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Polka Dot

December 10, 2010

My five-year-old niece Amelia is probably the nicest and the best-accessorized person I know.

To be polite, I should say “nicest and best-accessorized while still being under five feet tall person I know,” but that modifier would just be to make everyone reading this feel better about themselves; it’s not factually necessary. I’m confident that she is nicer than you. She also has better tights. I’m sure of it.

Sometimes I think of her as Henry’s big sister. She is always giving him hugs and making complex arrangements of the toys she has that she thinks Henry would like most, and welcoming him to ravage them in whatever way he likes. But then I remember that eager and cheerful sharing is not really what siblinghood is about. Siblinghood, instead, is about fighting for the better seat on the couch. Which seat is the better seat is totally arbitrary, of course. It’s just what the older sibling decrees it is in their never-ending quest to gain control and crush your spirit.

Like I did, Amelia is growing up with a sibling five years older. (This blog post isn’t about him, but let’s give him six adjectives: handsome, brilliant, rigid, alien-obsessed, creative, really stubborn. Okay that’s seven, but he deserves the “really,” trust me.) But I know that he can be a petulant one who won’t let her touch his stuff, who tells her she’s ugly, and who can trounce her physically, when he’s not gushing about how much he loves her or trying to protect her from something.

But Amelia doesn’t do these things to Henry. She just says, “He can play with all of my toys but if one has a battery in it, tell him to don’t suck it.”

Granted, Henry lives out of state, but she actually does appear to have his best interests in mind.

A few weeks ago I took her out to dinner. We were at a diner but for the heck of it, she was wearing a fancy red dress with some white tights with huge black polka dots on them. Over the dress, she was wearing a  red cloth apron  with her name embroidered on it that her dad had made her bring, after giving her an admonishment not to order anything that would stain her dress if she spilled it.

Before we left the house her dad made eye contact with me, and said in his signature fake-stern way, “Do not order her any non-red food.”

Ok. Right. We will only eat red stuff. I swore up and down. And off we went.

At the conclusion of our ketchup-intensive dinner, she takes a moment out from eating a bowl of ice cream — chocolate, I admit — to point to a display of frisbees.

She asks, “Can you get me one of those?”

It was a Sunday night. She’d been told on Saturday morning that her mom had died. So I try to figure out how to answer the frisbee question.

I tell her no, for two reasons. One, every time her brother asks me for a frisbee when we are at the diner—which is every time we are there—I tell him no. They have a lot of frisbees at home. And if I don’t buy him one, I shouldn’t buy her one. Fair is fair, right?

The second reason is that I used to curate a reading series for One Story magazine, and one writer read a story about a kid whose mother had died when he was four. His grandfather felt so terrible that he let him choose four different colors of orange paint for his room, and then bought them, and then created a truly disastrous room because he was at a loss for how to comfort the child; he felt so bad that he wanted to do anything he could. And if I remember the story correctly that turned out to a not-totally-great way to deal with things, so I decide to stick with my answer. No frisbee.

“No, you guys have a bunch of frisbees at home,” I say.

Phew. Case closed.

But, then she shoots a follow up at me.

“How does a soul separate from a body?”

Oh, jeez.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it, but that seems like something I should try hard not to mess up, considering how fraught the question probably is, and because I hadn’t been the person to explain what had happened in the first place.

I, too, am trying to get used to her mom dying, and the fact pops up at me whenever it wants, like it was popping up to her. La la la la la we are eating ice cream and negotiating frisbees then BAM, is the way I can best describe it.

I remember being afraid of asking the wrong questions as a child, and worrying about making someone uncomfortable. That might happen because grownups don’t know what’s coming, and because they don’t want to mess up and say the wrong thing in too authoritative of a way.

I’d like to figure out a way to welcome her questions, and to not be a squelching figure in her life.

But how do you do that? If you act very sure, you give a small person a certain impression of what you are like as a question answerer, but while you might sound like you know what you are talking about, there will likely be some holes in your answer or in your delivery.

I think that some of the best answers are essayistic — ie, meandering in their exploration of possible answers. Exploratory.

The soul is metaphorical, I think, but a comforting principle to an adult, let alone to a little kid. She was seeming okay for the most part, and I didn’t want to undo any good work that had or would continue to comfort her, so I sidestep with a classic adult deflector that is both unhelpful and possibly unwelcoming to questioning:

“That is a great question, honey. But it’s a tough one.”

I don’t know how a soul separates from a body, nor do I know how to answer questions in a way that will comfort you, nor do I know how someone can separate thoughts of death from dessert and frisbees.

I certainly can’t.

Then she says, “Heaven is better than the hospital. My mommy can walk in heaven.”

She says this frequently, perhaps to convince herself and everyone else. Everyone gets whiplash from nodding, is how eager we are for her to be convinced of this. I’ll sign up for that version of things. Or I’ll sign up for that to be your version of things, at least.

Then we do connect-the-dots of a lion on her place mat, and when we get to number 38, about two thirds of the way through the lion, I point to it and tell her that my birthday is coming.

“You never have birthdays,” she says very seriously.

I remind her of how, under the stewardship of her uncle, she and her brother made me a cake for my last birthday, about a year ago, and that she could prepare to do that again if she felt like it.

“How old are you?,” she asks. “Are you forty four?”

Forty four is how old her mom was.

Plus, last time she asked how old I was, which was maybe when she was four, she said “Are you a kid still, or are you old enough to drive yet?”

I point to the 38.

She looks closely at the numbers.

“Oh,” she says. “You’re eighty three.”

I stand by the fact that she’s still nicer than pretty much anyone. And she’s got better tights.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alana permalink
    December 10, 2010 5:10 pm

    Excellent post! It feels like it should be a part of a collection or read aloud… when is that reading anyway? I hope I didn’t miss it!!

  2. Catherine N. permalink
    December 11, 2010 9:05 am

    Talking about death and the soul with kids is VERY difficult in the best of times…you gave really good answers. Wonderful post. *hugs*

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