I am 3 or 4 years old.
My arch enemy sits in front of me.
I have mustered all my strength to fight, not to give in.
I am steel. I am solid, implacable will.
To outsiders, I am an unrepentant, unapologetic, uncooperative child. To me, the insider, I am a person holding on to my very sense of self. I am a hero. I am a wronged innocent.
The enemy is green.
I have met him before.
We always have the same stare down. I am infuriated if he wins.
But my mother is his ally, his sponsor, his captain-in-arms, his cheerleader, spokesperson, champion, press corps, litigator, and well, his best friend. In fact, my 3-year old self is convinced she created him. Why, after all, am I not allowed to leave his presence? Why must I sit here, interminably, if the enemy is not her very own personal creation?
I remain in my chair. The enemy remains before me. Mom and I do not speak. She is washing dishes in the kitchen. My sisters have left and are up in their rooms, doing whatever cool and fun things older sisters get to do when they are not the intractable, stubborn warrior. I have a choice to make. I can let the enemy win again. Or I can take my final stand. It means the ultimate risk; my mother’s disapproval and possible discipline. She is never harsh, never hurtful, but being shut out of her world is devastating to me. Her silence feels worse than anger. It is frightening, especially because I believe I am the culprit. I want only to experience the sunshine of her gentle, nurturing love.
Her love is the best and safest place in the world. It is the world where she teaches us to make our own play-doh, or sew doll clothes. It is the world where I get to sit on the kitchen counter and bake cookies with her. It is where I can show her my boo-boos and she takes care of them. At the end of the day, it is the world where, without fail, she brings a cup of milk at night to my bedside and kisses me in the center of my forehead. That is the real reason I don’t like babysitters. They never do that. Even if they would try, I wouldn’t accept it from them. They never understand me. I am not their last child. I am not their shield and their sword.
Rachel and Sarah understand, though. “Mom, you always give her things she wants, but you never give to us! You spoil her just cuz she’s the youngest. It’s not fair!” I hear this, and my little heart agrees with them. My little heart thrills at their words! But outside, I sulk. I defend myself. I consider that I am always getting their hand-me-downs. I think about the fact that when they get to be the fairies and the nymphs, I am consigned to be “Witchy-Poo” who lives in the attic, wears striped tights, some old weird t-shirt and who knows what else. Why, in fact, just the other day, Sarah and I played “For the Poor Ducks, For the Rich Swans,” in which she regally divvied up the fabric scraps my mother gives us from time to time. I am just so happy my sister is playing with me, that I will consent to being a lily pad, just to have her near me. So, no, it all balances out. They make sure of that. Just the right touch of indulgence from my mother, and the humbling reminders from my sisters, that I am ever and forever the baby of the family.
But tonight Mom will prove that she is not spoiling me. Tonight the enemy will win. I will eat my peas and spinach just like my sisters did. She will vanquish my stubbornness. It is only a matter of time. One hour passes. Two hours. I sit. I am quiet. I stare at my plate and ask myself, “Why do I have to eat this, when I ate all my meat, and my potatoes, and I ate the fat from my sister’s plates, and I’m full, and these vegetables make me gag? No, I won’t. Not ever. Never.”
Mom has been sitting and reading in the living room. I hear her sigh. My hope surges. It is the first sign of defeat. I will not back down now. She’s weakening. Anyway, the vegetables are cold and gross, and I know my mother is not so horrible as to make me eat them now. Another moment passes. She sets down her book and walks to the kitchen again. She goes to check on Rachel and Sarah and remind them to get ready for bed. Then she is in the dining room. I don’t look at her.
Suddenly, a miracle. Slowly, ever so slowly, she removes my plate from the table with the wretched gaggable green enemy on it. My heart is soaring. Victory is at hand. She takes it to the kitchen. I watch; will she save it for me to eat tomorrow? What will she do with it? I have never once seen my mother throw food away. She says, “Ruthie, it is time for bed. Go now, get in your pajamas and brush your teeth. I will come tuck you in.” I run out of the room quickly before she changes her mind. True to her word, she tucks me in, kisses me good-night and leaves the room.
My battle is over. I will never again be forced to sit at the table until every bite is off my plate. I will never again be forced to eat a vegetable. But the war has not ended. My guilt will make sure of that. Yet, that night, I sleep deeply and happily, oblivious to the pain my mother experiences when she sees uneaten food. She returns to the kitchen. She eats my cold peas and spinach. She washes my plate and cup.
Then she sits down and tries to forget.