Meow

There are parents out there — you know who you are — who freely, glibly, almost joyfully lie to their children on a regular basis. Behavior modification, comfort, pure and simple fun — all are justifications for these routine lies. They range from “Jimmy Kimmel told me to eat all your Halloween candy” (do a YouTube search for that –there are some heartbreakingly funny videos out there), to “Santa won’t bring you any toys if you pull the puppy’s tail,” to “Yes, sweetie, your purple polka-dot shirt looks charming with those camouflage capris,” to “That green stuff on your plate is elf farts, and if you eat it all you’ll be able to fly! (Oh, how sad, I guess you must have missed some crumbs on your plate.)” Lies, boldfaced lies, and I’ve never truly understood the common propensity toward this parenting approach. It’s one area that brings me perilously close to the brink of breaching my personal life philosophy of non-judgement. 

I guess my near-yielding to temptation to judging others might be why I found myself in a sticky situation a couple of days ago: a demonstration of just why parents might feel moved to act in such ways. 

We’d had a long morning, and opted to stop in for a bite at McDonald’s so we could finish shopping before going home. Immediately inside the door was a display of the Happy Meal toys: wind-up monster trucks, and Hello Kitty toys. Sofia, who will be two in about three months, adores “meows” and instantly recognized Hello Kitty as such, and began hopping up and down in joy as she shouted “Meow! Meow!” I glanced at the options: a little tin with stickers, and several figures. I could see the tin would be too difficult for Sofia’s little hands to manage, so I resolved to request a figure instead. 

After the meal, I realized I’d forgotten to request a Hello Kitty figure. I checked the bag: yes, it was a tin. I carried it to the counter, which was, I was thankful to see, nearly abandoned on the customer side, and apologetically explained the situation. The server was understanding — I guessed she had kids of her own — and did a quick search for a replacement. 

Unfortunately, they were all tins. She had just one figure. She brought it to me, shaking her head, as she showed me that it was even worse — it featured an ink stamp on the bottom. “Let me look in the back.” She was doing way more than she needed to, and I was grateful and by now feeling guilty, but she was gone before I could say I’d just take the tin anyway. 

She returned in a few minutes. “There weren’t any more Hello Kitty toys. I just found this.” She extended a rather adorable purple, bewinged, single-horned, flowing-haired My Little Pony. 

I was torn. I recalled Sofia’s eager bouncing and exclamations of “Meow! Meow!” On the other hand, I couldn’t possibly reject this woman’s hard work to help make a little girl happy. She had had no obligation to try anywhere close to that hard; there was no way I could hand the toy back. I smiled, thanked her for her generous help, and returned to the table. 

I handed the toy to Sofia, pasting an enthusiastic smile onto my face. “Look! A PURPLE PONY!”

Her face fell. She pulled her hands back, shook her head sadly. “Meow?” She looked around, as if expecting a cat to materialize from empty air next to her. “Meow!”

I took a deep breath. I gritted my teeth. I drew on my deepest reserves of parenting strength. And then, my friends, I held up that pony in front of my toddler’s sad little face, and I said, in a voice imbued with the very richest sincerity I could muster, “This is a meow. Look! Meow!” I danced it toward her, making highly authentic cat sounds. 

The light returned to my little girl’s eyes. She squealed with delighted laughter, startling the nearby diners, and grabbed the purple pony with a triumphant crow of “Meow!” 

 From then on, we have referred to the pony as a meow. Even Niko, our literalist, was convinced to adapt the new terminology when he realized what was at stake. 

And I realized, once again, that judging other parents just isn’t kind. You really don’t know why they’re making the choices they’re making, why they’re in the situation you see. I still don’t get the humor in getting  kids to cry as you tell them that Jimmy Kimmel told you to eat all their Halloween candy, but I’m willing to accept that maybe even those parents aren’t actually terrible parents. We all make different choices, based on what our children (and we) need. And maybe what those parents needed after an exhausting Halloween was some side-splitting laughter at their children’s expense. I guess. (No, sorry, I still don’t get that one.)

 So next time I hear you lie to your child, I promise, I’ll try a little harder not to judge, as I remember the transformation from devastation to joy that I saw on my own daughter’s face when I told one tiny little lie myself two days ago. Meow.  

