Tag Archives: the girl

Very short stories II

A very short story about jetlag:

We have left Toronto and have just arrived in Berlin. The kids are six and eight and they are jetlagged. On the first night they fall asleep shortly after dinner. On the second night I fall asleep shortly after dinner while they stay up for hours ripping a tissue box into tiny pieces. On the third night she is too hot, he can’t sleep, she cries because she misses her friends, he spills water on their beds, and I drink most of a bottle of wine. They’re not just jet-lagged; they’re scared. They don’t know anyone in this city; they have to start at a new school and they can’t understand what the other kids are saying on the playground. After midnight I drag both of their mattresses to the floor of our bedroom. He snuggles in quickly. I drape my hand over the edge of the bed and she falls asleep holding it. After a few moments I start liking them again.

A very short story about being the new kid:

She is pouting and having crying spells and I tread softly not knowing whether she needs a hug or needs to be left alone. It’s always alone first and then hugs later. She doesn’t know why she is sad. After a week I lose patience with the crying and the tummy aches and start telling her to just go lie down if she feels sick. At the playground she climbs on my lap and lolls her head around, whining that she’s bored. Then she lies down on the bench and says “I think I need some friends here.” School starts tomorrow.

A very short story about friends:

It is the first day at the new school and the boy has made a friend. She is holding his hand when I pick him up. We hang around so they can play outside where he offers her sips from his lemon drink. I glance around wondering if her parents are going to show up just in time to see some sweaty new kid offering their daughter backwashed lemonade. The next morning he is nervous again and hangs on to me. The new friend is sitting in front of a colouring page. He doesn’t recognize her because she is wearing different clothes. She pops up from her seat and pulls him away by the arm. She shows him her paper and says should we colour this together? He nods and follows her. She is like a magical gift of a human being.


Six very short stories

Very short story one:

The baby is seven days old and it is lying on some towels on the table on the deck and everyone is leaning over and peering at it. My nephew who is three asks: “ Whose baby is it? Who is her mother?” I think this is a very pertinent question and look around to see who claims the baby and then tears jump into my eyes and I can’t answer because I realize it is me.


Very short story two:

The baby has been admitted to the hospital and his clothes have been taken off and put back on several times. They come to the room and give me flannel pajamas for him and hospital-issue diapers and baby wipes that are dry and you have to wet them under the tap before you clean him. The pajamas are too big. They will weigh the diapers so I am supposed to leave them at the end of the bed and not throw them out. That’s when I realize that the transformation is complete. When I brought him in here he was my baby but now he is their patient and it only took about an hour.


Very short story three:

She is nine and her birthday was yesterday and she took the bus all by herself and she knew where to get off to catch the subway train and she knows which platform to stand on. I am on the train. I am scanning the platform. She should be getting on at this stop and I don’t see her and I don’t see her and I don’t see her. Then she is standing there and she is smaller than she was at breakfast and she glances at me and she smiles. She gets on the train and she wanted to go all by herself and she didn’t want me to help or even talk to her but she climbs up on my lap and we ride like that the rest of the way to school.


Very short story four:

The kids are pretending. One says “pretend I was teaching you” and the other one says “Yeah. And pretend I was really good.” One says “pretend I was the best one and I got ten points and the other kids said ‘wow, ten points’.” And the other one says “yeah you were really good and I was your teacher.” So they don’t really pretend; they just write elaborate scripts of themselves winning.

Very short story five:

He doesn’t want to go to school because he knows that his teacher is away and there will be a supply teacher. He likes all the supply teachers except one and he is afraid it might be her. Even if it isn’t her he is afraid because his friends will not behave for a supply teacher. He will be good but his friends might not be good and if they get in trouble he will be upset and this is why he can’t sleep. He is not comforted when I say that his friends’ behaviour is up to them, not up to him. He looks at me as though I don’t understand a thing.

Very short story six:

They won’t go to sleep because they are arguing about how old they are. She is ten but he says she is only nine because she hasn’t finished her tenth year. They ask me and I say she has finished her tenth year and now she is in her eleventh year but she has not yet turned eleven. He says he doesn’t get it and now he is mad.



playing with fire

My kids have found something new to play with. It’s cheap and accessible. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and their communication skills. It allows them to explore changing states of matter. It fosters cooperation and a sense of community and looking out for one’s peers. It promotes role-playing, imaginative play and self control. It is fire. My kids are playing with fire.

I asked them to light the candles at the table one evening and showed them how to strike the match. Later, when I saw them tentatively playing with the candle –  feeling the heat around it, poking it with the burnt matchstick – I offered to put the candle in the empty sink where they could play with it without sending our napkins up in flames. They pulled two chairs over to the sink and set to work. They burned all the matches. Then they burned the empty matchbox. They were careful. Like, extremely careful. No one got burned. No one got even close to getting burned. They squeaked and gasped and winced each time they lit a match. K and I stood behind them and held in giggles. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Are our kids boring? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they better at doing bad stuff?

