When Jack was about 6 months old and Zeke was 2 1/2, we spent a week at a family friend’s house in upstate New York, in the small town of Jeffersonville. We spent our days doing things that, to most, might have seemed pretty routine, but to boys used to city life, our vacation was exotic and exciting. When we drove along the long winding roads, we saw cows and horses, and tractors parked on people’s lawns, wonders that caused Zeke to point out of the window and exclaim with excitement.
We could grill our dinner in the backyard, and sit on the porch to eat it. There was an old barn across the road, and each evening from our spot on the porch we would marvel at the hulking turkey vultures that would lurk ominously in the open hayloft.
When the sun set, we chased fireflies.
One evening, we attended a free outdoor concert by a community band. Local people assembled either in front of the local firehouse in a hodge-podge of lawn chairs from home, or on the grass next to a brook. A woman walked through the audience with a basket of garlic sprouts. Zeke looked at her like she was crazy when she handed him one, and she gave me a pretty similar look when I asked what exactly we were supposed to do with them. (They were apparently meant to repel mosquitoes.)
One sunny afternoon we walked down the road to the town library, where Zeke confidently asked the children’s librarian for all of the books she had about tractors. On another we wandered over to the brightly painted ice cream stand where Zeke ecstatically covered his face in vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.
Even the screen door was fascinating to Zeke. He would swing it open and walk out, wait for it to latch, and then push it open and walk in.
He’d never seen anything like it. It allowed him the independence to walk in and out of the house without any assistance, something that he never gets to do in our double-locked Brooklyn apartment, with it’s locked front door, and it’s elevator buttons high above his head.
And on one bright morning, I noticed something else that we don’t have much of in Brooklyn. About halfway up the stairs, fuzzy and brown against the cream-colored wall, was a really large spider.
Growing up in upstate New York, I remember running into spiders pretty frequently. Their webs would brush creepily against your face in the basement. One might skitter across the floor unexpectedly, causing my mother to shriek.
I remember admiring their webs in the sun and in the fog and I also remember destroying them with sticks and gleefully watching when the poor arachnids came scurrying out to repair the damage.
But in Brooklyn, I don’t see too many spiders. We have roaches galore. I’ve run across some funky centipede-y bugs, a surprising number of snails, and I’ve even had ants. But spiders, not so much.
So when I saw the rather large specimen on the wall in Jeffersonville, I got excited and I really wanted to share it with my son.
“Zeke! I want to show you something really cool!” I said.
He was immediately sucked in, “What is it?”
“Come with me, and I’ll show you. It’s a really big spider! Wait till you see it!”
Zeke followed along gamely and sat with me on the steps.
“See!” I said excitedly.
The spider sat motionless on the wall, the size of a half-dollar at least.
Zeke looked at the wall blankly. “Where?” he asked, anticipation in his voice.
“Right there.” I pointed at the wall.
Zeke cocked his head in confusion. “Where is it?”
I was a little confused about what was confusing him, but ready to wow him with incredible Nature, I took a pencil out of my pocket and pointed right at the spider, causing it to run jerkily up the wall.
As soon as the spider moved, Zeke’s eyes went huge and blank.
He clamped his hands over his ears and he began to scream.
Again and again.
I said his name, “Zeke?”
But he didn’t answer, just rocked back and forth,
gripped by blind terror, lost in a bloodcurdling primal scream.
I was stunned and terrified by this reaction. I had never seen my child in a state of hysteria, and it had certainly never occurred to me that the spider I so eagerly pointed out would tap into some kind of instinctive gut terror.
I grabbed his shoulders and shook him, called to him “Zeke! Zeke!”
It took endless seconds for his eyes to refocus and for him to respond. I said nothing about the spider or the screaming and just asked him weakly if he wanted to go outside and play.
About a week later, when we were safely back in Brooklyn, I tentatively asked him about the incident.
“Hey Zekie,” I said, “Remember when we saw that spider in Jeffersonville?”
He shook his head, a bemused look on his face, “That was crazy Mom.” he said.
“You were kind of scared of it, huh?” I said casually, not wanting to reignite the fear, but also deeply curious about what had been going on in his mind.
“That was so crazy,” he said shaking his head. I nodded in agreement and smiled, trying to project as forcefully as possible that it was no big deal.
And here is where it became clear to me how skillfully the human mind can wall us off and protect us, how our memories can be re-formed to make them safer and to distance us from things that are too difficult for us to bear. I still don’t entirely understand his reaction, but I guess a part of me is really glad that he was able to transfer his fear and disconnect from that terrifying moment.
Zeke said to me, his eyes wide with disbelief:
“That spider was screaming and screaming and screaming, right Mom? Why was it so loud?”