A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Thursday, September 1, 2011

All I Really Need to Know

Last week, I loaded up my twins with crayons, pencils, glue-sticks, and good-bye kisses, and sent them off to start thirteen or more years of formal education.  I tried, of course, to emphasize how much fun they were going to have: Songs!  Puzzles! Elmer’s Glue! But even as I elaborated on the joys of this brave new world, I had to edit my own childhood tales. 

For some reason, my memory (which is like Swiss cheese now) was remarkably good back when I still had all twenty baby teeth.  As a parent, being able to see things from a three-foot-tall perspective seems like it ought to be an advantage -- but I’m not always sure this is the case.  It sometimes messes with my sense of authority.  It often forces me to look at my grownup self as if in a warped fun-house mirror.  And although I do love being able to recall the magic and wonder of being a kid, remembering everything tends to rip the rose-colored glasses right off.

I was pretty sure I shouldn’t tell my kids about Tammy, the bully who bit anyone who tried to use the slide, and Colin, who spent the entire first day of kindergarten sobbing inconsolably.  (Names have been altered on the off-chance anyone actually reads this blog.)  It seemed best not to relate my weird paranoia about the over-large boy with sweaty hands who I never wanted to stand next to at circle time, or the child whose baby teeth were all black with rot.  I did mention Lily, who copied my every movement and threw a fit if she couldn’t hang her jacket next to mine, but I didn’t say anything about Jacob, who had accidents of the odoriferous variety.  I also did not mention Chester.

I was in eighth grade when I first realized that not everyone remembers everything they learned in kindergarten.  My friends and I were rushing through the crowded hallways between classes, but when I saw the flyer advertising candidates for student government, I stopped in my tracks and snorted with mirth. 

“Chester’s running?” I giggled. 

My friends stared at me blankly.

“You don’t remember?” I asked.  “Back when we were five?”

Chester was a five-year-old flasher.  For no remuneration or other obvious gain, this little boy was willing to show everything he’d got to anyone who would look, on the playground of Huntington Elementary School.  Given his age, the show was minimal.  Still, pretty much everyone seemed willing to ogle. 

No one remembered.

If I don’t know how much to tell my kids, I also don’t know how much to ask.  It’s hard not to quiz them as they emerge each afternoon, smiling, with the remnants of their lunches and their carefully crayoned worksheets with titles like Which Mice are Behaving Politely?  I wonder, but don’t inquire, whether they’ve met their own Tammy yet?  Their own Lily?  Their own Chester?  Occasionally, because parents like to worry, I wonder if they actually are any of these characters.

My memories also give me too clear an idea of what kinds of calamities may constitute real drama in the life of a kid. 

“This banana has a BRUISE on it!” The accusation is as vehement as if I’d handed my child fruit covered in mold, salmonella, and mad-cow prions. 

I want to snap back, “It’s fine, just eat it already!” except…

The year was circa 1977.  My mother, who doesn’t even like bananas, had committed the crime of giving me one with a brown squishy spot.  “Cut it off!” I moaned dramatically. “Ewww, cut it OFF!”

She rolled her eyes and snatched the fruit from my hands.  After performing the necessary butter-knife surgery, she remarked, “When you were a baby, you ate the squishiest bananas, all mashed up, and you loved them.”

I stared at her as if she were an alien from the planet Ogg.  I could not for the life of me fathom what this fact had to do with anything.  Babies eat gross stuff, sure, but I hadn’t been a baby for three years!  Grownups, I decided, just don’t make any sense.

Now I’m the grownup.  I don’t make sense.  My memory has stolen from me the satisfaction of being annoyed. I bite off the brown part myself, without a word. 

