November 10, 2010

If the Truth be Told

My friend Donna once told me a strange story from her childhood.  Every time the film The Sound of Music came on television her family would watch it together.  Immediately after the wedding of Maria and Captain Von Trappe, Donna's mom would jump up, turn off the TV and say, "Now isn't that a happy ending?"  It wasn't until she was an adult that Donna learned there was a lot more to the movie - a concert, an exciting, frightening escape from the Nazi soldiers - who can forget the scenes in the Abbey when the family is hiding behind the tombstones?  "Would this be a time to sing about my favourite things?" asks little Gretel - and a midnight climb over Maria's mountain to Switzerland.  I'm not sure why my firend's mom didn't want her kids to see the last part of the movie;  perhaps it was late and she wanted to send them to bed. My own mother took my brother Stephen and I to see the movie in the theatre when I was ten, but then, she had read me the book and I already knew what was going to happen.

I cannot help wondering if Donna's mom wanted to protect her children from the part of The Sound of Music that had to do with war; perhaps she thought they would be traumatized and have nightmares if they knew the whole story.  If that is so, I find her actions rather foreign because I was brought up quite differently.  From a young age I knew that life involved joy, rainbows and picnics in the park , but I also knew that the world was full of tremendous sadness and horror.  My family had been given a book of photograps called The Family of Man.  I was fascinated by the pictures of child soldiers in war-torn areas, migrant workers, flowers growing in the midst of destruction and chaos- images planted on my brain for eternity.  At my elementary school we watched films of the Developing Nations:  bloated tummies, children surrounded by flies, endless bowls of rice and powdered milk distributed by kind looking bearded men and caring women.  Sadness and pain, yes, but always hope, too.

I have a vague, dreamlike memory of my mother lining my brothers and sisters and I up in folding red chairs all in a row when I was very little and telling us where babies come from.  There were no euphemisms, no cute terms for body parts, just the plain, awful truth.  According to family lore I refused to beleive her then, when I was little and for years after.  In fact, until I was ten I decided that babies appeared suddenly and magically after the wedding and the bride's beautiful white dress were done with:  no blood, no mess.  When I was a teenager, my older sisters, sister-in-law and mother sometimes drank tea and talked at length and with great enthusiasm about disgusting things like giving birth, umbilical cords, amniotic fluid, etc.  I distinctly remember announcing at one point, "If you say the word placenta one more time, I'm leaving!"  They laughed, of course, but sympathetically.  Interestingly enough, when I gave birth to my first child, I was more prepared than I realized, and the process felt natural.  To my surprise I was not overwhelmingly upset by the realities of birth - the pain, the blood, and the 'mess' - and I was able to see the incredible beauty of what I had just achieved, a healthy baby.  It was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. 

That being said, I am learning as a parent that timing is everything when it involves sensitive souls and painful realities.  A few years ago, I was forced to fudge the truth to my youngest daughter, Katie.  For three nights the Tooth Fairy had forgotten to come.  Three mornings in a row her dad and I had to face the embarrassment of having forgotten to replace the tiny tooth with a coin.  Finally, on the morning of the third failure I said to her out of desperation, "Let me tell you something, Katie.  There is no Tooth Fairy.  Mommy and Daddy are the Tooth Fairy and we have been forgetting to take your tooth for the past three nights."  At first I thought she was going to be okay.  She was smiling like I had just told her a big exciting secret (which I had) but soon her eyes filled with tears and I knew I had done wrong.  I took her onto my lap and began to mutter things which opened up the possibility of there still being a Tooth Fairy.  She immediately began to cheer up, and off we went to Kindergarten.  Later that morning I remorsefully purchased a Cinderella toothbrush and put aside a one dollar coin.  That night I wrote the following note: 

Hi Katie, I hear you mom tried to tell you I'm not real.  Don't believe her for a second!  I haven't come for the past three nights because I have had the flu.  So, here is an extra-special present for your tooth:  a new toothbrush!  your mom was probably trying to protect me when she told you I'm not real.  I'll bet she was afraid I'd never come.  Anyway, enjoy your toothbrush and see you next time!  Love, the Tooth Fairy.

The next morning, Katie was overjoyed to see the tooth fairy had come and had even left her a note.  I half expected her to look at me sideways with half closed eyes and ask, "Did you write this, Mom?"  But she didn't.  I realized she was still in love with the idea of the possibility of fairies and it was my job, for now, to play along, to enable her imagination - just as my own mom had signed our Christmas presents 'love from S. Clause,' until we were nearly grown up, and smilingly refused to admit they were from her (whose initial is also 'S.")

