Last year I remember thinking that I was glad I had an iPhone. A world of information at my fingertips. “Mom, how do 3-D glasses work? How far away is the sun? Can we walk there? What happens while a bear is hibernating? Where do the squirrels sleep? Do tadpoles have eyes?”
It was exhausting. But I was fortunate enough to be able to tell her “You know I don’t really know, but we can find out.” And together we would look it up and if we were lucky we’d get a diagram, maybe even a video. And a few minutes later she’d have forgotten that she had ever asked me a question, but I would feel like I had passed a parenting test. I admitted I did not know something, and I helped her find the answer.
I knew when we got pregnant the questions would get more difficult. Age appropriate answers – that was the next parenting hurdle I breezed right over. My own mother reminded me to only answer the actual question that was posed. This has been helpful time and again. “What part of the boy and what part of the girl make the baby?” Why the sperm and the egg, of course. So far she hasn’t asked about the method of delivery. And I haven’t volunteered. All in due time.
But in the last few weeks the questions have gotten harder. I am not afraid of sex, drugs and rock and roll. I can explain that. But the questions are getting more and more confusing. And more and more often I just want to take her in my arms and say “I don’t know, baby. I don’t know.”
Last night we took Fish out for a walk. Our typical route takes us past a playground where a lot of the kids congregate after dinner. For the most part they are older kids, but there are a few younger ones. She seemed hesitant. She called out to a girl who is in her class. The same little girl who was her bus riding buddy the first few days of school. Until Em decided that she did not want to ride the bus anymore because “no one wants to sit by me” and “everyone already knows each other.” I let the bus riding go, she had so much on her plate, a new school and still another new school only weeks away. I really didn’t give it a lot more thought.
And then last night she started to cry as we were walking. Not the dramatic tears she lets roll on occasion. But the quiet tears a kid tries to hide. “I wish I wasn’t the only white person in our neighborhood. No one wants to be my friend. I wish there wasn’t only black people.” The last sentence, of course, came out as we passed by a few neighbors in their driveway. I felt my cheeks flush and gave the knee-jerk politically correct answer.
“But it doesn’t matter what color skin someone has, right? It only matters what is on the inside. ”
“I KNOW that, Mom. But it’s like no one in our neighborhood even knows that I am very kind. And I want to be their friend….” and her tears grew heavier. And I stopped walking and crouched down right next to her. I had no answers, but at least I could make sure she knew I was listening. I tried to tell her that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood had known each other for a long time. Our neighbors that moved in at the same time we did, Em was great friends with them before they moved. I listened. And I hugged her. And I told her that in your lifetime everyone won’t be your best friend. One platitude after another spilled from my lips.
And then she asked me one simple, sincere question for which I had no answer at all. “Don’t those kids know what it feels like to be the only white person in the whole neighborhood?” So, I just hugged her. And I realized I had no answers. If we were the only black family in our neighborhood we might get a book from the library and talk about it. If we were the only Jewish family in her class at Christmastime we might educate the class about our traditions. But somehow “celebrating” your blonde hair, blue eyed-ness seemed so impossibly confusing to me. But only to me. I had missed the big picture all together.
She feels different. And she thinks no one wants to be her friend. She doesn’t need a lesson in tolerance. She needed me to hug her and tell her that she IS kind and that those kids will figure that out. Or they won’t. But that she needs to just keep on being who she is.
We have lived in a predominantly black neighborhood since we moved to Chapel Hill when Emily was two. She had never noticed until about six weeks ago. It doesn’t seem fair that she is six years old and the days when her life was simple are already behind her.
Perhaps that is melodramatic. Her questions were simpler. Either her life still is simple or it never actually was, depending on your point of view.
We came home from our walk. And I was exhausted. My feet were swelling up as I had foolishly walked in boots with a heel. But I was more exhausted in my head. “You wanna snuggle on the couch for a little bit before your shower?”
She seemed to think that was a fine idea. She had a seat at the dining room table for some frozen yogurt while I elevated my feet. I relaxed. My little girl came back around the corner and sat next to me, her hands on my belly as they often are. We waited to feel some baby dancing. I inhaled. And I exhaled.
“Why don’t we go to church? What to do they do there? Is church like a funeral? Is God dead?”
Oh for fuck’s sake, Em. Can’t I get a break?