When you are upset and I need to calm you, I imagine my hands being my grandmother’s hands. I picture them in my head, the dark brown of her skin, the curve of her nailbed. And I remember how she made me feel when she touched me. She felt solid and sure.
As an adult, looking at her life, I wonder how she could have felt that way. Nothing at all was particularly settled in her life. We didn’t have any money. She was taking care of her teenaged daughter’s kid. Her son was always orbiting trouble. And I think she was battling through a lifelong low-grade depression. But those hands knew that everything would, eventually, be fine.
So when you are upset, I fix her in my mind and try to touch you with her hands.
But she’s not the only one. When you are doing your toddler thing - scribbling and stomping and pottying and whatnot - it can be easy to congratulate you in my understated way.
“That. Is. A. Magnificent. Circle.” And then go back to loading the trebuchet to fling squirrels at the neighbors.
To celebrate the turd that landed on the floor BUT made it, like, a foot closer to the potty, my instinct is to take you out for a glass of Veuve.
None of these things are appropriate praise for your toddler prowess. I cannot be me. Instead, I try to become my father’s entire family.
My father’s family is fun. There’s hardly ever fewer than 50 of them in a room. And they are a whirling dervish of positive reinforcement.
“THAT GIRL IS SMART AS A WHIP. AWW, LOOK AT HOW THE GIRL PUT HER SHOES ON. PUT THAT SHOE ON, GIRL! PUT THOSE PRETTY TOES IN THAT SANDAL. LOOK AT THAT BABY! THAT BABY CAN DAAAAANCE. LINDA! LOOK AT THAT GIRL BREATHING. SHE GOT SOME LUUUUUNGS"
I’ll own up to the smart part. Nerd-dom came easy to me. But my shoe-putting-on was mediocre and my dancing was worse. But the Steeles were positive and vocal about everything that I tried to do.
Every member of the family got a replay of what I read. What I said. What I wrote. I still remember my Aunt Pat and Uncle Calvin, "LOOK AT WHAT THAT BABY TYPED!”
The Steeles gave me the gift of confidence.
So when it comes to praising you, I become a Steele. I channel the looks I saw in my Uncle Ricky’s eyes when he looked at me. It was a look that said that he believed that I was going to do amazing things. And I don’t just look, I get vocal with it.
LOOK AT THAT BOY DOING THE STANKY LEG. G'ON, BOY!
I’m kidding. I only cheer when you do the Cat Daddy. That dance is hard.
When I’m not my mothering finest, I put my Clair Huxtable on. I stop clawing my own eyeballs out. I stop screaming WHAT IS WE GON DO. I put on some lipstick, speak a little Spanish and I tell Elvin/your dad/the gas company a thing or two.
When I put my Clair Huxtable on, I become infinitely more graceful. I’m a better partner for your father. I’m sexy, accomplished and my child will love and respect me. And possibly most powerful of all, I remember that I am creating your Amsden show.
All you will have of your childhood are memories. Broad strokes. You will remember the big moments. I cannot stop all my Peg Bundy moments, but when I put on my Clair Huxtable I’m inspired to make more classic episodes for The Amsden Show.
So what I want you to know is that when you feel like you’re doing something wrong, you can pull upon the people that do it right. Don’t ask yourself why can’t you be more like so-and-so. Be like them.
The minute that I pretend to be my grandmother usually gets me calm enough to transfer that calm to you. When you have a toddler triumph, I become a Steele and I am reminded to CHEER FOR THAT BABY. But if you run from the cops I’m not going to do this. I’m going to sell you for cigarette money.