Jack is upset. “My mouth hurts Mommy! And there’s a bump!”
“Can you show me where baby?”
He takes my finger and places it on a wet, tender-firm lump all the way in the back of his mouth. Immediately, I am transported back to memories of teething babies. Those little swellings would form, followed soon after by sharp, ridgy dots of white, visible on smooth pink gums. Aaron and I would run our fingers over the ridges, fascinated by the tiny tooth emerging.
“It’s a tooth!” I told Jack excitedly.
I did not expect him to burst into tears.
Nervously, I begin to ramble, trying to make it better. “No Sweetie. This is so exciting! “You’re getting a molar! Those are the big teeth all of the way in the back of your mouth! Your molars are your grownup teeth! So, you know what this means?!!!”
He shakes his head slowly, sniffling, his face wet with tears, nose running.
“Your other grown-up teeth are coming! All of your baby teeth are going to get loose and fall out and your grown-up teeth will come in! The bump on your gums means that this will probably happen really soon! You get to put the teeth under your pillow!” I struggle to keep my upbeat tone though I am distracted by how bizarre my “reassurance” sounds.
Jacks eyes grow wide. His face is pale.”Will it hurt?” he asks.
“Maybe a tiny bit. ”
My voice takes on this high-pitched, falsely chipper tone. I sound insane to myself.
“Mostly it’s kind of fun. I remember wiggling my teeth back and forth all day long. And it would hurt a teeny bit, but for some reason I kind of liked it and I just couldn’t resist pushing it with my tongue more and more and more, until it would just pop out! And then you get to put your tooth under your pillow and the tooth fairy comes and takes it away! And she just might leave you some money!”
Jack starts shaking and crying so violently that he can hardly breathe.
“I like the teeth I have!” he moans, “I want to keep them!”
I’d never thought terribly hard about this process before, but with each excited word I uttered,as I desperately tried to drum up Jack’s enthusiasm (Who doesn’t want to lose a tooth?!!!) it became clearer and clearer how terrifying bizarre it actually is–
sharp edges of bone
bursting through tender gums.
the slight taste of blood in your mouth.
the exhilarating sting
as you tease a piece of your body,
once rooted reliably
to simply detach.
My shoulders tense as my mind fills suddenly with images of the tooth dreams that have plagued me for years. A quick google search reveals that dreams of teeth are common and completely unoriginal anxiety dreams. Common they may be, but mine are painfully vivid and leave me wide awake, filled panic and horror and deep shame.
What I always think of as my first tooth dream,though technically more of a “gum dream”, is seared permanently on my mind.
I remember sitting up breathlessly in our house on Van Vorst St, in the room I shared with my sister. I frantically examined every corner of my mouth with my tongue to reassure myself that the dream was not real. I remember focussing my eyes on the familiar sight of Molly asleep in her bed surrounded by stuffed animals, to calm myself.
But most of all, I remember the details of the dream.
I can see it still.
It is a sunny, summer day. I am walking slowly down the path in front of our house when all of a sudden my mouth feels full.
there is this terrifying pulpy presence in my mouth.
this odd sense of emerging bulk.
heavy, wet, alarming.
I push the damp mass from my mouth with my tongue and I watch it fall heavily to the sidewalk.
Lying there is a large, pink chunk of my gums, mesmerizingly moist and spongy. It glistens in the sun, like a dropped chunk of watermelon.
I take another step and again my mouth is full. Again I spit out a wet hunk of flesh. It happens with each step and I remember reaching the end of the pathway, where our front walk met up with the sidewalk, and looking back at the ghastly wet trail leading up to the front porch and feeling overtaken by terror.
Over the years I have had similar dreams regularly. In them I am invariably in a place where I am supposed to seem normal and responsible– work, a family function– when I notice, to my horror, that one of my teeth is loose. The discovery is always marked by horror and shame that mounts as I find myself unable to leave the tooth alone. I can’t stop fiddling with it with my tongue, both repulsed and fascinated by the way it gradually becomes looser and looser until suddenly,
it just breaks free.
It’s no longer a part of me,
but a hard wet presence in my mouth.
A terrible object with smooth sides
and sharp edges
that slice my tongue.
There is always an awkwardness in the dream as I try to figure out what to do with the tooth and how to hide the mortifying gap in my mouth.
The alien feeling of the toothless gap,
deep and empty and vulnerable,
a part of you never before exposed to air,
and the compulsion to jam your tongue in there
to protect it’s sensitive newness.
What if these dreams, so common in our culture, are really a memory of trauma?
A memory of the anxiety that Jack is experiencing right now.
Right now, as he attempts to wrap his mind around the idea that parts of his body can just fall off or that new parts can force their way in.
Somehow we push it down.
