I used to think that Pedestrians were a religious sect. Some version of Christianity along the lines of Protestants and Episcopalians, but I couldn’t understand why we had to stop for them. What made them holier than thou?
“It’s bullshit,” was my father’s explanation. “They should be treated the same as everyone else.” This went for black people too, like when I told my father that I waited an extra few moments to hold a door open for a black person after learning about Martin Luther King in second grade. No special treatment, he admonished me. “You treat them like anyone else.”
My brother, sister and I, with all our cousins, never dared to sneak liquor from my grandparents’ basement. “There’s broken glass behind the bar,” my father warned us, and this sufficed as a repellant for years. It wasn’t until Grandma’s funeral, where we sat recounting memories of playing card houses and the Camel cigarette cartons that we used as building blocks that we came to a sick realization. “I wonder why they never cleaned up that glass,” Cousin Jimmy said. The truth hit us all at once, and we laughed, a grudging admiration for our parents. Good one, we thought. I’ll use that one day.
I’ve always had this naiveté, the belief in the literal word spoken to me. I was slow on the uptake to all kinds of lies. Sarcasm would fly right over my head. But eventually, like all things, realizations dawned on my little head, and I knew I was being messed with. Like when I brought home my first boyfriend, and the “treat them equal” ruse went right out the window as my dad at once took in his kinky hair, the hand on my knee, and the loss on innocence in my posture.
As a parent myself, I swore that I would be upfront with my children and to protect them from the slap in the face I got when I discovered all of the untruths my parents had subjected me to. When Jacob asked me one morning where Fishy-Fish had gone, I knelt down to his four-year-old height and gave it to him straight. “Honey, Fishy-Fish died.” I was giving him the respect that we both deserved, not some made up falsehood about a fish-farm where Fishy-Fish would swim happily with other fish.
Besides, his grandparents were getting older and I knew we’d have some bigger fish to fry in the future. It would be best to start out small and turn this into an introductory lesson about life and death.
“He died?” he asked me. “He’s dead?”
“Is he dead forever? How did he die? Will he come back? Did it hurt?”
His questions came at me like spraying bullets, and as I tried to answer them with honesty and respect, he shot out harder and faster with rising panic.
“Mommy, am I going to die? Will you die? What happens when you die? Will we be dead forever and ever? What if I don’t want to die? I don’t want to die!”
He was crying now, and I suddenly wished that I had told him about the retirement community in Fort Lauderdale where fish go to live out their elder years eating early dinners and playing golf. What we settled on, however, was that Fishy-Fish was very old and very sick and lived in that great big fishbowl in the sky with all of his loved ones. As for people, they die when they are one hundred-years-old, and get to live with God and find out all of the secrets of the Universe with their friends and family. And their toys can come with them. And they can eat ice cream before breakfast if they want to. And there are no time-outs.
It was pretty harmless as lies go. The existential pros far outweigh the cons of reality. And it helped. It did the trick I was setting him up for because when my father died just a few months after that conversation, I was able to preface the blow with “Grandpa lives up with God now.” I wasn’t breaking any new ground here, which was fortunate because I couldn’t bear saying much more than that. As for Jacob, a slow, beautiful smile spread across his face when we broke the sad news, and he immediately looked upwards and asked me, “Is Grandpa with us right now, except we can’t see him?”
“Some people believe that,” I told him, another go-to I’ve discovered in the realm of child deception. Some people believe that you can come back, and live another life all over again. Yes, with the same exact families. Some people believe that there are soul mates and they follow you through all of your lives together. Santa Claus? Sure, some people believe that he can see you, and that he’s building toys in his workshop right this minute.
“Some people believe” is my loophole, and when the time comes when disillusionment rips the tender smile from his face, I can point to my rhetoric and redirect that finger right back at him. “I never said I believe,” I’ll tell him. This is the plan, and he can take up any residual anger about it with his therapist, like the rest of us.
The truth is that Santa Claus works too well as a disciplinary device to demystify any time soon. I can tell him to clean up his Star Wars figures until I’m blue in the face, but one mention of that jelly-bellied clown up North, and the playroom is whipped into shape in a blur of nice-list fervor. It’s heady. I don’t think I can stop it, even though we’re raising the kids to be Jewish.
