Chapter 12–Mouthy Kids
A pleasant calm prevailed after we moved into our new home. Valerie’s prosthesis became simply another fact of life and all but disappeared from our everyday vision and conversation. I took care of the house, cooked, did the bookkeeping. Ed sold kitchen cabinets and sundry items and the new office, recently located outside the house, was only eight minutes away. We both watched out for the girls; they went to school, fought a bit and complained about the inevitable doctors’ appointments. And we took our regular Sunday trips again. It felt normal.
The choices were up to Stacy and Val: The Turtleback Zoo in New Jersey, The Museum of Natural History in New York, maybe an afternoon spent with friends who had children: I must admit that the latter, the play dates, usually won out. We did take, on occasion, long drives through the countryside, play “I spy” in the car and, at the end of the day, search for child-friendly restaurants. Or we’d simply stay home and play games.
For example, we played front-yard softball with the four of us divided into two teams. Stacy and Mommy were the ‘Sam I Ams’ versus Valerie and Daddy’s the ‘Cats in the Hats.’ One Sunday, first inning: Valerie was at bat, Daddy was on deck, Stacy was in the outfield and Mommy was the pitcher. “OK, batter,” I said to Val. “Time to strike you out! Here it comes.” I wound up for my slow pitch blooper, threw and hit Val’s flesh and blood thigh. OhmyGod! Batter Val cried hysterically. Pitcher Mom dissolved. Game called because of injury. Both teams were dropped from the league. End of front-yard softball for the Goldsteins.
We moved on to our driveway’s asphalt basketball court. The girls were excited. It was the first time for both. “Throw the basketball to me, Mommy,” hollered Stacy. I did. She dropped it. Ed now had the ball and bounced it to Val. She laughed like a loon, caught it, dropped it, then caught it again and held on, running around wildly with the ball in her hands. But Val didn’t look where she was going. She fell on the asphalt, the ball bounced away, her good knee started bleeding and stormy tears, again, fell. “Yuch,” said her sister.
Obviously, driveway basketball didn’t work for the kids any better than front-yard softball; from then on both games were limited to adults only. Ed and I were resigned; it was back to the card and board games at our kitchen table.
Meanwhile, Valerie, our darling little girl, was doing wonderfully. And all was well. Almost.
One day after school, the bus deposited the children a few houses down the street as usual. Standing at the kitchen window, I saw Valerie talking to our next-door neighbor, Norma. Good. Val’s home. Stacy was running up our driveway. Okay, Great. She’s home, too. They were both where I could see them, unscathed from a day in academia. Or so I thought.
Stacy burst into the house, her face flushed and contorted with tears. “Mommy, the kids at school are calling Valerie Pinocchio! They are so mean!” I hugged Stacy tight and, before long, the tears abated.
After my big girl quieted down, we talked about bird-brained children and empty-headed adults. “It’s hard to ignore certain comments, Stacy, but I think that, most of the time, it’s the best way.” And so I told her about a stranger at the supermarket who once asked loudly, “What happened to that poor little girl’s leg?” pointing in our direction to Valerie who, at the time, was still on crutches.
“I thought it was stupid of that woman to ask about Val’s leg in that way and in such ear-splitting fashion, but it was done. She said it and couldn’t take it back even if she wanted to. So I turned Val away from the woman and we moved on. I don’t want you to fight with anyone, Stacy. But if it’s unavoidable, just say what you think is best.” She looked skeptical but seemed relieved.
Later, my angry hindsight suggested I should have left out the ‘don’t fight’ part. Let her fight; she might have felt better. But my ultra-sensitive eight-year-old had turned the problem over to a higher authority and feeling more comfortable grabbed a cookie and went into the den. The no-eating-outside-the-kitchen rule was dispensed with for the afternoon.
I should have expected the name-calling. While in the hospital Val came up against ill children and their parents, staring first at her ‘little leg’ when she was on her crutches and then at her prosthesis. And I remembered that, shortly after Val’s prosthesis was fitted, she and I took a walk up our street. Across the way was a young boy, a neighbor’s son. He spotted us and with a big grin on his face, shouted out, “Hi, old wooden leg.” I shouted right back, “Stop it, Jimmy. That’s not nice. You should know better.” Bending toward Val, I said, “Just ignore him, honey.” Should have kept your mouth shut, Sue, or just told Valerie what a jerk that kid was!
And now, Pinocchio.
The contradiction between my behavior and my advice hovered in the air. Valerie, walking close by my side held tight to my hand; she was quiet. I began speed-talking about a movie we could go to over the weekend. It was her choice, I told her.
Val never said a word to me about that incident. Maybe she forgot about it, too young to retain those kinds of hurts. Or, more likely, she held them all inside. I’m sure there were more such episodes but I didn’t hear about them.
But what to say to her about today, this Pinocchio hurt? I waited for Valerie to come into the house, willing my mind to come up with something that would lighten her burden.
Although Val usually ran right in to give me a hug, gab about school and ask for something to drink or eat, that afternoon she dawdled outside. After a while, when she did come in, I caught hold of her, sat down and pulled her onto my lap. “Valerie,” I said, “kids sometimes are not nice, just like adults. You know how I get annoyed with Aunt Phyliss or Aunt Isa and some of my other friends? Kids are like that, too. They say things that they may not really mean but they hurt anyway.” And I talked about kids calling other kids names, the typical stuff that parents lecture their children about: kids don’t realize that they may be hurting someone; kids think name-calling is clever; their parents hadn’t taught them properly; blah, blah, blah.
Val didn’t say anything. She leaned back against my chest looking down at her hands while I talked. When done, I rested my chin on her head, held her close for a while longer and then let go. I sat quietly, not moving, as Valerie slid from my lap and walked away, leaving behind another view of what sadness looked like in a child.
Still sitting on the kitchen chair, I squeezed my eyes shut, thought about Pinocchio and the good times that were often dominated by the bad, shook my head hard and then imagined our upcoming vacation.
“Stacy, Val, listen up you guys,” I called out. “Don’t forget. In two weeks, we’ll be going to Puerto Rico. We’ll have such a good time! Anybody want some more cookies?” Maybe I’ll have a cookie, too.
Thinking about the buoyant waters of the Caribbean and the bright warmth of the sun pacified me somewhat. We four would have fun and we’d forget little kids saying nasty things.
The shadow dogging our footsteps was, for the moment, brushed aside.
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein