Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Wheels on the Bus

Last week we took the kids to California Pizza Kitchen. We took the back roads — which are basically the only roads you’ll find around here.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I named this blog Caramels on Maple Street, this is the kind of moment, and existence, I was trying to capture. If only I had started churning out babies sooner. Then we could have had the Brady Bunch version of this in a minivan. (Brian, I know what you’re thinking; don’t get any ideas.


The No Worries Palace

Whenever anything changes — in a room, in the fridge, in my hair length — Sky notices it immediately.  He cried for days when my husband got a new work truck. He stomped in protest when we started redoing the kids’ bathroom — then, like a squatter being forced out of a neighborhood mid-gentrification, he begged us to please, please just keep the 70s-era vanity bar light over the sink where he brushes his teeth. Please! Someone around here has a flair for drama.

So I shouldn’t have been that surprised last week when, the second I flipped open my laptop, I became the subject of a brutal interrogation. “What happened to your desktop? What happened to that other wallpaper you had? What happened to the No-Worries Palace, Mama????

The No-Worries Palace is the Palais Sans-Souci, near Haiti’s mountainous northern city of Cap Haitiën. (The term “sans souci” is more often translated as “carefree.”) It was built between 1810-1813, the royal residence of Haiti’s only king, the tyrannical and more-than-a-little-paranoid Henri Christophe. Modeled after the Sanssouci Palace in Pottsdam, Germany, it is a ruin and a miracle, long dubbed an eighth Wonder of the World. And when Sky saw it on my desktop for the first time, something about it — the ghosts of dukes and barons, the majesty of those skeletal columns — pulled him in completely. “What is that?” he said softly. “Who lived in it? Can we go there?”

I could call myself brilliant, but actually, this was an absolute fluke. These days, if a story about a fortress doesn’t involve Han Solo or an escape pod, it’s a nonstarter. And it’s hard to compete with 3D books about young Jedis you can buy with one click on Amazon. But somehow, without my having planned it, Sky was spontaneously connecting with a place I barely remember myself.

Legend has it that King Henri was a drummer boy in the American Revolution, serving in a black regiment of the French military in the siege of Savannah. A slave turned mason (turned waiter turned billiard maker), he did a lot more than bang drums when revolution came to his own country; he helped lead Haiti to independence in 1804, the only successful slave revolt in history.

From there, it gets a little less age-appropriate: despotic rule; the deaths of thousands who labored to build that palace and the massive, even more majestic Citadelle fortress nearby; suicide by a silver bullet. Stuff like that. But the 6-year-old version is cool. Not quite as cool as Star Wars, but plenty cool enough.

Tender. Headed.

If the word ‘tender-headed’ makes your neck tight and sends a chill down your spine, you probably could write this post as easily as you’re reading it. On the other hand, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, read on.

The other night I was doing one of the things I hate the most about being a mother. I was combing my kids’ hair. This was triple hair night: Sky, Rose and Satchel all fresh out of the bath; Scooby Doo on TV in the bedroom, serving as both bait and bribery. Bait and bribery have become necessary, because for a while now, my kids have taken to screaming and occasionally running away before I’ve even touched their heads. The mere sight of a comb in their mother’s hand strikes them with terror. And as I once again wrangled one of them to the bed and slathered on leave-in conditioner, all I could think about was how many times I had sworn to myself that this little domestic tableau of black life would never unfold when I had children. If I ever have children, I vowed, I will not traumatize them while detangling their hair! And yet, here I am.

My earliest memory of childhood isn’t a place or a toy or a favorite bedtime story. My earliest childhood memory is a comb. Actually, two combs. One was a wide-tooth in tortoise-shell plastic. It always felt slippery, probably from the waxy hair cream my mother would apply to my scalp. (I have no idea how she stumbled on this European formula way back when, but after traveling back in time on the Internet, I discovered that the makers of Stilbépan Haarcrème haven’t changed their look in 35 years. You can still buy it in a squeeze tube with a black-and-orange wave design — but only from online drugstores in Germany.) The other was a black fine-tooth comb with a tail that looked like an ice pick. From age 3 to 13, those two combs were the instruments of torture I faced every morning, sitting between the locked knees of my mother, babysitter, or visiting aunt as they literally battled my hair, raking out every uncooperative bushy knot until my head was sufficiently tamed. And every morning, my piercing, hysterical screams fell on deaf ears. More than anyone walking this earth, Haitian women know real suffering; they had no sympathy for the wails of a girl whose biggest problem was getting her hair wrestled into a gumdrop ponytail holder.

