Poems & Essays

30 Dec

Halmies and Perns

Toddlers to Teens No Response

“Halmies n’ perns,” she said.

The constant patois can be difficult to understand unless you happen to be a linguistic mastermind. Even I, who co-direct the immersion program here at our house, often mistake the toddler’s meaning.

“Do you mean hummus?” I asked. “And…pears?”

Sarah shook her head in a vigorous no, repeating her request, insisting on a way through the impasse. “Halmies n’ perns.”

I ran through the usual litany of options. Yogurt? String cheese? Celery? Apples? A hard-boiled egg?

No, no, no, no, and NO.

“H-A-L-M-I-E-S N’ P-E-R-N-S.” My daughter enunciated slowly, the way people do when they’re speaking to someone who is hard of hearing or of questionable intelligence.

My confusion and her frustration grew until, at last, a long series of guess and check exercises landed on almonds and raisins mixed together in a cup.

“Uh HUH! DAT right!” Sarah clapped her chubby hands and smiled big with joy and relief.

I sympathize with her struggle. Much of my life seems firmly fixed in the halmies and perns stage, too. We struggle together to express ourselves, sorting out what it means to be us, and who we are in the world. She calls herself by a different name every day, wandering down to breakfast as Sa-sa, Say-say, or Susie as the mood takes her. I serve the oatmeal as Mama, pay the bills as Catherine, and wonder where the Cat who danced all night in college has gone. Sarah and her siblings play dress up and wonder how it would work if Harold and the Purple Crayon met up with Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wonder if I’m delivering on my potential and if, as adults, the kids will remember the hours I spend at my desk and the hours we spend reading on the couch as being in some sort of defensible balance.

I do words for a living, but the gulf between client work and my personal diction extends past my field of view. I have this ragtag rowboat, and all this water to cover. I surge in one direction, then back in the other, and I never seem to get closer to shore. I read to the children from a poetry book about some guys who went to sea in a sieve. The kids laugh at the looks on the people’s faces when they realize they are going nowhere. I laugh because I can relate.

I wake up in the middle of the night and grasp at dreams full of phrases and concepts that might catch, scribbling on a scrap of paper in the dark. Halmies and perns? Ambition and parenting? I cast about through the usual answers, but they come up short. I turn to what always helped before, and it doesn’t take off the edge. I chatter, hoping someone will understand. I know I want something, but I don’t know how to articulate it, even to myself.

On some days, I pile my family around me and we read. This is the core of my parenting: I’m a reading mom. I don’t do taxi service or Legos or Wee Sing or organized crafts. I don’t fold laundry or helicopter their playtime or buy fruit roll-ups like other moms—and sometimes I find those choices hard to explain.

On other days, I shut the door, sit down at my desk, and build business strategies for companies that probably assume I work 9-5 in a cubicle. I use my mind and skills and words to create order out of chaos and define a direction that will, we hope, promote flourishing. Sometimes, when the little ones twirl around outside my office singing medleys of Disney tunes and pop anthems and ancient hymns when I’m on a conference call, I find my choices difficult to articulate.

Cutting through the chaos, defining my purpose, and synthesizing my thoughts leaves me red in tooth and claw. It is difficult and daily work to build the vocabulary and diction of a life well-lived. Left to themselves, my roles and ruminations, projects and passions are shape-shifters, prone to reflect the whims of others. Answers more often stay tongue-tipped than tied up into pithy click-bait bullet lists.

I peer at the toddler when she’s babbling. What is going on in that head of yours? I wonder. I look in the mirror and ask the same thing of myself.

A two-year-old has no framework for understanding that someday she will get her point across like her mama does. She coasts on hope the occasional breakthrough. As a writer, I don’t know if my characters will resonate, if my ideas will illuminate, if my words convey even a shadow of what I intend. Certainly, it would be easier to cease striving and go with the digital flow. I’m often sorely tempted to let the words and images of others tell all the stories.

But there’s a better way, and I think we’re born knowing it. There’s a hungry place inside us and it never quiets: to be known, to be known, to be known.  I have just enough of the tune to know there must be a verse. I fumble with my syllables and plead with the world, “Halmies and perns! Halmies and perns!” When I don’t get through, I press my nose against the glass and try to understand. It’s not easier—as anyone who’s witnessed the kinetic frenzy of a misunderstood toddler well knows—but I fight to form an answer to the question I’m barely able to ask.

Every now and then, growing impatient of seeing in the glass so dimly, the dark wears thin and my words cut through. For a moment, the cup is full of what I barely knew how to ask for, and I clap my tired hands and smile with joy and relief.

The little bowl of hope and clarity keeps my fingers on the keys. Now I know in part; but then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Catherine H. Gillespie writes fiction, non-fiction, and book reviews on topics including identity, ambition, balance, and belonging. A graduate of Princeton University with a background in national security, Catherine currently works as a content strategist and development consultant in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and five children. She reads voraciously, speaks vociferously, and has a particular affinity for rhubarb (the color and the vegetable). You can find her online at www.catherinehgillespie.com.

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