March 6, 2008

Keep a Living Thing Alive

I had an experience with my toddler a little while ago that I don't want to forget. Bear with me while I get my head around this.

Normally, I try to preserve a memento, like a flower, by placing it into wax paper and inserting it into the middle of my trusty old American Heritage Dictionary. Thinking about this task led me to contemplate how other experiences in life relate to this process. Even though I can not preserve this particular memory of an experience with my son in a physical and tangible form such as that of a pressed flower, the mental process is similar when I decide to write about a certain topic. The ultimate goal is still the preservation of youth and wisdom gained through hindsight.

Definitively Divine?
When it comes to preserving a memento, a dictionary makes a nice place to stash articles and for good flower pressings because there is so much weight in between the pages. My dictionary is no ordinary book, however. It is a special gift I received when I was a child and I never realized just how special it is until recently.

I'm not sure about traditions in other schools, but when I attended elementary school in the eighties, back in southeastern Pennsylvania, a little ceremony took place when you reached the end of the sixth grade. At this ceremony, you received a gift. It was an American Heritage Dictionary signed by all of your teachers past and present. Before school was over, this dictionary served as a sort of year book that got passed around and signed by all of your classmates as well. Of course, we also spent time giggling while trying to see how many bad words we could find in it. That was always a fun pastime. Getting your dictionary signed and signing your friends' dictionaries was a big deal at the tender age of twelve.

Receiving this gift of the dictionary was a bittersweet and significant event for us even though we could not fully comprehend it. The event represented the end of a large portion of our childhood while signaling the beginning of an exciting new phase: junior high. It was uncertain if you would keep the close friends you had while attending elementary school and the future was uncertain when it came to thinking about making new friends in a much larger fish bowl. We all knew it and we had mixed feelings about it. We could not quite grasp the concept at the time, but receiving this gift also meant not only that we were old enough to have our very own dictionary but also that we had now been given the responsibility for becoming resourceful on our own.

Pulling Teeth
It was really difficult for me to transition from elementary school to junior high because my school was like a big family to me. Parents knew each other and they knew the school staff. Everyone knew everyone. My Mom sold Avon to just about everyone from the lunch ladies to the School Secretary, Mrs. Wert. The Lunch Cashier I remember everyone else called her Mrs. So-in-So, but I knew her real name was Kitty. She wore lots of blue eyeshadow.

My elementary school was a very small school compared to others in the district. Only first through sixth grades were taught and there was only one teacher for each grade for all of the subjects. The only teachers who taught different subjects were the Music, Art and Gym teachers. Other memorable characters included the School Nurse, Librarian and Lunch Aides. Mrs. Amadio, one of the Lunch Ladies, pulled one of my loose teeth out with a sandwich baggie. I'll never forget that. "Mrs. Amadio, look at my loose tooth!" I said and then proceeded to proudly wiggle it for her. She said, "Oh, let me take a closer look" as she reached down onto my lunch tray and put her hand inside of a plastic sandwich baggie and gripped onto my tooth and pulled it out of my mouth. I just stood there in shock.
Don't ever show a loose tooth to an old Italian woman. She will pull it out without asking you!
I say this because my Mother's Godmother, Mrs. Giamo, was another woman who pulled out a loose tooth of mine without asking. It all happened so fast. All I remember was a huge wad of scented tissue stuffed into my mouth and seconds later she was holding my bicuspid.

I forgave them though. Years later, Mrs. Amadio did the alterations on my senior prom gown. MomMom, as we call her, she taught me how to apply lipstick the proper way. I always looked forward to visiting her when I was young because she would pull out one of those teeny, tiny little Avon lipstick samples and give me one; despite the fact that my Mother had hundreds of them at home. She just turned 94 I think. Happy Belated Birthday, MomMom.

I was fortunate enough to have attended the same school district from kindergarten on up through high school. If you asked me, I could tell you all of the names of all of the teachers I had for each of the grades one through six as well as a couple of my junior and senior classes. I could even tell you the name of the Elementary School Librarian – Mrs. Siler.

One other fond memory I have was when I was in the first grade, our teacher, Miss Nigreli, invited us all to her wedding. She was one of the most beautiful brides I have ever laid eyes on. Even more pretty than Laura when Luke and Laura got married on General Hospital. It was a huge and long Catholic wedding. I'll never forget watching her pray for children. She had so many children at her wedding (her whole first grade class and then some) and it left such an impression on me. (It's one of the reasons why I wanted to have many children at my own wedding.) After her wedding, she was called Mrs. Patrizi. I was so excited to learn about the difference between Miss and Mrs. and had fun relating this new concept to my dolls and the little boy named Eddie I had a crush on who lived up the street. I had many crushes on different boys throughout the years.

Sign of the Times
Of all of these childhood memories though, I still have to say that getting my sixth grade dictionary signed and crossing that threshold was one of the most profound. This is where the importance of the dictionary is prevalent for inside the index page of the back cover is a note and a signature penned by a boy named Josh. I had a huge crush on him during our sixth grade year. When he signed my dictionary, it meant the world to me. I used to look at it a lot after he signed it. I used to trace my fingertips over the pen outline and study the words he wrote, "To a very good freind I met this year! Good Luck! Josh" He wrote "very" which completely overshadowed the fact that he misspelled 'friend.' The adjective very gave me hope that maybe he liked me too. Of course, junior high came and we went our separate ways and made new friends and discovered new crushes while still keeping ties with our original sixth grade base of friends.

Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared me for what happened in the next few school years. Just three years after signing my sixth grade dictionary, Josh died. We were only fifteen (+/-). It was one of the most difficult things I have ever endured, seeing the lifeless body of a fellow classmate laying in a casket. A funeral for a young friend is no place to be. It's just not the natural order of things. I remember watching his face so intently waiting for the joke to be over. He never woke up. I remember all but passing out into another friend's arms as I turned away from the casket. (Thank you Chris Y. for being there to catch me and for hugging me so hard.)

The fact that Josh's signature is in the back of this book, I think, has something to do with the reason why I use this particular book to press funeral flowers. Ironically, as I think back now, there have been a couple of young people who's funeral flowers I've pressed in between the pages of that dictionary. I think until now, it's been a subconscious way of somehow preserving a piece of someone's youth even though it was lost to death. Death for me at least defines the end of someone's physical life but the beginning of an eternal memory and when a young person dies, they stay young forever. I can't help but thinking that some tiny part of Josh's youth and life, represented in his little note to me and signature, is frozen and preserved in time just like a pressed flower.

So, I guess this proves that my brain has some pretty amazing memory capacity after all. That and the fact that I am super good at digressing.

Insert classic soap opera fade back to present time short term memoryville complete with harp music.

Life in the Hands of a Toddler
Let me tell you a story about a little boy and a Mother's quest to keep a living thing alive. It was a nice and sunny day that lent itself to turning off the thermostat and leaving the front door open to let the sunshine in. We have a metal screen (security door) in front of our wooden front door. There is a gap in between the bottom of this door and the threshold. Sometimes little tiny beetles sneak up through this crack and sun themselves on the concrete step to our front door. This is not a wise thing to do when there is a curious toddler lurking about.

I was cleaning the house and doing some vacuuming when I noticed my son was fixated on something at the front door. I went over to investigate. He had discovered this little black beetle and was trying to play with it. So, I decided to stop what I was doing and help him discover his first bug.

It was strange at first because I have this built in bug fear reflex and I had to find a way to get over that for this moment because I wanted my son to explore the bug and learn about it. I wanted to embrace the moment and share the experience with him. (Plus I would rather he not eat the poor thing!) This meant picking it up myself and feeling it's tiny little legs wiggle against my fingerprints. I remember thinking to myself, here we go, this is what mothering a boy is all about. Bring on the mud pies and slimy frogs. This is now the beginning of life for a little boy.

I watched proudly at how fascinated my son had become with this tiny little living thing. It would crawl and scamper up and down his arm and then drop and trace the chubby contours of his little leg and thigh. Then, with his pincer grasp perfected, he would pick up the bug between his chubby little thumb and finger. I watched in horror and grimaced at the thought of him crushing his new little friend to death there by ending the game sooner than it had began. There was one problem, however. This particular bug was good at playing dead. The more the bug did not respond, the more my son was adamant for getting the bug to cooperate. He was pinching the bug harder and kept dropping it and getting frustrated with it.

One of the most awkward things for me as a Mother to deal with during this experience was knowing that death could very well be imminent for this little creature. All of the sudden I felt this enormous pressure to try and do the right thing. But, what was the right thing? Was it ok to just allow my son to explore this little bug even if it meant squishing it and killing it unknowingly? All of the sudden I realized that I might have to soon give my son his first lesson in what it means when a living thing dies. How was I going to explain this concept to a little person who has only been alive himself for 19 months?

Of course I understand that the ability to comprehend death of a living thing for my young son is way off in the future, but this whole experience with the bug made it such a reality for me. It dawned on me that I am now responsible for teaching my son about life and death. How will I deal with this when the time comes? Do I purposefully allow him to kill the bug to introduce the concept? I have no problem with killing a big, nasty, roach-looking water bug I find in the bathroom at 3 am. (Well, actually I do, I usually scream and make Hubby kill it if he's available.) So why would I have any qualms about letting him mishandle this little black beetle?

I guess it's because I see my young son as so pure and innocent and incapable of inflicting harm on anything. That is my definition of him right now, but I see that definition is changing. It is not something I can preserve in the pages of my own childhood dictionary. He is growing and learning and exploring. His destiny is to create his own definition of himself. I have to accept that and it is not easy. I can not always protect him from the world. I can only teach him to be gentle and respectful of living things including his own life. I have the obligation as a parent to teach him that life is short and sometimes fragile. It's my job to teach him to respect life no matter what form it comes in, but also to realize that some living things are a danger to us and do need to be killed in defense. It makes me ache inside and I can not grasp the reality of what the Mother of a soldier must deal with when her child goes off to war.

I'm not sure what will happen when he learns that certain kinds of bugs scare Mommy and make her shriek and then Daddy comes to the rescue and kills the scary bug. I don't yet know how we'll explain this or the concept of death to him. Maybe I will have to look up words in my trusty old dictionary. Maybe I will have to open the back page and ask Josh for help to explain that sometimes living things die and we're not sure why.

All I know is the gift my teachers gave to me over 2 decades ago is the gift that keeps on giving. I did not realize before now that this dictionary serves as not only as a reference for words and meaning, but also a place to preserve memories and a resource for wisdom as well.

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