the invention of the lie

I was babysitting my young friend L., who was just on the brink of three years old*. Her parents wanted to spend a grown-up afternoon together, after which we would all gather for dinner. At the end of of the afternoon, L. suggested we get ice cream cones.

“Oh, we’ll have to do that next time, L.,” I said. “We don’t want to spoil our dinners!”

“I don’t mind,” she said, reasonably enough.

“Oh, but your mom** wouldn’t like it, would she?”

She said nothing for a moment, her little face pursed in wry understanding.

Then, suddenly… a light dawned on L.’s face. It was the light of revelation, of a world-altering discovery. It erased those wrinkles of displeasure, smoothing them over with wonder. In the spirit of innovators everywhere, L. had found a solution, a way to keep everyone happy. She bounced on her plump little legs, swept up in the delight and sheer novelty of the idea she was about to share.

Breathless and utterly guileless, she looked up at me and gasped:
“We could… not tell her!

*I think — this was several years ago, and L. is now in middle school.
** Not to reinforce the all-too-common trope that Mom = responsibility and green beans, Dad = ice cream, ill-advised wackiness, and skateboarding injuries, but in this family… well, yeah.


At a post-Thanksgiving family gathering, my almost-18-year-old niece A and I are watching 3-year-old K play tirelessly with her blanket. K lays the blanket on the floor, lies full-length in it, and rolls herself up like a little burrito. She sits in the center and folds the corners up around her, over her head. Standing, she rolls herself in it head to toe and jumps with all her wobbly might. She lays it out on the floor, climbs onto a chair, and launches herself out into space, landing with a striking thump in the center of her blanket.

I turn to A and say speculatively, “I just want to sit her in the blanket, wrap it up over her, grab it by all four corners, and swing it around over my head.”

A nods sagely and says, in a considering tone, “We learned about that in my psychology class. It’s called giving voice to the id.”

the lilac tree

I vividly remember my sanctuary in the lilac tree. It grew in the corner yard of our old house, the house we left shortly after my seventh birthday. Low on the tree where the many branches met there was a small hollow, a recess just the size of a tiny child. I would curl up there warm in the wooden heart of the lilac. The canopy of leaves screened me from view and the fat bumblebees droned and looped around me.

From my little haven, I could peep out sleepily on all the ruckus of our street, the kids whizzing by on their bikes, the high-schoolers jostling past, all elbows and bookbags. The scent of the buds dropped over me like a sweet blanket, and I would drowse and muse for hours, snug in the tree’s embrace.

Memory is so slippery, such a greased weasel soapy little runt, squealing and skittering out of grasp glossy and chimerical beastie, that to ponder it too long invites madness… or philosophy, madness’s respectable cousin. But childhood memories are particularly complicated constructs, deserving of special meditation. Most children find the distinction between the fantastic and the concrete blurry at best, and are already scrambling frantically to make rough sense of most of the realities that cascade around them, much less of the phantasms that flit through their pliant and voracious minds.

But my lilac tree…

A few years ago, I mentioned this peaceful retreat to my oldest sister, and she replied, puzzled, that it couldn’t be so. I can’t remember now: did the lilac tree have no such hollow, or was it simpler still — that there was no lilac tree in that yard? Either way, in a moment I came to realize that one of my fondest memories (and one of the only secrets I had in that big, busy house) was perfectly and flatly untrue, a childhood fantasy.

The second oddest thing about this memory: the instant I told my sister about the lilac hollow, before she even had time to crinkle an eyebrow, I found myself thinking how unlikely it sounded. A hollow in the tree trunk just my size? I crawled into it with no fear of worms or centipedes or bees? No one ever saw me there, or found traces of bark or dirt, or scrapes on my tender little legs? I slept there for hours, and no one looked for me?

The very oddest thing: even as my sweet, fragrant memory disintegrated in the telling, its sweetness remains undiminished. I remember the heady scent, the rough kiss of the bark on my shins, the green of the heart-shaped leaves swimming around me, the dozy bees dipping and humming. I remember the deep peace I felt, cradled there between the branches. It wasn’t real, but it was real.

related: Are my childhood memories real? at Ask Metafilter; when I grow up; the ontology and epistemology of childhood; I, robot.
I am participating in NaBloPoMo.

little art historian

The kid in line at the coffeehouse pulled the sleeve of the rumpled, gray-haired guy standing next to him. “Hey, Dad, I know who this guy is.” He pointed at the packet of Newman’s Own cookies displayed on the counter.
“Yeah?” said his father absently, gazing up at the specials board.

“Yeah! He’s a dentist!”

