Avast, Me Hearties!

Owen’s been on a bit of a pirate kick lately. Two weeks ago, his educator planned a whole week of pirate-themed activities. Owen even came home with some “booty” (chocolate coins and plastic jewels).

Last week, we took a pirate book out from the library:

It’s a fun one. It suggests that if you want to be a pirate, you should wrap up some belongings in a spotty hanky and make your way to the nearest port, where you could try to apprentice yourself as a cabin boy or girl. On the next page, one of the instructions for being a pirate was to be very wicked, especially to cabin boys and cabin girls. One of the upsides of this book was a gruesome image of a pirate afflicted with scurvy. Since then, Owen has been very anxious to eat his fruits and vegetables, to ward off scurvy. I get a bit too much pleasure watching Owen eat his vegetables and ask me “Is that enough? Will I get scurvy now?”

Anyway, the following anecdote isn’t nearly as good without the image, but yesterday we were in Canadian Tire (shopping for a ladder) and we walked by a display of motor oil. I am pretty sure it was Pennzoil (in a yellow container). Prominently displayed on every bottle was a hazard symbol indicating poison (the skull and crossbones). Oddly, every picture of motor oil on the internet has the skull airbrushed off…You know, in case someone was turned off buying the stuff by knowing it was dangerous?

Anyway, as we walked by the display, Owen said, brightly:

“Look Mummy, Pirate Mustard!”

The Sucey Fairy

About two weeks ago, Owen gave up his last vestige of babydom: his pacifier. We’d been telling him for months that when he turned three, the sucey fairy would come and take his suçe away to give to the babies. But, of course, birthday #3 came and went and neither Duncan nor I was quite ready to give up Owen’s uncomplaining leaps into bed, pacifier in mouth. We were as addicted as he was, you see.

What if he stops napping without it? we thought.

What if he starts waking up in the night?

So months rolled by, with one of us, or Owen, mentioning the sucey fairy every now and then, in an off-hand manner.

Owen was down to three pacifiers in June. Now, I know they say they’re good for 2 weeks or something, but I have never been a germophobe. These babies were months old – years? One, the blue one, developed a crack in it. I threw it out, because that’s dangerous.  Owen watched me throw it out, wary. There were two left, and he knew it.

He liked to sit on the toilet with a pacifier perched precariously on his lip, like a gangster’s cigarette.

If that falls in the toilet, I’m throwing it out, I told him.

He often put it on the window sill for safekeeping.

One day, he forgot, and it fell into the toilet bowl, mid sentence. He cried a little, but I did throw it out, as promised. I’m not a germophobe, but the toilet is the toilet.

There was one pacifier left. Owen knew we were down to the last one, and grew alarmed if he left the house with it. “What if I lose it?” he would say. “I don’t want to lose it! That would be terrible!”

But one evening, before bed, we couldn’t find it. I mean, we really couldn’t find it. Duncan and I looked everywhere – in his bed, in our bed, in the bathroom, in the dishwasher, in the toy box… it was gone.

So we gulped a little and steeled ourselves.

“The sucey fairy must have come while you were at daycare!”

We had promised that the sucey fairy left gifts. The gift that Owen assumed she left was a snow globe. He’s obsessed with snow globes. Anyway, we hadn’t found one yet, despite trawling e-bay nightly.We did, however, have a 6-pack of books from Scholastic, so I pulled one out of the middle (which he hadn’t seen). There was a loonie on the counter, so I took that, too. And (inspired by Owen’s daycare educator) I threw in some “fairy feathers” from the craft stash.

While Duncan and Owen were searching for the present, I “hid” it in a place he’d already been by, on the stairs. Then I called out to them.

When he found the present, he was pretty excited, but his lower lip wobbled a little. I think he was secretly hoping to find his pacifier.

“But I don’t know how to sleep without a suçe,” he said.

We reassured him that he did – that he’s been napping at daycare for over a year without a pacifier and – more to the point – that the sucey fairy only comes when you’re ready.

