On Else’s Birthday: Of Knowing History and Hope and Peace in a Bundle
Eight years ago yesterday, daughter Else was born.
A baby’s birth isn’t just the event itself, but is a symbol of new beginnings, of uncountable possibilities, of history and hope and peace in a bundle.
Else was almost Petrea. Petrea was my paternal grandmother’s sister’s name, and is the middle name of my sister.
In the end, she got the first name of my quite fantastic sister; it’s also my cousin’s name and that of my father’s Danish cousin.
Her middle name is Kristine, which was my paternal grandmother’s name; Kris was the name of my maternal grandfather, and is also the name of my wonderful cousin on this same side of the family.
She has another two names following ‘Else Kristine.’ Up until she was a year old, they were Madsen Coning: my last name and the last name of my late husband. I had kept my name, you see, and yet after Karl and Else were born, we wanted to have one family name. As a gift, I was willing to take his name once we returned to the States.
But then he died.
And it seemed a bit pointless to change my name, so I changed the kids’ names, and so now we have Karl Overgaard Coning Madsen, and Else Kristine Coning Madsen.
Familial connection is key to me, you see. To the minds of my late husband and me, names anchor our children in something. Else and Karl are expressions of whence they came. Their names recall that they are not random blips; unique, truly, but not isolated incidents.
We know who we are in large part by knowing our history.
In fact, just two nights ago, Else crawled on my tummy with watery eyes, which rarely come. “Baby Girl, what is wrong, Sweet One?” “Mama,” said Elsegirl, “I miss Papa. It’s just sad that I am the one who knew him the least.”
And so we spent time, her tiny body burrowed into me so that she could hear and feel new stories about her Papa, so she could know more about him, and therefore about herself.
Else was only eight months old when her papa died. Her first aware “normal” was chaos.
I think that’s partly to what she owes her depth. She knows that chaos exists. She learned that it’s o.k. to ARG at the universe (in our family, the kids are allowed a swear word. They’ve chosen Scheisse, the German word for “shit.” I don’t think that they know what it means in English, but sometimes the power of cussing comes just because it’s a word that somebody says you’re not supposed to say). Once one ARGs for a while, one moves on, because otherwise one doesn’t just say the ARG. One becomes the ARG.
Her depth showed itself early on.
When she was only 18-20 months old, Sweet Baby Girl stopped her toddling across the kitchen floor.
It creeped me out.
She never stopped.
So I leaned down, and said, “Else, honey girl, is everything o.k.?”
And she looked at me with big blue eyes, and was clearly shocked at something.
“Mama,” she said, and then slowly, “I remember God.”
I stared at her, and got to my knees, and grasped her shoulders, and looking directly into those eye pools, said, “Tell me!”
And she simply shook her head, “No.”
Else knows things that she shouldn’t know.
She knows about empathy, about compassion, about metaphor, about symbol, about wry humor, and about grace in ways that she isn’t supposed to yet.
She knows about delight, and serenity, and defiance, and righteous indignation.
She knows that when people act badly toward others, there might be something troubling them. That fact doesn’t excuse what they are doing, and it doesn’t mean that one needs to tolerate it, but it does mean that it might be up to us to offer the kindness to them that they can’t seem to offer to others, or even to themselves.
She knows about acupuncture needles in Karl’s body, and knows to sing to him when he’s scared, and to get toothpaste after he throws up, and to wait patiently until he actually says what we all know he will say, and that we can’t go on hikes or camping as other families, and that none of this is Karl’s fault and so we love him and us through it.
She shouldn’t have to know these things, but she does.
Sometimes, when she knows she’s gotten herself into a bit of a pickle, she will say in rapid-fire succession, “I know I know I know!” And then realizes that were she really to know, she wouldn’t be in a position to protest that she did.
She knows, then, that she could be wrong, and that Mama can also be wrong, and that it is o.k. to be wrong.
Perhaps most of all, however, she knows that she is known.
We have two verbal rituals, my children and I:
Every morning before I say goodbye to them on the playground, I say: “You are my….” and they add “sunshine…” and then I pick up, “and you are a….” and they reply “miracle.”
Every night before they fall asleep, I say to them as they are snuggled into their beds and blankets, “You are beautiful, you are safe, and I love you.”
Imprinted with notions of sunshine, and miracles, and beauty, and safety, and love, the two of them know that they are treasures, and treasured.
And on this, her 8th birthday, let me take this moment to let the world know a bit of my daughter, a child of God, a blessing to this world, and even still a bundle of history and hope and peace.