“I’d like Grandma to stay real for a long time so we can play together.”
“She’ll stay real for a very long time, sweetie. Don’t worry about it.”
“But if her hair doesn’t turn white all the way, she won’t turn imaginary, right, mommy?”
I’ve been having this type of conversation with my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter since one evening in October when we listened to a recording of Nat King Cole’s song about Mona Lisa on our electronic piano.
“Who was Anna Lisa?” my daughter said.
“She was a beautiful woman. A man named Leonardo painted her portrait.”
“But she’s not real anymore?”
Huh. I didn’t know what to say next.
“She lived a long time ago.” I said.
“Four hundred years or so.”
“And how did she become imaginary?”
“I don’t know, sweetie, I wasn’t there to see.”
I deflected. I didn’t expect the subject and had no idea how to talk about it to a small child. Although I should’ve been prepared. My daughter started pre-K in September and she now hangs out with half-a-dozen boys who shoot each other all day. In those “I Can Read” books we have at home, Batman takes Two-Face to prison, but in pre-K, Batman shoots him without warning. It didn’t take long for my daughter to suggest that we shoot Bad Cat, a tomcat in our neighborhood that brings offerings to our house in the form of mauled baby mice and baby birds.
But I didn’t expect my daughter to dig deeper. I used to play shooting games when I was a kid, and being hit was a welcomed time-out in the game. Back up again, more shooting, more dropping to the ground. At most, I knew that there was something weird about the slow funeral processions that rolled down the streets of my Romanian hometown, but every time a truck with an open casket on its platform passed us by, my parents covered my eyes, dragged me away. They didn’t take me and my brother to our grandparents’ funerals. I did my part and didn’t ask any questions.
My daughter asks questions.
“Do you have a grandma, mommy?”
“Because she’s imaginary now?”
My daughter asks questions, and I try to rescue those words—imaginary and real—from the meanings she assigns to them.
“Mommy, are the people on TV real?”
“Yes, they are.”
“Is Amélie real?”
“Well, Amélie is not real. She’s imaginary. But the woman who plays her in the movie is real. Her name is Audrey and she plays lots of people in the movies.”
“Because she’s an actress and she pretends she’s in Amélie’s story?”
“But how are stories made?”
“Well, there are people who use their imagination to make up stories and then they tell their stories to other people, or they write them in books and other people read them.”
“But are those stories real?”
“Well, they are real stories about imaginary things.” I paused, looking around for a diversion. “Don’t you want to watch some Daniel Tiger?”
“Is Daniel Tiger real?”
“No, he’s not.”
“But we see him, with our eyes.”
“We see a drawing of somebody’s imagination, but Daniel Tiger doesn’t exist in this world. He’s in his own story.” At this point, I could see how I was contradicting myself. “So, you don’t want to watch Daniel Tiger?”
“No. I want to keep you company.”
Not a complete success, but it seemed to me that I had managed to bring my small child back to a place where people live forever, at least for a while.
A few days later, while I was talking to my husband about a series of posts for my blog about communist Romania in the ‘80s, my daughter interrupted me.
“When Bunicu spit on the wall, was it real, or was it in his imagination?”
Back in the ‘80s, my father (Bunicu to my daughter) was forced to work twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, for six straight months, during repairs at the largest blast furnace in my hometown’s steel plant. After being gone for fourteen hours each day, my father would come home, eat, and drop asleep. He worked outside, buffeted by winter winds, inhaling debris dust. He began to spit a lot, from the back of his throat, clearing up and expelling with a curl of his tongue. Three notes: um-argh-uh. One night, while he was sleeping with his face to the wall, he sat up, went um-argh-uh and spit out a thick dollop of phlegm on the wall. He dropped back on the pillow and went back to sleep. My mother wiped the wall in silence and let him sleep until the alarm clock struck 5:45.
“But was the spit imaginary or real?” my daughter said.
“Both,” I said. “Bunicu dreamed he was swallowing dust and he dreamed that he was spitting it out, but his brain got confused and crossed the line between imaginary and real. Your brain does that too, when you dream that you need to go potty and you dream you sit on the potty, but in reality you pee in your pants, in your bed.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that. Good teaching, mommy.”
She wrapped her arms around my legs, just as I was taking a first step across the kitchen with some clean glasses I had just lifted from the dishwasher in my hands. I stumbled, but saved myself at the last moment.
“I love you, mommy,” my daughter said.
“I love you too, all the way to the stars and back.”
“And I love you all the way to Neptune and back.”
I poured warm milk in a clean glass. We sat down at the dinner table.
“Do you like me when I’m sad, mommy?”
“I do. I don’t like to see you sad, but I like you. I don’t like it when you scream, but I still love you.”
“Even when I do bad behavior like the Bad Cat?”
“Even then, although I don’t like the bad behavior. But there’s nothing in the whole wide world that you can do to make me stop loving you. Nothing. I will love you forever and ever.”
“Even when you’ll become imaginary?”
My next breath weighed me down.
“Yes,” I said.
I wrote the first version of this piece on November 8, during writing practice at Louisa’s. I wrote it because I don’t want to forget. A few days later, while I was thinking about one of the characters in my novel (a woman who enters the story as a small child and whose fatal flaw is imagination), it dawned on me: that’s what she should sound like when she’s five years old. Like my daughter.