Monday, October 13, 2008

Drew Barrymore’s mother, are you reading this?

If Rowan ever becomes really famous I’m going to kick myself for throwing away most of his childhood artwork. When I’m purging, though, I’m not usually thinking of the future value on eBay of a papier-mâché cat or a toilet-paper-roll spider with woolly legs. Mostly, I am frantically trying to ensure that we don’t drown in a sea of finger paintings and macaroni collages.

It’s Clair’s fault. Since the age of 13 months, Rowan has had the grand privilege of being taken care of by the wonderful Clair, master of all babysitters. From about day one, he was smitten. And so were we. Not only because she took great care of our son, but because she opened up Rowan’s world, and our own. She took him on all kinds of adventures that we — new parents, new to the city — hadn’t thought up, hadn’t known were possible: to the pet store, to the bowling alley, to the old-age home, on a city bus, to a rehabilitation centre to watch the people swim, to pick raspberries, to the aquarium, the library, to visit her sister-in-law’s parrot, to coffee shops, to collect and polish rocks. She packed up his lunch, bundled him up warm, and they set off together, happy as clams.

And Clair and Rowan crafted. Oh, how they crafted. The very first week, Clair presented us with Rowan’s first piece of art, probably a finger painting or a crayoned drawing. We were thrilled — what parent wouldn’t be? We loved watching her nurture his creativity, loved that our son was getting an arts education instead of being parked in front of the television. We loved how much Clair loved creating stuff with our toddler. “He’s definitely very artistic,” she told us, presenting us with yet another collage.

But the truth of the matter is that Clair is the real artist. If something, anything, can be repurposed as an art supply, Clair will use it in her work. She and Rowan press fall leaves between sheets of wax paper, glue pinecones onto old take-out containers, cover empty bottles with layers of papier-mâché and pipe cleaners, create books, paint rocks, collect feathers and buttons, create elaborate paintings and collages and mobiles and dioramas.

And when she’s not with Rowan, Clair is painting, carving intricate scenes out of tree bark, taking photographs, knitting. Recently, she handed me a bag full of children’s stories she’d written and illustrated a decade or so ago. She’s passionate about fossils and rocks and spends long chunks of her weekend hunting for interesting specimens that she can cut and polish — once, on our way out of town, we drove by her poking through the piles of rock at the side of the side of the highway.

In another life, Clair would have been a geologist, a painter, a writer, a full-time artist. In another life — one without seven siblings and not much money in a northern Ontario town. I don’t know how to reconcile my feelings about this, about my need and desire for quality childcare, my enormous happiness and relief that we have found such a creative and caring person to look after our kids, and the fact that we pay her (not enough, never enough, despite the fact that childcare is our single biggest household expense, bigger than food or the mortgage) to look after our kids so that we can pursue academic and artistic careers. Liberal white guilt has never been a particularly useful emotion, in my books, but I am at a loss when it comes to my feelings about our babysitter’s — what’s that word? — oh, yeah: potential.

In a much less profound way, I am occasionally also at a loss about what to do with all the art Clair creates with Rowan. We simply cannot house it all in our current quarters. I’ve hung some of our most treasured pieces with clothespins on long lines of twine in our basement. I use a lot of them as birthday cards. And then, I’ve taken to photographing the rest of the pieces and, well, throwing them in the garbage or the recycling bin. In editorial terms, it’s called, appropriately, “killing the babies.”

And then, a couple of weeks ago, at the end of Isaac’s first week with Clair, I was going through the a batch of paintings fresh out of the kids’ lunch bag when I came across Isaac's tiny fingerprints, floating across a white page, balloons held together by red ribbons:

It’s beginning again. The deluge is going to double. And I’m thrilled — and still a bit confused.

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