Mood Management: Lessons from a Beginner

Here's what I learned on my summer vacation: There is no more potent antidote to bleak introspection than a 2-year-old girl in monkey pajamas. It is impossible to brood in her presence. I know, because I tried. And, I am happy to report, failed.

Some poet said that living with a small child is like living with a Zen master. Watch and wait and keep your mouth shut, and you just might discover the secrets of the universe. I seem to have forgotten this truth, but a week in a beach house with the 2-year-old and her siblings brought it back into sharp focus.

My energies depleted by my father's recent death, I looked forward to the healing power of salt air and fresh swordfish and sunsets over the bay. Surely there, on the rocky New England coast I love so well, grief would take a temporary powder.

Not. Well, not at first, anyway. I unpack and make beds and stock the refrigerator and will the gray cloud to lift. I walk to the shore and watch the gulls wheel and swoop. I wade in tidal pools. I lure the rush of quiet joy this place always brings, and I wait.

Then car doors slam and screen doors bang and the house fills with people. Dinner materializes, dishes are washed, stories are read. Sleep, and waking, and coffee on the porch in the dawn silence. And still the cloud.

I hear her before I see her, bare feet running down the wooden stairs, through the kitchen, stopping short at my chair. She reaches for me, holds my face in her cupped hands, repeats my name softly. And then, as if a switch has been thrown, she launches into her first high-speed monologue of the day: I-woke-up-early-I-came-downstairs-I-want-pancakes-let's-go-on-the-swing-can-I-wear-your-flipflops-what-are-you-thinking-are-you-happy?

Fed and watered, we head outside. She does not walk anywhere. She barrels. She hops. She dances. Recently, she has begun to skip, a sort of jumpy, scissor-legged move that makes me laugh out loud. I push her on the swing, both of us lulled for a second by the rhythmic to-and-fro. The sun moves higher in the morning sky. It's so lovely, she declares. Say words!

What words should I say? That in the hour since she rose, she has pushed, coaxed, bullied, and cajoled me into the present tense and convinced me that it is where we both belong? That in her company, I have learned again that now is everything: sweet maple syrup, grass still wet with dew under our feet, and that movement is joy, and that our bodies are perfect?

When my mother died, my children were babies. Her death was sudden and left the family shell-shocked, untethered. My husband and I and our toddler and infant sons moved in for a while with my father and teenage brothers. I remember the stunned sadness of those months, but I also remember the laughter and noise and constant motion of a reconfigured household that now featured cribs and bottles and a swing-o-matic in the dining room. On good days and bad days, the nurture of little children was the spar to which we clung, the bright, insistent imperative that kept us upright and moving forward.

In May, I sat with my father as the life force ebbed away. His face in repose appeared calm, unlined, relieved at last of effort and expectation. Now, on this July morning, his great-granddaughter laughs at me from a swing, begs me to push her higher. No one has told her yet who she should be, what she must do to succeed. Life is simply this: a summer day in a house by the sea.

Say yes, she calls to me. Yes, I say, pulling the swing back, holding it fast. Letting go.