Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flying Too Close to the Flame

We had just sat down to a late dinner in early August when we heard the lightening and the thunder strike. Suddenly the lights went out and it was dark. Each of us immediately had a private thought. Trent wondered if the computers were zapped. I wondered if we’d have no power for a week, like two summers ago. Michela said she wondered if there was anything on her fork. She said she couldn’t see it; that she had tried to spear some salad just as the power went out. She said that she didn’t hear any crunch that would tell her that she had caught something. She explained how hungry she was and how she hoped, as she brought her fork to her mouth in the dark, that there would be lettuce or tomato on it. (There wasn’t.)

We had become old hands at what to do when we lost power. Trent opened his cellphone for light to guide me to the candle drawer in the kitchen. Tim felt his way to the cupboard where the matches were kept. As soon as we had enough candles lit, I suggested that someone should call Tim’s aunt Fran down the block while I went to check in on our elderly neighbor Theresa.

Later in the evening, as we finished our meal, a moth flew too close to the candle flame and burned a wing, falling to the top of the china closet where the candle was situated. Michela pointed it out and Trent went to verify that, indeed, a moth had fallen dead on the oak cabinet. “The plight of many moths throughout history,” said my father-in-law Merritt to everyone and no one in particular. “Flying too close to the hot flame.”

Maya was very upset. “The moth flew too close to the fire and burned himself Mommy?” “Yes, Maya,” I replied. “Why?” she asked in her two year old way of dissecting all events. “It was an accident,” I told her. “Just like when you accidentally got too close to the pot on the stove this evening and burned your pinkie finger.” “Where did he go Mommy?” she asked. I wasn’t prepared for this. I decided I didn’t need to tell her that the bug had died. “He flew home crying to his Mommy so she would make it better,” I told her. I told myself that this wasn’t exactly lying. That maybe bug heaven was like going home to your Mommy.

“He flew home to his Mommy?” she repeated. “Yes,” I responded. “Wouldn’t you come crying to your Mommy if you were burned?” I asked her. “I would go crying to my Real Mommy,” she said. I couldn’t believe my ears. Her Real Mommy? Where did she hear that phrase? I ventured another question. “Who is that?” Hoping the answer wasn’t what I thought it might be. It was. “My Mama Nikki,” she said. I thought I heard my mother-in-law Ruth Ann audibly gasp. “Michelle is a good Mommy,” she blurted. She was trying to fix things, as she always did. But since when did we refer to me as Michelle in front of my daughter? I’m Mommy.

“Did someone say to you that I’m not your Real Mommy?” I asked. “No,” she answered. “Well, where did you hear that Mama Nikki was your Real Mommy?” I continued. She shrugged, “I don’t know.” I thought about how to approach the subject. “Mama Nikki is just a different kind of Mommy,” I told her. “She carried you in her belly and gave birth to you,” I explained, as I had on other occasions. “But I take care of you. I’m a Real Mommy, too.” I was rambling. “Do I look like a pretend Mommy to you? Do I look pretend? I look real to me. I’m real.” I turned towards my husband, “Daddy, do I look pretend to you?” He assuaged me, “You look real to me.” Merritt and Ruth Ann were on the front porch now, talking in low voices. Maya ran off to go play.

I asked Tim where he thought she learned that. I told him that I never use that language. He suggested that she learned it at our friend’s house. Our friend has had two foster children for three years and it is possible that one of the children there told Maya that I am not her real mother. Tim suggested that I drop the matter and not give electricity to the word and it would pass.

Later that night in bed, I asked Tim how I can make it clear to Maya that we don’t use that language. Just as we teach our children that there are certain other offensive terms that we don’t use. He said he expected that if we never used that terminology, she wouldn’t use it anymore either. “But then how do we teach that certain words hurt? That certain words are offensive?” I asked him. “It’s offensive to me. I mean, I know I’m her mother, but still. . . .” I protested. It did hurt a little. He reiterated that if we didn’t use that term, she wouldn’t either. And that she would understand that it was inappropriate. He said if I made a big deal out of it, she would use those words to push my buttons. “I still think there must be a way to gently, casually mention it, but not make a big deal out of it,” I told him. He said that the best way to teach was by example and that I should drop it.

My husband’s approach was always to avoid and deny, in my view. That was so not my approach. I am more in your face. An emotional, screaming Italian mess. With gestures to accompany the words. And, yet, I knew that Tim was right on so many things I didn’t know how to approach. I hoped he was right this time. . . . .

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