The unbearable sweetness of Marshmallow Man
I really need to throw away the crumpled piece of paper I’m holding. It doesn’t seem to be anything special—just a few small thumbprints depicting a flower and a shaky-looking oval that could be a leaf. Or an alligator. Or a spaceship. Or an alligator riding a spaceship made from a leaf, because that’s the way little kids see the world. They’re like miniature Willy Wonkas set loose in a fun house after downing three espressos.
I place the artwork into the “toss” pile and reach again into the big envelope that accompanied my preschooler home. Here’s a sketch that appears to be of a person with marshmallow limbs and tiny jazz hands. He lies sideways, hovering high above the ground. Another candidate for the toss pile.
We don’t have room for any of this stuff. As it is, my closets should sport an “Enter at Your Own Peril” sign.
But then I see the teacher’s note on the back of that horizontal marshmallow person drawing. “Me Doing Karate,” it reads, a title dictated by my 5-year-old, Dylan. He started karate two months ago, and he struts around in pants that are comically big (come to think of it, they do make his legs look like marshmallows), held in place by a white belt tied around his little tummy. Yet this is how he sees himself: soaring through the air, about to unleash an Olympic-caliber kick. Spider-Man’s got nothing on him.
What I should do is bring all of this artwork upstairs, into the attic. I’ll save it for a few years, then maybe I’ll be ready to toss it.
I pull down the stairs and begin to climb into the musty, creaky space we so rarely enter.
I pass the empty corner that used to hold the wooden glider on which I rocked all of my kids. The glider came in a giant box that showed a picture of a pretty mother smiling at the slumbering infant in her arms. That woman and her baby really pissed me off. Whenever I sat in that chair, I was slumped over in exhaustion, something foul-smelling stuck to my shoulder, my feet in mismatched socks. I gave our rocker to my nanny’s daughter when she had her first child, hoping it wasn’t cursed.
In another corner are plastic bins of baby clothes. I’ve given away most of the outfits my kids have outgrown, but these are the pieces I can’t bear to part with. I see a flash of pink and yellow and realize I’m looking at a bin with old Halloween costumes. My boys were Winnie the Pooh and Piglet one year, holding hands and shrieking with delight over their unbelievable good fortune in scoring a mini Hershey’s bar.
I peek into the bin, wondering if it has enough room for the artwork, and see the tiny clip-on tie my sons wore when they were baptized. I catch my breath and sit down on the floor, remembering their grandparents’ tears of pride, and the soft, heavy feel of those babies in my arms.
Those days are bittersweet now, but back when we were in the thick of them, my friends and I were stunned by the blurry, constant exhaustion we faced. Sometimes we’d brew a pot of coffee and list all the ways being a parent of toddlers was similar to being a rock star. Sometimes you got to go to bed with two or three people! Sometimes you woke up covered in vomit! And forget the fad diets of glamorous movie stars: A-listers could keep their organic cleanses—we moms existed on nothing but mac ’n’ cheese and old pizza crusts for three days running. And who needed personal trainers? We could summon the speed and agility of an Olympic athlete anytime we spotted a toddler dangling from a tall play structure, calling for help.
I tuck the artwork into the bin and start to close the lid. Then I reach back in and pull out Marshmallow Dylan. Soon he’ll graduate from preschool and climb aboard a big yellow bus, heading to all-day kindergarten. The tiny shoes stacked in the holder by the front door will be replaced by bigger ones, with real laces instead of Velcro. Alligators and leaves and spaceships will no longer consort. One day he’ll decide he’s too old to trick or treat.
I pin the picture to the refrigerator, as a reminder of a time when magic was everywhere.
Sarah Pekkanen’s latest novel is Catching Air (Washington Square Press, 2014). She can be reached at email@example.com.