The weight of little things

The French community in Winnipeg abounds in not-for-profit organizations with acronym names. The first acronym the kids get to know is that of the CRÉE, which stands for the Educational Resources Centre for Children. You can find it in the basement of a bulbous brown building in Saint-Boniface. One entryway has a ramp where the kids sometimes roll balls, their steps thudding through the grey-painted plywood. The other entry gives way to carpeted stairs that turn and face the check-out desk and the half-dozen rows of brown bookcases, back to back, full of games, puzzles, books, magazines, and toys, all for lending. The walls have seen bright colours, like lime green and soda-pop orange, but have last been painted a subdued beige. There’s a large play area and two lipstick-red couches for the adults. The centre is staffed with a little team of women who have smiling eyes.

One time we took out a train set. It was the only Playmobil on the shelves and the box was still pristine. “We’re trying it out!” one of them said, “we’ll see if Playmobil is a good addition for the centre!” William was a young toddler at the time, wearing bibs. Cedric was playing with facsimile tools.

We took it home and Cedric scooted it up and down the hallway and when he lost interest, we would put it back in the box, and the box on top of the espresso-finish buffet in the dining room. This particular set had 62 pieces including three little people you could sit on the wagon benches and a conductor with a removable hat. The rubber wheels, all twelve, could detach from their plastic rims. William figured out how to remove them with his teeth. Perhaps Cedric did too, simultaneously. So we’d take back the rubber wheels, they would dry, and then we’d put them back on their rims, and put away the train. I’d hand them their sister’s collection instead, the Playmobil set with the veterinarian, the safari buggy and trailer, the lions and the plastic carcass with sun-bleached bones.

Nevertheless we ended up losing nine wheels… The first family to have confidently borrowed the first Playmobil set from the Educational Ressources Centre was returning it in a pristine box, minus parts. I’d made a contrite offering to google replacements that I never followed-through with, in a defeatist attitude, as a person in denial of disorganization, certain that the wheels could not have rolled out of our medium sized house and that an end to mystery would come with time. And it did to some degree; Christian found most of the wheels in the air ducts. We gathered them and put them in one of the decorative measuring bowls at the end of the hall ready for when we would next visit the centre. Every time I would notice them I heaved a mental sigh of disappointment over the frustrating inevitability.

There are rules of productivity, of organization, of being a good person… In the Manifesto of A Doer the third rule reads: “Follow through. On the big things. On the small things. Create a habit of always following through. As habits go, it’s a good one to have.” It’s advice I imagine my mom would have said to me, and my mother didn’t like excuses. If you started giving an excuse, she’d stop you. But the eighth rule also sounds motherly, and it reads, “What you are doing is hard, but not impossible. Practice optimism.”

Last week I returned the wheels to the Centre. The activity-coordinator took the Ziplock bag and said “I didn’t even know we had had Playmobil!” It joined the other toys on a shelf in the bookcase behind the checkout desk, where lost things are found and returned and await their toy reunion. If the wheels weighed as much as the space and guilt they took up in my head all those months, the shelf would have bowed. If their return had been as important as their loss, coordinators would have applauded and a special notification would have been added to the e-mail newsletter. But like so much of parenthood, it was a banal scene, the submerged part of the iceberg on which floats childhood happiness.

Scene from life with toddlers

In the list of qualifiers that could apply to parenting none seem to capture the non-stop minutiae. The word would have to fit in the gap between little urgencies and the grace-note-filled upward spiral of intermittent progress.

Right now, we have toddlers. Cedric is two and a half and William is one and a half. They’re learning to share – a skill that takes a lot of narration on my part because William has no words. A typical scene goes something like this: there is a toy. Most of the time, the toy is Cedric’s. He plays with it because it’s his idea and William is his audience. Then, maybe he wanders off with a new idea, like an adult, but too young to have the furrowed brow. William who is tired of being audience musters all the speed he can and captures the toy. Cedric notices, sometimes right away, sometimes later, and he defaults to loud protest. I decide whether or not to mediate.

This time, the toy is a wooden truck with detachable parts, screws and nails and tools. The sun is pouring through the window, refracted off banks of snow outside. I subdue Cedric and rock him on the chair, calming his intensity, breathing in the smell of his hair, grabbing it like a fistful of straw. 

“It’s William’s turn, I know it’s your toy, but we have to share, it’s his turn, just a little while longer, just wait while he plays, I know… but we take turns…” 

He’s still protesting, more quietly, still insistently, like someone who exchanges a sledgehammer for a rubber mallet, still knocking, knocking, knocking.

I’m answering a text from my sister. We’re working on a project together and I’m excited about it, my attention is divided between this project and my professional motherhood. There is knocking… Cedric is still knocking, a rubber mallet to my brain, 

“It’s my truck!” he complains in litany form. 

I lose patience. I declare a time-out. I get up and sit him in the hallway, on the shiny dented honey hardwood floor, and punch in two minutes on the microwave.

I return to the living room and William’s diaper needs to be changed. It’s reflexive. I gather him up and we pass Cedric on the way to the bedroom where I tackle the smell in a flurry of wipes. The microwave sounds, the minutes are up and so I call Cedric to the bedroom and we reconcile our differences. He leaves me to the buttons on William’s suit and finds the chalkboard in his sister’s room. William, clean and free, joins him. 

It’s all forgot, like a string unknot and I bless the silence and resume the phone. I hear the scratching of chalk. Scratch, scratch, scratch, it fades into a quiet hum, but then there’s a crunch, and another one. I hold on to the hum, I don’t want to let it go… A few minutes later William comes to me, his stiff toddler legs belly-propelled… His mouth is dribbling yellow chalk. The crunch of yellow chalk was the price of the hum.

I know how fleeting the days are, the interminable ones I live and forget. I’ll soon reach a point when I’ve forgotten the adorable and the annoying parts of toddlerhood with only a brief glimpse like a buried memory coming to surface when I’ll feel heartbroken for a moment. But my present self is always telling my future self to relax, that I really am doing the best I can right now, no regrets. This crazy time with every minute accounted for, the boredom and the urgency pulling at two ends of me. It’s made me expand – like the Incredibles, I’m becoming the elastic mom.