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Occurred: March 2007

Her tiny teeth crunched away at the Cheerios in the bowl in front of her. To my right sat Maddie, humming an indiscernible tune while munching, milk and grainy bits of wheat floating in her mouth suspended between two rows of teeth.

“Finish up, kiddo,” I stood, bringing my own bowl of empty cereal to the sink, “we need to get you to ballet.”

“Ballet!” she shrieked and shoved another spoonful into her mouth. Dried, crusty milk was resting on the corners of her lips and she tried to wipe it away with the back of her hand.

“And if you finish soon and dress quickly, we can grab ice cream on the way.”

“Ice cream! Ballet! Yaaay!!!!” She lifted the entire bowl to her mouth and drank the rest of her cereal with one big gulp.

Well, that’s one way to finish, I guess.

Eliza was attending a Saturday class at a local University and needed me to take care of the Mad-ster for the day. I was, of course, happy to find an excuse, any excuse, to steal her for the day and bond with my favorite 4 ½ year old.

We stretched the pink tights over her legs and threw on the leotard over that. Then, I layered her in jeans and warm sweater. She buttoned her peacoat as I tied a scarf around her neck and pulled a hat down over her ears. We left their Astoria home hand in hand and walked in the brisk winter to the nearest Baskin Robins.

Maddie skipped beside me, three of her steps equaling one of my own. She hopped around, babbling on and on about how excited she was about getting ice cream. Her little fingernails scraped my palm. “Mommy never lets me eat ice cream. Even when I’m a good girl and I clean my room and I am quiet and help her bake Mrs. Annabelle cupcakes…I still don’t get to eat ice cream.”

I looked down at her, not able to see her face; only the top of her pink and white ski hat. “Why doesn’t mommy allow you to eat ice cream?”

She stopped skipping and looked up at me, her big brown eyes so dark I could barely distinguish her pupils from the irises.

“Because I’m allergetic to milk.”

Crap. How could I forget that she was allergic milk?

“Ya know, Maddie, it’s really cold for ice cream. Wouldn’t you rather have hot chocolate with soy milk? Yum, I know that’s what I want!”

In actuality, I hate anything made of soy. I find soy milk’s odd yellow color disgusting and would rather continuously poke myself in the eye with the dull point of a pencil than taint my hot chocolate with something as vile as soy milk. But I also realized that if Maddie got sick as a result of this scoop of ice cream, I would never hear the end of it. Nor would I ever be able to see her without a chaperone again for at least six months.

So, apparently, suggesting soy hot chocolate as opposed to ice cream was the equivalent of telling her that every last one of toys was going to be burned in a bonfire while we passed out brand new toys to every one of her friends leaving her with NONE. Her legs gave out beneath her and she crumbled to the ground in a fit of tears. In the land of Maddie, this suggestion warranted acting as though you had just swallowed battery acid.


I bit my lip to stifle the laughter. “I’m sorry, Maddie, but I don’t speak Insane Toddler. Use your words…what are you trying to tell me?” I crouched and held her body steady as she caught her breath, calming down.

“You::sniff:: said ::sniff sniff:: I could have ::sniff:: ice cream. I don’t ::hiccup:: WANT hot ::sniff:: chocolate.”

“Ok,” I said, “That’s a fair statement. Why don’t we compromise.” She stared at me blankly, waiting. “You know what compromise is?” She nodded, snot starting to drip from one nostril. I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Ok, then. I will keep my promise and buy you the special ice cream that you’re allowed to have and if you’re a good girl and don’t complain about that, then we will split a soy hot chocolate.” Her eyes lit up and she started smiling again. “Deal?” I stuck my hand waiting to see if she’d shake on it.

“Deal!” She grabbed my hand and shook it eagerly.

* * *

Maddie and I made it to her upper west side ballet class just in time, but not after spilling half of the cup of hot chocolate down the front of her sweater. (which ultimately soaked through and stained her ballet leotard underneath) We ran from the subway stop to her studio, me: always a few steps ahead, dragging her behind me. The other mothers glared at me when we entered through the heavy glass doors, knowing Maddie, but not recognizing my face at all. They assumed I was the nanny or babysitter, which ultimately meant I was dirt. Hired help. And I suppose essentially, I was the nanny for the day. I knelt in front of Maddie and unbuttoned her coat, flinging off her hat and scarf. Together, we stripped her of the layers until she stood in front of me, a tiny ballerina, her soft light brown curls hanging just below her ears. She grabbed my hand, excited to show me off to her friends. Pulling me toward the loud voices of children screaming and laughing, she stopped in front of the instructor; a tall, lean woman whose features were chiseled and exotic. Her neck was long and that paired with her pale skin made her appear like a swan in front of me.

