Tuesday, January 28, 2014

this is you

Yesterday I arrived at a parents' meeting right after dropping Elliott off in his classroom.  I get to stay with him for a bit each morning and we usually do some artwork together.  The result is that I often leave with some papers in my hands.  Take this home with you, he tells me.  Keep it safe until I get home.  And I do.

I walked into the meeting, the room filled with people, most of whom have children older than Elliott, with this paper in my hand, not really realizing I was still holding it.  I sat down next to another mother, and settled myself, turning my hand toward me and registering that there was something in it.  The other mother reacted, Aw! she said.  I remember those days.  You are so lucky to still be in them.

I looked down at the picture.  Of a bear that Elliott had drawn moments before.  He and I sitting in tiny chairs at a low table.  Speaking quietly to each other while his classmates arrived.  Watching each child enter school in his or her own way, some excited and bounding off, some sticking close to their parents.  A chime announcing that it is time for us to say goodbye.  Elliott snuggling in for a hug before I leave.  I can still feel his soft baby hair against my lips from when I kissed him goodbye.  I do not linger too long after this hug.  Because saying goodbye to me each morning is hard for him recently.  I can move through all these moments and sensations over and over again, whenever I look at the pictures he sends home with me.

Yes, I am, I say to this woman. Knowing that before long I will be her, looking at some other mother, a younger than me mother, with the awareness that she does not know just how soon she will be me, a mother that is very easily said goodbye to.

I've been looking so long at these pictures of you 
That I almost believe that they're real
I've been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel

The Cure - Pictures Of You

Ok.  So I tripped you up there a little bit didn't I?  I started with a child's picture and then I swung a hard right into a Robert Smith song.  That's right.  I am a complicated woman.

I have three large plastic bins that I keep up in the attic, tucked up against the large brick chimney that passes through the attic on its way to the roof.  I have them in order of our children's age from left to right, labeled Nicholas, Julia, and Elliott.  In each bin is the artwork and school work that I have saved for each of them.  I am forcing myself to select carefully because I know that really these precious pieces of art only have value to each child and to me.  And eventually, given how I have felt when my mother has given me bins of my old artwork -- faded, broken, decomposing, and mildewy -- they will probably only have value to me, their mother.

I have needed to come up with pictures of myself for a couple of projects lately.  And I have not been able to do so.  Apparently I am usually on the other side of the camera.  Or I move quietly out of the picture when someone is taking one of the kids.  I must admit I don't really like myself in pictures.  I know that is vain, but there it is.  I imagine myself looking different.  And I like my imagined self better than the real me.

This focus on yourself.  It is unsettling and uncomfortable for me.  And yet, the question I ask myself lately, perhaps not in words, but just in the way I interpret every moment, is who am I?  There are a lot of answers.  A lot of ways I could depict myself.

In kindergarten, each of our kids made self portraits each month.  And at the end of the year, their lovely teachers bound up the portraits and sent home a booklet.

And so we have pictures of each of them, evolving across the kindergarten year, those sweet faces going from chubby and round to lengthening and maturing, the kindergarten dental drama playing itself out in gaps and spaces and sometimes teeth that are jagged and terrifying, as though there should be spittle dripping off them they are so huge.  Their drawings also demonstrate a year of growth in their artistic representational skills as well.

Depending on what they are studying at the time, and what mediums they are exploring with their art teacher, I have portraits that are drawn, collaged, and painted as well as portraits in which they stand in the snow (because it was drawn during the winter) or portraits in which they have taken an imaginary trip to the country they are studying for their Global Focus week.  Which led to one very funny and confuzzled self portrait of Julia in which she was in a desert stroking a Moroccan camel in her parka while the snow fell around her.  And the polar bear that slipped in from the Arctic Studies unit immediately preceding the quick turn around to the Sahara dessert, sipping from the oasis in the background, was just as confused.

But this habit of portraiture.  It starts very young doesn't it?  But what's kind of strange to me is that my children only seem to draw themselves when asked or during certain stages, short lived and dicey, when they are having a development.  What they are more likely to draw when they sit down with a piece of paper and some pencils is a creature, or a place, or each other.  Much more likely to draw a this is you, than a this is me.  And then these pictures of others are gifted away.

One of my favorite early pieces of art work is Julia's.  She drew it one day while I was not looking, grabbing the cardstock backing of a pad of paper.  It is of Elliott, who at the time was a baby.  And she wrote a backwards E for Elliott.  And gave it to him, being held and jiggled in my lap.  I quickly tucked it away, as what Elliott really wanted to do with that picture was eat it.

These gifts of this is you.  I love them so.  Both because they show me how they see each other and also because, in some ways, no matter how young the artist?  They get it just right.

I struggle with this picture a bit. I am not sure whether it should go in Julia's box, because it is her artwork.  Or in Elliott's.  Because it is of him and gifted to him.  And back when he was a slobbering happy bald headed big eyed baby?  He looked just like this.  This is better than any other actual picture I have of him.  So maybe it goes in a bin for me.

And then a few years later, I started being gifted pictures of us as a family.  I long ago gave up trying to get a good picture of all five of us looking normal for our annual holiday card.  And then, I gave up trying to get one of all three children looking normal all at the same time.  And then I gave up on trying to get them looking normal at all, so we went with a collage format and put a whole bunch of pictures on the card hoping that in general, if you looked at all of the pictures, people who had not seen our children in a long time, or ever, would get the vague idea of what they looked like, and hopefully that they were human children.

My kids drew better pictures then than I was ever able to take with my camera.  This is us.

Julia, drawn at preschool, on a day that she was a missing home a bit
apparently Nicholas was in a ninja phase

Elliott, that same day, 
seeing Julia's drawing and not wanting to be left out, 
throwing in careful renderings of our belly buttons to make it uniquely his.

Nicholas, age 10, he and I at the chicken coop for my Mother's Day card

They are some of our best family pictures.  Far better than most of the ones backed up in my Photobucket account.

Now, with the kids older, I find the piles that I sort and lay out on our dresser to take upstairs to their bins are quite uneven.  Elliott still produces art work like the young child that he is, or like a beaver makes woodchips.  And Nicholas' pile is small.  The projects are long term, more carefully done, and therefore there are few.  And there is a good amount of written work going into his bin now instead of wacky masking tape and glue concoctions of things from the recycling bin that were so common years before.

And yet, the kids are still gifting each other their this is you's.

Elliott, of me, in small format

Julia has currently returned to self portraits here at home.  She is trying to get her hair just right.  She can't find a marker that is the right color, her hair a mass of browns and blondes and highlights and waves.  She brings each attempt to me, to see what I think.  What I notice is the eyes.  So carefully drawn.  More realistic.  Not round circles with a dot in the middle.  Shaped and therefore older looking.  I am not sure what has caused her to turn back from the you to the me.  I am sure there is a reason.  I just don't know what it is yet.

Julia, hair exercises

And so, I have been given my fair share of this is you's lately, especially from Elliott.  These pictures of me?  I love them.  This is what my children see.  Or at least what they can draw of what they see.  I am often waving to them as I either say goodbye, or greet them as they return to me out the door of their school.

Elliott brought this picture in to me in the kitchen last night as I was cooking dinner.  There was a lot going on up there in my head as I stirred the risotto and helped Nicholas solve for x.  

Here Mommy, he said.  This is you.

I stepped back and looked at this me.  His me.  A me that is there for him, even when I am not.  A me he can draw when I am not in the room with him.  A me that he knows, even when I am not sure I do.

I like this me.

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