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?”
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.