As parents we feel obliged to correct our children when they make mistakes when speaking. Yet so often the words they coin seem much more sensible and charming than their “proper” counterparts. ‘It’s a froggy day,’ my son, Jesse, used to say when he meant ‘foggy.’ ‘Where are the ouches?’ My daughter, Susannah, would ask when she wanted to hang something on the clothesline. (She once caught a finger in a clothes peg and her great-grandmother had consoled her by saying, ‘Ouch, that hurts.’) Then there were ‘flat tireds’—the things you get when your car runs over a nail in the road—and the ‘constructions’ which you read to find out how to use something for the first time. Aaron, my youngest child, announced one day after playing with one of our Burmese cats, ‘Mummy, guess what, pussy cats have dangerous toes’.
Kids have taught me to express my anger instead of being afraid of it. Watch two children fight. They sling the most appalling insults at each other. One gives the other a whack and swears not to play with him or her again. Two hours later they are best friends once more. They know so much better than we do how to forgive. Somehow they seem to understand that being angry with someone—no matter how important it seems at the time—is not half as interesting as all the things you can do, see, say, and make together as soon as the anger has passed.
One summer day, many years ago, everything seemed to go wrong for me. For no apparent reason I awakened in the morning with the awful feeling that nothing was worthwhile. At 10am I received a telegram from a publisher saying that two manuscripts (of which I had no copies) had been lost in the mail. By noon not even the brilliance of Californian sunshine (where we were on holiday at the time) could shake off the heavy black cloud that surrounded me. I was angry with myself and trying to avoid being angry with everyone else. Jesse, then aged eight, and Susannah, ten, kept hounding me to take them to the beach. I didn’t want to go anywhere, especially the beach. I didn’t want to do anything for anyone. In the worst possible spirit I eventually consented—making sure, of course, that they realized I was doing them a great big favor.
The pure white sand and fresh sea air on an almost deserted beach did nothing to improve my mood. It seemed to me that life was ‘out there’ and I was ‘in here’, locked away in the depths of the gloomy dungeon I’d somehow built for myself and was powerless to break out of. As the sun shone brighter and more beautifully I grew steadily more gloomy. Finally I could stand it no longer. Despite the fact that the children were playing in the sand nearby and I didn’t want to upset them, I broke down and cried.
Susannah asked what was wrong. ‘I don’t know, just about everything seems wrong at the moment,’ I whined. ‘I feel like that sometimes,’ Jesse said, offering no sympathy whatsoever. ‘I think you must be angry.’ ‘So what if I am?’ I snapped. ‘Why don’t you hit something?’ he suggested. ‘There’s nothing to hit,’ I replied irritably, ‘and anyway that’s stupid.’ ‘No, it’s not,’ Susannah chimed in. ‘It’ll make you feel ever so much better, Mummy. Or maybe you should try growling like a dog.’
I was willing to try anything. So, feeling like a complete fool and admonishing myself for behaving so stupidly in front of my own children, I growled and complained. I hated everyone, I said. I hated myself. I was lonely and I felt the whole world was stupid. Then I growled some more while the two of them sat listening silently. Not once did they try to console me, or tell me I was wrong or protest that the world was really a lovely place to live. Not once did they pass judgment on me or make me feel ashamed of myself or foolish. They just sat and waited.
Finally I felt a little better. Jesse had been right, I thought, but I still had no idea where to go from here. At last I was quiet. Only then did Susannah say, ‘I think maybe I know what’s wrong with you.’ ‘What?’ I asked skeptically. ‘You’re always thinking about such serious stuff. You’re always telling yourself what to do and what not to do. No wonder you’re angry. You’ve forgotten how to have fun, Mummy.’
She was certainly right. Having fun seemed as far away as the moon at that moment. I realized then that for several months I had saddled myself with my work as if work were the only thing that mattered. I’d hated almost every minute of it but had felt proud of being such a ‘responsible adult.’ ‘Maybe you’re right,’ I replied. ‘But how does somebody who’s forgotten something so important remember it?’ ‘Come on, let’s did a hole,’ was her reply. ‘Yeah, I like holes,’ Jesse chimed in.
Feeling like a half-frozen hippopotamus, I lifted myself off the towel and mechanically moved toward the site they’d chosen for the hole. I started to dig. Jesse, who often acted the role of a clown, was soon sliding down into it. Susannah was snapping at him for ‘ruining the shape.’ I looked at the two of them fiercely sneering at each other and saw myself as I had been just a few minutes before. I began to laugh. So did they.
Before long we had a beautiful hole dug. It was the most gorgeous hole I’d ever seen… or so it seemed to me. We had a contest to see who was best at running up and leaping over it. Then we drew pictures in the sand and ran into the ice-cold water, splashing each other. By the time the first wave struck me, I, like the two of them, had become part of the sea and the sky. There was no more gloom and no more supercilious self-assurances that I was ‘doing the best thing.’ I was alive again.
Later that evening I thanked Jesse and Susannah for helping me and teaching me to have fun again. Then in typical adult fashion, I added, ‘You know I’m likely to forget and be all grumbly again before long.’ ‘That’s all right,’ replied Susannah, ‘we’ll remind you.’