Recently, at a 75th birthday party, we spent a wonderful day with friends and family. Sophia frolicked in the pool and grass in equal measure with her new best friend, Shane. Kevin and I watched, floating idly on foam noodles, periodically swigging icy beer. I realized for the first time in a long time that I felt absolutely no anxiety.
Making the two-hour drive home, spent from doing a whole lot of nothing, I flipped on NPR for a little stimulation. Sophie was listening to Curious George on her headphones while simultaneously flipping through a library book. Kevin was sitting next to her, playing possum. His head was tilted back against the headrest and his eyes were closed but I could tell he wasn’t asleep. Terry Gross was interviewing theater critic Jason Zinoman on how the horror film genre was redefined in the 1960s. The conversation was interesting, but fairly intellectual and certainly beyond Sophia’s cognitive understanding, particularly since the only reference point she has for film is the 1950 version of Cinderella we just showed her a month ago. Zinoman was making the case that the “new school of horror was based on real life: realistic, mundane events that could leave the audience wondering where evil could lurk (everywhere) and who could be evil (everyone).” I caught Kevin’s eyes in the mirror as they opened briefly. He read my silent question, “It’s okay to leave this on, right?” responding with a shrug and an audible, “She’s totally absorbed in her book.” So I left it on.
Terry played a clip from the Night of the Living Dead, which, Zinoman says, was a seminal film in the use of gore. I haven’t seen it, but Terry did a good job of setting it up: A brother and sister are in a cemetery together visiting their father’s grave at their mother’s insistence. The sky is stormy, with thunder in the distance. The sister has a fear of graveyards, and the brother is taunting her about it. The clip rolls and the voices have the prim lilt of 50s actors. The brother is teasing, saying, “They’re coming for you Barbara,” as a man approaches in the distance. As irony would have it, the man is a zombie. Barbara screams at the zombie descends upon her.
I quickly reach for the volume and turn it down. This gets Sophie’s attention. She looks up “Turn it back on, Mom, “she says.
I wait a few beats…surely Terry has moved on, and then turn the volume up. From the speakers, Terry explains, “Once the zombie appears, it’s trying to eat the sister….”
I quickly turn the volume back down. This time, Sophie doesn’t look up from her book. Again, I look at Kevin, who, from his expression, appears to want to hear the rest of the discussion as much as I do. After a longer pause I turn it up the volume again and the conversation is back to intellectual zombie analysis. I glance in the mirror, Sophie’s face is impassive, her nose buried back in her book.
Once home, way past Sophie’s bedtime, we whisk her into her PJs. Kevin reads her a bedtime story as I run a toothbrush over her teeth. All the while she chatters happily about her time with Shane. It appears as though she has emerged from her exposure to Fresh Air with her innocence in tact.
The next morning, I’m making waffles as Sophie is drawing with crayons at the kitchen table. Kevin wanders in half-awake and stands behind our daughter, “Watcha drawing?” he asks.
Without looking up Sophie tells him, “A zombie eating a sister.”
I gasp and spin around. Kevin and I stare at each other, stifling appalled laughter.
Granted, she has no idea what a zombie is. But doesn’t anything eating a person have some element of horror to it? I wonder what images she has formed of zombies. Are they friendly creatures, like the monsters who occasionally take up residence in her closet, or are they going to become the stuff of nightmares for the next six months? How has she incorporated this new information into her larger worldview? What have I done?
I don’t know because I can’t get anything else out of her. She continues to happily draw her carnivorous monster in broad, uncontrolled sweeps of a pink crayon.
Let this be a lesson to me: whether she understands or not, she’s always listening. Little pitchers have big ears.