The thermometer in the car read 91 degrees as my four-year-old son and I headed out to the strawberry patch. It was the orchard’s last day for picking strawberries this season. I was not going to let the heat deter us.

imageI remember going out there last year with a credit card but just six dollars in my pocket, and the farm owners accepted only cash.

“How many berries can I get for $6.00?” I asked the woman behind the counter, feeling around my pockets for any stray coins.

“Well, you have to buy a family pass in order to pick, and that costs $1.00,” she said.

“Okay, how many berries can we pick for $5.00?”

“About 10. Twelve at the most. It depends on how big they are,” she said. “But you better keep it to 10, because you can’t go over $5.00. And once you pick them, you have to pay for them.”

“Okay, pal, we only get 10 berries,” I told my son as we walked out to the patch. “Let’s go out there and pick 10 of the most perfect berries they have.”

This year, I didn’t want to drive all the way out there for 10 berries so I stopped at a gas station on the way there for an ATM. Once we stopped, my son had to poop, I wanted coffee, and he wanted gum. Twenty minutes later, we were on the road again, though my son complained for about a mile about wanting his gum, and I said he couldn’t have it untimageil he ate his sandwich. He’d been in the pool all morning for his swimming lessons, and I didn’t want him standing outside in a hot strawberry patch with no nourishment, even if it was just half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“I don’t waaaaaaaannt it! I want the gum,” he whined.

“You’re not getting the gum until you have the sandwich,” I said. I always feel funny in these situations, forcing my son to eat something that’s not particularly healthy simply because it’s what I made him for lunch, when in another form, something as sweet as peanut butter and jelly could be considered dessert.

“Daddy gives me gum,” he said.

“Daddy’s not here. Eat the sandwimageich,” I said. “No sandwich, no gum.”

“Fine!” he said, and literally growled.

He nibbled at the sandwich, but about half a mile later, he started screeching. “Bugs are biting me!” he yelled. “Bugs are biting my penis!”

“They’re biting your what?”

“They’re biting my penis,” he said. “Mommy, bugs are biting me!”

I reached around while I was driving and tugged on his bathing suit, thinking maybe his penis had gotten caught in the cloth mesh of the suit.

“They’re still biting me, mommy! Bugs are biting me!”

“There are no bugs biting you!” I said.

“They’re biting my butt!”

“We’ll be there soon,” I said.

“It hurts! It hurts! They’re biting my butt!”

“I said we’ll be there soon!”

“Mommy! They keep biting me!”

Suddenly, the heat and the incessant whining, the driving back and forth to his swimming lessons in summer traffic, the fact that my laptop broke, the story deadlines I have looming and yet have little time to work in order to meet them, the fact that my taxes are due and I haven’t had time to get everything together and the accountant keeps writing to me, “When are you sending me your stuff?” the filthy house with sand and toys in the rugs because the cleaning woman quit on me a year ago when she got a job, the laundry that doesn’t stop no matter how many loads I do, the body that won’t stop aging on me and no matter how much I run, it just doesn’t get any easier, it all erupted inside of me like a pot beginning to boil, and I yelled at the top of my lungs, louder than anyone should shout in the small space of a car, “Stop it! Just stop it!!”

My son grew quiet. I felt regret. It’s a common pattern. He whines. I yell. He stops. I feel regret. And then I take stock of what kind of mother I am. At times I’m the best mother, better than most – fun, witty, engaging. We do crafts, we read, we sing, we dance. And other times, I’m the worst mother, worst than most — impatient, stressed out, yelling. I’m like the girl in that poem, “There once was a girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her head. And when she was good, she was very, very good, and when she was bad, she was rotten.”

“I’ll pull over as soon as I can,” I said. “I’m about to get off the highway.”

I suddenly feared what if there really is something biting him, like a bee or a little crab. What a terrible mother I am. I felt like a heel. As soon as I exited the highway, I pulled into the first driveway I could find. I got out of the car, opened my son’s car door and unbuckled his seat belt. He had bits of peanut butter and jelly sandwich on his lap and some jelly on his stomach. He stood up in front of his car seat, and I pulled back the elastic on his bathing suit and looked for whatever may have been biting him. There was nothing in the back of the suit or the front, and I couldn’t find anything on the seat.

“Bud, I think it was these tags here,” I said, showing him the three tags in the back of his bathing suit. “They were probably scratching you.”

It didn’t really explain what might have been biting his penis, but I didn’t bring it up. Still feeling regret for having yelled so loudly, I handed him a piece of gum.

We got back into the car and drove to the strawberry patch. As we got out of the car, you could feel the heat. It was oppressive. I grabbed our bottle of water. I should have taken two, I thought. We went to the counter to get a basket for our berries and headed out to the patch.

The paths in between the rows of strawberries were narrow and the dirt was hard and uneven, making it difficult to walk. My son nearly fell a few times in his plastic sandals.

“Try to find really red ones. Like this,” I said, holding up a berry that was deep red.

“Like this, mommy?” he asked, pulling a berry off a plant.

“Darker,” I said.

As we moved down the dusty row, the heat in the patch was stifling. The only respite was the occasional light breeze that would blow by and feel cooling because your body was wet with sweat. It reminded me of Budapest, where my husband and I lived for a year, where there were few air conditioners and people just allowed themselves to sweat, and that was okay. The oppressiveness of heat can be grounding, like one of those heavy jackets they put on you before taking an x-ray. There was no point in fighting the heat so I relaxed and gave in, and it felt good. I walk around all day stressing out, frenetic. It felt good to be ground into the earth, to do nothing more than sweat and hunt for berries. Even the hunt was therapeutic, the search for the perfect berry. It’s like fishing, or hunting for deer, or looking for the perfect seashell. Out in the hot patch, there’s nothing else out there but you and the berries, and so you search for the perfect berry, and everything else just falls away. And in that moment, you are in the moment, and that’s all there is, right?

I went running yesterday, and near the edge of a small park by my house, I spotted a lone blue flip-flop. My first thought was the obvious: Where is the other one? My second thought: my son is going to seize on that. And sure enough, we had a play date that afternoon and as the two boys walked through the park, they saw the blue flip-flop from ten feet away and were on it like a hawk that’s spotted prey. They picked it up, tried it on, and inspected it from every angle, as if it were an alien species, before throwing it at each other.

Children have an attentiveness to small things, perhaps because they’re closer to the ground or they simply don’t have all those files and data and embedded cookies taking up valuable storage. They have the same senses we do, but times ten. They’re like chameleons, who can rotate and focus their eyes separately to look at two different objects at the same time, or like ants, with their microscope antennae that transmit a 50-fold magnified view of the world  around them. A few days ago, I threw a mini-milky way bar, which is about an inch long, into our kitchen garbage pail, and with debris covering it almost entirely, my son spotted it and said, “Hey! You said I could have that.” I left my son in the living room the other day to walk into the kitchen, and hearing my rustling around near the window, my son said, “Mommy, what are you getting?” He heard me lifting a peach. Try opening a candy wrapper in a kindergarten classroom. Twenty heads will turn around sharply, as every child looks for the origin of the sound.ant

But they don’t just see and hear things more keenly. They seem to marvel in these sights and sounds. They have an appreciation of them that we can only barely remember. Every morning, my son will carefully choose which color straw he wants to use in his breakfast smoothie. When we go to the bank, he takes his time choosing the flavor lollipop he wants from the large bowl on the counter.

As I went running this morning, I again passed the blue flip flop at the edge of the park. I met up with my running partner, and she started talking about a trip she’d recently taken to Philadelphia with her daughter’s fifth grade class. She said every child had a cell phone. As the children descended the bus and walked out into the streets of Philadelphia, their teacher told them to pay attention to everything because there’s a lot to see and observe. My running partner said the kids were so engrossed in their phones, texting and taking selfies, they didn’t see anything. Apparently, children are only hyper attentive until they get their first iPhone.japanese yew

I was walking down the street with my son the other day when I did something I’ve been doing since I was young: I grabbed a couple of sprigs of young growth off of a Japanese yew bush, those green shrubs with the red berries that are typically used as hedges. I like to grab the soft little branches and rub them between my fingers.

“Mommy, what are you doing?” said my son, who was walking a few steps behind me.

“I’m picking a piece off the bush,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because it feels good in my fingers,” I said.

I was surprised he even saw me do it. But that’s the beauty of a child. They see everything. And it’s wonderful to be on the receiving end of their observation. You feel like someone is paying attention to you, in a way no one else in your life does. Someone cares what you’re doing. My husband barely notices if I get my haircut.

We passed another Japanese yew, and I grabbed a couple of soft branches and rubbed them in my fingers.

“Mommy, stop it. You’re going to kill the tree,” my son said.

Perhaps a little less observant wouldn’t hurt.

It’s good to teach a child to swim. When you live near the ocean, like we do, it’s essential. And in my neck of the woods, the best place for them to learn is the esteemed Silton Swim School. For the second year in a row, I signed up my four–year-old son, Eddie, for two weeks of lessons.

The school is located on a narrow two-lane road, down the street from an outlet mall and next to a row of garden apartments. But it’s so popular during the summer that traffic for the school backs up all the way to the traffic circle half a mile away. Silton hires college students to stand in the parking lot and direct traffic, waving their arms like flagmen on an airport runway, so that the hundred or so cars that descend on the lot during morning drop off and noon pick up don’t become mired into a complete standstill.

I tried to be early the first day, but with the traffic, we arrived just in time. Scores of children were already standing on the lawn in front of the cluster of white buildings with nautical blue awnings.

As the days went on, my son would cling to me as I dropped him off, saying, “Mama, I want to be with you always,” and I’d have to unclamp his arm from my waist. But by the time I’d pick him up at noon, he’d be ebullient, saying, “Mama, I swam all bah muself!” And I’d say, “Awesome, buddy!” and give him a high five.

But we’re halfway through our first week, my son has become more and more obstinate in the morning, and it’s become harder and harder to leave. traffic

He isn’t the only one growing tired of swimming lessons. After finding myself in a long line of cars trying to enter or exit the swim school’s parking lot, I tried going a little earlier but found the line was worse. Going a tad later made it easier to get into the parking lot but an utter nightmare getting out. That’s because if you arrive late, you’re told to go to the dreaded back parking lot, and once back there, you have to wait in a long line of cars to get out.

At least this summer is better than last year. One day last summer, I went to pick up my son and was directed to the back lot, and it took us nearly 30 minutes to get out. I wanted to take up arms.

“I refuse to go to that back lot again,” I told my husband that night.

The following morning, I was resolute about not going to that back lot. As I pulled into the parking lot, a college student with jet black hair and sunglasses tried to wave me into the back.

“I don’t want to go,” I pleaded. “I had to wait 30 minutes to get out on Friday.” I expected him to be shocked. He was unfazed.

“It won’t be long today,” he said and motioned me toward the abyss. I complied.

Indeed, it didn’t take 30 minutes to get out of the back lot that morning, but it did take 10, enough to harden my resolve. The following morning, as the college student with the jet black hair tried to wave me into the back lot, I ignored him and quickly veered off to the left, placing me firmly in the front lot. I had gone rogue. I felt like an escaped convict. There was a system in the lot, a well-defined balance, like the ants have, in which everyone must stay in line and comply or the whole thing will fall apart. Cars enter through the center line and then peel off to the right or the left, like the spray on a fountain, based on where the college students instruct you to go. Those turning left then come to another crossroads, where they are guided into the front lot or the back. That morning as I was being directed toward the back, I revolted. I veered off toward the front lot and tried to quickly tuck my car into one of the slots, but there was not a spot to be found. I was now blocking the access lane, stopping cars from exiting the lot. I had defied the instructions and was now about to crash the system. My heart was pounding. I began to sweat. Someone is going to come banging on my window in a few seconds, I thought. I’m going to get yelled at.

