June 18, 2004,
Violet, did you know there is a boat in your nose?"
"Well, Paris, there's an earring in your eye."
Her brother chuckles maturely. "Violet, there's beetroot coming out of the top of your head."
We are sitting outside in the humid dusk, finishing supper. No hum of cicadas, no shriek of aggrieved toddler. With everyone else in the household either out at a movie or fast asleep, Paris and Violet are bantering affectionately in a way that I suddenly realize is completely new.
Violet giggles, leans over, and says, "You're in a coffin, Paris."
His eye gleams triumphantly: "And I just got out."
How could I have missed it? What sounds like ordinary nonsense is, in fact, the consolidation of an alliance for which the diplomatic groundwork has been laid over the past two weeks.
Violet reclines and crosses a pair of plump four-year-old arms. "You're out of America, and I locked you in jail."
Until tonight, there has been a natural division in our family ever since there were four children to divide. The Bigs, comprising Molly and Paris, qualified for larger portions and later bedtimes. The Littles, consisting of Violet and Phoebe, received greater indulgence but fewer long, thoughtful, adult explanations. The Bigs will get, "Well, darlings, in the Second World War the Allies were fighting the Nazis in Europe and Imperial Japan in the Pacific, and..." Whereas the Littles hear, "Well, darlings, a long time ago the Goods were fighting the Bads...." There was, in short, a distinct Upper- and Lower-house quality around here. These two parties coexisted peacefully, each secure in its domestic sphere of influence. But now the wall is coming down, old alliances are fracturing, and we are entering a multipolar phase that already has me longing for Cold War certainties.
The first hints of structural change came, as I say, a bare fortnight ago. Paris strolled into Molly's room to borrow a Tin-Tin book at the very moment that Molly was changing into her nightgown and Molly shrieked. Thus has Modesty driven a wedge between old comrades and quietly taken a seat on the family security council. A new sign in fierce black lettering has appeared on Molly's door: "Domestical Decree #1," it says, "By order of the President of the United States of My Room: Owing to circumstances, the door will be closed. If you wish to arrange and (sic) appointment, leave your name or knock."
The second manifestation came in the Special Relationship between Violet and Phoebe, a big-sister-little-sister arrangement of warm accommodation which foundered, I am sorry to say, on the terms of Lend-Lease involving a cheap pink plastic doll. Evidently sectarian friction had been intensifying for some time.
The moment of open breach came on what turned out to be the day Ronald Reagan died. Our family was bicycling in a Virginia nature preserve. Molly, Paris, and my husband were far ahead on their own bikes, and Violet and Phoebe were traveling in a little rented trailer behind me. Pedaling along, I expected to hear from behind the usual amiable chatter. Instead, the tranquility of the egrets was shattered by discord.
"But you said I could use her!" Violet cried with misery.
"No, Violet," came a soft and deadly voice.
"You're hurting me!"
"Hey, girls, what ?" I craned my head, braking.
I stopped the bike and found Violet clinging desperately to the legs of Phoebe's cheap pink plastic doll as Phoebe yanked grimly on a handful of Violet's beautiful hair. "Why, girls!" I remonstrated, unhappy and surprised, sounding for all the world like Kofi Annan, "This isn't like you!"
Thus do we all too slowly grasp great tectonic changes. It is a standing peculiarity of family life that no sooner do you think you understand how each individual fits in the kaleidoscopic dynamic than something changes. And two weeks later you think, oh, now I understand when in fact, what you understand is what pertained two weeks ago, and what is happening now is yet a mystery.
It is now abundantly clear that Paris and Violet are saving all their best jokes for each other. He rushes home from school to play with this once-scorned hanger-on. Over breakfast the other day their eyes were sparkling with mutual regard and the air was full of, "Hey, Violet " and "Paris, listen to this " as if the rest of us had vaporized.
My husband and Molly, being lost in the paper and Harry Potter V, respectively, had actually vaporized. Phoebe sat with two fingers tucked in her mouth, watching the repartee like a spectator at Wimbledon, and I sat watching her. For nearly three years, the Littles have been each other's closest allies. Now Violet is forming a new axis. I am not sure what this means for her little sister. Perhaps when Phoebe starts nursery school she can join some Group of 77.
"Ok," says Paris, spooning up the last of his blackberries and cream, "I put you in the zoo."
"But I got out," Violet says quickly.
"No, you're behind glass."
"Well, Paris," she says, her voice rising, "I got a hammer and broke through the glass and I ran away!"
Apparently this is the funniest thing anyone has ever said. They collapse in their seats, shaking and lolling and turning scarlet. I collect the bowls and spoons and feel 100 years old.
"Violet," Paris says, with an air of conclusion, "I dropped the whole world on your head."
"I know," says she fondly, and we all go inside.