"Let Olive be Olive": or Happy Mothering Day
for my mom, who believed...
in all manners of green and storytelling.
He is four. Just four and you can see by the picture, he still has the dimpled hands of infancy. He is funny and smart. Equal parts inquisitive and irritating. He’s my youngest child and next year he goes to full day kindergarten. Right now, though, he is in preschool for a few days and my partner in crime, the others. Lately, he’s told me things that make my heart beat really fast like “no, I don’t want to go to the splash pad, I just thought it could be a me and you kinda day.” I don’t know how long this will last, but I will take it.
So it was a “me and you kinda day” and we went to the mall where I had a return to make and after telling him that “no” you cannot have that heat activated watch for $34.95!” (and you know I articulated the exclamation point) four times over, he brushed off his disappointment and skip hopped, be bopped his way over to the nail polish display where I was thinking about picking up a new shade in anticipation of a girl’s night out with some friends this weekend.
He’s always been curious about it, I think anything paint related is pretty much a go at this point. He’s liked Peppa Pig and Power Rangers with equal passion. He dislikes bugs but wanted to have lunch with his pet worm. He also likes to cook with me, bites with a Jaws like vengeance, and sleeps with two awful blue blankets like Linus Van Pelt. (The latter security is residing with the Transformers keeping watch over his leap pad in the car right now.) I put a variety of different glittery messes all over my fingers and ask him to pick one he likes. He picks the one I like the least. And then he circles the green glittery chic-swamp creation I cringe at. “Can I have this one?” “Nope.” “Why not?” “Because I will never, ever wear it,” is the reply and off we go to make a return. But not before he asks to see it on his nail, so I do something I have never done since only the y chromosome exists in tandem with me in my house, and paint a small small nail. “Can you take it off?”
Sighing, I reach for the remover and do just that, knowing that it was coming and we do what we were supposed to do and then play and then lunch and then…Jake reminds me about the polish. It’s set now, all the sampling and I like one orangey glittery one. So I think I might get it. And as I’m being helped, he asks again about the jazzy crocodile shade. “Your son likes green?” says the saleslady. I nod and feel exasperated but put my purse, his backpack, and my purchase on the floor and paint a very sad boy’s nail with the shimmery slime like shade that I have refused to purchase. He still seems sorrowful, and when I ask if he wants a balloon, even that doesn’t lift his spirits.
“Can you take it off?” I sigh and reach for the remover and say, “thank goodness I didn’t get you Butter London’s version.”
He was mopey dopey though in the car. He wanted some and because I had a last stop, I bought some at Target in the purest, truest green I could find. And said I’d put it on him when we got home. And so after a lot of back and forth, at the homework table, he said that yes he wanted it. His brothers watched me do one hand, Joe saying, “cool! It’s your favorite color!” (and in an aside—my children don’t know inflection—“will Daddy be mad?” I shoot him a look, and he goes back to work. For the record though, I did text Daddy a snap of it, and he thought it grand because he’s awesome like that.) Then, the littlest walked off and returned with a napkin wiping his hand.
“Can you take it off?”
Lips pursed and eyes swimming with tears.
“Is it…is it because you think Daddy will be mad at me?”
“But he’s not mad! He liked it a lot!”
“Just please take it off!”
“Because. I don’t know. It’s something girls have.”
|J.Crew Catalog Spring 2011|
I wonder that there is some idea of nail polish that entered the boy’s head at this early age saying it was taboo. I don’t understand why. Why at the age of four does his imagination have to be gendered? And if you don’t think it’s a big deal, consider the J.Crew catalog controversy when Director of Style, Jenna Lyons, was seen painting her son’s toes pink in the catalog and the ferocious debate that followed on what agenda she was pushing or...if she was just painting her son’s nails.
One of my favorite films is Little Miss Sunshine and the family it portrays. The picture, if you haven’t
seen it, follows
a less than functional family on the way to participate in a child’s beauty
pageant. The child in question, Olive,
is a pretty normal little girl. She
wears glasses, and has the rotundness of regular jelly belly childhood. Her hair is mousy brown and her teeth are a
gangly lot of misshapen mess. As far
afield of what we think of when thoughts turn to toddlers and tiaras.
|© Fox Searchlight|
|© Fox Searchlight|
The most poignant moment in a movie loaded with them for me, is when Olive’s surly half-brother, an eighteen year old know-it-all, who, surprisingly, cannot wait to leave the nest, looks around at all the amazingly coiffed and tanned and pearly whited girls around him and finds his mother, begging her not to let Olive perform. He worries they will laugh at Olive. Says she’s not a beauty queen and to please not let her do this. “You’re the mom!” he says accusingly, “you’re supposed to protect her.” The whole world seems to reside in those small sentences:
You are the mother.
You are supposed to protect her.
I can only share Sheryl’s confusion and anger. Perfectly portrayed by Toni Collette, when she replies, wringing her hands through the air instead of around the head of her son, “Olive is who she is. She’s worked so hard, she’s poured her heart into this, we can’t just take it away from her. We can’t! We’re gonna let Olive be Olive.”
|© Fox Searchlight|
And they do. And they do more than that. When the audience cannot speak for shock, one by one, her family stands with her. They dance with her.
her be who she is and they celebrate her for it. It brings me to tears every time. Because for a lot of the cases I read about, the wrongness and
the sadness, the wretched loneliness that leads to all kinds of unspeakable, a
lot of it could have been eliminated from the start if someone had stood up to
the face of rejection and said let it be.
|© Fox Searchlight|
So, I sit this unruly on my lap and say, “listen here [FULL NAME used]. It doesn’t matter one whit to me or to your brothers or anyone else if you want to wear this.
“I will. But Jake, you’ve got to know, that it doesn’t matter to me or Daddy. All that matters is that you’re just you. Just how God made you. That you be you. And if that means wearing green on your fingers that’s okay. You need to be you, and we’re so happy that you’re you.”
He looks up at me with such sadness I just want to break in half, “I think I just need it off.” I do it. But because it’s green and my remover is old, the lingering imprint of his curiosity lasts on those digits. Joe comes back in with his book and sees my resignation. He’s an old soul, every thing that ever was shores up in his eyes. “Hey mommy!” I look up. “Can I get my pinky painted green?” All glinty and mischievous. “Yeah!” says Sam, but, truthfully with a lot less enthusiasm, Joe’s willing him on, “me too.”
Jake looks at them and me, painting nails of my boys and Joe decides we need a Hallisey United picture. So I take one.
We all decided to go about our day tomorrow with a nail painted green. Even if the resolve doesn’t last. And even if Sam wants it off in an hour and Joe tonight, I’m glad. The boys know, really seem to get, that allowing someone the room to figure out what they want and who they are is an okay thing. And I feel like I’ve won something really, really big.
Because it wasn’t long ago that an American was barred from voting because he wasn’t beyond the pale.
Or that a woman was denied admission to a graduate program because the director wanted to know how she would manage a family life.
Or that boy who came from the wrong side of town was told he couldn’t apply to that particular school.
Or that couple was told they couldn’t marry because their skin color didn’t match.
Or that man who only wanted to save others but who was condemned instead, had to carry a cross alone.
And a lot of the difference were the people in the crowd who stood up when it wasn’t easy and said, yes, I will stand with you. And today, in the green, I saw that my children have begun to choose, in the words of Robert Frost, the road "less traveled by” and it will indeed make all the difference not only for them, but an entire world. One moment, one choice, one voice at a time.
“Mommy, we can return this.”
“I’m just all done now.”
“Just like that?”
“Yep. I need to do a light saber battle.”
But you know, I’m keeping it, this little bottle of “garden party,” because it showed me a glimpse that my kids are growing up to be individuals, and encouraging judges of character. I hope they never have to come across what I have seen in the ignorance and hatred that goes on and on despite best efforts to the contrary, despite our collective longing for peace. But knowing that there is a spark to stand up, not look away, when difference arises in these still unbound minds and nimble learning hands, right now, this moment, for today, that’s good enough for me.
And I know, you reading this, it's probably pretty good for you too. Because this is what's at stake, and I don't think I'm overstating the case. It may not be nail polish today, it may be something as simply complex as the triumph over finally helping your son pronounce a letter or physically grueling like supporting your daughter as she tries out for a sport. Or…it may just be the hollow empty feeling you have when you realize that you cannot protect these small people from the world that will hurt them. But in seeing them, acknowledging them, equips them for the rebound necessary to meet the challenge of life's pain head on.
“Letting Olive be Olive” brings out the best in our children, and, in us too. It shows that we believe in their potential to dream big, and, most of the time, that is exactly the attachment they need to fly solo. So for you dream makers and sharers of magic, you who give earnest enthusiasm for all of the small everyday discoveries that are made and the tear sympathizers whose own world is crushed when the door closes on the child you love. For you who recognize that one size does not fit all, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, that a contribution is there in a living, breathing beat that you are nurturing to full rhythm.
For you who bridge the distance between the real and the imagined by offering a ladder to the moon.
For you who get up early in the morning to feed and hear then come home late to look over, listen and encourage before even taking a broken minute to tend to self. For you who ask, inquire, demand, and resolve to give an opportunity that you think will otherwise be missed. For whoever you are, man or
woman, family, friend, neighbor, teacher, old or
young, thank you for the mothering you are doing. For you who let stand, let be and let live. You are bringing the best to an uncertain
future. Well done. Well done.
Happy Mothering Day to you.
believer of bridges and moons and stories and me
194- to 2004