A Letter to my Eccentric Ellen

by Mr. Sheehy

To my dear Ellen:

After putting you down for your nap today, I asked your mom where you came from – who was responsible for such a crazy kid? You’re sleeping with your typical Sunday nap outfit – tights and nothing else. The nothing else is our doing; you wanted to wear your pink vest, but we won’t let you because you’d get too hot beneath your blanket (a fairly heavy quilt you began using this winter). Before sleeping, you petitioned for a song and a story, and when I finished singing the first verse of “Be Thou My Vision” and telling you the story of when I first sang it to you, you asked me to tell the same story again. When I refused, you said you forgot to wave and boo to me, which of course you hadn’t forgotten, since it happens when I leave the room. So I left, you waved, and as I closed the door you yelled out, “Boo!” to my not-so-startled startled face.

So many typical moments wrapped up in two minutes of your life. Yesterday I heard you crying during your nap, and knowing it was real and not some silly game, I ran into your room to find you on top of the covers with your blue headband. It stretched behind your neck and straight out around your two ankles, which were pinned about three inches from your face. I managed to maintain a concerned demeanor while stifling a giggle and convinced you, through your tears, that you needed to wait until after your nap to continue playing with the headband. If you’d had your way, you would have gone back to the task and I would have had to run in five minutes later to disentangle some other limb from another impossible contortion.

To our pleasure, such eccentric moments of silliness have become normal, and the more we let you make decisions, the more amusing life becomes. Take the process of getting dressed. One could try to make you wear what we think you should wear, but then we’d miss watching you gallivant about our home in Annie’s pants. This fall, we retired your “groovy pants,” some blue flowered stretchy pants that are super comfortable and were your clear favorites for a solid year. They were too small and we got you a new pair for Christmas, though of a different pattern. But then Annie changed sizes, and in her new batch of clothes were a pair of groovy pants that matched your previous pair. Naturally, you now wear Annie’s instead of yours, which means you’ve moved down a size instead of up. I’ve seen you pull her pants on over yours, stretch her hats to fit your head (wearing one backwards because it stayed on better that way), and when we wouldn’t let you wear her socks on your feet, you’ve compromised by wearing them on your hands. This morning at church, under your classy pink corduroy dress, you wore a pair of Annie’s blue bloomers. For one stretch, you even insisted on trying to wear your doll’s clothes, having Mommy and I carry you around the house because you couldn’t move your feet more than two inches.

Your favorite, however, are socks. First thing after a nap, you’ll assert, “I need my big long socks on.” We’ll find some, and you’ll then pull your socks past your knees and add as many pairs as you can find. Mommy will let you wear only two pair to bed now, because the number you wear while awake tends to cut your circulation. The most I’ve ever pulled off one foot was eight socks, and your little foot felt like you’d been snowshoeing in Alaska. But outside the naps, we don’t try to stop you. We’ll put a sock on each of your feet, and when we turn away, you’ll take the sock off one foot and put it on the other. If you get enough on a foot, you’ll call it your cast and limp about the house, even asking that we carry you, since your foot is broken (you learned about casts from Curious George Gets a Job). Mommy’s even taken you to the grocery store in your clunky winter boots because your feet wouldn’t fit into your tennis shoes with all your socks, and it would have been too much of an ordeal to convince you to remove them. But don’t interpret our conflict avoidance wrongly: we wouldn’t have it differently. Dress yourself, dear child. No one I respect will mind seeing your striped socks over your tights, with your nicest blue dress.

When it comes to eccentricities and their resultant habits, Mommy has read that it is unwise to tinker with a first-child’s routine (Leman), and you have shown yourself a first child. Whatever routine you are most enamored with at the moment is the one to follow, though, so for us not tinkering has not meant never changing, but making sure you have clearly approved the change. First child or not, your appetite for particulars of a routine but habit of drastically changing the routine seems like an inevitable result of combining your mother’s and my DNA. Your mother being one whose brain automatically wakes her at a particular time because that’s when she’s gotten up for three days in a row, and me being the guy who can’t even get addicted to coffee because I can’t remember to make it every day.

For bedtime, we have maintained a similar routine for about two weeks now. The first step takes place in the bathroom. You and I enter and attempt to brush your teeth, wash your hands, wash your face, lotion your face, get you to pee, and put on your pajamas. That’s a lot to accomplish, and it has its particulars – you get to sit on my lap while you scrub your hands, I need to suspend you above the sink to rinse them; you get to wash your face, but before that you have to wet and squeeze the washcloth, then let me squeeze it once; I always want to lotion your face, you always insist on doing it, dabbing one finger lightly in the blob on your right hand and applying a drop at a time while I sit back and remind myself that accuracy is not that important. The routine transmutes slowly, one element changing at a time, so that two weeks from now it may resemble the current one in only the basic elements. Three weeks ago I had to tell you the story of Snow White every night, beginning during the brushing of teeth and finishing as you put on your pajamas. Sometimes you bring back the classics, like last night when it was time to get on the toilet. You offered to pee on my towel, the wall, my bathrobe, the sink, and a few other items you found, and after each one I’d say, “No, don’t pee on that!” offer a reason, and assert, “You should pee in the toilet!” Obviously, the game has a particular form, and it has gone on for 10 minutes before you have relinquished to sit down and do the featured task.

