“What do you want to do?” I asked Little Miss. It was our first time on our own, after a long stretch of getting to know each other in the company of The Troubadour, and it’d been a good while since I’d had a child in single-digit years in my jurisdiction, so I had a little bit of mental recalibration to do. I caught the little glint in her eye presaging an expression of interest in tiresome pre-processed media, and preemptively added “…that’s not TV.”
Little Miss made a brief harumph face, but it passed quickly.
“I think it’s a bit chilly for that.”
“That sounds good.”
We retrieved the art box and set up, but after a few meandering sketches, she let out a sigh.
“I’m bored of scribbling.”
“Want to color?”
“I’m bored of coloring.”
“Want to paint?”
“I’m bored of painting.”
“Fortunately, no such device exists in this house.”
“On your computer.”
“I think not. How ’bout snowflakes? When was the last time you made snowflakes?”
“What do you mean, ‘made snowflakes’?”
“You know–folded up paper and cut them out.”
“Wha wha wha?” she said, with the particular tip of the head and exaggerated “huh?” face that she puts on when I’ve somehow momentarily astounded her.
“You know,” I said, fetching a piece of paper and scissors. I folded it in half, in quarters, cut off the extra bit, and folded it again, then cut notches into the sides, “…Like this. Open that up.”
She took the jagged triangle of folded paper in her hand, reminding me again how small those hands are, and carefully pried it open until it unfurled into a lovely starburst of paper and light, and I watched her face bloom at the same time, lit with the realization that there are, at least for a child, more miracles to find in every day.
“Mommy,” I asked my mother, after we watched Mr. Rogers methodically preparing French toast in his kitchen, stepping through the process on our old black & white television with the glacial, gentle pace that marks his work, right to the point where he added a dash of vanilla at the end, explaining that he liked to add that because that’s how his mother used to do it. “Can we make French toast?”
My mother looked up and smiled.
“Of course, Joebie.”
She gathered up the materials for breakfast—basic utensils, the milk, eggs, bread, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla extract, arranging them so that everything fell to hand on the Formica surface of the counter next to our Harvest Gold stove, and preheated the copper-bottomed skillet that featured in most morning meals. I slowly worked my way to recipe as she’d transcribed it from TV to an index card in her precise, but airy, script, feeling like I was the architect of the first meal I’d ever propose and execute from instructions to a stack of perfectly-tanned cracked wheat bread in a cloak of egg batter.
As I added ingredients, mixed, stirred, soaked, and transferred each slice of bread to the sizzling pan, I felt like I’d done it all by myself, a delusion we allow children in the process of becoming, and a thing I realize now, as I’ve been in the adult role with Little Miss, is a delusion borne out of a great deal of gentle guidance and invisible oversight. The small hand reaches for the wrong ingredient, or begins to shake too much cinnamon into the batter and the large hand corrects without making itself known. A subtle blocking movement here, an extra hand on the bowl there, and a pair of hands reaching over the pan as a guide and a guard, and soon the ritual is complete and the child is enriched, their face blooming, lit by the realization about the joy in processes and in what can be accomplished in action.
“This is good,” I said, digging into the French toast that my mother dusted with a light snowfall of powdered sugar before settling in for her own plate and a cup of tea.
“It certainly is, Joebie. You’re a very good cook.”
I beamed back, over a forkful of perfect toast.
I figured out fairly quickly that the scissors that fit Little Miss perfectly were having a hard time, largely because my spur-of-the-moment art project hadn’t come with the anticipatory preparation of purchasing the tissue paper that makes it easier to cut through the thick layers, so I gave her a pencil and the official title of Snowflake Construction Manager, and we proceeded this way for a solid hour. I’d cut and fold squares of paper, hand them to her, then take back the marked wedges, which I’d cut, with her focused supervision, and hand them back for the unfurling.
Before long, a heavy snow fell over the breakfast nook, with a growing pile of snowflakes taking shape and no hint of youthful boredom in the air.
“Can we paint them?” asked Little Miss. My mug took on that pondering look for a moment, as I wondered if watercolors would just melt the paper right away.