Owen was up twice that night (in the first 15 minutes) and is not quite as addicted to sleep as he was before (he needs to be put to bed twice, still). Even so, the pacifier is not missed by any of us.

Even Owen is glad, after all, that the babies get to use it.

Rhymes and Other Tall Tales

On Thursday evenings, Owen and I pick Duncan up at the train station in the next town.

Last week, the train was delayed by about ten minutes, so Owen and I had a little chat while we were waiting. As he does, Owen chattered on about any and  everything – every possibility that might happen, including some that would likely only happen in his mind:

“If we see an oil train, we’ll know that’s not Daddy’s train. Unless Daddy is swimming inside the oil train. That would be silly! But where is the Daddy train? When will it be here? I wonder if Daddy took an oil train home tonight. Wouldn’t that be a funny idea? I hope he didn’t take the oil train or he’d get very dirty and we’d have to give him a bath! Wouldn’t that be strange?”

Later, when Duncan got into the car, he was greeted with:

“Daddy! You made it! We thought you were swimming inside an oil train!”

On the way home, Duncan asked Owen what he’d been up to that day.

“I was swimming around inside an oil train. It was very dark inside and I got very dirty.”

“Did that really happen?”

“No. I was being silly. It’s just a rhyme.”

I love that rhyme is equivalent to story.

***

We took a fun book about pirates out of the library. One of the sections explains what happens to pirates when they die. Apparently, at the bottom of the Seven Seas is Davy Jones’s Locker. There, the pirates retire to live with the mermaids.

So in his bath tonight, Owen spun another story, obviously indebted to his pirate book.

“Did you know that rocket ships can fly under water?”

“They can?”

“Yes. And Mummy, did you know that Mermaids can die?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“They can. And when they die, they go to the Seven Seas and they live with the rocket ships under the water.”

Later, however, when we were rereading the pirate book and came to the page about the Seven Seas and Davy Jones’s locker, Owen seemed surprised.

“The Seven Seas! I was just talking about that!”

Every bit of information he collects, from life and from stories, seems equivalent right now. It’s no wonder that he has started asking me whether monsters are real.

People Bones

Owen is preoccupied with death lately. It’s disturbing. I don’t know if we unwittingly started it, but there it is. He always starts into the topic as though we’re finishing a previous conversation. It’s especially eerie, because it makes me feel as though he’s been pondering his own mortality since we last spoke on the subject. One afternoon this week on the way home from daycare, he opened the conversation like this:

“Is your grandpa people bones?”

I didn’t understand him at first. I don’t hear so well, especially in the car. After repeating himself a couple of times, he clarified: “People bones. You know, like dinosaur bones.”

Owen was afraid of the towering dinosaur skeletons we saw at the Natural History Museum until I reassured him that dinosaurs had all died long ago. In providing this reassurance, I seem to have opened another vast chasm of fear and uncertainty.

Both my grandfathers died before I was born, so I said that yes, I suppose, my grandpa is just bones now.

“But why do people turn into bones?”

“Well, because after you die you go into the ground and …” frantically, here, I try to think of how not to explain about worms and rotting and human flesh… “and eventually all that’s left is bones.”

(Last week, on the same subject, he tried to deny that he had bones. “But we don’t have bones, mummy! That’s silly.” I showed him that he did, under his skin.)

“But I don’t want to go in the ground! I don’t want to die! No-no-no-no! I WON’T!” He protested, in a three-year old’s tantrummy denial of the inevitable.

My heart quavered a little. “But you will, honey. Not for a very long time, but you will. Everybody dies.”

“Everybody? But I don’t WANT to die.” (and repeat).

I uttered some platitudes about how he won’t die until he’s very old. The problem is, whenever I start in on this subject, he invariably asks about the likelihood of death of people he knows who are old, like his great-grandmother or great-grand-aunt. The latter is completely bedridden and though Owen hugs and kisses her like a champion, he worries about growing old, and asks me whether his legs will one day stop working. Maybe.

