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.


Nov 10 2010

All the Greats

We were four, side-by-side in the bed. Buddy-roo claimed the prized position between De-facto and me. Short-pants pressed in close on my other side. The girls crossed and kicked their legs, piling them on mine and over each other’s, vying for top placement. De-facto attempted to ignore us; I was sure any moment he’d pull himself from under the oven of covers and leave us to find peace in one of the girl’s empty beds. Then we’d have the big bed to ourselves for an all-girl cuddle, as they like to call it.

Short-pants offered an enthusiastic report (I think). She lost a tooth. One of the loose molars on the top row finally fell out. I sensed some dismay mixed in with her delight – she didn’t say it but I wonder if she’d expected the Tooth Fairy to come during the night. She lost the tooth after our goodnight rituals; she hadn’t told me. Was she now putting two and two together to guess the real identity of the Tooth Fairy? Would she opt not to bring this up because she wants to get a 1€ coin even if it means ignoring new knowledge? Or would she remain in the group of faithful believers? It’s not the first time the Tooth Fairy has been a bit of a slacker; perhaps Short-pants has just learned to be forgiving. Or else she just likes believing in the Tooth Fairy.

I have an aunt who likes to believe in the Blue Fairy, a magic helper who does all sorts of tasks you’d prefer not to do yourself, like cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. I love that what started as a polite ploy to prohibit any of us from helping her wash up (the Blue Fairy only comes if you leave the dishes on the counter and close the door behind you) turned into a myth that persists. My aunt speaks about the Blue Fairy with admiration and awe. I think she enjoys the act of pretending to believe.

Buddy-roo, despite a loose tooth that will not fall out – even with the adult tooth growing over it – had no comment about the tooth fairy. She was staring up at the ceiling, moving her lips as if counting or considering something important. This went on for a good 30-seconds before she verbalized her thinking.

“I had a great grandmother,” she announced, “and a great, great grandmother. And a great, great, great grandmother…” The recent visit of the mother-in-love just one of the reasons she’s thinking about all great things grandmother.

She continued, emphasizing distinctly each great in the series of great, great, great, greats. She was digging back into the lineage of women before her. I pictured the old sepia photographs, once hidden in tattered, black-paged albums until my mother’s big project to frame them and hang them together in one room to make what became of gallery of our ancestors. There were plenty of men on this wall, but it’s the women who stood out: my grandmothers, great grandmothers and other elegant, austere or well-hatted women standing in poses stylish for the portraits of their time.

Now that technology permits, we keep this family lineage on-line; my sister took the initiative and it’s been amazing, the information we’ve acquired by going social-network with our family tree. Now all those faded photographs on the wall have names to match and for once I understand who they are and how they are related to me.

“…and then there’s a great, great, great, great, great, great grandmother.” She kept going.

I told her how she stands on the shoulders of many women who lived interesting lives, like her great grandmother who moved, with a husband she’d known only for a few months, to Cuba, where she knew nobody. Or another great grandmother who passed through Ellis Island when she was a girl, younger than Buddy-roo. Or her mother, who was pregnant during that long voyage across the Atlantic. Or on De-facto’s side, a great grandmother who was married twice, to the two loves of her life, both marriages lasting more than thirty years.

De-facto, until now silent – pretending to be asleep – piped up, pointing out that Buddy-roo’s two grandmothers also had two grandmothers, meaning she had four great grandmothers. And each of them, in turn, had two grandmothers, which makes for eight great, great grandmothers, and so on, making this big story of all the grandmothers an exponential one. I had never considered this, how many great, great women existed just to make me, so that I could make Short-pants and Buddy-roo. There’s a long line of women with wisdom, style and sass who’ve been before us.

“But what if I get children, like you and Papa got me?” (I love Buddy-roo’s choice of verb. She isn’t going to have children, or give birth to them, she’s just going to get them, like, at a store or something.) “What will they call her?” She pointed to her sister.

“She’ll be an aunt to your children,” I said.

“But won’t she be a great something?”

Considering her unwavering faith in the Tooth Fairy, Short-pants is poised to be a believer in the Blue Fairy, which puts her in good stead to become a greatest kind of aunt.

“Of course I’ll be a great aunt,” Short-pants volunteered, “I’m a great sister, aren’t I?”


Oct 26 2009

Lying through our Teeth

It’s not easy, maintaining the myth of the tooth fairy.

