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A Kind Of Magic

20 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

When James was about four, he got himself an imaginary friend. The friend’s name is Albert and his age varies from 3 to 12, depending on the day. According to James’ descriptions, Albert is a yellow monster with tall hair. He stays at home and sleeps while James is at school, and he is responsible for every single mess or piece of mischief-making that we blame on James.

Although Albert the monster features less in James’ incessant chatter these days, he still makes the occasional appearance – inasmuch as an invisible, imaginary monster can make an appearance.

I have come to recognize that Albert has served an important dual purpose in James’ life. First, James talks to him when he’s lying in bed at night, using him to process the events of his day and work through any conflicts he might be experiencing. And second, the monster fuels his imagination. James makes up a staggering variety of monster stories, and it is enormous fun to see where his mind takes him.

Monster hasn’t been around for a few days, but yesterday, someone else showed up.

I was industriously working wasting time on the Internet, and James was dancing around, chattering away to someone or something that only he could see. All of a sudden, he was by my side, telling me about a giant pink rabbit that was bouncing around in the kitchen.

“You should see it, Mommy!” said James, quivering with excitement. “Come on, look at it!”

“But I can’t see it,” I said to him, raising my hands palm-side-up in anI-don’t-know gesture.

Without missing a beat, James said, “Close your eyes and you’ll see it.”

His words instantly infused me with a sense of that childlike magic unique to six-year-olds who still know the true meaning of imagination.

As adults, we only see with our eyes. Most of us don’t take the time to look beyond what is literally in front of us. Children know how to see things with their minds. They can see possibilities of magic where most of us don’t even know there’s anything there. They are the ones who truly have vision.

I did what James suggested. I closed my eyes and really tried to look. And sure enough, there was that giant pink rabbit, dancing around my kitchen.

(Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sebilden/3984605154/. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)

Emailing The Tooth Fairy

11 May

I am participating in the 2012 Wordcount Blogathon, which means one post every day for the month of May.

I will never forget the day my firstborn son cut his first tooth. I had been expecting it for so long that I had almost given up waiting. I mean, the kid was eleven months old and we were starting to think he’d be some kind of toothless wonder.

On the day in question, we were at a music industry trade show with my husband. He was in the main exhibition area, doing whatever schmoozing he needed to do with potential clients and suppliers. I was in the large lobby area with George, listening to a music troupe play a set of traditional African music. People were milling around the crowd, handing out free African drums to the kids. The babies, like George, got African rattles: miniature drums on sticks that have beads attached to them by a piece of string.

George was initially non-responsive to this idea, so I accepted the rattle on his behalf. As soon as he saw how it worked, though, he made a grab for it, and as he opened his mouth in delight, there it was. A tiny little pearly white blip peeking through his gum.

He may have been late getting his first tooth, but he certainly made up for lost time. The poor kid averaged one tooth every three days or so, which was not fun for anyone in the family.

A couple of years later, I got to do it all again, this time with my younger son James. I feel oddly guilty that I don’t remember the appearance of his first tooth (masters of guilt, we moms – we outdo even the Catholics in the guilt department). I do remember that James teethed earlier than George had, at about seven months, and his second and subsequent teeth took a lot longer to show up. There was one time, when James had four or five teeth, when nothing happened for about two months, and I was thinking, “Come on, already!”

Eventually my kids each had a full complement of teeth. Now the next inevitable wait began: when would George start to lose his teeth?

His first loose tooth wobbled around precariously for weeks. We were waiting and waiting for this thing to just give it up and fall out, but it hung on stubbornly, seemingly by no more than a thread. Eventually he lost it, the day before he turned seven. He was biting into his sandwich at the centre where he was receiving IBI  therapy, and the tooth just popped out and landed on the table in front of him.

He lost his teeth in much same way he had gained them. Teeth were falling out left, right and centre, and after about a month George looked like a fourteenth-century sailor with scurvy. But with time, the new teeth grew in to replace the old.