“Hi,” I said, suddenly feeling clumsy and awkward in front of her.

“Hello.” She smiled warmly.

Hello. She made the word sound so classic and elegant. I wished I could pull off saying hello with the same memorable charm she did.

“Are you the babysitter today?” She wasn’t judgmental or condescending. Afterall, I guess what she does every Saturday is similar to that of babysitting several pre-k children all at once.

I opened my mouth to answer, but Maddie beat me to it.

“No, she’s my Aunt Colleen.” I nodded, smiling. “And she’s a ballerina too!”

I grimaced. Why did she have to say that? I smiled weakly at the Swan-lady. Maddie and I used to dance around her old house all the time, putting on music and twirling, pretending as though we were principal dancers in Swan Lake. When I was a kid, I took dance lessons and even throughout high school and college, I did. But I am far from being a ballerina.

“Really!” It was more of a proclamation than a question. “And where did you study?”

Maddie looked at me, eyes wide, not understand the question, but pretending to.

“Oh, well, I actually am more of an actress. I studied theatre moreso than ballet. Maddie was just a little confused because she’s seen me dance in a few shows.”

“Ah. I see. And where has Maddie’s father been? Mack, I believe is his name. I haven’t seen him lately.” I paused, the wheels in my head turning about the proper way to answer this. I assumed, It’s none of your damn business, would not be an appropriate response.

Again, Maddie beat me to answering. Her little lips became suddenly pouty and her head angled to the floor, her eyes looking up at the teacher and myself from under her eyebrows. “My daddy doesn’t live with us anymore,” Her voice was quiet, “He lives with Uncle Daniel.”

It was as though the entire room of gossiping mothers hushed with the one statement. Although they all pretended to be engaged in other conversations, their bodies were all leaning toward the three of us. They may as well have pressed their ears to glasses against a wall, listening.

The Swan seemed shocked and at a loss for words. “Well, she said leaning to Maddie slightly, “Sometimes daddies choose to live with other daddies, and that’s ok too.”

Maddie looked up at me, confused.

“No,” I corrected her quickly. “No, it’s not like that. He just had to go back to Virginia for a bit.” I glanced at Maddie still looking at the floor and then at the other mothers, waiting like vultures to feed on the gossip. “For work.” I added quickly at the end.

The Swan nodded. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Aunt Colleen. I hope you can make it to the spring recital.” She glided past me, constantly a vision of grace walking on the balls of her feet like a Barbie doll.

I leaned down to Maddie who was still quiet. “You ok, kiddo?”

She nodded. “We’re still a family even if daddy doesn’t live with us.” She spoke like she was reciting something she had learned in a book.

I nodded. “Yes we are.”

“And I’m not going to cry about it because big girls don’t cry.”

“Ok, Fergie, calm down there. Big girls cry. Even I cry…sometimes.”

She scrunched her nose and it reminded me of when I was young and used to do the same thing. “I’ve never seen you cry.”

I thought for a moment. How can I explain this? “I’ll make another pact with you.” She stared at me intently. She loved the idea of being involved in an adult meeting. “If you and I are hanging out and for whatever reason, one of us feels the need to cry, we will. No holding back for whatever reason. That means, I can cry in front of you, and you can cry in front of me.”

She nodded and ran off to the middle of the dance floor. I wasn’t sure she fully understood the pact, but someday she would. And when she did, I knew I’d be there to kiss away her tears. I knew I’d be the one rocking her back and forth reassuring her that tears were a good thing at times and they let the weepies out.

Moments later, she fell, landing on her bum. She looked at her instructor and then at me. Deciding on me, she tottled over holding her backside with both hands.

“Does this mean I can cry now?” She said, her eyes wide and glistening. She bit her lip, waiting for my answer.
I nodded and opened my arms. Her little body fell into mine and her body shook as she cried.


  1. Ello Says:

    Merry sent me over and I’m glad I did. Lovely story and you told it so well. Your niece is lucky to have you.

  2. Colleen_Katana Says:

    Hey Ello!
    Welcome & thanks for stopping by!

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