Saturday, June 9, 2007

Show Stopper


My mom likes to tell this story of me as a little kid, where I'm in a grocery cart and point at a black man and say, "Look, Mom, a monkey!"  "I wanted to melt into the floor," my mom would say.  "There just weren't any negroes in Idaho back then, and you didn't know any better."

This is disturbing on many levels, of course, though I didn't realize it until I was in my twenties and went to grad school and learned about the history of such metaphors (black man as brutal ape) and metonymies (black man, brutal ape) and the horrible racist acts they made possible.  By the time we were teenagers, my brother and I were trying to get my mom not to say "negro" anymore (she doesn't) and found the story embarassing more than anything, because older people laughed too hard at it, and because there was no compassion for how that african-american man might have felt in that moment. 

So it's karmically perfect that last night, at one of the most fun dinner parties we've ever hosted, Addie points to one of our beloved guests and says "She is fat."  It was loud enough that I, across the table, heard it.  Eric was sitting next to her and leaned in and said something while I, fakey-fake smile frozen on my face, picked at my pasta and thought about how to keep the other, less mortifying, conversation going. 

Then Addie continued.  "I'm fat sometimes, too.  And you're fat, too, Daddy.  And mommy is, too, fat sometimes."  Then she blew out her belly and patted it, and went back to cramming pasta into her face.

Ah, crap.  I give the guests enough credit to see where this was coming from, that it was a statement of her particular observation, totally devoid of judgment and context.  Like when Addie was showing our friends around the house and, on the way up the stairs, turned to them and said about their beloved, deceased dog, "Gatsby is dead."  This wasn't about sympathy or sadness or anger; it was merely a statement of the thought moving through her head at the time.  An observation that passed through no editor. 

We were in Target last week and Addie reached up and patted at my boobs.  "You have FAT boobs, Mom," she said.  "Why yes I do, Addie," I said.  Normally, and especially now given my current freak-out about the stunning amount of belly fat I seem to suddenly have (or at least finally noticed), this sort of comment would really bum me out.  Can you imagine Eric saying something like this to me?  "Gee, honey!  You have super-duper lumpy thighs!"  That wouldn't go over well.  But from Addie it doesn't rankle.  Why is that?  Is it because she means nothing by it?  It's almost as if the honesty is refreshing, quite frankly--it usually makes me laugh.  There's no meanness to it, I suppose.

That said, I wonder what effect the comment had on our guest, or guests, since nobody was sure exactly who she pointed to in that moment.  The mouths of babes perhaps have a special sting, I think, when it's not our babe making the observation.  If it did sting, I hope it fades quickly.  And we talked to Addie today about hurt feelings, and the power of certain names to wound.  Who knows what she will take from that?  It will be the first of many such discussions, I'm sure.


  1. Excellent study, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he really purchased me lunch because I discovered it for him smile So allow me rephrase that: Many thanks for lunch!