When I was 6 and my sister was 8 we bought cigarettes, telling the shopkeeper they were for our parents. We took them to the gulley and smoked them all (I didn’t inhale!). We then returned to the shop for caramels to soothe our raw throats. I’m not advocating this. I don’t wish my kids would smoke a pack. I share the story simply to convey that I’m pretty sure that striking the matches was not the biggest challenge that day. Getting money and hiding smokes was. We thought nothing of making a little flame.

We all know what happens when you play with fire: you get burned. And what happens when you get burned by a match? It hurts; maybe a small blister. That’s it. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it preventable? Also yes. Is it so terrible that it must be avoided at any cost and therefore a wall of caution and fear must be erected around fire so that children never, ever try to investigate and control its allure and may forever doubt their own ability to approach and manage risk? No. No it isn’t.

Now playing with fire has become one of their favourite things to do. When Akka had a friend over and they were leaving Malli out I tried to occupy him for a while with card games but that quickly got boring (for me). “Hey,” I said. “You want to light some matches?” I set him up at a little table with a tealight candle and a book of matches. He set about burning them; holding them for a long as he could before blowing them out, then waiting for the tip to cool and holding the other end to the flame to turn the whole matchstick black. He was entranced; I was free to get other things done. He had a lot of questions about what things burn. Plastic, I assured him, was a bad idea. But sure, lots of other things burn. Like this wine cork from the other night! No, not the plastic one but the real cork one. First he asked for a cup of water to keep next to him (see? careful!). Then he burned it.


A few days later both kids were set up for our new game: burning stuff. I gave them a baking tray to hold all their paraphernalia and they burned a whole box of matches, then the box itself, then some cardboard strips. I opened the windows to air out the apartment and wondered about the reliability of our smoke alarms which never objected during any of this. Must check those.

IMG_4557 IMG_4561

Look, I’m glad they’re cautious. I’m glad I never glance up to find them walking the roof ridge-line or paddling the canoe out to open water without a life jacket. But I do think it’s fine if they burn small stuff to see what happens. And I don’t think it should be me who shows them; I think they need to figure this out for themselves. So maybe this winter they can make a small fire-pit in the backyard snow. Or maybe next summer at Poppa’s cottage – after a hard rain, when the forest fire advisory is low – I’ll carelessly leave a book of matches and some dry sticks and leaves in the sand while I go take a nap.

Learning from the Sneetches

This is not the first time Dr. Seuss has graced these pages. You may remember that the Cat in the Hat home invader did not survive his trip on the Character Assassination Carousel.

Today, however, I would like to acknowledge some beaked Dr. Seuss characters whose presence has been welcome in my kids’ lives: The Sneetches.

The Sneetches helped me answer this question that came my way from Akka last year: “Mama? When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

This post was first published on Parentdish Canada on November 26, 2014.


“Mama? You know when white people thought they were better?” This from my eight-year-old daughter one morning on our way to school. She had about a quarter of my attention.

“What’s that, babe?”

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

My partner and I knew early on that we were going to talk to the kids about race. We weren’t going to pretend that they wouldn’t notice their own parents are two different colours. I’d read articles suggesting that parents often think their kids are growing up colour blind. They’re not.

Kids develop ideas about race early. We’d do better to name the issues and talk about them openly rather than hope race is no longer an issue just because their class photo shows more diversity than ours did.

So we’d had conversations about skin colour. We had talked about how most people in Europe, and families like mine who had moved from Europe, had white skin. And people in Sri Lanka, as well as people who had moved from Sri Lanka like their dad, had brown skin.

We had also told them that white people used to think that people with darker skin weren’t as good as they were. And that there was a time when people with brown skin had to live separately and also when many of them had to work for no money.

We had talked about racism. They had witnessed the actions of customs officers in airports who told us to approach one at a time; not realizing we were a family. They saw their dad get held back and searched while I was waved through.

I thought we had been doing a pretty good job. I knew we couldn’t cover everything but I had hoped we were giving them the basic vocabulary to talk about racism and the understanding they would need to recognize and hopefully to fight injustices.

But that morning I was reminded of how little we as parents understand what is going on in those little heads. My kids and I had been walking to the train platform and talking about a story that we like: The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

In Sneetch society, bearing a star on one’s belly is a mark of privilege, and the star-bellied Sneetches impose all kinds of indignities on the starless ones, like excluding them from their frankfurter parties.

A stranger comes to town and offers to stamp stars on those without and then to remove stars from those so endowed. The Sneetches spend all their money but learn that sporting a star or not is a feeble mark for the worth of a Sneetch. Good lesson.

