“Walk forward in a walking position.
Put the bridge of your nose in the
crease of your opponent’s neck.
Make a bridge with your body and
punch away from you and up.”
The moment that my father said those words, I was instantly taken over by a wild feeling of giddy exhilaration.
“The first thing you do in boxing is
put your right hand next to your right cheek.
Put your left hand in front of your face.”
He would stand on the floor and place me on the bed, standing in front of him, so that we faced one another, as equals.
And then it would begin.
Elated swinging arms and gentle jabbing of fists in the tickley belly parts. He would hold me steady with one hand on the small of my back and “jab” my tummy with the other hand until I was more giggling puddle than little girl.
When I’d had enough, he would pull the stabilizing hand out and I would flop down and bounce on the bed, hysterically happy and ready for another round.
My father boxed with the Grand Street Boys when he was a kid. This is not what it sounds like. He is basically the opposite of a tough guy. But, as a boy, he did take several years of boxing lessons at a community center on the Lower East Side.
There is a video of him boxing another little boy on the Perry Como show when he was 11. He is all smiles and skinny arms swinging in wide circles. He is a scrawny little torso hovering over enormous shorts, emerging from which are spindly legs that never stop moving. The constant dancing back and forth clearly fills him with such joy and was probably a perfect outlet for some of that extra energy that kids constantly need to shake off. The gleaming grin never leaves his face, or the faces of anyone else in the clip. The boys are playing at fighting, just throwing themselves at one another for the love of movement and life. The whole thing is accompanied by bouncy strings and you can’t help but be happy when you are watching it.
The joy my father felt in those moments was clearly something that he wanted to give to my brother, sister, and me when we were kids, and so our crazy boxing game was born.
And I do something like this with my boys. We have wrestling matches on my bed where they leap on top of me and try to “pin me”, basically by laying down on top of me and hugging me tightly. I always win– I’ve got 90 pounds on them– and I snuggle-pin them with little effort. We are always overwhelmed with laughter and the warmth of the moment fills the room, making me long for their childhood to last forever, making me squeeze them just a little longer, just a little tighter.
About two years ago, Aaron and I were looking for something new and different to sign Zeke up for and heard some good things about a karate place nearby. It seemed like a fun way to burn off some energy and we hoped it would encourage confidence and focus.
Zeke was beyond adorable in that floppy white uniform and I love watching him punch and knee-kick the air, run around, and shout out the count in Japanese.
Pride warms the dojo as gaggles of parents hold up their phones to capture their little sweeties yelling, “Tetsui!” as they pound their precious little mini- fists downward and count together:
“Ich! Ni! San! Chi! Go!…”
And when they spar, they are like puppies tumbling around the mat. Bodies loose-limbed, all shining eyes and playful punches. When Zeke fights his teachers or a senior student, his cheeks go pink and the absolutely extreme width of his smile makes his whole head resemble an apple split in half. It is a joy to watch them dance around one another, miming a kick with a tap of the tip of the toe, or just brushing their knuckles across their opponent’s chest.
So when Aaron started taking class there too, I had warm feelings about the place and I was eager to support his cheery new hobby. That is, until I attended his first belt test. The first half of the belt test, where the children’s skills were tested, filled me with the same pleasure that it always had, and I was not prepared for the dramatic shift in mood as the adult students took their places on the mat.
All of a sudden the glowing room of parents, cellphones raised, cooing encouragement, transformed into a room where fists are pumped and grunts of excitement echo each time the sickening thud of a solidly landed punch reverberated through the dojo.
Shouts of “Great Job Sweetie!” gave way to bloodthirsty bellows of “Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!” as two solid adults square off against one another.
When Aaron’s turn came I felt sick to my stomach. Every time he or his opponent landed a punch or a kick people in the dojo would shout triumphantly. The salivating anticipation of the fighter’s pain among the spectators seemed to swell my chest making it hard to breathe.
Then Aaron lost his balance when he kicked the other guy, and fell down hard on the mat. This man in black-rimmed glasses standing next to me, barked, “Yes!” in excitement.