There wasn’t a lot of English spoken in my house, but one night at a sleepover with some black friends, I learned there was a name for this condition: I was tender-headed. And that meant a few things. It meant that I had a sensitive scalp, of course. But more importantly, it meant that any relative or minder taking a comb to my head should ignore my sobs and pleas outright. My tears were not to be taken seriously; I was weak, puny, a little too fragile. Tender-headed. If calling your child lactose-intolerant is an informational alert, letting people know to be careful when offering food, calling your child tender-headed is more like an indictment. Somewhere in there, there’s a suggestion that she is not prepared for life in a cold, hard world, and that somebody who loves her better start preparing her, starting with the sting and yank of a hair-combing session.

My kids may not appreciate it, but generationally speaking, there’s been progress. As a daughter, my hair care regimen was akin to tyranny. As a mother, the hair sessions on Maple Street are more like multilateral peace summits. Can we watch Dora? Okay. Can I have some gum? Yes you can have gum. Anything that will blunt the pain, short of not combing their hair at all, I will do. But as sick as it may sound, when I see the extreme lengths to which parents these days go to shield our kids from — well, from everything really: bacteria, rain puddles, a skinned knee, a bushy knot, bad news of any kind, and above all, failure — the wisdom of every woman who locked me between her legs and rained holy hell down on my head becomes more clear. I’ve spent hours online trying to find the magic products that will not just manage my kids’ curls, but transform these moments into the loving, bonding bedtime routine that I wish it was. I think I’m doing the right thing. But sometimes, I see the mothers and grandmothers and older cousins of my youth like a Greek chorus. And they’re telling me, Scooby-Doo? Apa pito! (Very loosely translated from Haitian Creole: “Over my dead body.”)  I’ll give them a Scooby Doo they’ll remember for a long time! Give me that comb, and go get me the Stilbépan!

A Mommy Slave Makes a Baby Slave

When our son Sky was 2, he started to obsess about a place in the Irish Sea called the Island of Sodor. To some of you parents out there, the singsong name of this fairytale land may sound familiar: It’s the place where Thomas the Tank Engine, that relentlessly sunny train with the slightly creepy eyebrows, rides the rails all day long.

For two-and-a-half solid years, Thomas ruled our world. There were interactive DVDs, books with sound buttons simulating 11 variations on the train whistle, pilgrimages to the local railroad village about an hour’s drive from here whenever Thomas came to town. And of course, there were countless, countless trains. Wooden and metal and plastic trains and train accessories that represented, if one website is to be believed, about 140 locomotive friends chugging cheekily across the isle. At the height of our railway frenzy, Sky could name every single solitary one without hesitating. If I had a toddler’s memory banks as a college freshman in organic chemistry, I’d be a neurosurgeon by now.

As desperate as I was to be liberated from Thomas’ reign, it taught a fundamental lesson of childhood: Boys love trains. Which makes for a tricky and sad situation when, a few years later, your son bounces in the room asking what the Underground Railroad is, where its tracks run, and whether we can go visit it sometime. The night that happened, I learned a fundamental lesson of parenthood: There is no sugarcoating the story of slavery. Even if you’re armed with a gorgeous picture book filled with dream-like visions of children flying over Canada, even if Harriet Tubman appears in a candy-cane petticoat telling you she never lost a passenger, at some point, the surreal savagery of the subject matter is bound to burst in on your bedtime routine.

I’m sure other parents have had this feeling. As I turned the pages, and the tale of a brown-skinned girl crouching in a cemetery to escape white bounty hunters unfolded, I felt insecure. Do I keep going? Do I close the book and pull a tried-and-true Star Wars distraction? Am I about to tear Sky’s Thomas-and-friends love of trains to shreds? And if I shut down this particular railway line tonight, do I wait for a well-meaning but not fully culturally competent teacher to re-open it later, with his or her own ideas of what it means to be the conductor?

I don’t remember when or how I learned about the Underground Railroad. But I do know the lasting impression it left on me: that it involved mostly enlightened white people, plus one or two black heroes sprinkled in, rescuing helpless black slaves. I continued to believe that until recently, when I got an assignment to write about the history of slavery in New England. At which point I discovered that the story of white saviors and black victims is just that: a story, a myth. It’s a myth that emerged from mostly white accounts of that period, and one that speaks to the North’s deep desire to be on the right side of the race question. But in reality, scholars have found, the Underground Railroad was a complex network of interracial cooperation in which free blacks played a major role.

Since the night I broke out the book, Sky hasn’t asked for it again, although he has developed a tendency to blurt out slavery references at strange moments. That’s a story that will have to wait for another blog post, but for example, here’s one recent, two-part question I have yet to address to his satisfaction: “Mama, if a mommy slave and a daddy slave had a baby, was the baby a slave too? And how old did a baby slave have to be before they made him do baby slave work?”
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