Questions and answers

September 28,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Last night, lying in bed next to T., in the dark of her room, she asked me: "Mama, did you always love me?" "Always and always and always," I told her. "Even before I knew you, I loved you." "What do you love about me?" I thought about how best to answer it, this question that would take an eternity to cover. "I love the whole you," I told her. "Every little thing about you, and every big thing, too." She wasn't satisfied. "But WHAT do you love?" "I love your heart and your brain and your smile and your toes," I told her. "But WHAT?" Clearly she wanted something more quantifiable than that, some measurement that would satisfy her in more specific ways. Children themselves have a hard time naming what love is, or why they feel it. They know love, as instinctively as they know how to breathe, and they learn it by associating love for their parents with safety, and that happy, secure, all-is-good-with-my-world feeling that kids need so much. For a very small child love might smell like her mother, or feel like the touch of her hand, or sound like her father's voice. As the child grows older, she begins to love her parents for who they are and what they do, in more tangible and identifiable ways. I can distinctly remember when I realized, with a sort of slow dawning, that my parents were separate people from the mother and father I knew them as; that they had past histories, and complicated feelings, and hopes and dreams, and, moreover, that they shared many of these things with each other. I remember looking at my parents with new eyes, and wondering, too, how love could take so many different forms, and be so complex when it felt so simple to me. ************ I listed for T. all the things I love about her: her character, her courage, her smile, her laughter, the way the sun shines out of her heart each day, the way she can so easily turn around a bad situation and make it good, in ways sometimes I can't even do. I thought of a million other things I love about my T.: the way she walks like she's on air, and how she sings like Lucille Ball, her voice all out of tune but delightfully charming in every way. I love her freckles in the summer and all the dolls she makes, out of even the simplest of things. There are so many things, I told T., that I love about you that it would take me the whole night to list them all. And then I tucked her in and searched her face for some sign that she was satisfied. Did she doubt my love at all? Had she wanted some other answer? Was her question born from some sense of unease in her world, or was she merely exploring her own slow dawning, her growing-up sense of love, her place in my world--the world that stretches before me, and the world that's been her here and now for as long as she can remember: my smell, my touch, the sound of our voices in the dark.