Unfortunately, settling down is an element that is never part of your routine. When you and I finish in the bathroom, often after a 30-minute ordeal, you put on your pajamas but do not zip them. That is Mommy’s task, and you say you are going to have her do it. The odd part about this step is that even the first day you added it to the routine, you never went to the kitchen to ask Mommy to help you. Instead, every night, you wrap the edges of your PJs around you like they’re a robe or an unbuttoned coat, open the door, and sprint directly to the living room rug, where you sprawl out and writhe around like a baby until Mommy comes in and attacks you, blowing your belly and zipping your pajamas. Then you make her and me stand at the end of the rug to watch you roll; you roll once or twice, declaring, “I’m a baby, Mommy!”, hop up, and sprint to our bedroom, where you get to help Mommy apply Vaseline to your face and hand (it used to be bag-balm, but when you had a cold, you complained that the bag-balm burned your nose). Afterwards, you march around the bed with your arms up by your shoulders, making funny faces and often falling down. And then we try to put you to bed. Please pity us.

Routines don’t only apply to bed, of course, but since it’s a time when your mother and I have so much at stake (with 9:00 approaching, I start getting the same feeling I’d get the night I could no longer procrastinate a major paper, like doom had arrived and I had to let him in), we are less apt to attempt changes then. With other things, though, change is beyond our control. Your story-cycles are one area you clearly control. Last month I wrote about your passion for fairy tales; ironically, I have told you one during the three weeks prior to today. You moved from fairy tales to the Three Bears (yes, this is a fairy tale, but during your transition, this was the only one you’d accept. It was a long week, especially for Mommy), to cowboy stories (Stock Show and Rodeo week), to stories about when you were a baby. The baby stories led to the aforementioned rolling on the ground, which was your recap of a favorite tale. “Tell a story about when I was a tiny tiny baby” sounds like a cute thing to hear – the first time. The seven-hundred seventy seventh time, however, it’s like you’re mocking our unphotographic memories: “NO, dear child of mine! I can’t remember anything else! HONEST!” Thankfully you accept recycled tales and greatest hits.

Working with students for a living, my favorite moments with kids are always those where they reveal the depth of their thinking. These are the times where it isn’t important whether they do their homework or if they format their writing correctly – all that is important in a different way, a way that matters less – because in seeing their insight, I see their potential, their inherent greatness of mind, and I can see the brilliance with which they were endowed. This is how hanging around home instead of going out and never turning on the TV becomes a blessing. You’re two – well, two and a half plus a few months – and we were reading Where the Wild Things Are, when you blurted out, “Where are their thumbs?!” I looked, and sure enough, none of those wild things had thumbs. Why not observe details that are not in the storyline? Maurice Sendak considered them, since he chose to paint the wild things without thumbs – why don’t more of us? At two, you aren’t feeling obligated to think a particular way. You’ve seen M’s in alphabet books and 3’s on calculators and flipped them around to make E for Ellen. You’ve also allowed stories to invade reality, a fun start to allusion and imagination. At the grocery store with Mommy, you saw a young boy coming and told Mommy to hide you. “Why?” she asked.

“’Cuz he is going to eat me up.” You aren’t afraid to imagine, though even you have your limits. Reading a pumpkin book the other day, I asked you about the brother and sister, who were making a pie and a batch of cookies. I asked if you wanted to help and which one you’d help, and you said the girl.

“Why?”

“Because she’s having trouble.”

“She’s having trouble and you could help her stir?”

“Yep. But I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s in the book.” Of course! How silly of me to think it could be otherwise! Your answers are simple and profound. Teasing you, I often tickle you and then start to gobble you up, and you’ll shout, “Don’t eat me!”

“Why not?”

“Because God made me!”

A perfectly profound statement from a toddler. How many theology, literature, and philosophy classes have I taken? Books have I read? Conversations have I entertained? Have I ever stated the answer to this question of morality and sanctity as clearly and effectively? I think not. Too often we think that becoming like little children means to lessen ourselves in some way – as if it means to add naiveté to our thinking. How wrong. My students likely wonder why I talk about you so much, and while mostly it’s because I’m a dad, I think it’s also because I learn so much each day I’m with you – about people, about learning, about insight and creativity, about loving – and if I remain attentive, you’ll be an integral piece in my own journey toward sanctification.

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