For as little as I relish getting older, there are some graces.
One is that the passing decades of your life serve as shock absorbers, providing some immeasurable dulling effect against the sharp and bitter. This phenomenon has physiological components. One of the reasons that the little you couldn’t endure Brussels sprouts, or in my case, peas, is that your childhood taste buds experience them as they truly are, with all their pungent and dirty and slightly sulfuric qualities. It’s an assault on your still too pure and honed senses. As an adult, you can’t possibly simulate what these foods tasted like to your eight year old self. The buds dull over time. So you just chuckle, even marvel, at how much you used to despise that same vegetable that you now readily order as a side dish. The taste is so mild that you add a little sea salt. The chef adds a bit of bacon. But try telling the eight year old you that one day she will pay her very own money, at a restaurant, for Brussels sprouts. She will tell you you’re crazy. You’ll both be right.
What we ask our children to experience while they are still little is a very tricky thing.
Foods may seem innocuous enough, but just track down my old babysitter, the then-teenaged Noreen Johnson, who must now be well into her 50’s. One night in about 1979, she dutifully fulfilled my mother’s directive that I must finish my peas. I recoiled at everything about those peas – their texture, their pea green-ness, and most of all their taste. Pushed to near hysteria over the notion that I’d never get to leave the table for Jiffy Pop and Gilligan’s Island, I forced those peas down my throat, and then promptly gagged and vomited across our linoleum floor. Thus did I create my own cherished and guarded legend that I was “allergic” to peas. I never had to eat them again, but I do, of course, preferably with a little salt and pancetta.
What can kids handle, and when? The whole question is so relative to the circumstances into which they are born that the motivating event of this post just serves as evidence of how lucky my circumstances are. But lately, a host of things have reminded me that my own senses aren’t quite as dulled as I might have thought or hoped. So maybe I am extra sensitized to what Devan is being asked to take in. Which brings me to the word search.
A five year old’s backpack holds many wonders, many horrors, and lots in between. The single mitten, the rotten half eaten food product… these are a given. The treasure in Devan’s bag lies in the yellow folder labeled, “PLEASE RETURN THIS FOLDER TO SCHOOL!!” Remarkably, though we may have occasionally let our car inspections lapse, somehow that yellow folder gets returned to school as requested, day in and day out. Tonight, I extracted a packet of school papers that included a “circle a word” search entitled….forget it, I can’t even do it justice. Here it is:
I will admit that my very first reaction was pride that my little girl had circled absurdly long and sophisticated words like “Inauguration,” and “Documentary.” As for the rest of Puzzle 25, doled out in a public school after-care program that includes children from roughly 4 through 11 years of age, I might have been just as composed and prepared if I’d found a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes in her Hello Kitty side pocket. Staring at the paper, I felt that purgatory of bewilderment where you’re pretty sure something isn’t a joke while you’re still chuckling as though it is.
Yes, here it is, Devan, your first officially sanctioned, school sponsored “Special Occasions on the Television” word search. Study closely.
Ready, set… go find those words!!! Wait, you’re only 5? And you have no idea what these words mean, but you’re able to sound most of them out? Well, pish posh, I’m sure your loving parents will be at the ready with a loving, comforting explanation of it all. They’ll certainly put the “special” back into things like hostages and war.
And for my children, I certainly would try. Parenting is, among other things, the simultaneous denial and imperfect management of a freefall into helplessness. You scramble in the moment to give the comforting response. Sometimes you lie. Often you have to suffer anew the implications of what you are trying to explain, things you will unearth from hard-earned scar tissue, because your kids deserve some answer. But what answer? There is no meter to read whether those keen and honed senses can handle even a watered down version of pain, horror, heartbreak, loss. You would spend everything you have, and borrow multiples of that, to never see any of it sink into their perfect and unfurrowed brows. Now you’re asked to be the narrator. The docent on the Word Search of Horrors.
You might stop to marvel that this is the same school that sends home multiple permission slips, that very much wants your considered thought and written authorization to take your child apple picking at Butler’s Orchard, or to Ye Olde Colonial Farm to watch people from olden times churn butter. But that irony appears to be lost on whoever had access to a copier and had to occupy a slew of kids on a random Monday afternoon.
So you consider the list.
Maybe you could tackle just a few of these…
“PLANE CRASH?” No. No fucking way. And let’s face it, she just wants to cross out the word sandwiched between “OSCARS” and “PLAYOFFS.” Here’s a thought, Puzzle 25 drafters: “PLANET OF THE APES.”
“IMPEACHMENT?” Jesus Christ, I highly doubt too many kindergarten classes tuned in to the last one. But I can lawyer my way through this one. Any sentient child or adult is sure to lose interest within two minutes of my oral history of what our founders considered high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of invoking a congressional process whereby the House of Representatives must first vote to by a simple majority to bring articles of….. zzzz……
One down, infinity to go.
Let’s see here…
“BLOOPER SHOWS.” Dick Clark? Bob Saget? I shudder. And isn’t this one atrocity that we’ve managed to eradicate over time?
I’m suddenly thinking this word search was created around the time I pea-puked on Noreen Johnson. Seems highly likely that the impeachment reference is more likely to Nixon than to Clinton, and you hardly ever see hostages on the evening news anymore. And when was the last time you heard someone say, “hey, there’s a great ‘special’ on TV tonight?”
“WORLD SERIES.” Sigh. A concept as likely to break her heart as many other items on the list. Though I will reassure her that she was born into a wonderful, post-curse Red Sox era, that the 2012 season was an anomaly, that we can all learn a lesson from the ill-considered firing of Terry Francona, and that our family is finding a way to form a third identity as Nationals fans. Daddy and I are even getting used to the pitchers getting a turn at bat. Daddy’s Orioles? A flash in a cheap and flimsy pan.
“TERRORISM.” Um….nope. I’ve got nothing. Check, please!
You do your best, I guess, though in some moments your best is not going to seem up to the task. Just as you must face that your children are constantly growing away from you, you swallow the far more brutal reality that their tethers strain closer and closer to a world featuring those special occasions on the television. On good days, you embrace it as part of the bargain. Not all days are good days.
Devan, I suspect, lost interest in this word search the minute our nanny appeared to pick her up from after-school. I had no way of knowing that it was one of those days I would desperately wish that it was my face she saw when she looked up from the task. If I’d been home earlier in the afternoon, maybe I would have found the word search right away, still wet from her green magic marker. But even if I had, we probably wouldn’t have talked about it very much. Some words are just too hard to find.
So tonight, we will take a pass. We’ll take a pass on blindfolded hostages, war-ravaged despair. Tonight I will simply hope, despite all that I know to be true, that some of these events go the way of blooper shows, or that I find some measure of wisdom and grace when they enter her consciousness and she looks to me for an answer. But tonight she is still 5, and I am still clinging to every last bit of my waning control over what shocks get to enter her system.
I tuck Puzzle 25 into my work bag. Tonight it’s pancakes for dinner.