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The mysteries of childhood multiplied exponentially when my son started school. The roster of missing or mangled things, for which there was never an explanation, now included mittens, hats, pencils, spoons... and bananas.
The bananas were the worst— inexplicably bruised and battered, loitering at the bottom of a sticky lunch bag. “What in God’s name happened to this banana?” I would ask, wishing I had a pair of rubber gloves like a crime scene investigator, holding the flaccid Cavendish from its stem as liquefied contents oozed from an apparent stab wound.
I never got a confession, just a stream of “I don’t know” punctuated by, “Can I have a cookie?”
Then one day last year, I spied two boys at Joe’s school—bulging knapsacks strapped in front, instead of in back—repeatedly smashing into each other, Sumo- style. I reckoned that no fruit could have withstood that kind of blunt-force trauma.
One mystery, at least, had been solved.
Of course, children aren’t alone when it comes to enigmas and riddles. We parents have our fair share of them too. The greatest of these may be how quickly we can morph into our own mothers and fathers, in spite of the solemnest of vows not to.
He was acting like a kid, and I was vexed. Catching my reflection in a shop window, my father’s face stared back at me.
In our house, I often call my husband by his mother’s name. When he dotes and fusses about slippers and socks and napkins I say, “Would you like a glass of sherry, Harriett?” Likewise, when I’m overly cross and critical, I can expect to hear, “Take it easy, John!”
As I watched my son hang his head—the balloon of enthusiasm for his latest purchase now popped—I would have welcomed my husband’s familiar warning. But he wasn’t around at the time.
Even in the throes of grand-scale parenting revisionism I struggle with that annoying little default-to-dad setting that I can’t seem to uninstall from my desktop. It comes in handy for lots of things, but not parenting. Gen Xers like me have purged more of our parents’ child-rearing practices than any generation before us, but DNA is forever: It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
Last week the whole country was still reeling from tragedies that left two men in uniform dead. My son didn’t know that, or that I’d lost my sense of humour for gun-play in a public place. Making matters worse was that Joe was firing what, at first blush anyway, looked like a giant dildo. And, no, my mind is not in the gutter—that really is what it looks like.
The Banana Guard had seemed like a wise investment, but out on the street—stripped of the point-of-sale context—the fruit protector had more in common with a sex toy than with a plastic container. To be clear: It is the single most embarrassing food storage device ever brought to market and will necessitate a graphic content warning label on my Tupperware drawer.
As onlookers’ eyes widened, and my face reddened, my options were:
1. Lose my cool on a crowded street, drawing even more attention to the obscene-looking phallic object in my son’s hand; 2. Cross to the other side and pretend the child wasn’t mine; 3. Stop worrying about other people’s opinions and let the kid have some fun.
I chose to explore what was behind door No. 1.
My father loved his children, but he had a very low threshold for the state of childhood itself. We were allowed our diapers, but after that we had to be perfectly articulate and logical and never make him look bad in public. Goofing-off was strictly prohibited. Dad also practiced an old-school kind of parenting which professed that children, like horses, needed to be broken. Character-building might have been the goal but some would argue that the strategy was tantamount to bruising the banana.
His reactions, sometimes about very small things, were fierce and intimidating. The corporal punishment circuit of that feedback chain was easy to break out of, but rewriting the rest of the playbook has been an enormous challenge.
Knowing when to let my kid just be a kid is, for me, a dense fog of uncertainty.
I’m not entirely humorless, though. Having attended the Joe Hauser Master Class on Silly Time I’ve excavated a funny bone I didn’t even know I had. Taking it out into the world, where, like my father, other people’s opinions matter more than they should, is still a problem.
Back on the sidewalk, as I stuffed the Banana Guard into my purse, Joe asked, “Did you lose your funny bone, mom?”
Me, and why I get so worked-up about things, is a mystery my son would love to solve.
“Yes, I said,” taking a deep, calming breath, “I’ll find it again, though. I promise.”