Jack’s little body is heaving with sobs. He wails again and again, “How do I grow into a grown-up? How do I get bigger?” and he is breaking my heart.
I am changing his diaper. Potty-training Jack has been a monumental challenge, and he is resistant to even the slightest suggestion that he start relieving himself in the potty.
I am exhausted by the effort it takes to stick to my pro-potty talking points and disgusted by the foul mess that I must clean up day after day. In addition, I feel brutalized by Jack’s intense emotional response to the process. He wants the growing and maturing to be over, to just be “big” (and potty-trained), without having to experience the torment of growing.
Grief pours from him as he moans oddly,
“I want my eyes to be bigger. “
And that is when I pause, thinking all of a sudden of the oft-cited fact that children’s eyes reach their adult size from a very young age, some say as young as two, and that these “wide” eyes are what give children their irresistible look of innocence. But what does it mean that their adult eyes– shifting, watchful, careful not to betray intentions or vulnerability– are already there?
There’s a deli next to Zeke’s school– coffee, sandwiches, drinks– nothing to distinguish it from any other random bodega in our neighborhood, except possibly for one thing: this deli houses a scrawny gray and white cat. The cat skulks around, presumably to keep rodents from eating up the profits. And truthfully, even this doesn’t really differentiate it from other delis, except that for some reason, this scraggy, bony feline has completely captured Jack’s heart and imagination.
After we drop Zeke off at school, Jack invariably begs to go inside and look around for the cat. One day Jack asked the silent and watchful man behind the deli counter what the cat’s name was. The man stifled a snort and said in a lazy voice, “You give a name, and that will be cat’s name.”
Jack thought for a moment, then beamingly declared,
“His name is Catty-Cat.”
And from that day forward, so it was. We went to visit Catty-Cat several mornings a week and as Jack happily wandered around among the racks of chips and peeked beneath the coffee machine, I felt creepily aware of the alert gaze of the deli’s proprietors, tracking our every move.
In addition to the silent man behind the counter, there is a much chattier fellow, just a little taller than I am, the whites around his darting eyes huge and strangely bright. He dresses in an overly enthusiastic and dated “hip-hop” fashion, that calls to mind Ali-G.
He would always greet Jack with a vehement friendliness, often grabbing Catty-Cat out of whatever corner she was hiding in and roughly presenting her to Jack. His tensed hand would be positioned in front of her paws as he spoke firmly in her ear , and loudly encouraged Jack to pet her. He always insisted that she was terrified of everyone but Jack, whom she loved (attempts to spring from his firm grasp and escape from Jack’s clumsy little hands, notwithstanding).
Once he glanced pointedly at my wedding ring and asked me why I never came in with my husband, asked if he was “away in the army”.
Another time he insisted on giving Jack a free snack from the shop, and as Jack happily selected a bag of “butter-flavored” popcorn, that I knew I would never actually allow him to eat, he told me about his two children, pounding forcefully on his chest as he insisted that his son was “his heart” and that he loved him much more than his daughter.
He and his friend made me insanely nervous. I found myself trying to cross the street before we reached Catty-Cat’s deli. There was nothing I could put my finger on exactly that made me want to avoid it, but when we were there I always had a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I always kept a wary hand firmly on Jack’s shoulder as I hurried him through our visit and out to the safe anonymity of the street.
But Jack took such pleasure in visiting Catty-Cat and it was hard to resist the joy shining from his child’s eyes, as he placed his hand on her protruding ribs and felt her vibrating purr. So from time to time, we did stop in, though I did my best to be brusque and never to meet anyone’s gaze.
Then one rainy day, we stopped in and as Jack’s little voice called , “Catty-Cat? Catty-Cat where are you?” our colorful friend sauntered over to us and told us that we couldn’t see her because she was in the back room. I saw consideration wash over his face and saw the slight shift in his expression that indicated that he had actually changed his mind. “Wait,” he said. “I show you where she is.”
And as he ushered us toward the back room of the deli, I gripped Jack tightly and felt panic rising in me slightly. All of my adult instincts were telling me to be on alert, but a needling part of my mind told me that I might be being ridiculous, that this man had never been anything but friendly, and that there was no reason to deny a child an experience that made him so happy, or to make him feel nervous about people that had been kind to him and a cat that he had discovered and named. I wished that I could see it all with his innocent joy and wonder and turn off my full-grown anxiety.
In the back room we saw Catty-Cat. She was grooming herself, perched on a dingy, once-white vinyl dining room chair. Jack’s eyes locked on her with delight and I found myself nervously glancing around the room.
Next to the chair was a filthy over-flowing litter-box, and a giant hookah, as tall as Jack.
The room was surprisingly empty for a store room. There were a few cases of A & W Cream soda, a variety of mops and buckets and a metal drain in the center of the concrete floor. My eyes kept being drawn to a strange lofted platform that dominated the room. There were 3 or 4 crudely built stairs that led up to it and a neon-printed shower curtain separating it from the rest of the space. Through a gap in the curtain I could see a large duffel bag and a precisely made pallet, where someone clearly slept.
My heart and mind began to race as it dawned on me that SOMEONE LIVED BACK HERE– and I wasn’t sure if that was legitimately scary or not and I didn’t want the man to perceive that I was afraid and I didn’t want to frighten Jack, but I just wanted to get out of that room and back outside as fast as humanly possible.