I felt ill. “That’s my husband!” I wanted to yell. And I was glad that the boys were playing with their friends in the back of the room and not paying attention. I felt like karate just wasn’t what I’d thought it was. There is nothing heart-warming about watching sweaty men try to make brutal contact with one another, even if they are doing it for fun.
A few months later, determined to be supportive and not a lily-livered spoilsport, I took the boys to watch Aaron fight in a tournament in Newburgh. I truly wanted to stand there and cheer him on and for the boys to be proud of their dad.
But when I saw the red-faced intensity of the people on the sidelines shouting at their family and friends to annihilate the person across from them I began to have real feelings of misgiving. When I looked around the school gym where the tournament was being held and saw lanky, acne-spattered teenage boys, barely able to stay on their feet, weaving, eyes unfocused from hitting their heads too hard, I began to feel that I was in the wrong place entirely.
When Aaron’s match was finally called he was so excited, a boyish smile dominated his whole face and he couldn’t keep still. He kept running and jumping in place, bare feet in constant motion as they stuck out of his gleaming white gi.
And then his opponent walked up and I felt my stomach hit the floor. I was overcome by the desperate need to stretch my smile out as wide as it will go so that no one, certainly not the boys, would be able to detect the horrid trepidation I felt about being stuck in this horrible place.
The guy was young, probably 24, and when I looked at his arm, I saw a prominent USMC tattoo and immediately cast him as a recently discharged veteran from the Middle East who needs an outlet for all of the anger he built up while witnessing the horrors of war. The idea of having to keep my upbeat attitude so that the boys won’t start to feel upset is overwhelming and I was afraid that I was going to cry.
It was then that I thought of this Shel Silverstein poem that I’d always loved.
I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins.
This is the game that I thought we were all playing. I thought we were rolling around and laughing and just wrapped up in the playful love of parents and children. I don’t want to know that I am training my sons for actual fighting in a world that is filled with actual violence. I just want to giggle and roll around on the rug.
I have managed to block out most of Aaron’s fight in Newburgh. He didn’t win, but he wasn’t seriously injured either. And our children were not traumatized, but I’ve made only sporadic trips to the dojo since.
Fighting seems fun now, but sprightly violins will eventually give way to intense, pounding percussion and I have never lost my taste for the gentle games of my childhood.
“Walk forward in a walking position.”
Those words still make me smile.
We spent some time in a small cottage in Vermont this summer. Our children shed their shirts and shoes moments after we arrived and it was a delight to watch my two Brooklyn-born boys dart about freely in all of that nature. They scampered happily through fields, amassed collections of sticks and pebbles, scaled boulders, and explored old barns.
One evening Zeke discovered a copy of The Lorax by Dr. Suess on a shelf. It begins with a little boy exploring a barren wasteland and wondering how it came to be that way. He comes across the mysterious Once-ler, the only living being there, who tells him the story of discovering this idyllic land, once filled with adorable animals and a forest of beautiful “Truffula trees”. The Truffula trees are topped with fluffy, candy-colored foliage that the Once-ler used to knit cozy garments called Thneeds. This quickly becomes a profitable business. As the business grows, the Once-ler builds factories and chops down many, many trees, to keep up with the public’s demand for Thneeds.
As the landscape changes a small mustachioed figure called The Lorax appears, saying, “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.” He urges the Once-ler to care for the land so that the animals and plants can survive there. The Once-ler, who has become wildly successful, ignores the Lorax’s warnings and eventually the air and water become so polluted with waste from the factory that all of the animals are forced to leave. He short-sightedly chops down all of the Truffula trees as well, leaving his business unable to survive, and leaving him alone and broke on the land that he has decimated.
Zeke was engrossed by the story and as I read his brow creased with concern and his blue eyes grew wet and heavy. In his 4 years, he had never encountered the concepts of corporate greed, environmental devastation, or short-sighted selfishness that the story explores and again and again he asked me to explain why the Once-ler would act this way. As I read on I began to wonder if I really wanted my kind-hearted little boy to be aware of this negative side of human nature. He seemed so deeply effected by the Once-ler’s actions and by the powerlessness of the Lorax who speaks up, but can’t seem to bring about any real change.