We make it normal.
We tell ourselves that a fairy and a shiny new quarter will make it all okay.
The memory lingers.
“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.
It is just after 4 o’clock in the morning. I know this because I hear my son’s husky voice declare, “Omigod! I can’t believe it’s 4 to the 12!” (Me either. sigh)
He is looking at Aaron’s cell phone, at the clock that dominates the screen when the phone is charging: 4:12. I see his face lit only by the eerie greenish glow of the phone, his hair all bed-heady, his eyes animated and intensely focussed.
I should be annoyed. Sleep is the most precious thing in the life of a parent of young children, and I do not take kindly to being woken up if someone is not puking or if there isn’t, at the very least, a fire.
But Zeke catches my attention with what he says next, melting away any anger that might have been forming.
“Is the north getting cold again Mom?”
We’ve been talking about global warming. We heard a report on the radio about how scientists are struggling to find a way to preserve the polar bear species outside of their quickly disappearing natural habitat without placing them all on public display. The reporter said that, for the first time, it appeared quite possible that we would live in a world without polar bears within his lifetime. Zeke was riveted and concerned. He kept asking me how this could be happening. We watched some YouTube videos of polar bears sloshing through melting ice and swimming aimlessly through endless water, in search of something solid to stand on.
One chilly morning he leapt into my lap, threw his arms around my neck, and exclaimed,
“I have great news Mom! The earth is getting cold again! Look outside! The sky is all gray! I think it’s going to rain!”
He was so exhilarated by this miraculous development, by the extraordinary fact that a horrible tragedy appeared to be reversing course, that there was just no way that I could explain to him that the whole mess was a little more complicated than that. So I just hugged him close, told him I loved him, and made him some breakfast.
This morning, though, the streets still relatively quiet, the street lamps still lit, Zeke’s mind has clearly been buzzing with activity for quite some time.
He speaks quickly, inspired:
“What if I brought a big bucket of ice up to the north? I could pour it in the water and make it all cold again!
“And when that bucket gets empty, I could bring another and another and another.”
Another idea occurs to him, “Or I could make a machine that shoots sticky snow! It could stick the snow to the other snow so that it was all one big thing again! But it wouldn’t stick to the bears! Just to snow, and the bears would have a whole big ice land for their home again!
“It could be my GREATEST INVENTION!”
My voice is thick, hoarse with sleep, and I feel genuinely sad as I say, “I wish you could fix it that way sweetie, but unfortunately the problem is much bigger than that. What will need to happen is for all of the people in the world to change the way that they live and to try and take better care of the earth.”
Zeke looks at me very seriously, his voice is world-weary (at 5) and thoughtful, “Yes. Because many people don’t care about the earth. They are selfish and they only think about themselves and their families.
They don’t realize that THE EARTH IS A LIVING THING!”
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s a very big problem and the grownups spend a lot of time arguing about what to do, when they could be trying to fix things.
Then Zeke fixes his blue eyes steadily on mine and says, with a very adult determination,
“Well, then it just might be up to the boys and girls.”
I’m walking the boys down the street just before 9 0’clock in the morning. We’re rushing to get to summer camp when we pass a planter on the corner filled with soaring green stalks sprouting cheerful blossoms that are a delightful watermelon pink. They are gorgeous and at least 6 feet tall, and when I see them I exclaim, “Look at those amazing, tall pink flowers guys! I think that they might be honeysuckle!”
Both of my boys stop to admire the flowers and Jack says sadly, “Be careful! Don’t smell them! Because remember, one time, when by accident, we smelled that mean lady’s flowers?”
And all over again I have angry knots in my stomach and I want to kick my obnoxious neighbor in the teeth for ruining what used to be one of the most lovely parts of my day and suffusing, what was a sweet, calm ritual of exploration and discovery, with anxiety, mistrust, and fear.
This is for you Ridiculously Rude Resident of Rutland Road.
My kids can’t get you and your aggressive incivility out of their heads.
And it is because of you that my little boys
fear to stop and smell the roses.
Thanks a lot.
Hope you’re happy.
We live in a large apartment building right on the border of a land-marked Brooklyn neighborhood that is filled with gorgeous brownstones and free-standing houses. It is common for people in our neighborhood to have things that are uncommon elsewhere in New York City, like backyards, generous front stoops, and lovely front gardens.
Every morning when Jack and I are walking Zeke to school we wander past all of these houses and blissfully examine the beautiful new things that are growing. The three of us celebrated the coming of spring by noticing the appearance of precious little purple crocuses in so many of our neighbors’ gardens. It delighted me when my boys would point out clusters of “Happy Daffodils” or point excitedly to a vibrant yellow-blossomed bush and shout, “Look Mom! It’s forsythia! Your favorite!” We were sometimes a little late for school because the three of us had lingered too long, noses clustered together around a planting of rich indigo hyacinth, deeply inhaling their fresh, heavenly scent.