A surfeit of recollections makes it hard to be an impartial observer, judge, and mentor of little kids, because I feel as if part of me still is a little kid.   I’m adrift between worlds, unable to comply with the ludicrous childish desires that drive adults bonkers, and yet also unable to get righteously vexed over them.  I feel like an ogre when I lay down Necessary Grownup Laws, because I remember too clearly the tyranny of mandated bedtimes, the appeal of picking at scabs, and the tantalizing allure of Pixie Stix.  A few weeks ago, when the twins declared that they were going to start a beer cap collection, I had an immediate flashback to the blue bucket of bent, slightly smelly little treasures bearing mysterious emblems and logos – “Colt 45” sounded particularly interesting -- that my parents insisted I had to keep in the garage, not in my bedroom.  When one of my offspring has a huge meltdown because she can’t find a particular three-inch long plastic truck, I long to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” – except that I know that it does.

Sometimes it’s good to be needed – but sometimes it would be a relief to pretend that I’m not.  The problem is, I can’t pretend, because my reminiscences nag at me. I remember wanting my mother to watch me do a cool trick on the monkey bars -- not just once, but fifteen times in a row.  I remember the terror of the thudding footsteps that I heard in the dark of my own bedroom, which I didn’t recognize until years later were merely the sound of my own frantic heartbeat.  I remember the deep sadness of being told that at forty pounds I was too big to be picked up and lugged around.  Of course, my grown-up mommy-self is bored to catatonia by the monkey-bar trick, doesn’t possess infinite strength, and abhors being woken at miserable-o’clock-in-the-morning, but my memory betrays me, forcing me to at least try to be nice about it.

If I didn’t recall so much of my childhood, I also wouldn’t be forced to face the truth about how utterly dull I am these days.  When I was four, and everyone rattled on and on about the presidential election, I thought, “Hasn’t Ford been President forever?”  Why did anyone want a new one, and moreover, why did anyone care?  Back then, the idea that I would ever spend a birthday party sitting around on a playground bench talking about politics rather than getting nauseous on the merry-go-round would have been unthinkable.  Remembering this, I occasionally swing across the monkey bars, legs doubled up to accommodate my five feet eight inches. 

At this summer’s fair, I plunked my thirty-nine-year-old self onto half a dozen cheesy, creaking carnival rides.  As the Ferris wheel lit up in ten shades of neon, and as the kettle corn and ice cream were effectively swirled in my stomach by the motion of the Dragon Ship, the experience blended in my mind with happy pieces of the past: the sugar-rush thrill of cotton candy at the Bethpage Fair, the adrenaline of Six Flags Great Adventure, and the breathless awe of believing that the magician is for real.  I knew that without those flavors from my childhood, the ride just wouldn’t be the same.  But behind that thought I found a larger truth: without all my crazy, ecstatic, paranoid, tooth-fairy-believing, ant-loving, five-year-old-exhibitionist-viewing memories, my life would not be the same.

I decided that it doesn’t really matter whether or not my memories improve my parenting skills or detract from them, because either way, I wouldn’t give them up.  That 1970’s five-year-old is still part of who I am.  Sure, it’s a little humiliating to realize that Kindergarten Nancy was afraid of dogs, tree fungus, and miniature slide-hogging bullies, but I’m nonetheless deeply thankful that I didn’t lose her somewhere along the way.   

There are a few clear benefits of remembering kindergarten.  I know that nose-picking and Play-Doh-eating do not cause permanent damage. I can rest assured that questions such as, “Why does your eye look funny?” if asked with genuine interest, are not necessarily offensive to the kid with the funny eye (namely myself).  And if one of my kids turns out to be the Lily, the Tammy, the Colin, or even the Chester of the playground, I will know that I don’t really need to worry.  By the time high school rolled around, every one of those kids was more popular than I was. 

If I juggle my personae correctly, I think I can reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls.  I can be a properly boring grownup who pays bills, vacuums (occasionally), and worries about the financial crisis and the ramifications of global climate change.  But in the spare moments, the moments stolen from adulthood, I can pump the swing high enough that I almost believe it really can carry me full circle.

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