“She’s going to be a great adult.” This nugget of wisdom, offered by my daughter’s 4th grade teacher during a school conference, was a comfort. Few teachers had recognized the diamond within my daughter’s core. Liz was not sweetly compliant, as most girls seem to be. She “questioned authority” before it became a bumper sticker. The phrase, “She’ll make a great adult” provided hope for the long-term welfare of my adventurous child.
As soon as she could walk, Elizabeth explored. No preposition was a stranger to her— not inside, nor over, nor up, nor down, nor between, nor through.
Her body was a verb. She confronted obstacles by climbing, scaling, creeping, vaulting or burrowing.
Lately, I have been thinking about Peter Rabbit. Peter is one among a legion of personified bunnies in literature, of special relevance because he was one of Liz’s favorite protagonists. As a child, I preferred the Beatrix Potter story in which Samuel Whiskers rolls Tom Kitten into a pudding. Beatrix Potter stories are replete with curious and naïve frocked animals facing enormous dangers simply because they are curious and naïve. Among them, Peter remains a favorite— the king of literary bunnies— appealing to children (and their adults) since 1902. His appeal is especially powerful to children who, like him, tend to be naughty.Peter’s appealing character and longevity are good-enough reasons to include him in this homage to a memory of motherhood.
I see myself standing in my suburban kitchen. I am chopping vegetables, an activity I continue to find relaxing for its simple repetition. My seven-year old daughter sits at the kitchen table doing homework. Liz, three-years old, sits cross-legged on the family room carpet watching a videotape of BBC-produced Beatrix Potter stories. This provides me fifteen minutes to complete one task. All is peace while I stand at the counter, chopping carrots and bell peppers. I glance up occasionally to make sure Liz is still watching television.
Even at three years of age, Liz senses the foreshadowing of Momma Bunny’s warning to her four children: “[Whatever you do], don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden; your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” (Lest the reader imagines such a pie is confined to charming villages in Victorian England, all one must do is consult the following web site for Peter Rabbit Pie at http://foodforhunters.blogspot.com/2011/09/rabbit.html )
“Peter who was very naughty ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s garden, and squeezed under the gate.” The bunny has entered the forbidden garden, as Liz knew he would. The foreknowledge of his disobedience does not seem to have diluted the suspense.
Liz stands up and begins to back away from the television. Her body stiffens as Peter munches the tender green beans and radishes. Her shoulders hunch when Mr. McGregor abandons the planting of young cabbages, rake in hand, to chase the unwelcome rabbit. “Come back here ya wee pest! Ye wee beastie,” yells the farmer. I have stopped chopping. I am watching my child watch Peter Rabbit. She stands rod-straight, her full attention on the chase-and-escape scene.
Peter barely misses the angry grasp of Mr. McGregor. Liz continues to back away, slowly. She is enthralled with the action of the plot, as I am with her. Neither of us can look away.
The tension accelerates when Peter frees himself from a net by loosing himself from his little blue jacket. He sneaks past a cat, and then hides from Mr. McGregor by jumping into a watering can that happens to be full of water. A single British sneeze, “kertichoo,” reveals Peter’s hiding place. Again, he runs, squeezes under the fence posts, and hops frantically until he finally arrives, rather soggily, back in the safety of his home in the root of the fir tree.
“His mother put him to bed, and made some chamomile tea.” Momma observes the state of Peter’s undress, sans blue jacket and shoes, and then sends him to bed. No spankings. No voice raised. Not even an exasperated sigh. Momma Bunny is a model of capable motherhood. Firm but loving, she punishes with silence and chamomile—admirable for a mother of a naughty child: heroic for a single parent of four children living in a dirt basement.
Of course, if Peter Rabbit had been a good little bunny, there would have been no story. A person who behaves well all the time is neither interesting nor believable. In fact, the most intriguing saints, like St. Augustine, began their lives as prolific sinners. According to the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia, the young Augustine, “gave himself up to pleasure with all the vehemence of an ardent nature.” Augustine sought pleasure the way Peter sought tender lettuces from the forbidden garden. The saint, Peter, and my daughter were all —in various degrees—complex characters.
Elizabeth was as likely as Peter Rabbit to interpret warnings as suggestions. “Whatever you do, don’t climb up on top of the piano. Whatever you do, don’t go into the garage or play with Daddy’s tools. Whatever you do, don’t pull on that rack holding up the Hallmark cards” There were the times I found her as a toddler on the top of the studio piano, in the garage wearing Daddy’s work boots —and a few years later, using Daddy’s hand saw. There was the time a saleswoman at Hallmark earnestly instructed me to leave the store “right now,” so she could pick up the hundreds of greeting cards that had plummeted to the floor when my baby-in-stroller reached curiously for the rack.
The passage of time works like marinade to the meat of child rearing. What was exhausting 20 years ago is now a tender visual image I calmly recall. Looking through the lens of time-passed, I remember the adventure of raising Liz with pride and relief: pride, because she has become a great adult; relief, because she survived her many trips into “Mr. McGregor’s garden.”
Notes to Readers: The image of my younger daughter watching Peter Rabbit while backing away from the television is one that I’ve replayed and retold for more than 20 years. This scene has become part of our family narrative. When writing family memoir which has been told and retold, like this one, the writer must be aware that the story becomes the reality. And so it is with me. I can be sure I told an event that is true, though some details might not be accurate. The event and the setting are as they happened, as is the teacher’s sage advice, which I repeated over and over to myself. “She’s going to be a great adult.” Short but sweet, true and accurate. I am less certain that I was chopping vegetables at the counter and my older daughter was doing homework at the kitchen table. But this was the typical scene in my kitchen in the evening of each weekday.Such is the challenge of true stories.
Now Liz is 24 years old. Recently she left for England, by herself, to take a 3-month course in embroidery at the Royal Academy of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. As I hugged her goodbye, I said, “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden,” and she laughed.
Thanks for reading! Kim