Once in the mountains of Colorado after nearly two weeks of traveling in our ’48 Ford, after days of my mother’s infamous silent treatment, and after an hour of trying to get his notoriously temperamental light meter to work so he could take a decent picture of Pike’s Peak, my father tossed the light meter in the roadside trashcan and told us all to get back in the car because “We’re going home now.”
Earlier in this ill-fated trip, my brother, who was 14 at the time, dropped a rock from a cliff aimed squarely for my 11-year old sister’s blond head twenty feet below, yelling “Look out!” just as the rock approached the part in her hair like a train going full speed toward a stalled car on the railroad tracks.
It was bloody and glum back in the car. Only five years old, my goal was to stay clear of conflict and controversy which meant giving my brother’s new white cowboy hat the widest possible berth, scrunching back against the door to stay away from my mother’s mopping up of my sister’s wound, and, above all and at all times, not asking any questions.
But after my father made the announcement about us suddenly going home, I wanted to ask a question. I don’t remember exactly how it was framed in my head but I know what the question was because I’ve seen it writ on the faces of my own children and other people’s children. It was this: do the grown-ups know what they are doing?
The corollary to this question is, I think, am I still safe here? This is connected to the question of whether the adults are out of control, whether they recognize how scary the situation has become, whether they understand how little it takes to frighten a child, and whether they will tamp it down, calm down, and carry on. Will they take charge, interrupt the kindergartner’s imagination, and be predictable. Or will they keep going down this worrisome, unknown road of frustration, anger, and not speaking?
As adults, it is easy to underestimate the impact of even minor discord on little kids. It was no big deal, we think. We just had a difference of opinion. He didn’t really mean, literally, that we would pack up and drive from Colorado back to Michigan right that minute, the light meter hadn’t worked right for years, throwing it away wasn’t such a big deal, and the rock incident, that could happen with anyone’s kids, just an accident.
The other night, in the kitchen, with our granddaughter sitting on a stool between us, my husband and I got into a spat about something related to my work. We went back and forth, back and forth, over the top of her head. She never looked up, visibly concentrating on the concrete-like cookie batter she was trying to stir. I was irked, very irked, and as we went back and forth, the exchange got more and more unpleasant.
Is there a reason I am going down this road, I thought, while a 7-year old is right in front of me? What would that reason be? Is the road irresistible?
No, it’s not. It’s time to turn around. Otherwise, she is going to wonder if the adults know what they are doing.
They do. They just forgot for a minute.