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One curiosity after another

Archives and Expectations

When my oldest was nearly four, and I was getting used to having his brother around too, I used to worry. I know Big Guy so well, thought I. He’s so much like me. It’s like I understand everything about him. But this Boo-child…he’s different. He’s not so much like me. I don’t know how I’m going to understand him. He’s opaque to me. What do I do?

Now Boo is four, and Big Guy is eight, and Big Guy is opaque to me. He won’t tell me about his day; he won’t tell me what he’s thinking. Not until he bursts into angry tears at some parental or fraternal injustice do I know what he’s feeling. And I’m 100% sure there are lots of other feelings in there I’m not allowed to know about. I haven’t a clue who he is and how he’s experiencing the world. And this morning, Boo showed how very much he is my child. As I made the rounds of small children, kissing their warm and not entirely clean-smelling heads goodbye, he looked up at me and said, “Try to be careful with your driving so you don’t get into a car accident and die.”

That is what I am thinking EVERY time my children are in a car away from me. I don’t say it, of course, because I’m not an idiot. I do say things like, “Come home safely” or “Drive safely” that irritate the crap out of my husband, who feels that I believe he won’t drive safely unless instructed. Which of course I don’t. The ‘drive safely’ is like a talisman against Really Horrible Things Happening, and somewhere in me I fear if I don’t say it and then the RHTH, I will blame myself for something unbearable. Which I’d prefer not to do. So my husband can just deal with it.

But…I see this soaking into my kid. It’s not all just me not keeping my atmosphere internal, because he has, after his interminable fearless stage, developed fears of things crashing into our house, of fires, of thunder, of being alone. He’s kind of in the fearful stage, I suppose.

Maybe that is why, in the end, I think it’s not so much that I’m like one or the other of my children but that I have the mental age of a four-year-old.
This question of being like your kid is a strange one. Do you want it, or not? Are you right about it, or not? I have always wanted to have a daughter. It’s hard to grow up female – or at least it was for me – and not develop a strong preference for women in the whole battle of the sexes thing. I cheered the girl team. Watching perfectly lovely women be mistreated by inept or vile men through my twenties didn’t help. I planned from about the age of five how I was going to raise MY daughter, to be strong and healthy and happy and not at ALL downtrodden by the Patriarchy — not that I heard the word until sometime probably pretty close to college.

And then I had three boys. It’s been educational, to say the least. I always also assumed I’d have sons, and if I hadn’t I’d have been distressed. But I had these expectations of who boys and girls, men and women ARE. The one that most distresses me is the idea that boys don’t talk much about their internal experience, and certainly not with their mothers. I don’t want to lose my kids, and have no one to have meandering conversations with when I’m older (almost all my friends have daughters, so I’ve assumed they’d be off talking with their daughters and not have time for their old, dried up, no one to talk to friend). And I’ve carried on this worry despite my boys being both stereotype-transcending and quite sensitive, and different enough from each other to show me they are just people…if people with an appreciation for a certain fascinating appendage, if you get what I’m talking about.

Today, after the head-kissing and the drive in to the archives, I read a letter that brought that home to me. I’ve been looking for good quotes for my book, and ran across a woman’s letterbook I’d never heard of, and a few letters from a man I’d never heard of either. I jumped to read the woman’s book, eager for a fresh young voice, female perspective, wisdom, lots of social insight. And I got the nastiest person I’ve run across in a long time. She was so piously mean and manipulative, she reminds me of this pathological nun Pauline in some of Louise Erdrich’s novels. She’d try to make her mother feel terrible that she hadn’t written yet, tell her never mind, because God gives her everything she needs even though the people in her life don’t, but the mother shouldn’t worry about her missionary daughter out in the wilderness because she was perfectly safe, and that story she’s just SURE her mom heard about the Osage fighting the Iaways right on her doorstep shouldn’t worry her, even though they killed some people and carried around a bloody limb they’d chopped off of someone else for days. She’s sure her mother would appreciate her daughter’s contributions, even though the Indians do what they can to prevent their poor children from getting an education. Don’t even get me started on how she treated her sister, put-downs all cloaked in holier-than-thou attitude. This woman gave me such a headache I almost feel I shouldn’t tell you her name. But hah, I will, Harriet Woolley. You may have been vile to your family and I’d sure hate to have been separated from my family and left with you, but two hundred years later I can JUDGE you! (immature, I’ll grant you, but one of the few pleasures available when you have to read someone you really dislike).

So today, I couldn’t bear to spend the morning with Harriet. I went, instead, for the callow young man heading west. And I had a lovely time. He’d clearly never been anywhere different, and he was open about his reactions to all the new kinds of people he met. He was writing his ‘Dear Parents,’ and actually seemed to care for them. He talked about his strong emotions of grief at leaving them and his friends, and how some might see that as weakness but that he gloried in it, because it was part of humanity and people who couldn’t feel were brutes. And then he went on to have a bizarre and interesting time floating down the Ohio to New Orleans, promptly freaking out at the immoral French Creoles, and then lighting out on foot for 300 miles up through Mississippi and eventually up near St. Louis, commenting on fashions among the Chickasaw (I discovered that one of them had a cap of feathers on resembling the topnot of a Woodcock with a Short Frock belted round his waist in the hinderpart of which was fastened an artificial tail resembling that of a Fox which Stood in a horrizantal position with the end of it Some what bent upwards, on beholding this highly ridiculous object, half man half Brute, with a little of the Fox and a Small touch of the Woodcock I burst out into a laugh, and directed my fellow traveler to the object of my merth who Seemed who seemed as much astonished and diverted as myself, acknowledging that altho’ that was the third time he had traveled the wilderness he had never Seen any thing Simelar to it), what people ate for breakfast (coffee, butter, and sweet potatoes preferred), reporting conversations and meals and swamp depths and Indian dances. He had a curious, social mind and liked to talk. And if I hadn’t had this kneejerk reaction that I’d find more of interest from the woman, I could have spent yesterday with him, too.

So, I suppose….Joseph B. Meetch, of Franklin County Illinois, 1821 – I apologize for my ridiculous and long-held bias toward my own sex. If my boys keep me in the loop as you kept your parents, I figure I’ll be pretty lucky. As I already am.