DAILY life with a preschooler is a lesson in the art of improvisation. I've just spent 45 minutes engaged in a peculiar type of project. After rummaging through the house looking for inspiration in the colors of purple and green, I decided against the markers and the construction paper and the fabric paint. Out of desperation I settled for the well-worn but definitely purple cotton-knit pajama bottoms of my four-year-old, Madeleine, and began to cut them up.
Since time was running short before her afternoon preschool class, I didn't have time to warn her, and Madeleine stood there astounded to see Mama destroying her winter pajamas. The feet had worn out long ago when older sisters wore them, but Madeleine had liked wearing them with socks.
It's hard to explain to a four-year-old that all creating requires transformation, so instead I told her, with slightly exaggerated enthusiasm, that I was going to make a very special beanbag for her to take to school.
BECAUSE the teacher had announced two days ago that today would be Barney Day at preschool, I was making a Barney beanbag. ``All children,'' the notice had read, were to ``bring their favorite Barney toy on this day.'' At the bottom of this announcement she had added, like an afterthought, that if the child did not have a Barney toy, to just bring in something purple.
Which is what I had intended to do until we got right down to the wire. We looked around and couldn't find anything purple, at least not anything that was appealing to four-year-olds. I didn't think the stubby purple candle on the dining-room table would be very meaningful amid Barney memorabilia.
Madeleine's eight-year-old sister, concerned last night that Madeleine have something appropriate for school today, had helped her color the black-and-white picture that was part of the school notice. She had even mounted it on purple construction paper. ``Everyone has Barney stuff,'' my eight-year-old insisted as she colored carefully. That's when I began to reconsider my decision to ignore the Barney theme.
I have no antipathy toward Barney. In fact, I like him. The moments I have glimpsed his show, which Madeleine does like, are full of wholesome fun and sound advice. Like the gentle Mr. Rogers, Barney gives young children the consistent message that they are very special. Even adults could use that daily message reaffirmed.
When Madeleine was 2-1/2, I would hear her singing quietly in her room while playing. Over and over like a chant she would croon, ``I love you. You love me. We're a happy fam-i-ly,'' and I was warmed by the sweet thoughts my child seemed to have composed. Later I realized that this was the theme song from a brand new show she had seen just once.
On the show, Barney, the big purple and green dinosaur, speaks to children about the sterling ideals of sharing, honesty, appreciating different kinds of people, and helping around the house. I liked that. In an age where so many of the messages children inadvertently receive are questionable, parents and teachers, too, appreciate the help of role models.
Unfortunately, Barney, like many children's heroes, has been marketed to sell. There are Barney stuffed animals, coloring books, clothes, balloons, umbrellas, and on and on. This is where some of my other ideals come into conflict with the popular culture.
IT is so much easier to think or talk about ideals than live them out. When one has children, the effort involved in truly living out these ideals becomes ever greater. Children are great sponges, and the culture around them virtually flows with the lure of the commercial. My husband and I have tried to live a life of minimal consumption and maximum appreciation for simple homemade pleasures. Our 10 years on a farm facilitated that kind of life where just about everything we ate was grown upon our land.
Now, living in the suburbs while my husband studies for a PhD, we come up against the tendencies of a consumer-oriented upscale community. I was determined not to go out and do the easy thing - buy a Barney gimmick - just so Madeleine would be like everybody else.
With only minutes left, I decided to give young Madeleine, who has not had the advantage our other daughters have of living years on the farm, the opportunity to know the satisfaction of creating something she really needed to have.
We have done this with every Halloween costume, from the exotic Cleopatra to the whimsical Miss Raindrop. We have done this with birthday cakes and homemade parties. We have made Christmas gifts, our evening bread, and greeting cards. With each homemade product, I feel the thrill of independence from the mass-produced.
The Barney beanbag had a funny shape. Madeleine didn't notice, but I did. And I wondered, as we stuffed it bit by bit with the white navy beans I had intended for soup, if she would be embarrassed. For the green tummy, I had to cut up an old felt sewing-needle case that had once been a great-grandmother's. I knew she'd understand.
We glued it on, hoping it would stay. With permanent marker I drew the goofy grin, the reptilian eyes, which I jazzed up with two glued-on sliver sequins. Madeleine liked those eyes. As the last stitch was made, I handed the new homemade Barney over to Madeleine.
HE took it carefully, and the big head flopped forward, weighted as it was with so many beans. ``Why does his head fall over?'' she asked me. ``Because he has such a big one filled with lots of smarts,'' I told her, improvising. ``Where's his tail?'' she asked. I had forgotten, but luckily she didn't mind waiting until after school for that addition.
``Would you like me to take your picture with Barney?'' I asked doubtfully. ``Okay,'' Madeleine replied. With a shy smile and an almost maternal grasp, Madeleine held up the six-inch pajama-bottomed creation, and I snapped.
It was not one of my better stuffed animals, but she was pleased. As we ran out the door, I marveled at the acceptance of the imperfect that a four-year-old can show.
At stop lights, we practiced throwing Barney and thought of games this kind of beanbag could be a part of. I wondered if Madeleine would suggest this when the show-and-tell circle time came to her.
As she marched up the path to her school door, other children were arriving with large plush Barney animals, with Barney T-shirts, and other assorted souvenirs.
``Remember,'' I whispered to Madeleine, ``you're the only one with a special Barney beanbag.'' That, after all, is what Barney always says: ``There's no one just like you!'' She smiled and walked inside the door.