Suddenly, someone pulled out of a spot nearby. I made a beeline for it, almost hitting the car that was leaving. I swiftly pulled my car into the spot, leapt out of door and headed toward the pool area to pick up my son. As Eddie and I left the lot, I felt like my old dog, Sparky, who, when he would urinate in the house or tear up a pillow would refuse to look at you as you yelled at him. He would turn his head to the side. I drove out of the lot with my head cocked sideways, to avoid any eye contact.

The following morning, I was certain I was going to be scolded. I was sure they’d written down the make and model of my car and my license plate and that the manager of the school would be waiting for me by the entrance. But that didn’t happen. As I entered the lot and made my way to that pivotal spot, the college student with the jet black hair was standing in his designated post and waived me in the direction of the front lot.

“Thank you. Thank you,” I said, adding, “Nice glasses,” in a sycophantic gesture of utter gratitude.

This year, the parking lot situation has been a lot easier. We signed up for swim classes earlier in June, when a lot of kids aren’t even out of school yet, so there haven’t been as many cars at drop off and pick up times.

In fact this summer, the problematic spot is the traffic light just before the turn off for the school. The cars back up about a quarter of a mile, and it can be frustrating. I’ll make it all the way down to the school in 10 minutes, and I can spend almost another 10 minutes just waiting for the cars to get through the light.

Yesterday, I was a few minutes late to pick up my son when I got stuck at that light. As I sat in a line of cars, I watched the light change from green to red twice. On the next green, the cars began to inch up toward the light, but the man in a mini-van in front of me wasn’t moving fast enough. I was watching the gap between him and the car in front of him widen, and I wanted him to go faster, so I got up right behind him, to nudge up his car so that he would close the gap. The sign in the crosswalk indicated we had only 10 seconds left before the light was to turn red. Nine seconds. Eight. I was nearly on top of car in front of me. Seven. If I was any closer to the mini-van, I’d be in it. Six. Five. I hit my brakes before it was clear the van wasn’t going to push through the light.

As we sat at the light, the man in the van stuck his head out of the window and started yelling at me. Seeing he clearly had something to say, I pulled into the turning lane next to him and opened my passenger side window.

“You almost hit my car, you fucking asshole. What are you, in some hurry?” he yelled. He was about 70 years old, was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, though I could see through the lenses that he had slitty little eyes, and he had large gaps between his upper front teeth, making them look like pegs.

“Actually, I am in a hurry,” I said. I was strangely relaxed. Sometimes in the face of someone yelling at me, I’m overcome by a sense of calm.

“You were right on my car. You almost crashed into it, you asshole,” he said.

Just then, his wife, who was sitting in the passenger seat, leaned over him and yelled out the window. “He’s not himself. He’s on medication,” she said, apologetically.

The man continued. “You got a lot of nerve, ya jerk,” he said.

His wife again interceded. “He’s sick. He’s on chemo,” she said.

And with that, I suddenly felt sick. He was already dealing with cancer, and now I’d driven him to a frothy anger by tailgating him. But worse, his wife was making excuses for him when in fact he had a right to be mad. I was tailgating him too closely, and I could have hit his car. I deserved to get yelled at. I always tailgate too closely, and drive too fast, and get angry when people in front of me are driving too slowly. It’s often when I’m late, but sometimes, it’s simply that I hate to be impeded.

Just then, the light turned green, and I drove on toward Silton Swim School, a little weepy and vowing to be a better person. By the time I reached the parking lot, I was tailgating the woman in front of me.

Our neighbor’s daughter has nine children. They’re all home schooled, get a healthy dose of religion, and live on a shoestring. The result has been that they play well with each other, they take care of each other, and they share. They don’t have that many toys, so they’ve learned to take turns. They seem to lack that sticky substance kids apply to all their possessions that make it difficult for them to hand them over to someone else.

When they came to visit a week ago, my four-year old son, Eddie, heard the chirping of children and wanted to play with them. As an only child, my son’s ears are attuned to the sound of children the way a thirsty person might perk up when they hear the sound of a running tap. I walked Eddie over to my neighbor’s house, and he played with my neighbor’s grandchildren all afternoon. When he came home, my son talked about the children endlessly until he went to bed, and he looked forward to waking up so he could play with them again.

The next day, the youngest three children came to our house to play in the sandbox in our side yard. One of their older siblings came along, as a babysitter. I disappeared into the house to take care of something, and when I emerged, Patrick, the youngest child, said, “Can I go in the house and get Big Hero Six?” He’d been in our house briefly and spotted Eddie’s newest toy, the marshmallow-like robot from the movie that bears his name.

“Okay,” I said.

I suddenly saw my son get up and walk down the street toward a neighbor’s tree and then hide behind it, with his back to the tree so no one could see his face. But from the side of him, I could see his cheek turning red and quivering. He was crying, silently. It pained me. I walked over.

“Buddy, buddy, buddy,” I said, rubbing his arm. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t want him to have Big Hero Six. That’s my favorite toy,” he said.

“He’s not going to keep it,” I said. “He just wants to play with it.”

“But it’s my favorite,” he said, still weeping silently, almost cathartically. He seemed utterly vexed. He loved his new friends and desperately wanted their love and approval, but he did not want to relinquish his new toy.

“I know how hard it is to share,” I said. “It’s really hard. And they have all these sisters and brothers, and they’re used to sharing. You’re not.”

I could see from his response that emphathy wasn’t working, so I tried reasoning.

