Caterpillars and Tadpoles
Fear through a child’s eyes
jane sanders ILLUSTRATION
There is something comforting about talking to other New Orleans moms, but because I grew up here and almost all of the moms I know are raising kids here, I sometimes forget how different it can be to spend your childhood in this special city.
We moved over the summer to a street with much less traffic than where we were before, and I now feel safe enough to let Ruby walk to her best friend’s house by herself. One day over Carnival season, she came home just a few moments after she left.
“Mom,” she said, calmly, “there’s a guy passed out on the across-the-street neighbors’ lawn. I’m pretty sure he’s just drunk. Do you think we need to call an ambulance?”
I went over and tried to rouse him and then called 911. “I’m sure he’ll be fine,” I told Ruby. “He’s breathing and all. But the paramedics can come check him out. Go on and play now.”
When Ruby came home a few hours later, she had the full scoop. “I stopped and talked to the neighbors,” she said, “and they told me that yeah, he’d been drunk. The ambulance guys said he was OK, and they let him sit on their porch and eat some pancakes ’til he could make it home.”
“Cool,” I said. “Glad he was all right. Can you promise me that you will never get that drunk? It doesn’t always end well, OK?”
“Yep,” she agreed, and then turned on Nickelodeon.
When I told this story to a friend of mine who’s raising two kids in the St. Louis suburbs, he was concerned. I can see his perspective, but I don’t share it. Ruby learned several things from this whole drunk-guy-passed-out-on-the-lawn affair. She learned the value of looking out for one another. She learned about the hazards of binge-drinking. She learned that more often than not, New Orleanians will feed your drunk ass pancakes and help you out but that you can’t count on that.
She’s also not afraid of graveyards; neither was I. My childhood backyard backed right up to the cemeteries. You could climb two fences and be inside, and sometimes I would do just that because there were always lots of clovers in the cemetery that I could pick and make into necklaces. And I used to roller-skate in St. Patrick Mausoleum because the floor there was much smoother than any New Orleans sidewalk. None of this struck me as morbid or weird until a Missouri friend of mine yelled at me for not holding my breath one autumn day as we drove past a graveyard in Columbia, a superstition I had never heard of before and one of the few I refuse to adopt. Likewise, Ruby and her friends have played hide-and-seek in graveyards and caught tadpoles in one particularly deep puddle near the endlessly fascinating Holt Cemetery in Lakeview. Her school used to be across the street from St. Louis No. 3, and we would sometimes buy popsicles at Terranova’s and stroll through the graveyard eating them. None of this seems sacrilegious or disrespectful to me – it’s just a part of New Orleans, incorporating the past into today, continuing to go on living amidst death and loss.
I am not suggesting that New Orleans kids are any more fearless than their Midwestern counterparts – just different.
Ruby might be unfazed by her encounter with the unconscious guy on the lawn, but she refuses to walk a certain way to or from her best friend’s house right now because of caterpillars. “Oh, my God, Mommy, kill it kill it kill it!” she will shriek if she sees one, and the same child who so nonchalantly said, “I’m pretty sure he’s just drunk” will not stop screaming until I have stomped on the caterpillar and kicked it into the street.
Childhood fears often fade, though, whatever they are, and I hope, as the years pass, they both grow up well-rounded, not scared of ghosts or bugs – and with the generosity of spirit to offer pancakes to those in need.
Excerpted from Eve Crawford Peyton’s blog, Joie d’Eve, which appears each Friday on MyNewOrleans.com.