When time is of the essence

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It has become important to my small children (aged three and four) to know ''WHEN'' an event is going to take place. ''WHEN'' has suddenly taken second fiddle to ''WHY,'' and has left me questioning my own knowledge on the subject. To understand the connotation of a minute, or a week, let alone a month or a year, is one thing, but to explain it to a toddler is something else!

I awoke this morning with the help of my daughter's tiny fingers prying up my eyelids.

''WHEN are you getting up, Mommie?''

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I struggled to blink and focus on the digital clock glowing in the dark. 5:32 a.m.

''In a while,'' I mumbled and dozed off.

She lovingly arranged her ''blankie'' on top of my head and crawled in beside me. She was absolutely still, not a twitch, for all of ten seconds. ''Mommie?''

''Hmmmmmmmmmmm?''

''WHEN are we getting up?''

''In a minute, honey,'' I said sleepily.

''Is that today?''

''Yes. Only it's not TODAY yet.''

''Well, Mommie, WHEN are we going to have breakfast?''

''After we get up.''

''Today?''

''Yes, today.''

''I just can't wait for today!'' she said excitedly.

Because it was soooo early, and because it takes a conscious effort for me to talk at such an early hour, I was struggling to make conversation with my talkative daughter at breakfast. ''We get to go to Amy's house today.'' The minute I said it, I wished I hadn't.

''Goody! WHEN?''

''Not until after lunch.''

''I just love to go to Amy's house!'' she beamed.

By 6:30 a.m. Janey and I had finished breakfast and we were reading together at the kitchen table. ''Mom, WHEN is my birthday?'' she interrupted.

''Honey, you just had your birthday. It won't be for a long, long time.''

''Like a week or something,'' she said smartly.

''More like a year.''

''Is that past my bedtime?''

''Yes, it is past lots and lots of bedtimes.''

''Mom, WHEN do we get to go to Amy's house?''

''Not until after lunch.''

''WHEN are we going to have lunch?''

''We just had breakfast, Janey. Lunchtime isn't for a long, long time.''

''Like a year?'' she asked.

''No, sweetie, only four or five hours.''

''Well, do I have time to dress my baby before lunch?''

''Yes, you do,'' I said positively.

''Do I have time to comb her hair?''

''Yes.''

''Do I have time to feed her?''

''Yes. But you better hurry.'' She trotted off happily, passing a sleepy red-headed boy in Superman pajamas in the hallway.

''Ben, we get to go to Amy's house today,'' Janey said sassily.

''WHEN?'' he asked, trying to open his eyes wider.

''Oh, not for a long, long time, a year or something.''

Ben came into the kitchen and without wasting time on morning amenities he said, ''Mom, WHEN are my teeth going to fall out?''

''Oh, not for a year or two.''

He sat on his stool watching me scramble his egg, and thoughtfully inspected my kitchen.

''Mom?''

''Yes?''

''Mom, when are you going to clean up this mess?''

I looked around my kitchen defensively. ''I'm not sure,'' I responded honestly.

''In a year or two?''

''No,'' I laughed, ''sooner than that!''

''In a week?''

''Maybe even sooner than that!''

''Wow,'' his eyes were round in amazement, ''you're fast!''

Janey popped in several times during the course of Ben's breakfast asking if it was lunchtime yet, and ''when are we going to Amy's house?''

It was a long, long morning.

As we drove to Amy's house the inside of the car echoed with questions: ''When are we going to get there? When is Easter? When is Christmas? Hey, Mom when is Saturday? Friday? When are we going to get there? When is tomorrow? When was yesterday?'' . . . And of course, ''When are we going to get there?''

We walked into Amy's house about an hour early. ''They have been so excited to get here - I just couldn't hold off any longer,'' I explained to my friend.

Janey was pulling frantically on my coat sleeve. I stooped down to her level, and she whispered (tactfully) in my ear, ''Mommie, WHEN do we get to go home?''

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