Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A (Very Rough) Portrait of the Artist at Four Years Old

Dear Maria,

Some weeks ago, we celebrated your fourth birthday.  The girls from downstairs came up.  You wore a chef's toque made from wrapping paper and we decorated cupcakes.   You and your little friends ate sprinkles  from the jar.  When it came time to sing, you suggested that we sing happy birthday to "Louie,"   This suggestion was so characteristically you---that in your enthusiasm for the idea of the party, you forgot that all the hubbub was happening in your honor.

I've been struggling over how to write a birthday tribute, and this post has turned into a bit of a juggernaut.  At first, I was tempted to write something pithy and enigmatic:  Four years ago, a mystery was born, and she still lives with us today.

But I'd like to leave some record of four year old Maria.   Someday, in your quest for self-knowledge, you may stumble upon this post. There should be a few white pebbles in it to help you find your way.

We adore you, darling Girl, but we often struggle to understand you.  And I'm unable to describe you without recording some of the struggle.  During pregnancy, I imagined that I'd have an instant, instinctual understanding of my baby. Your appearance at the end of those nine hidden months would answer all questions, and an intuition of your needs and personality would be  delivered to me--perhaps via the magic of post-partum hormones.

Instead, I discovered that the mystery was just as great after birth as before---it just now had a shape around it; a beautiful Maria-shape, with long legs, a full head of hair, and big, slate gray eyes.  You were a joy, but also a puzzle and challenge.  It was difficult to understand your baby ways and to trust the great hidden leaps of your unfurling intelligence. We fretted over you--over your sleep, your picky eating, and your language acquisition.   We still fret--will you ever learn to use a fork or blow your nose properly?  Will you ever learn to give a straightforward answer, without the haze of fantastic, French-accented gibberish?   I'm sorry for all the fretting, Dear.  You are, after all, our little test pancake.

This past year, the shape around your mystery has grown more distinct.  What instinct did not provide, we are slowly learning through study.  We find you sensitive and creative.  You have complicated ideas that build in the depths of your mind and burst forth in an often-difficult-to-understand froth.  You have an incredible, goofy sweetness.  Your joy is nutritive.  I've never seen a better image of paradise, than the sun shining on your smiling face.

Here are a few anecdotes from recent life.  I submit them to you.  They're far from complete--I had hoped to include two or three others---but in the interest of preventing "better" be the enemy of the "good," here are just three.  They are a very rough sketch: Maria, at four years old.


We recently had a sort of parent-teacher conference with your maitresses at the French pre-school.  They talked with knit brows and grave faces.*  At one point, I laughed out loud, because what they were saying sounded so much like a line from the movie, Amelie:

"She doesn't play with the other children.  She's in her own world."

What your teachers didn't understand, was that for you, a little goes a long way.  You love your friends, with an open, disinterested affection.  You come home with stories of their doings, and you laugh about their jokes days after they make them.  They seem to enjoy a second life as your imaginary playmates.  You plan what you're going to tell these friends and hash over what you've already told them.

But when you are with them, you have a hard time keeping up.  Part of it is the language, but it's also that you, like your parents, tend to be a little caught in your head  Your friends don't follow what you try to explain your thoughts.  But you're happy to caper after them, to take in a small exchange and digest it completely on your own.

And being this way, you don't seem to need a great number of friends, or a great deal of stimulation.  You spend much of your time with the other children, engrossed in your own narrative.  But there is no doubting your open-hearted love and sociability.


You've proven to be a devoted and protective sister.  This protective part has come as a surprise.  For so long, whenever we discovered Louisa doing something dangerous or destructive, we more likely than not, found you along side her, laughing in delight.  But protective you have become---especially when we're outside the house.  It distresses you when Louisa tries to walk about in the the train by herself---you worry she will fall.   And it worries you when she goes up to strangers.  You grab her hand and pull her back---a move that we used to discourage---but now you have learned it to  do it with just enough gentleness. Yesterday, I was able to buy myself a pair of shoes thanks to your vigilance.  Louisa tore through the aisles of footware with you as a monitor.  When you felt exasperated from your charge, you told me frankly:  "it's time for Loulou to go in the stroller."  That was that, and we buckled her in despite her protests.  And so you had peace of mind.
An old picture, taken shortly after Christmas.


I've been tired lately, and often collapse in my bed after putting Loulou down for her nap.  When I wake an hour later, I find that you've glued bits of paper with drawings  of letters and people onto the inside of a styrofoam tray and filled it with beads and buttons.

"Un cadeau, Maman."  "A gift, Mama. "

Yes, my Sweet---the gift of a decorated tray and the gift of a nap.  I can delight in both your creation and your being happy left alone to create.

It has been interesting to watch your artistic trajectory.   Back in October, you made your first "face"--  a circle, with two dots and a line for the mouth.  You said it was a Carebear.   I sat back and waited for more faces to follow.  Months went by and none emerged.  Instead, you plunged back into the abstract.   Sometimes, I asked you what you were drawing.  Most often, you answered succinctly, "Lines and dots."  On some occasions,  you made an arabesque with your hand and said in a grave voice "the whole world."  I'd look at your big loopy circles and lines and think, "yes, she's got it right."

You graduated to delicate branching  drawings, with lines meeting at big, dark dots.   They reminded me of Miros.  I guessed you were learning from the drawings in Daddy's research notebooks.  You drew these branching graphs on napkins during our travels in Barcelona and Amsterdam, and I promised myself that I'd give you some proper paper when we got home, and that I'd frame the drawing.

One of my favorites: "Broken Bidets"
But, abruptly, the graphs gave way and, at last, people emerged: great, bodiless heads, with flagellum-like limbs, and googly eyes of discrepant sizes.   You labeled your figures with zigzags standing in for text.  In recent weeks, bodies have made an appearance; hair too---both curly and straight---as well as fingers, eyelashes, and dots for cheeks.    In and around these figures are letters.   Real, undeniable letters.  I have to give credit to the French school--for certainly some of their lessons have hit home, and they blossom forth in your art.

Little four-year-old Maria, How blessed we are to have you in our family.  How blessed we are to watch you grow and be your parents.  Here's to another year of living with the Mystery!

*Maria's teachers were concerned because they were unaware that we would be moving this summer.  They were reviewing Maria's work and weren't sure that Maria had learned enough of the material to graduate to the next level.  Maria only for attended for half days and she was frequently absent because our many trips.  Clearly, we, as a family, didn't get fully on board the French kindergarten thing.  While that was not a good think for Maria's language acquisition, it meant that we got to see more of Europe and Louisa and I got to see more of Maria.  You take the good with the bad.

No comments:

Post a Comment