The kids said the star-bellied Sneetches were silly for leaving the starless ones out; just like when white people thought that brown people weren’t as good as they were. Silly and wrong.

This was the story that had sparked my daughter’s question. What would happen if a star-bellied Sneetch and a starless one got together beyond the reach of the frankfurter party firelight? What sort of Sneetch would result from such a union and how would it be received by the others?

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

We were crossing a busy street. Our train was coming soon. We were rushing to school the way we rush to school every morning. This was one of those conversations that you have with your kids one sentence at a time in between saying “come-on!” and “look-both-ways” and “you-can-fix-your-sock-when-we-get-there.”

So I answered quickly. “It was bad,” I said. “The white people didn’t like the mixed people, either.” Because I’d reasoned that she was thinking of apartheid in South Africa (we had been talking about it after Nelson Mandela’s death). I said, “the mixed people also had to live separate from the whites and couldn’t have all the things that they had.”

My daughter stopped. I glanced down at her just in time to see a look flash across her face. She was surprised. Shocked and hurt. I cast my mind back, wondering what might have upset her, and I suddenly realized that she had not seen that answer coming. She hadn’t known.

When we had talked about the times and places when racist rules prevailed, it had never occurred to her that people like her had suffered. I had just watched her find out that there was no star on her belly.

Perhaps she had thought she was going to hear something different. She knows that she is both Canadian and Sri Lankan, both white and brown.

She and her brother are doted on and adored by families on three continents; families that have little in common besides these two children. Perhaps she had thought that I would tell her that mixed people are loved and accepted by both sides in divided, racist societies. As part of both sides, they are the bridge between them; the proof that the divisions are arbitrary and hurtful and wrong.

Maybe she had thought I might say that the white people loved the mixed people because they were part white and the brown people loved the mixed people because they were part brown. Doubly-loved.

Instead, without pausing long enough to really hear her question, I’d told her that people like her were treated badly. I had inadvertently opened her eyes a little wider than I had realized. She knew now what is both surprising and obvious: being part-white is being non-white.

I regretted my answer. I should have waited until we were having a conversation face-to-face where I could have asked her more about what she was thinking. I wish I could go back and explore the world she had in her mind before I told her that life had been (and therefore could still be) hard for a mixed-race person. I had taken the wind out of her beautiful little sails and longed to blow some air back in.

We caught our train. She changed the subject. She didn’t have any more questions. And she seemed fine.

Growing up, our children will have many moments when reality displaces a firmly held but false belief. First, their childhood fantasies were reasoned away: they cannot fly and the dinosaurs are never coming back to life. Now they have to contend with uglier truths being revealed: life isn’t fair and racism really does hurt people very much like them.

Leah Birnbaum is an urban planning consultant and a parent in Toronto. She blogs at Chapter Four.

I hate those dolls

We went to the toy section of the department store; each child lugging a heavy purse full of coins. We had come to spend their allowance. Malli picked up the biggest box of Lego he could find and was shocked to learn that he had only about a fifth of the money needed to buy it. And Akka headed straight for the shelf of Monster High dolls.

They both took ages to decide. I tried to direct Akka’s attention towards the Lego and the arts & crafts stuff and even the little annoying stuffed animals but she kept popping up in front of the Monster High shelf like it had her on a retractable leash. I tried to keep my eyes wide and not react with a scowl when she showed me what she chose. I hate those dolls.

(Hating particular dolls and then enabling my daughter’s enthusiasm for them is nothing new for me – see here.)

Malli finally settled on a small Lego hovercraft and started counting out his coins. I apologized in advance to the cashier for the mountain of change they dumped on the counter.

To be fair, Akka played with that doll all evening and all the next day – long after Malli’s hovercraft was fully assembled and forgotten. And for the moment, it still has its forearms and hands attached. Others like it in the toy bin have been less fortunate.


A few days later I came in to find her watching something on my laptop. One of our saved movies, I supposed. But she looked up at me and said, “I googled Monster High!”

She was watching the horrible dolls in animated form! Several thoughts flooded my brain at once:  How do I set up parental filters on my computer? What else pops up on the screen when one googles ‘Monster High’? How do I get her away from it? Why do they have to cross-market everything?

But I let her watch. And she kept turning the screen, wanting to watch it alone.  She knew I’d hate it and wanted to enjoy her show without my judgment. I feigned disinterest for a while and then said breezily: “Hmm.. All the girls in that show just seem to care about what they look like and getting the boys’ attention.”

She turned with a scowl. “Mum! I already know about all that!”

“So what do you like about the show?”


“Is it scary, since they’re all monsters?”


“Is it funny?”