“You know the benefit of sharing is that you get to have a toy you don’t usually have,” I said. The only example I could think of was a recent visit he had to the house of a friend, who was also an only child.

“Remember when you were at John’s house, and he had the Bumble Bee transformer, and you really wanted it? When he gave it to you, it was as if it were your toy for that moment, right? It was like you had a Bumble Bee transformer,” I said.

“John wouldn’t let me play with it. It was his favorite toy,” Eddie said.

“Oh, shit. That’s right,” I said and suddenly remembered the tug-o-war over Bumble Bee, and the arguing, swatting and tears. I had been mixing it up with one of our previous visits to John’s house, when John’s mother was in the room, and John was forced to hand over a toy.

Sharing is rough for all kids. Everything else in the house is ours. Toys are the only things they have, and the only things over which they have any control. There’s not a lot of things in their lives at this point that are theirs, and yet we force them to hand their toys over to someone else like it’s a Communist regime, and personal ownership is secondary to the party. And we do this not just because it’s a nice thing to do but because it will supposedly makes our children better people. And indeed some kids are better at sharing than others, and it seems as though those children are more giving and more generous, when in fact it’s not which kid is a better sharer but which mother is more Stalinist about it. And therein lie the secret of sharing: it’s less about generosity than about the forcefulness of the parent.

I coaxed my son out from behind the tree, and he allowed Patrick to go into the house to get the toy he wanted. A few minutes later, they all ran down the street to play with a stomp rocket, leaving behind a pile of dirty paper cups, plates with half eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And in the middle of it all was Big Hero Six.

We have a small pond in our backyard, about the size of a hula hoop, in which my son has a handful of goldfish. He likes to catch the fish in a net and sometimes hold them with his hands, touching and squeezing them like one might touch a pet. Some have even survived.

Yesterday, it was about 53 degrees outside and raining as he sat on the side of the pond and said, “Mommy, can I take my shirt and pants off and go in the pond?”

“No,” I said.

I watched him remove his long sleeve shirt, and as he started to take off the t-shirt underneath, I reiterated, “No!” He continued to take off the shirt and then toss it on the grass nearby.

“That’s it. Go inside,” I said, pointing toward the house like a cop directing traffic. “Now!”

As he marched in front of me, I could hear him saying, “You’re a frickin dickhead.”

I’m not going to say I can’t imagine where he’s heard that. I don’t necessarily couple my curse words like that, but let’s just say I’ve used strawberries, and I’ve used blueberries, I just haven’t necessarily had them together. I didn’t take issue with his language. It was his insolence. He swung from vine to vine, going from ignoring my instructions to scoffing, disrespectfully, as I issued his penalty. And so I did what I always do. I yelled. “Get in the house!”

I’ve always been a yeller. As a kid, I yelled when I was unhappy. In my twenties, I yelled about jobs. In my thirties, I yelled about boyfriends, and in my forties, about my husband. I yell when I feel overlooked and underappreciated, slighted or ignored. And now that I have a child, I yell when he is frustrating, when he doesn’t want to go to school or take his bath, when he doesn’t want to get dressed or eat his meal.

I sent my son to his room for 15 minutes, for disregarding my instructions about his shirt and for then brazenly calling me obscenities. When the 15 minutes had passed, I entered his room, and he seemed contrite. I asked him if he knew why he was in there. He said he did.

Later that day, we would argue one more time before he went to bed, about how to properly roll a die in Monopoly. He said my husband told him that you just throw the die, which he did, and it bounced across the room. I tried to show him how to shake it in your hand and then spill it out onto the table, like in craps.

“Daddy says you throw it!” he said loudly, and stormed off. “I don’t care about the game, and I don’t care about you!” he said.

I wondered how a parent can ever have one of those gentle teaching moments with such a willful, stubborn little child, when I realized I had indeed taught him something: how to yell.


NOTE: For the next month, I’ll be participating in a Blogathon, where we are supposed to post entries to our blogs daily. Expect to see more posts, of varying size — with less editing.

I went into a local café and as I stood at the counter getting my coffee, I noticed the poster of a woman who’d gone missing in North Jersey was no longer on the bulletin board. I hoped that meant she’d been found. I knew that was unlikely. Either she’d been missing for too long, and the owner of the café wanted to make room on the bulletin board for other notices like upcoming shows at a local music venue, or worse, she had been found but in a ditch or a state park.

I’d looked at the poster dozens of times over the last few months as I poured my coffee, scanning the five photos a distraught family member must have pulled together to make the flyer. In one, she’s wearing a rust colored dress with black leggings. In others, she’s wearing a floppy sun hat. She was a full-figured girl with a round face, wavy brown hair and a bright smile. She was 30. I’d heard the posters were distributed by her parents. It made me think she lived at home and had gone missing on account of a man, perhaps someone with whom she’d been corresponding online for months. She’d finally gone to meet him, with all the hope and anticipation of a young woman who yearns to get out of her parents’ house, to be touched and told she was beautiful, to be loved, truly loved for who she is.meaghan

I can’t imagine losing a child. I thought of a friend whose son died from a heroin overdose and how she was devastated. I thought of a colleague, who grieved online in the wake of her son’s death, posting photos and videos made by people who loved and cared about him. I had relatives who lost a child while he was away at summer camp. He was about 10. Thirty years later, their bedroom is still filled with photos of him from that time period, like a shrine. Every time I see them, I think, they are the ones who lost a son. It defines them.

Last night, before I went to bed, I searched online for more information about the missing woman from the bulletin board in the café. I found some news stories about her disappearance. Her name is Meaghan McCallum, and she’s bipolar. She’s been missing since March, and while she’s disappeared for a day or two in the past, she’s never been gone this long. Indeed, there was a theory that she had gone to meet a man she’d met online, but for some reason, family members discarded that notion. Her car was found not far from my café, and for a time, some reported seeing her in my area, but those sightings turned out to be another woman. The family has set up a Facebook page to field tips and keep people posted about Meaghan’s case. To date, she has not been found.

