Anna approached our car flipping her ponytail back and forth against her neck. She was skipping. She was smiling. My son was smiling, too, but not flipping his ponytail. He doesn’t have a ponytail. He also wasn’t skipping. He was sweating, big swaths of sweat.
Anna is my friend’s daughter. Recently, my husband and I gave her a ride home from a middle school dance; my son attended the dance, too, although I am fairly certain he did not dance, with Anna or anyone else. He’s not the dancing type. He’s more of the stand-around-laughing-at-dancers type. He’s also the sweating type. I must remember to buy more Old Spice.
It was a good dance, at least that is what Anna told me.
My son, slipping his ear buds into his certainly unclean ears, responded, “What dance?”
He had already forgotten.
I’m lucky to know Anna the way I do. That is, well enough to admire her smile, her ponytail flipping, and her ability to answer a simple question with an appropriate response. But not well enough to know what she’s like when she’s grumpy or has had a really bad day. Because Anna lives across town, and not in the bedroom next to mine, I can imagine her as the perfect daughter, an antidote to my very real less-than-perfect sons, all three of them.
I do most of my Anna fantasizing when things fall apart at our otherwise idyllic home. There are screaming matches. There is disrespect. There is obstinance. There is unacceptable behavior. It is not usually me, but sometimes, of course. When this out-of-control household happens, I like to think of what it would be like to live with perfect Anna all of the time.
In my girl-friendly fantasy, Anna and I would wear big movie star glasses and drink juice from champagne flutes, luxuriating by the pool. We would lie in chaise lounges and admire each others’ painted toes. Anna would love my new swimsuit. She would say, “Oh, now, is that a new swimsuit?”
“Yes!” I would say, “Do you like it?”
Anna would say, “It’s the perfect cut for you!” Anna would not say, “Huh” or “Whatever.”
When Anna and I begin to perspire, she would say, “Shall we take a dip?” We would carefully slip into the pool and relax in big inner tubes, sipping our refreshments. There would be no splashing or inner tube flipping. My hair would not get wet. Anna would not scream, “Gotcha!” while shooting me with a water gun.
Later, as I prepared a perfect dinner, Anna would request, “Lots of vegetables, please!” She would not burp at the table or lean her chair way back until she almost falls over. Anna and I would have absolutely no dinnertime discussions about poop. Zero. She would eat with her mouth closed. Completely closed. Anna would wait her turn to talk and she wouldn’t even think about interrupting.
When I would say, “Let’s each share our best memory from today,” Anna would say, “I love to share memories about my day!” Anna would not roll her eyes or pantomime vomiting.
For an after meal activity, Anna would not challenge me to arm wrestling matches or pull-ups or push-ups. But if she did, and I could only do one, Anna would not laugh. She would not say, “Mom, you gotta step it up.” She would tell me I made a good effort. She would say it without a snicker. She would say, “You’re so good at yoga, though! Maybe I can join you sometime.” Then we would plan to go to our favorite yoga class, wearing our matching yoga pants.
When it was time to do homework, Anna and I would both smile and look at her perfectly organized binders. Anna would review her agenda book, where every subject would be written in a different color, just as I suggested. Anna would merrily finish each assignment and check them off. “Complete. Complete. Complete!” she would say.
After homework, Anna would not play video games or computer games. She would say, “I abhor electronics. Let’s read a book!”
Anna would brush her teeth without reminders and rise in the morning without an alarm. She would not scowl and say “I’m getting up already!” but would wake with a smile and spend the day being perfect.
Although my Anna fantasy is decadent, and luxuriating by the pool sounds divine, it’s not really my style. I am more likely to spend summer days tending the yard, blissfully unaware of the exact location of my offspring. Often, without warning, a screaming pack of wildness comes crashing into our pool. My sons front flip, back flip, flip over pyramids of friends. They chicken fight, capture flags, dunk basketballs. It is a regular Cirque du Soleil. Although these fêtes of athleticism are for the pleasure of the participants, I have a front row seat, as if at a sold-out Broadway show. Cheering and clapping, however, are not expected. A standing ovation would be ignored. I am simply blessed to bear witness. The warriors leave as expeditiously as they arrive.
Dinnertime is filled with burps and bathroom humor. Conversations are interrupt-driven, and most often take place while carefully balancing chairs on two legs. It’s never quiet; laughter abounds. I’ve learned interesting slang during dinner, too interesting to repeat. I’ve also watched hilarious, though inappropriate, YouTube videos. Although there is more competitive conversing than memory sharing, I enjoy these loud and messy male-centric meals.
Instead of cooperative mealtime cleanup, contests of strength begin. My boys challenge me even though they are certain of the outcome before we begin. I have not won an arm wrestle in many years, yet I remain a fierce competitor. I like the build up, the excitement, the knowledge that regardless of how long I stay in that neutral position, eventually, my arm will be slammed down on the table and victory will be declared. It’s different when they wrestle Dad. That’s a battle with subtexts of dominance and power. With me, it’s just fun. Also, it is the closest I get to holding their hands.
Homework completion occurs at lightning speed. More than once in my parental career, I have heard a midnight moan, “I didn’t have time to study for the midterm. Mom, please let me be sick tomorrow!”
There is, however, always time for video games.
My boys have killed thousands of enemies in our basement. They’ve won Super Bowls, scored hat tricks, mined for gold, and pillaged large cities. I know little of what goes on at the bottom of those stairs, but I do hear the way they work together to achieve an otherwise meaningless objective. If it takes a little electronic death and destruction to get some real-life brotherly love, so be it. Game on.
When bedtime arrives, I’m usually ready before they are. Often, just before turning off the light and bidding my husband good night, I’ll hear a crash, a slam, really heavy feet pounding up the stairs. One of my sons will throw open the bedroom door and proclaim something. What he did. Who he saw. Which team won. How much fun. The real-life boy standing at my bedside will be smelly, sweaty, and not wearing movie star glasses. He will not be perfect, but he will most certainly be mine.
Maribeth Darwin is a freelance writer from Melrose, Massachusetts. She is a Technical and Marketing Writer by trade, but prefers telling personal tales. Her three sons, and favorite subjects, continue to grow taller, wiser, and kinder than she thought possible. Maribeth has published essays in BrainChild and BrainTeen Magazine.