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Below is a video of the piece I read for the Listen To Your Mother Show in Washington, DC on May 4, 2014. What a thrilling day – I shared the stage with 13 fabulous women telling stories that made us laugh and cry.
Before auditioning for the show, I had never read any of my essays out loud. As I tried to choose the right one for the audition, I noticed that hearing myself read aloud changed the tone, as opposed to hearing the words in my head. Some of my pieces came across a little snarkier than I originally intended. Others just seemed better off living as the written word rather than the spoken word. But this one, Zen and the Mama Bear, seemed to lend itself well to a staged reading. What surprised me, though, was that every time I read it out loud, I would get choked up at the end. I told myself that I could surely desensitize myself to this phenomenon before the audition with a little practice. But I was wrong. I read it out loud several times before the audition, after the audition and before standing on the stage, and every time I read the last paragraph, I felt an unwelcome lump rising in the back of my throat. I don’t know why I keep crying over forgiving that grouchy woman who smacked my kid in The Children’s Place eight years ago.
Maybe it’s because I wish I could be more peaceful and forgiving in the heat of a moment.
Maybe it’s because I wish other people could be more peaceful and forgiving in the heat of a moment, too.
Maybe it’s because every single person is worth shedding a tear over, especially if she’s grouchy. I just don’t know.
When the incident revealed in this essay occurred, it felt infuriating and tremendously important. Years later, it has softened into a funny story that illustrates how time blurs the edges of all things jagged; it’s a reflection on the motives behind people’s behaviors (my own included). And it’s a story that initiates belly-laughter for my son, now 11, who is thrilled that it is being immortalized on YouTube, making him indirectly famous.
So here it is. I hope you like it. If you have any thoughts on the meaning behind the suppressed sobs at the end, I would love to hear them. In absence of a better explanation, let’s go with my desire to be a little more forgiving. Deep breaths. Always. In laughter, in tears, in anger and in joy. Deep breaths and forgiveness for everyone.
Zen and the Mama Bear
When I was a little girl, we spent a lot of time in the Poconos. To this day, the smell of bug spray and pine needles immediately brings me back to the little house my uncle built with his own two hands in the woods of East Stroudsburg.
There is a black bear population in that area. The little I know about black bears makes them strike me as fairly Zen. Eighty-five percent of their diet is vegetarian. Confrontations with other animals are rare and usually due to hunger rather than any territorial claim. They are quiet, gentle giants, who mind their own business unless provoked, but even then, (and I quote Wikipedia), “Black bears rarely attack when confronted by humans, and usually limit themselves to making mock charges, emitting blowing noises and swatting the ground with their forepaws.”
I never actually saw a black bear directly in front of me as a child, but my cousin found a cub once, and started playing with it – it was just so cute. When my aunt saw him with the cub, she quickly whisked him into the house. She knew that if there were cubs, the mother bear must be close by. Our mothers explained to us that mama bears, like all mothers, are very protective of their young.
A Mama Bear is capable of killing you, even if she doesn’t mean to.
Sometimes I feel like a Mama Bear.
I try to mind my own business,
I avoid unpleasant confrontation,
I like fish and veggies, and I get very cranky when I am hungry.
And I, too, feel it is my job to fiercely protect my young. Like the Mama Bear, I coast through life pretty peacefully, but every now and then, something gets on my last nerve, and I yell and stomp my feet. Then I typically emit a blowing noise and lumber away to collect myself.
When my son was three, he went through this phase where he would smack anything he saw that was red. The phase just so happened to correspond with the holiday season, when on any given day countless people would walk by his stroller wearing festive red sweaters. There was one instance when I was paying for a gift at the Children’s Place, and my little Houdini managed to wiggle his way out of the stroller and toddled to the register next to us where an older woman in a bright red sweater was paying for her purchases.
Right across her back.
Now it couldn’t have hurt. He was three. It was like being smacked with a Q-tip. But I was embarrassed.
I stooped down so I could look him in the eye. I was JUST about to say to him, “No hitting – we do not hit people,” but before I could even get out, “Nnn,” the woman smacked him back.
I stood up in shock, silent for a moment, and then words came, although I didn’t know what they would be until after they were already out there. They may as well have been grunts and blowing noises.
“Do NOT put your hands on my child.”
“He hit me first.”
Seriously. That’s what she said.
“He’s three, Ma’am. What’s your excuse? I can’t teach him not to hit people if the grown-ups hit him back.”
There was a moment of intense silence. The people working the registers were frozen. The woman and I stared at each other eye to eye, wondering who would growl or retreat first.
“If he were MY child, I would give him a good spanking.”
“Well he’s not your child. He’s MY child. And you are not to put your hands on MY child.” (Grunt, grunt, stomp, stomp).
I was shaking. She grumbled some more, and then she left the store. Later, I thought of about 100 better things I could have said. Roaring things. I don’t remember any of them now.
What would I do differently if that happened again today? Maybe nothing. As the Mama Bear, I said what I needed to say to defend my child. Had she gone after him again, I may just have swatted her to the death – although not on purpose, of course.
Telling this story now may be eight years late and a dollar short, but I have something to say to that woman – as a human being, rather than as a stunned Mama Bear:
Dear Lady in the Red Sweater,
I am very sorry my three-year-old smacked you, but I stand by what I said, which is that you have no right to put your hands on him or any other person’s child. We are never going to solve issues of violence and aggression in this world by modeling violent and aggressive behaviors. We also need to respect the parenting strategies of others, hopefully with a little kindness and with the understanding that we don’t get the whole picture of a family in the snapshots of lives unfolding in public. You will be happy to know that my son doesn’t hit people anymore, even if they’re wearing red.
Mama Bear of an Energetic Boy
I probably could have written that eight years ago. But what I may not have considered back then that I can offer today thanks to a little time and perspective is this:
Dear Mama Bear of an Energetic Boy,
Please forgive the lady in the red sweater. She may have been having a really bad day or week or life. A person who smacks a three-year-old stranger is likely having a much worse day than you are. You didn’t need to do anything more than what you did, which was to be the Mama Bear who protects her son and then knows when to walk away.