At almost nine, he just has a couple more teeth to go. It was initially hard for this sensory-sensitive autistic child to be losing his teeth, but by now he is so used to it that he barely notices it.

When he lost the most recent tooth, there was trouble – not from him, but from his little brother, who is now six. As George wandered around the house looking all gappy-mouthed, I found James weeping quietly in his room.

“What’s the matter?” I asked him.

“George’s tooth fell out and mine didn’t,” he sobbed, as if someone had just stabbed his favourite teddy bear.

“Don’t worry,” I soothed. “Your teeth will start falling out any day now.”

“But I want to have a gap like my brother!”

Try as I might, I couldn’t comfort this kid. I had to let him cry it out. I mean, what was I going to do, yank out one of his teeth?

Three days later, James got his first loose tooth. It hung on for weeks, much like George’s first loose tooth had. For the whole time, James was planning what he was going to do with the money the tooth fairy left for him. To hear the kid talk, you would have thought he was going to get a thousand dollars. I know inflation has hit the tooth fairy since my childhood days, but not quite to that extent.

Finally – finally – the tooth fell out two days ago. It was a near-disaster, though, because James accidentally swallowed it and therefore did not have it to leave for the tooth fairy. Thanks to modern technology, I was able to come up with a mitigation plan: I took a picture of the gap and saved it to my computer. I attached it to a blank email form and told James that if I emailed the picture to the tooth fairy, he would surely get his reward. I even made up an email address. gappysmile@toothfairy.com.

The following morning, James woke up and stumbled sleepily to me while I was getting ready for work, the way he always does. He sat on my lap, and I enjoyed the feeling of him snuggling up to me with his head on my shoulder. All of a sudden, he sat up straight, his little body quivering with alertness. He gasped as if he had forgotten something, and then he slithered off my lap and ran to his room. His eyes were bright with excitement as he ran back to me, holding up the shiny two-dollar coin that the tooth fairy had left under his pillow.

He clambered back onto my lap, and although George’s gaps have long since filled in, James said contentedly, “Now I have a gap. I’m just like my big brother.”

And still clutching his two-dollar coin, he went back to sleep, with dreams of his brother dancing through his head.

Child, Paper, Scissors

25 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 25 – Third person post: Write about a memory you have but describe it using the third person. Use as many sensory images (sights, sounds, textures, etc) as you can. Don’t use “I” or “me” unless you include dialogue.

The little girl struggled with her craft project and prayed for the bell to ring. Unlike her classmates, who were happily making creations out of coloured construction paper and bits of glitter, she didn’t really know what she was supposed to do. She didn’t want to ask Miss H, the teacher, for help. Miss H hated her and would only yell at her.

Sighing inwardly, she picked up her scissors and tried to cut a triangle out of a piece of bright yellow construction paper. But the scissors were too blunt – made that way for the safety of ten-year-olds like herself – and they were hard for people like her to use. Sometimes it was hard being a left-handed person in a right-handed world.

The little girl found herself close to tears as she tried to get the scissors to comply. She had a hard enough time at school. She had “learning disabilities”. She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she did know that she had to work really, really hard just to keep up with her classmates.

Sensing someone standing behind her, the little girl looked up and saw Miss H regarding her sternly. She started to quiver. She was afraid of Miss H. She almost cried with relief when the bell rang, signalling the end of the school day. But when she started to gather up her things, Miss H pinned her to her seat with a glare and said, “You’re not going anywhere until you cut that piece of paper properly.”

The little girl watched helplessly as her classmates filed out of the room. I can do this, she thought. It’s only scissors. I’ll cut this paper and then I’ll be allowed to leave.

Under Miss H’s hostile gaze, the little girl picked up the scissors with her left hand and prepared to cut.

“The scissors go in your other hand!” barked Miss H.

“But I’m left-handed,” said the little girl timidly.