Then we came to the conclusion of the book
The Once-ler summons the little boy closer and tells him that when the land was left uninhabitable, the Lorax picked himself up and floated away, leaving only a stone carved with the world UNLESS. He drops into the boy’s hand a tiny seed, the last of the Truffula seeds, and explains to him that UNLESS someone like him cares about things, nothing will change. He urges the boy to take care of the seed, to give it clean water and air, to protect it, and grow a new Truffula forest, so that maybe the Lorax and his friends can come back. And as I read the closing lines I could see Zeke’s mind working. He had the joyous light of hope in his eyes and my arms broke out in goose-flesh as I looked at his ecstatic expression and realized what a profound impression this book was making on him. He spent a long time flipping through it, gazing intently at the pictures, his eyes still lit with possibility.
On a sunny afternoon a few days later, we visited a nearby pond to go swimming. Aaron took Zeke out into the water, while I took Jack by the hand to explore the weeds by the edge of the pond, in the hopes of scoring a glimpse of a frog, a turtle, or a darting school of minnows.
We came across a group of children hard at work on an ambitious project. They were mostly spindly-legged boys, with sun-bleached shaggy hair, tirelessly carrying out the orders of their leader, a long-legged girl of about 12, her hair in thick brown braids. She directed them with a stern humorlessness and angry confidence that had clearly been learned from the adults in her life. She had broken her crew into two groups, each group working resolutely on the two sides of what I will call, “Project Salamander”.
The weeds by the edge of the pond were filled with little adorable, squishy, brownish-greenish salamanders who were covered in perfectly round yellow spots. Their eyes were cheerful black bulges and their mouths curved upwards into friendly smiles. If you spotted one, like a shadow beneath the water, you had to move swiftly and decisively, or it would just dematerialize and instantly find refuge somewhere in the deeper darker water.
Half of the kids were trapping and collecting the slippery salamanders in a large red sand bucket– they had nearly 20 when we arrived– while the other half were constructing a pond for them. It was about 3 feet across with thick sand walls. They filled it with pond water and artfully scattered silver-dollar sized lily-pads over the surface, presumably to make it more natural and appealing to their amphibious captives.
Jack, who declared his intention to be a zookeeper shortly after his second birthday, was immediately entranced. He watched the children excitedly and, like the boys working on the Project, he quickly grabbed a bucket and fell in line behind their leader. Under her business-like, watchful eye, Jack was allowed to pour a bucketful of water into the newly constructed pond and to hold a salamander and pet it.
“So Cue-oot!” he squealed.
When the small pond was complete the leader allowed Jack to place one hand on the red bucket as her crew transferred the salamanders to their new home. Disapproval registered instantly on her face when she examined the murky boy-made pond and the salamanders lying sluggishly at the bottom.
“NO!” she snapped. “This isn’t working! They blend right into the sand so we can barely see them! And they aren’t really moving!”She dipped an authoritative hand into the pond, “No Wonder! This water is too warm! It’s warming up too quickly! We need cold water! Now!” She snapped her fingers at one of the boys.
When the boy returned with cooler water from the large pond and poured it carefully in, a portion of the sand wall slid down into the water, further obscuring the salamanders.
“They are going to get away!” the leader shrieked furiously. “Collect them! Put them back in the bucket!” She counted them carefully as each salamander was recaptured and put back in the sand bucket.
The pond abandoned for now, she put her entire team on the job of catching more salamanders. They walked slowly and carefully into the water, holding white nets. After each step they waited for the sand to settle to keep their view of the bottom clear. When a salamander was spotted, they swooped their nets down and scooped the little fellow up before he could scoot off to freedom.
When I commented on their impressive salamander catching skills, the leader looked at me humorlessly and said,
“Where my dad lives, we spend a lot of time catching crayfish and we have become quite skilled at it. We have found that once you can easily catch a crayfish, you can catch pretty much anything without too much trouble.”
As she spoke, the boys stood carefully at attention, awaiting instruction. By now, even I was a little bit afraid of upsetting her.