I was listening to a radio show this week where the Korean mother of a young girl who’d been murdered said there’s a Korean saying that says when a parent dies before the child, they go to heaven, but when a child dies before the parent, they go to the parent’s heart. She said only when she dies will her child die. That sounds about right.

I took my 4-year-old, Eddie, to a big-box store whose name I dare not say for fear of repercussions, though it starts and ends with a “T,” and its logo is a bull’s eye. As I pushed him past a display of string cheese, he pointed and yelled, “I want that!”

I’ve bought my son string cheese many times over the years, and he’s never eaten it.

“You don’t like it,” I said.

“I love it,” he said.

Perhaps his taste has changed, I thought. And I do like to feed him when I shop because if he’s eating, he’s preoccupied and less likely to say, “Mommy, I want this,” and “Mommy, I want that,” from one end of the store to the other. It’s actually the reason he was in a shopping cart rather than on foot, despite his stellar walking skills. Restraining him in a cart limits his ability to wander and find things he wants.

While he was pointing to the cheddar string cheese, I noticed that the mozzarella cheese sticks came in single packets. I preferred to spend $.79 than $4 if he was only going to spit it out. I handed him a mozzarella stick. He spit it out.

Constantly searching for foods he'll like

Constantly searching for foods he’ll like

“I want the orange one!” he whined and handed it back.I grabbed the bag of cheddar sticks, opened the pack and handed him one. He bit into it and didn’t say a word. The kid knows what he likes, I thought, and pushed the cart forward. We got halfway down the next aisle when he handed me a half eaten stick and said, “I’m done.”

“You didn’t like it?”

“No,” he said.

I looked at the $4 bag of cheddar cheese sticks now in my cart and thought, “I don’t want to buy this.” A few aisles down was the Easter aisle, with rows of plastic eggs, jelly beans, chocolate bunnies, and peeps. I abandoned the cheese sticks in a pile of wicker Easter baskets.

I got about halfway down the next aisle when I thought about Easter and Jesus and a malodorous stench that would be coming from the Easter basket in about a week, when no one had found the cheese sticks, and I walked back to retrieve it.

As I rounded the corner, I saw a store employee unpacking boxes. I decided to plead my case.

“Sir, I bought this bag of cheese sticks for my son because he said he wanted them, and it turns out, he hates them. I know it’s my fault that I opened the package, but if I have to buy then, I’m only going to throw them out when I get home. It seems silly,” I said. “Is there any way I can not buy it?”

“You opened it?”

“I did,” I said.

He paused for a moment as he did some mental calculation, perhaps remembering whatever action he took wasn’t going to come out of his pocket, and he took the bag from me and went back to his work. I felt unburdened.

As we turned down the next aisle, my son spotted a box of flavored apple sauce that came in a squeeze bottle.

“I want that,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes. That one,” he said, pointing a boney little finger at the mango-flavored box.

I cracked open a bottle and handed it to him. A few minutes later, he handed it back and said, “I’m done.”

The bottle was only half eaten. And he now had apple sauce all over his mouth.

“You didn’t like it, did you?” I asked.

He shook his head “no.”

I threw the half eaten squeeze bottle into the cart and nearly ditched the rest of the box on a shelf near the sheets and towels but changed my mind. Honesty is the best policy, I thought, and decided to go to the customer service desk before I went to the register.

I finished shopping, and wheeled over to the courtesy desk. There were four people ahead of me. After 10 minutes, a young girl called me to the desk. Holding the box of apple sauce in my hand, I told her how I thought my son would like it, but he tried it and hated it.

“I know it’s my fault that I opened the package, and I’ll buy it if I have to, but my son really didn’t like it, and I’m only going to throw it out when I get home,” I said. “So basically, I’ll just be buying it to go home and throw it out.”

I thought my logic was flawless. The young girl looked at me blankly and turned to an older woman at the far end of the desk. “Sarah!” she yelled. “She opened something, and her son doesn’t like it. She wants to know if she has to buy it.”

The older woman walked over to us with a swagger of authority. “You opened it?” she asked.

“I did. I know it’s my fault, but really, he won’t eat it. I’ll only be–”

“But you opened it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then you have to buy it,” she said, and walked off.

“Fine,” I yelled after her. “But that’s no way to treat customers!”

I pushed my cart toward the registers. As I unloaded my groceries onto the conveyer belt, I picked up the box of apple sauce and held it for a moment. I quickly looked around to see if anyone was watching, and seeing no one was, I dropped the box into a plastic green shopping basket that was lying on the floor underneath the conveyer belt. I then plucked a magazine and a pack of gum out of the rack and dropped them on top of the apple sauce. Someone had left a can of chicken soup by the register. I threw that on top of the magazine.

Just then, the older woman from customer service walked over to the check out area and began manning a register a few lanes down from mine. I feared she would look over and see that the apple sauce was not on the conveyer belt, and she would want to check my receipt as I left the store. I paid for my items quickly and pushed my cart out into the long aisle that leads to the exit.

“I want water,” my son said as we passed a water fountain.

“Okay, fine. Go,” I said.

“I can’t reach,” he said. He was still seated in the cart.

I lifted him out of the cart to let him get a drink but put him back before he’d finished.

“Let’s go,” I said.

As we left the store, I saw Starbuck’s and wanted to stop but it was too dangerous. I kept moving. I should just have paid the $5.49 for the apple sauce, I thought. It wasn’t worth forsaking the water fountain or the coffee.

When I got to my car, my heart was still pounding. I threw my packages into the back, threw my son into his car seat, jumped into the driver’s seat and threw the car into reverse.