As I led Jack back to our apartment I was struck by how profoundly differently we experienced that morning in the deli. Jack chattered about Catty-Cat and was aware only of the magic of this living being, that ate and breathed, and felt things, and allowed him to interact with it. My mind was possessed by paranoia and the potential for danger. Whose mind did it make sense to dwell in? The world is certainly more lovely in Jack’s eyes. And it saddens me to imagine his child’s vision being clouded by fear and mistrust.
My father studies Perception, and I remember him teaching me about the eye from a young age, quizzing me on of its various parts: the lens, the iris, the cornea, the rods and the cones. He excitedly explained that the brain fills in blanks so that we would perceive a clear and complete picture of what was before us.
It seems to me that this is very similar to what my adult view of the world does to Catty-Cat’s deli. I don’t understand what is going on in there. There are huge and petrifying gaps in my knowledge about the deli’s staff and why someone might live in the backroom and why someone might tell a stranger that they don’t really love their daughter, and without the benefit of a complete picture, all of my mental alarms go off and fill in the fuzzy areas with a strident vigilance.
Children are free to experience the unexplained, without that terror. We absorb all of the fear for them, tightly grip their little hands, and quietly scan the horizon for threats. In their yearning to grow up so quickly and to be independent, they have no idea that potty-training is merely the barest beginning of independence or of how incredibly sinister life for an adult can be.
We teach them to use the toilet, and to tie their shoes, and to navigate the world on their own.
And from us, they also learn to put their guard up. They have to. In order to survive, we all need to assess risks and think about the dangers that could be lurking in the places that we can’t see clearly.
But, in the moment, in Catty-Cat’s deli, as I gaze at the contented glow on my young son’s face while he caresses that skittish bag-of-bones, I don’t mind that soon I will go home and change another dirty diaper.
And I am acutely aware of a raw longing for the time when
I could wallow without fear in the simple rapture of an unfamiliar cat’s purr,
rather than being so keenly aware,
one hand on my son’s shoulder, one eye on the door.
Lately, every night it’s the same thing:
“Mommy, close the door,” Jack whines, “So the monsters can’t get in.”
I don’t know where this new fear has come from. I can’t put my finger on exactly when it started, or what it is that sparked it. All I know is that now it has become routine to make a show of closing the door securely so that Jack feels secure enough to relax into sleep.
I was lying in my own bed, watching the shadows of the passing cars drift across the ceiling, contemplating Jack’s new fear and whether or not it was worth being concerned about, when in a flash,
I recalled The Big Ooh.
I can still see Zeke laying in our bed, his little hands clutching the blanket tightly, where it was tucked beneath his chin, eyes wide and staring.
“Mommy,” he would say, in a whisper. “I saw The Big Ooh again.”
We live in a building that is right off of Flatbush Avenue, a busy street in Brooklyn, where it is never truly dark or completely quiet. Aaron’s bicycle hangs on a hook near the ceiling and and as the cars rush endlessly by, headlights shine over handlebars and through the spokes of the wheel, creating patterns of light and shadow, which ebb and flow endlessly past.
Zeke watched the shadowy shapes roll across the ceiling night after night, and to him they became something alive:
The Big Ooh.
He was vague on the details of The Big Ooh. He seemed less frightened by her than intrigued. He told us that she had red eyes and that he only saw her at night because during the day she was busy “taking care of her children”.
And, with a jolt, I remembered something else too.
When I was a little girl, there were these “people” that lived under my bed. I wasn’t exactly afraid of them, but I was always very aware of their presence and that awareness made me a little uneasy. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned them to anyone, but I have very vivid memories of lying awake in bed thinking about them and being almost paralyzed by my profound awareness of their presence. I remember taking deep breaths and resolving to be brave enough to hang my head over the side of my bed and peek down at them. It would take me a while to summon the courage, and my glances were always brief and breathless.
They would lie with their backs to me, their stomachs on the floor, heads propped up on their elbows. They were fuzzy and gray; shadowy. They looked as if they were made of fog and hairballs and dust. And I knew they were under there, but I also knew that they would never come out.
My memory of them is as vague as their lazy silhouettes were, but they remain one of the oddest and most exhilarating memories that I have, because my rational adult mind tells me that they couldn’t possibly have been under there. But I still remember them.
I saw them.
And I never had an “Aha” moment where I realized that my overactive imagination was spinning dust bunnies or lost socks into mysterious lethargic beings. Their presence was never explained away, and I can still remember the way they looked, the way I saw them as a child.
I have since asked Zeke about The Big Ooh and he has no memory of her at all. I suppose that whatever Jack imagines is lurking behind the door will fade away too.
And as they grow and their childhood fears disappear, so too will the world where magic is possible. Danger will be all too unavoidably real and even a door that is firmly shut will not make them feel safe.
As their mom, I desperately want to protect them from any and all danger, and to keep them safe within my tight and reassuring grasp.
But there is a part of me that wants them to hold on to the indistinct creatures of the night, somewhere deep inside, even if they can’t really believe in them anymore.
To remember that once, you believed.
That is a gift.