When I was little, my mother would send us up for a nap every afternoon. This didn’t last long, given our persuasive personalities and Mom’s fairly chill parenting style, but there were a few years there where I loathed what seemed like the three hours I’d be trapped in my bedroom. What was the point of “trying” to sleep if I wasn’t tired? Because I certainly wasn’t. I don’t care that I’m acting out, whining, slapping my sister, what-have-you. It isn’t because I’m tired, it’s just because I’m awful.
So there I would lie, my door closed, and it wasn’t long before I’d take a deep breath, scurry across the room, and grab the Barbie dolls. Or maybe the little notebook and pencil with which I would write extremely redundant letters to various family members (“Dear Daddy, I love you. God loves you, too. Love, Catherine” — those were about all the words I could spell at three or four years old). I’d grab that dog-chewed, often-footless Barbie doll, write those letters, and sit up in bed with one ear to the doorway.
One ear to the doorway because there was a tell-tale sign that my mother was coming and I had to slip whatever toy I was playing with under the covers, close my eyes, and curl up facing the wall.
That sign was my mother’s creaky knees.
I still remember the thrill of hearing it – crack, crack, crack – coming up the stairs, shoving the Barbie doll under the comforter, breathing heavily because I was afraid I’d get caught.
Then the words of liberation, “You can get up now, honey,” and away with the toys and the bed and downstairs I’d bound, free from the minimal guilt I felt about disobeying.
And what would’ve happened had I been caught?
Nothing, most likely, but Mom never did catch me. Or, she never let on, anyway.
I teased Mom for years about her loud knees, her bad joints, and she took it like a champ.
“Thank God for those knees!” I’d say. “They kept me out of loads of trouble.”
~ ~ ~
The thing is: creaky knees seem to be genetic. I was walking up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, and I heard it — crack, crack, crack — only, instead of just one knee like my mother, it was BOTH. They were beacons of announcement: Catherine’s coming! She’s on her way! Any minute now! And I realized that my mother of the naptimes and sliced apples with peanut butter and tea with milk in the afternoon was a young woman of 28.
She wasn’t old or wrinkled or graying. She wasn’t wizened or aged like good wine. She was my age, and her knees cracked. She had long dark hair and perfect eye sight. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor. She had three babies under the age of four, and she sent us upstairs for naps not because we needed them, but because she did.
When I was in high school, I asked her what she did while we were up there. I pictured her reading a book, watching a television show, napping herself.
“I usually did laundry,” she said. “Or dishes.”
Age is a funny thing. It means less and less as I get older. I wonder if this lovely change is reversed at some point. If, at the ripe old age of 70, the years mean a whole lot more. If you wish all you had to complain about were creaky knees or a compulsory naptime.