Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Drama of the Faht

Mihiretu, like four-year-old boys all over the globe, is obsessed with bodily functions, particularly those that happen south of the belly-button. The phenomenon he likes best, it probably goes without saying, is farting. It is, as he's taken to saying lately about almost everything, his "fav-it".

If that boy smells something even a little bit funky, his nose is immediately in the air and the interrogation begins.

"You faht, Mama?" he'll ask, eyeing me suspiciously.

Generally, the answer is no.

"What tha 'tink?" he'll insist, waving his fingers in front of his wrinkled nose. "You faht, Lana?"

And so it'll go until finally, under pressure, somebody will fess up, if only for the sake of changing the subject. Mihiretu will then insist that the offender say excuse me, something he's not in the practice of doing himself.

The other day we were having a visit with extended family and friends. A senior member of the group, whose identity I'll protect, happened to let one slip as he crossed the room, a practice Ben calls "crop-dusting". You could almost see Mihiretu's ears pivot on his head.

"You faht?" he asked, delighted, as he pointed a finger vibrating with joy at his elder.

The kind man in question chuckled, shook his head and said, "Well, I guess I did."

"He fahted!" Mihiretu gleefully announced to the assembled crowd. "Tha guy fahted!"

"Everyone farts," I said, pulling him on to my lap, resisting the urge to clap one hand over his grin.

"You faht," he said, turning to me.

"I fart," I said, all eyes on me. Hi, I'm Liz and I faht. Hi Liz!

Then Mihiretu performed his latest trick. His body tensed and then I felt and heard a Bronx cheer from below. Mihiretu looked up at me proudly.

"I faht," he confided.

I can't speak to his genetic lineage, but adoptively speaking, he comes from a long line of flatulators. My father was in the habit of lifting one cheek at dinner and letting one rip, the presence of my teenage girlfriends not withstanding. "You want me to explode?" he'd ask grumpily when I protested. I didn't dare say that, yes, an explosion, however gory, might be preferable to the mortification caused by the symphony that accompanied every meal.

In the first days of my marriage to Ben, though we had been living in sin up to that point, I declared that he must step outside the marital bedroom if he felt bubbles coming on, a rule long since repealed. The thought of spending the rest of my life in a stink not of my own making was enough to make me tearful. Clearly I was not used to the idea of marriage.

The other day, at our gathering, dessert was served. It seemed we had made it past the hot topic of farting.

Just then someone's rubber sole made a sound against the wood floor.

"Gan-ma," he crowed, rounding on Ben's mom. "You faht?"

Then, brown eyes narrowing, "You didn' say 'cu me."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dat Mama

I was in a bathroom stall with Mihiretu the other day, waiting to wipe his butt.

Happily, Mihiretu's is the only ass I'm wiping these days, beyond my own. The girls, too, until they were five or so, required both my presence and assistance with defecation. And somehow they, like their brother, generally felt the urge when a grimy, public restroom was the only available facility. I have spent far too much of the past eight years watching children poo in disgusting places.

However, they tend to talk on the toilet. I've gotten more insight into my children's psyches in the bathroom then probably any other place.

The other day, while I stood crammed into the stall at the park, mouth-breathing, toilet paper already wadded in hand, Mihiretu and I somehow got on the topic of babies growing in mamas' bellies. It's not the first time it's come up and, as in the past, I explained the phenomenon in general and then addressed Mihiretu's specific experience, which of course is where his interest lies. I said that while his sisters grew in my tummy, he had another mama. It was in her belly that he grew and she was his mama when he was a baby, when he lived in Ethiopia. Then he came here and I got to be his mama. I have yet to broach the idea of her death. How do you explain that to a four-year-old?

"What she like?" he asked, brow furrowed, hands gripping the hem of his shirt, elbows on knees.

"Well," I said, navigating carefully, "I never knew her."

He looked at me doubtfully.

"But she looooved you." I said. "She nursed you," I held an imaginary baby Mihiretu in my arms and rocked him back and forth, "and she held you..."

His eyebrows lowered menacingly. "I like dat mama," he said. "I no like you."

"Well," I said, "I can see that. I sure love you, though."

"I no like you!" he insisted, leaning forward precariously.

