Aug 2 2012

Tough Discussions

We had a rendezvous-vous at the discussion bench at 3:00, Short-pants and I. This is a designated space in what she refers to as her forest. It was built by her uncle, an artist whose work involves constructing objects as much as painting them. He visited us at the country house a few years ago and cleared some winding paths in the woods behind the house. At the end of one of these trails, he built a bench out of wooden planks he found in our barn. Short-pants decided she wanted to name it the discussion bench.

Her forest is her escape zone at the country house. She will invite Buddy-roo there to play and they have all sorts of stories that take place in those trees, but it’s mostly a place for Short-pants to find the solace and privacy she requires. And each summer, it seems, there are several moments when the two of us retire to the discussion bench to have a little talk. Sometimes it’s a discussion about how to handle her sister. Sometimes it’s just about reflecting on the events of the summer or anticipating the events we have ahead. This is my father coming through me; he had a strong connection to the seasonal rhythms and the passing of time and often summarized for us what we’d had the privilege of experiencing and what was still in store. “It’s always important,” he’d say, “to have something to look forward to.”

De-facto and many other friends agreed it was time for the talk. Short-pants is going into 6eme at the collège next year – that’d be middle school in North America – she shouldn’t be caught unaware and subject to the teasing of her school mates. We needed to tell her the truth, and the discussion bench was the place to do so.

~ ~ ~

Sometime in mid January, last winter, Short-pants came to me and told me she was ready to learn how babies were made. A few months earlier I’d given her a book – that is the most comfortable way for her to learn – called The Care and Keeping of You, and after she read it we sat down to talk about it and I asked her if she had any questions, which I answered, all of them about how a girl’s body will change and why.

“Do you want to learn how babies are made?” I asked, “Or do you want to wait a while and digest all this first?” I didn’t want to overload her with too much data at once.

“I’ll wait,” she said, looking almost relieved. “I’m not quite ready yet.”

But after Christmas she must have changed her mind, so we made a date one afternoon to meet upstairs in her bedroom while her sister was away at a friend’s house. I had another book, First Comes Love, given to us by a friend who understands Short-pants’ penchant for reading, and we read it together with my color commentary on every page.

We talked about what we’d read. Then I added a few last words about how sex is for grown-ups, there’s no reason to rush into it because with it comes responsibility and consequences. And how when she gets older and feels ready to try it, I hope she’ll always feel like she can talk to me about it. It was a pretty good spiel, an even blend of don’t-even-think-of-going-there-yet with when-you-do-let-me-help-you-do-it-smart. I had to restrain myself, though, from blurting out a closing phrase: “Oh and by the way, there’s no Santa Claus.”

~ ~ ~

The pathway to the discussion bench is a bit leafy these days, we had to hack our way through the some overgrown brush to get there. Once we were seated, we exchanged a few pleasantries, talked about how the summer was going, the weather, how the bench was holding up. I danced toward the subject at hand, reminding Short-pants of a conversation we’d had a couple of months ago about the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. The seed of doubt had been planted by an episode of the TV show Jane and the Dragon, giving me the opportunity to come clean and wipe this maternal responsibility off of my plate. Coins may still make their way under pillows in exchange for lost teeth, but the fairy ruse is over.

She’d taken it well. I thought this left the door nicely ajar for the next big conversation: about Santa Claus. Buddy-roo had extracted the truth from me last Christmas and I’d made her promise not to tell Short-pants until after the holiday. Remarkably, seven months later, she still hadn’t spilled the beans, though she frequently asked me when I planned to tell her sister.

“Now that you know there’s no Tooth Fairy, what do you think about Santa Claus?”

She contemplated this for a while – maybe 20 seconds. I waited, focusing on my breathing.

“Is it you?” she asked.

I nodded. “And Papa.”

She stretched her mouth into a wide smile, a forced smile, a smile with tears backed up against it like a dam about to burst. She wouldn’t stop grinning at me, every piece of metal on her teeth entirely visible, while I explained how Santa Claus is a beautiful myth, a metaphor for the generosity that we’re all capable of, how Santa exists in each one of us, he is the Christmas spirit, where we give gifts to the people we love, without thinking about getting anything in return.

“Except cookies and milk,” she said. And then, after some consideration, “Do you eat the cookie, too?”

“Sometimes I let Papa have a bite.”

She held her smile firmly in place. I asked if she’d been wondering about Santa, maybe she’d already guessed. Her yes wasn’t very convincing. We sat side-by-side on the discussion bench, quietly, letting it all sink in.

“I think I’d like some time on my own now,” she said, on the edge of tears.

I kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand and stood up and walked away, silently cursing at myself as I made my way out her forest. By the time I crossed the road and went to my equivalent of the discussion bench, a shady spot in a grove of trees beside three rogue grapevines, I was crying, too. I felt like I had stolen something magical and marvelous from her, that in my attempt to protect her from the presumed cruelty of her comrades at school, I’d injured her innocence. Why shouldn’t she believe in Santa Claus as long as possible? Why did I ruin her Christmas reverie? I could have at least waited for her school mates to ruin it, and been there to pick up the pieces. Except somehow, with Short-pants, I felt like that would be too hurtful; it’d be better to hear it from me. But was it?

