Lisa in Command of Her Future

SHE is coping really very well. With being four, I mean. Particularly when you consider her earlier plan, loudly announced, to remain three forever. But, as her mother's favorite singer reiterates with jaunty frequency in that household, "Que sera, sera/ Whatever will be, will be." So her birthday came anyway. And she lived through it. And found being four wasn't as bad as she had expected.

"I'm a big girl now," she announces, as she stands on the coffee table and does her best imitation of Jane Fonda.

"Exercising," she explains.

"I see," we say.

Her right leg - so long and skinny compared with her younger brother's small, pudgy two-year-old limbs - suddenly shoots out sideways at exactly the same time as she launches herself forward toward her even-younger brother's baby basket, lodged on the sofa.

She grasps the side of the baby carrier at the last possible moment before her center of gravity forsakes her completely, a deft, practiced piece of gymnastics. "I was a wee girl," she continues, "but now I am a big girl." Her other leg flies out horizontally in the opposite direction.

"And what are you going to be next?" asks Morven, my wife, her aunt, sharing the other end of the sofa with me.

This question puzzles Lisa, clearly. She plays for time by doing a number of self-contradictory things with her arms.

"Exercising," she explains. "Next?"

"You said that you were a wee girl, and that now you are a big girl - so what are you going to be next?"

Further consideration of this thorny issue involves a bending at the waist and a swirling of the head. "Next," she says finally, "I'm going to be fat."

"I see," we say, trying to keep calm. "And what about Jim?" (Jim, aged two, being brother No. 1, whose second birthday we were there to celebrate.)

Without hesitation Lisa answers: "Oh, Jim's going to be a skinny-malink." She twists slenderly at the hips, her proposed fattiness a mere figment of the imagination. "And Andrew?" (Andrew, brother No. 2, a mere nine weeks of age, is an example of how diminutive Jim and Lisa used to be.)

"Oh," says Lisa, pirouetting, "Andrew's going to be fat with me."

So who says "the future's not ours to see"? Doris Day doesn't know everything. The fact is, niece Lisa may well have some low-down on the future, because the past is no closed book to her, evidently.

If you can look one way, why not the other? When my wife, following the aforementioned Lewis Carroll-type exchange of nonsensicals, said nonchalantly under her breath: "You've been here before!" Lisa, still exercising without intermission, answered quite simply, and with no moment's thought: "I know I have."

I WONDER, does she not already have some as-yet-unarticulated certainty of her future career? She looks to me, this little youngling, as though she might be one of those prodigies who suddenly finds she has inside her a shining certainty of the single direct line her life is to follow. A rare capacity! Something, I must say, that when I encounter it, I always greatly admire. Because I was not (still am not) that way at all.

"What do you want to be if you grow up?" asked a large man of the extremely small child in a Punch cartoon. That "if" is the crux of the matter; personally, I have never had the slightest intention of growing up. A boy of multiple interests, but no channeled concept of which of them might make for lifelong prospects that was I . . . is I.

Actress-entertainer Joyce Grenfell once recalled autobiographically the time when she, as a young woman, felt that any career was a possibility for her. I believe she was not unique in this. It's an unusual 14-year-old (let alone the 4-year-old) who knows for absolute certainty that she will be a ballerina or he a plumber.

Most of us have an open mind to say the least. When, however, this state of openness-to-opportunity (which others call indecisiveness) continues until you are 31 or so, it can have its awkward side. And by half-a-century it looks like irresponsibility.

At the back of such option-keeping may be the encouragement school life gives children to excel at many things. To sort out later which of these intensely enjoyed pursuits is to be chosen, and which abandoned, is a tricky, even a disconcerting, business.

I WONDER, then, which of Lisa's wide range of potential forms of genius may be hers for life - apart, that is, from the obvious one of writing fitness manuals. Doubtless, she will do that on the side like others among the famous and great.

But for the main career she could, for example, be a dancer, or a singer, or organize young children; she seems to have the younger members of her family already at her beck and call. She's good teacher material all right. She is their role model and knows it. Jim immediately wants to do whatever she has just done. She loads the wheelbarrow; he wants to load the barrow, naturally.

When she was given face paints for her birthday, and I was commanded as royalty summons portraitists to turn her features into those of a tiger, Jim presented his face with silent expectation for it, too.

Or Lisa might go into management - adults, also, come readily at her bidding. She is voluble without let or hindrance, and I can just see her conducting long policy-planning meetings in some high-powered firm, making presentations, announcing mission statements, declaring bottom lines. I don't wish this on her, though. Not my idea of fun at all. An already overstocked profession, management.

But she has something about her that commands. When her Dad obediently puts on her video of the "Little Mermaid," then I am made to sit and watch it, by order, and so is Aunt-wife Morven. "You sit here. No, sit up. Don't lean back. Watch!" This all settled, her administrative delegating complete, she is now quite free to do what she wants with her immediate life, which is not to watch the "Little Mermaid": She's seen it before.

Instead, she has decided to enact "The Dousing and Rescue of Jessica," a melodrama. (Jessica is her new doll.) Though maternally adored, this baby is now taken roughly and tossed, like a trail of seaweed, into the paddling pool in the middle of the room. The pool is empty of water, but no matter. Fantasy supplies all.

Jessica, I must say, puts up with a lot. She is doused and rescued - with increasing force and heroism - at least 11 times. This performance entirely upstages the video, of course, as its perpetrator certainly knows.

Lisa is Grace Darling (the famous British lifeboatman's daughter), Harrison Ford in the last scene of "Patriot Games," and the Little Mermaid rolled into one. So that's it! Lisa is destined to be an actress. A fat actress. Obvious when you think about it.

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