Whether it’s the way it really happened or simply the way it’s been remembered, I can’t say for sure. But family history has it that my mother was so enamored and protective of me that she didn’t let anyone — including my father and grandparents — hold me for the first six weeks of my life. So it’s not surprising that at an age when other babies were being potty-trained and learning to walk, I was perfecting my ability to manipulate my mom in order to get anything my devious little heart desired.
What might come as a surprise is that despite her intense, if somewhat obsessive, love for me, she spent a great deal of my childhood trying to kill me. I’d assume she saw something in me that she feared I’d use with bad intent, and knew she had to destroy the monster she created. But as much as I love that The Bad Seed-esque theory, there were also incidents where she showed a blatant disregard for the health and well-being of my brothers, neither of whom displayed a gift for manipulation until they were much older. It’s more likely she’d just come down with a touch of Munchhausen Syndrome By Proxy that cleared up after a few years when she ironically became one of the first diagnosed cases of Helicopter Parenting.
I don’t recall the first incident, as I was barely a year old. But based on accounts from those who were around at the time, my mother was doing some housework when she realized I wasn’t where she thought I was. My parents had decided to raise free-range children after my older brother was born. They were so committed to it that when my brother pushed the limits on how great a range he was free to roam, rather than resorting to using a playpen, they compromised with a less restrictive strategy. But eventually a neighbor complained that securing him to a ground screw using a long leash so he could run laps around the yard was disturbing, and asked them to please stop.
But I digress …
My mother searched in a panic, trying to find me. Eventually she heard me cooing, gurgling, reciting the periodic table of elements or whatever babies with exceptionally high intelligence do at that age. She ran to the living room, expecting to see me there, but I was nowhere to be found. Then she heard me again, and when she looked closely, she discovered that I was in the fireplace, well camouflaged by the ash that covered me from head to toe. And rather than doing what anyone else would do — specifically, destroy any evidence and deny that your child has ever seen a fireplace from the inside — she told everyone and took to calling me Cinderella. Personally, I think Gretel is a much more accurate fairy tale reference to letting a baby play in what is essentially an open air oven.
Her strategy wasn’t to take me out in an obvious way and hope the cops ruled it a mob hit. She’s much too clever for that. Her chosen method of Cinderella-cide was to put me in dangerous situations and let nature take its course. The first such attempt that I can remember took place on a sunny day at the park when I was five years old. After watching some hippies (yes, I was around before the hippies were extinct) ice sledding … which is when one rides a 50-lb block of ice down a grassy hill. The hippies eventually left to go smoke some grass or trip on acid or have a sit-in somewhere to protest something, so we took control of the rapidly melting sled for some groovy family fun.
My mom went first to show us how it was done. Then, after dragging the ice back to the top of the hill where I was waiting to have my turn, my dad went back to the bottom and got in position to catch me. The first part of the ride was great and I was heading right toward my father. But that all changed about midway down when I hit a sprinkler head that was hiding in the grass. The ice came to a sudden stop, but I did not. I was launched like a little human projectile and sailed through the air until gravity took control and brought me crashing down well out of my dad’s reach. And although I survived, I’m sure my mom took cold comfort in the fact that I did so with a broken collar bone.
When I was seven years old we spent part of the summer at my grandfather’s New Jersey lake house. One day my mother took my brother, my cousins and me on a little walk through the woods behind the house. As we walked, she warned us about the snakes we could possibly encounter and how to identify them. The scent of cucumbers is evidently an indicator that cotton mouth snakes are afoot … or or that you’re making pickles. She also encouraged us to pay attention to the sounds around us so we’d be able to hear the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch of a rattlesnake before accidentally stepping on one.
Being a good little wilderness scout, I wanted to make sure I’d recognize the sound of a killer snake stalking us; so I attempted the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch noise my mom had made. It turns out that I had a knack for recreating the sounds of nature, because I was only midway through my ch-ing practice, when my mom shrieked, “Rattlesnake!” She then turned and ran back down the at speeds not seen before or since and left us kids up in the woods to face the deadly, imaginary snake alone. I guess the whole “protecting your young at any cost” thing is more of a suggestion than required.
I’m fairly certain that the New Jersey snake incident wasn’t planned. The opportunity to get rid of me started knocking, and she decided to take advantage of it. She’s always been clever and able to think on her feet, so I assume she determined that risking the lives of my cousins and brother was an acceptable means to an end. She was on a mission and knew that sometimes collateral damage couldn’t be avoided.
I grew up in a time before children were considered valuable enough to invest in any kind of plans or products geared toward their safety. As a child, when I walked out of our house, announcing that I was “going out to play” it often meant I could be found flattening pennies on the train tracks behind the bowling alley. And it wasn’t playing mere steps from tons and tons of speeding iron and steal that worried my mom; her first concern was that we got home from our broken glass and gravel playground, the “pet” lizard we’d caught would immediately escape and begin stalking her.
Some of the more creative and dastardly attempts on my life were carried out with toys. Because when you were trying to survive in a world where, in the event of a car accident, grownups were okay with children’s unrestrained little bodies bouncing around the car’s interior like the worst Dodge Ball game ever, there was the very real possibility that some of your toys would be lethal.
On one occasion, we’d hardly gotten our new Slip-N-Slide set up before my mom appeared with a pair of scissors and promptly cut it in half. She claimed to have done it in the name of safety, worried that we’d build up too much speed on a full length slide and get hurt rocketing off the end at such velocities. Of course, if you’re at all familiar with something called friction, you’d know that her concern wasn’t possible. And since she’s no dumb bunny, I can only surmise that she was actually hoping that digging enough face-furrows in the mud at the end of the shortened slide would somehow prove fatal.
When my watery death wasn’t achieved, she turned to fire. I’d been given something call a Tunnel-O-Fun, which was essentially a gigantic Slinky covered in cloth. Not long after receiving it, my mother heard that the cloth covering wasn’t fireproof. In fact, much like children’s pajamas in the 1970s, it was highly flammable. To determine if the rumors were true, she set up the Tunnel-O-Fun in the front yard and struck a match, instantly transforming it to a Tunnel-O-Flames.
You might think that was a sign of parent deeply concerned with her daughter’s safety. Au contraire, mon frer! More than once I demonstrated the pyromaniacal tendencies displayed by many children. So, much like asking me to light a cigarette for her while my age was still in the single digit range, she was planting a seed; hoping it would grow and lead to me torching my PJs while playing with fire and smoking a cool, satisfying Alpine menthol.
Because we didn’t have the Internet, we spent a great deal of time playing outside, and one of our favorite games was Jarts, also known as Lawn Darts or Death From Above. That’s not me in the picture, but it clearly depicts one of the fun-filled results that can only come from a wholesome afternoon spent hurling large, metal spikes in the air. Eventually it was discovered that the only way to make Jarts safe was to ban them entirely. I can only imagine how disappointing it must have been for my mom to lose such a fantastic murder method.
I could go on and on, but I think it’s clear how lucky I am to have survived my childhood. My mother hasn’t tried to kill me in years and she may be under the impression that I don’t remember how often she tried. But even if she knows I’m onto her, I consider the whole thing dead in the water, water under the bridge and any other water-related “I’m over it” cliches. So when she reaches an age where she needs my help with day-to-day life, she can count on me. Furthermore, she can rest assured knowing that I’ll take care of her exactly the same way that she once cared for me. Exactly.