Tracking the growth and development of children can be a tricky business. There are plenty of physical traits you can measure with rulers and scales – height, weight, the progressive increase in clothes and shoe sizes – but the intellectual, psychological, and emotional ones are much less accessible. Once you get past basic things like speaking and eating, tracking these traits requires a lot of extrapolation from ad hoc events. Every once in a while, however, you do get some definite indicators regarding the kind of growth that is taking place. Saturday morning brought me one of those moments.
Pip fears thunderstorms. For reasons that he cannot articulate, thunder makes him exceedingly nervous. I think it has something to do with the deep and ominous intensity of the sound and the way it makes things vibrate as a clap rolls through the house. Whenever he hears this, Pip makes a beeline for Ava or me and will follow us around from room to room until he the storm has passed and he feels safe.
On Saturday morning, we had a line of thunderstorms blow across our region just after breakfast. They weren’t bad. There were no severe weather alerts or tornado warnings; just some rumbling and a bit of rain. Pip was handling it pretty well until we went back into the kids’ bedroom to make the beds and put on some daytime clothes. While Pip was pulling up his sheets and blanket, I opened the curtains in the room. He took a peek out the window and immediately collapsed on his pillow. When he looked up at me, his bottom lip was quivering and his eyes had the droopy, searching quality they take on whenever he is about to cry.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The ice scraper,” he said.
I looked out the window and saw laying along the path that runs beside our garage and into the backyard the black bristles and foot-long yellow handle belonging to one of the snow and ice scrapers for our car. Its presence there on the path was something of a surprise, though not because of the obvious seasonal disjuncture (both Pip and Polly have found our pair of scrapers to be highly versatile and entertaining toys). Instead, it was unusual for us to leave something out like that. We are usually very good about cleaning up all the playthings before we go inside for the evening. This scraper, however, was tucked far enough back along the path to have escaped our notice the day before.
Thinking Pip was concerned about the scraper getting wet, I said to him,
“Don’t worry, a little rain is not going to hurt it.”
To which he replied, “Yes, but it’s going to get struck by lightening.” Then he resolutely jammed his face back into the pillow. It was one of those incongruous moments with kids that are at once painful and downright hilarious. Even as his anguish resonated in my heart, I had to take a second to avoid laughing out loud.
The thing is Pip has a very clear idea of what happens to something when it gets struck by lightening. This idea is linked to a very specific experience. In the spring of last year, we had a line of brutally severe thunderstorms go through our area just before midnight. These storms brought with them a number of tornados and copious amounts of lightening. The storms were strong enough that we spent a good hour or so huddled in the basement that night sitting on blankets and checking the weather radio periodically to see when the danger had finally passed. The next morning we learned that during the storm lightening had taken down a local landmark in spectacular fashion. Up the highway from us, one of the new mega-churches had, a couple of years back, erected a building-sized sculpture depicting the arms and head of Jesus rising out of a small lake that sits in front of the church. As the highest object present in the open field in which the church was built, the sculpture was probably a magnet for lightening. Surely, it had been hit before. But this time it was different. Whatever defenses were in place were not enough to dissipate the massive amount of electrical energy the sculpture had to absorb. And, as it turns out, the styrofoam substance from which it was made was highly flammable. As such, the whole thing caught on fire, and once the sculpture was ablaze there was little to do but take pictures of the black clouds of smoke billowing up into the sky.
Pip and I saw some of those pictures the following afternoon. While he did not appreciate the variety of darkly funny suggestions these images presented, he was fascinated by the fact that lightening could create such a scene. He asked me to tell him the story of what happened over and over again that week and for several months afterwards one of his favorite ways to liven up a boring hour was to ask me about the “statue that got struck by lightening.”
Now, in Pip’s mind, the storm this past Saturday morning presented a similar threat to the yellow ice scraper. Lightening could strike it at any time, and the resulting fire would burn until all that was left was some blackened shards of melted plastic. The thought of this was just too much for him. To help him gain some relief, I talked him through a list of things that were different between the sculpture and the ice scraper. There were the obvious differences in size, the fact that the sculpture had been in an open field while the scraper was tucked away between numerous taller objects, and that, while the sculpture had a steel frame, there was no conductive material of any kind in the ice scraper. By patiently going through this list a couple of times, I began to calm him a bit and to release some of the tension from the position of fetal curvature his body had assumed.
While all of this was going on, Polly had been running back and forth between the living room and the bedroom, playing with some finger puppets and a fire truck. She finally came over to us as I was running for the third or fourth time through the list of reasons the ice scraper was not going to be hit by lightening. Looking over at her I saw that her bottom lip was protruding significantly out and downward, and I was grabbed by the sudden fear that she would be following her brother’s lead into barely contained distress.
I hesitantly asked her the same question I asked of Pip.
She looked up at me very seriously and, while holding that bottom lip firmly in place, said,
“Polly want to be upset, too.”
I stared at her for a moment wondering if I had heard her correctly, wondering if I had not understood what she was trying to say. Then, from down in the pillow, I heard Pip start to laugh. The laughter seemed to push his face upward, and as he turned toward us his teary eyes sparkled with glee. Seeing Pip, Polly’s face also changed. The bottom lip slipped back into its normal place, and a small grin began to emerge in place of her frown.
With this transformation I finally realized what was going on as well. Polly was obviously not upset. She had not wanted to be left out of whatever Pip was into. So, she had decided to follow his lead. For his part, Pip had picked up on the absurdity of Polly “wanting” to be upset before I had, and found it to be extremely funny. He found it so funny in fact that the ice scraper melted from his memory. He didn’t mention it again until that night at bedtime when, looking out the window, he once again saw it laying on the path by the garage. This second sighting precipitated a flashback and another small breakdown that was finally brought to an end by Ava’s going out and putting the thing away.
A month ago this whole scenario would not have been resolved in the way it was. Polly would have come in to the bedroom with her bottom lip stuck out and not been able to tell us exactly why she was doing it. Pip would not have understood the humor embedded in her act even if she had been able to tell us. That they both did what they did on Saturday morning is an indication of the kind of growth and development that is happening right now with them. It is amazing, hilarious, and unnerving all at the same time.