Kissing the Meow

Lying to My Son

Before I had children, and even when the older of our two was a baby, I swore I’d never lie to my children. Never. How could I betray their trust, set them up for disillusionment? I would be honest, I promised. At all times. In all situations. Never, I insisted, could there possibly be an excuse for lying to a child.

My husband Aaron agreed, and with the birth of our son, we set out on our adventure of perfect openness and truth telling. We took a policy of plain, simple truth telling, no embroidering or glossing over, and certainly no outright fabrication.

We were honest about the despised food items in his plate –“Yes, those are potatoes. Take one bite,” we’d say. No pretending they were magical unicorn eggs that would turn him into a superhero; they were potatoes, no more, no less.

We were straightforward about the existence of Santa. As our two-year-old son approached his first memorable Christmas, he was fascinated with Santa-themed decorations. We told him that Santa was a nickname for a kind man named Nicholas who had lived long ago, and we remembered him at Christmas time. He was a story, we explained: department store, mall, or bell-ringing Santas were regular people wearing costumes. He appeared to accept this, if grudgingly, and we congratulated ourselves on our honesty.

Our self-congratulation continued as we explained the precise facts about the Easter Bunny: he was a kind person in a costume, we told our three-year-old the next year, leaving candy for children to celebrate spring. How nice! Unfortunately, Niko’s patience with our honesty regarding the world had been wearing thin; he had been indignant that we continued to insist in Santa’s historical accuracy, but at our declaration that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, he was crushed. “But I want the Easter Bunny! I want him to be real!” he wailed.  But it was too late; we couldn’t backtrack. No, our son would know that Santa Claus is a cultural memory of a historical figure, the Easter Bunny is the funny leftover traditional costumed character of an ancient custom, and his potatoes are just potatoes. We remain relentlessly honest, although, I suspect, we may be able to reach some sort of quiet compromise where we don’t insist quite so firmly in these beloved characters’ nonexistence.

But then, one day, there was a hard question. The kind of question for which honesty just can’t do the job.

We were in the car, where so many of these questions come flying at me. Niko, now four, was asking about love. “Will you always love me, Mom?” he asked. This has been a common theme for him, a source of mild anxiety at times, and once — when he discovered there had been a time I hadn’t been his mom and thus hadn’t known him, therefore hadn’t loved him — well, that had been an interesting conversation.

“I will always love you, for ever and ever,” I declared.

“Will you love me if I die?”

“I will love you if you die. People don’t stop loving  their family who die. They miss them, but they don’t stop loving them.”

“What if you die? Will you still love me if you die?”

And there it was. The question. The one I can’t really answer. The one theologians, church fathers, religionists of all sorts, of all creeds and doctrines, can’t really answer. We just don’t know, do we? Many of us believe our consciousness continues after death. We go on — to heaven, to nirvana, to reincarnation, to a place of waiting, to the clouds.  But do we maintain a connection to those we leave behind, or do we continue without looking back? Do we keep on loving, or do we forget? For every dramatic return-from-beyond-the-veil account that suggests one answer, another contradicts; for each passage from a holy book that points in one direction, another passage points another way.

I was raised on the Bible like most kids are raised on peanut butter and jelly, on meat and potatoes. In the communes in which I was raised, we read the Bible at mealtimes, at church three times a week, at school daily, in private devotions. In school, we were expected to use it as reference to support viewpoints in essays on any subject, from history to science to opinions on skirt length. So it’s with a bit of authority that I say: the Bible has not a whole lot to say on this exact subject, that of love after death. The one thing that echoes uncomfortably in my mind on the subject is a song that ought to be reassuring, a song whose melody was written by my mother’s dear friend — someone I consider a second mother — and whose words come from Revelation 21:4-5:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, from their eyes/ There shall be no more sorrow/ No more pain/ No more death. For the former things are passed away, are passed away/ Are passed away/ And behold, He has made all things new.

In my mind, I hear her clear voice singing the simple and beautiful melody, her fingers caressing the strings of the guitar in a way that’s as familiar to me as her smile, her eyes calm with the strength and peace that you only see in someone who’s been through more than their fair share of sorrow and tears and has carried a spark of joy throughout. She’s a woman of unshakeable faith, and that’s why I absolutely believe the words of this song. And that’s why I can’t answer my son’s question honestly.

