She's Definitely Madeleine

`I WANT to be a dolphin," mumbled our two-year-old daughter at lunch one day. "A doctor?" I asked. "No! A dolphin!" she repeated. "A dolphin?" "UmHm," she nodded her head while chewing a peanut-butter sandwich.

"Where'd she hear that?" my husband asked as Madeleine continued. "I'm going to fly from the water, and I'm going to eat up you and you," she pointed to her father and me, "but not you." Her gaze was directed now to her three older sisters, who burst into loud guffaws. Slipping down in her seat, eyes squeezed tight, Madeleine was instantly embarrassed to think her sisters were making fun.

Although barely out of diapers, she is easily piqued when she feels that her sisters find her silly. Silly is what Madeleine is not about to be considered, and she will insist, on the verge of tears, "I'm not silly. I'm Madeleine." For some reason, she considers silly worse than "naughty" or "baby," the other names her sisters use. As she struggles to keep up when the older girls pursue the intricacies of Barbie doll dressing or fearless jumps off bunk beds, I sense her pride in being part of the gang. M eanwhile, what I can't help noticing these days is my fourth child's unique and vocal march through early childhood. After the demanding days of babyhood I've caught my breath and come to treasure Madeleine's days of nonstop discovery and awe.

This strong-willed dynamo burst unexpectedly upon our busy three-child family life. Poet Richard Eberhardt has described the newborn as a "little knot of purposeful nature." Madeleine, from her arrival, was all six pounds purposeful. Her purpose, these past 38 months, has been to make her presence known continuously. Now that screams and noises have become words and sentences, things have gotten more interesting, though seldom less perplexing.

As we drove home recently from some errand, I heard from her car seat in the back, "They're laughing at me." "Who?" I asked, surprised since I knew that aside from us the car was empty. "They are," she insisted. "They are?" I repeated. "Those people." "What people?" Moving along at 25 miles an hour, I craned my neck to see if I had missed something. Could she mean those teenagers on the corner? They weren't even looking. "What people?" I asked again, determined to figure out the puzzle.

"Those people!" Her voice was rising now.

"Where are they?" I ventured. "In the barn," she answered. Completely baffled, since we were downtown and miles from any barns, I chose, as I often do, to agree. "Oh, just ignore them," I suggested. And she relaxed, moving on to new topics.

Having such an exchange with someone older than Madeleine might cause one to worry a bit. But no doubt it was all completely reasonable from a toddler's perspective. Those of us beyond that twinkling, everything's-a-mystery age are left to wonder.

As I follow Madeleine throughout the day, I marvel at her tireless reactions to the here and now. Not plagued with worries about the future or regrets from the past, she throws herself wholeheartedly into whatever comes her way. With transparent delight or potent disdain she is utterly, unashamedly herself, leaving those of us around her to stand open-mouthed with disbelief. Were we ever so spontaneous? Were our older children? At what point do the trapdoors of our souls shut off the deeply felt wonder o f a rainbow or questions about squirrels and where they live at night?

Madeleine once came along on an afternoon excursion to our local reservoir to search for tadpoles for her sister's sixth-grade science class. Madeleine insisted that she get her own tadpole. Unfortunately, all we could find were three minnows and one baby shad, all of which were needed at school. Feeding ducks bread and sifting through green algae made up for going home with an empty bucket. But Madeleine never forgot about that tadpole.

The next day, after a night of rain, she walked outside and, spotting a small puddle in the road, declared with total confidence, "Let's go get some tadpoles in the puddles." After pushing last fall's leaves, she decided the tadpoles weren't there that day because the cars might hurt them. And so she moved on to something else equally engrossing.

I spend my days trying to keep up with Madeleine's quicksilver mind. Whether she is sitting under our dining-room table having animated conversations with her imaginary friends (who sometimes take the form of paint bottles) or helping me make cookies, Madeleine expresses her thoughts out loud. I've learned, in one morning, that Mary Alice from playschool eats "like a bird," that the Siamese fighting fish in Madeleine's room enjoys being petted like the dog, and that her grandmother, who visited us at Chr istmas, is still on the airplane. One minute she asks if a worm can talk, then moves on to why the bread dough can't get wet. I don't pretend to know the answers to all her questions, but at the end of every day I wish I'd written them all down.

This is not to say that Madeleine is not exhausting and exasperating. She has pushed the limits of my patience in ways none of our other girls have. Her determination and her loud insistence will some day, I'm sure, benefit her. Being rather reserved myself, I can see this, and it helps to soften the impact of her toddler years.

Like the spunky heroine of Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline books, our Madeleine knows what she wants and will persist, rarely diverted from her goal. From getting dressed in the morning ("No, I want the elephant shirt today and the red socks") to lunch time ("I want turkey sandwich and no bread") to afternoon visits to the park ("I want to go down the big slide backward, in a minute, when I'm ready"), Madeleine is definite and determined.

I will never forget the day, midway through her second year, when Madeleine ended up loudly defiant at the park. She was standing on a small dirt hill where children liked to race small metal cars. When I called her to come, she wouldn't budge, and as I began to walk toward home she started screaming, "Mama, come here!" Our petite, blue-eyed toddler let out yells that would have set new records, and the school-aged kids around her stopped their games to watch. I was, I'll admit, so embarrassed that I wal ked back over to her and scolded quietly. Immediately her screaming stopped and her arms stretched out, and I bent down to pick her up. With a quick squeeze of my neck, her soft cheek next to mine, we walked home peacefully.

Now as her third birthday passes, I see her seesawing into childhood. Sometimes she seems much older, as when she insists on walking to the car after her play group, lunch box dangling in her hand. At other times she uses forthright sentences like, "I'm a big girl now. Those diapers are for babies." Or she leads our large Irish Setter by the leash and commands, "Come on, Molly!"

I look forward to the added freedom that Madeleine's growing up will bring me, but I will also truly enjoy these last months of toddlerhood and not wish them passed too soon. I know from bittersweet experience that bicycles and classrooms will soon propel her headlong beyond my waiting arms, and puddles will once again be only puddles, and the days of dolphin dreams just a memory we'll share.

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