The U.N. Book of DespairPosted: August 3, 2010
One day, when my son was a toddler, my husband took the day off and went to the U.N. He loves the U.N. and somehow decided this would be a satisfying diversion from the rigors of parenthood. (He’s kind of a wonk that way. I say this with love and admiration. Some of the best jokes in our house happen while we’re watching the news.) He brought home a book. He smiled with the stereotypical pride of a dad who buys his kid his first baseball glove as he showed me a copy of For Every Child A Better World, illustrated by Jim Henson.
Not so fast. Yes, there are the trademark Henson adorable bulbous blue and green people, but on every other page they are sad, bandaged, their hungry bellies distended as the smoke from distant missiles rises up around them. I looked at my husband–my dear, sweet, well-intended husband–and tried not to wince. “Too much?” “Maybe. For now. But maybe not. He probably won’t even understand it.” I called it The U.N. Book of Despair.
Look, I have no problem with my kid learning that he’s damn lucky not to have been born in a war zone. It just seemed so soon to teach him. (As I would learn in later years, he couldn’t care less what other kids lack when I’m trying to urge him to eat peas or telling him he can’t have another Matchbox car.)
He loved it, naturally. Last night, three years after getting the book, he looked at it as he fell asleep. And it’s a good book, for its subject matter. It’s just, as one friend of mine might say while rolling her eyes, so predictable. Of course we would give him this book, in addition to all the books about aliens and vampires and ghosts. (The kid has regular books, too, mind you. Dr. Seuss and Beatrix Potter and books about kooky heroic penguins and whatnot).
In part, I credit my parents, who would be the first to tell me I was twisted. Let’s start off with the most obvious influence: Catholicism. Every Sunday in those formative years I sat and stared at a crucifix. The man up there was dead. Tortured. Then, they tell me, in those moments I listened, he came back. Wow, my little brain said. That’s really something. I wasn’t scared, really; I’d call it intrigued. Then, of course, we Catholics lay out our dead and make them up so we can say goodbye. We get right up next to them; sometimes we even kiss them. It’s frankly creepy, even to me. But there was no complaining about it. You walked up there, knelt down next to the casket and prayed. My legs always felt like they were spring-loaded I was so desperate to get away.
Then there were the cemeteries. When I was little, my parents would take me on vacation to Cape Cod and in the mornings my dad would let my mom sleep and take me out for a doughnut. We’d walk around whatever little town we were in and inevitably wind up in an old cemetery reading headstones. It was fun, seeing how old people were when they died, performing little history projects. We did it well into my adulthood. And one of the funniest days I’ve ever had with my mother was the day we looked for over an hour for her grandparents’ grave with only the knowledge that it was “behind a shrub”. Her grandparents are buried in a Catholic cemetery in the predominantly Irish neighborhood where she grew up in Boston. Take a minute and imagine the size of that cemetery–and how many shrubs there are.
All this leads (not so smoothly) into what I’d call my parents’ mild boundary issues. Some were unavoidable. My mother’s aunt was in a nursing home when I was little and she usually had to bring me with her when she went to visit because there was no one to watch me. Either that, or my mother didn’t think it mattered if I came along (more likely). Either way, Aunt Dot was always in one of those chairs with the straps, and sometimes we had to wait a while before seeing her because she had tried to make her escape by scooting under the strap and was making a concerted effort to throw the chair out the window. Once they’d subdued her, we were welcome to visit.
My parents also didn’t always stop themselves before they told stories a kid didn’t need to hear, stories I won’t tell here, but my mother and her sister have some real doozies about their aunts that, horrifying as they seem, are always told to raucous laughter. I’ll give you another example. Whenever my dad and I were in the car together when I was a kid, he’d quiz me, giving me spelling words or math problems. One day when I was about six, he decided to challenge me with a word that probably loomed large in our collective lives: “Spell…psychiatrist.”
All this kind of sets a kid up not to fear the worst, I suppose. In my case, maybe it set me up to seek out the worst, I don’t know. My parents’ dark sides–the ones they didn’t always connect to mine–was one of the things I appreciated most about them, possible psychic damage notwithstanding. In many ways, they taught me not to be afraid. It’s tricky, though, as an adult, deciding what my kid should be exposed to and trying to figure out where to draw the line. I tried for a while to be the kind of parent who shielded my kid from the world’s creepiness, but that’s not me, clearly. Maybe someday he’ll be driving his own kids somewhere and decide to play a spelling game. “Spell…psychiatrist,” he’ll say, and he’ll think of me and roll his eyes.