You see, I believe a portion of love is pain and sorrow. A parent can’t see a son’s bewilderment at a friend’s rejection and not share his sorrow. You can’t hold your daughter’s fevered body and not sense her pain. When a loved one suffers, you suffer too. When you’re separated from those you love, that hurts as well. Even in hypothetical perfect, ideal relationships, even if we don’t actively cause pain to those that are closest to us through betrayal or misunderstanding, loving another person involves pain. And so, if God is erasing pain and sorrow from us as we pass through death, the only way that’s possible is if we stop loving those we’ve left behind.

Now, there are still plenty of possibilities. Perhaps we don’t go all the way on at first — other verses in the Bible make reference to clouds of witness watching those still in the daily struggle on Earth, for example. Perhaps this particular description in Revelation is only to the end of times. Perhaps some are even allowed to stay with those they love for a time. That’s what I’d like to believe, even though I don’t actually think it’s true.

When I was fourteen, my protective, almost-seventeen-year-old brother Charles died in a boating accident with a group of other young people and chaperones from our close-knit community. I felt his loss badly, of course, right from the beginning, but it wasn’t till I got older that I began to realize how much we both were missing. He never got to meet my husband, something I regret — they would have appreciated each other, I think. I missed him at my wedding, and he didn’t see me get married. I missed him desperately when my son was born. And I wanted so, so badly to believe what I knew couldn’t be true, that somehow he was still watching over and loving me. That’s why, when Niko protested the Easter Bunny’s status as a pretend creature, I sympathized. And that’s why, when he asked if I’d still love him if I died, I couldn’t tell him what I thought was an honest answer. I couldn’t tell him no. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe.

When Niko was born, I had a terribly hard time transitioning him from bassinet to crib, clutching him and sobbing the first time I tried to lay him down in the crib that seemed long miles from the bed. When I finally managed it, the first time I made the trip at night from our room to the nursery to feed him, there was a not-really-there shadow leaning over his crib. As I said, it wasn’t really there. Not visible, not really. But the invisible shadow had (to me) a clear attitude of protective love. After that, for several weeks, each time I staggered sleepily to the nursery for a night feeding, the not-really-there shadow was faithfully stooped over his crib. Not once did I have any sense of anxiety, fear, or spookiness. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time that it occurred to my sleep-hazed mind to think Wait…what? before I dismissed it, deciding I just didn’t need to know. Eventually, it wasn’t there any more, but for the weeks that it leaned over my son’s crib at night, I felt a sense of peace, of watchful protection.

I know that my friends run the gamut of faith. As they’re reading this, some are thinking, How amazing. God is so good! He sent your brother to care for your son! And others are thinking,  Honey, get some rest and tell your doctor you need better pills, because something is not right with your brain. I’m sure my scientist best friend, who currently bends his remarkable brain to the study of regenerative biology, is shaking his head as he reads this and is exercising all his considerable powers of kindness to not tell me I’m cuckoo. And maybe a few in the middle are just thinking that a sleep-deprived mom in a shadowy room shouldn’t be surprised if she imagines a few strange things.

All I know is, when my son asked me if I would love him after I died, I had a split second to balance those two thoughts: my own irrational desire for reassurance of my brother’s love after he died (and the fresh memory of my son’s sorrow at the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny and panic at his realization that I once hadn’t loved him because I hadn’t been his mommy), and the Biblical assurance that we would experience no more sorrow after death. I could have launched into a philosophical discussion about the uncertainty of the afterlife, about the adventure that follows stepping through the mysterious dark door of death. I could have told him that love is full of sorrow and pain, and we’re assured a life without those in the times to come. I could have been honest, I could have told him: I don’t know.  But he’s four. And I chose love.

“I will always love you, sweetie,” I promised him. “Always. No matter what. If I die, or if you die, I will always love you.” I lied. I lied to my son. And I have not a single regret.

In an unusual turn of events, three photographs I chose for this post aren’t my own. The black-and-white photo of my brother twirling in a striped shirt was taken my my Aunt Martha, probably in 1985; the color photos of my son in a plaid shirt and brown vest were taken by Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography.