I can’t help but dread the day when Jacob or Anna come home from an assembly at school and ask us, point blank, if we had ever taken drugs. When do the lies stop? What if I told them the unvarnished truth - Jacob, go look in Daddy’s toolbox in the garage, underneath the paint cans. That’s where Mommy and Daddy keep the pot. Some nights, when you and Anna are tucked up like bugs in a rug, we toke it up in the hot tub and relish the day’s end, and our time alone. And then we eat your Halloween candy.
At which point do you lose them? The lies or the outright honesty? Is there a moral high ground somewhere in between? My husband’s friend Sam, a high level government official who has two teenage girls, has raised perfect children. They’re polite, popular, well-adjusted, and applying for Ivy League colleges. Bragging rights type of kids. The kind that I want. When I asked him for the secret to raising perfect children, his answer was simple: “Lie lie lie.”
And if you really think about it, the kids want you to lie to them. It puts everyone at ease. My relationship with my own father was fairly inconsequential until we dropped our respective acts, and dared to speak the truth. We inflicted honesty on each other like weapons, the way political talk show hosts trade stinging barbs. When he asked me what time I came home one night, I stared straight into his eye and told him. “Three o’clock.”
“Nothing good ever happens after one,” he told me.
“I was drunk,” I told him. “I got pulled over and the cop sent me to the diner. He told me that if he saw me on the road within the next two hours, I would spend the night in jail.”
He shrugged. “Then I’m glad,” he said. The world didn’t come to an end, but the ease of our conversations did. Because he got me back.
“I took Cheryl out to breakfast this morning,” he told me over the phone a few years ago, after my parents’ second divorce from each other.
“Great,” I said, playing it cool. He had every right to date. I would encourage it, even. But I didn’t want to hear about it.
“Because she slept over last night.”
“That’s nice,” I placated him, praying that it would end here. But he wasn’t finished. He got us back for every truth we challenged him with after we’d grown up and moved out of the house. My sister would torment him - “Daddy, remember that time I slept at Penny’s house and then we were going to Great Adventure with the school? Really I slept at Craig’s house because his parents were in Italy. And Penny? She was with that thirty-year-old guy you used to call Snake, remember him?”
We were beyond ramifications and we thought it was hilarious to watch his face shift in his apparent discomfort, teeth gritted, vein standing apart from his forehead. There was a power shift and we all knew it. We’d gone from fear of his disapproval to the heady knowledge that we no longer needed it. And we flaunted it, untouchable.
But then Dad started bringing Cheryl around, and with a few drinks in her (she always had a few drinks in her), it was impossible to pretend that things weren’t different. She was in our faces, loud, with that husky smoker’s voice that burned our ears like smoke pouring through nostrils. She sipped from a flask of vodka at my niece's sixth grade graduation ceremony and bursted out “Sex!” instead of cheese when we took her picture standing next to my father, her arms entwined around his, like he belonged to her, instead of us.
“She’s a happy drunk,” he’d say, and we’d look over from our booth in Friendly’s to watch her dance with the busboy, her throaty laugh sounding over the screams of over-sugared children.
Game. Set. It was on, and though my sister persisted with her honest ferocity, I withdrew. Match point. He won. I didn’t want to talk about my father having a sex life, and when he would bring it up, it was me who had the uncomfortable face changes, the grimaces, the gritted teeth. My dad used to cover up his profanity, ”Shucks!” he’d call out, immediately after he yelled “Shit,” so that maybe we wouldn’t catch it. We always did, though we appreciated his attempts at decorum.
I try to do the same thing with my own children, to preserve their innocence, the sweet little ears from ugly words. It doesn’t matter when they’re babies, because they don’t understand, but eventually they’ll drop an ice cube on their toe and yell, “Shit!” and you know it’s time to control yourself.
Control. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Keeping the truth under control, the lies in place so that the world can keep turning the way it always had been, or always should have been. If you can keep the lies going, we can preserve the innocence of the children, even ourselves when we are grown children, watching as our parents take their cues from us, and drop the act we wish they would continue. In the last years of his life, Dad threw around some ugly language, jokes that weren’t meant for the ears of young girls, stories about his youth and his army days that we were better off not knowing. The truth we wished he would keep in came out.
We want the lies because then we won’t have to grow up. We won’t have to see what’s real: that things change. Parents break up. People die.
There is no magic.