When we were a safe distance from the store, I picked up my tape recorder and began recounting what happened, in case I wanted to write a blog post. When I got to the part about wanting to just jump into my car and get away from the store because I was afraid, I heard the little voice of my son behind me. “Why were you afraid?”

“Because I didn’t want to buy that apple sauce, and so I threw it in a basket, and then I was afraid they would catch me,” I said.

My son paused and then said, “Well, if you don’t want to buy something, you can just hide it, like sneak it. You can just hide it somewhere where no one can see it, like on a tree branch, where no one can find it.”

A few weeks ago, my son started lying, about stupid things, like, after he’s pooped, I might ask, “Did you wipe?” And he’d say, “Yeah,” and yet there wouldn’t be any paper in the toilet. Or I’d ask if he’d put his toys away, and he’d say, “Yes,” and yet I’d go into the living room and see them strewn across the floor. I like to think our time at the big box store taught him a valuable lesson: if you’re going to lie, cheat or steal, make sure you hide the evidence.

I quickly tuned my guitar and put it in its case. I then grabbed the music to the four songs I planned to play for my son Eddie’s daycare class, stuffed them into my guitar case as well and snapped it shut. I wanted to put the guitar in the car so that when my son was done with his breakfast, I’d only have him to put into the car and then we’d be off.

I offered to play my guitar for my three-year-old son’s class last year after hearing that a man dressed as Clifford the Big Red Dog had come to my son’s school and played a few songs. I didn’t plan on dressing up as a canine, but I thought it sounded fun to perform some music, even if the audience was only three. But with work, an inability to practice, and a fear that I would pick a song too risque – my son’s daycare is in a church — I never wound up doing it. This year, I vowed to play and once I mentioned it to my son’s teacher, she put me on the calendar, leaving me no choice.

As I picked up my guitar, Eddie came running out of the kitchen. “I want to take my guitar, too!”

I bought my son a children’s guitar when he was two. It was one of several things I did to try to build his self esteem, along with ice skating lessons, swimming classes and a weekly music class.

“Where is it?” Eddie asked, scanning the room.

“Behind the couch,” I said.

He didn’t know where it was because he rarely plays it – except for a minute or two when I’m playing mine in front of other people. Then he’ll pull it out and begin strumming it in his own unique way: horizontally. He lays the guitar flat on his lap like a dulcimer and strums it almost like a harp. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy playing. He enjoys the attention it draws. I know the feeling. That’s why I was doing a show for three-year olds.

“Give me your guitar, and I’ll put it in the car,” I said, adding, “I want you to play with me, but maybe you go first, and then I go.”

I imagined every song I played being scuttled by the discordant thuds of someone who knows nothing of the instrument they’re playing.

“No, you go first, and then I go,” he said.

“Okay, that works,” I said.

When we walked into his classroom with our guitars, two boys came running over and began pawing at my son’s guitar. Eddie was beaming.

“Be careful,” he said as he gently pulled it out of its case.blog guitars

I walked over to the corner of the room and pulled mine out its case as well and began tuning it again.

“Okay, it’s circle time,” said the teacher. “Everyone on the rug.”

As the children took their places on the floor, I took my son’s guitar out of his hands and leaned it against a bookshelf in the front of the room. I then sat down in the back of the room with my guitar.

The teacher sat down in a chair in the front of the classroom and began reading a story to the class. My son was sitting on the floor in the front of the room and as the teacher read, he moved closer and closer to her until he was standing between her legs, partially blocking some of the children from seeing the book. It was an audacious move, made by someone who has connections in high places. Today, I was that connection. The teacher put her arm around him but after a few minutes, she whispered to him to go take his seat. He did, but within a few minutes he was back up front standing between her legs. This time, she let him stay.

When the teacher finished the book, she announced that there was a special guest in class today. As she introduced me, I took a seat on the floor in the front of the room with my guitar. My son grabbed his guitar and sat down next to me, so close that our guitars banged into each other. I moved a couple of inches away from him to give myself some room, but he inched toward me and our guitars knocked again.

“Hey, buddy, can you move that way just a bit, so our guitars don’t hit?”

He moved over.

“This first song is about Winnie the Pooh. You guys know who Winnie the Pooh is, right?” I asked.

“Yes!” a few of them shouted.

As I started the song, Eddie began to play his own guitar. I tried to ignore it, but as I began to sing, I found I couldn’t concentrate. I stopped playing.

“Hey, pal. You sound really good, but we’re playing two different songs. How about if you do your song and then I do mine?” I said.

He strummed his guitar a bit and then said, “I don’t know what to play.”

He plucked the guitar strings a couple of times, like a harp, and then stopped.

“That was great,” his teacher said and everyone clapped.

“Nice job,” I said.

I then picked up my guitar again and played “House at Pooh Corner,” and then another song. As I played, I could see out of the corner of my eye that my son was pouting. I kept looking at him and telling him to join in, but every time I looked over, I lost my place in my music. By the fourth song, “American Pie,” my son had moved to a chair on the far side of the room near the cubbies.

“Come on over, Eddie. I need you to help me sing,” I said.

He came back to the front of the room, though as everyone began clapping their hands to “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,” my son just stood there. When I was finished, I told him to do a song.

“Yeah, Eddie, you do a song,” his teacher bellowed from the back of the room.

“Okay,” he said, picking up his guitar. “I don’t know what song to do.”

“What song do you want to do?” I asked.

In my head, I quickly flipped through the catalogue of songs we sing at home, but all I could think of was, “Come on and do it, do it, do it till your satisfied, whatever it is, bah dah dah,” and how my son inexplicably rubs his hands on his tush, like a Chippendale’s dancer, when I sing it. It didn’t seem appropriate for his Christian daycare. They’d already made me change the chorus of “American Pie” from “..drinking whiskey and rye” to “making a big apple pie.”