A Lying Liar and a Singer Sewing Machine

Recently I read (and watched) a story about the first lie the author ever told as a child. Years later, the author — now a teacher — still vividly remembers the experience. Reading his story, I realized that my own first lie is just as indelibly branded on my memory.

I was four years old. It was my family’s first year living in a tiny cabin next to the Stikine River in British Columbia, where we trapped furs for income, hunted and fished for meat, and grew a huge garden full of vegetables that we preserved for winter food. In that remote place, there was no electricity, unless we used precious fuel to run a generator — something we did only on laundry days to run our ancient cylindrical wringer washing machine.

My mother’s sewing machine was a worn but elegantly beautiful foot-treadle-powered Singer sewing machine with a wooden cabinet and a painted metal head, which I called the “horse.” She doesn’t have it anymore, but I found a picture of a nearly identical machine (this one has a wooden cover that’s shown in a different photo; my mother’s allowed the top to rotate down into the cabinet) at Copycat Collector:

A beautiful Singer sewing machine.
A beautiful Singer sewing machine.

I loved the whir of the flywheel and belt and the rhythmic thump of the treadle when my mom sewed. But most of all, I was fascinated by the shining blur of the speeding needle.

My mother had been sewing one afternoon while I watched, when she found she needed something outside. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said. “DON’T TOUCH THE SEWING MACHINE.”  I had just learned how to time one minute on the clock. I sat myself down on a chair below the pear-shaped wooden clock my dad had made, and kept my eyes fixed on the second hand. It went all the way around one time, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps I’d been mistaken in my attempt to count off a minute. I watched again. Still no mother. Clearly, she had gotten lost and was never returning.

Tears welled up, my chin wobbled, and I opened my mouth for a hearty wail — which was stopped, abruptly, by my realization that I was not just motherless, I was unsupervised. I could do whatever I wanted. I could…I could…

I could touch the sewing machine.

I approached the shining, forbidden machine slowly, carefully. Reached out one finger. Stroked the painted design. Strummed the leather belt. Examined the shining silver balance wheel (that’s the small wheel at the end of the head, for those that care). I gloried in the machine’s beauty, now all mine. Finally, I ventured to touch the most dreaded part of the never-to-be-touched sewing machine: the needle. I slid my finger under the point, relishing the delicate scratch of the sharp tool. Then I rested my finger below the needle, on the toothy feed dogs (the teeth that pull the fabric forward), and eyed the wheel speculatively. When turned by hand or by the belt connected to the treadle down below, the silver balance wheel put a series of hidden cogs into motion, causing the needle to flash up and down. I’d seen my mother turn the wheel many times with a practiced hand, to position the needle correctly or to boost the motion when starting a seam so as to put less strain on the leather belt. I was tall enough to stretch one hand to the wheel while resting my finger under that seductive needle. My mind raced with the possibilities. Finally, motherless, I could do what I’d always (I now knew) wanted to do: race the needle.

I was positive I could do it. Surely my finger could move faster than the needle. I would turn the wheel slowly at first, for practice. But I failed to take physics into account. Turning the balance wheel slowly still caused the needle to flash oh, so very quickly, right into my waiting finger. It slashed a red furrow into the side of my finger, which quickly welled with blood. I stared, aghast. My beloved machine had betrayed me. Suddenly, being motherless lost its appeal. I opened my mouth and bellowed: “MOMMMMMMYYYYYY!”

Instantly, like magic, there she was, wrapping me in her arms, soothing my tears, prying my hand open to see the source of the blood, and demanding sternly, “Did you touch the sewing machine?”  And I, weeping with the shock of the needle’s cruelty, streaming blood from a needle-shaped gash in my finger, sobbed, “N-n-n-noooooo!”

For years afterward, I believed that I’d successfully convinced my mother that I hadn’t touched the machine. I wrestled with guilt and shame: I had lied to my mother. I had deceived. I was almost certainly going straight to hell. The experience was so wrenching — the lie, not the gash — that I never lied again. Ever. I bent the truth slightly on occasion; I evaded; I distracted and misdirected when necessary; but I never a lie. To this day, I can’t do it. It’s simply impossible. I relive the horrified, ashamed ache in my belly that came with the lie, and I just can’t manage it. And it’s all because I was betrayed by a beautiful piece of mechanical art.