By Leslie Kendall Dye
The other day my daughter asked me how much I loved her. Here’s how I responded: in song.
How much do I love you?
I’ll tell you no lies.
How deep is the ocean?
How high is the sky?
My kid went off in pursuit of toys—abandoning ship as I dissolved into reverie. I continued singing Irving Berlin while I put her picture books back on her shelf.
How many times a day do I think of you?
How many roses are sprinkled with dew?
How far would I travel to be where you are?
How far is the journey from here to a star?
I went to call my mom to see if she remembered the song, but I stopped myself. She wouldn’t know. My mother used to be Google; references flew out of her mouth in response to nearly anything someone said. But now she’s got very little memory, and so I had to use actual Google. The song was written in 1932 and it’s called, “How Deep is the Ocean?”
She may not have a good memory, but here’s what my mother does have: a daughter who is becoming more and more like her—and like her former husband (my dad)—every day that she has her own husband and daughter. Yes, I’m turning into both of my parents.
It isn’t just the bursting into song. There’s more.
I say “Don’t be disingenuous.” Oh, this was a classic in my house, uttered from both parents. Children enter a stage of development at which they begin to enjoy asking questions that they know the answers to, or pretending to be concerned that you will be extremely angry over a trivial offense. For example, “Mama, do you love me?” Or, “Oh, Mama, I am SO sorry I dropped that crayon, can you ever forgive me?” These types of comments are accompanied by sweet (if irksome) grins that belie the child’s pretense of anxiety. It makes a mother laugh, or roll her eyes, because, c’mon, you know I love you. You also know I am not angry about a crayon falling on the floor. I understand—kids revel in the sensation of reassurance, and they’ve discovered a new tool for tapping into it—being disingenuous. Still, there are only so many times a day that you can bring yourself to reply earnestly to such bald-faced ridiculousness. And so I call my child out. I give her a suspicious look (courtesy of my dad’s genes) and say, “Don’t be disingenuous. You know full well I am not angry about a crayon.” This kills with my kid, and we both bust up laughing.
I pull books off the shelf in the middle of a conversation and beg my kid to listen to this one paragraph, because it pertains exactly to what we are talking about! This goes over very well. My child immediately assumes the countenance of a philosopher, and sits, with her delicate face in her palms, gazing up at me while I read from A Child’s Garden of Verses. No, not really. She has about as much interest in a literary reference as she does in a song written in 1932, and she indicates as much by wandering off in search of the fun parent: her dad, who knows how to bake cookies and who tells better—er, more age appropriate—stories. He also does goofy voices! Aw, isn’t Daddy perfect? But someday maybe she’ll want to hear that paragraph; I can only hope that I’ll get to read all the chapter books to her that my dad read to me at bedtime.
I shout “Use a coaster, you’ll spoil the wood!” And then I look in the mirror to be sure it isn’t actually my mother who just said that. My mother used to react to water droplets on wooden surfaces the way most people would react to spotting a grizzly bear at the foot of their beds. I instantly panic and shout for help. “Get a paper towel,” I yell to my husband, “before it leaves a ring!” We don’t shop at Restoration Hardware or anything; our nicest pieces are from Ikea, but I just can’t stand seeing perfectly good wood damaged. When I saw my child placing coasters at strategic locations around the apartment one evening before company came, I thought: Perhaps I should seek help for my problem.
I’ve turned into the grammar police, even if I am not sure I am right about a rule. “Am I a piece of meat?” I ask, when my husband asks me if I am “done” before clearing my dinner plate. He sighs. “Have you finished your dinner, darling?” he asks, acknowledging the difference between “done” and “having finished.” I have no idea what my daughter thinks about these exchanges. Maybe someday she’ll rebel by refusing to use punctuation, or worse—putting commas where semicolons should be. I’m giving her a map of my vulnerable spots, that much is certain.
I use a flashlight to find CDs. My father is a book and music fiend. His books number in the thousands by now; I have no idea how many records and CDs he owns. He lives in an apartment in West Hollywood with loads of big windows and a fireplace—but you’d never know it because the blinds are forever shuttered to protect the books from daylight, and he covered his fireplace with bookshelves. As a result, it’s dark in there. My father has flashlights all over the apartment—and ladders to reach the tops of his shelves—so that he can find any book or piece of music he wants within seconds. Our apartment is a sunny affair—our windows face south and we have gorgeous trees just outside, so I never draw the blinds. But recently I had some trouble reading the titles of the CDs lined up on the shelf and I went looking for a flashlight. Now it sits by the stereo, right next to the CDs, and I wonder how I ever lived without a flashlight on the bookshelf. (Answer: I had younger eyes.)
I tell my daughter, “You are my jewel.” I tell her about the Roman Cornelia Africana, born in 190 BC. Africana was asked why she dressed modestly when other women of her rank were adorned with gems. “These are my jewels,” she said, referring to her sons. My mom loved that story. She also loved a quote she still wrongly attributes to King Lear. “I love you as fresh meat loves salt,” she used to tell me. It’s really from an old English fairy tale—also about a father with three daughters—but to my mother it belongs to King Lear. And so I pass on both of these beloved quotes to my child, with a footnote about where the latter comes from—and a reminder not to tell her grandmother the truth.
“Just let me get the soup up,” I say. My mother’s lentil soup has nine hundred ingredients and requires two hours to prepare, not including simmering time. It’s an old German recipe, and it’s exhausting. If someone tries to talk to me while the clock is ticking on dinner, I tell that person to “just let me get the soup up.” I never understood why it was so important to put the lid on that pot before turning one’s attention to something else. I get it now, Mom.
I relish the art of the pitch. My dad delights in reading. He’s obsessed with it. But he loves one thing more: Pitching a book. It’s a challenge and a game for him, and of late I’ve noticed how much I, too, enjoy this hobby. I love to set the scene, set up the stakes, and reel them in; I love to try to make people desperate to know what happens next. The only problem: if I persuade someone to read something, get them champing at the bit—I can be stingy about lending my copy. So there are two ways I am just like my dad.
As I grow into my role as a mother, my upbringing and genes coil around each other and squeeze me until it’s hard not only to distinguish myself from my parents, but my mother from my father. And that’s not something I ever thought I would say. Then again, there are a lot of things I never thought I’d say—and then I had a child.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and dancer in New York City. She has written for Salon, Vela Magazine, The Toast, The Washington Post, Word Riot, Off the Shelf, and others. You can find her at www.lesliekendalldye.net, on Twitter @LKendallDye, or putting her child to sleep. She tries not to put others to sleep.
Photo credit: “Motherhood” by Rosana Prada is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.