“Yeah! Frankie made a gingerbread man and then the gingerbread man took a bite of its own hand and then she said ‘No eating!’ and then the gingerbread man said ‘But I’m so delicious!'” Big grin.

Maybe she’ll turn out ok.

When I was little, visiting my cousins, my aunt once came into the room and switched off the TV when she found us watching The Flinstones. I was mystified. “We’re not allowed to watch it,” my cousin said. I couldn’t think why. What was wrong with the Flintstones? We were allowed to watch all sorts of other cartoons; what was wrong with that one?

A few years later I could see it. Wilma’s catch-phrase is chaaaaarrrrge it!. She is forever trying to get her hands on Fred’s credit card so she can shop till she drops. Wilma and Betty complain about their husbands going out bowling. They are gossipy wives who endure their husbands’ antics. My lawyer aunt who made at least as much money as her husband, hadn’t changed her name, and was inclined to undertake repairs and renovations with her own power tools was having none of it. I get it now. I wouldn’t want my daughter watching that nonsense either. But I watched it. I watched it a lot. And it never occurred to me to identify with Wilma and grow up to attach myself to a burly bowler with a credit card. Instead I grew up to hate Monster High dolls.


Psychology of a win

Malli has become a dedicated fan of German football this year. He can name every player on the World Cup team. He knows their positions, their numbers, and which club teams they play for. He knows when teammates from the Bundesliga are meeting each other on the World Cup pitch on opposing sides. When we picked him up from the school summer fair last week we were a bit taken aback to find our Canadian-Sri-Lankan child’s face painted in bands of Schwartz-Rot-Gold. He cheered hard for Germany against Algeria, against France, and last night, against Brazil. And being in Berlin, we all wanted Germany to win – mostly because it would be a bummer to be surrounded by a bunch of sad fans.

But last night’s win over Brazil didn’t feel like a victory. Sure, we cheered at the first goal. We even cheered at the second. By the third goal we started to wonder what was wrong. “What’s going on? Is something the matter with the Brazilian team,” I asked? Before I could get the words out, Germany’s fourth and fifth goals were in the net.

Malli had stopped cheering. The firecrackers outside were much less plentiful since ardent fans hadn’t rationed their firecrackers to cover five (and then six, and then seven) German goals.

Throughout the second half of the game Malli kept whispering “please don’t score again, please don’t score again.” This from the boy who had been leaping about in a victory dance half an hour earlier. At the end of the game I carried sleeping Akka to bed and she woke up enough to ask who won.

“Germany won,” I said.

“What was the score?”

“Seven to one. Seven to one for Germany.”

“Oh,” she said sleepily. “I don’t like seven to one.”

I don’t like seven to one either. I did want Germany to win but not like that. I suppose they didn’t have the option to wrap it up after three goals and stop aiming for the net. But even the children could see it clearly: we wanted ‘our’ guys to beat ‘their’ guys but then we wanted the beating to stop. Watching a win is thrilling but watching a beating is horrifying.

So when we watch the final on Sunday the kids and I will be cheering for a very, very narrow German win.

game theory

About a year ago we had a good stretch of time when the kids were into playing checkers and snakes and ladders and go fish. They’d sit down after school and play for ages while we delighted in their wholesomeness and cooperation and general fabulousness.

But something has changed. Now, more often than not, board games end with one child flinging a small and un-findable (but obviously irreplaceable)  piece of plastic behind the bookcase with tremendous force while screaming “Fine! I’m not playing! You’re a cheater!!” I’d either ignore it or go investigate to find that no one had cheated but that one child’s legitimate setback in the game was deemed to be the result of underhanded tactics by the other.

Finally I relented and played with them myself – an invitation I decline on principle while pointing out that that’s why I made two of them. Akka and I played a for a few turns; then I had to get up to check something on the stove and asked Malli to take my turn for me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them whispering, shooting me glances, and counting game pieces. Finally Malli made a decision and played my turn. They both erupted in giggles that brought me to realize that the other pot on the stove also needed a good long stir. And perhaps the inside of the cupboard needed another long glance. Malli continued to take my turns for me and they continued to delight in fixing the game so that I would lose. When I wandered back to the game I was dismayed to find that Akka had accumulated almost all of the pieces and was about to triumph. Never mind. I didn’t scream. I threw nothing. We had an immediate rematch and once again the pots on the stove urgently needed my attention after my first turn.

They played on. Game after game. Making me the loser made them both the winner even though Malli was working to sabotage my side of the board. No one threw pieces behind the couch. No one screamed “cheater!” (although perhaps I had the right to). I lost very gracefully and tried to conceal the fact that anything unelectronic that keeps them engaged and relatively quiet is a huge win in my book.

Conspiring to make me lose evolved into them playing against each other the next morning. So far no shrieks or projectiles. Shhh. I win!!  I totally win!!