Connecting with my adult kids now that they can understand the truth within the fantasy
All three of my kids have pointed out a puzzling inconsistency regarding my personality. I am maddeningly honest according to most people. I’m the sort of person who tells telemarketers that I’m enjoying my television show too much to speak to them. If I’m admiring the physique of a friend’s partner and they ask what I’m looking at I’ll risk their ire by saying, “Your husband’s abs have been distracting me ever since he took off his shirt.” If I’m late for an appointment on a day there was road construction but I was also late to leave, I don’t leave out the leaving late part as I give my apologies. Partly I’m too lazy to make something up, or to keep track of a lie to keep it consistent; and partly it just feels icky. Sometimes it feels icky because I don’t think it’s fair for people to base their beliefs and decisions on something they assumed to be true but wasn’t. And sometimes saying something that isn’t the case feels like noticing a calculation error on a report and passing it in without correcting it. It’s just plain sloppy! And yet, somehow, I created Matilda.
It’s surprising that Matilda happened as I had nearly decided Santa shouldn’t be part of Christmas once I had children. I had mixed feelings about Santa over a childhood experience. I was quite old at the point I genuinely believed in Santa; not a half-belief like some kids who just aren’t wanting the fantasy to end, but a genuine one. At eight years old, I didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny because it was simply impossible. I asked my parents about it and they smiled and said, “What do you think?”; and I knew the answer. But Santa was different because there had been a real St. Nicholas from what I could tell, and maybe when people said his spirit lived on it could mean that new people took up the job in different locations and times with each generation. That was my theory. But my best friend, who was a Jehovah's Witness, was adamant that there was no Santa just as there was no Easter Bunny. I asked my parents about this, perfectly okay with things if it turned out Santa was a fun tradition. My father surprised me by saying, “Your friend’s parents are lying to her about Santa because they don’t want her to blame them for why they don’t get to have Christmas in their home.” He sounded vehemently sure this was the case, so I believed him. I stubbornly held onto my belief in Santa for another two years, as a display of loyalty to my father. When I later found wrapped presents from Santa hiding in the bathroom closet, I felt so betrayed. If things had stuck to fun Santa stories when I was little, I would have been okay with it. I had always thought it was a little silly when people equated obvious stories with lies. But my father’s lie had made me wrongly see my friend’s parents as dishonest. It changed aspects of how I related to my friend and her family. It affected my views on their religious beliefs. My mother’s pleas to how at ten years old I should have realized Santa wasn’t real didn’t make it okay. So, I had considered Santa not being a thing for my own children. But, once my husband and I had children, my in-laws told us how excited they were for “Grampy” to dress up as Santa and “accidentally” be seen by the kids while delivering presents on Christmas Eve. After some discussion with my husband, we decided it was okay to invite Santa into our Christmas traditions so long as we answered any direct questions honestly. And so, like many families, we shared the Santa tradition with our children — including leaving out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. This was how Matilda started.
One Christmas Eve, we were leaving our milk and cookies for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer, when my oldest son (I think he was around six at the time)asked me what I was leaving for Santa’s elves. Weren’t they kind of little to be eating such a big cookie? Shouldn’t they have their own cookies, instead of just Santa’s crumbs? My daughter (the middle child) piped up that the mug of milk could be too heavy for them. She brought one of the small Japanese tea cups I had given her for make-believe and filled it with milk for the elf (I had managed to convince them that rather than bringing along a bunch of elves, each home probably had its’ very own helper elf who could come and go as they pleased, being magic and all.) We ended up making an entire batch of small cookies so we could leave one for the elf.
Once the kids were in bed, I laid the presents under the tree and composed a thank-you letter from Santa. I’m a stickler for detail, and as I had later remarked as I child that I should have realized that both Easter Bunny and Santa had my mother’s handwriting, I made sure to give Santa his own unique writing style. I’m a bit of a calligraphy nerd, so I made it look like he Celtic insular script. At Easter, I wrote the thank-you letter from the Easter Bunny by holding the pen between my two hands to write, because, you know, bunnies don’t have opposable thumbs. So when I decided the kids should get a thank-you letter from Santa’s helper considering their thoughtfulness in considering her unique snacking needs, I gave the handwriting careful thought. I decided to make it very tiny and very meticulously even. The elf was very grateful because it was the first time someone had left her a cookie of her very own. And she really appreciated being able to drink from a cup all by herself, without Santa’s help. The letter was signed, “Matilda”.
After that Christmas, the kids sometimes asked if I could find out how Matilda was doing. Mothers are, of course, the best people to ask to converse with magical beings and great forces. My youngest was once angry at me for not getting the weather to stop making snow storms. Whenever they asked after Matilda, I’d leave a note by our indoor tree, trees being a natural place for an elf to seek shelter. The next day, a tiny, handwritten note would appear, telling of Matilda’s adventures.
It felt natural to connect to my children through imagination and story. Every night we would spend over an hour, sometimes truly hours, enjoying stories before bed. First we would all read together. At first I read to them and later they helped. We read both short stories and chapter books. And then they would go to their separate beds and I would make up a story (or a few) on the spot. They would pick the topic and I would find a piece of meaning inside of the topic and improvise a story around it. Once in awhile I told a “true” story, at least to the extent any memory can be true seeing as memory is written over with every experience we have. As they grew and their imaginations became more sophisticated, they sometimes took on the role of storyteller.
