Posts tagged “growing up

Growling Friend and The Boy

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“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.

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Global Warming

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!”

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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.”


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.