My daughter Kathryn sat on the toilet, her face red with frustration. She had been yelling “Mama” at the top of her lungs, but Mama hadn’t come. Papa had come instead, and this wasn’t acceptable to her 3-year-old mind. She tottered on the edge of the toilet, her pink cotton dress pulled up, her short hair encircling her miserable face. I knew I would get nowhere with her–she is not to be reasoned with in such a mood–and I left to get her mother.
It was then that I knew something had to be done, and operation “I love you,” was born. My daughter didn’t like me, or suspected that I didn’t like her, and was there a tangible difference between the two things?
Operation “I love you” was simple enough: make a habit of saying “I love you” at least once a day, and always after reading a story to her at night and putting her to bed.
So that night I read to her about doggies (“Woof! Yap yap! …nnn…nnn…nnn…”) and turned off the light and tucked her in, and as I stroked her head I said, “I love you.” This was not a difficult thing to say, because it was absolutely true, and yet I had not said it very often to that point. Foolishly, I had thought it was self-evident. I felt it so strongly that she surely could not help but notice whether the words were spoken or not, could she?
But something had made her doubt. Was it the night not too long ago when Anna was on a business trip? Kathryn had a cold, or was it a flu? She vomited. I was so tired, and Kathryn’s sister Daria was making a fuss. She wouldn’t settle in her crib, and when after carrying her for a desperate hour she cried again and spit out her pacifier, I picked up the pacifier and threw it violently against the wall. “Goddamnit! I need to sleep!” I screamed.
Maybe this incident had convinced Kathryn that I didn’t love her, that I couldn’t yell so ferociously if I did.
In any case, after I said I loved her she looked at me with narrowed eyes and went to sleep.
I included songs in the nightly ritual too. From Anna I learned the Russian lullaby about the gray fox that will come and eat you if you sleep too close to the edge of the bed. This song makes a cradle in a treetop seem tame, but it is a lovely song nevertheless. I sang and I kissed and I said the words, and with the moonlight on the side of her little face the words were easy to say, because they were true.
Every night the same ritual was followed until one night she said, “I love you” to me first, and I said, “I love you too.”
Years later, I lay on my back on the floor in between the beds of my daughters, who were still restless.
“What song would you like?”
Oweanka was a favorite. We had a little routine–I sang the first part of the line and they finished it off.
“Oh-we-ain’t-got a barrel of…”
“Maybe we’re ragged and…”
“But we’ll travel along, singing a song…”
All together now: “Side by side!”
“Don’t know what’s coming to-…”
“Maybe it’s trouble and…”
I had taught them the words.
“But we’ll travel the road, sharing our load…”
And they had taught me how to say them.
“Side by side!”