"Okay, honey," I said, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder. "You done pooping?"

"No!" he said, shrugging away from my hand, his lower lip jutting.

He, like the girls did in their day, likes to hold me captive in the stinky bathroom. Even if he's long done with his business, he likes to hang around, either to witness my misery or to keep my focus on him, or, probably, both. I have to create incentives to move the show along.

"Your new friend's out there waiting for you," I said. "You want to get on top of the monkey bars with him again?"

He gave it some thought, twirling his shirt hem around one finger.

"Ohhh-kay," he said finally, clearly doing me a big favor. I was allowed to wipe him, pull up his pants and wash his hands. Lucky me.

Virtually every time we've talked about Mihiretu's birth mom, he's insisted that he prefers her, that "udder mama". I don't know how deep that goes. Is it simply a way to reject me, thereby protecting himself from being hurt again? Does he on some level remember her? He was under two when she died and he seems to remember nothing else about Ethiopia but he must still mourn her, at least subconsciously.

I do know this: at two, my girls knew their mama. We knew every cell of each other. If I had disappeared at that point - and I can't even write that without a wave of heartbreak for what, thank god, didn't happen - they would carry me on with them. And, no matter how loving the home they ended up in, I would always be mama number one.

I wish I had known Mihiretu's birth mother. Because I know him so well, because I love him so much, it seems like I do know her. He was loved, deeply loved before he came to us. He might be a porcupine of defenses but underneath is a boy that knows what it is to be cherished. She is my sister-mother, in a way. I'm picking up where she had to leave off. Together we're fostering the best little person we can. I imagine her, a tall, slender, sloe-eyed ghost, standing alongside me as we watch him scamper off to conquer the monkey bars.

I feel such anguish for him. For her. That they didn't get to be together. That through the violent inequity between the developing world and the developed, through something as simple as a lack of clean water, their little family was ripped apart.

I get it, I have to say. I get that he likes "dat mama", that instead of this strange white woman that often doesn't understand him, verbally and psychically, he could have the mother he was born to. The mother that cradled him as a peaceful infant, that marveled over his perfect fingers and toes. A mother who, undoubtably, was overcome with a surge of the purest, most complete love when she first held him, as I did when I first held Mae and Lana.

My own mother was my first great love. There was no better place than in her lap, thumb in my mouth, letting the sound of her voice, her laughter, roll over me. I think back to that mother, "dat mama", so different than the mother I know now, the mother that doesn't remember my name. The only thing she does remember is that she loves me. Everything else has burned away and what's left is the essential precipitate of love. I appreciate that love. I don't know what I'll do when it's gone. But I desperately miss that "udder mama", the one that knew me so deeply.

I don't know who's in charge. I don't know who dreamed up Alzheimers or dysentery. I do know that Mihiretu mourns his mama and so do I. Our "udder mamas" are gone. We don't have them but we do have each other. That'll have to do.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fast Shoes

Mihiretu, like the rest of the family, has a thing for shoes. He, unlike, say, me, prefers his shoes fast.

For a good month now, Mihiretu has been fixated on acquiring a pair of Crocs. Red Crocs. Because I don't want him wearing Crocs in the rain, I've been telling him that stores don't sell Crocs until the warm weather comes. True, at least partially, if we're talking brick-and-mortar, not so true if we're talking the world wide web.

Yesterday I was online searching for a new pair of sneakers for Lana (the old ones, which are thrashed but still fit, suddenly felt "weird" so Ben cut out the offending tag on the tongue but now they feel "weirder") when Mihiretu twirled into the office. When he saw shoes up on the screen, he saw his opening.

"Cocs!" he shouted. "Wed Cocs!"

Ben, who was perusing his computer across the desk, opened the Crocs page. Soon he had found a pair that had an adjustable strap in the back - much better for running. He showed them to Mihiretu.

"Dey fas?" He eyed the shoes doubtfully.

"Oh, yeah," said Ben. "These babies are fast."

"Baby?" Mihiretu asked, tilting his head in confusion.

"No babies." Ben said. "They're fast."

And so the fast shoes were ordered. Little did we know that was only the beginning of the conversation.

Every half-hour for the last two days, Mihiretu has said, "When my fas shoes come? Afa sool?"

