Saturday, February 09, 2008

Pay Back

When I was young, I was quite verbal. And quite direct. And neither of these traits were particularly positive. At least if you believe my mom. Apparently I had a knack for pointing out the obvious in the most inappropriate times and places, and in the rudest manner possible. Of course, when you're young-- really young-- it's not quite fair to say it's rude or inappropriate because little kids just call it as they see it. And I was the poster child for this.

For example, once in the checkout line of a grocery store, I (allegedly) asked the checker something along the lines of: "What happened to your face? You have an ugly line on it." My mom calmly told me it was a scar and it wasn't ugly, and then probably hurried me out of the store. I guess I was the kind of kid that would ask, "Why are you so fat?"

I find this odd for two reasons. First, I was attacked by a dog when I was four years old (maybe I was three, but I think I was four). It was a dog I knew. And I was completely taken by surprise when it bit a chunk out of my cheek and tore at my left eye with its paw. There was no eye damage, but there's a small scar there. And I had a giant scar running the entire height/width of my right cheek where the dog had oh-so-kindly removed a chunk. Reconstructive surgery was out of the question because the scar ran across the soft part of my face. And so I learned to live with it. The scar is pretty small now. Some people don't even know I have a scar. But mostly I think people just are too polite to mention it.

Why does this matter? Well, I was pretty sensitive about the scar, and my looks, all through elementary school. And it seems inconsistent that a child so self-consicous about her own looks would be so inconsiderate in commenting about others' looks. And yet my mom certainly has no reason to be anything but honest about it.

When I got older, she used to tease me that some day I would probably end up with a child who also had a knack for stating the obvious in the most uncomfortable situations.

And here I am. Decades later. And it's pay back time.

Today I took the kids on a walk, and they asked to go to Starbucks. As we waited for my coffee (my caffeine kick before the hike home with two tired kids and one slot in the stroller seat), a Casey noticed a young-ish woman in line. I saw her when I first came in and didn't think much of it. I thought she was with a couple standing directly behind her in line, and she initially appeared to me to have Down's syndrome.

After she ordered her beverage, she moved over to the waiting area, across from where Casey and Marcie were sitting and snacking on their banana bread and drinking their chocolate milk. And then Casey asked me loudly, "Mommy, why her have a funny face?"

Immediately, I felt panicked. "Shh, Casey, I admonished. It's not polite to comment on people's looks."

But Casey didn't get the hint, "But Mama," he insisted-- quite loudly again, "Why her have a funny face?"

"Casey," I replied in a hushed tone, "we are not going to talk about it here. Everyone is pretty in their own way. You can be friends with people who have all different faces. Go ahead and say good bye to her."

And as quickly as I could, I tried to pack up the kids and scoot out, Casey gawking at her the whole time and me trying not to notice the people around staring at us. I did look the woman in the face as we left and say, "Hey there. Have a nice day." And Casey did softly say good bye (it would figure he'd be quiet then.

Outside I asked Casey why he thought the girl looked funny. Mind you, he didn't use the word ugly, and I don't think she was. But there was something different about her. In retrospect, after I said good bye, I realized she didn't have Down's syndrome. The top part of her face was set forward-- significantly forward-- of the bottom part of her face. And that made her nose look big (though it was a sort of a button nose). And she had braces. And freckles. But heck, I had braces and freckles. Baby I had a funny face back then, too.

Casey couldn't give me an answer. I don't think he could articulate it. And I can't really blame him. She struck me as unusual looking too. And I can't really describe why. And I'd like to think my language skills are a little more advanced than my five-year-old son's are. But I was still embarrassed. I have no idea how I'll handle it the next time he says something truthful yet embarrassing about a person. And yet I have no doubt there will be a next time. Because we all know that our kids are all about pay back.

After reading this post, my mom informed me that the woman in the grocery store didn't have a scar at all. What she had was a mole on her face. And I'd never seen one. And I didn't say anything to the checker; instead, I loudly asked my mom what happened to the lady's face and what was on it. So even more like my situation with Casey this morning than I'd thought. And when I asked my mom for some advice- when I asked what she did, she chuckled. She tried to shush me, and then outside the store told me it was rude to point to people and stare. So pretty much same reaction I had to Casey. But not much help.

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