February 10, 2009
Swastikas and Cigarettes
I had a conversation with my mom yesterday afternoon about the wonders of parenting with her explaining to me how it was the most fabulous, worthwhile and rewarding thing a person could do.
She sat with her back to the window and, even mostly backlit, I could see the shine as her eyes welled up. She said, "The day you watch those boys walk down the aisle for their graduation... and when they reach up to move that tassle over to the other side of that cap, you'll think back to all these times you're writing about. All the times you're aggravated and annoyed and tired... you won't even remember those things. All you'll remember is how cute they were, how sweet, how much fun you had on those days. You'll see. I promise, you'll see."
She had me convinced. I left my office with a renewed vigor, with an improved attitude to not be such a fussy mom, to not yell so much, to be more relaxed and easy going, to be a FUN mom instead of crazy-control-freak-spastic mom. My life was changed. I had resolve!
For about three hours I had this resolve and then I got home and actually put my new attitude into action. I have two words for you: epic fail
I have to give myself credit. I started out really well, but soon met with a force that my anemic parenting skills were simply no match for. I entered the house with a positive vibe -- I helped hubby make dinner, we talked about the days events, we got homework all finished. I even managed to keep smiling when The Toddler mixed his ketchup in with his creamed corn and then refused to eat it because it was "dirty". I didn't bellow about not getting dessert until he was 25 years old. In fact all through dinner I only slightly lost it when our oldest stole all the potatoes off my plate and that was only because he already had a plate full of potatoes and what did he need mine for anyway? (Admittedly, they were good and we all went back for seconds, but STILL.)
I was on a roll, frankly, and being really awesome.
Then it happened that The Toddler was sitting in the living room and he had a piece of plastic something-or-other sticking out of his mouth. He sat there a while staring off into space then glanced over at me and said, "moke."
I blinked. Did he...? "Tristan, what did you say?"
"Did you say 'smoke'?"
"Are you smoking??"
"TRISTAN YOU ARE NOT SMOKING. THAT WILL MAKE YOU SICK AND GIVE YOU A TUMOR! OR EIGHTY-ONE-HUNDRED TUMORS! GET THAT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH. YOU ARE NOT SMOKING!"
He smiled and while I was yelling for his dad to get in this room right now he took the "moke" out of his mouth and was balancing it between his tiny little fingers and blowing invisible smoke rings out into the living room.
Okay, so I lost it a little. All this, however, was nowhere near as disturbing as what came later.
After dinner, we all relaxed doing our various household obligations. Mine was doing some work I brought home that I wasn't able to finish during the day. Rob and Julius were working on a thank you note to an aunt who sent birthday money. The Toddler was... well, smoking probably.
Julius sealed up his thank you note in the envelope and was drawing on it. He handed it over to me and said, "Mom, look at these cool American flags I drew."
I leaned over and took the envelope from him and there in bold red and black crayon was a big swastika flag. I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.
"What do you think, Mom?"
"Uhhh.... I, errrr... I..."
(All of that is shorthand for "I'm an idiot and have no idea what to say next.")
I concentrated really hard and tried to focus on my point which was WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING DRAWING SWASTIKAS ON YOUR MAIL TO AUNT PAT??? No, no, that's not my point. Okay, okay, my real point it...
"Hey, um, Jules, you did a really nice job on these, but this one right here means something really REALLY BAD."
I knew immediately I was on the verge of failing miserably when I saw how sad he was. He collapsed inward, his back rounding, lower lip pooched out, eyes downcast. He slumped backward onto the couch. Already I began beating myself up for what a miserable, inept human I am for not knowing exactly what to say.
I have parenting books on my shelves. Lots of them. I've even read them. None of them cover swastikas. NONE OF THEM.
Committed, I lumbered forward like a blind and hungry elephant all set to trample what was left of my son's delicate psyche. The trick here is how do you explain to your little man about the origin of that symbol, the violence, the deaths, the lingering culture of racism and hate. How do you explain just enough to make him understand why that little squiggle is bad and how much it says in its few little crooks across the page? How do you know where you stop so you don't say too much and go too far?
Because he's fairly precocious, I have to continually remind myself that he's only five. He talks like he's older, he understands concepts way beyond his years, but I am not ready to explain hatred to him. I just don't want to do it. I know one day innocence goes, but not today, not two days before his 6th birthday. We should not talk about swastikas today.
But we do anyway, we discuss it as a family and explain as best we can about how every now and then a bad man rises from the depths of the worst humanity has to offer and tries to exert his will on those who are weaker. But we finished with the good news, that the other part of being human is to rise up and fight for what is yours, to do the right thing and protect those who are weaker than you. The joy and wonder of being a person in your community is to exercise the power you have to say "no", and to join arms with your neighbors as you draw a line in the sand and say, "here it is -- this is the line you shall not cross."
He was a trooper and we ended the conversation on a light note and he later explained to me about how if anyone broke into our house he and his dad would protect me and The Toddler and how his dad is strong enough to throw the washing machine on the bad guys and maybe even the couch. He leaped on the couch to demonstrate a couple of martial arts moves that he'd be able to utilized and yelled, "And I could even throw some books on them or maybe even your computer!"
He wandered off to play and Rob and I sat in silence just staring at each other. Finally Rob broke the silence saying, "I'll tell you what I'm really glad about..."
"What's that," I asked, chewing my nails.
"That he didn't draw that picture at school."
We looked at each other and both collapsed back into the couch busting out in hysterical, nervous laughter.