“Not in my class! Now pick up those scissors – in your right hand – and cut!

The little girl tentatively held the scissors in her right hand. She tried to cut but the paper just bunched up awkwardly. The little girl looked up imploringly.

“My mom is waiting for me,” she whispered.

“She’s just going to have to wait! You’re not going until you get this right! Are you so stupid that you can’t cut a simple piece of paper?”

The little girl tried again, but this time she was shaking so badly that she accidentally ripped the paper. Miss H whipped the paper away and slapped a fresh sheet down on the desk.

“Do it!” she snapped.

As the little girl tried desperately to use the hand she was not designed to use, the pile of discarded paper grew. Fat tears started rolling down her face and plopping onto the paper.

All of a sudden a new voice pierced the terrible atmosphere: the little girl’s mother had come looking for her and was witnessing the events with horror.

“Miss H!What is going on?” asked the girl’s mother, furiously.

Miss H, caught off-guard by a mother protecting her young, said something incoherent about acting in the best interests of the child.

The little girl’s mother lowered her voice menacingly and said, “Now, you listen to me. My daughter has a learning disability that you are well aware of. And you have just destroyed five years of confidence-building work in fifteen minutes. I hope you’re happy!”

With that, the mother swept up her little girl and whisked her away to safety.

She took her home and immediately started the process of building up her broken child.

(Photo credit: Kirsten Doyle)

Butterfly

5 Apr

I am participating in the Health Activist Writers Month Challenge, in which I publish a post every day for the month of April, based on health-related prompts.

April 5 – Ekphrasis Post: Go to flickr.com/explore and write a post inspired by the image. Can you link it to your health focus?

When my son was first diagnosed with autism, we enrolled him in a local daycare centre on the advice of his speech therapist. He needed the social aspect of it, she said. He needed the group lunchtimes, the circle times, and all of the other elements of being part of a group of children. We were nervous about letting our sensitive, vulnerable son out of our immediate orbit, particularly since the daycare had never had a child with autism before.

To their eternal credit and our eternal gratitude, the daycare welcomed George with open arms. The director of the centre arranged for all of her staff to be trained in how to work with special needs kids, and George was very happy there.

During the summer months, the kids would be taken to play outside at the end of the day while they were waiting for their parents to pick them up. I would get off the bus from work, pick up my boy, and walk home with him. One day, I picked up his backpack from the darkened daycare classroom as usual, and went out to the playground. I always tried to arrive undetected so I could watch George at play for a few minutes. In typical autistic fashion, he always did his own thing. He played among the other kids, but not with them.

On this particular day, I got to the playground just in time to see a few of the other kids preparing to have a race from one tree to another. George stood apart from the kids, watching them shyly. When the daycare teacher said, “GO!” the kids scampered away from the start line while George stood by on his own.

My heart constricted with unbearable sadness. The whole thing seemed to underscore the isolation of autism, and I felt a sense of unjustness that my child was standing there on his own. With his lanky frame and long legs, he is a natural runner. He might have won that impromptu little race.

Damn autism, I thought. I knew these other kids well enough to know that prior to lining up for the race, they would have tried to encourage George to participate. But being locked in his own world, he would not have known how to. Outwardly, he seemed perfectly happy, but I couldn’t help wondering about that. What was going through his mind as he watched those other kids at play together? Did he feel any sense of isolation? Did he wish he knew how to join in?

I started thinking about sports teams and group activities. Was George ever going to be able to be part of a soccer team or a high school band? Would he travel in a pack of teenage friends or would he sit by himself in the high school cafeteria? Would he be excluded from birthday parties? Or would some group of well-meaning kids include him in their group and look out for him?

How was my child, with his autism and his social communication deficits, going to survive in a social world?

This is a concern that is with me more or less all the time, despite assurances from his teacher that he is starting to tentatively reach out socially at school, that he is getting better and better at participating in social activities, and that he is, in fact, an extremely well-liked member of the student body.

