Trading Potty Words for Silver

The word diarrhea has been said about 13 times so far today and no one is sick. With kids home from school and all their time spent together, the number of points they collect for saying gross things, making potty sounds, and being mean to each other is surging. Our house has become a potty-word-slinging, insult-hurling hot spot.

When we moved to New York City 10 years ago, we were so proud that we could take our daughters Sofia and Virginia, who were 5 and 7 at the time, to places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, institutions that would surely instill a worldly sophistication. We soon realized that the Met, and especially the Greek and Roman statue room, would not be a regular cultural destination due to its extensive collection of butts and penises.

This week alone Luke has earned points equal to 12 jobs, Mark 4, and Diana 3, and I’m running out of chores to give them and the will to enforce it all. I feel like a shipwrecked captain on a deserted island, slowly losing control over her crew.

It’s Saturday morning, and when the usual pillow-fighting, furniture-rocking, and ear-splitting screaming starts after breakfast, I am unable to get the kids outside, so I tell them they have to start doing jobs, like emptying these two dishwashers for example. Then Luke, 9, says, “No, I’m going to polish silver!”

We have a collection of silver-plated serving dishes from my grandmother and thrift shops, which are not valuable but I like to display their old-world beauty on our hutch and occasionally use them to serve fruit salad or dinner rolls. My mom would be happier if we would polish them, but I think their bronzy patina of neglect has an air of faded elegance, and who has the time anyway?

Luke gets the stool and reaches up to get one of the tawny bowls, and I start spreading the table with newspaper. “I want to polish silver too!” Diana, 6, says, climbing up on the hutch and trying to grab another serving dish. 

Earlier this week we had taken an outing to the hardware store, one of the only stores open now, to get more polish and Luke suggested we get two tubs. “I’m going to be doing a lot of polishing,” he said, recognizing perhaps his penchant for potty words and his attraction to this method of penitence.

Mark, 12, says, “That’s not fair that he gets to do all the fun jobs!” and soon three polishers are at the table rubbing silver platters with pinky-gray cream, running over to the sink to rinse them off, and calling, “Whoa, Mama, look!”

We look into these once brown and cloudy platters and see a surface so bright and clear it’s like a mirror miraculously appearing out of a murky pond in the dark woods.

Virginia, 16, who is sitting on the couch going over the list of supplies she’ll need to paint her walls Middleton Pink, comments, “That’s the way they really look?”

After lunch Luke has to do half of Mark’s vacuuming job because he was playing with Legos in his pajamas when it was his turn to set the table. Enrico has started to help Diana with her Italian homework, and as Luke pushes the sweeper wand back and forth over the tiles, he sings diarrea in Italian over and over to the tune of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”

I let the song wash over me and don’t even consider doing anything except going upstairs for a nap, when I hear the sound of reinforcements arriving. Sofia, 18, that former Metropolitan butt connoisseur, gets up from the living room couch and walks toward the chart with a pen like a dart, yelling, “Luke, do you want to be shining silver your whole life?” 

She adds another tally mark next to his name, and I think, maybe I won’t be carried off by a band of savages. Or maybe I will, but we’ll dine together on the finest silver.

No Training Wheels

Diana learned to ride a bike today. She wavered and swerved on the sidewalk in front of our house, able to pedal a tiny bit more each time before putting her feet on the ground. Her face lit up and she said, “It’s like swimming!” and I remembered how she used to celebrate every doggy-paddle float with a “Look, Mama!”

By lunchtime, she was teetering across the whole block.

Just a couple of days ago, I found her brothers hunched over the blue bike she got for Christmas when she was 4, training wheels and wrenches lying on the ground.

“We’re going to teach Diana how to ride a bike,” Mark, 12, said, as Luke, 9, lowered himself to the ground, trying to wedge the pump nozzle into a tight spot between the spokes.

I felt like I was walking into a storybook after living in a dystopian movie the past few days. The boys held her up, one on either side, and walked beside her as she wobbled along the sidewalk.

“Don’t get discouraged,” said Luke. “You’re better than me when I did it,” and I looked at him to make sure it was he who was talking.

The morning ended with Diana crying and the bike returning home on my shoulders, but on Sunday she got back on again. And today, after doing some math worksheets and watching a first grade teacher video, she wanted to bike.

“Did you see that?” she said over and over, as I sat on the grass in the tree box and watched her pedal 4, 5, 6 times before she lost her balance.

When it got close to noon, I called, “Luke, it’s your turn to make lunch!” He said OK to the supplies I left on the counter and disappeared inside, where Virginia and Sofia were making their own quinoa lunch and finishing a Zoom lesson.

In 30 minutes, sandwiches wrapped in tin foil began to appear on the purple picnic blanket spread on the front circle. “Whoa, Mama, did you see that?” Mark said as he set out glasses of sparkling water. “Diana did almost the whole block!”

I sat down next to the sandwich labeled ‘Mama,’ unwrapped it, and bit into layers of turkey breast and pepperoni, pillowy slices of olive bread, and tangy yellow mustard. “These sandwiches are so good,” I said. “Thank you, Luke.”

“Yeah, so good,” agreed Mark and Diana.

Compared to the meals I would often have when they were in school — rice cakes eaten over the sink — this was a party. Red and yellow tulips stood like dancers around us, and the white blossoms of a dwarf Montmorency cherry twinkled above. The noon-white sun seemed to sterilize me.

“My back is sizzling,” said Mark, getting up. And then all three of them hoisted their bikes up and rode together for the first time, doing circles in the middle of the street, because no one else was around.

You Can't Cry on Zoom

The day before the start of distance learning
the middle school principal told parents in a Zoom video conference
our faces at the top of the screen like squares in a quilt border

You are not expected to be your child’s teacher.
The most important thing is grace.
We need to give ourselves grace,
our children grace,
and the world grace.

And I wanted to cry
for her kindness, her forgiveness, her grace
but my camera was on