Posts tagged “fear

walk forward in a walking position….

boxingboys

 

 

“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.

 

Hug O’War

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.


Growling Friend and The Boy

growling_small

“Looks like we are too late for Growling Friend today.”

 Jack and I are walking down Rutland Road to his school. Two girls from his class, who we met on the train, skip along the sidewalk with us.

 “Who’s Growling Friend?” one of them asks.

 “Well, “ I say. There’s a man who delivers fruit to two of the stores along Rutland and every day, when Jack and Growling Friend see each other, they put their arms up in the air like big Grizzly Bears and growl at one another.”

 “That’s weird,” the girl says.

 “It is kind of weird, “ I say. “But it’s great too. We look forward to seeing Growling Friend every morning.”

 And it’s true. It’s just not the same when we don’t see him.

Growling Friend is a middle-aged Asian man, glasses, mostly bald with some shaggy grey and white hair around the sides of his head.  We see him every morning, unloading boxes of fruit from his white truck, when we descend the steps of the Sutter Ave. 3 Train. And if he unloads slow enough and we walk fast enough, we see him again, further down Rutland, making a second delivery.

One morning, in a surreal non-verbal mental communion, both Jack and this man put their arms up in the air, tensed their hands like menacing claws, bared their teeth and began loudly growling at each other.  

I was taken aback.  It is extremely unsettling to have some random stranger growling at your child, unprompted, on the street.  But before my Mama Bear took over, I looked at my son, who was giggling with delight. I looked at the man, whose face glowed with jubilant mischief.

You could see the playful little boy inside his aging face, and I knew there was no need to be afraid. Without a word, the man went back to stacking boxes of mangos and papayas in front of the store and we continued down the road to school.

And just like that, our weird little morning routine was born.

Every day Jack and the man we now called Growling Friend would catch sight of one another, menace and snarl for a moment, and then just pop back into normalcy.

All of the Spanish guys who helped bring the fruit from the sidewalk into the store used to smile and laugh when they saw us coming.  Passersby would laugh and shake their heads when their haze of business was momentarily penetrated by the strange sight of a little boy and an old man raising their hackles in mock threat, for no apparent reason, on the street.

After seeing us, the man would always beam, his smile warming our backs as we headed down the street.  And if I caught him making his second delivery on my walk back to the train, he would always wave effusively, and I felt strongly that we shared a kind of odd friendship.

 

Jack’s friends wanted to know more.

 “What is his name?”

 “Well, I don’t actually know.  We don’t even know if he speaks English.  It’s just that every morning he and Jack just growl at each other and it’s so silly…”

 

You don’t know his name?” She glared at me accusingly. “ So he’s a stranger.”

 

“Well, yes, he is a stranger. But we see him every day and when he growls at us it’s so silly and we feel happy…” I was sputtering. I could see how absolutely bizarre this story sounds, even a four-year-old is questioning my parental judgement.

 

Jack interrupts,

We don’t know his name. We just know how kind he is.

 

And that is exactly it.  Jack just instinctually understood this man’s kindness, no matter how strange a manner he had of putting that kindness out there.

 

I thought a lot about this.  Do I want my son, in pre-school, walking the streets of Brooklyn sizing people up and just following his intuition about them?  Do I instill in him the belief that adults know best and that you should think and act as they think and act?

Should I teach him to go with his gut or to follow my lead?

And this line of mental questioning led me inevitably to The Boy. 

There’s this Boy in our neighborhood that we see around a lot. We frequent the same coffee shops and playgrounds. We have many mutual friends.

One day, probably 2 years ago, we saw The Boy at the playground, zooming some toy cars around on the top of the water fountain. Jack climbed onto the water fountain to get a drink, interrupting The Boy’s game.  Just as I was thinking of mother hen-ishly reminding Jack to say “Excuse Me” or something, The Boy pushed Jack off of the water fountain and calmly went back to playing with his cars.  

Jack lay on the the ground screaming, both knees raw and scraped.

I picked Jack up, bounced him and comforted him. I saw The Boy’s mother looking anxiously in our direction and when she came up to us and asked what happened, I told her calmly and somewhat apologetically, what I’d seen. I was sure that she would insist on The Boy apologizing, thereby restoring Jack’s sense that all is right in the world.

She crouched down and spoke quietly to her Boy, nodded decisively and walked up to Jack and me and said, as if daring me to challenge her, “He says he didn’t do anything.”

 I was somewhat startled, but weighing my options, basically fight or flight, and seeing that Jack was basically okay, I cowardly decided to retreat and let The Boy have his cruel way.

A few months later, we found ourselves walking down Lincoln Road toward Flatbush just a few steps ahead of the Boy and his mother.  I felt very aware of their presence behind us and was very aware of ignoring them. So I felt my whole body shrinking as I heard Jack say loudly , 

 

“I know that Boy.
I know his name.

I hate that Boy.”

 

I cheerfully chirped something about how we shouldn’t say mean things about people and about how we don’t really hate anyone and doubled the speed of my steps, pulling Jack forward, imploring all of the forces of the universe to make him stop speaking.

 

We managed to avoid any awkward encounters with The Boy until fairly recently, when we ran into the Boy and his mother with a very good friend of Jack’s and her family. When they asked the Boy’s mother and me if we knew each other, we wore matching vague smiles, and both muttered similar noncommittal things about how we were sure we’d seen each other around.

 Jack, however, was not as inclined to be polite.

 

He fixed a venomous gaze on the boy, his eyes narrowed, lip curled in a hateful sneer.

 

“I know you.” he snarled.

And then he spat on the ground.

 

There was no way that I could warble something that would brush away the absolute contempt that Jack had just expressed. And feeling bound up in politesse and helpless to deal with the situation, I took Jack by the hand, said something along the lines of , “Okay. See you around.” and dragged him down the street and away from our awkward social interaction.

 

And now I have to ask myself.  If he can just intuitively find a kindred spirit in his Growling Friend, should I just trust him to decide that the Boy is his enemy?   Is it my responsibility to teach Jack to be neighborly and well-mannered or is that essentially just teaching him a form of socially conventional spinelessness?

What it seems to come down to is this– do I want him to be himself, true to his instincts and confident about his feelings, or me, a shrinking violet, desperate not to rock the boat? And the answer seems to be the former, even if his exuberant flowering can sometimes make me want to wither on the vine.

The world is full of Growling Friends and Boys. We don’t know all of their names. But, as Jack has taught me, if we look closely and trust our instincts, we can see their kindness or their cruelty.  And we can respond accordingly.


That Dog Won’t Hunt.

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?
Or 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?”

“No.”

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.”


Arachnophobia

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.  

For hours.  

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?”


Perception: The Apple of My Eye

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 upThey 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.


The Big Ooh

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.


Who Put the Bamp?

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.