Faced with his repetitive denial of his own mortality, I scrambled around thinking how other people might answer these questions. Religion! What do religious people tell their children? They reassure them with angels and spirits, not bones and earth. I said, “Some people think that when you die you go live with the angels up in the sky and that you meet all the people who died before.”

But either because I didn’t sound convinced or because this prospect was equally foreign, Owen protested again: “I don’t want to go live with the angels! I want to live with you!”

I reassured him, over and over again. Then I told him that no one had ever lived forever, but if he was really, really lucky, maybe he could do it. I said he would have to eat all his vegetables, and exercise really well, and be careful with his body (including not running outside the daycare, as he had done that morning). He latched onto this possibility, fiercely.

“I will do all those things what you said,” he said. “Then I won’t die.”

As you can imagine, the conversation went around and around from there, spiralling far out of my control. I have heard of the cosmic conversations we can have with small children, but this was my first taste of it. I felt utterly out of my depth.

My instincts are telling me to speak the truth about death no matter how much it hurts but, simultaneously, I want to protect my child from this knowledge as I would try to protect him from the thing itself.

The King of Hudson

We hosted a lovely Thanksgiving party on the weekend. It was glorious. Great company, tons of kids (well, 5, but that’s a lot more than usual), and delicious food. I think we broke up around 9 or 9:30, and a sweaty and overstimulated Owen got up on the window seat in our entrance way and started to sing (to the tune of Yellow Submarine – what else?):

“I’m the king of Hu-u-u-u-dson, the king of Hudson, the king of Hudson, and you are all the dirty ra-ascals, the dirty ra-ascals, the dirty ra-ascals.”

There was no offence meant. We’ve been reading about kings lately (awful ones who want to execute people – have you ever encountered Dr Seuss’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins? – the man clearly had not found his happy place yet. There’s no rhyme and the words and pages go on and on so that I find myself summarizing the content just to get through the thing – plus the poor protagonist is always being threatened with death due to perceived insubordination yet later becomes best buddies with the king. I just don’t get it.)

Anyway, once Owen had finished singing his king-of-the castle/Hudson tune, he ran out the door in his stocking feet to yell at his departing friends:

“Bye kids! Come back any time!”

We felt the same way. Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone. I, for one, am very grateful for friends.

If You Can Think of Anything to Say

It’s an eerie thing to have oneself echoed back by a child. They learn so much from us, pick up cues and behaviour and language, language, language. I remember the first time I heard Owen say he was “grumpy and frustrated” I laughed but cringed because I recognized myself. I am the one who, not uncommonly, will admit to Owen that I am grumpy and frustrated after a difficult meeting or class. I try to point out that I am not frustrated with him, but I wonder sometimes how much truth you should feed to a three-year-old.

The other morning at breakfast, Owen (who had been up about half an hour), turned to me and asked, “How’s your day so far, Mummy?” I mean, the question is silly because it hadn’t been much of a day yet. It wasn’t yet 7:00 am. But the civility behind the question delighted me (also, the “so far”). How does he know that sometimes we have to make conversation? How does he know that sometimes, when there’s an awkward silence, we have to fill the dead air with platitudes?

We taught a little bit of Absurdist drama last week in class. I always think of the Absurd as being about going through the motions, filling time with words and actions in a meaningless world.  One of the conversations from Edward Albee’s The Sandbox involves a man and a woman (Daddy and Mommy), literally making (fabricating) conversation:

DADDY: (After a pause) Shall we talk to each other?
MOMMY: (With that little laugh; picking something off her dress) Well, you can talk, if you want to…if you can think of anything to say…if you can think of anything new.
DADDY: (Thinks) No…I suppose not.
MOMMY: (With a triumphant laugh) Of course not!

The despair and the cruelty that emerges from Albee here seems to be Mommy’s refusal to acknowledge that sometimes we say things just to fill the air. Sometimes, we speak just to acknowledge that we’re present. Sometimes, too, it’s OK to be silent. Duncan is better at silence than I am. I like to fill the air with sound but have been known to sound a little like “Mommy” at the dinner table (I must sheepishly acknowledge).

