Letting Go

Posted by jdg | Friday, April 08, 2011

This morning my daughter made her own scrambled eggs even though I had no idea she could. One moment I'm helping her drag her Swedish stool contraption into the kitchen and the next she's expertly cracking two eggs in a metal bowl and whisking them. "When did you learn to whisk?" She just shrugged, and poured the airy mixture into a buttered pan. It's not like she whipped together a roasted leek and gruyère soufflé from the wilted winter dregs in our crisper, but I was still impressed (it really doesn't take much to impress me before I've emptied two mugs of coffee). We were sitting at the dining room table eating scrambled eggs when my daughter claimed a robin was building a nest in a tree just a few feet from the window.  At first I thought this was wishful thinking, but sure enough the bird kept returning to the main cleft from its darting sorties with scraps of straw and twigs.

The winter cold lingers. Yesterday my wife claimed she saw huge flakes of snow falling outside her office, but where we were twelve stories below it hit us like rain. Walking the dog last night I saw earthworms that had come out for that rain, lying there frozen along the sidewalks. The robin building its nest instills in me a confidence the thermometer doesn't; the earth will awaken even if it seems like it won't. The Greeks believed the wonders of spring were not just triggered by Persephone's annual release, but that the buds on the trees and the singing birds and the wildflowers in the meadow all sprouted from Demeter's joy itself: the joy of a mother's long-anticipated reunion with her daughter. That such a joy could be responsible for all this is not so hard to believe.

We sat there spellbound this morning, watching the nestbuilding, imagining eggs the color of Aegean skies and talking about how baby robins are cute even if really they aren't so cute. Plans were made to keep an eye on them when their mother heads off to get food, to collect their eggshells for the treasure box, and finally to watch their mother beak them to the edge, jerk her neck and let them go. "That one's not the mama," my daughter said, referring to the bird depositing a plastic straw wrapper in the nest. "The mama is over there, you can tell because she's so fat. She's eating food for her babies." Sure enough, the fat robin hopped into the nest to stomp and tussle the scraps. "That other one is the dad." I didn't have total confidence in her pronouncements, but I wanted so badly to believe they were true.

We were late for school but still did not want to open the front door for fear the birds would be startled and abandon their construction. How finicky are robins? How much labor are they willing to abandon? My daughter wanted to help them. She cut tiny lengths of yarn from her mother's knitting bag, and planned to drop them one by one outside. "Okay," I said. "Go now. Go quietly."

* * * * *

I admit I don't entirely understand dormancy. What is it inside a tulip bulb that tells it to sit tight while we hunker down for the winter, and then wake up with the spring? They say that for certain plants, messing with vernalization by granting extended summer-like weather can actually be fatal.

I think about my twenties in California.

I wonder what the Greeks would think of this science: the idea that flowers only bloom in spring because they've taken cues from the cold, that Persephone needs her time in Hades for the vines to bloom, and that Demeter must part ways with her daughter for their reunion to be this magnificent. As with all good myths, they somehow knew all this, and just found a better way of saying it.

Every year here in Michigan, the spring brings more than just familiar external signs. It brings the reminder of how much we've changed over the winter. We cast off our coats and remember what it feels like to go outside and not immediately regret it. Our kids hit the streets and amaze us with all the new things they can climb. Get off that fire escape! What are you doing up in that tree? While we've felt dormant, they've been growing. How many winters do I have left with them like this? How many springs?

"All the girls in my class have boyfriends," she reveals casually, and with a hint of scandal she lists off classmates in pairs.

"What about you?"

You would have thought I asked if she likes turd-flavored ice cream. "I'm way too young to have a boyfriend," she tells me. But a week later, at a meeting with her teacher, it's revealed there is a boy in her life. It's all innocent, we're assured. He likes to tease her and say that the things she believes in aren't real. She calls him Mr. No Believe because he says fairies, and imps, and Pegasus, and all the other things we talk about all the time do not exist in the real world.

So here we are at the divergence. With me she still believes. I give her stories of Pegasus ranches and tooth fairies. And I think part of me wants her to be five forever. Without me there are all sorts of wonderful truths she's yet to discover. And as magical as I've tried to make her childhood, I know it can't go on like this forever.

* * * * *

This afternoon it's still cold but the sun is out, and my daughter tells me that she thinks she's ready to ride a two-wheel bike. I think we have three or four such bikes that she's never been able to ride (her grandfather finds them at garage sales and brings one whenever he visits). I pull the smallest one out. It's the princess bike.

She pretends to wrinkle her nose at it for my sake, and I offer to repaint it for her, or maybe draw a goatee on Sleeping Beauty.

"No, it's cool."

Where did she learn to talk like this?

I know that when she's with her friends she submits to the princess stuff, but she's clever enough to pretend it's all as odious as having a boyfriend when she's around me. We find her elbow pads, knee pads, and fingerless gloves. I prepare her for failure. "You will fall," I tell her. "You will get frustrated. But I know you will learn to do it."

This a rite of every childhood. Also, a cliche. Sorry. This is the stuff of horrible, weepy television commercials. But it's not easy. She falls. She can't get her bike started without help. Over half an hour of practicing and she doesn't want me to let go. But then, this: