Swishing red sequins, tap-shuffle-wing-tap, “Don’t Rain on my Parade” blaring, while my dancing butterfly fluttering before me on the stage. How swiftly time had crept in and danced its own, nearly sinister score, causing dizziness with the flood of memories, a triple pirouette inside my mind.
One January evening in the Arizona desert,16.5 years ago, a tiny Elizabeth was placed in my arms. I’d had a c-section and while woozy and confused, and even if she really looked like a squirrel, my baby girl seemed remarkably beautiful to me. I marveled at her tiny blinking eyelids, the sweetest little cheeks, dumbfounded by the immense love that filled my heart.
My husband, Nikos, and I were alone in Arizona, so bringing Elizabeth home was daunting, if not downright terrifying. My mom had passed away when I was a baby, and I hadn’t the first notion what it was like to be a mother. I remember sitting on the couch after returning from the hospital, holding my tiny angelic baby girl, and suddenly thought, I don’t have one friggin’ clue what I’m doing! Two seconds later, Nikos accidentally dropped a lotion bottle on my head from the upstairs loft ledge. I panicked a little more realizing that Nikos was equally as dumb as me.
I was a neurotic new mom, wiping down carts at the grocery store with anti-bacterial wipes, carrying those wipes along while shopping, just in case a doting elderly lady smooched on Elizabeth’s tiny hands. It had taken a good eight years before I realized how harmful anti-bacterial anything was.
Elizabeth had been easy to breastfeed, thrived in spite of us. She was a wild toddler, climbed in the dryer, stood on top of the table and threw dishes (I guess it was the Greek in her-Opa!), stole shoes at the mall, cried in earnest upon their return, seemed to be a genius at every new word, but then ate crayons instead of coloring, bringing her adoring parents’ pride down a few notches,
Elizabeth read at an early age, because I was a psycho. I wanted her to be the best, impressing the world. Yes, I was the most annoying mom ever. I wish I could go back and smack that mom upside the head right about now. Poor Elizabeth was so bored in kindergarten, she learned the entire alphabet in sign language and all of the bus numbers her first week of school. I didn’t allow her to take the bus until first grade, because I was and still am Finding Nemo‘s dad afraid.
I dreaded picking Elizabeth up from school, because her kindergarten teacher never had a good report. Finally, the teacher put Elizabeth in the gifted class, probably just to get rid of her, and to swell the head of a mom who needed stupid labels and compliments because she felt entirely inadequate. That same teacher told me that she didn’t envy me, that my daughter had a long, hard road ahead, and that I’d better find a channel for Elizabeth’s energy or she’d be a disaster.
I had to be the perfect mom-classroom parent, Girl Scout leader for five years, all baby food had been homemade, and tried to achieve this idyllic notion of Carolyn Ingalls,yet fumbling, while also acknowledging its unattainability.
Presently, I’m a mom of three and while no longer a germ freak, screw-ups happen daily, I forget that a kid needed to stay after school for a makeup violin lesson or Geometry test, and they’re the last kid standing (not good during a Minnesota winter!), roll my eyes more than Elizabeth, get mad and say mean things, never have a spotless house and love my precious darlings intensely while continuing to flounder.
Elizabeth and I argue what seems incessantly, a battle of control between two highly strong-willed people. We’re still dancing around that mother/daughter relationship, unsteady and tip-toe fragile.
I love that energetic, sweet to cats, crazy fireball, yet I’m endlessly trying to garner respect and tame her, which is as futile as her unruly hair. She says I pick at her, perhaps I do. Elizabeth’s room is usually a scary mess, and during my “good mama” moments, I remind myself that inside that hyper-emotional teenager, with clothes strewn all over her furniture, seven water bottles ready to be knocked over by the cat, there is a little girl inside the chaos, one who needs to be told she’s loved and special, and that these years are not the best of her life.
If I tell Elizabeth that her shorts are too short or tight, she screams back at me with tear-filled eyes, “Mama, what exactly are you implying?!” Doors slam, exasperated groans follow, yet she seeks me out at her dance competitions and gives me a wink. While we’re in a screaming match and I’m grounding her for a week and we can’t stand one another, what I really want to do is pull her in my arms and tell her how incredibly much I love her and never let go.
According to Elizabeth, I’m backwards, have succumbed to the oppressive role of a mom since I don’t work full time, and my sense of style is frightening. I’m everything that Elizabeth is striving mightily not to become. I am grateful for Miss Emily, owner of Division Street Dance, who has been a wonderful role model during these years that everything I say is crazy and nonsensical.
Elizabeth never runs around, goes to dance, school, and then home again. She’s terrified of driving, says she’ll help the environment by sticking solely to public transportation. She wants to run away and dance on Broadway, with dreams of attending NYU. She makes As except for French, considers cooking as sexist, and she can’t stand her brother.
As the years have swept by and somewhere along this zig-zagged dance, I stopped worrying about impressing others, abandoned the notion of perfection, stopped being an annoying psycho and try my best to allow my kids to be who they are becoming without looking at the kids on their lefts and rights. It simply doesn’t matter. I embrace their imperfections, relieved that I don’t have to be a perfect mother.
Occasionally, I quietly peer in her room, early in the morn, and gaze down at Elizabeth sleeping. If only I could express the fierce love I have for her while praying, Dear God, protect this child, help me not to screw up too much and forgive me in advance for what I’d do if someone ever harmed her!
This past weekend was the dance recital. Not only did Elizabeth dance eleven numbers, she’d also been the lead teaching assistant, and knew all of those dances without missing a leap or twirl. To witness Elizabeth gently guiding and encouraging those little girls is heartwarming. Elizabeth is patient, sweet, and born to teach, even though this is the last thing she wants to do with her life. Those little girls look up to Elizabeth, greet her with hugs and hand-made cards. Gazing at Elizabeth on stage, filled with more confidence than I’ll have in a lifetime, sincere joy and passion, not a lick of the credit is due to me, more so, despite me,
The haphazardly-choreographed dance with its most challenging steps is bewildering to me, I never know the right steps to take, wisest words to teach, nor the move that follows. I do know that her every fall will be caught, and every leap, applauded, wherever I am. It was Elizabeth who taught me the true meaning of unconditional love, she forgives, loves and accepts my inexperience.
Slowly, I’m heeding my desperate grasp, and allowing my dancing butterfly the freedom to soar, while reaching out to clasp an antenna.