To Borrow a Phrase
By Rebecca Martin
Maeve was about to make a break for the goody bags, but I scooped her up and said, “can you say thank you to Olivia’s parents first?” She flipped her bob of glossy curls back to show off her pillowy cheeks and hammy grin and said, “It was the best birthday party ever!” Olivia’s father looked surprised; I imagined either at the sentiment (it was a standard party) or at such well-articulated feelings coming from my often-quiet three-year-old daughter. To normalize the statement, I followed Maeve’s lead. “She just loved it!” But I knew she was putting them on.
It’s not that she didn’t have a good time—Maeve always has a good time–it’s that she had been saying that particular sentence a lot. It was one of her running gags, whether she was at a birthday party or not. It always made me laugh and wonder what had inspired her to come up with it. Then one day, I listened to Holly Hobbie’s Christmas as Maeve was watching it on television, and I heard Holly say, “this was the best birthday ever!” I was crushed to realize that Maeve had borrowed the phrase—the over-enthusiastic delivery even. I knew my reaction was a little severe. This was probably the way a lot of us learn to speak, but with Maeve the borrowing pointed to something more serious.
When she was two, Maeve’s preschool teachers noted a delay in her receptive language. She would ignore instructions in class, fail to answer questions, or respond to every question in the same way. She would make a big show of formulating a response before she would say, “no way!”—but she would give herself away sometimes by “no way-ing” something she loved, like a popsicle or a bike ride.
She worked with a speech therapist and over time began to respond to questions with specific answers and participated more in group activities. She made such rapid progress that at points I could tell myself there had never been anything that wrong with her. She just doesn’t care what other people are saying or doing, I would think. She is a kid who lives inside her own head.
Then one day, Maeve stood next to me in the pasta aisle at the grocery store. She began to wag both her arms in comic disbelief and cried, “$45?!” at a box of penne. Where did she get that idea? I wondered. How creative! Then I realized I was being treated to another scene from Holly Hobbie’s Christmas and that Maeve was thinking about buying a popcorn popper for Holly’s Aunt Jessie. I told myself that anyone strolling by would think she was just an imaginative child pretending that she was shopping. Only I knew that her language and imagination were limited to a Christmas cartoon that I had let her watch too many times.
A few days later at the pool, Maeve invited someone to “stop by later for a slice of fruit cake on the house!” Holly’s yuletide hospitality plagued me again, but, even worse, so did worries that Maeve could not share her own thoughts. I tried to reassure myself that she would get past this borrowing soon enough, but it still bothered me.
Until Maeve spoke like her older brother it was going to bother me. When I was pregnant with my oldest child, John, someone had given me a peacock blue leather journal to write down all of the precious things my children said. When Johnny began to speak, I was constantly running to scribble down his latest question or observation. I had continued to write in the book as Maeve began to speak, but I did not have as much material. I included the “No Way!” phase; and then, having decided to play to her strengths and not just her brother’s, made an effort to write about what she was doing and not just saying, but she was still outpaced by John. I did not want to include the Holly Hobbie quotes or anything else she had cribbed from books or television. It was not that I thought she was plagiarizing, I just did not feel like I was capturing the real Maeve.
Then for a few weeks at bedtime when I began to sing the song that we have sung every night since her birth, Maeve would interrupt me. “No! Not Horsey! How ’bout Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?” And then she might allow me to sing with her. The last time she did this, I thought, this is a kid who sings her own song. Maybe her words are as carefully selected as her music. Maybe she borrowed phrases but did so knowing precisely what she wanted to say. The quoting didn’t seem as terrible in this new light. I resolved to take her at her borrowed words.
The other day she climbed into my lap and picked a notepad off my desk. She looked at the little cartoon drawings of each member of our family printed across the top and, pointing to each one of us, said our names. Then she looked up at me and said, “I love my family.” What show is that from? I wondered. Then I stopped and reminded myself that she had chosen those words—no matter their origin–so I chose to take them to heart.
Rebecca Martin is a former lawyer and political fundraiser, who is now doing the two things she always wanted to do: writing and raising a family. Her work has appeared in Babble.com, Literary Mama, StepMom and Christmased.com. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.