My four children are all involved in Remembrance Day ceremonies at school today.  My youngest, Katie, made a poster for Remembrance Day for a contest at school and each day she comes home with new information about the commemorative day when all the schools and businesses are closed.  "Some kids aren't very respectful," she tells us, "and our teacher gets pretty mad."  I have been thinking about this.  Every year we have to renew the purpose of Remembrance Day for a new crop of children.  When I was a child, World War II was still fairly fresh in the minds of my parents and grandparents.  Now as living veterans of that war are few, our children must be taught the importance of remembering our past so we are not doomed to repeat it.  In a world filled with endless digital distractions and video games like Call of Duty, the truth about war and the painful reality of it in our present world needs to, once again, be taught with grave sincerity to our children.  They may still believe in Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, and in my view, so they should, but as they grow and mature they can also handle the truth, told with fresh perspective and sensitivity, about very real things.  We owe it to their intelligence.  And to their future.


  1. She was still in Kindergarten ??, !!!!!!. You must have been a right cranky little witch that day.

    If you ever get to Ypres, you will see something very special. For they stop one of the main routes in the town each and every evening to sound the last post.

  2. Beautiful sentiment well told. I completely agree with you.

  3. Reality has many told it well.

  4. Beautiful post, Rebecca. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Vince: You are lucky you live on the other side of the world after that comment! Desperate, yes, cranky, no.

    Alistair: thanks so much. I'll bet this day was quite special to you.

    George: Children teach us so many things, it can be quite humbling. So glad you enjoyed it.

    Chris: Katie came home from school yesterday, quite moved by the ceremony. Good work by you all.

  6. Rebecca, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!!!

    Jonah lost his first tooth yesterday. It fell out and he actually LOST it. We couldn't find it anywhere, so we told him we would write the tooth fairy and IOU. Well, we forgot, and this morning he was devastated. I sat down to read blogs after his bed time, and reading yours reminded me: We forgot AGAIN!!!! Luckily he was still awake. I stopped your blog mid-way through, and lept up to help Jonah write note to the tooth fairy. Now, if I can only remember to send the tooth fairy in there before morning.

  7. And another thing...

    I like your family's attitude about childbirth, etc. My family was the same way, except that we did not get a group sit down. My parents just answered questions as they came up. I remember my sister asked a question at the dinner table one night, and then was so disgusted she refused to eat.

    Just yesterday, a friend of mine was telling me, almost bragging really, that her children knew nothing of "the birds and the bees." Her oldest daughter is 11. I can't imagine how she has managed to pull that off without flat out lying to the child.

    We are trying to be as honest as appropriate with our children. But, we allowed silly names for body parts. The children made up the names, and we did not interfere. You can image what a "little whizzer" might be!

  8. And another thing...

    When I was six, a class mate told me about Santa. I refused to believe it. I finally did ask my mother, but I waited until after Christmas. The next Christmas, I pretended I did not know. I excitedly showed my mom what "Santa" brought, as I always had. I know she thought I was a little nuts, but she couldn't say anything in front of my little sister.

    For years, that stocking got filled. One year, when I was home from college, I filled them myself. For the whole family. Because my mom said we were too old. Well, after that year, Santa kept coming, though none of us will admit how!

    It's okay to lie to YOURSELF, right?

  9. Tracey: My mother can't actually remember sitting us down in a row to tell us the facts of life, and I was very little, so my memory could be a distortion of something else that happened. That being said, I do have this memory, so something of it must be true! And to be honest with you, I think I could have done with a bit less information when I was a kid! But that is the lot of the youngest child, isn't it.
    Glad we could help with the tooth issue :)

  10. I remember the time I was sitting in my eldest's kindergarten class and one of the girls at circle time looked around the room and told the children, "Girls and boys, I have something to tell you. The tooth fairy isn't real. It's your mom or dad who put the money under your pillow and take your tooth." The teacher and I exchanged wide eyes and she quickly moved on to the next topic to murmurs of "I knew that" or "that's not true." Monica

  11. I am reminded of the quote about why are there people who want to squash butterflies. One wants to protect children for as long as possible from some of those disturbing truths.

  12. Tracey again: Whatever keeps the magic going is okay by me :) as long as nobody gets hurt.

    Monica: Good for the kids who said, "That's not true." I like how she addressed the class as 'girls and boys'. I wonder what she's doing now, in her mid-twenties :)

    Paul: Oh gosh, that's exactly how I felt when I told my daughter about the tooth fairy: that I had indeed squashed a fragile little butterfly.

  13. Thanks for that lovely post with lots to think about. I try to keep the magic of tooth fairies, Santa Claus and the Easter bunny alive for as long as possible, but it is getting increasingly difficult with so many children being told at an early age by their parents the less fantastical and colourful versions. My eight year old still believes in Santa because he thinks that we could never afford to buy him the presents he gets from Santa for Christmas! That being said I don't think we should or need to shield them from all the negative, the sad, the ugly parts of life. As long as we open their eyes to all the good and beautiful and positive things that exist simultaneously they will be okay.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!