With the Laughing Face

My parents’ friend B. used to take me out when I was six or seven for hamburgers and tell me about books like The Daughter of Time (“why I started liking history,” she said) or Swallows and Amazons (“better drowned than duffers, if not duffers won’t drown,” she quoted), or come over to our house and let me help her make a lemon souffle while explaining Catherine McKinnon-era feminism to me; she moved away but we saw her often afterwards, and she drove with us cross-country the next year when we moved to Los Angeles, during which she taught me the Botticelli guessing game (that I play with my kids at dinner time now) and during which she made a point of stopping for canned shrimp cocktail at every gas station (we joked that one of the cans, all of which looked to have been untouched since the Nixon Administration, was sure to contain botulinum toxin), and during which we made an unsuspecting stop at Molly Murphy’s House of Fine Repute in Oklahoma City, where all the waiters were dressed as Prince or Elvis or (in our case) a bunny with a diaper on, and where if you asked for the bathroom all the waiters would come out to scream “Potty Train! Potty Train!” and form a conga line before throwing you into the bathroom.

B. married late, and went through a series of fertility treatments, one of which probably gave her the fast-growing ovarian cancer that killed her in about a year; the last time I saw her, a few months before I graduated high school, she was sick but not diagnosed (they told her it was pneumonia), and we made a soup with twelve heads of garlic and sat in the garlic-smelling house watching a wet Boston snowstorm come down, playing the card game Set and listening to her favorite Coltrane album, Ballads.

The “It Takes A Village To Raise A Child” thing is nonsense, of course, an excuse to represent giant programs as the natural and unavoidable means of raising children. But the grain of truth is that it should not only be relatives or people whose job it is to take care of us who have a stake in bringing us up.

Growing up is in large part about finding out what adults are interested in, and learning what it is to be an interesting person. Parents and teachers have to be with us when they don’t want to be. They are inevitably, by virtue of overexposure and their role as taskmasters and disciplinarians, uninteresting to us as children more often than not. And so they are often poorly suited to both tasks, of making us interested in the world and of teaching what it is to be interesting ourselves. One of the great losses of our current conception of childhood- which treats, occasionally justifiably, each unrelated adult as a potential mortal threat- is that it makes for fewer people for kids to learn from who aren’t there for the sole purpose of being learned from, fewer people who can teach us that adulthood is not just a choice between drudgery and excess. We all need someone to tell us that we are better drowned than duffers, but that if we are not duffers we won’t drown.

2 thoughts on “With the Laughing Face

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