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©Jane Juska, 2016

Maude is 7. She is my granddaughter and lives next door with her parents and her big sister, Chancey. She sings to herself, “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from Annie, and so it must seem to her because she is always in trouble. She cannot sit still, she cannot hold a glass of water without spilling, she cannot walk near the flowers without skipping onto them, she eats food she loves—chicken of all sorts, even the chicken that everybody else calls lamb—simply by shoving her tiny mouth directly onto the meat and inhaling the tiny pieces her mother has cut up for her, no need for spoon or fork since the green beans on her plate remain untouched. She knocks things over when she runs through the house/yard/room, and she refuses to say “I’m sorry” which is understandable because if she did, she would have to be saying it all day long. “Forgive me for being me,” she would say if she knew how and we would say back, “You are forgiven all errors, mistakes, missteps, because you are absolutely adorable.”

She is an imp, an elf, a sprite. Tiny, her hazel eyes shaped like tear drops lying on their sides, a barely perceptible sprinkling of freckles across her nose, a mop of red curls atop her head, she has so far spiraled through her world without serious injury to herself or it. But her charms have not gone unnoticed by her because recently she said to her big sister, Chancey, “You’re just mad at me because you don’t have any friends and everyone at the whole entire school thinks I’m adorable.” She is half right, two-thirds right, because 1) While Chancey has as many friends as she wishes to have, she is often mad at her little sister and 2) the whole entire school—and the entire town of Chester—thinks she is adorable. Red curls a-bounce, she romps in and out of stores, her mother not far behind, spinning, twirling, knocking items off shelves, and every single person in the store smiles. Maude has bewitched them—everyone except her mother who loves her dearly but who, after all, is in charge of taming this creature so that she will survive civilization, and vice versa.

Because she is mercurial one must capture her on-the-go; she is never quite within reach. I can offer, then, only a few vignettes which will have to serve until at some unknown time in the distant future she comes to rest on a tuffet or a hillock or a knob, wherever it is that fairies alight, oh so briefly.

When it came time for my commie hippie Prius to undergo a service check, I drove 5 minutes to Kenny’s auto shop, Kenny’s gun shop in the back. Kenny, a prison guard (ret.) and grim, tells me that he doesn’t do Priuses—“Don’t even want to go under that hood,” he says, “wouldn’t know what to do if I did.” An oil change, however, he is happy to undertake. Within 20 minutes the deed is done, all except for the paperwork. “Name?” asks Kenny. I tell him and watch as he prints it onto the charge sheet. Time seems to stop; then Kenny says to me, “Juska, huh. You related to Maude?” “I’m her grandmother.” Kenny, the corners of his mouth twitching into what could become a smile if he’s not careful, says, “No charge.”

Kelly, who cuts my hair, tells me, “That Maude. I go watch the soccer just so I can see what Maude is up to.” One would expect soccer to be right up Maude’s alley what with the running and pushing and yelling the game insists on. Not necessarily. Maude’s coach is her dad. And when her coach calls out to Maude—“Run, Maude, run!” she doesn’t, not unless the spirit moves her. When it doesn’t she simply stops and stands mid-field until her coach runs to her and explains what she is supposed to be doing and asks why she isn’t doing it. Her coach towers over her, but Maude is not intimidated. Hands on her hips, she looks up and says heatedly, “I don’t want to, Dad.” And then she walks off the field, leaving the coach with hands and eyes raised to the heavens. “It’s better than anything on TV,” says Kelly. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Maude’s mother worked very hard and very patiently to teach Maude her numbers and her letters so that when time came for kindergarten she would not be mistaken for an idiot child or worse, held back. Maude said her numbers and her letters to all of us except when she didn’t want to: “I forgot.” The day came for Maude to appear in the testing room at school. Her mother stood outside the room, back against the wall, her face white with fear. She said to me, “It’s not that I worry about her not knowing, it’s that she could very well say ‘I forgot’ or ‘I don’t want to.’” She held her breath and hoped Maude would not hold hers. Sure enough, Maude knew letters and numbers way beyond anything asked for and at the end said “Thank you” to the teacher.

At the end of first grade year—the year when her teacher heaved a sigh and said, “Oh Maude, I wish you believed in God”— Maude’s parents received a report card. For some time they chose not to open it. But, holding tight to the unassailable belief that they love Maude no matter what, they did. Good news. Good news. She gets to go to second grade. With honors.

Where, you might wonder, is her sense of caring for others? Most of it goes to her large family of dolls, but sometimes actual people are the beneficiaries. Not long ago, Chancey away at camp, Maude’s parents asked me if I would look after Maude while they went shooting. Maude preferred her back yard to mine, so I settled in for a bit of a rest on one of those vinyl-strapped chaises that, unless one positions the underpinnings just right, collapses. Flat on my back, the collapsed chaise between me and the ground, I gazed up at the sky, unhurt but not at all certain of how I was going to get up. Ten years ago, when I was hating but doing Pilates, the most fundamental move—roll-up—was beyond me and it is still beyond me. “Maude,” I said, “how am I going to get up off this thing?”

“Just try,” said Maude. “I know you can do it.” I raised my 82-year-old upper torso about an inch off the ground and fell back. “Here,” said Maude. “Take hold of my hand.” I did. “Now get up, Grandma, you can do it!” and she pulled with all her might. No luck. “I’ve got an idea,” she said. “Be right back.” In moments she returned from her house holding a paper towel cardboard cylinder. “Now, grab this!” I did, but the cardboard fell apart and Maude was downcast, all her efforts in vain and her grandmother still flat on her back. Finally, my retrieval came to me: Downward Dog. I rolled over and hauled myself into the Downward Dog position—felt as good as, even better than, post-Pilates all those years ago—and heaved myself upright limb by limb. “Hurrah!” we both shouted and rewarded ourselves with an ice-cream cup. So you see, Maude is not without conscience. Nor is she without imagination, intelligence, and determination. She is much more than adorable. She is perfect.

This morning she and Chancey and I sat on bar stools at the Coffee Station on Chester’s Main Street sipping smoothies (them) and a latte (me). All of us happy at the same time, I gazed contentedly out the window when Maude’s hand passing back and forth over my face interrupted my reverie. “What?” “Just want to make sure you’re still alive, Grandma.”

When she lost her first tooth, she left a note for the tooth fairy: “Please leave $12.” The fairy left $1 so Maude plans to save the rest of her teeth until they add up to the remaining $11.

The riches of the world are hers for the taking, and she should have every one of them. I rather think she will.

©Jane Juska, 2016

Jane Juska taught high school English for 33 years, college and prison for 5, then went in search of men to give her aid and comfort. Her ad in the New York Review of Books—“Before I turn 68, I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like”—brought her undreamed of success. She wrote two books about that search: A Round-Heeled Woman and Unaccompanied Women. Since then, her essays have appeared in Vogue, Self, in various anthologies and online at the Huffington Post and wowOwow.  Two years ago, she left her Berkeley home for life in the mountains next door to her grandchildren and their parents. She has at last completed a novel, Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say, about Pride & Prejudice’s foolish mother as she might have been at 15. Penguin published it; it arrived on the shelves on August 4, 2015. Buy one. At present she is working on a last-ditch memoir about aging.

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