To which we've answered, "Yes, honey. They'll probably come after school. In a few days."

When he's upset, the fast shoes are his default cause of misery. "I wan my fas shoes!" he'll bellow, tears streaming down his face, even if the problem really lies with Ben not relinquishing the last Hot Tamale in the box.

Yesterday afternoon, Mihiretu accompanied me to the video store. On our way out he spied the shoe store next door. He pulled me inside. I pointed him towards the kid's shoes, assuring him that while he could look we weren't buying a pair today.

He found a pair of Keens, a much better fast shoe, truth be told, than the Crocs. Remembering a heavily discounted pair of Keens I had spotted on a website, I agreed to let him try them on, to get the correct fit on the sly. Bad non-local-buying mommy.

His foot was measured and placed in the shoe. He surveyed it for a moment.

"Dis fas?" he asked the salesperson.

The guy looked at me helplessly.

"Oh yeah," I said. "Those are REALLY fast."

"I go ow-si?" he asked, his eyes sparkling with half hope, half mischief.

"Oh, well, no, we can't take them outside unless we own them," I said. "But you could run in here and try them out."

He read my face to make sure I wasn't pulling his leg - generally I discourage running indoors. When he saw that I was earnest, he tore around the small store, a new shoe on one foot, an old shoe on the other, the graying lady browsing walking shoes wedging herself against the display to avoid being run over.

"Dees fas!" he declared, a bit out of breath.

Somehow I managed to get him out of the store, telling him (and, effectively, the salesman) that because they were so expensive we'd have to check in with Dad.

I checked the sale website when I got home and, sadly, the Keens in his size were sold out. We focused again on the Crocs that were coming his way.

He woke this morning groggily inquiring after his fast shoes. "Afa sool?" he asked, half-awake.

Again, snuggling in with him under his covers, I said that they'd probably arrive later in the week.

As the morning unfolded and Mihiretu and Lana got into their usual push and pull, he started yelling about his fast shoes, demanding that they arrive that instant. To which Ben picked up the phone.

"Who are you calling?" I asked, disentangling Lana from Mihiretu.

"1-800-FAST-SHOES", he said, putting the phone to his ear without dialing.

"Hi," he said. "I'm calling about Mihiretu Capron's fast shoes?"

"You better spell that," I said.

"M-I-H-I-R-E-T-U?" Ben said, loudly. "C-A-P-R-O-N? No, N as in Nancy."

Lana and Mihiretu had forgotten their fight. Mae, half-way through a bowl of cereal, set her spoon down.

"Oh, you drive the truck? You have Mihiretu's fast shoes right there?"

He put his hand on the receiver and stage-whispered "I'm talking to the driver!"

"Salt Lake City?" he said, again speaking into the phone.

"That's a long way away," I said, wiping down the counter.

"May I ask your name? Bill? Well, hi, Bill, I'm Ben. We're wondering if you have any idea when the fast shoes might arrive."

He paused, his body at attention.

"Oh, no, no offense meant, Bill. I'm sure you're getting them here as fast as you can. A few days, you say?"

"He might run into snow going over the Sierras," I said, remembering the five to seven working day window I'd been given on the website.

"Oh, yeah, there might be snow? That'd make it more like Friday?"

"Tha too long!" Mihiretu bellowed in anguish.

"Well, that was Mihiretu, Bill. You won't bring fast shoes to kids that yell? Only to kids that behave themselves? I can certainly understand that, Bill. We really do appreciate the work you're doing."

Ben's forehead furrowed in anxiety. This Bill was a hard man to placate.

"And you know when kids are being helpful? And when they're not? You won't bring fast shoes to kids that aren't being nice?"

I guess what they say about the UPS man being the brown santa is true in more ways than I imagined.

By the time Ben got off the phone with Bill, it was clear to the whole family that we better watch what we said about shoe delivery, not only the fast shoes but also Lana's sneakers and Mae's flip-flops which comprised the rest of our order.

Later, when Mihiretu was in a tizzy about having to put his socks on for school, he landed, once more, on his fast shoe complaint.

"Wha abou my fas-" he began. Then remembering how sensitive Bill was to criticism, he closed his mouth with a bang of teeth. I was then allowed to put on his socks.