An awkward moment with popsicle sticks

A shameful moment from childhood.  When I was 10 there was a rack of used books for sale outside our local supermarket, proceeds to benefit the Congregational Church.  One day as my mom and I were leaving the store I stopped to browse the titles.  In among the dog-eared romances and obscure biographies I found a plain white paperback called The Dilemma of Reform in the Soviet Union.  The title was written in ominous red block letters.  I asked my mom for a quarter and took the book home.

At that time in my life I identified as smart before I identified as anything else.  I made a point of using the biggest words I knew when my fourth grade class gathered for our weekly Friday afternoon book talks, and I was always looking for a chance to talk politics with my friends’ parents, mostly just to show them how much I knew about the Gulf War and George Bush’s re-election chances.

A couple weeks after the supermarket booksale, a friend of my mom’s came to visit.    Her name was Denise and she and my mom had worked together at the city planner’s office in Burlington, Vermont.  The year I was born my parents had moved from Vermont to southern Maine and my mom and Denise hadn’t seen each other much in the intervening years. When she arrived my mom and my siblings and I gathered in the kitchen to welcome her.

My mom introduced Denise to the three of us.   I know how proud I am to introduce my friends to Jay and Wally and I can only imagine that my mom felt the same way.  After we’d all said hello a tour of the house was proposed (we’d moved in just that year).  While my mom was showing Denise the living room I sprinted upstairs and found The Dilemma of Reform on my bookshelf, right where I’d left it since my failed attempt to get through the first page the night I’d brought it home. I tossed the book onto my neatly made bed.  A minute later Denise walked into the room.  After sizing up the baseball pennants on my wall her eyes fell to the book.

“Are you reading that?” she asked in a slightly skeptical tone of voice.

“Oh yeah,” I replied in my very most casual voice. “It’s really good.”

I thought about that moment on Tuesday afternoon.  We had some new friends over for dinner, a guy I met recently through the Teach For America alumni organization and his wife and their 17-month old girl Elyse.  It was an enjoyable time, but also chaotic in the way any social event is that features three little kids approaching their bedtimes.  In two hours of socializing, I’m not sure any one conversation managed to last more than 60 seconds before one or the other of the kids diverted our attention.

The main diverter was Jay.  He doesn’t deal well with situations where Caroline and I are more focused on our friends than we are on him, and in this case the situation was compounded by the fact that Wally and Elyse are closer in age to each other than either is to him.  So, Jay felt shunted to the side and he resorted to the predictable grab bag of bad behavior and cloying neediness in order to draw attention back to himself.  At one point he brought his wooden push lawn mower up from the playroom.  He pushed it in fast circles around Elyse, who only recently had learned to walk.  She spun around trying to keep up with him until she toppled over.

The quietest five minutes of the evening came after dinner when we all went onto the back deck to eat popsicles.  Jay had strawberry, which melted and trickled down over his wrists, and Wally sat in Caroline’s lap, gnawing with his eight front teeth are her lime pop.

When the popsicles were finished the kids started back up again.  At first Jay didn’t know what to do with himself, but then he saw Elyse gathering up the finished popsicle sticks and he decided to take them from her.  He secured the sticks and stood in the center of the deck and announced to Sam, the visiting husband, “I can break these.”  Then he placed a small fist at each end of one of the fruit-stained sticks and pulled down hard.  The stick bent but wouldn’t break, and so Jay grunted and pulled down harder until finally it splintered.  With proud satisfaction, he dropped the broken bits to the ground.

Jay repeated this spectacle one more time, and as he strained against the popsicle stick I thought about my own little performance with that book about the Soviet Union twenty-one years ago.  For a second I enjoyed the experience of understanding what Jay was up to, but then the sense of recognition started to run too deep and I just felt awkward.

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