She always comes in style.
Her own, that is: purple tutu over jeans and boots, flowered shirt under star-splattered sweater and deliberately mismatched socks, frilly short-sleeve shirts over chunky turtlenecks, her satiny pajamas with princesses on them, or a sheer dress under a sweatshirt along with leggings with holes in the knee.
Added to her ensembles are usually clues to the day she’d had: color splatter from finger painting at school, well placed smudges from lunch (shirts are so much more convenient than napkins!), crusted bits around her mouth that she refuses to wash off, unidentified grime, tears in filmy clothes that were not sewn with monkey-bars in mind.
It drives her mama nuts. Always impeccably put together herself, the mother is forever trying to wipe this or straighten that or offer alternate dressing solutions (that are summarily declined), and cannot contain her sighs and growing despair at her daughter’s flighty attitude toward cleanliness and matched-everything.
The girl? She could not care less. Or rather, she cares plenty, in her own way. Her language delay does not allow much expression of verbal subtlety (yet), but she certainly shows affinity to collating varied fabrics and textures and to weaving together combinations that feel artistically deliberate in an offhanded sort of way. She likes the way she looks. To me, this is more than good enough.
“Let her be,” I tell the mom one day when the little gal excuses herself to the bathroom and the mother follows her daughter’s mismatched wear with agonized eyes. I am admittedly somewhat amused at the perceived gulf between them, which in fact says a lot more about their similarities than differences. They are both acutely interested in how they look. It is just the “how” that may seem different … One immaculately coordinated harmoniously to appease the eye; the other explosively expressive in riotous combinations that cannot go unnoticed for their mishmash.
“It may not be how you’d choose to dress her,” I press, knowing that this little gal’s fashion-sense is pushing her mother well outside her comfort zone, “but there’s beauty in her freedom. She’s four, and she’s got a keen sense of her own being. I think it’s brilliant.”
The mother looks pained but nods in resignation. She understands, even if she does not quite love knowing it. After all, she does let her only daughter leave the house “all messy” and “in awful combinations,” and she generally suffers the seemingly incongruous pairing of the pretty clothes she buys for her not-so-cooperative princess. Ever hopeful, she fills the child’s closet with beautifully matching outfits that the girl turns into wild-combos in a blink of an eye: chunky socks with her patent leather or frilly tights under short jeans.
“I want her to be her own little person,” the mom whispers. “I just wish she was a bit less … how shall I say it … visible about it …” She blushes then, fussing with the satin hem of her tailored dress with carefully manicured fingers. “Do you think she’ll calm down when she grows up?” she adds, hesitating, vulnerable.
I smile. “I don’t know,” I answer gently. “What would ‘calming down’ mean to you? Or for her? Who would she ‘calm down’ for?”
The water flushes in the bathroom and the little girl can be heard singing “fly me to the moon” at the top of her lungs as she washes her hands (splashing all around the sink, I am quite sure–she finds special pleasure in the way water droplets spatter and in how soap foam squirts between fingers). The mother looks up and we both grin. Such effervescent joy is contagious.
“She’s a free spirit,” she sighs. “I think I was a bit like her, at her age. Then I got too concerned with what others thought … and maybe lost the spark.”
As the little girl prances back to us, she swirls the edges of the tutu peeking under the shirttails of her button-down flannel over holey jeans. She has one brown sock, one purple with blue polka dots. Her tennis shoes have stickers and possibly some grape jelly on them. She’s radiating ease and unfettered delight.
“Maybe there’s nothing to calm down,” I offer. The girl’s a sight, for sure. A balm for sore eyes and achy hearts, too.
Mom takes a deep breath. Nods. She’s working on it. It is all one can truly ask …