Still, I do believe in the power of words to fill awkward spaces. I used to be so afraid of other people’s pain. One girl I knew lost her father at a very young age and I was so upset for her that I stopped talking her. I just didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I knew it was wrong and I knew I should speak, even to say I was sorry, but I couldn’t do it. Now I force myself to speak, even if I speak the wrong words. I think the wrong words, the clumsy ones, are better than none at all. Silence only begets more silence.

Yesterday was Pajama day at Owen’s daycare. His friend L’s mother had forgotten and had dressed her son in clothes. When Owen arrived and asked why he wasn’t wearing pajamas, he kind of grunted, “She forgot” and wouldn’t look up. Owen put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and said, “It’s OK. Mummies make mistakes sometimes.”

Owen seems to understand the power of a compliment and the importance of compassion. He has a kind of emotional intelligence that I am still working on.

Humbled

Yesterday, Owen visited the dentist for the first time. I guess this visit is supposed to take place any time after two years old, but a lot of people I’ve spoken to (including my dentist and my aunt, who is a dental hygienist) have intimated that two might be too soon and that three is better (do correct me if I am wrong, tooth-informed people). Certainly, I cannot imagine having had such a delightful visit to the dentist with a two-year-old. At three, Owen was obedient and a delightful patient.

First of all, when we arrived, Owen discovered a doll house in the corner complete with adult dolls and a baby swing. He went looking around for a baby for the swing and when he couldn’t find one decided that one of the man dolls could be the baby. After all, “he’s so little,” explained Owen. True, the adult doll is much smaller than real babies.

Owen’s dentist’s name is Dr. Baker. Owen knew this, and in the car wondered whether he – you know – baked things. I think he might have been hoping that visits to the dentist included cake. I explained that no, Baker was just his name and not his profession.

Both the hygienist and Dr Baker were lovely and friendly. Owen got his “chair ride,” coasting up and down and backwards and forwards with delight. My favourite part was how he kept his mouth open for the entire visit, even if no one was looking. I think Duncan must have prepped him for this. It was adorable.

We opted not to scrape the tartar off his teeth this time, but he got to choose a present from the treasure chest anyway. Points for you, Dr Baker.

Then last night, in the bath, Owen got onto the subject of Dr Baker’s name again:

“But some bakers bake”

“Yes, they do.”

“But this baker is a doctor?”

“Yes. He’s a dentist” (and here is where I got in trouble). “Dr Baker is a doctor of teeth and Dr Hortop is a doctor of bodies and sickness and I am a doctor of letters and reading.”

“No!” . . . He stared at me. “Mummy, you’re joking!” (Ha ha ha ha ha).

“I am!”

“No! Mummy! You’re being silly!”

“No, I really am. I’m not a doctor who can help your body or your teeth, but I know all about letters and books and stories” (trying to explain this to a three-year-old makes my degree sound beyond pathetic).

“No! Mummy!” (Incredulous. Mummy how could you possibly expect me to believe you).

So I proved it to him. Yes. After his bath, I brought him into my office and I showed him my diploma, the one that says “doctoratus litterae,” because my son was giving me an inferiority complex.

I think he believed me in the end, but I certainly felt humbled by my child’s utter disdain for my degree.

Conflation

Sometimes I wonder how a toddler is able to take in all that he does. You can almost see Owen learning, processing, and storing information. It’s not surprising that some of it gets jumbled.

For example:

“Daddy, daddy! I made two towers that I want you to see!”

“Huge?”

“No, TWO! Two big towers!”

“How big?”

“TEN DOLLARS big!”

***

“Mummy, look!”

“What did you make?”

“I made a quesclamation mark!”

