What for having read all those books about how to raise children to be the harbingers of crunchy, progressive kick-assery, I, your loving mother, am gearing up to say something absolutely brilliant when you tell me (because, of course you’ll tell me) that you’re thinking about having sex for the first time, smoking pot, getting a tattoo of a dragon on your butt. (Spoiler alert. Two words. Think carefully.) But then shit got real.
Your dad left on this business trip and we were alone together, you and me and my insecurities about getting it all “right” – work/life balance, your routine, the ratio of structured to free play, a healthy, yet satisfying, school lunch. That day, our fish died. That day, I learned there’s nothing like untimely and completely unexpected loss of life to compel a growin’-up kid to start thinking critically, asking all the tough questions.
It was the barrage of questions that, at first, made me wish I had better answers, any answers, something more than sad speculation. (“Maybe ‘dead’ is like the part of sleep you can’t remember. But I don’t know. I’ve never been dead.”) WWYFS? What would your father say? I didn’t know. There was no time to phone a friend, either. So I scrapped “right” for the best I could do, and – so far as I can tell – it worked out just fine.
It went down like this: We walked together toward the back door. My arms were full of an over-sized pocketbook, your backpack and a couple of bags of groceries. Over the top of those grocery bags, I saw it. I saw it just as I heard your shrill scream: Oh, no! What’s happening? Mama! The fish! We have to save them!
The man-made, backyard body of water, our pond, had managed to spring a leak. The family fish were laying sideways in the little puddle that remained at the bottom alongside the grinding motor that controlled the fountain which ceased to flow. And there she was, our favorite fish, Georgine, taking the sporadic, deep breaths of a creature one fin flapping in that Great Ocean Beyond. Despite our Herculean efforts to restore water levels, by morning, when we went to check on her, Georgine was dead. The other fish would follow suit.
What’s the matter with her? Why won’t she wake up?
“She can’t. She’s dead.”
What do we do now?!
“We remember her.”
And we did. I made you turn your back while I scooped her slimy body into the paper cup that would serve as her coffin. And for the whole ride to school and the whole ride home some eight hours later, you wondered whether fish that are dead stay dead. And what about cats? And dogs? And people? (“When they’re finished living, they all die.”) Is dead like dreaming? (“Probably not.”) If a prince comes along and kisses you when you’re dead, does that make a difference? (“Only in story books.”)
The next day – ain’t no rest for the weary – you asked me about my favorite color – in people.
I was too tired to recollect all that best-practice wisdom I amassed while earning my Ph.D. in Self Help and Parenting Literature. My head was full of the latest NPR report about another case of racist brutality toward an unarmed black kid by a white police officer. I thought about the kid, his mother (his poor mother), the officer, the officer’s mother. Did the officer’s mother ever have a conversation with the toddler version of her son like the one I was going to have with my daughter? Was I? Was I really? And what was I supposed to tell you?
“Hmm…” Collect yourself, Ma. And…go! “Why do you ask?”
Because people come in different colors, and I want to know what color you like: Mine? Or Nina Simone’s?
Mississippi, goddamn: Yep. We just had the death talk, and now we were going to talk race. You were swiping through the album art in my iTunes library. And there she was, Nina: whose songbook you learned in lieu of lullabies – young, gifted…and black. You could sing the words to those songs. Songs you didn’t understand. Not yet. Soon. Soon enough. Soon you’d “understand” through the lens of white privilege. But still. It was official. You were no longer “color blind.”
This – this delicate, if mildly uncomfortable conversation – was an opportunity. It was the beginning of an awareness, an acknowledgement of difference, the start of a dialogue about privilege, bias, oppression of black people by white people. We’d get there. This was good. But first I had to answer your question.
“Well, I like them both. You know how I told you I don’t really have a favorite flower because every flower is beautiful? That’s how I feel about people. Every one is so different and so beautiful it’s hard to choose. So in this house, in this family, we don’t pick favorite colors in people. We have some friends who look a lot like us and some friends who don’t look like us, and they’re all our friends, right? Because they tell good stories or make us laugh or because we have fun playing with them.”
One of your best friends is brown, you reminded me – not the same as Nina, more like Buffy Saint-Marie – and you like her because you have the most fun playing dollhouse with her. That’s why she’s your favorite.
“You two are good friends.”
You’re my good friend, too, Mama. Mama, who’s stronger? A girl or a boy?
In the lead-up to bed time (how I worked for bed time!), we had age-appropriate conversations about gender, sexism, economic disparity. I stopped lamenting what I might have gotten all wrong. I started rejoicing in the opportunity to notice, to wonder, to respond, to navigate the messy and the marvelous – together.
Your dad would be home in the morning. A week later, he’d fill that pond with dirt and flowering plants. In reality, a cheap fix. Also, a garden in Georgine’s honor.
Goodnight. [Pause] Wait!!!
“What is it?”
Do you think I’m beautiful?
“I know you are.”
That was an easy one,