“I’m not sure how it’ll turn out, but we can give it a try,” I said, and I set up the paints and a piece of cardboard salvaged from a box to soak up the stray paints. On the stove, I warmed up the big cast iron skillet, just enough, and turned it over on the stovetop to serve as our accelerated drying rack. She painted, I painted, we collaborated, and we figured out that we could get a sort of ombre spread of color by spraying the snowflakes with water in a spray bottle, and the pile drying in the warmth radiating from the upturned skillet grew.
“I want to tape these up for Daddy!” she said, and I agreed. I gave her a roll of tape, helped her when she pointed out locations above her reach, and suggested a few places that I thought might be just right, and we stirred up our pile of polychromatic snowflakes, every one unique in all the world, into a blizzard that soon filled up the kitchen, the dining room, and the downstairs windows.
When The Troubadour returned, after a long difficult meeting elsewhere, looking tired and frustrated, Little Miss greeted him at the door in a flurry of wild pride, and before he could even put his things down or kick off his shoes, she was pointing out each of what seemed like hundreds of flakes, giving her artist’s statement for each one.
“What’s this?” asked The Troubadour, pointing to a little constellation of pointed starbursts on the wall by the breakfast nook.
“That’s a family of snowflake people!”
And they’re all family, these distinct things that emerge from the moment. All distinct in form, all distinct in color and shape and texture, but all of a kind, all united by their own kinds of beauty—it’s how we all come into the world and fall into place, or get blown into new ones.
Every day, I find something else in the blizzard, in the swirling clouds of new moments.
It’s easy to tell stories about my father, and about the oversized, theatrical character that he was, a man with a hundred voices and a thousand faces, who was bright and overtly present as fireworks, but my mother was the quieter, more subtle presence. In the days when gender was more rigidly enforced, more tightly bound, and more inviolable as a prescriptive force, so many mothers’ stories faded into the background of the triumphant, self-reinforcing narratives of masculinity, in the way that Ursula Le Guin so deftly described in her “Carrier Bag Theory Of Fiction,” written in 1986, and I’m reminded by something as small and delicate as a paper snowflake of the place in which I find myself.
I watch the way we take a blank sheet of paper, fold it, simply, and let our intuition guide us, gently, and make the little nicks and cuts and changes that seem so small at the time, and so unremarkable, and yet the snowflake unfolds out of blankness into a play of light and space, instinct and intention, until it is a whole thing, as beautiful and unique in the world as a child, and I am overwhelmed by how free I am in adulthood in this particular year that I can both be as dramatic and energetic as my father, and as quietly constructive and gently masterful in the process of shaping a life as my mother. These are halcyon days, and I revel in how I can still run to my mother for help in such things, even when she has to pause to laugh as I confront, unexpectedly and well into middle age, the disasters and dilemmas that fell into order so completely in the face of her forbearance.
I am the child of all who reared me, from my family of biology and my family of love, and I am overwhelmed, sometimes, by all that’s meant. It is a blizzard of modes of upbringing, a barrage of influence, and yet every element is distinct unto itself.
“Oh my,” my mother sighed, her voice still clear on the old cassettes that we used to send back and forth between my grandmother in Georgia, back when it was easier to put a tape in the mail than pay the astonishingly high long-distance charges to talk on the phone. “Joebie has been on a tear lately. We just bought the kids a new plastic wading pool for the kids and the little stinker managed to throw big rocks into it and break the bottom out.” In the recording, you can hear the spoon in her teacup as she stirs a little sugar into her usual cup of Constant Comment.
I’ve never found the tape with my grandmother’s reply on it, but I imagine she’d have suggested I be made to cut a switch, but that was never my mother’s way. A nudge here, a quiet moment of listening there, a guiding or guarding hand there, and the narrative of origin just disappears into the long story, told over time with only the highest and lowest points clearly seen, and yet, I feel those moments in-between a bit more every day in my role in the story of Little Miss.
It is all important, from the triumphs to the tiniest little snip that brings out the light in the right places in a paper snowflake. Taken as a whole, it’s easy to lose sight of the individual in a blizzard, but focus reveals all.
If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.—Fred Rogers
© 2017 Joe Belknap Wall