“How about ‘Let it Go?’ ” I asked.

“Okay,” he said and started strumming and singing, “Let it go. Let it go. Let it go-ho-ho.” I started singing it, too, and his teacher and several children in his class joined in. My son’s face lit up like the sun.

When he was done, the teacher said, “Okay, circle time is over.” I kissed Eddie goodbye and said, “I’ll be back later.”

When my husband came home from work that night, he asked my son if anything special happened at school that day. Eddie said he played his guitar.

“Layla picked ‘Let it Go.’ She said, ‘Eddie, could you please play ‘Let it Go?’ And then I sang ‘Let it Go,’” my son said.

“But was there a special guest?” my husband asked.

“Mommy played some songs,” my son said, almost as an afterthought. He seemed so aggrieved that morning, I wondered if he’d even heard me play.

We went out to dinner that night and as we sat at the table waiting for our food, my son drove a metal stagecoach in circles around the table. And as he drove, I could hear him humming, “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.”

I picked up my three-and-a-half-year old son, Eddie, from daycare and as we left the building, he and a classmate began running around and around a circular cement path in front of the school. The other boy was in the lead and as my son caught up to him, he grabbed the boy by the shirt and pushed him to the ground, prompting the boy to cry.

I ran over to them and while rubbing the boy’s arm with one hand, I held Eddie’s hand with the other and said, “Look at your friend. He’s hurt. I don’t think you want to hurt your friend. But when you push people they can get hurt. And now he’s crying. I don’t think you meant to make him cry, right?” I was trying to walk a fine line, showing Eddie the consequences of his actions while trying not to rub his face in it and make him feel like he’s evil.

“Sorry,” my son said, barely audible and with not a shred of remorse.

eddie parker dinosaur park 1It wasn’t the first time he’d flung another child to the ground. About a year ago, he started becoming more physical with other boys. They’ll be playing tag – my son loves the chase – and everyone will be laughing until Eddie latches on to another child’s shirt or jacket and tries to pull him down. It’s like a wrestling move. When he’s playing with older kids, they brush it off like a horse swatting a fly, but children his own age don’t like it, particularly if they’re thrown to the ground. And I’m yet to see a kid who is my son’s match. It’s not that he’s excessively strong. It’s that he’s determined, and he uses his body weight to bring the other child down.

It’s gotten so that when he plays with other children, I’m like an overzealous hall monitor, standing on the sidelines yelling, “Eddie, gentle!” “Eddie, no,” “Edwin, stop,” at even the most minor infractions. He’ll look at me and stop whatever he was doing, but a minute later, his arms are extended out in front of him again, like Lurch, trying to grab another boy by his clothing.

At his birthday party, he pulled on one kid, who is actually a friend, so many times, I thought the boy’s mother wasn’t going to let Eddie play with her child anymore. In fact that’s the worst part about it: I fear my son is going to be disenfranchised, cast out, sidelined as a bully.

A few days later, we had a double play date with Eddie’s classmate and a boy named Jack, one of the classmate’s friends. Jack, like Eddie, was a grabby kid, too, though Jack is big for his age so when he pushes or shoves another child, he can do some damage. And like me, Jack’s mother was constantly monitoring him for fear he would hurt another child.

Worried about Eddie’s behavior, I began reading books on the topic, consulting friends, even posting messages on Facebook seeking advice. Most people said the same thing: the grabby behavior must end. “Children should keep their hands to themselves,” one woman said. “Tell him he needs to use his words, not his hands,” said another. eddie parker dinosaur park 2

But I stumbled upon one doctor who wrote a book that said while aggression must be kept in check, it’s equally important for young boys to develop bonds, and calling a child out publicly again and again will make him feel like a pariah and make it harder for him to forge those self-esteem-building relationships. Better to find him like-minded companions who will allow him to play the way he wants to play without constantly feeling shamed.

A few weeks later, we attended Eddie’s classmate’s birthday party, at House of Bounce. Eddie, his classmate, and Jack were running around inside one of the inflatable houses, throwing balls and chasing each other as I stood outside it yelling at Eddie through the netting every time he grabbed someone. “Edwin. Stop it!” “Eddie, if you do that again, you’re getting a time out.” The last thing I wanted was for the birthday boy to be crying at his own party.

Jack’s mother was actually inside the cage, bouncing up and down as the boys ran around her. Every now and again, she would pry her son off another child, usually mine, because no matter how many balls were available, Eddie and Jack always seemed to want the same one.

Another parent walked over and stood next to me.

“I like that kid,” he said, pointing to Eddie. “He’s feisty.”

“That’s my son,” I said.

“He reminds me of my son,” the man said, pointing to Jack.eddie figurines dinosaur park

I felt a moment of relief. I was used to feeling like a pariah at every outing because of my son’s aggressive behavior, and here was someone commending it. It was as if my pink-toed son and I had been living on one side of an island where everyone had blue toes, and while out walking one day, I found another side of the island where all the pink-toed people lived.

In the months that followed, every time we went out with Eddie’s classmate, I would stand over my son to make sure he didn’t hurt the boy, but when the classmate’s friend, Jack, would join us, I could let down my guard – not because Jack would buffer Eddie’s advances but because he was even more aggressive. He made Eddie look almost normal.

This week, Jack’s mother and I arranged to have a play date on our own. We went to a playground, and for much of the afternoon, the two boys got along well. They played with action figures, ate lunch, and ran around the playground, though Jack kept wanting Eddie to chase him, and Eddie kept wanting to go back to the picnic table to play with Jack’s figurines. When Jack became more insistent about playing a game of chase, his mother tried to divert his attention by taking him for a walk in the empty tennis courts next to the playground. Eddie wanted to go, too, so he and I joined them.

The boys started to chase each other around the net on one of the courts, though Jack was bigger and faster and caught Eddie easily every time. And every time he did, the two boys would begin to skirmish, circling each other without making contact but you could feel that at any moment, they would.

