9.15.2012

Battleship

"I remember my dad was in World War II," says the elderly voice behind me. He was addressing what appeared to be a teenage naval officer. "He went out in battle and his ship sustained 90% casualties. It really bothered him and affected him all his life. He never forgot it." I take Peony's hand and walk her through the lower deck of the USS Constitution. We're here because it's the last Friday in summer, it's sunny and 80 degrees, and this is a free thing to do on the Boston waterfront, where we return again and again during my maternity leave. But many others are here to pay respects, whether to a place of war or to their own fathers and what got lost in order to win.

My 3-year-old demands to know what a musket is - "It's a gun," I say. "What's a gun?" she asks. "What does it do?" "It's...for... killing people," I have to explain, as I kiss the soft head of the baby strapped to my chest. She of course asks why, and I have to go on with the story of why anyone would ever want to do that when it takes so much passionate, loving, painful work to bring a person into this world and yet so little effort to take them out. It seems impossible. But as I frame it in patriotic terms, I realize do mean what I say - it's important to fight to live in a country where people can be free to be themselves.

Before we went aboard, she'd sat on my lap in the car and said sweetly, "You're my constitution," using her new word in the best way she could think of, and I'd then explained what a constitution is - "the rules of our country," and we proceeded to have a lengthy conversation about the definition of freedom, power, and England, "where Daddy goes sometimes."

It's part of a connected narrative that I've been slowly sharing with her over the past 8 weeks, while she and I traverse Boston sites every day while caring for her new baby brother. In my arms, carrier or stroller, he sleeps, watches or nurses while we see museums, performances, animals, boats, water and islands. We are interacting with vastly more strangers than ever before, and with more vulnerability than usual, since it's an understatement to say I have my hands full almost all the time. "Honey, I have to tell you something," I said after a solid week of stalling. "It's not very nice, but it's true. Not all people are good." Pause while she absorbs this information. She looks reflective. "Most people are wonderful, but some people aren't. And you don't always know who isn't good, so you have to figure it out every time." Pause while she considers this impossible task. She wants to know what people do that's not good. I sigh. "Take kids. Hurt people."

Since I am offered, and often accept, more help than I ever have in my life, she sees me trusting person after person after person. A woman crawls under the bathroom stall at Walden Pond to free her when she's locked herself inside and I'm standing there holding a crying one-month-old. People hold doors for us, help us onto trains, give us directions, help us onto boats, offer to carry Pea down stairs or hold Ax while I use the bathroom. I decline these two latter offers, but only because it's not necessary, not because I'm afraid. As I leave her on playgrounds by herself while I nurse, she's often only partially in my line of sight, and then is helped by another parent down a ladder or onto a merry-go-round. So far, just about everyone in the world seems to want to help us out. But part of our forced togetherness is my commitment to educating her. I'm living out, in part, my dream of homeschooling. So I yearn to teach her. And I've got to teach her what I know - and my knowledge isn't so much in the realm of nature - her dad can more than cover that - but I do know people.

We get off the USS Constitution, a grand old ship that used to house 500 soldiers (and supplies for 500 soliders for 4 months!), after touching ropes, cannons, and steering wheels, and see a tour boat about to pull out of the harbor. On a whim, we decide to run to it to see where it's headed. They see us running - a preschooler in purple sparkly sneakers with flashing lights followed by a backpacked mom clad in the only thing that fits - exercise gear - and clutching a chubby baby in her arms. I see them motion to one another to hold the boat. "We can drop you at Long Wharf," they say agreeably. It feels great to climb to the top deck, leave our car in Charlestown, and cruise the harbor. There's the old North Church, there's the US Coast Guard ships, there's Fanueil Hall, there's the site of the Boston Massacre and the angry dumping of tea. Camera shutters do their work. The boat is filled with tourists - a couple from Vietnam is on my right and I can hear German and French being spoken behind me. And then there are the US accents - Midwestern, southern, western. Some people are paying homage, some people are history buffs and some people just want to see the mix of old and new that is Boston. Us? We just like boats, and I'm not working, and it's the middle of the day.

My daughter is clinging to the railing, gazing below at the sea water that splashes out from under our ferry. I shade her brother from the sun, looking down at his sleeping face against my chest. Like every one of our adventures, this experience serves as a part of our narrative: humanity, good and bad, beautiful and annoying, scary and loving. Later, she walks the Freedom trail, steadfastly refusing to move for anyone else trying to also walk on the famous red line that crisscrosses Boston. "I'm walkin' the Freedom trail!" she yells. "You can't catch me, I'm the cookie man!"

A week earlier we'd found ourselves downtown after taking the purple commuter train just for fun - and hanging around South Station, watching trains, with no real plan, we'd come across a table of volunteers. They had paper and pens and were hoping folks might want to sit down and write a letter to a soldier. We had nothing to do. We wrote a letter. Unexpectedly, it was full of love and gratitude. Passion and thanks poured from my pen while Peony colored a lovely teddy bear to accompany the letter. I read it back to her when I was done, and then we handed in our offerings to the ladies behind the table, who would bundle it with care packages in honor of September 11th. "What's a soldier?" she asks, naturally. I try to explain the concept of "fighting for peace," and then remind her that not all people are good. She looks a little confused.


She already knows about some dangers. Earlier in the week we'd been at Franklin Park Zoo, in a sandbox set up to dig for dinosaur bones. As she sweeps sand off a huge bone with a little brush, she asks if dinosaurs ever walked right there, where we were. "Yes!" I tell her. "They lived and walked right here. But they all died!" She looks at me, absolutely astonished. As much as we'd talked about dinosaurs, somehow we'd never reached that concept. And here we are. "HOW, Mama? How did they die???" "No one knows for sure," I say. "It's a great mystery." Her face goes almost white. "Was it..." her tender little voice almost seems to swallow the end of her question - "...a dragon?"  

"It could have been!" I say. Of course, a dragon could have killed all the dinosaurs. It's such an incredible idea. I can't say for sure that it's not true. Earlier, when she'd come with me and the baby to an island containing a crumbling fort, I'd sold it to her as a "boat trip to a castle" and she'd had the same breathless air to her sweet little question: "Does a princess live there?"   I also told her a few other theories about the dinosaurs dying, in the process explaining things like the Ice Age, and asteroids, and her eyes were wide. But I could tell she kept thinking about that one incredible dragon.

After purple cow ice cream, nursing the baby, a run through a fountain, and a playground we've discovered on the waterfront, we catch a working ferry back to Charlestown.The rest of the day is easy, even when I put them both to sleep by myself for the first time. I bathe these children in a bath together, her love for him swelling over him like water as she kisses his face and sings to him. He coos back, his little eyes full of stars.