This caught Dad’s attention, and he looked down at the packet, a smile crinkling his face. “Ah, no, no he’s actually An Actor,” giving the last two words a storybook emphasis. Dad’s eye flickered toward me and he gave me the special “ain’t kids crazy?” raised eyebrow.

It was time to chip in. “Actually, he’s right, in a way… The model for the original painting was Grant Wood’s dentist.”

The father turned wide eyes on his son, and a new look dawned on his face. “Hey… how did you know that?” he breathed softly.

The kid shrugged. “I dunno. I know things.”


I am participating in NaBloPoMo.

When I grow up

I’m shamelessly stealing Alice’s charming idea for a post, Things I thought I would do as a grown-up, when I was seven.

1. Throw dinner parties. Instructed by my parents’ frequent evening entertainments, I assumed that all grown-ups had regular dinner parties, complete with cocktail hours around bowls of salted nuts and stiff drinks on the the rocks, followed by a sit-down dinner centered around a rich casserole and possibly a bottle of Cold Duck. (Since Cold Duck was the only wine I was allowed to sample, I thought all wines were Cold Duck.) Of course, as I imagined this scene in my future, my own children would slip from their beds and sit, feet dangling through the staircase banisters, to eavesdrop on the incomprehensible conversation punctuated by bursts of raucous laughter.

2. Wear suits. Stretchy, colorful, double-knit polyester suits, with flared skirts and and fitted jackets and oversized buttons.

3. Wear high heels. Ha!

4. Own a fur coat. Hey, it was the seventies. Even my Barbie had a fur coat.

5. Grow my hair long and, on formal occasions, wear it tucked in a bun accented with a single flower. This appears to be my only sartorial expectation not gleaned from my Barbie’s wardrobe. Perhaps I saw one too many photos of 1970s brides.

6. Work as a cocktail waitress, and teach in a high school. Though I dreamed of earning a living as a mystery writer and worked diligently on my stories, even then I knew I’d need a day job. My father was a teacher, and we lived in faculty housing, so most of the adults I knew were, indeed, high school teachers. I cannot explain where the cocktailing career sprang from.

By the time I was eight, my ambitions had shifted: I was going to become a primatologist. Long-time readers will recall that, at four or so, I expected to become the Pope.

7. Stay up all night whenever I wanted, and occasionally have ice cream for dinner. This has proven to be true.

A summer sandwich

With no shame, I present a sandwich from yesteryear, served at The Viking in Ogunquit, Maine, a (now sadly defunct) build-your-own sundae place where our grandparents’ propriety demanded we lunch before indulging our grosser appetites.

The sandwich itself arrives on a heavy, chipped plate: peanut butter (the spackly kind with transfat and sugar) and cheap grape jelly (the kind that breaks into wobbly little crumbs, not suave slabs of gel) on flabby white bread, served with a tall styrofoam glass of root beer and a pile of slightly soft potato chips.

Delicately insert one chip into sandwich. Do not break the chip. Do not let Granny catch you “playing with your food.” Take a bite and feel the crunch under your teeth meld with the unctuous pb and the cool jelly. Sip root beer and feel the fizz dance in your mouth. Eat to the very edge of the chip.

Covertly watch Granny until she’s occupied reprimanding one of your siblings; it won’t be long. Insert another chip.

my first kiss

I was a late bloomer.

In seventh grade, I had one close male friend: A. A. was just my height, slim, with wispy black hair always in need of a trim, and the shadow of a mustache blooming on his lip. His voice was gentle and he put a mouth over his hand when he laughed, like a Japanese schoolgirl.

I was a chunky girl with thick glasses, a clumsy haircut, and a ready braying laugh, always carrying a stack of books.

He never talked to me about girls, not even my pretty friends. I think maybe I had decided he wasn’t interested in girls, though I never gave it much conscious thought.

One day as we walked down the hallway together, talking in desultory fashion of the Honors English class we’d left, A. suddenly pushed me into the nook that housed the drinking fountain. Trapped there in the cinder-block corner, I opened my eyes wide, and closed my gaping mouth just in time as he loomed in and planted a kiss on me.

He pulled back, looked me softly in the eyes, a question on his face.

Reader, I punched him.

Really. I don’t know where this instinct was born. I didn’t intend it, I was ashamed of it then, and I’m ashamed of it now. (Though a little less, now that it occurs to me that he’s probably not ashamed of springing an unsuspected, unwanted kiss on a friend.) I hauled off and socked him in the eye. He sported a faint shadow of a black eye for days, a week… I don’t really know how long, since we stopped spending much time together after that.