A few days ago I saw something that made my heart soar. Me and my husband were out for a walk with the kids, and we saw the teenage boys down the road shooting hoops in their driveway. Before we could stop him, George ran up to the boys and held out his hands for the ball. The boys good-naturedly obliged, and like a true natural basketball player, George bounced the ball on his knee and then threw it towards the hoop as if he did this every day.

The hoop was too high for George to have any success, and the boys offered to lower it for him. We told them not to worry and we went on our way, but not before the boys had invited George to play basketball with them any time he wanted.

When things like this happen, my vision of the future shifts, as if I’m looking at my son’s life through a kaleidoscope. I start to see possibilities that were previously hidden to me, possibilities that simply may not have been there before George grew and developed into them. Instead of seeing the kid who stood on his own while everyone else had a race, I now see the boy who, just for a few moments, joined other boys in a basketball game.

If I had, just a year ago, seen the picture that inspired this post, I would have thought, “George is probably never going to do that. He’s probably never going to romp around with friends or be invited to take part in impromptu soccer games.”

Now I look at that picture and realize that I am seeing the emergence of George as a social being. Maybe he’ll always be shy, and it is very likely that he will always need to be surrounded by people who will look out for him.

But his personality, his character, the very essence of who he is – that is emerging bright and beautiful, like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon.

When I Grow Up: Six-Year-Old Musings

27 Mar

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an air stewardess. I was a very well-traveled kid, and every time I boarded a plane I envied the slim, pretty ladies in their smart uniforms. They were always so elegant and friendly, and they were unfailingly kind to me and my brother. A career of jet-setting around the world meeting all kinds of people greatly appealed to me.

Of course, now that I am a well-traveled adult, I cannot think of a job I would like less. When I board planes, I want to be given my mini-bottle of wine and left alone. The last thing I want to do is walk up and down a narrow aisle handing out peanuts and smiling at strangers until my face hurts.

Anyway, when James was about three, he started having his first When-I-grow-up-I-want-to-be discussions. I clearly remember the day it started. Our walk to the daycare he attended at the time took us past a little restaurant that happens to be a popular breakfast spot for the local police. As usual, all of the parking spaces in front of the restaurant were occupied by police cruisers. James stopped to count them, and then said, “When I grow up, I want to ride in the back of a police car.”

Well! That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear! No parent wants to know that their three-year-old aspires to a life of crime.

Fortunately, he met a cool policeman a short while later and changed his goal to driving the police car.

Since then, James has changed his career aspirations several times. He has considered being a fireman, a race car driver and a builder. Sometimes his sole ambition is to be a dad – hopefully not too soon. Other times he wants to be a Transformer, but he doesn’t say exactly how he will become a thing that’s sometimes a car, sometimes a scary robot.

It doesn’t bother me unduly that James is so undecided about what he wants to do. I mean, the kid is six. He has time to decide.

This weekend, he suddenly came up with a new career idea. The conversation we had went something like this:

James: Mommy, we’re going to have a party.
Me: Oh?
James: Yeah! We’re going to bake a cake and put out some snacks and juice. But the cake will take longer to do so we have to get started on that right away. So I’ll find the juice and Daddy can go and buy snacks while you and George start looking for ingredients.
Me: Silence. Goldfish-impersonation. Thinking: cripes, this kid is bossy!

After a pause, the conversation continued.

James: Mommy, I know what I want to be when I grow up.
Me: Oh good! What’s that?
James: I’m going to be a caterer, and I’m going to tell everyone what to do.

So, he’ll be a caterer. Other than that, nothing much will change, since he tells everyone what to do now.

At the end of the day, I have the same hope for both of my boys: that they will find careers that will make them feel fulfilled and happy, and that they will not ever feel limited into doing something that they do not really want to do.

What career aspirations have your kids told you about? Did you end up doing anything remotely close to what you thought you would as a kid?

