Last night our new mania for food coloring in the bath went awry, and the girls were immersed in a kind of foamy gray Love Canal that made me want to avert my eyes. This time I make sure the drips leave the tiny teardrop bottles with firing-squad accuracy: 12 red + 8 blue = “Purple!”
Phoebe dumps an armful of toys and sparkly plastic tea cups into the bath, climbs in with them, and sits down with a satisfied gasp. She waves a sponge giraffe: “Hello, friends.” Violet puts a toe into the bubbles and withdraws it quickly. “First I’m going to be a mermaid sitting on my rock,” she says, and curls elegantly on the edge of the bath like an almost-four-year-old Narcissus.
“Today we played the Farmer Wants a Wife,” says the mermaid, trailing her hand in the purple water, “I was the wife, Rory was the farmer, and Harry was a bone.”
“I am a wife,” Phoebe says, beaming.
“No, you’re not.”
“Who was the dog? No, don’t drink the bathwater, Phoebs.”
“It’s yummy,” she says, raising a teacup to her lips.
“We like it,” seconds the mermaid.
“I know, but remember? The water in our house may be yucky, we have to get it tested–”
As if there’s not enough decay and breakdown around here, what with the sudden death this week of both the dishwasher and the phone, and the fact that when I unplugged the vacuum cleaner this morning, only one prong came out of the wall, leaving behind a protruding metal splinter with the potential to electrocute careless passersby–as if there’s not enough of that, it turns out that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has known since 2002 that lead levels are spiking all over the city but only now, thanks to the Washington Post, has let slip this alarming fact to the public. It’s not like one can even say, “Well, children, at least it’s not Ricin,” for of course Violet and Phoebe have never heard of castor beans. Or, for that matter, of the Senate.
“Okay, Violet, the water should be cool enough–ow!”
As my hands hit the soapy water, I wince at the throb of a thousand tiny paper cuts. It has always been the lot of housewives to work with their hands; my pioneering ancestors hacked their way through New England forests and across the African veldt and no doubt throttled their own fowl for supper. But did they face laceration from stuffing envelopes for fundraisers? I bet they did not.
“No, darling, don’t suck on the face cloth–”
Back in September, the PTA sent home a note asking if I or my husband might spare an hour or two to help with any number worthwhile school activities. Instead of crushing the letter into a ball, as I normally do, I inexplicably lashed a series of Xs beside, “I can help with the school auction,” and “I can help with the Founder’s Day Dinner,” and “I can help with various/misc. committees.”
That mirthless laughter you hear is mine. That heart bursting with regret is mine. That dining-room table heaped with great boxes of dinner invitations, envelopes, response cards, return-address stamps, and postage stamps is… mine.
There’s only one glimmer of fun: Whenever I come to an invitation for a family whose car I happen to know bears a “Regime Change Begins at Home” or “Attack Iraq? No!” bumper sticker, I pointedly affix one of the US Postal Service’s handsome Purple Heart stamps. So as I fold, insert, slit my cuticles, wince with pain, and seal the envelope, I amuse myself with one of those absurd strawman scenarios best enjoyed in the quiet of one’s own imagination:
“Say, Fred, look at this: a Purple Heart sticker on a school invitation!”
“Why, those rotten, stinking, war-mongering–”
On goes another stamp. Probably this is how that gay-activist fellow felt when he was licking doorknobs on the Gary Bauer campaign. Subversion is fun, even if no one notices.
“But honey,” falters the voice of the invisible wife, “Doesn’t John Kerry have–?”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah! He’s got three! Better than that–”
And my smile fades. And another envelope slices across my knuckles.
“Freya was the dog,” Violet goes on, “and we kept getting stuck in the mud. Our shadows were the mud.”
Paris pops his head around the bathroom door, and says, “When the Littles are done, can I have a turquoise bath?”
“And may I please have a plain bath?” comes Molly’s voice, with newly acquired, off-the-rack world-weariness, from down the hall.
“Yes and yes.”
The bathing proceeds, Phoebe announces that she’s going to wash that man right out of her hair, everyone has their stories read, and at last it’s Molly’s turn to be tucked in and kissed goodnight.
“Mummy, remember the signs those people were waving?” In the afternoon we had driven past a young couple waving placards that read “I Am Howard Dean’s Special Interest.”
“Well, what are special interests?”
“Groups that support the other fellow,” I tell her, “For example, when Democrats talk about special interests, they mean the oil industry, the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition, groups like that. For Republicans, it means trial lawyers, the Teamsters, the teachers’ unions–”
“Oh,” Molly yawns, “That explains why teachers are always Democrats.”
“Er, yes,” I say, my jaw dropping at the perspicacity of the nine-year-old mind.
Molly yawns again, “Goodnight, Mummy.”
As I turn off the light and leave the room, a sleepy voice asks, “What’s a Teamster?”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist. Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family will permit. Her NRO column, “The Fever Swamp” appears weekly.