Like many—like most—I have struggled since Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook. As a teacher, I’ve struggled to tame visions of my own classrooms being broken by violence. As a citizen, I’ve struggled with questions of access and denial, prevention and inevitability. As a parent, I’ve struggled with the unimaginable.
Until now, I haven’t posted a thing. In fact, I haven’t spoken much either, not to my family or friends. A lot has been said. But for many of us, silence has edged out all else.
All I have to offer is this, a short piece I wrote about my niece when she was six. Having lost my dad when I was six, I was trying to understand the age when I observed my niece and wrote this. So for each number 6 or 7 after the comma after the name, this is what I know.
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At six, my niece has decided she will only eat a sandwich if it has been cut into five triangles. She will not eat “munstard” or “spimach.” She will, however, try a “no-thank-you bite.” This means she’ll take a bite, pull a face, spit it into the garbage can, let the lid drop with the thud of rejection, and say, “No, thank you.” I took care of her while my sister stayed in the hospital after giving birth to twins. She melted down one morning over breakfast, triggered by the lack of her favorite cereal. I allowed her to cry herself out. She might have been crying at the loss of cereal, but I think she was crying at a bigger loss, the loss of her undivided parental attention. Maybe it really was just about cereal.
As stubborn and independent as my mother says I was, my niece insists on choosing her outfit for her first day of kindergarten. She starts with a pink t-shirt adorned by a butterfly appliqué. Over it, she puts on a blue and green striped cotton sundress. Underneath the dress, she pulls on yellow sweatpants. White ankle socks and shiny black Mary Janes complete the lower half. On the top, she adds a white cardigan, buttons all the buttons, and then unbuttons all but the top one.
She picks her nose on the bus. When she sees a neighbor out the window, she rips her finger out of her nose and waves.
Six, she pets her second best kitty. “Einstein was my best cat,” she says, “but I love Laptop, too.” In a few hours, because of heart failure and a blood clot, Laptop will be euthanized. “Laptop is a good kitty,” she says to an unknown listener as she plays with the long fur on the back of Laptop’s neck. “You should know that.” She has just finished her first full week of school. “My teacher knew all about me. She gave me a nametag and a cubby on my first day!” All teachers of young children know the importance of warmth, especially on the first day of school. A shaggy golden coat hides Laptop’s skinny frame. My niece reaches her fingers in to scratch his skin and looks up to her bedroom ceiling, dotted with glow-in-the-dark stars that, during the daytime, are just smudges of yellow. She says to the ceiling, “He’s a good kitty. Will you be ready for him?”
Her little sister, perched against her will on the back of a pony, is screaming. “I’ll take the rest of your ride,” says my niece, magnanimously. She turns to her little brother. “Will you cry, too?”
During a family weekend, she participates in the adults’ enthusiasm for the Olympics by planning her own event. She loads a cardboard box with the supplies valued by a six-year-old. Linen paper, plastic hand clappers, fabric paint, fish stickers, elephant-shaped paper clips, pipe cleaners, used bookmarks, cat toys, rubber bands, plaid wrapping paper, and, her absolute favorite, tape—Scotch tape, masking tape, packing tape, double-sided tape, pink tape, glow-in-the-dark tape. With input from my sister, she names the event “Project Production” and tells her parents and aunts and uncles that she will judge them on their creative craft skills. As her adult relatives work, she peers at them over her glasses, composing her mouth into a dispassionate line. We labor on our crafts. We try to sabotage each other. We talk smack. I, however, hold an ace up my sleeve. My niece likes jewelry. I know this because she often fingers my bracelet or necklace when we snuggle up for hello hugs. I make her a bracelet. When time is up, she carefully inspects each project and asks questions. She deliberates for a few minutes, and then awards me the gold sticker.
She wants to be an orange tree for her six-year-old Halloween. Not, she says, a tree with orange leaves, but a tree that grows oranges. My sister, having inherited my mother’s crafting skills, creates a green felt tree costume and glues on tens of large orange balls. My niece beams six in her Halloween portrait.
My sister and her family visit us in New York. My niece has just returned from an outing that included taking the elevator lit up by lasers to the top of a skyscraper, peering over the railing and trying to count all the buildings, identifying the spots of Central Park in which she’d run and pet animals and eaten ice cream the day before, exploring television studios, posing at the anchor desk of a well known journalist, skipping through the hallways of J’s newsroom and swiveling circles in his desk chair, and eating a hamburger the size of her head. When asked, she says that her favorite part of the day was drawing a blue heart for her uncle to put up “at his work.” She’d scrawled the words “I love you” in shaky capital letters across the middle of the heart, like an arrow.
My niece has been given special privileges to play on J’s computer. She prints. She had asked permission, but her father and mother both said no. Still, she finds the key with the apple picture, and the “P,” and presses them both. For a few seconds she has done something wrong but is not yet in trouble. But she can’t stop the whir of machinery warming up, the swish of paper sliding under the rubber roll, the sigh as new Valentine’s Day pictures are ejected to the tray.
She is sent straight to the naughty spot, not a fixed space, but a state of mind that travels with the family. Today, the naughty spot is just inside the front door of our apartment. Because it’s J’s printer, my sister tells her she must apologize to him. Her fingers are still blue at the tips from drawing him the heart. Her lower lip wavers so violently that she sucks it into her mouth and spits it out again. Her face deepens to crimson. On trembling breaths she heaves out an apology, the words expelled one by one, each riding a gust. “I’m… sorry… I… used… your… printer,” she manages. Her face relaxes as J tells her, “It’s ok. Thank you for saying you’re sorry. That’s not always easy to do.” This experience of being in trouble traumatizes her. Should nothing more traumatic happen, will she remember this? Earliest memories, I’ve read, change quite a bit, becoming fixed only later. It’s yet another aspect of memory that frustrates and confounds us, that destabilizes what we think we know.
Sometimes she wears a patch over her right eye in order to strengthen the lazy left one. In this moment of healing, she looks for connection. “You wear a patch, just like me,” she tells J, who often wears a white medicinal patch on his forehead when he has a migraine. Her eyes, still wet, search his face. “We both wear patches,” she says. “And glasses.” She leans into J’s waist, giving him her best “squeezy arm” hug. “I’m sorry,” she says again. “Do you want to play Cinderella’s Enchanted Slipper Game with me?”
He says yes, and I join in. We sprawl on the floor, all three of us on our bellies with legs kicking behind us. J and I let her win.