A lot of people marvelled at my “patience” with this bedtime routine. But this, along with guiding them to learn about the workings of the world, was the stuff that made all the difficult times as a parent worth it. It was the part of parenting I was “good” at. (I was hopeless at a lot of the other stuff, like having supper ready at a consistent time or sending them to school with matching socks). I am an inherently curious person. I am always wondering. When I was a child, I knew lots of other curious people. Children are always wondering. But the older I got, the less I was surrounded by the curiosity of others. Having children gave me a chance to to share my curiosity and nurture theirs.
The way I see it, the sciences and social sciences are for answering the questions that start with “who”, “what”, “when” and “where”. As in: “Who invented the telephone?”, “What makes water flow?”, “When did the age of the dinosaurs end?”, and “Where would I find my spleen?”. Applied sciences and arts answer how: “How can provide three months worth of daily medication delivery with one injection?”, and “How can we make office chairs more attractive?”. But “why” is answered through story and art.
“Why” is about meaning. It’s about the stuff that can’t be explained materialistically or mechanistically. It’s about the meaning of things like consciousness, and spirituality, and love. Language can sometimes be a clumsy means of expression, and sometimes we say “why” for questions that should start with a different word. “Why is the sky blue?” is more accurately, “What is it about the composition of our atmosphere, in relation to the light from the sun, that makes my brain interpret nerve impulses from my eyes as the colour blue?”. Some real “why” questions about the sky are: “Why, considering all the possibilities of what can make sky and how eyes can see, is blue the colour I see in the sky on a summer day. Why does this blue sky make my heart feel like it soars? Why do I like the feeling of staring up into a big, open sky and being reminded I am small?
Even though I don’t think it’s probable that there is some kind of second, immaterial world, I don’t think we can answer these “why” questions with science. I think our experience of the magical-feeling things that make us ask why can’t be told in the language of the material. And so we have story, and metaphor, and picture, and song. Which is why even though I made Matilda up it was to tell the children true things.
Matilda was about why being thought of makes you feel like you matter. Why your body can be in one place but your mind can be in another. Why a movie can make you cry even though you know it isn’t real. Why everything can feel connected and yet we can be so alone. Matilda was about why we love to watch things grow, ideas growing into stories or children growing to become “their own people”.
But as the kids grew, they first realized there was no Santa, and then that there was probably no Matilda. They asked about Matilda’s letters, and I explained I wrote them. “But the handwriting! It was so tiny!”, my daughter said. “I worked really hard to make it small,” I said. It was my daughter who was especially baffled. I was the mother who let her know that the stitches she needed for her torn arm would hurt, and also told her why they were necessary. I never said it would just be okay. I explained what led to her godparents’ divorce. I told her when her cookie experiment didn’t work for me but that I knew she could figure out how to make a better cookie. And yet I made up Matilda.
“It’s just I’ve never heard you lie,” she said. I told her it was kind of a lie because the facts weren’t accurate, but that in a way it was true because Matilda was part of me, the parts that aren’t about being a Mom or anything else that could be seen about me. The kids said they got it, but they really hadn’t yet.
As the children became adolescents, we kept exploring the other questions plenty, but the “why” explorations were less frequent, and less metaphorical. When they came up, they were a little more practical. The why questions were about feelings and relationships. I told more stories about my own life. And when they weren’t feeling the need to push away they told me some of their own.
My two oldest kids are out of high school now, and the youngest is in grade eleven. I started the year with an emptier nest, but COVID happened, and the older two live home again. Also due to COVID, I had a lot more time hanging out with my youngest son than what happened other years. Over this year, something started to change again with our interactions.
It started with my oldest. He’d been legal age for over a year and was discovering the joys of alcohol. Not so much for the sake of getting drunk but because it overlaps with another one of his great passions — food. He started asking me to come to the liquor store with him to help him find something new to try. Which would lead to asking me about when I had first drank a certain alcohol, and the story that often came along with it. There was Grappa, which was introduced to me by my Italian ex-husband, who was a violinist. And then Evan (that’s my oldest’s name) would invent an improbable sounding concoction to make with the alcohol (which was invariably delicious) and invite me to drink with him.
These talks while drinking have returned to the fantastical, although he is now more sophisticated in understanding the difference between the truths of story and the truths of the material world. We have heated debates about future possibilities (he’s studying Policy and Governance in university and his debating skill is well-honed). We discuss role-playing game plots and the probable Myers-Brigg personality types of fictional characters. I “waste” lots of time, forgetting to be productive, and I love it even though I grump. When he asks me to go to farmer’s market with him or to buy coffee, I know it’s really for an excuse to have more of these talks.
Similar things started to happen with the other two kids. My daughter and her boyfriend (he’s also been living with us since COVID) handled feeling stir crazy by going camping. I’ve been asked to drive them to all kinds of “middle of nowhere” camping spots. We have “why” talks about people and spirituality. Sometimes I do more of the talking, but the interest in sharing stories is there.
My youngest used the slower pace of this year to introduce me to all sorts of manga and anime. We talk about their made-up worlds, the story he is writing, the stories I write. I hear about post-graduation plans and wishes.
I think we have come full circle and I am enjoying sharing stories with my kids again. Earlier this year I had my daughter started conversation with, “Remember Matilda?” that got me thinking. I think Matilda may make a come-back this year. Except this time we’ll put a little Bailey’s in Matilda’s milk and ask the kids to stay up and chat.