In July, Esmé will turn four years old. An adorable towhead with hair as blond as straw, she believes that this next year will be a milestone. “I plan to stop sucking my thumb then,” she says, pulling her hand away from her mouth. “And,” she adds, in a sentence as mushy as oatmeal, “when I get four, I’ll learn how to backward somersault.”
Right now, Esmé’s life is about Halloween, funky shoes and her dog, Emma. Even though it’s springtime, with cherry blossoms outside her bedroom window, Esmé still talks about Halloween. “I was a bunny rabbit,” she explains in her distinctly high-pitched voice—a blend of excited shrieking and falsetto singing. In nearly every conversation with Esmé she will explain that she was a bunny—at least twice.
Around October, Esmé entered the stage of development when children begin to comprehend a temporal sense of the world. It’s when the cement begins to set. Her dad, Rob, also points out, “all of a sudden, she is very aware of her surroundings.” With a resigned sigh, he adds, “I can’t make promises and not come through any more.”
Named after J.D. Salinger’s short story, “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor,” Esmé is the daughter of Rob and Michelle, two urban bohemians. They were never married. They both play ultimate frisbee. Last year, they separated when Michelle left to start a relationship with a woman on her ultimate team.
Rob is the publisher for the Portland Mercury, an alternative weekly in Oregon. Owned by the guys who launched the Onion, the Mercury is a sardonic and never-too-serious newspaper. Likewise, Rob is hardly an orthodox, stuffy publisher. When a local city councilmember refused to answer questions about his vote on a controversial resolution, Rob put out a $200 bounty for any reader who could elicit answers from the reticent politician. He also awarded an honorary bottle of whiskey to the winner—just like real news reporters use, he explained.
His parenting style has a similar flair—a mixture of New Age philosophy, purely juvenile fun and extremely earnest concerns about Esmé’s intellectual development. “No Disney,” he explains. Rob goes on to talk about how TV distracts from real interaction and about the integrity of the original Winnie-the-Pooh books. “Now they’ve been dumbed down—it’s all image, no text.” Esmé’s favorite toy is a black doll.
For the past year, Esmé has attended Heart & Hand. Connected to the Waldorf Schools, Heart & Hand emphasizes arts, creative play and cooperation. All the toys are made from wood. Every day the kids bake fresh bread.
In a year, Esmé will be old enough for kindergarten. Michelle hopes to home-school Esmé, but Rob thinks that the International School—a highly challenging, but more traditional program—may be best.
But Esmé isn’t interested in talk of her education. She stands on her feet and slips off her colorful sandals—left half pastel green, right half pink. “These are my friend’s,” she says. “But they don’t fit her.”
Esmé’s best friend, Shane, is more like a sister. They both attend Heart & Hand and constantly swap clothes and copy each other. Shane also dressed as a bunny rabbit this past Halloween.
Just then, an older skinny black dog wanders into the room. On the dog’s butt is a sticker advertising the Portland Mercury.
When asked whether she put the bumper sticker on the dog, Esmé vehemently shakes her head. “Emma did that herself,” she says. Dropping to all fours, she squirms and twists her feet around like an epileptic yoga instructor. “With her foot,” she explains, presumably displaying how this is possible. To add credibility to her claim about her dog’s wondrous talents, Esmé adds, “but that’s all that she can do.”