Day 49: A mother’s discourse, or: a Baarrrfffian meditation upon walking to school.

When I opened the door this morning to shoo the elder off to school, I saw our neighbor, who lives in the unit opposite ours, coming out of her house at the same time. She divides her time between L.A. and New York, so I don’t see her very often. We greeted each other warmly and started chatting, but I was also a little fidgety because I was aware that the elder was just standing there when he needed to be leaving NOW.

“Go on, go on!” I urged him. As he strode off, our neighbor turned to look at me with her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. She mouthed the words, “YOU ARE CRAZY!!!!!” (And, yes, the manner in which she mouthed them indicated all-caps and several exclamation points).

I knew exactly what she was referring to. She was referring to the fact that I was still standing in the doorway, while the elder was walking to school.

“I know, I know ….” I mumbled, a little sheepishly, “but he’s fine, he’s been doing it for a while now.” Now she looked, if anything, more shocked.

“Oh. My. God,” she kept repeating.

This neighbor, you see, has a son exactly the same age as the elder (they are both nine). She mentioned that her son had informed her that the elder walks to school on his own and that she had told him in no uncertain terms that that could not possibly be true.

“YOU ARE CRAZY,” she said again, in case I had failed to divine the words on her lips the first time. “My friend’s daughter was nearly abducted in Whole Foods!”

I didn’t really know what to say to this (although I did, I admit, puzzle over what it means to be “nearly abducted”) [1] so I didn’t say anything. I think my expression may have read as, “Eh … you win some, you lose some.” Upon registering my weary expression, my neighbor said, conciliatorily,

“I mean, I’m sure there’s stuff that I do that YOU would think is insane.”

What, me? I thought to myself? Think uncharitable, judgmental thoughts in the privacy of my own head about another person’s parenting decisions? Nope. That has definitely never, ever happened. Never. Definitely not.

I made a shoulder-shrugging gesture that was meant to convey something non-committal.

Later I was having lunch with a group of colleagues including one I’d never met before. It turned out she had an 8-year old son. The encounter from this morning still on my mind, I asked her if he walked to school by himself.

“Oh, I think that’s something from a previous generation!” she declared, laughing.

Although nobody at the table actually accused me of child-abuse when I confessed that my nine-year old walks to school on his own, much concern was expressed for his safety.

“How far does he have to walk?”

“Are there at least other Moms [i.e. good mothers] walking their kids to school while he’s walking?”

While the poor neglected elder was trudging the 0.3 miles to school this morning, lashed by the wind and the rain, off to put in his 14 hours at t’ mill before coming home to a good thrashing, I skipped the younger to school in the sunshine. Today I taught her the song, “Skip to my Lou.” She asked if it was an English song about going to the loo. I said I didn’t think so but then realized I actually had no idea what the song was about. [2]

Is it fun being English? she asked.

While I was busy over-thinking the answer to that question [3] she chimed in,

“It’s not fun being American. I wish I was English. Then I could say baarrrfff.”

“You could say what?”

“Baarrrrffff.”

I was silent for another few seconds before it clicked: “oh, bath!”

Our talk turned from the lavatorial to the ethereal realm when the younger noticed that the moon was visible high above us in the chalk-blue sky.

“Can I be an astronaut when I grow up?” she asked.

“Yes!” I said.

We spent some time discussing how high you can jump on the moon, what astronauts eat in space, the importance of avoiding black holes, and other extra-terrestrial subjects.

Suddenly she stopped skipping and stood quite still on the sidewalk and looked at me.

“The earth is moving!” she exclaimed, her eyes dancing.

She didn’t mean there was an earthquake or anything like that; she meant that the earth was rotating even though we couldn’t feel it.

“We’re on earth!” she declared joyously, and she started to run, running her hands through the leaves of a passing hedge as she did so.

“On earth you can touch everything,” she yelled gleefully.

Oh, how I wish I could bottle that feeling: I’d distill it and make a tincture. I’d carry it around with me in a tiny flask, and take a wee dram, for medicinal purposes, as needed.

Notes

[1] I don’t mean to make light of what might have been a serious incident. Many years ago, before he was allowed to walk home from school, the elder wandered off after school instead of going to the after-school class that he was enrolled in. The school called me asking if I had already picked him up and I went into full panic mode. So, I understand anxiety about unattended children. But I’m also thinking of an incident that happened a couple of months ago in which I might have been unfairly pegged as a would-be-abductor. I was walking along the street in Westwood and saw a little girl, perhaps about 7 or 8, walking towards me, crying. I asked her if she was OK and, understandably, she gave me a frightened look that said, “you’re a stranger, there is no way I’m gonna talk to you.” She ignored my question and walked past me still crying; there was no adult within sight. So I went back and asked her, “are you sure you’re all right? Do you need help?” “I can’t find my Mom and little sister,” she sobbed. I promised I would stay with her till we found her Mom, and she decided to trust me. We found her mother and sister in a few minutes once I had established where she had last seen them. The woman looked at me warily as I explained where I had found her daughter and I thought for a millisecond that she was going to accuse me of something. In the end she just said a curt thanks and I went on my way.

[2] Wikipedia claims that “Lou” derives from “‘loo,’ a Scottish word for love,” but I’m skeptical.

[3] The thoughts that flitted through my mind during that couple of seconds went something like, “English = Tea! Crumpets! Rufus Sewell, Middlemarch! Oh … but also: crippling class anxiety, devastating legacy of empire, oh bollocks.

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