Why Are You Looking Up Here?

It took a few years for Uncle Tom to remodel his kitchen. Maybe it was only months (life moved more slowly when I was a kid), but every time we’d visit, there was a tarp hanging somewhere or an open bucket of paint on the floor. Toward the end of the project, the only part that remained in flux was a 3 ft. by 8 ft. space between the top of the Formica cabinets and the ceiling.

My uncle and aunt were unsure what color to paint it, so that space remained naked for months. After a while, in some late night creativity he was known for, Uncle Tom took a thick black marker and wrote on the plaster: “WHY ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE?”

In my house, that space would have been painted green or yellow an hour after the plaster dried. My parents were more, shall we say, sticklers for the details. I decided I wanted to grow up to be jaunty—like my uncle—to worry less about the way things looked. His house might be a mess (it was always a mess), but who cared when I had so much fun, sitting around the table playing board games with my cousin or helping my aunt make cookies.

By the time I married, had kids, and settled into our first home, I’d succeeded in only half of Uncle Tom’s legacy: I turned out to be a terrible housekeeper. But instead of adopting a C’est la vie attitude like his, I spent precious time wallowing in guilt. The disorganization, the dust balls that emerged from under furniture when the kids ran by, the constant sad state of the bathroom. I could pull plastic containers from the back of the refrigerator and even if there had been a cash prize waiting, could not have identified the contents. Uncle Tom would have giggled at this, maybe made it his opening salvo as company arrived. He might have created a contest for who could name what it used to be. Not me.

Worse than that, I became a first-class phony as soon as I knew company was coming. I’d begin to scrub everything in a days-long attack that bordered on a Silkwood shower for a house. Once this onslaught started, my kids would always chime in: “Who’s coming over?” I’d pretend it was mere coincidence that we were having a dinner party for eight and that I was arranging the cleaning supplies under the sink in alphabetical order.

They didn’t buy it, of course, but I just wasn’t able to let guests see the “real” us. I would think of my uncle often while vacuuming behind furniture or mopping the kitchen floor on my hands and knees hours before that doorbell rang. And as I wiped down every spice in my cabinet or went on a search for the last crumb in the living room, I’d ask myself Why? Would my company think less of me? Refuse to eat? Leave?

My memories of Uncle Tom’s house are the memories I want my guests to come away with. His home had a rosy glow, dust balls and all. No one ever looked for stains on the family room carpet. Or checked the bathroom for grime behind the toilet. I remember games of Spoons and laughing until I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember moments that defined a family. That’s the home I want.

Company is coming tomorrow. There’s something in the refrigerator I can’t identify. I’m not moving it.

Even for homeschoolers, there is no happily ever after

My job was to answer call-in questions that homeschooling parents had. Our company wrote the curriculum, so we were supposed to have all the answers. Math questions outnumbered all others, and I did my best with the Pythagorean Theorem, which was a knot in everyone’s stomach. After a few years on the job, there was nothing I hadn’t heard.

Then I got the call.

“Hello,” the homeschooling mother said in a sweet voice. “I have an 8th grade student using your curriculum, and we have a big problem.”

Even though I feared she was going in the direction of linear functions, which made me sweat a little, I assured her I could help.

“Well,” she began, “The Diary of Anne Frank is part of her literature course.”

“Right,” I said, relieved at a literature question, which I knew I could answer easily, even before my second cup of coffee. “How can I help?”

“Well,” she said—now letting some exasperation rise in her voice—I refuse to let my daughter read this book.’ She paused for a few beats, during which I had no idea what her reason was going to be. Then this: “I only let her read stories with happy endings.”

I knew enough about homeschooling to understand that some parents (not all) homeschool their children precisely to keep them inside their own comfort zones. After all, the world can be scary and unpredictable. All parents crave safety for their kids, and keeping highly edited lessons confined to the kitchen table gives some of them control over what their children are exposed to.

It’s one way to go.

It wasn’t the way I chose with my own public-schooled kids, but there were days I wanted to adopt that course of action and just keep my kids from ever finding out how cruel and rotten the world can be. The first time I took my sons and daughter to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I spent the entire afternoon rethinking my decision. Was it too much? Why did I think they needed to see—much less understand—the blackness that can descend on people’s souls?

I grappled with those questions and often felt envious of the homeschool crowd for not having to make the decisions I was making about my kids’ exposure to this imperfect and hopelessly flawed world of ours. In the end, I chose to tell them. Because it’s the truth, and the truth happened. It happened when my parents tried to explain to me why I was watching people in Birmingham getting hosed down and attacked by police dogs during Civil Rights protests. It did at the World Trade Center. It did at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As parents, it’s our right to shield our children from anything we choose. I didn’t want my kids to be blindsided by the truth—that sometimes there is no happily ever after—that would arrive someday no matter what I tried to shield them from. And I didn’t want that realization to rear its head when I was no longer there to catch them.

For me, my thinking found its permanent home when my daughter, the youngest of my three, was about four and we were watching a TV show fictionalizing colonial America. In one scene, a slave mother was being sold away from her child, a little girl about my daughter’s age. I considered turning it off, as much for me as for her. It was wrenching—the mother pleading, the slave owner ambivalent, the child terrified.

My daughter turned to me and asked, “Did that happen in real life?”

“Yes,” I said.

She thought for a second or two and came up with her own answer, completely logical to her four-year-old sensibilities. “Well, I don’t think it really did.”

I understood her self-made reasoning. She yearned for that same protective shelter that lures lots of us parents, too. That quest for happily ever after. And I didn’t want to tell her the truth that night. But I did.