Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Things My Mother Taught Me

Several years ago, I wrote this essay. I submitted it to a parenting magazine and, in one of the more humiliating events in my life, received only a smudged photocopy of their submission guidelines in response. After scouring the document, I confirmed that it did in fact meet their guidelines; I don't know why they chose to send me that. But I was thinking of it this morning and still like it. So in honor of Mother's Day (because there's no way I will remember to post this on the actual day): Things My Mother Taught Me

When I was a little girl, I always looked at the cover of the coloring book to see what color the pictures should be. Then as closely as I could, I matched them. To me, staying inside the lines was an accomplishment to be proud of. And imitation was the closest thing to perfection.

I never mixed the play-dough. Such a thing would never have occurred to me. My creations were always of a single color, dismantled and returned to their canisters before they had a chance to dry.

Then one day, when I was about seven years old, my mother sat down with me at my little table to color with me. I remember clearly, it was a Tom and Jerry coloring book, and calm as can be, she started to color Tom purple. I was in shock that such a thing was even possible. There, right before my eyes, my mother was creating a lavender cat. It was my first inkling that the right way was not the only way to do something.

Last week, I was playing with my 11-month-old son in his room. He has several wooden puzzles with farm animals and food-shaped pieces. He had recently discovered that there were pictures underneath the pieces and was enthralled with the process of removing the pieces, one by one, from their puzzles. He would then hold them up, examine them, sometimes suck on them. I found myself asking him again and again, "Where does the cow go? Can you find the cow?" I even guided the pieces to their correct places and applauded when they fit. And suddenly I remembered my mother coloring Tom purple.

Now that I am a mother, I have the opportunity to shape my son's view of the world. I can teach him that there is only one way to do everything, or I can show him that there are a million ways to look at a problem and there are a million solutions. Putting pieces into puzzles is one way to play with them. Sucking on them, banging them together, and putting them into drawers are others. And are they any less useful? When I color the cat purple, I am showing my baby that he can do anything he wants, that the borders of thought and action aren't closed. I am letting him try out life and see what works. I am letting him mix the play-dough.

He will figure out what cows are and what they say and how they fit into the puzzle. That will come with time, I have no doubt. But more importantly, he will figure out who he is, what he has to say, and where he fits into the world.

When my mother colored that cat purple, I'm sure she was thinking only that it was pretty. But she taught me a lesson that day, one that I will be sure to pass on to my son: No matter what they tell you, there is more than one way to color a cat.

1 comment:

Aunt Becky said...

It's a lovely essay. That magazine was stupid for ignoring you.