When Toby was three, we were walking back to our car from a high school football game just after dark. As we rounded the corner of the suburban neighborhood street, we came upon a police officer walking along the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Without a moment’s hesitation, Toby grabbed my hand and yelled, “Cop! Run!”
(Explaining this reaction to the officer in passing was every bit as awkward as you’d imagine.)
Did it worry me that my child’s visceral reaction to law and authority was to flee? Not at all. He gets it from my mother. While a law-abiding citizen in all the big, check-here-if-you-ever-been-arrested-of-a-felony type of ways, the woman never met a rule (or law of physics) that applied to her. Or her grandkids. Stand up in the shopping cart? Sure! Play tag in Target? You’re it! Climb to the highest branches of the tree and dangle from your feet? Oh wait…I let the kids do that, too.
I don’t blame her though. She got it from her mother, my grandmother, who used to drive the getaway car while my cousins, sister, and I were encouraged to pick flowers from other people’s gardens. We also stole wood from construction sites for projects she remembered from her teaching days and bottles for mosaics from the trash. Come to think of it, we may have invented Dumpster diving.
I remember being told to cry on cue when she got pulled over for strapping four kids into two seat belts (totally worked), and being told to ‘wait until the lifeguard wasn’t looking’ whenever we wanted to venture past the private beach boundary. (We trespassed a lot.) And then of course was the ‘Don’t tell your grandfather’, which (went without saying) translated to ‘Don’t tell your father’ once we’d returned home.
Once I was older, I was initiated into the harder core stuff, like vandalizing the doctor’s office signage at the business park outside town with black spray paint so that the ‘Doctors’ in ‘Outpatient Care and Doctors Offices’ read as ‘Doctor’s’. (You didn’t think my obsession with grammar was created in a vacuum, did you?)
Now that I’m a parent, I call it ‘getting ma’amed’. You know, as in: ‘Ma’am? ‘Ma’am! Please instruct your grandkids to stop roller blading on my lawn,’ or, ‘Ma’am, your kids are not allowed to climb into the Costco fortlift.’
Ma’am, it’s against policy!
Ma’am, that’s unsanitary!
I try to avoid potential issues by pointing out situations in which the likelihood of being ma’amed is high. ‘Mom, if you let them go into the ball pit with those flippers on, you’re going to get ma’amed.’ Or, ‘Let them sled in the skate park if you want, but you know, you’re going to get ma’amed.’
And inevitably…she does it anyway. And while it lasts (picking the lock to use the school tennis courts, or hopping the fence to spy on the neighbors, or jumping out of the car juuust before it stops), my boys are living the high life. I know, because I’ve been there, face to the wind, convertible top (metaphorically) down. I also know this because the kids come home and tell the tale. They confide in their great-grandmother, too, who lifts one fist into the air and says, ‘Right on!’ or ‘If the cops were going to come, they’d be here by now,’ or, ‘Well, what else could you have done but run?’
And I just smile and pretend I didn’t hear and make a mental note to call various acqaintances with apologies, but maybe there’s something in the water or my DNA, because just as we’re pulling back into the driveway at home, always I remember to say, “Just don’t tell your father.”