I would ache with love for Zeke when he would crouch down inquiringly before a patch of flowers, cock his head, and ask, “Are these pansies?”
And when Jack would tell me that he wanted to turn on Rogers Avenue so that we could pass by the house with the “bunches of Bleeding Hearts“, I would have to summon everything that I had inside of me not to grab his little face and smother him with kisses.
I love our morning walks, softly lit, before the sun is strong.
I love this little opportunity to delight in gracefully growing things, right here, in the middle of Brooklyn, especially when we live in a big brick building that smells more of piss and weed than it does of Lilies of the Valley.
One morning, in early June, we were taking our walk as usual. It had rained overnight and all of the plants were still moist from the light summer drizzle. The air was cool and soft. Zeke, Jack and I were admiring the way that the damp grey of the morning made the colors of the plants vivid and the way that the flowers almost sparkled when light would bounce off of a raindrop on a petal.
We turned onto Rutland Road and all three of our pairs of eyes seemed to settle on the planter at once. It was a barrel planter on the sidewalk with a small, rather spindly, rosebush inside of it, but the few roses on the bush were immaculate. The blossoms were wide and fully blooming, a striking vibrant coral.
“Those are beautiful Mom! What are they called?” Zeke asked.
“They’re roses, Sweetie,” I said. “And roses are so special because they smell absolutely amazing! Should we sniff them?”
Both boys nodded eagerly. And in our own little bubble of happy family warmth, we wandered over to the planter and leaned our noses towards the flowers, when we were jolted out of the pleasant mood by an angry shout,
“Aw Hell No! Get those kids the hell away from my flowers!”
A large, angry woman appeared at the door of the house, a phone at her ear. I was startled, but I managed to say, “Oh I’m sorry ma’am. We were just smelling them. I always tell my boys to be very gentle and not to touch.”
She continued to glare at us with profound hostility.
“Whatever. Just move on. Stop trespassing.”
I started to get really angry but I saw my children’s eyes growing wide with concern and I wanted to defuse the situation, but also to reassure them that we hadn’t done anything wrong.
I spoke up a little more forcefully, “We are not trespassing. We are on the sidewalk.”
Her lip curled as she snarled, “Stop talking! Move on and stop trespassing before I call the cops and have you arrested.”
I knew that this was ridiculous. We were standing on the sidewalk. We hadn’t even touched her property, let alone damaged it in any way. But I could see how scared my kids, who are not used to harsh language from adults, were getting and I definitely didn’t want them to see me get into a pointless argument with some obnoxious stranger. So I ushered them along, and struggled to push down the knots of seething fury I felt stirring in my gut. I wanted to focus on seeming unfazed by the situation so that Jack and Zeke could just forget about it, but moments after we walked away, the questions started.
“Why didn’t she want us to smell her flowers Mom?”
Zeke gestured toward flowers planted in front of another house.
“Is it okay to smell those?
He added, “Did you hate that lady, Mom? I hated her. I hated her so much. I just ignored her and thought about how much I hated her and how much I wanted her to die.”
I realized that I needed to say something, to put some sort of label on what had happened so that it could make sense to my little guys and so that they would have an idea of how to feel about the situation.
“That lady was just really mean,” I said calmly. “It is never okay to be mean to people like that, or to speak to people like that. I don’t like her, but I don’t hate her. I don’t care about her at all. She was mean and the best thing for us to do was to just walk away.”
“Were you afraid?” Jack asked sweetly.
“No I wasn’t afraid. Were you?”
“No?” he said, without much confidence.
After we dropped Zeke off at school, I tried to proceed with our walk back home as if nothing unusual had happened. But at the first hydrangea that I tried to point out, Jack said nervously, “Are we going to walk by the mean lady’s house?”
“No,” I said. “She lived on Rutland Road. This is Midwood.”
“Were you scared of her, Mom?”
“No. Of course not honey. Were you?”
We walked on in silence. Inwardly I was cursing that woman for making it impossible to unselfconsciously enjoy our morning routine. Jack looked thoughtful as he walked.
We were almost home when he looked up at me and said, “Mom if we ever pass that mean lady again and she yells at us again, I am going to say something.”
I crouched down in front of him so that I could look into his eyes and I took both of his hands. “What would you say sweetie?”
Jack fixed his blue eyes on me seriously and spoke in a deep voice, that was clearly his childish imitation of his father when he’s frustrated by children that are acting wildly and/or irrationally:
“I would say,” he told me.
“That dog won’t hunt.”
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?”
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.
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.