As I watched this bossy, brown-eyed girl, I flashed on the camping trips that my family used to take near the New York/Pennsylvania border when I was a child. I remember supervising my younger brother and sister as we scoured the forest floor, searching for these sweet little newts that were a bright, story-book illustration tangerine. We too would collect them in buckets, which we lined with grass and sticks to make perfect little habitats for them, where we imagined they would live contentedly as our pampered pets. I clearly remember how I would love them fiercely for an afternoon, or until something else caught my fancy.
So, I was quite taken by Project Salamander. I desperately wanted to pick up the salamanders and cuddle and kiss them too, but being the adult, I felt that it was more appropriate to insist upon my children acknowledging how amazing they were.
The boys’ cousin Nathan was with us at the pond and I lured him over to the bucket with an enthusiastic awed voice that never fails to pique childish interest.
Next I moved to Zeke:
“Come here Zeke! This is SO COOL! Look at what these kids have been doing! They caught all of these salamanders and they are so cute!You won’t even believe it!”
Zeke walked over and looked down into the bucket. Immediately his eyes went dead and in an strange thoughtless sort of move, like that of a toddler with a random destructive impulse, Zeke began to tip over the bucket. A chorus of “NOOOOO” rang out all around us and someone picked up Zeke who was kicking and yelling in a desperate fury,
“No! NO! They don’t have enough room in there!
They need the whole land!”
And my confusion at Zeke’s odd effort to ruin the children’s project disappeared as I saw his deep compassion and his furious passion. In that moment, Zeke was the Lorax and he saw beyond the charming amusement of a group of children, to the suffering of the confined salamanders, who deserved absolute freedom in the vast, cool, deep water that was their home.
As we prepared to leave our Vermont cottage, an impressively violent thunderstorm materialized. Thunder shook our little cottage. Lightening flashed across the sky and rain pounded the fields. Zeke and I were inside, finishing up the packing, while Aaron and Jack took out the garbage and got our truck.
“Oh no!” I said. “It’s raining. Do you think Daddy and Jack are getting all wet?”
My little Lorax smiled at me, and said:
“It’s okay mom. I love it when it rains. It keeps the earth healthy.”
And I remember smiling back at him, a great looping love in my heart, as I held his warm little hand and we looked out together at the staggering power of the storm.
It was a gorgeous early summer day in Brooklyn, the sky clear and deepest blue. Some neighborhood parents had decided to take the kids to Prospect Park on a nature walk. The little ones were in perfect moods–darting about together, holding hands, giggling– just reveling in the warm air kissing their skin and the cool breeze ruffling their hair. They seemed so happy to be alive and outside. Jack was just a few months old and had evolved into a smiley, wriggling package that other people delighted in bouncing and holding, and I remember the joy I felt as I walked, my arms swinging free for the first time in what felt like ages.
As we wandered near the Audubon center, the children stopped, delighted. Just feet from us was a majestic family of Prospect Park swans, gliding serenely by. The children stood near the water and admired the long-necked, glistening white creatures as they escorted their fuzzy little flock on a sweet pleasure cruise. They calmly floated in a straight line, parents at the head and the foot, with the teeny perfect fluffy gray cygnets spaced evenly between them.
I stood a few feet back from the kids and half-listened to their cheerful burbling as they stood admiring the bucolic scene. My heart fizzed with happiness as I breathed in the beauty of the day and the moment. I felt so lucky to be there with my two children, the sun glinting on the water and this lovely natural scene unfolding for the most cozily perfect teachable moment that one could hope for.
And then a rush of water and in a horrifying swooping instant every hair on my body stood up on high alert as I watched one of the swans leap out of the water and menacingly plant itself in front of Zeke.
It was making this spine-chilling hissing sound and stood with wings outspread just inches from my little boy. I sprinted over to Zeke and clutched him in my arms, and I found myself face to face with the swan.
It was as tall as I was, its wings spread at least three feet to either side of me and I had the horrible sense that it could have gathered Zeke and me up in those wings and crushed us. It kept striking at us viciously with its head and hissing. Its bill was blunt, stabbing, missing by mere millimeters each time. I was terrified. Instinct told me not to put my back to it, so I stumble-ran backwards, awkwardly, one arm clenching Zeke, the other in front of me in some vague attempt to keep the swan back. I was convinced that once I was sufficiently out of range of the cygnets, that the swan would retreat.
