This whole endeavor has been harder on him than the rest of us.
Seven years old, shy, sensitive, creative, averse to expectations, retreating in the face of pressure,
Paco has not found the move to Turkey an easy one.
Some might make the case that it could have been easy. He has his most enthusiastic supporters circling him; he’s well fed, hugged, and loved; he is safe; it is beautiful here, he gets to wear his pajamas four days out of every seven. He got a crossbow for Christmas, for heaven’s sake.
His immediate reaction to this place, however, was one of, “Why can’t we just stay for a little while? Why does it have to be for a year?” Equally frequently, he’s moaned, “I just don’t like it here.”
Since that notion was asserted, there has been no revision. Travel is said to be a great revealer of character, and one of the primary traits that has emerged about our second grader is that he’s incredibly stubborn. As my friend Pamm noted when she visited, “I say this with all the love and experience of someone who raised two boys herself: you have a seven-year-old who’s acting amazingly like a thirteen-year-old.” She was right. Paco’s bouts of sullenness make us want to give him a drumset, usher him to a wood-paneled room in the basement, and ask him not to come up until he’s ready to tour colleges.
Even though it’s been hard work to jolly along a recalcitrant kid, a big part of me has to concede, regarding his attitude, “Fair enough, really.” Coming here wasn’t his choice. Staying here wasn’t his choice. Nor was being plunked into a backwater where conversation stops when he walks by or, worse yet, smelly men with cracked yellow teeth grab his cheeks and pinch them with a vehemence that doesn’t feel remotely like affection. He didn’t want to leave his posse of pals back home. He didn’t want to see his toys put into storage. He didn’t want to enter a new country in the midst of 110 degree temperatures with no air conditioning and Ramadan drums waking him up every morning at 3:30 a.m. before the first Call to Prayer blasted an hour later. Lonely, scared, overwhelmed, confused, unbelievably fatigued, he had every right to his feelings.
Woefully, though–from his point of view–his parents, though sympathetic, don’t believe in handing over the deciding vote about family matters to someone who learned to ride a bike and then announced, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” (and he hasn’t)
So this has been tough on him. By extension, it’s been hard on all of us.
Fortunately, it’s only rough going when he remembers to maintain the stance that he hates it here.
When he forgets to paint himself as a tragic, much-put-upon figure, he has more fun in an hour than my cattle-ranching grandma Dorothy had in her entire lifetime. Because inside his head? Is a prodigious, fluid, magical, charismatic expanse of terrain where kaleidoscopic marbles hit against battling Lego light-saber-wielding minifigures who leap atop paper towel tubes that explode with confetti which then showers down upon a herd of giraffes who walk upon an ocean in which jellyfish sleep on peanut butter rocks.
He may be a butthead, but he’s more damn fun than anything.
Case in point: yesterday I dragged the kids (who, many days, are still reluctant to leave the house) out for a walk. As we descended into the nearby canyon, Paco looked over his left shoulder at an ancient cave house and noted, “Hey, that looks like the thing that dangles at the back of your throat.” Indeed. Had I ever before seen a better example of Uvula in Nature?
As I watch Paco simultaneously pushing against and thriving in this situation, I mull over the fluctuating nature of memory and wonder how this year will lodge within him over the long term. When I think back on being seven, there are only brief flashes of what was–nothing coherent or sustained: I remember Miss Hertzler catching me counting with my fingers under my desk and telling me that I was smarter than that so I had best sit on my hands during math from then on; I remember my mom not picking up me and a friend at the end of the school day, so we waited and waited out front of the school until a teacher came out to check on us and said she was sure Mom would be there “in three shakes of a lamb’s tail”…after which my friend and I decided we had to find a lamb of some sort and pull its tail; I remember my sister telling me, with a strange sneer of superior knowingness, that my parents had signed me up for piano and ballet lessons and not informed me.
Anything beyond that is abstracted and could have happened at age 6, 7, or 8.
As I review my meager cache of memories and read over psychological articles pertaining to autobiographical memory, it becomes clear that Paco won’t retain much from this year. On the other hand, the memories that seem to stick with people are those revolving around heightened moments, trauma, pain, extreme sensory stimulation, or difficult emotional challenges.
Uh-oh. If that’s the case, Paco is likely to recollect every single minute of this year, from the first time our neighbor dismayed him by grabbing him around the waist and trying to foist him up onto a donkey…to the moments when he embraced tavuk donor (a sandwich made with shaved, peppered chicken), tavuk shish kebap, and grilled chicken wings as his go-to travel foods. When everything is remarkable, what can be forgotten?
The good news is that my reading and life experience also tell me that many of our childhood memories are reconstructed. We think we remember Uncle Dusty dropping a cinderblock on our toes, and then two months later we lost a toenail, but the truth is that the preservation of that memory comes from the story of Uncle Dusty’s clumsiness and our subsequent two-hour meltdown being retold at every drunken Thanksgiving for the next twenty years. We hear the story again and again, and the myth becomes real. Even more forceful is the accompanying photo of the dead toenail in a jar, pulled out of Aunt Janice’s wallet after her third gimlet. We’re told what happened, provided with the viewpoint. We’re shown the pictures, and, thusly, absorb Cinderblockgate into our brains as something remembered firsthand.
If, then, there exists the potential to affect memory, I’m all over the power of that manipulation.
So pour me a gimlet. Bring me my Paco. I have a story to construct.
Paco? Tootsiepop? You’re eight today. This morning, you were the most excited Birthday Boy I’ve ever seen. You grabbed the piece of yarn tied next to your bed and traced its winding path, as is our family tradition on any continent, under furniture, above moldings, out the door, through the courtyard, down to the guest room, and there you found your stack of Lego sets and a new DS game. Knowing that you wouldn’t want to do schoolwork on your big day, you chose to work through it yesterday; this freed us to take the dolmus to Urgup this afternoon, where we got you an eclair and some of those cool umbrella-shaped chocolates and went to the shop where the lady gives temporary tattoos (nice Phoenix on your arm, by the way) before going to the Internet cafe so you could play games on the Lego site and talk on the phone with Oma and Grandpa Jay. You wanted tacos for dinner, and Dad made them just as you like, with a soft tortilla full of beef wrapped up in a piece of aluminum foil at the bottom, so it doesn’t leak. All day long, you monologued about the new Ninjago lego sets, and you wore your new Lego Hero Factory shirt, and people called to sing to you and sent emails and You Tube links, and your energy was boundless.
So what I want you to remember about turning eight in Turkey is that it was awesome, and you were healthy and beautiful and innocent and happy and goofy–
just as you were all year long, as you played with your sword, hung with your sister, lifted weights, ate sesame bread, slept hard (on occasion), blew bubbles, painted grapes, taped your face, recorded your Doric column count, made art at the Black Sea, took pottery lessons, played chess, laid on cushions and tables and hammocks, jumped off walls, tussled with sister, chopped kindling, listened to history, touched The Louvre, stood in front of the Mona Lisa, robot danced in front of a classic, took a family portrait near the Eiffel Tower, hammed it up with Mommy, laid on a suitcase in Reading, ate edamame in London, sat on a Camel in Windsor, slept more, did some finger knitting, pretended to be a beast in front of a castle, drew a picture of yourself on a rooftop, jumped across your personal Grand Canyon, built cabins out of pretzels, scrambled around white stones, made a snowman, shot your crossbow, pretended to be a monkey, considered mosaics, viewed a volcano, burned treasure maps, and practiced “ice bending” beneath a cliff wall carved out five thousand years ago.
Bubs? Pip of my heart? May your every year be as awful as this one.