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to perpetuate this little legend. It’s a lie.
I suppose it’s an automatic reflex: The tooth fairy comes to take away our children’s teeth because our parents told us she (it is a she, right?) came to take away ours. Just like Santa Claus lives at the North Pole and rides behind his preternatural reindeer on Christmas Eve because that’s what our parents told us, so we tell our kids. Say all you want about how Santa exists in our hearts and in the spirit of Christmas, but no matter how you dress it up: it’s a big fat lie.
foster_grant_smile
Last summer, Short-pants expelled a baby tooth that had been hanging on for over a month. She was so excited that she put herself to bed early, the tiny piece of enamel centered under her pillow, waiting to be magically traded for a coin, overnight. The next morning she galloped down the stairs in tears.

“The tooth fairy didn’t take my tooth!”
Oh Shit, I said. (Not out loud, though.)
“That can’t be,” I said, audibly.
“It’s true,” she said, lifting her cupped palm up toward me. There it was, that little tooth, the same one that had fallen out of her mouth the afternoon before.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “What’s today’s date? Are we in…is it August?”
“Yes?” she said, verging on hysteria.
“Well of course, the tooth fairy must be on vacation!”
“Really? On vacation?” she said, reining in her sobs, hope in her little voice.
“Everyone in France goes on vacation in August. It’s the same for the tooth fairy.”

De-facto quietly shut the door to his office.

“We just have to try again,” I assured her. We agreed to put the tooth under her pillow the next night, and again the next night – every night in August if necessary – until the tooth fairy returned from her holiday. (That tooth garnered 2 euros, btw, double the usual booty.)

Should I have told her the truth? “Mama was supposed to sneak upstairs and take the tooth from under your pillow and replace it with a one euro coin, but as a result of a 10-hour brunch in the courtyard with Ricky and Lucy, she fell asleep before you did.” (And why does mama speak about herself in the third person on occasions like this?)

Or more brutally: “I forgot.”

Two weeks ago, Buddy-roo’s front bottom tooth was wiggling; this would be her first tooth to come out. I was about to leave for a 10-day trip, De-facto would follow several days later to join me for a work assignment. I worried, what if the tooth fell out while we were gone? I wrote a note to our babysitter – she’s loyal and reliable but from another culture that doesn’t have a tooth fairy – explaining this ritual. She heeded my request but because Buddy-roo wanted us to see the tooth before it was relinquished to the fairy, it was put away for safekeeping. When we returned, the babysitter
without_toothwent to get it from the basket on top of the microwave oven, where she’d put it, but looked back at me in a panic. She uttered one word, the name of our cleaning guy, and the whole story was clear.

“Wait,” I said to Buddy-roo, who was impatient for me to examine the lone tooth. “I really want to see it, but I have to do one thing first.” I nodded at our babysitter to let her know I had a plan. I ran to my bedroom closet, dug into those precious jewelry cases stashed in the back, and pulled out one of Short-pant’s little lost teeth – probably the same one from last August. Returning to the scene of the crime, “Now, let me see that tooth,” I rummaged around the top of the microwave, pretending to find the tooth that had been left there. Buddy-roo even inspected it herself and couldn’t tell the difference. Crisis averted.

Essayist Paul Graham suggests that adults lie constantly to their kids for a number of possibly legitimate reasons: to protect them, to preserve their innocence, to maintain our authority – or sometimes simply to keep the peace.

We arrive at adulthood with a kind of truth debt. We were told a lot of lies to get us (and our parents) through our childhood. Some may have been necessary. Some probably weren’t. But we all arrive at adulthood with heads full of lies.

Will my daughters resent me when they discover this? I never held it against my parents. Why? Why didn’t I resent being lied to? Will my girls forgive me when they find out the truth about Santa? The Easter bunny? The tooth fairy? And anything else I might have to make up just to help them make sense of this world?

I asked De-facto if he was uncomfortable with the ruse of the tooth fairy. He said losing a tooth could be pretty traumatic for a little kid. Maybe knowing the tooth fairy sees value in this small spare part makes up for the shock of having it fall out of your mouth.

So I lie to my kids. Sometimes for their own good. Sometimes for my own sanity.

Like the time we let the girls watch Sophia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette. It’s one of those films made for an adult audience, but it’s nuanced enough that the girls can watch it. At the end of the film, there’s a scene in which Marie Antoinette is being taken away in her carriage and she looks out the window at the Petit Trianon for the last time.

“Where is she going?” Buddy-roo asked.
“They’re taking her to prison.” I said.

Then there’s a shot – maybe the last one in the film – very slowly panning the boudoir of Marie Antoinette and Louis the XVI, which has been totally
Versailles_bedroomtrashed by the angry mobs of protesters that made their way to Versailles.

“But why did she go to jail?” Buddy-roo asked.
“Because she didn’t clean her room.” I said, nodding at the screen, “Look.”
“Oh,” she said, “She really went to jail because she didn’t clean her room?”
“That’s right.”