“You smell like doog poop,” Adrienne told her.
It didn’t go over very well.
In fact, later that day, the little girl’s mother confronted Adrienne out in front of school. Forty or fifty children and teachers were watching. The little girl’s mother was angry.
“Did you tell my daughter that she smelled like dog poop?” the woman demanded. Adrienne looked up at her.
“No,” Adrienne said, “No, I didn’t.” The woman was flustered.
“Are you sure you didn’t say that?” she demanded again.
“No,” Adrienne said, “No, I didn’t.”
As the woman stalked away, Adrienne became aware of three things. First, that what she’d done, telling a lie, was really bad. Next, a kind of triumph that she could fool them all. Last, a kind of pity that they could be so easily duped.
I can remember telling a lie, in my grandmother’s house. I’m no longer clear what it was, but I remember the bitter-sweet feeling of being able to mislead the grown-ups, but anxiety that I’d need to remember to keep this story straight … forever.
As it turned out, time erases the need.
This morning I’m driving to some doctor’s appointments in Marin, where we have Kaiser coverage. It’s a days drive, and we need to change our insurance, but for now, I must drive. Adrienne told me, “If Celina (her daughter) wants you to bring presents up, it’s OK.”
I looked at Adrienne in puzzlement.
“I mean,” she said, “I won’t peek. I would never peek.”
Since only yesterday afternoon, she’d peeked inside the wrapping on a present from one of her ex-clients, I was dubious. On the other hand, this was great teasing material.
“You’d never peek?” I said, “When you were peeking just yesterday?” It didn’t phase her. Not one bit. Women. Made for deceit.
On the other hand, I can remember, at age eleven, how badly I wanted the little plastic spacemen figures, and how this one box rattled just like plastic spacemen. I couldn’t wait; in secrecy I peeled the wrapping open, slid out the end of the box, and pried it open. Plastic spacemen!
Aha! I thought. But then, the anxiety of wrapping it back up so my mother couldn’t tell. Then, wondering if she knew. Then, on Christmas morning, opening the spacemen, trying to act surprised and pleased.
It ruined the pleasure of plastic spacemen. I’ve not peeked since. Peeking, I decided at age eleven, carries its own punishment.
I can recall, earlier, perhaps at age four, standing in our miniscule living room. My mother’s brother was Dr. Hurn, she was his nurse, and we lived behind the doctor’s office. We had a large kitchen, small bedroom and bath, and this tiny living room recaptured from a storeroom.
There I stood, hardly older than an infant, perhaps four years old, startled because I’d just got a strange picture in my mind. I’d suddenly imagined that all grown-ups were a kind of dark angel, and that they could see me, even when they weren’t there in the room. It was a startling and frightening realization.
I could see them, somehow, even though they weren’t there … and they could see me.
When we’re very young, and have so little judgement, we make decisions that affect our lives all down the stream. But they’re not exactly like decisions. They’re more like perceptions. We see that life is a certain way. And all our subsequent thoughts and beliefs are built on these primitive building blocks, these decisions that happened as perceptions, made with so little knowledge. And because they’re so basic, it’s eternally difficult ever after to find our way to question them, because life just looks that way.
You can imagine that, given my perception at age four that grown-ups can always see us, it was a great relief at age eleven when I discovered that I could mislead them. And the wonderful thing was … they didn’t know.
Now, as an adult, it’s clear that neither perception was exactly right at the time. Times I thought they knew, they had no clue. Times I thought them ignorant, they surmised. Still, both realizations were turning points, of some kind.
Adrienne tells me of her friend Jenna, now nearing ninety. Jenna says that one Christmas when she was young, sitting beneath the tree some days before Christmas, she was overcome with curiousity, and unwrapped every package under the tree. She just couldn’t wait. Of course, she was quite unable to wrap them up again.
I don’t know what happened then, but she said that from then on, she just accepted that she couldn’t wait, and would unwrap presents before Christmas. Her husband Maurie worked out a Christmas solution.
Every year he found her two presents. One to put beneath the tree, which she’d invariably open before Christmas. And another which he’d hide, so she had something to open, come Christmas morning.