But my instincts were wrong.
The swan kept coming at us, striking, its wings pushing, pulsing powerfully. I soon realized that while carrying a screaming toddler, and attempting to run backwards, I was never going to get away from this thing.
Without thinking, I summoned all of the strength that I had and I heard myself scream as I lunged forward and kicked the swan square in the chest. My stomach sunk as I made contact. Its chest was an immoveable solid mass of muscle and
it was clear that I was no match for this beast.
I was flooded with panic, and as my mind scrambled desperately, searching for my next move, my vision filled with the image of a little black backpack swinging hard and connecting solidly with the swan’s head.
A good Samaritan had seen the attack and rushed in, backpack swinging, to help me and my child.
The swan spun around in fury and chased the woman. I saw it strike viciously just inches from her as she ran away. I took advantage of the diversion, clung tightly to Zeke and blindly ran as fast as I could away from there. I was panting and sweaty and every fiber in my body was tingling with adrenaline. I held my baby close and made soothing noises in his ear.
I never saw what happened to the woman who helped us. Never thanked her.
After this, life of course went on as normal, but there were subtle differences. On the route from our apartment to the park which we travel daily, we pass a mural, erected by our local arts council, featuring paintings by a variety of Brooklyn artists. One colorful panel depicts a pair of swans drifting on a lake. Zeke used to love to run back and forth in front of the mural, examining all of the paintings, commenting excitedly on what he saw. Now, when we passed it, Zeke would linger in front of the swans and ask nervously,
“Mommy? Is that swan going to bamp me?”
At odd times he would tell the story to others, “The swan was bamping me and bamping me…”
And none of us really enjoyed watching the swans anymore. Zeke would hide his face behind my hip when he saw them, and to me some of their grace was lost. They no longer looked so immaculately white, I only saw how many of their feathers were dingy and yellowed. I couldn’t focus on their slow even movement, just on the cruel way they nipped at the little mallards and snatched every last crumb of tossed bread.
And so, with this unthinkable episode, a new verb was born, and my sense of myself shifted a little bit too. Sure, it was just a swan that I fought, not a bear or a tiger, but it was a big-ass, really mean swan, and I knew now that when my child was threatened, even against unspeakable odds, I could tap into my animal nature and
I would totally put the bamp on someone.
“Why not?” I asked him wearily.
“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And then I won’t dream of Florin!”
“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.
Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend. Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.
Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life. He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.
I have asked Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes. His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.
“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him. And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”
Zeke was quick to exploit the possibilities of having a younger brother with limited communication skills and a well-documented tendency to manufacture chaos. Jack was just barely walking the first time that Zeke came up to me shaking his head, arms crossed over his chest, and said in a familiar exhausted and conspiratorial tone,
“Mom, look what Jack’s doing now.”
I can’t venture a guess at the number of times I’ve entered the boys’ room to find that bin after bin of toys has been haphazardly dumped, rendering the room completely impassable. In the midst of the mess, I generally find the two of them all smiles, united in the thrill of mayhem. When I inquire about what on earth happened in there, Zeke will answer, his voice echoing my disbelief,
“Jack got a little crazy, Mama.”
Mmmm. Jack, huh.
Then there are the times that a blood-curdling shriek and hysterical sobs slice through the silence, stopping my heart and sending me running into their room. There I find Jack red-faced and howling, fat tears flowing down his cheeks. Zeke is generally about as far away from his little brother as possible, unconcernedly sorting legos or engaged quietly with a book. Attempting to get a clear answer about what might have happened borders on futile. Zeke frequently appears confused; he’ll give an exaggerated shrug, and say in a mystified voice,
“I don’t know what happened to Jack, Mom.”
At other times he is defensive,
“You didn’t SEE me do anything!”
Or he pleads no contest; sits voluntarily down in his white rocking chair, “I’m in time-out already!” and refuses under any circumstances to explain why he’s given himself this punishment.
But, with time, something that Zeke failed to anticipate has taken place. Jack started talking. And, many a time that I am confronted with one of these mysterious scenes, Jack is able to clearly communicate through his tears, exactly why he is so upset.
