My mother did not grow up in the United States. She came here when she was eighteen, and had already developed a strong sense of pattern. It meant that there were certain things that my very American childhood lacked. Not love. But concrete "American" things that my immigrant mother simply did not understand. Pancakes, for example. I didn't eat pancakes, well, ever. My sister used to rebel and order them if we ate breakfast in one of those great old school Pennsylvania diners. My mother would peer over her menu, and shake her head, "Eat eggs. Pancakes won't fill you up. It is all sugar." (I know, I know, it doesn't make sense to me either.)
Bunk beds. My mother still rants about how American, and silly, they are. "Why buy beds that adults can't sleep on?" As twins who watched the Brady Bunch obsessively, bunk beds were like the coolest thing ever. We planned who would sleep where, and what we would do. We talked about how we would arrange our room. I would lean over the top and flip down. We'd whisper to each other in the dark and not be afraid of night.
Peanut butter was in our house, but not a mainstay. My dad insisted on it, because the lunch he would make for us if my mother happened to be out at the noon hour was always the beautiful, delicious, and mostly elusive Fluffernutter. My mother didn't really get the pb thing. She was really big into ham. She still is. She constantly is giving people hams. If you are having surgery, she will bring you a ham. She will even prepare it for you. Sam and I dubbed her Indian name, "Travels with Ham." I tried to see it as cultural, understand her point of view, but truth of it is, I really wanted a PB&J and some Twinkies in my brown bag in the cafeteria. Every snack was always off-brand and out of date. She grew up very poor, as did my father. They were a strange dichotomy of successes convinced this was the last hurrah before it all hit the shitter. They stockpiled for the apocalypse. So, we were not allowed juice boxes, or sugar cereal, or Twinkies or Oreos. Everything was Little Debbie, or out of date Tastykakes. And stacks of it.
Now, we call my mother's pantry, "la Tiendita," which means the little store. I kind of believe my mother is verging on being a hoarder. Of cheap food. She actually buys food and crackers and edible shit at TJ Maxx now. She is terrified of running out of food, so she buys too much. She cooks too much. She gives too much in plastic containers for leftovers for the week. But as I said, it is always off-brand, out-of-date, marked with orange stickers and pen marks. My mother once sent me home with a can of crab meat (this was a year or so ago), and when I planned a meal, I flipped the can over to check the date: 2006. Yes, she had canned crab in her fridge for two years. If that doesn't shriek of botulism, I don't know what does. I am kind of glad I am the one to receive that can, because I am not sure my mother would have noticed it herself, and possibly poisoned the lot of us.
But perhaps the most vexing of the "American" things my mother didn't get was the sleep over.
My mother simply just didn't allow us to sleep over. She would lecture us about all the trouble we would be to the other person's parents. Or how much money it costs to feed two EXTRA girls. She would tell us that bad things happen in other people's houses, and bad people invite little girls to sleep in their home. But truthfully, she just didn't get it. "Why do you need to sleep somewhere else? You have a bed here. And your best friend." And my sister and I would side glance to each other and say, "But I haaaaaaate her, Mami." Fingers crossed behind our backs.
And it was weird. People didn't understand when we said no, or why our mother didn't allow us to sleep over. We missed inside jokes from birthday bashes on Monday morning. We whined about it. Eventually, she relented here and there, and those were just the best nights ever. Sleeping bags. Frozen underwear. Light as a feather/straight as a board. Corey Haim in Tiger Beat. I mean, I felt like I fit in during those nights, even when parents treated us strangely and asked us what kind of food we people eat. I remember one father sneering at me and grumbling about having a black kid sleep in his house.
Growing up brown in rural Pennsylvania does have its downsides.
Still, I had this list of things I would do for my children when I became a parent. Make them pancakes. Pack peanut butter and jelly. I would buy them bunk beds, and let them sleep over. So, imagine my surprise when this week Beatrice begggggggggged me to sleep over at my sister's house for my niece's birthday. She is only two months older than Bea, so two three year olds (well, Bea is almost three) wanted to have a sleepover.
Already? Already she is asking to sleep over? The truth is I forget about peanut butter. I forget it is an option. I make the same damn sandwich my mother made for me--American cheese and mayo. We don't eat meat most days, or it would also have ham. I make her snack on carrots and sprouts. When I do buy sugary treats, I buy all the crunchy organic version of things like Oreos for Bea, made with rice syrup and tasting vaguely of wheat germ. I have never made pancakes, in fact, the only times I have tried have been miserable failures, and when I eat them, I run out of fuel an hour later. Bea has eaten almost no fast food, and doesn't even know what a McDonald's is. Sam built rails on the bed he grew up with, and eh, voila! there is Bea's toddler bed, childhood bed, teenage bed and then adult visiting bed. No Dora racecar/princess bed that she covets at the baby store, or pink sheets with Tinkerbell. I am not wasting money on a bed that she will only use for a few years. I get it. I get my mother. I stand horrified as I get it.
Beatrice took her sleeping bag, and striped pillow, and wanted me to leave when we got to the party. "I sleep here tonight, Mommy." She is almost three and it was snowing. And she felt warm to me. And I found a thousand excuses to take her home with me right then. But I let her run into my niece's bedroom with her new toys and play. I sat in my sister's driveway with Sam and we cried for a good half hour. My mother was staying at my sister's house. I trust the adults in that house more than anyone in the world. I just don't want to be away from her. I like Beatrice. I like our nighttime routine. Nothing about having a child is an annoyance to me, not any of it. Sam kept saying, "We don't have to be brave, Angie. I can go and get her."
There is this feeling in me that I need to let her be a child who can exist far away from me. I made her a promise I should keep. It was something she wanted, and I wanted to trust that she would be fine without us. I want her to be comfortable sleeping at my sister's house if I have to go to the hospital to deliver. The only time she has slept with neither Sam nor I has been when I was birthing Lucy. And we came home desperately sad. I don't want her to fear that sleeping somewhere else means that bad things are happening to Mama. And yet, it is the opposite of my instinct; to leave my daughter somewhere while I go home. I closed the doors to her room, because I cried when I looked in and didn't see her. I want to keep her in my pocket, wrap her up tight in sweaters, the smell of us mingling together, keep her close to my body. And yet. And yet, I also want her to be an independent, confident, lovely adult who knows that even if we are apart, we are together. A brave girl who trusts that her mother will always come for her.
There was an eerie quality to the quiet of the house last night. Our quiet is somehow louder when we whisper for fear of waking her. But last night, we talked. Out loud. We watched television. I wrote blog posts for 365, and we argued with the Comcast dudes about our wonky on-demand. We were in bed by 9p, arriving home after the party too late, too stuffed and with the roads too icy to try a date night. We just read in bed, interrupting each other to talk about Beatrice--the funny way she says things, of how she pushed us toward the door when she arrived, of her button nose, and smile. I am going to pick her up now, giving her sufficient time to enjoy the morning of a sleepover with strange breakfast foods and wrestling in jammies, even if I have been ready to go at 4:30 am--to apologize to my mother.