My mother wrote back with one word: “Already?”
I looked at the picture again. Why had my mother said that? My daughter sat posed on the Vespa, squinting a bit into the distance, not looking at the camera, not even entirely aware of it. It was fall, and there was a sweater over her dress. Her hair seemed a bit blown back. If you just glanced at the picture she almost looked like a young adult. It wasn’t anything about her face or body language so much as the distant gaze, the sense of preoccupation, the many layers of thought and feeling that are out of sight.
She looks like a girl who has a fantasy about herself and maybe even a plan. A girl who is soon to leave home. But she is three. Hence: “Already?” The word has stayed with me ever since.
My daughter is now five. In the car the other day, coming home from an adventure in the Bronx (The Zoo, Arthur Avenue), my wife begins to rummage through her bag with increasing urgency. “Oh my God, did you lock the car?” she asks. “Oh God, my wallet is gone. My wallet has been stolen. Oh God. Oh God. Wallet stolen!”
From the back seat came a voice, “Don’t worry, Mommy, you can always use Daddy’s wallet.”
Then the wallet was found. Crisis over. But my daughter was not done.
“Mommy, if you need a new wallet I know a really good one,” she said. “It can go underwater. And it has glitter. And it’s very good for organizing. I saw it in an advertisement.”
We looked at each other, my wife and I, and asked at the same time, “Where did you see it?”
“On the plane,” she said.
Later, after I dropped off my wife and the baby and parked the car, and after we played rock paper scissors in the front seat and a few matches of thumb wrestling (“One two three four, I declare a thumb war.” She’s remarkably tough as a thumb wrestler. Very quick to go for the pin.), my daughter and I walked to the apartment.
It was past her bedtime. But I sat with her at the kitchen table for a while. The next day was the first day of a new camp, one which required her to take a bus. We drank pomegranate juice. She asked for pickles, and I brought a small plate of the kind she likes, little cornichons. And then some grapes. I was giving her a treat. I suppose I was giving myself a treat in not having to put her to bed, which she would fight.
I asked about that wallet, how she knew about it. She said she had seen a commercial on the plane. We had flown to New York three weeks earlier.
“It’s such a perfect wallet,” she said. “You know how sometimes a wallet won’t fit in your pocket? This one fits in your pocket!” she said.
“Wow,” I said.
“You know what else it does?”
“You can run over it with a truck. And it’s OK.”
“Did they say that in the commercial? Or did they show it?
“They showed it! A truck ran it over. And it was fine!”
“You really seem to know this commercial well.”
“I watched it several times.”
They next morning she she popped awake, sat bolt upright and said, with unusual clarity, “Did I miss the bus?”
We all came downstairs to see her off. It was almost as though she was setting sail on the grand transatlantic voyage. Me, my wife, baby boy, and my mother, all of us there on the sidewalk smiling and waving.
Then she was in the bus, the young woman in charge fussing over her seat belt. We craned our necks to get a last glimpse of her. I could see some shadowy movement. Light glinted off her familiar hair. And then she was gone.
She was home already when I came back that afternoon. I found her sitting on the couch. Staring off into space with a pillow clutched to her tummy, an abstract expression on her face. Frankly, this was an unusual moment of repose for my daughter. I recognized her expression as being a version of that expression she had on the Vespa, the one that provoked my mother to comment, “Already?”
I thought about how she was daydreaming. About how daydreams themselves are like protective layers. On the Vespa, age three, there was the very first layer surrounding her wishes and we could still see her, observe her looking into the future. Her future.
Now, a worldly five-year-old home from a bustling first day at camp, she had acquired more depth to her daydreaming. More layers. She was now encased in a spun web of fantasy and, I suppose, worry.
Daydreaming, and its many protective layers, are a kind of chrysalis within which we grow up. Where we experience the privacy of one’s own thoughts, and the incredible fact of privacy itself. The abstract meandering and free associating about the events of the day, or fantasies about the future, loving, vengeful, murderous, sexual, helpful, ecstatic, hilarious, triumphant, self-abnegating, self-glorifying, all of it.
I don’t recall ever being so eager to play with my little girl as was when I saw that look on her face.
I dropped to the floor. I threw stuffed animals at her. I picked up toys. Most of all I asked questions which, no surprise here, she for the most part refused to answer.
Eventually a question finally triggered a stream of conversation that brought her out of her thoughts and into the present. It was brief, incoherent, enjoyable. Like childhood.
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