Trees: A Field Guide
Our street is symmetrical. It has as many brownstones as it does apartment buildings, and they fall into line in opposing pairs across the street from one another. Two large wooden windows of equal size frame two enormous trees that sway gently in summer breezes and lend us the sensation that our front room is a tree house. We have almost total privacy in summer and fall; the trees obscure the view into our nonetheless sunny parlor. In autumn, I wait and watch until the first leaf turns yellow. Once it does, I know a timer has gone off. Within a week, both trees will be aflame in bright leaves, just as our neighbors are putting out pumpkins and gourds on their stoops.
We moved to this apartment in the spring—three years ago. My child was five months old, and at that time, spent three quarters of her day in a carrier or nursing. The other six hours she slept, and in so doing, gave me a little time to dream.
Our back room is as dark as our front room is sunny. It faces an alley, and save for the cooing of two pigeons who have built a nest on our ledge and produce two squabs each May, save for the occasional screams of feuding neighbors and the raucous laughter that drips down from the surrounding rooftops, the alley is quiet.
We didn’t have a bed frame when we first moved, only a mattress. As my husband ripped open boxes, as china, silverware, and towels found their way to cabinets, I sat on our mattress in our dark back bedroom, flashlight in hand. I was reading while the baby slept in my lap.
If there’s anything to spark visions of pursuing quaint hobbies, it’s having a newborn in your arms. And so I read about every topic in which I hoped my child might someday be interested. The books piled up on the floor by the mattress; my husband made weekly trips to the drugstore for flashlight batteries.
Peterson Trees: The concise field guide to 243 common trees of North America.
Birds of New York: Field Guide by Stan Tekelia
Top Cats: The Life and Times of the New York Public Library Lions, by Susan G. Larkin
Imagine Childhood: Exploring the World through Nature, Imagination and Play, by Sarah Olmstead
Tiffany’s Table Manners for Teenagers by Walter Hoving
Secret New York: An Unusual Guide, by T.M. Rives
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv
The Idle Parent, by Tom Hodgkinson
And so on.
Obviously, I became obsessed with two things: raising a city child and raising a country child. Symmetry colonized my brain as did oxytocin. What did I fantasize about?
Pine cones. Acorns. Rock climbing. The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel. Mary janes caked in dirt from Central Park. Walking in the famed Ramble, along paths densely lined with maple trees. Holding my some day five-year-old’s hand as we collect leaves freshly saturated in red and yellow pigment. Joining the bird-watching groups run by the Audubon Society; maybe my child having her own nature notebook and binoculars.
It’s funny what we envision as we gaze at our babies—we know that they will have their own peculiar passions, weaknesses and talents—and yet we can’t help but dream that they might like some of the things we love: Holidays. Autumn. Poetry. Nature. Metropolitan skylines and big cities.
My child is now three and three quarters. I look at her and see—what? What I want to see? My influence? My husband’s? Her idiosyncrasies and charms, born of genetic recombination and the novel upbringing that each child has? Yes. I see all of those things. I see her, too, in a cloud of Wordsworthian mist: she is “appareled in celestial light.” But the romantic fog that softens my vision does not obstruct the discrete individual she is becoming, and—in fact—always was.
She is anything but symmetrical; she does anything but fall into my tidy plans. She is messy—her mary janes thoroughly caked in dirt from Central Park. Sometimes as our children thwart our expectations they also fulfill them.
I think we may allow ourselves some fantasies as we read “A Field Guide to Trees,” and while our newborns lie sleeping in our laps, milk-drunk. Society is quick to chastise parents for such indulgence, diagnosing our reveries as projection or vicarious living, or—ye gods, helicopter parenting. I maintain that we can watch from afar while allowing ourselves the right to attempt some influence. I would never force my child to climb a tree or skitter down a rock or read Eloise or Peter Pan, but if I present the opportunities and she chooses to take them, is it such a crime for our pleasures to overlap?
There’s a difference between living through your child and presenting your child with the opportunity to live some of the dreams you never quite realized. It’s a subtle difference—so I walk the line with care. I attempt a symmetrical posture as I walk that divide: always trying to balance my influence and the weight of my daughter’s spirit. The latter is somehow both airless and dense, much like the stuff of dreams.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Word Riot, Off the Shelf and others. Find her at https://twitter.com/HLAnimal or at http://lesliekendalldye.net.