Usually I don’t let Emmeline pick out her clothes, because usually I don’t have three hours to kill, but we were in her room on a quiet, easy morning after Christmas, and we had just finished holding a tea party for an immense collection of stuffed animals when I turned to the child and said, “OK, it’s time to get ready — we have a lot to do today.”
Emme spasmed to the ground, shouting, “No! I don’t want to!”
Her tea party set crashed to the floor, and I chuckled at the thought of her animals recoiling in paroxysms of Victorian fainting spells and fevers. I suspected that “Frederick,” a new hobby horse Dana had made, wondered if he was delivered to the correct house on Christmas morning.
I set aside my own cup, rolled my eyes and offered that Emme could pick out her clothes if she would hurry along her tantrum.
“The entire outfit — by yourself.”
“All of it?” she whimpered.
“All of it,” I promised.
She thought it over for a moment, smiled and I knew at once that I had her — I knew that this morning would be easy. Then she threw all her clothes out of a drawer and collapsed into a crying heap at my feet. Annoyed, I grabbed her shoulders and held her eye, whispering sternly, “Wait till you try to pick out your prom dress — then you’ll know what real tears are like.”
Something has changed in our sweet girl. She has become the Manchurian Child. She looks the same as she did before but there’s something different about her, something … off. She’s like Raymond Shaw in a romper, prepared to “activate” at any moment. We walk on eggshells around her and certainly don’t let her near any playing cards or reruns of “Murder She Wrote.”
It is, of course, Christmas that did it. Or more precisely, the sudden absence of Christmas.
She was fully into the idea of Christmas this year, and I suspect her newfound appreciation for the tantrum might have something to do with the fact that I was fully into the idea of using Santa as blackmail, informing her gently that if she didn’t do as I asked, Santa might sprinkle her toys atop the neighboring houses.
“No presents at all?” she would ask.
“No presents at all. Unless you clean up all your bath toys.”
Our house had never been cleaner. And I began to understand why people started hanging lights and chopping down Christmas trees not long after Halloween. I almost converted a Jewish friend not through the power of Jebus but through the parenting miracle of red suits, reindeer and month-long shakedowns.
“Really, it’s a blessing,” I gushed.
By the time Christmas came around, our floors were sparkling, and I was already thinking up plans to have Santa visit every other month to get us through the rest of the year and, of course, to help clean under the sofas.
“Maybe he’ll bring presents and maybe he won’t — it depends,” I imagined myself saying, handing over a Swiffer.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then Christmas arrived and so did all the relatives and soon Emme was the center of endless, unwavering attention for an entire week. If my mom wasn’t secreting her candy or singing her songs, Dana’s parents were reading her thousands of books and answering every whim. I’m more than willing to dance like her personal marionette all day long, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to cross the room and pick up something at her feet. Her grandparents, however, considered it their duty. There were no timeouts, no threats of blackmail. Her naps were sketchy at best — her bedtimes pushed later. It was a week of ice cream, trips to the ballet, tea parties, sing-alongs, candy canes and Scuba Barbie and her two Max Factor-loving dolphin friends.
Then, suddenly, it was over.
By the time the relatives all packed up and left, Emme was dizzy with power, ordering Dana and me around and tossing toys across the room if we didn’t play “her way.” She was like a yuletide junkie, jonesing for one more hit of mistletoe or ribbon glue.
The other day before her newly reaffirmed nap time, she lowered her gaze at me, gritted her teeth and whispered, “No daddy — because I said so.”
It brought to mind one of my favorite parts in all of Shakespeare — when the newly crowned King Henry turns to Falstaff on that crowded parade near Westminster Abbey and declares, “Presume not that I am in the thing I was; for god doth know, so shall the world perceive, that I have turned away my former self.”
On the easy chair in her room, I held her close for a moment, wondering what had happened to my sweet girl. Too many people? Too many presents? Not enough structure? Sleep? Timeouts? The truth is she’s just like the rest of us, never the thing she was. Each day she learns something new. Each moment she picks up another morsel of worldly knowledge and instantly becomes different from what she was just moments earlier. Santa will give her things, maybe; grandparents will spoil her; her dad will blackmail her; and things will never return to “normal” because that changes just as quickly as we do.
In the stillness of the moment, the two of us cuddling in her chair, she reached up with a finger and traced my nose.
“Daddy?” she whispered.
“Yes my sweet? Are you tired?”
“Daddy, maybe I won’t nap unless Santa comes again.”
I imagined Falstaff’s shock and could sympathize with his outward rationalizations that the young Prince Hal he once knew would send for him later and show his “real” self once more. Secretly, the poor sap knew he already had.