I have not been a super strict mother when it comes to screening violence or bad language, within limits, on television and movies. Without a second thought, we showed our boys Gremlins when they were still very young (Note 1: 1980s movie ratings did not use the same standards as today’s. Note 2: in case you’ve forgotten, a gremlin is ground up in a blender). And when my husband showed the boys Saturday Night Live’s “Massive Head Wound Harry,” and the kids screamed and ran to their room, I hardly batted an eye.
“Maybe I showed them one too many clips,” Dustin said. “The dog licking his head was a bit much.”
“Oh well,” I shrugged. “They’ll get over it.”
No, I’ve been pretty relaxed about these things, figuring that my children are more resilient than I give them credit for. But if some media is about to unmask the identity of a famous, fabled person, if you know what I mean, I am not above jumping over couches and kitchen counters to switch the channel. And to be sure, there are a surprising amount of times that sitcoms and commercials allude to the truth a little too much.
Why do I care? Because nothing marks the end of innocence and childhood like this revelation, and it’s been my mission to delay it at all costs. In fact, I had always intended to lie to my children about it forever. My mother has never said the words to me, and so long as she is around and not confessing, it is real.
So you can imagine my shock six years ago, on the eve of Ford’s tenth birthday, when Dustin called me at the grocery store and said, “I think I messed up.”
“Oh my gosh, stop with the Saturday Night Live clips!”
“No,” he said. “It’s not that. Ford asked me if, well, you know, if someone is, you know… [Long pause] and I said no.”
In the middle of the grocery store, I cried. And then I yelled into the phone, “We were supposed to lie forever!”
I vividly remember sitting on the edge of Ford’s bed that night, trying to decide if I could reverse what Dustin had already undone. But there was no turning back.
Now it was Ford’s job to keep the news from his little brothers. And for many years, he did. But the summer before Owen’s sixth-grade year, while we were shopping for back-to-school clothes at Old Navy and my husband was away with the military, Ford pulled me aside and said, “I can’t let Owen go to junior high without telling him.”
“Yes, you can,” I said. “We lie to him forever. Lindell, too.”
“No,” Ford said. “He needs to know. And he needs to hear it from us, not some kid in the cafeteria.”
Again, I started crying, this time in the middle of Old Navy, with a load of khaki pants draped over my arm.
“I can’t do it,” I said. “I don’t have it in me. I just can’t do it.”
Owen and Lindell were across the room inspecting a bin of beach balls. They looked so innocent and happy, like all the world is magical.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Ford said. “You take Lindell to the dressing room, and I’ll take Owen for a walk across the store. That way, you don’t have to witness it.”
“Okay,” I said, sucking back sniffles. “You’ll be kind and gentle about it, right?”
So Lindell and I went to the dressing room to try on his new pants. When we were done and Lindell had run to find Owen again, I spotted Ford near the men’s outwear.
“Is it done?” I asked, coming up beside him and talking out of the corner of my mouth.
“It’s done,” he said as he pretended to inspect a winter jacket.
We didn’t make eye contact. Anyone listening would have thought Ford had just taken Old Yeller out back, or something.
“How is he?” I asked.
“He already knew,” Ford said. “But he didn’t want to hurt your feelings, so he played along.”
As it should be, I thought; we all should play along. Indeed, I have never spoken the words to Owen myself.
Today there is just one more little guy in our house, and I suspect we are on borrowed time. So I’m clinging a little tighter (“Mom, you’re laying it on a little too thick now,” Ford and Owen say) and treasuring every hopeful, magical moment.
In due time, I will be the only one left who plays along, and although the boys roll their eyes and snicker, I have to believe, somewhere in the childhood part of their heart, they are glad that their mom still pretends that it is so.