I remember a time when Jane, then five years old, was playing with odds and ends in the kitchen while I made dinner. She had pulled out a big plastic container from the Tupperware cabinet and begged to fill it with water. I had oh-so-amiably assented and then immediately regretted it as water splashed all over the counter, the hot pads, my feet. I had to bite back sharp words and remind myself that it was only water. She chirped a sorry and got a towel and patted my bare feet dry, which was very sweet and was probably why I said, “Sure,” when she asked if she could “Mix some stuff” in the water.
Every one of my kids so far has adored “mixing” from about age three on. Rose and Beanie are always asking me if they can “make a mixture.” They don’t care what: Mixing requires simply a bowl full of something wet, and some dry stuff to sprinkle and stir into it. Flour, corn grits, rice, spices…they’ll take whatever I give them. Sprinkle, sprinkle, stir. Maybe taste, depending. (Rose: “There. Cayenne pepper, sugar, and nutmeg. Will that taste good?” Me, innocently: “Hmm, I don’t know. You tell me!” Rose, who is no fool: “Here, Beanie, you can have the first taste!”)
On this day I’m remembering, Jane decided that the perfect mixing ingredients were, and don’t ask me why, lentils and tiny bits of paper. She must have stood there for half an hour shredding a piece of paper into her bowl. This stretched my patience to the limit, even though she was being extremely careful not to splash my feet anymore. When her fingers went into the bowl, I’d had it. This was bound to end in disaster, soggy paper everywhere. I drew breath to scold her—just as she laughed with delight and said, “Look, mommy, my fingers are the whale’s baleen!”
“Um, wha huh?” I asked, ever eloquent.
“The whale’s baleen! You know, it’s—” and she proceeded to explain to me about the rows of thick, stiff hairs in the back of a baleen whale’s mouth that serve as filters when it eats, sieving out its food (microorganisms like plankton) from great gulps of water. “Like in ‘How the Whale Got His Throat,’ remember?”
“Oh, yes, Best Beloved!” I said, and this earned me a belly laugh. She has ever been a child who appreciates an allusion, no matter how obvious.
We stood there giggling while the pasta overcooked behind me, and she told me all about the baleen whales she’d seen in a library book and recognized from Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had read to her not long before. Using her fingers to scoop out the waterlogged paper bits, she chattered away about plankton and krill and all sorts of whale facts I didn’t know she knew.
Later I thought about how nearly I missed that moment. If that one scolding word had come out of my mouth, how differently would the scene have played out! It can be so hard to be patient, to stand back and allow children freedom to explore—hard to find the ground between reasonable expectations (no, dear, you may not pour a whole cup of sugar into your Mixture) and irritable adult busy-ness (no, dear, it’s vitally important that my ziti be perfectly al dente so for heaven’s sake don’t distract me). Sometimes I think the hardest thing about motherhood is retaining the presence of mind to think before speaking—or not to speak at all.