotted the notorious flip-flops. “Girls, take your shoes to your room.” I gathered up their dirty clothes, forgotten across the living room; but as I made my way to stuff them into the already-overflowing laundry basket, I made a horrifying discovery.
    “GIRLS!”
    They appeared in an instant. “There is toothpaste everywhere!” No response. “Why is there toothpaste all over the bathroom?” Nothing. “Toothpaste goes on the toothbrushes only! Do you know that?” Silence. “Who did this?”
    Cries of “She did it! She did it!” echoed against the tile. How was I going to punish them? Tell them they couldn’t brush their teeth anymore? I handed them each a wet wachcloth.
    “I want you to clean up every bit of this. And if this ever happens again, something really, really bad is going to happen.” Vague threats. That’ll work.
    The phone rang. My grandmother. “Hello?”
    “What are the two most terrifying words in the world?”
    “Huh?”
    “What are the two most terrifying words in the world?”
    “My kids.”
    “Nope.”
    “OK. What are the two most terrifying words in the world?”
    “President Palin.”
    “That’s pretty good. Where’d you hear that one?”
    “Someone said it on MTV.” My grandmother watches MTV. I wondered what demographic still did. “What are you doing?”
    “I’m putting the girls to bed. Can I call you back?”
    “Well, I just wanted to tell you that. I thought it was pretty funny. And it’s true, too. Of course, it could happen. You know, on The View the other day…or maybe it was that lesbian…”
    “Ellen?”
    “They had these two men on there saying that in the next ten years….” She continued, uninterruptible, for quite some time. Good thing she only called to tell me one joke!
    When she came up for air, I said, “I really need to get these kids to bed. Can I call you back?”
    “No, you don’t have to call me back. I’ll just talk to you tomorrow.” We hung up. Now I felt bad for trying to get her off the phone. She was there, alone, no one to talk to. I decided to call her back anyway.
    The twins were standing in front of the bookcase in their room when I walked in. “Mommy, will you read us a story?”
    “Oh, Gabrielle, not tonight. I’m tired, I have a headache, I don’t feel good, my pimple hurts, I think I’m coming down with something,” I whimpered as I tucked her into bed.
    “Pleeeeeease? Just a short one?”
    “Not tonight.” I tucked Sydney into bed and kissed her goodnight.
    Gabrielle persisted. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?”
    I took a deep breath. “OnceuponatimetherewerethreebearswhowentonawalkonemorningonlytoreturntofindthatsomeonehadbrokenintotheirhomeandtheburglarwasnoneotherthanGoldilockswhoranoffwhentheyfoundherbutnothingwasmissingexceptsomecoldporridgesothebearsdidn’tpresschargesandGoldilockswasfreetogowithjustawarningandtheylivedhappilyeverafter. The end.” Finished in record time. “Goodnight.” I turned out the light.
    As I turned and made my way down the hall, that familiar flutter returned. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. I walked back to their room and turned on the light.
    “OK, one story.” We sat together on Sydney’s bed and read the book with rapt attention, discussing every picture. Then they were retucked into bed and kissed again.
    As I started out of the room, I heard Gabrielle’s soft voice. “Mommy?”
    “Yes, sweetheart?”
    “I love you.”
    “I love you, too, baby.”
    “I think you’re beautiful.” I returned to her bed and gave her an extra tight hug and a kiss.
    And as I turned out the light, I saw their little shoes neatly placed by the door.
    Well, all right, no. That part’s not true. But who cares about their shoes? I like them just the way they are.

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