It is at this point that she begins the Rules. This is a very pleasing portion of the event for any mother because it is a chance to demonstrate how much thought and effort has gone into bringing the child this far. She speaks with a rare mixture of animation, confidence, and awesome conviction--she knows this much is true. I, in turn, adopt my most eager, yet compassionate expression as if to say "Yes, please tell me more--I'm fascinated" and "How awful it must be for you to have a child allergic to air." So begins the List:
Allergic to dairy.
Allergic to peanuts.
Allergic to strawberries.
Allergic to propane-based shellac.
Some kind of grain.
Won't eat blueberries.
Will only eat blueberries--sliced.
Sandwiches must be cut horizontally and have crusts.
Sandwiches must be cut in quarters and have NO crusts.
Sandwiches must be made facing east.
She loves rice milk!
He won't eat anything starting with the letter M.
All servings are to be pre-measured--NO additional food is permissible.
All juice is to be watered down and drunk out of a sip glass over the sink or in the bathtub (preferably until the child is eighteen).
All food is to be served on a plastic place mat with paper towel beneath bowl, bib on at all times.
Actually, "if you could get Lucien naked before eating and then hose her down afterward, that would be perfect."
NO food or drink within two hours of bedtime.
NO pumpkin seeds.
NO skins of any kind.
NO raw food.
NO cooked food.
NO American food.
and . . .
(voice drops to a pitch only whales can hear)
NO FOOD OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN!
I am nodding gravely in agreement. This makes total sense. "Oh, my God, of course," I find myself saying.
This is Phase I of bringing me into the fold, of creating the illusion of collusion. "We're in this together! Little Elspeth is our joint project! And we're going to feed her nothing but mung beans!" I feel as if I am nine months pregnant and just finding out my husband plans to raise the child in a cult. Yet I am somehow flattered that I am being chosen to participate in this project. Completion Phase II: I am succumbing to the allure of perfection.
The tour proceeds to the farthest possible room. The distance of the child's room from the parents' room always runs the gamut from far away to really, really far away. In fact, if there is another floor this room will be on it. One has the image of the poor three-year-old awakening from a nightmare and having to don a pith helmet and flashlight to go in search of her parents' room, armed only with a compass and fierce determination.
The other telltale sign that one is moving into the Child Zone is the change in the decor from muted, faux Asian to either a Mondrian scheme of primary colors or Bonpoint, Kennedy pastels. Either way Martha has been here personally. But the effect is oddly disquieting; it's so obviously an adult's conception of a child's room, as evidenced by the fact that all the signed first edition Babar prints are hung at least three feet above the child's head.
After having received the Rules I am braced to meet the boy in the bubble. I expect to see a full-out intensive care unit complete with a Louis Vuitton IV hookup. Imagine my shock at the ball of motion that comes hurtling across the room at us. If it's a boy the movement is reminiscent of the Tasmanian Devil, while a girl tends toward a full-tilt Mouseketeers sequence, complete with two pirouettes and a grand jete. The child is sent into this routine by some Pavlovian response to the mother's perfume as she rounds the corner. The encounter proceeds as follows: (1) Child (groomed within an inch of his/her life) makes a beeline directly for mother's leg. (2) At the precise moment the child's hands wrap around her thigh the mother swiftly grabs the child's wrists. (3) And she simultaneously sidesteps out of the embrace, bringing the child's hands into a clapping position in front of the child's face, and bends down to say hello, turning the child's gaze to me. Voila. And thus the first of many performances of what I like to call the "Spatula Reflex." It has such timing and grace that I feel as if I should applaud, but instead move directly into my Pavlovian response set off by their expectant faces. I drop to my knees.
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