Monday, October 18, 2010

Sounding Like Myself

I remember a beautiful day in early summer, about ten million years ago. I had escaped my small child for a long weekend and had landed on the rooftop of my best friend’s apartment building, overlooking the Hudson River in New York. On that Saturday afternoon, the sun on my pale Minnesota face, I sat with her and some of her friends, drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade and relishing a rare moment of freedom.

Ryan, her pal, had bonded with me over our deep dislike for the Sangria Debbie had initially tried to serve us (it’s her single fault as human being, that Sangria, but it’s a big one. All I need to tell you is this: cardamom. Case closed.) The conversation turned to my daughter and he expressed vast, boundless buckets of amazement that I was an actual mom. Somehow, I didn’t seem like the mom type, he said. “Yeah,” I snorted, “That’s what my kid says.” Debbie overheard us and turned to Ryan with an explanation. “You’re looking at it the wrong way. She’s not any different with her daughter than she is with anyone else. She’s just like this. Exactly the same.”

Ryan gawked, amazed. “Like a … grownup?” he gasped.

Debbie nodded. “The child seems to be doing okay so far,” she said, “but I’m monitoring the situation.”

I remember feeling puzzled. How else would I act around my child, than just like myself? But, upon deeper reflection, and a couple or five more lemonades, I had an answer – I had never cultivated a Kiddy Voice.

I had always vowed never to use that voice, the sing-songy, treacly constriction of the vocal chords that grownups used as a way to “connect” with children. Even worse was when they pretended to be their own actual mute baby, suddenly brought to speech by the miracle of their parent’s ventriloquism. “What a cute baby,” a stranger would say (not me; I hated babies back then). “Can you say ‘Whhhy thank you’? Can you say ‘I AM a big boy! I am SO big!’” the mother would blither. No he can’t say it, dimwit, he’s four months old.

Okay, so I cursed around my kids and used big words and quoted lots of Broadway show tunes in their presence, but I never did THAT. Another thing I never did was talk about my child and I as if we, together, comprised a single unit. I have a friend, otherwise quite the Savvy Sally, whose kids are now in grade school, and she’s still displaying this strange tic. “How are you?” I will ask, only to be told, “Well, we had an ear infection, but we still love third grade.”

I also swore I would never treat my children like trained ponies. I grew up with parents who felt it perfectly acceptable to command me: “Sing Mr. Booze from 'Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” And they weren’t even an attentive audience. Once I started, and they remembered what a bad voice I had, they’d go back to smoking and arguing with the friends they were trying to impress. My entire childhood was like a third-rate club act. Downtown Vegas, not the Strip. I realize, of course, that my children will use my smug refusal of command performances against me. I can just see Emma, Kleenex box perched on her enhanced breasts, lying on the couch of a $500 a session Freudian that all the other venture capitalists visit, sobbing, “She never asked me to showcase my talents!”

I don’t have occasion to hear the Kiddy Voice very often these days, thank God, but I heard an especially ripe version of it recently, and it gave me a rash. I was back on Sunday morning shift at the Crisis Nursery, working without either one of my daughters (don’t ask) and serving up yogurt at lunch to a very sweet 8-month-old. I had spent the morning alone in the baby room and hadn’t seen who else was on duty. Then I heard the Kiddy Voice at a seat next to me: “You want to eat all wis num num yoggie so you’ums will gwow big n stwong!”

I got a good look at her. Why is it, I wondered, that the beefier the lass, the more annoying the voice? Since it was Sunday morning and she was here, I surmised that she’d been drummed out of her church choir and was torturing the two-year-olds instead. Because I am inherently Evil and heading Straight to Hell, I named her Mrs. Oh-My-Goodness. All she lacked was a Shirley Temple bow atop her porcine head.

She went on, narrating each biteful. The kids seeemed able to tune her out, but I wasn’t so lucky. I hated the fact that I was one more hag-faced white woman, just like her. I wished, not for the first time, that I could transform myself into Wonder Granny when I walked into the front door of the nursery. I would have a church hat and formal dress, beautifully dark skin, a pillowy bosom, and a thick Southern accent. I would be able to say, “Rest your head right here chil,” and the kids would melt, finally relaxed, into my lilac-scented folds.

I see the kids looking at me when I meet them at the nursery. One quick flick and their eyes move away. Just another bony white lady, nothing here that can give me what I need.

I shouldn’t blame the woman. I suppose everyone has different voices for different occasions. Our family called our home's doorbell “Daddy’s Happy Button,” because the sound of company at the door could transform my father from a raging, reptilian beast into a jovial host in mere seconds. When I was older, my mother had a “Julie’s on the Phone and Company’s Here” voice. I could always tell when someone was with her and I called, because she’d go through a very happy, affected trill: “Oh hellllloo, Juuuulllie!” At the time, it bugged me, but I realize now she wanted to show off to her friends that she was busy, and popular, and that I loved her. Not such bad things, really.

There are voices that simply have to be endured. I know that, for the moment, Mrs. Oh-My-Goodness' is going to be one of them, at least until she burns out on volunteering.  (The jovial types don't last very long, I've noticed.) She likes the sound of her own voice, and loves the idea of loudly showing all the other grownups how well she “relates” to children. And if the children aren’t paying attention, she’s still Doing Good, gosh darn it.

And, me?  I’m still rarely age-appropriate, and I continue to drop way too many F-bombs, but at least I can say I sound like myself, all of the time. For today, I’ll take that as a good thing.

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