We watch through the window as snowflakes swirl down from the sky. They are big, overly moist; they don’t stick. I know from growing up in New England that these are flakes that won’t amount to much—school never let out early when it was snowing like this. Probably the temperature is hovering a little over freezing and while it looks beautiful, there won’t be sledding snow today. My four year old son bounds back from the window to his room, yelling over his shoulder, “Mama, I’m going to put on my snow boots.” He doesn’t know about snowflakes. Any snow is worth sledding in to him. I tell him that we probably won’t get to sled and he stops in his tracks, curious. “But why, Mama?” I try to explain what I know from experience but I come up short. How do I make him understand what I know to be true? The thought gives me pause because it reminds me how different his childhood has been. How he knows things I am still learning as an adult. How his life has been shaped in a few short years by growing up in a land that isn’t his.
When we returned to America for the birth of his little brother, he asked me casually, “So what do I do here when I hear gun shots, Mama?” Of course his grandmother was listening in; she masked her abject horror. The protocol was the same—just come inside as quickly as you can and move away from the windows. I didn’t tell him he probably wouldn’t hear gunshots here; I didn’t know how to answer all the questions that would spring up from that conversation.
He asks me if I remember that place we would take an airplane to get there, to have hamburgers, and aren’t those the best hamburgers in the world, Mama? They are so good and you can’t even get them here. No, you have to go clear to Nairobi for a Java House hamburger and they are the best when you haven’t had a hamburger in eight months and you are playing on a playground that is really just a large rock with a tunnel through it but you live in a place where there are no playgrounds. And his first library is an alcove outside an office with three tall bookshelves full of books and it’s amazing. His love for riding the bus makes spending an extra thirty cents feel priceless so we ride it again and again. When the power goes out during nap time and it’s at least 115 degrees, we dress and I veil and we trudge down stairs to ride with the hot wind blowing like an exhaust fan through the curtained bus windows.
I marvel at him. Because I spent my whole life living on Pequot Trail and my parents still live there and their phone number is the same. He has had a passport since he was ten days old and one of his favorite stories is our ridiculous antics of trying to get him to open his eyes for the passport photo and hold his head without showing our thumbs because the American government won’t let us crop his ears digitally since September 11th. He has been a resident of three countries and a citizen of one he has only begun to experience. He is four and asks me all the time when we will start learning another language again and I was four without knowing a world existed. When did I first see a map? I knew about snowflakes but I didn’t know that there were different kinds of people who spoke different languages and lived different stories. And I didn’t know that we are so much the same if we will gently enter a different story. That we can be changed for the best when we live into another narrative without telling stories of all the odd things “they” do. I was eleven before I flew the first time; my mother tells me that I reported I could see the eye of God up above those clouds. He was barely five weeks and I could hardly stand straight when he first crossed the Atlantic and he has seen God’s beauty in deserts and coral reefs and faces so unlike his own.
So when he proudly brings his beautiful blue L.L. Bean backpack to me to show me all he has packed for his first day at kindergarten club, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when he reveals a full roll of toilet paper because, “Mama, you just never know if they’ll have it.” He heard it here first, and watched me stuff toilet paper in my purse before every outing.
He doesn’t know about snowflakes. He can’t understand why he can’t just take a piece of candy at Kroger because every shopkeeper used to give him a lollipop and a glass-bottled Sprite while his mama shopped. He used to sit in the passenger seat of a Toyota SUV and bounce along unpaved roads with his papa and his still bristles a little at the buckling of a car seat. He (and I) both scan the ground for sizeable rocks when an unleashed dog bounds up to us at a park here; it’s a habit we can’t break. Or one we don’t break. Because there are pieces of both of us that miss our lives, those other lives. The ones we lived when he didn’t learn about snowflakes but he knew how to wave down a bus and could understand the sign language of the young man leaning out the door, telling us, “It’s full.” Those lives of dreaming from another country about a Java House hamburger. Those lives that make me aware of all the ways we don’t fit in either place all the way. The lives that have shaped us.