I want to use the term “quesclamation mark” every day. Of course, I used it in class today in front of a scared bunch of first year students (many of them ESL), and I think they thought it was a real category of punctuation that they should know and didn’t. Instead of a laugh I got a lot of panic-stricken faces. Oh well, they wouldn’t have remembered when to include the punctuation at the end of a quotation anyway. But you all know, right? When there’s a quesclamation mark!?

How’s life?

It’s great?!

How are you?

I’m fine!?

It’s such a handy form of punctuation. I need more quesclamation marks in my life?!

***

A couple of Owen’s mixed signals lately have had me wondering if he has some kind of synesthesia. I think it’s just brain overflow from too much information. The other day he was talking about how a certain song was “green.” I think it was a song about a little black bull coming down the meadow. I don’t know if Owen knows what a meadow is – maybe? Another song was “black.” He was trying to explain to me why it was black (because it goes ‘bah bah baba bah” – the beat of the song?). Anyway, I quizzed him on other songs and he had no answers. Then he said my face was black, too (which it wasn’t), so I decided he was just tired.

Have a TEN DOLLARS great day!? Do.

Langue Maternelle/Mother Tongue

I’ve written before about my realization of what the mother tongue really is. When Owen was born, I fully intended to speak French to him. Duncan would then speak English, and we’d have ourselves a bilingual child.

Sigh.

Right now, Owen speaks gibberish every now and then and claims it’s French.

“Gaga bonnoweiukala! I’m speaking French, Mummy. Bladifloolafla.”

At least he knows what French is?

Language is such a politically charged issue in this province, especially now, as we return to a province run by the Parti Québécois, a party whose primary mandate is always to separate Quebec from the rest of Canada. I am a Quebecker, born here, raised here, and largely educated here, in both French and English. I will never, however, be a Québécoise. I am excluded from that category because my mother tongue is English. If forced to choose, I consider myself a Canadian first and a Quebecker second, but I have always wondered whether this was a choice or whether I just never felt fully included in Quebec society. From my initial immersion in French school at the age of six, I was certainly made to feel my difference, my tête carré never quite fitting into the round holes around me.

I have sometimes wondered whether I am more attached to my mother tongue than other people. I am, after all, an English teacher. Maybe I love the language too much, place too much stake in it, or maybe because I have studied so much English, I have tilted my skills too much into one linguistic area. I am bilingual – why don’t I feel it? I have had many francophones assume I’m French (though they usually wonder where exactly I am from). In France my accent is amusing. I am labelled “canadienne.” But whenever I speak French, it’s not really me. I am more formal (like my French). I am more studied (like my French). I can’t make jokes, don’t know the expressions, fumble around for words, and generally feel like a fool. I guess I should try harder to build my vocabulary, but I’ve reached the point where the only way to make my French better would be to have lots of French friends and to speak with them regularly. Unfortunately, my few “French” friends live far away – and we rarely spoke French together anyway.

I love learning languages. I studied German for two years and Spanish for one. I can now order off a menu and ask for directions in these languages. Everything else about those languages is gone (or buried). I have friends (and a sister!) who moved away and shifted their entire lives into another language, but I cling stubbornly to English.

Anyway, Owen and I have been trying very hard to work on our French. I’ve seen how his teachers work language in at daycare – they will ask a question in French and the kids will answer in English – so I’ve been trying that. What I am trying to create for Owen is a warm, friendly, comforting feeling around the French language – something I never felt when I was sent to French school at the age of six knowing “oui,” “non,” “chandail,” and “puis j’aller à la toilette.” That and having to explain to unilingual francophones that my name was really Anna, not “Anne-Michèle” (it took 3 months, as I recall). See? I am still traumatized by the way I learned French!

In a couple of years, we will have to decide whether to send Owen to French or English school. English schools here are largely French-immersion, so I am leaning toward the English side. I was a pretty happy kid before I went to French school, and the experience crushed me a little. I want Owen to keep his openness, his confidence, his friendliness. And I want him to be bilingual. I’m not saying that schools can’t provide second language instruction, but I do think that language learning is easier and more effective with a big dose of love. That’s why sleeping dictionaries work so well, right?