I am giddy with the purchase of Sophia’s first black pair of Mary Janes and in the mood to do more damage. I push her stroller into Gymboree, and park it next to racks and racks of expensive, adorable clothes—brown crinolines, striped leggings, bright jumpers. Fingering a polka dot hat on sale, I ask, “What do you think, Sophia? Is it you?” Her face breaks into a wide grin, and, like the Cheshire cat, it’s all that’s left of her as I pull the hat down over her ears. I poke through the display table, picking up pieces, glancing at the price tag, and then, aghast, putting them back down again.
There is a family standing a few feet away: The mother is in her early 30’s. Her blond hair is exhausted from too many bleachings. Her t-shirt and shorts are at least one size too small, the former riding up, the latter riding down. She’s talking to her mother in a voice loud enough for everyone in the store to hear. “Isn’t this cute?” she demands of her mother, an older version of herself by about 16 years. The woman nods. Her son, who is lounging in the store’s display window, whines, “Can we go now?” The women ignore him. The young mother is grasping a toddler's hand such that the child has to hold her arm straight up into the air. This little girl is impeccably dressed in pink and gold from head to toe. Her hair is braided in neat cornrows, a matching barrette, sealing off each one. I can tell she’s also had it. Her weight is shifting from foot to foot. Her eyes are pleading and tired. She tugs at her mother’s hand and lets out the mildest of whimpers. “Knock it off!” the mother warms, in her cigarette-roughened voice. She’s picking up the crinoline and admiring it. “Would you look at this?” she says to her mother. The girl whimpers again, and her mother turns to her and threatens, “If you don’t shut up, I’m going to rip your arm off.”
I am stunned. My eyes widen. My jaw slackens. I feel all my blood rush to my head; my body is immobilized. I’m reminded of the moment when Sophia threw a stuffed animal down the stairs and dove after it. She turned a somersault in the air, while I watched, helpless and screaming at the top, but doing nothing. Kevin had appeared right at that moment and caught her, miraculously, before she hit the ground. She didn’t have a scratch. But I was dismayed at my inaction, and it left a permanent stain on my parenthood.
“Is this who I am?” I asked Kevin. “Do I freeze in times of crisis?” Kevin assured me that we all do different things in different situations. “She was okay. I caught her. It takes two.”
But here I am again, appalled my inaction, yet somehow frozen. The sentence that marches through my mind is, “There is NEVER a reason to say something like that to a child.” But I know that this sentence will not save this child and might only result in my arms being ripped from their sockets. I can’t think of a damn thing that would change this woman’s ways. Or alter what I now imagine is the course of this child’s life. So I let them walk away and hope that the horror on my face somehow registered in their minds.