I am wondering lately if I have spoiled my children in the past, or if I am neglecting them in the present.
Bob shakes his head in disgust and tells anyone who will listen that I have always kept vampire hours, a mystery that he pretends not to understand.
But we both understand. I’ve worked the pre-dawn hours for the history of my parenthood, carving out those hours for myself so that I’d be free for my daughters during the times when they needed me. Sure, there would be work activities, like sausage making, or wrapping beef, or tending the garden, or selling at the farmers market, but they never really interfered with Saoirse’s and Ula’s needs for my attention.
But with this new store and cafe, things are different. There are still the predawn hours for computer work, but then there are the daylight, hours, for searing meat, setting up soups, baking, baking, baking, baking, and then the actual hours the cafe is open, when we face the constant activity of customer service, overseeing the equipment, food prep, and cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, plus the added activity of my daughters’ friends now taking up places serving tables, or helping in the kitchen, or taking off for the swimming hole behind the building. I am on hand for emergencies, but I am increasingly relying on these kids to parent themselves during these hours.
But this week, Saoirse has gone to camp. Ula repeatedly comes to me: she wants to show me a butterfly, she wants me to go pick berries with her, she wants me to fix her a snack, she wants me to help her with making a cardboard dollhouse. “No,” I must repeatedly tell her. “I’m not in a position to do that right now. You have to let me work.” Saturday morning at the cafe, she bounces in, and wants to tell me about the nest of baby birds that are living above the patio. Their mother is teaching them how to fly. In Ula’s mind, I need to drop everything: stop sanitizing the sinks, ignore the sticky buns in the oven, forget dialing in the espresso machines and grinders, and come bear witness to this miracle of the fledglings.
“Ula,” I turn off the sink water, remove my gloves and put both hands on her shoulders. “I’m nuts about you. I want to come watch the birds. But I can’t. I need you to think about how you can be helpful. I need you to let me get this work done. We open in 20 minutes!” People were already starting to mill around the door.
She nods, solemn, the magic of fledgling birds pushed aside for the time being. She rushes to put the dry dishes away, then runs around the floor with a broom. As soon as I go out to hang the open flag, she disappears to return to the miracle of the birds.
The cafe is open, but I notice the customers are loitering outside. They’re not coming in yet. Suddenly, Ula and two customers come through the door together. A fledgling has toppled out of the nest and landed beside one of the cafe tables. Ula was able to pick it up, and it sat patiently, perched on her finger, while she and the customers figured out the safest place to let it recover. They chose some of my potted plants. I know the front of the house was abuzz with discussion about the proper care of fledgling birds, but I was trying to focus on getting drink orders and preparing food, since I was alone in the kitchen and at the coffee bar.
Twenty minutes later, Kate bursts through the door, ready to help. She runs to the back and ties on her apron, but not without stopping at the espresso machine and whispering “What’s wrong with Ula?”
“Nothing,” I tell her as I pull a shot. “She’s adopting a baby bird out there. She’s having a blast.”
“Ummm…I’m not sure about that. She just came through and went out to the balcony. She looked pretty upset.” I look wide-eyed at Kate. Helpless. “I’ll go see what’s up,” she assures me, then heads straight for the balcony.
I’ve just finished serving the drinks and pastries when Ula and Kate, arms wrapped around each other, come back behind the bar. Ula’s biting back tears. She takes a deep breath, and taking our lessons from the prior week, tries to keep her voice calm, and whispers, protecting the customers from the tragedy that has just washed over our day.
“The baby bird tried to fly again,” she tells me. “And it landed in the road.” She looks down, trying to hold herself together. “And a car came along and killed it.” She turns her head so the customers won’t see her tears. She doesn’t want them to know, especially after they were already involved in its rescue.
I forget to time the next shot. I forget to get one customer’s breakfast. I just pull her close, but feel at a complete loss for words. Kate whisks her out to the balcony again, where she can cry freely. I go back to helping customers.
Ula hides through the morning rush. There is a lull after lunch, and I pull out some dishes and make us a plate of smoked short ribs and coleslaw.. I put it at the counter and she comes out to sit beside me. But she can’t eat.
Where are my words? Where is my mother’s magic? Why can’t I help my daughter through this? I just hold her in my lap.
Another group of customers comes in, Bethany and Rufus from the Waterfall house down the road. They’ve brought some friends. I abandon our lunch. I abandon Ula to her misery once again, but utter a silent plea for some teeny tiny miracle that will lighten my daughter’s heart. And I wonder, once more, if I’ve made a grave mistake. My children were not spoiled by my attention all these years, I realize. They needed it. And they still need it. And now, because of my choices, I have to whisk it away. It feels as though I have stopped parenting.
Bethany breaks away from her group and comes up to the counter to greet Ula. She sees my little girl is holding back tears. She puts an arm around her back, leans in close, and listens to her story.
Please help me, please help my little girl. I don’t know if Bethany can hear my telepathic messages, but a moment later, holding hands, they head for the balcony.
A little while later, the next rush has subsided, and I can return to my untouched food. But I don’t get a chance to eat, because Ula is there before me, heaping the short ribs into her mouth. “These are really good,” she tells me, pulling the meat apart with her fingers. Bethany has slipped past and returned to her table out on the patio. “And Mom,” my child rushes on, “Guess what? Bethany took me out to the creek. And we did a tobacco ceremony for the bird, and then a ceremony to wash away my sadness. And we threw the tobacco into the water, and I watched it float down stream, and then it hit this rock and went in all different directions around it, and in that moment, POOF! My sadness was just gone! Do we have any more of these short ribs? And Mom? We have to keep tobacco here at the cafe. Not for smoking, though. Because you NEVER know when you need to perform a ceremony, you know?”
Bethany passes by on her way to the bathroom. When she walks back through, I meet her eyes. Thank you, I mouth to her. She smiles quietly and slips back out the door.
I go back into the kitchen to cut a piece of blueberry pie for the next customer. As my knife draws through the crust, I wonder if it’s time to surrender my exclusive hold over parenting my daughters. And the question I’ve been pondering – if I’ve spoiled my children with too much attention, or if I am now neglecting them, is rendered moot. And maybe it’s not really in need of resolution. Because maybe, with this cafe, I can let the wisdom of my neighbors pick up some of the child-rearing. My daughters and their friends are older now. They don’t always need my complete attention while we cuddle in a rocking chair. Maybe they need the magic of a few others to intervene, to help them see the world more broadly, to help them find new and different magic, who might have some better ideas than my own. Either way, I see that, on this day, I didn’t have to have all the answers. And for that, I am deeply thankful.