The Man On The Train

26 Jan

By the time I got onto the train I was exhausted. I’d been up until almost midnight finishing my packing, and when I’d woken up I’d forgotten where I’d packed my passport. The cab had been late and there had been an accident on the highway. I had made it to the train station with seconds to spare.

I  was so tired it hurt. As the train started pulling out of the station I relaxed gratefully into my seat and closed my eyes. I was almost asleep when I became aware of movement near me. I opened my eyes to see an old man sitting down opposite me. He was tall and skinny with long white hair and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. As I said good morning to him, he stared at me in a disconcerting way. I closed my eyes again.

A couple of minutes later I opened my eyes to see the old man still staring at me.

“Can I help you?” I asked, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

He kept staring at me in silence – the kind of silence that gets louder and louder with each passing second.

All of a sudden, he spoke in a deep Southern accent that I really had concentrate on to understand him. What he said took me completely by surprise.

“My maw was making gravy for the chicken when my paw died.”

“Oh,” I said hesitantly. Then, because I felt that I had to, I asked, “What happened?”

“Well,” he said, in his peculiar gravelly voice. “I was just a boy then. I just come in from the fields with Paw. The chicken and the potatoes and all was already done, and Maw had the gravy in this jug, beatin’ it with a wooden spoon like she was trying to punish it.

“All’s a sudden, the dog barks outside, right outside the window. Maw gets a fright and drops the jug. The jug bounces on the counter, and gravy goes everywhere. Some of it splatters on the cat that’s sittin’ on top of the ’fridgerator. The cat gets a fright and jumps right onto Paw’s back. And Paw is spinning round and around, tryin’ to get the cat off his back. He loses his footin’, topples over and hits his head on the corner of the stove – one of them old cast-iron stoves. By the time he hit the floor he was a goner.”

As he finished the story, the old man buried his face in his hands. I felt a stab of compassion for him. What a terrible thing for a young boy to witness. But then the old man looked up again and I realized he was laughing.

“It was the most ridic’lous sight,” he said, slapping his knee with mirth. “My old man, drunk as a lord, spinning around with a cat on his back. Butt-ugly cat it was too!”

The old man was laughing so hard that he was choking and wheezing, and tears were streaming from his bright blue eyes.

“Wow,” I said, genuinely taken with the story. And then, because I’d been watching Murder Mysteries while packing the previous night, I asked, “What did the police say when they came? Did they believe you and your Mom when you told them what happened?”

“Well now,” the old man whispered conspiratorially as he leaned forward. “We never actually called the ’thorities. We couldn’t, you see. Far as everyone in town was concerned, Paw had already been dead for years.

“You see, he had one of them fancy life insurance things. So when we was down on our luck one year, he burned out his tractor and Maw reported him missing. Last seen drivin’ off in the tractor, that’s what she told the sheriff. They didn’t have no fancy ways to prove nothin’ back then, so they just assumed he was dead. Maw got a pile of cash and Paw just stayed hidden. No-one ever came to see us, so as long as Paw was in the house or on his fields, we was OK.”

“So when he died, what did you do with – um – you know, him?” I asked. This story was unreal.

“Down past the apple trees, there was a big clump of dogwood trees, belonging to the neighbours. There was all kinds of bushes and plants growing under the trees. The bush was so thick under there, it was like a jungle. When I needed someplace to hide as a boy, I’d go there. No grown person could get in through all of those bushes and trees and stuff.

“We waited until nightfall, then Maw helped me put Paw on the wheelbarrow. He kept fallin’ off, but finally we got him to that clump of bushes and trees. We got Paw off that wheelbarrow, and I climbed in under them bushes.  Maw pushed, I pulled, and we got him in there. No-one would ever find him there.”

The old man paused. He seemed to be immensely proud of his story. Clearly, his conscience was not bothered by things like insurance fraud and the concealment of human remains.