Later, I found her in the kitchen. She was composed, though her eyes were still a little red.

“Did I do the wrong thing, by telling you?” I asked.

“I wish you hadn’t told me,” she said, “but I am glad to know.”

Little by little, the truth trickles in and myths of childhood fall by the wayside. My young girls keep growing, soon enough they’ll be little women with far more complicated preoccupations than Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Certainly there are more tough discussions to come, much tougher than this one. I suspect there are also some very interesting discussions ahead. All this, I guess, is what I have to look forward to.


Dec 28 2011

Revelation

It didn’t help that I was horizontal, trapped in bed by a gastro that’s been going around. De-facto and Short-pants were out on the last of the Christmas-eve day errands: buying bread for the foie gras, tabasco for the Christmas Day Bloody Marys and paper for the last few unwrapped boxes. Drifting in and out of sleep, I heard Buddy-roo occupying herself around the apartment, singing to her Pet-Shop animals (those Fisher Price toys have, maddeningly, still not yet arrived), pushing the baby-doll stroller around the kitchen island, or shaking the presents already placed under the tree.

I was on the mend, but I still couldn’t sit or stand upright for too long. She’d come in every fifteen minutes or so, climbing up on the bed to check on me. She’d brush my hair away from my forehead, give me an I’m-sorry-you’re-sick look; she was caressing me, I imagine, exactly as I have tended her maladies. I was grateful for her quiet company, until she broke the silence.

“Does Santa Claus really come, or is it you who gets up in the night to put his presents under the tree?”

Were I standing in the kitchen, attending to any household task, I could have looked the other way and made a light-hearted of-course-it’s Santa kind of comment to brush it away. But I was pinned like a wrestler beneath her, and she was looking me square in the eye.

“What do you think?” I said.

I’ve been conflicted about the continuation of the Santa Claus myth. The excitement he conjures up is charming, but it’s fatiguing to keep the charade going: wrapping his presents in special paper and making sure no trace is left, remembering which presents are from Santa and which are from us, the required oblique responses to questions about him, his elves and his reindeer. I’m eager for a time when the girls are non-believers and we can exchange the dozens of parcels under the tree for a family trip to somewhere warm with sand, surf and spa. Here it was, the moment to start turning this Christmas train around, and I was chicken.

“I don’t know,” she said, “that’s why I’m asking you.”

Up until now, they’ve both appeared to be believers. Short-pants diligently wrote her letter to Santa and warned her younger sister about the spying elves. When we baked and decorated my mother’s Christmas cut-out cookies, she worried out loud about which one to leave for Santa on Christmas eve. Buddy-roo seemed less devout. It was harder to get her to scribe anything to Santa; she even seemed a bit aloof. But then she told De-facto that “the best thing about Christmas is you can ask for whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anything.” She compared this with her birthday, when you didn’t know what you were going to get and somebody had to pay for the presents. So, it seemed, she still believed, too.

“Santa is the spirit of Christmas,” I told her, “he represents the magic of giving gifts without thinking about what you get back.”

I was stalling. I wanted her to find out from someone other than me, like a classmate or a cousin. Perhaps that’s what had happened and now she was coming to me for the ultimate truth.

“But who puts the presents from Santa under the tree?”

Her question was too direct. It was time to answer. Besides, I justified, this might lay the foundation for the dialogue between us in the years to come; how I handled this could be a precedent for future honest answers from her.

I told her. The truth. Then I braced myself for her response: a backlash of angry betrayal or tears of disappointment that all this magic was just a myth.

“Really?” Her eyes widened. “It’s you?

“And Papa, too.” I had to give him some credit.

She inched herself up closer to me, her smile widening. She threw her arms around my shoulders.

I wanted to say: You’re not mad at us? Instead I said: “It doesn’t mean that Santa doesn’t exist. He’s in all of us, at anytime of the year. He just comes out more generously at Christmas.”

“Who eats the cookie we leave out?” she asked.
“I do.”
“And the carrot, for the reindeer, who eats that?”
“Papa.”
“How come you get the cookie?”
“That’s how we roll.”

Now I wondered about Short-pants. She’d been doing such a fine job of believing – almost too good a job for her age – that I’d started to think maybe she was playing along to humor us. I did this: for three years I was well aware who was really putting those big-ticket gifts under the tree, but I didn’t fess up. The booty Santa brings is always more interesting. How do you think I got so many of those Fisher Price toys?

I asked her if Short-pants still believed.
“Yes,” she answered without hesitation. “She still believes.”

“Will you give me a present, then?” I asked. She nodded solemnly, to match the tone of my request.

“Please. Don’t. Tell. Her.”

I remembered how crushed she’d been, running to her room in tears when she learned that the Bastille Day fireworks weren’t really in honor of her birthday, something De-facto and I had perpetuated as a charming story – we thought – as the fireworks in Neuilly-sur-Seine, where she was born, started just a few moments after she was born.

“At least not until after this Christmas.”

Buddy-roo promised, and it was a promise she kept. In fact, she played along so well with the entire ruse that I realized that I’ve set no precedent whatsoever for any honest answers in the coming years. But we had peace at Christmas, in a festive kind of way, which is what I needed, and what I wish for all of you for the remainder of the holiday season.