Telling Tales 107
The Trials of Childhood
Although Amelia loved her mother Florence very much, no one knew how to take the joy out of a game the way that she did. There was always some kind of limit – duration (“You’ve only got twenty minutes, honey!”), area (“Don’t leave the yard, now!”), or companions (“You know that Stephen has to look his best today, so don’t go trying to get him to come over!”). Amelia’s father said it wasn’t mean and that neither he nor his wife were actively trying to squelch their daughter’s life, but Amelia was no fool and she knew better.
Every day was a battle of wits between Amelia and her mother. If she could get outside before her mother knew where she was or what she was doing, then Florence couldn’t very well impose the latest arbitrary rule. Sometimes that meant trying to wake up before her mother or to escape from her bedroom window or leaving the house under another guise, a promise to do work, for example, that Amelia would do, and then simply not return so as to be able to play. “Amy,” her father said, for he shortened all their names, “there’s a lot of work for all of us. It’ll be easier on you and your mother if you’d just do as she says.”
Amelia was not the kind of girl who was going to “just do” as anyone said. She wanted reasons. Explanations. Rationalizations. Precedents. She argued her case with the skill of a lawyer and refused to leave any angle of discussion or disagreement uncovered. “Fly,” said her father to her mother, for that was his pet name for her, “why don’t you just let the girl enjoy the day? It’s beautiful, there’s sun…”
For her part, Florence protested that she loved fun and she loved for her daughter to have fun and she didn’t understand why she was always the villain in this story. She would describe all of the things that Amelia had recently done – today, yesterday, the day before yesterday, earlier in the week, over last weekend, and last week and last month. She made a good case, because her list was exhaustive. Amelia couldn’t deny any of the statements. If she were a lawyer, her mother was an accountant, adding up her daughter’s time in minute detail.
Both of them were equally frustrated with Amelia’s father, who refused to take sides with any consistency. Instead, he would argue both cases, pointing out this Monday why Amelia ought to listen to her mother because they had several guests coming over for dinner that night. The following Tuesday, though, he told Florence, “Amy was very good at dinner. Why don’t we let her go over to Stephen’s for the afternoon?” He masqueraded as an independent arbiter.
The game was up as far as Amelia was concerned the day she discovered her mother’s ledger. Tucked behind an open book of recipes on the counter in the kitchen was a lined notebook with horizontal and vertical marks dividing every page into even squares. One column read dates. The next days of the week. Then, chronologically through the day, every activity that Amelia had done, complete with the minute that she began and the second that she finished.
The confrontation that night was epic. Amelia knew that her mother was trying to stop her from crossing some magical threshold of enjoyment. Her mother accused Amelia of violating her trust.
“She can’t help it,” soothed her father. “It’s how she was brought up herself, with attention to detail. It’s very simple. Fly times when you’re having fun.”