“Zekie scratch me!”
“Zekie hit me!”
or, once last week,
“Zekie bite me!”
When confronted with his victim’s clear testimony Zeke becomes visibly uncomfortable. He shifts his weight from foot to foot and his face zooms through a variety of expressions: outrage, innocence, confusion…..
No one told him his pesky little brother was going to learn to TALK! The balance of power has been altered and Zeke is no longer comfortably in control.
Lately, Jack has been singing what he calls the “Lady Song”. While singing it he moves his arms slowly and gracefully. His movements are almost balletic, similar to the flowing arm movements of a traditional Hula dancer. And in a very soft, gentle voice, he will sing something along the lines of,
“Lady. Flowers. Beautiful. Christmas.”
It is always slow and quiet and soothing. He often requests that I sing the “Lady Song” (which I don’t actually know) when he wants to be lulled into sleep.
Then there is Kristin Davis. No, not the cute brunette from Sex and the City— the former “Manhattan Madam” of the glossy pink lips, bleached blonde hair, and pronounced cleavage that ran for Governor of New York State. When I am checking the mail, I frequently give some of the junk to the boys to peruse, just to keep them occupied. They will happily flip through a Land’s End catalog or look at the Phat Albert’s circular while we wait for the elevator or while I search for my keys. During the lovely Ms. Davis’s campaign we were inundated with soft focus, glamour shots of her stamped with provocative campaign slogans. One day I handed one over to Jack.
He was immediately smitten.
He gripped her head shot in his little hand. He stared at it. He kissed it. For a few weeks he would ask for his “Lady” picture before he left the house. In his seat, in the lower-deck of the stroller, he would clutch it tightly and gaze at it. More than once he fell asleep in the stroller, her photo pressed to his cheek.
I was shocked and a bit horrified by these obvious demonstrations of clear ideas about gender and female beauty that my child had developed at such a tender age. It didn’t come from me, of that I’m pretty sure. So where did it come from? Could this be nature at work?
And it’s not just Jack. Once when Zeke was about 15 months old, we rode the Q train into Manhattan pretty early on a Saturday morning. Sitting across from us were two youngish “ladies” who were wearing lots of makeup and not much clothing. They were clearly heading home after a fun-filled Friday night. Zeke was sitting in my lap while I stared into the vague middle distance, lost in thought, when my attention was caught by the enthusiastic cooing and clapping of my young son. He was mesmerized by these women. He stared intently as one of them applied lip gloss. He flirted with them, playing peek-a-boo, smiling broadly, and waving.
The women were completely charmed. They laughed and smiled back, waved at him and exchanged giggly comments about how adorable he was until they reached their stop. When they got off of the train, Zeke followed them with his eyes, waving, and eagerly shouting “Bye-Bye!”, clearly trying to extract the last bit of their alluring feminine attention.
Recently, we went to a gathering at a family friend’s house. There were two tweenish girls there. They were all braces and lip gloss, skinny jeans and flat-ironed hair, and they sat sullenly at the margins of the party, rolling their eyes, slouching and texting. As I mentally thanked the good Lord that I do not have daughters, I watched Zeke size them up and wander into their general vicinity. He lingered casually with his Lego Star Wars guys, just close enough that they just might talk to him.
Of course they noticed him. He’s an adorable, floppy-haired, pink-cheeked little moppet.
“Oh look at him! Look at those blue eyes!” they squealed. “What are you playing with, cutie?”
And Zeke went in full force, talking to them at length about the coolest possible topic he could think of– STAR WARS! It was an endless incomprehensible monologue and he shifted nervously as he described in complex detail the way he was setting up his guys and the incredible adventures they were having. My heart ached for him. I could hear, from the lowered pitch of his voice and the way he was peppering his speech with “totally cools” and “that’s so awesome, rights?” how hard he was striving to impress these girls, and as I watched their eyes glaze over and listened to their perfunctory “uh-huh’s” and as I heard Zeke’s speech drag on and on and on, it was all so painfully clear:
Girls are going to happen to him.
