There is a David Sedaris essay in which his mother asks him, “You’ve always got to stir the turd, don’t you?”
Meet my five-year-old daughter, Lucille. The official turd stirrer of the Savage Quackenbush household. The stirring is sport for her and poor Eliza is usually on the other end it.
Over Christmas we drove from Seth’s dad’s house near Portland, Oregon to his mom’s house over the mountains in Redmond, Oregon. About 10 miles after we’d started, Eliza asked if we’d packed her stuffed horse Sparky. As many of you know, once you are finally on the road, packed to the gills and moving toward your destination, there is just barely anything that will make you turn around.
Big tears streamed down Eliza’s face at the prospect of having left Sparky. Truth is, neither Seth nor I had any real idea if Sparky was in the car or not. We’d packed the car together and neither of us could remember a little brown horse. Who knew? Ikea shelves? Check. A light up unicorn? Check. A mountain of crayons and two mildly cranky children? Check. Little brown horse? No idea. We pulled over and surveyed our options.
“The only way to figure out if it’s in here is to tear the car apart,” Seth said.
“Let’s call Helen,” I said dialing Seth’s stepmom. While we talked she searched the house and found no sign of him. If she found him, she said, she’d send him with Seth’s sister in a few days.
Eliza reluctantly agreed to this plan and we started driving again having narrowly escaped the prospect of unpacking the car, or worse, having to turn around.
Lucille, who seemed to be quietly coloring in her seat during all of this negotiation, piped up a few minutes later.
“If I’d left Sparky, I’d be crying,” she said. “I’d be really sad.”
She kept coloring.
I thought, in this moment, that Lucille was being empathetic and defended her to Eliza who said her sister was being a jerk. She wouldn’t do that, I thought.
A few minutes later, Lucille was still coloring in the back seat when she piped up again.
“I bet Eliza is really sad about Sparky, really sad,” she said. “He’ll be lonely tonight.”
“Lucille!” Eliza said. “You’re not making me feel better! You’re being mean!”
At this point I was on the fence. Lucille has recently taken a real liking to stuffed animals. She tucks them in at night, she talks to them, she declares them essential at bedtime. We may have to add a few square feet onto our 282 square feet if she continues to collect them as she has quite a few these days. I wondered if her Sparky comments were some extension of her new obsession.
Eliza, however, had none of my waffling. She saw her sister’s goading early, clearly and for what it was.
The third time Lucille started talking I realized she was stirring the turd, the glimmer in her eye unmistakable. She knew the power of her words and she was wielding it all over the back seat.
It is in these moments that I do not know what to do with my little imp. She is searching for power, I know this. She feels a rush from exerting it. But she’s walking a dangerous mean girl line and I feel like it’s my job to bring her back from the brink. The problem is, I’m not really sure how.