My child uses words I so rarely use. Thankfully, these are not baby talk words only ever ending in “y” or “ie.” “Surely” is a regular. (That does end in “y.”) As in, “Dad will surely not find us here!” Or, only slightly less charming, “Mom, it is surely time to get up.” He often speaks without using contractions: “I will not need my hat today.” “I cannot do it.” I like hearing this slight formality and consider using fewer contractions myself. He says nonsensical sentences all the time. Some of these sentences seem like something a child would say not because they are nonsense, but because of the particular word choice: “Bees turn into buttercups.” Where is he finding these words? Am I saying them after all?
It occurred to me that indulging my own vanity during this crisis might lift my sagging spirits (if not my actual face). And I liked the word K-Beauty. The Korean beauty face masks I’d previously tried were one-off joys — a ghoulish panda, a golden snail slime mask that made me feel like a god. Now every day I get to imagine tiny healing creatures sliming across my face as I apply my new Seoul Ceuticals snail mucin moisturizer. I also purchase something called Hell Pore Serum. The bottle has a picture of a cartoon pig dressed up as a witch stirring a bubbling cauldron. You administer it with an eye dropper. All of these things should have scared me off, and in fact my child got its number immediately; when it’s time to brush our teeth the night my K-Beauty products arrive he is reluctant to go into the bathroom, where the hell serum is sitting on the counter, because “I’m scared of the pig.” I hide it in a cabinet. My regime does buoy me — when it is smokey, work seems to be going in circles, and society feels irreparable, well, at least I am maintaining and even possibly improving the skin on my face. Any smugness is immediately alchemized into shame when, absentmindedly reading the bottle to revel in my good choices — “replenishes moisture in the skin,” “the bursting elasticity under the eyes,” “reduces fine lines” — I come to the single word: “whiteness.” Goddamn it.
We bring the squat folding chairs into the backyard, where we spend the afternoon doing puzzles, playing keep away with the dog, snacking, lying in the sun. The chairs are the ones my mom has used, in the past, at zoo concerts. Recounting our afternoon in the yard, she explains this to her friend, who is familiar with the chairs and the zoo concerts. She tells her friend that the chairs work very well for our purposes, even though they are a little wobbly.
When I return to my childhood home with my partner and three-year-old I expect adjustments to the way we make coffee, to our routines and sleeping arrangements and general ease within domestic space. I prepare to reprioritize what we talk about, to privilege those things that interest all of us: changes in the neighborhood, our shared histories. I forget to anticipate a pronounced shift in the way we talk about things; granting them centrality in our lives. We discuss the usefulness and flaws of many things: the new retractable screen door, the VCR, the bathtub stopper. I find my mother’s delight in the virtues of practical objects comforting.
We consider the efficacy of a particular spatula (the smaller one, which my mom purchased to cook a single egg and which ended up not being quite small enough for the single egg pan, another object of which I had already taken note). After so many months of rationed attention, it’s luxurious to relish a coffee stirrer (it looks like a tiny oar; it doesn’t make a tinkling sound), or entertain the value of seat gap fillers that prevent keys or Chapstick from falling between the car seat and center console (“They would fit in your car, too, if you’d like a set”). Of course, I instantly recognize the appeal. I have the same receptors in my brain for this particular drug; I’ve made a career out of it. It is not lost on me that my engagement with art history, in particular the lives of objects and the ways in which objects facilitate experiences, is a continuation of an awareness my mother instilled in me. I am always open to their charm (it looks like a tiny oar!); and dismayed by their charmlessness: I am specifically judgmental of the as-seen-on-tv strain of objects, usefulness tipping over into the inane. These showy, braggy objects portend a world I want no part of. Give me a humble egg pan. Further, imagine a continuum from the admirer of this perfect single-egg cast-iron pan to Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer, who married the Berlin wall in 1979. I shuttle along this spectrum, my place at any given time determined only by life’s exigencies.
My three-year-old, like most kids, speaks the language of objects. A piece of driftwood he brought home one day could be a future heirloom. He and I are always horrified when the dog chews on it, mistaking it for an ordinary piece of wood. The golden dish sponge he gave me for our second Christmas, picked out at the neighborhood Cole’s Hardware with his dad, is one of my prized possessions. How will this (inherited?) language develop in him, I wonder. What degree of indulgence will the world of his adult life allow? For now, I read the signs: “I like your house Auntie Kathie,” he announces when we visit my mother’s friend. “What is it you like about it?” “I like the soap thing,” referring to an automated liquid soap dispenser in the bathroom.
She has never met her neighbors. They are bad neighbors. We hear from the other, better, neighbors about the feud with the women in the green house. This escalating feud drives the bad neighbors to their second home on Mercer Island, leaving their blue house in a suspended state of construction. The fact that they have a second home on Mercer Island reinforces the opinion that they are bad neighbors.
One day, a bad neighbor appears in the front yard of her blue house. Another neighbor’s senior pug dog, unaware of the neighbor’s legendary spitefulness, wanders over from where he had been sitting with the other neighbor on her stoop. The bad neighbor addresses the dog directly, spitefully: “you must be the one leaving me the little presents.” We decide next time, if there is a next time, the other neighbor will tell the bad neighbor that the dog does not speak English, and has therefore not received her message about the presents. The other neighbor also considers becoming a bad neighbor, after which she would let her dog leave “little presents” in the front yard of the blue house.
I click on a crowd-ranked list of “Awesome Superpowers We’d Give Anything to Have.” I am defeated to find my top choice, teleportation, is the top choice of everyone else, too.