This little scene will be re-enacted again and again and again and his poor little heart is going to hurt, and I’m just his Mom, and nothing I say is ever going to make girls anything less than devastatingly hard.
Then one of them interrupted him and said,
“So, which one of us do you think is prettier? Me right? Don’t you think that I look just like Megan Fox?”
And instantly, I wanted to cut a bitch. Why do girls have to be so much more sophisticated and freaking conniving than sweet, sincere little boys? Doesn’t she see how hard he’s trying? Couldn’t she play along just a little bit, and make him feel good about himself?
And that was when I noticed the chocolate ice-cream painting a pencil-thin mustache across Zeke’s face. Without thinking, I automatically dipped a napkin into my water glass, walked over, and began dabbing him clean.
Time slowed as I noticed the smirks emerge on the girls’ faces and watched Zeke squirm angrily away from me. How much more uncool had I just unconsciously made my poor little boy feel? And are these the roles we are just going to fall into without thinking, moms and sons, girls and boys, awkwardly interacting until somehow self-confidence takes over for him and this stuff doesn’t feel so fraught? Or is this all just me?
A few weeks later, we took the boys to First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. Zeke and his Dad were off checking out the galleries while Jack and I listened to jazz in the atrium. Jack was dancing when I noticed him notice a curly-maned brunette in a cute red flapper-style dress. She was sitting alone, bopping her head to the music. He walked directly up to her, passionately embraced her legs, and exclaimed loudly,
“I like you!”
She melted instantly, beamed at him, and gave him a hug back. Then she took his little hands in hers and danced with him for the rest of the song. I glowed with joy. It felt so good to watch someone appreciate my delightful little boy, just as much as I do.
It occurred to me as I watched them dancing, that when we are very young, we are naturally sincere, but that it is not until we are a bit more mature that we really appreciate and value sincerity.
My boys are going to reach out to all kinds of girls, some of them the plastic polar opposite of what I would deem appropriate. And I can’t do much more than watch uncomfortably and assure them, if and when they’ll listen, that there are girls out there who will appreciate them for just exactly who they are. Even if that is the same corny shit that I found completely unhelpful when I was young and insecure and my Mom said it to me.
I’ve got my role to play.
For the past two and a half years, Zeke has been attending cozy little neighborhood home-based schools, in which a group of like-minded parents hired a teacher to run small classes in one family’s home. The schools were run co-operatively by the parents, in partnership with the teacher, and parents were instrumental in shaping the daily classroom practices as well as the tone of the classroom. The school has always felt relaxed, informal, and friendly and our families and our children have all gotten to know each other in a way that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional school setting. We have had a variety of teachers and educational approaches, and I truly couldn’t have been happier with the way Zeke has adapted and grown as a little person. But this does mean that I have managed to put off letting go of the reins and sending Zeke off into the “real world”.
Quite recently, our homeschool situation dissolved and though I was really disappointed, I was sure that Zeke was completely ready for a more formal school and I knew that it would be great for him to advance intellectually and socially in a traditional structured environment.
Enter the Lefferts Gardens Montessori School.
When plans were uncertain over the summer, I placed Zeke on the waiting list for the school, never heard back and promptly forgot about it. When I found myself needing a new schooling situation for him, I left a message there and the next day received a call from the director saying that Zeke could start immediately. This is MUCH easier than getting your children into school is supposed to be in Brooklyn–schools are an endless topic of charged, stressful conversation among Brooklyn parents–and I felt really fortunate to be avoiding all the applications and the waiting and the nail-biting.
As the day drew nearer, I felt somewhat tense, but completely prepared. I had filled out all of the paperwork, made a comprehensive list of emergency contacts, located and photocopied Zeke’s birth certificate, taken a photo of him as he currently appears sans idiosyncratic accessories, packed him a healthy lunch and an emergency change of clothes. I arranged for my sister-in-law to spend the morning with Jack so that I could be there all morning with Zeke, to emotionally support him through this very emotional transition. I explained to Zeke that he would stay at his new big boy school until 4:30, and that all day long he was going to be playing with new friends and learning exciting new things. A distinct lump formed in my throat, but Zeke appeared unfazed.