“But what if your neighbours decided to cut down the trees?” I blurted out, suddenly worried on behalf of the small boy from long ago.

“Why would they do that?” asked the old man, incredulously. “If they cut down all the dogwood trees, where will the raptors live?”

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, pamela challenged me with "If they cut down all the dogwood trees, where will the raptors live?" and I challenged Seeking Elevation with "In the Canadian city of Toronto, it is illegal to drag a dead horse down the street before midnight. Tell a story – real or fictional – about how this law came to be."

The Story Of A Dog In A Cat’s Body

23 Nov

Today I want to tell you a story about a dog, or rather, a cat who thought she was a dog.

Her name was Tushka and she was a black tabby. She came into our family when I was so young that I cannot remember her arrival. At that time, we also had two big “pavement special” dogs named Judge and Kentucky, a fat Fox Terrier whose name was Bianca but who everyone referred to as “The Bionic Watermelon”, a neurotically insane Fox Terrier named Twiggy, Megan the Siamese cat, and a hamster named Antoine.

Tushka was intended to be a companion for Megan, but while she didn’t exactly shun Megan, she definitely identified more with the dogs. At animal feeding time in the kitchen, my mom would always put the cats in one corner and the dogs way over on the other side. Tushka would neatly use her front legs to push her bowl across the kitchen floor until it was among the dogs. She would eat her meal there, surrounded by slobbering canines, while poor Megan ate by herself.

At the time, we were living in the Cape Town suburb of Tokai. Our house was across the road from the Tokai Forest, which was a popular dog-walking spot. On Saturdays, we would put the dogs onto leashes and venture out into the forest, where we would let them loose to romp around. We were always accompanied on our walks by Tushka. She would romp right along with the dogs, who seemed to accept her as one of them.

She even had a dog-like temperament. Oh sure, she did the odd cat thing, like purring and climbing trees. But she lacked the aloofness often displayed by cats, she always came when you called her name, she rushed around like an overexcited puppy, played with the dogs, and I swear she wagged her tail when she was happy. She was loving and loyal.

Megan was also loving and loyal, I’m not saying she wasn’t, but she was loving and loyal in a cat kind of way. Tushka was loving and loyal in the same way the dogs were. She would jump onto my bed in the mornings and lick my face with doglike enthusiasm.

By the time Tushka was about ten years old, we were living on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Several of the animals had moved onto higher plains, including Antoine the hamster and my beloved cat Megan, but Tushka still remained. One summer, we went on a family vacation to the coastal town of Ramsgate. We took our little dogs with us: Twiggy and The Bionic Watermelon were long gone, but we had another Fox Terrier and a wiener dog. Tushka stayed home with a new generation of cats and the two big dogs we had at the time. My cousin, who had a special bond with all of the animals, house-sat during our absence.

This was all in the day before cell-phones and the Internet, so when you went on vacation, you were pretty much out of circulation. You called home once a week to make sure everything was OK, but beyond that, there was no contact. Looking back, I wonder how that vacation would have turned out if we had had email or Facebook.

As it was, we arrived home after the vacation to find my cousin in tears (and this is not a gal who cries easily).

“Tushka’s missing,” she sobbed.

Our dog-cat had wandered into the yard after being fed three days previously, just as she always did. That was the last anyone saw of her. Ads were placed in newspapers, signs were taped to telephone poles, vets were notified, rewards were offered. With the help of the neighbours, we searched every inch of every yard on our street. We spent weeks scouring the banks of the river opposite our house.

No trace of Tushka was ever found. To this day, we don’t know what happened to her.

She is no doubt romping around somewhere in Dog Heaven. Because that’s where she belongs.

This week’s Indie Ink Challenge came from Head Ant, who gave me this prompt:Write a standalone, original piece on a lost dog.
I challenged Supermaren with the prompt:Write a story that includes an old copy of “Macbeth”, a strand of long blonde hair, and a footprint from a man’s boot.