I don't know why we didn't impose this ritual on Owen last year, when he was 6 months old and much more likely to scream his head off. The only reason I can think of is that we spent last Christmas with my family in Los Angeles, where the North Pole seems much farther away than Chicago. It reminds me of a scene from "Annie Hall," when Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are driving through the sun-baked, palm tree-lined streets of L.A. in December in their friend, Rob's convertible, while visiting from Brooklyn. As they pass by plastic Santa and reindeer ornaments on the houses' clean, manicured lawns, Woody Allen's character remarks that it doesn't feel like Christmas and that Santa would never come to Southern California because surely "he'd get sunstroke."
So yeah, maybe Santa had stayed away.
But this year we spent the first weekend of December celebrating Dave's parents 40th wedding anniversary at the Wisconsin Dells, where it was 14 degrees outside, but at least 84 degrees inside the steamy, domed water park where we spent most of our time. Just walking around, I could taste the hot chlorine fumes in the back of my throat.
The Wisconsin Dells are kid-friendly, to say the least. So of course Santa was there. When we introduced Owen to him during visiting hours in the hotel lobby, I was struck by how his reaction was so typical of how he approaches all new situations, a personality trait I've watched emerge since he was really little. Here goes:
Stage 1: The blank stare
When Owen encounters a new environment or person, his first reaction is to get quiet, look around and stare. Never do his eyes looks so serious or so brown. He doesn't smile on cue or high-five like strangers wish he would. At least, not right off the bat. He is a person who, as my former NJ roommate Lori would say, "you have to earn." And I like that about him. He's willing to jump into the deep end of the pool, but first he needs to take it all in.
Stage 2: The quivering chin
The first sign that Owen has surveyed a new situation and found it disconcerting is that his chin starts to quiver. It's the same look he gets when I take him into the toddler room at day care, where we are in the process of transitioning him to after spending four days a week with a nanny. He looks at the tiny furniture and the other tiny people reading board books and playing with cars and looks at me like, "No, no, this was not our deal." It breaks my heart every time and I leave wiping away my own tears. The teachers tell me he recovers his composure just minutes after I'm gone and joins right in at Circle Time. I have to believe that's true.
Stage 3: Wait, who are you again?
One of the best things about Owen is that he's curious, which often means he'll give things a second chance. It also means that I spend my days trying to get him to stop pulling plugs in and out of electrical outlets, grabbing knives from the counter top or trying to stick his hand in the oven. Even when he's throwing a tantrum, I've noticed that it's not long before something will distract him, whether it's a kid playing with a toy nearby or a dog walking by. I try not to force a distraction on him, but wait for his natural instincts to kick in.
Stage 4: Okay, maybe this is just a little fun.
As Owen starts to feel more comfortable, his eyes brighten and I can see the edges of his mouth begin to curl up into a knowing smile. I have no idea how much he can really "know" after just 18 months in the world, but it's a knowing smile all the same. He looks at me like, "Mom, I get it. It's all going to be okay." I feel connected to him, like we're sharing a special secret. And that it really is going to be okay.
Stage 5: Alright, alright, I'll smile.
Once he really feels safe, Owen jumps in with the best of them. He runs as fast as he can, climbs on everything in sight and squeals at the top of his lungs. He claps his hands and does a happy dance. At the water park, his first time being deluged by so much loud, liquid fun, I swear he drank half the pool going down the slides over and over again and sticking his face in the bubblers as tall as him. He'd sputter, gasp for breath, give me a knowing smile, a gleeful squeal and do it all over again.