“Okay, Eddie, go run and let Jack chase you,” I’d say each time, trying to break it up.

After intervening a number of times, Jack’s mother and I decided to just let the boys go for a moment, to do as they wished, like a person who keeps a dog that’s always pulling them on a tight leash, for fear they will bolt, but one day let’s the dog go to see what will happen. Our sons weren’t in danger. We were right there should anything happen. And so it was that Jack’s mother and I found ourselves standing in the middle of a tennis court, watching our boys spar, bobbing and weaving like two boxers in a ring. Now and again, Eddie would run toward Jack with his elbow out like a weapon, yelling, “Huya!” and Jack would do this karate move, twisting his body around while kicking his leg out behind him, like Bruce Lee.

To stand there watching the two of them felt odd, like we were watching gladiators or a cock fight. It felt wrong. But every time I wanted to stop them, I would look at my son’s face, and he seemed all right. He wasn’t scared or mad or hurt — though a couple of times, when the two actually made contact, Jack pushed Eddie to the ground, and I interceded.

“You okay, pal?” I would ask, helping him up.

“Yeah,” he’d say, and get up and run at Jack again.

After a minute or two, Jack’s mother and I decided it was time to go. It had been a long afternoon and best to end it before someone ended up in tears.

As we drove home, I asked my son, “Did you have fun with Jack?”

“No,” he said.

I looked at him in the rear view mirror. He was sitting quietly in his car seat, deep in thought. Of course he was, I thought. He had just faced an opponent larger and stronger than he is, and his own mother let it happen. I stood there watching it like it was a spectator sport. He now knows that if he ever needs me, I will not be there for him. And he’ll be right. I felt regret.

As he looked at me in the rear view mirror, I braced myself. “Do I have to take a nap when we get home?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and exhaled, having dodged yet another imaginary bullet.

I went to the drug store with my three-and-a-half-year-old son, Eddie, and when I threw some nail polish into my cart, my son said, “I want one.”

“Really? Um, okay,” I said. I knelt down on the floor and plucked several colors out of the display that I thought might appeal to him: pale yellow, light blue, and pastel green. “How about one of these?”

“This one, “ he said, sailing right over my color choices and lifting a bottle of pink out of the display.

“Oh, okay,” I said, a little surprised but thought, “Why not? Let’s be festive.” “Do you want a sparkly one, too? Maybe one of these?” I asked. I pointed to a bottle with red and green sparkles that reminded me of Christmas and another one with silver sparkles that seemed a good choice for New Year’s Eve.

“No. This one,” he said, again sidestepping my choices and picking the sparkly pink. I threw it in my cart.

When we got home, he asked me if I could paint his nails, and so I did, dismissing any thoughts I had about what this meant or what other people might say. I will never inhibit his fashion choices. Ever. For much of my life, people have commented, even mocked my sense of dress. “You’re not really going out like that, are you?” “Why is everything you wear so baggy?” “You look like a hobo.” I once wore a blonde wig similar to the pixie hairstyle Meg Ryan wore for years, and a woman on the subway turned to me, looked at my head and began laughing. I have a hard enough time trying to be me, issuing small displays of individuality, like a firefly, because to do anything larger makes me uncomfortable, so I’ve always applauded those who brave the chuckles and the sneers in order to be who they are – the fat woman on the beach who wears a bikini, the tone deaf man who does karaoke. I’ve silently vowed to encourage my son to be who he wants to be, regardless of the consequences.

When my husband got home from work, he gave Eddie a big hug and said, “Hey buddy.” He then looked down at my son’s fingers and said, “Pink nail polish?”

“Yep. That’s what he wanted,” I said, with a finality that said, “We’re not going to discuss this any further.”

That night, my husband’s friend, Frank, came over. “What the hell is on your nails?” he said when he saw my son.

“Mind your own,” I said.

The following day when I picked Eddie up from school, he said, “They asked me why I had nail polish.”

“Who asked you?”

“Layla and Kenzie and Lexie,” he said.

“And what did you say?” I asked.

“I said I liked it,” he said.

“Good for you,” I said.

When I told a friend about the way everyone was responding to my son’s pink nail polish, she told me about a video in which a man at an outdoor music event stands up and begins to dance. For a few minutes, he is the only one dancing, and he looks like a freak. People stare, but he is undeterred, which makes him look even stranger. A minute later, someone else stands up and joins him. Now there are two standing up dancing, and they look mildly odd but less so than when there was just one. Soon, a third man joins the two and begins dancing. Now, his dancing doesn’t look odd but rather like an option: some are sitting while others are dancing. A fourth person joins the crowd and then a fifth, sixth and seventh. Now, it’s a movement. More join, and it starts to become the norm. And the narrator says, “It took just one brave follower to turn a lone nut into a leader.”

The next day when I brought Eddie to school, I walked him into the class, and just before I turned to go, gave him a hug. As I stood there in the middle of his classroom, I paused for a moment and wanted to yell, “Now listen here. Eddie’s wearing nail polish and yes, it’s pink, and if any of you have a problem with that, you can take it up with ME.” But I didn’t say that, because I’m not allowed to, because a kid, particularly one with peculiar taste, is going to have to learn how to deal with his classmates’ comments on his own.

When I picked him up from school, we walked outside of the building, and he saw a friend from class.

“Eddie’s wearing pink nail polish,” the boy said to his mother. “That’s for girls!”

“Well, you like the color purple,” the boy’s mother said. She then turned to me and said, “It’s actually hard to find purple clothes for boys.”

Eddie and his classmate ran around outside for a while, and then the boy and his mother got into their car to go home. A couple of minutes later, I got a text from the boy’s mother.

“My son just told me he wants purple nail polish.”

And one brave follower raised his hand.