A while back, Rose went through the natural catastrophe phase. She read books about earthquakes and volcanoes and floods and tornados and seemed to take great pleasure in the fact that there were forces of nature more powerful and chaotic than her own temper tantrums.
In many ways, children learn what they can handle by testing limits – the limits of their own strength and balance and endurance, the limits of their understanding, the limits of their parent’s patience, and especially the limits of their own fear. In this way, Rose became both fascinated and afraid by these unpredictable catastrophes. She would ask us if that could happen here, and fortunately we live in a state that has no history of earthquakes, tornadoes, or volcanoes. As for flooding, Montpelier has occasionally flooded in the last century, but having walked the 1000 feet uphill from downtown on her own two little legs, she has a visceral understanding that we are NOT in the flood plain. Nevertheless the frequency of these questions made me think of practical ways to reassure her.
The problem with reassuring someone, especially about something that you have no personal control over, is that it doesn’t work. In my experience it takes more than someone else’s wishful thinking to overcome my own negative thinking. I recently had a vivid illustration of this.
I was sitting at a coffee shop and overheard a conversation between three young women. They were the counter help, taking a break with pastries snitched from under the sneeze guard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were fresh out of high school.
One of them spoke in trembling tones about her father, about how the doctor had concerns and wanted to run more tests, about how inconclusive everything was and how worried she was about him. And her coworker, full of youthful optimism but empty of empathy or common sense, began to instruct her in the illogic of worrying about something that hasn’t happened.
“Look, they don’t think anything is wrong. They’re just ‘making sure’, right? Chances are really very likely that nothing’s wrong. So you don’t have to worry, ok?”
The first young woman paused for a moment, waiting for the initial emotional firestorm to subside. When she did start to speak, her voice was strangled with a sort of controlled anger that seemed to surprise her. Young girls in this country don’t get much positive feedback for expressing their anger.
“OK, but, like … I am going to worry. You can’t make me not worry.”
Then the others sheepishly left her alone at the table.
Moral: Don’t deny people their feelings. Don’t tell them how they should feel. Don’t tell them how they do feel. I have learned these lessons, and learned them and learned them, over and over and over. And for once, I actually remembered them before dealing with Rose’s fear of natural disaster. I borrow a leaf from our neighbor’s child-raising book, which is to interpret the world through stories.
Thus began the series of stories about Windsey, the Friendly Tornado.
Rose picked the name, let’s set that straight right at the beginning. In these tales, the small but brave Rose makes friends with the bumbling, klutzy, but lovable tornado named Windsey who is lots of fun and a full of exuberance but tends to make big messes and then had to clean them up afterwards.
It did the trick, but I wish to God I had never started it. Rose doesn’t seem to worry about tornadoes anymore. Instead she is always asking me, always always always, usually at tooth-brushing time, to tell her a story about “Windsey and (fill in the blank here)”. Windsey has been to the dentist, to the doctor, to school, to the playground, etc. etc.
Tonight, however, Windsey outdid herself, and for once, I was actually kind of proud of my spur of the moment tornado story. She went trick or treating.
“Ok, Rose. Sit down and open your mouth so I can brush your teeth.”
“Oh Kay Papa,” she laughs, as if asking her the same thing five times in a tired, exasperated voice is just part of some hilarious gag we have going every night (… which come to think of it … it is). She sits and opens her mouth wide. I put the toothbrush in her mouth.
“A-A. An u ell e a ory a-out in-sey, an ick oh eat-in.”
I remove the toothbrush from her mouth.
“What did you say, Rose?”
Oh God. Please. No. I’m too tired. I just can’t do it.
But then again, I nag to myself, I DO want to be a writer, and this is a perfect little exercise that she’s providing me with. And I know it will make her very happy. Especially if it involves Windsey picking up and spreading around lots of debris.
“OK, Rose, give me a moment … hmm … hmm … yeah … OK.”
“oh on, a-a, oh on!” (Go on, Papa. Go on!)
Once upon a time, Rose went downtown to meet all her classmates at City Hall to go trick or treating together for Halloween. She was dressed as a very beautiful princess, and when she got to City Hall, she discovered that all her friends were dressed as ghosts!”
“No, Papa! Millie is dressing up as…”
“Rose. Who’s telling this story? You or me?”
“Uh … oh, OK Papa.”
So there they were. Forty three ghosts and one princess, tramping down the streets of Montpelier, getting ready to go trick or treating.
But they hadn’t gone very far, when up the street hurrying toward them came … a tornado.
“Was it Windsey?”
Yes, it was! And all the kids looked at the tornado, and then looked at one another, and then they all said, “What a COOOOL costume!” and “How did you make it?” and “What a fantastic looking tornado!”
But Windsey was sad. She looked at Rose and said, “I’m not DRESSED as a tornado. I AM a tornado. I’m DRESSED as a water spout!” And you looked down and saw that she carried a bucket of water underneath her and little wispy strands of water, too small to really see, were spiraling up her funnel.
But you didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so you said, “You’re a great water spout. What a fabulous idea.” And then Windsey felt much better.
So you all started going door-to-door, yelling “Trick or Treat” and getting lots of candy. And some of the children started eating their candy, and then more children ate their candy, and before you knew it, everyone was eating their candy. And the kids were getting louder and wilder and they began running around and roughhousing and screaming. Even Windsey ate some of her candy, and before you knew it, she wasn’t a little tornado anymore. She was a big tornado, and she filled the whole street, and she sucked up all the little children dressed as ghosts and began to spin them around in the air.
At this point, Rose started laughing so hard, I had to wipe a few flecks of toothpaste off my shirt.
But she didn’t pick up you, because you’re her friend. She let you walk in the middle where there was no wind.
And as you walked down the street, the ghosts began to scream, “OoooOOooOOooooo” and “AAhhhAhhhAHHhhh” and “Leeet meeeeee dooooooown.”
More toothpaste on my shirt.
And you turned the corner where there was a street party going on, and everyone turned and saw a princess walking down the street with forty-three REAL ghosts making REAL spooky ghosts sounds and FLYING around in the air above her. And all the parents in the streets screamed and ran away, but the children thought it was really really cool.
So you all walked back eating every bit of candy on the way, so that when you finally got back to City Hall, you were completely tired and exhausted and jagged out from sugar crashing, even Windsey. She put everyone down safely and then you all fell promptly asleep, and your parents had to come carry yo
I finished brushing her teeth, and she stood up and spit in the sink. Then, as she does every … single … dang … time I tell her a story, she turned to me and said:
“And then what happened, Papa?”