On the appointed day, Aaron and I brought Zeke to class a few minutes early and he immediately made himself at home, examining all of the manipulatives, sorting through beads, and exploring the classroom library. One of the teachers sat him down at a table and quickly absorbed him in sorting numbered tiles on a numbered grid. Aaron and I felt like we were hovering as the other children started to arrive, so we sat quietly at a table behind Zeke. As 8:30 rolled around, Aaron needed to get back to work and he said a quick goodbye to Zeke.
I stood behind him mired in indecision. Would it be better for both of us to just go and to make a clean break? I decided that I would stay behind and watch the beginning of class. Zeke could get a little nervous when he was left alone for the first time in a new place, right? I looked at his little shoulders in his red and brown thermal and his mop of golden hair, seated at the little pre-school table and he looked so small. I couldn’t leave my special little guy.
I came up behind him and comfortingly gripped his shoulders and said quietly in his ear, “Zekey. Daddy has to go back to work right now, but I can stay here with you for a little while.” (Don’t Worry! Mommy is here!)
Zeke didn’t even turn around. Just continued at his number-sorting task and said indifferently,
“Oh,” I said backing away. “I guess maybe I don’t need to.”
I left the classroom without ever seeing his face. The image of his floppy wheat-colored hair, his small head bent over his work throbbed in my head. “This is how it starts I guess”, I thought and I walked slowly home.
I am suddenly awakened from deepest sleep by someone yanking on my arm.
“Appoo! Appoo! Come Mama!”
As my sleepy haze begins to dissipate, Jack’s fuzzy little head comes into focus. It is still dark outside, and as I glance at Aaron’s body peacefully rising and falling, bitterness at his ability to sleep through anything begins to bubble up inside me. Along with this bitterness is a pompous mental noting of my status as the “good parent”, the one who dutifully and without complaint gets up each morning, no matter how profound my exhaustion, to feed our children. I head for the kitchen in a cantankerous mood. Each quiet snuffle emerging from the bedroom makes me clench my jaws tighter.
“At least I,” I grumble to myself, “care about whether or not our children go hungry!”
Moments later Zeke is up. I hear his bare feet slap-slapping on the hardwood floor as I slice Jack’s apple in the yellow light of our kitchen. I bring Jack’s apple slices into the living room and find Zeke lost in thought at the table. He is illuminated only by the half-light of the street-lamps, elbows on the table, head resting in his hands, like a troubled soul in a Hopper painting. When I wish him a good morning, he flashes a cherubic smile in my direction and informs me of his urgent need for raisin toast with peanut-butter on it, and also “Milk in a cup with a top and a lot of milk too.”
I head back to the kitchen to make Zeke’s toast. Jack, as soon he sees what his brother is getting, insists on toast of his own. When I place Jack’s toast next to his apple, he commands, “Bow! Bow!” The toast apparently must be served in its own separate bowl to please my not-quite-two-year-old son. Soon the morning quiets. There is just the sound of my two munching sons and the harmonica hum of our tea kettle, to which the three of us all sing “Hot tea-eeeeeeeeeee” and giggle as is our private little custom.
The boys were being so sweet with each other– telling each other incomprehensible jokes and laughing. As they finished their food, I watched them push trucks back and forth and babble happily on the kitchen floor, and I just basked in the warmth of our cozy, contented family. As I became more and more alert, it struck me what a perfect morning we were in the middle of, the sort of easy, tranquil morning that invariably signals a smooth and peaceful day. A day where the two little beings that Aaron and I created coexist harmoniously and prove that we were right in pursuing this crazy familial experiment.
How could I mind missing out on a little sleep, I wondered, when I am so blessed?
And THAT was when I caught sight of the time glaring at me from the microwave:
Zeke was nestled into my shoulder. He was still, his breathing even, but his eyes remained open and staring.
“I can’t sleep, Mama.”
I kissed him gently on the forehead. “Try closing your eyes,” I whispered. “And be very still.”
His breathing slowed and I felt his little body relax. I was sure he had finally surrendered to sleep when I heard his awestruck whisper:
When I close my eyes, it’s like I see lights.
I guess my eyes are imagining.