At one point in my early 20's, all my girlfriends seemed to collect other people’s children as though they were their own. Every coffee or dinner get-together resulted in listening to them regale me with so-and-so’s adorable child and the incredible excursion they’d just been on.
“Charlotte and I went to the ROM.” Laurie boasted, “She showed a deep understanding of the Ramapithecus stage of human development,”
These children always had names like Gwendolyn, Bronte, or Charmaine and invariably spoke two languages fluently as well as being proficient on the piano or violin. Every kid was a genius from what I could tell. My takeaway from these encounters was that my friends were using these experiences to show how grown up and responsible they were. But beyond that, how loved. After all, if children adore you, that’s saying something – right?
“Look,” Laurie insisted shoving a hand-made card in my face with glued elbow macaroni on the cover. “Bronte made this for me. Inside it says, You are the best!”
Back in my apartment while contemplating whether glue traps were a humane way to handle my overwhelming mice infestation, I thought that perhaps I should try to endear myself to some children. Clearly, this was the next step towards adulthood, and like learning how to drive, I didn’t want to be left out. Also, I figured any child would confirm what I already suspected, that I was the next best thing to Mary Poppins. In no time at all, they would call me “auntie” and beg their parents to spend time with me.
I quickly made a list of all the people I knew with children under the age of seven and the next day reached out to see if anyone was interested in my shepherding their kids around Toronto for a few hours of fun. “I have tickets to see the Nutcracker,” I told my grown-up friends, Eric and Allison. They had a daughter named Mary Jane, whose nanny had to have emergency dental work on the very week they’d planned a romantic getaway, so they were only too thrilled to lend their precocious six-year-old to my cause. This struck me as perfect timing. Their home was beautiful and their fridge was well stocked. Not only would I enjoy spending time with an insightful child, but I’d be well-fed in the process.
“She’s gluten, dairy, and sugar-free,” Allison told me handing me a plastic bag of celery and carrot sticks. “She’s also allergic to peanuts, band aids, and perfume. “ Here’s the number where we can be reached and the telephone number of her therapist.”
“Your six-year-old has a therapist?” I asked. I imagined myself bragging about Mary Jane’s incredible Rorschach interpretation and her fascination for dream psychology.
“Speech therapist,” Allison said, as she ushered the youngster into the room.
If it were possible to pour cream of wheat into a mold and have it set, then one might have an impression of Mary Jane. She was pale, thin, and dressed from head to toe in bubble gum pink.
I looked at the child and it crossed my mind that I’d been given a dud.
“Do you speak two languages?” I asked her
“I can thpeak thom pig Latin.” she volunteered.
What about musical instruments?
“Only the gathoo.”
MJ, why don’t you tell Lezlie about your part in the Christmas Play. Lezlie is a writer, you know.
You’re in a play, I asked, suddenly interested.
“A Chrithmath Carol.”
“She’s Tiny Tim.” Allison volunteered.
Mary Jane seemed like a sweet if not meek six-year-old with a nose that always ran and hair that stayed limp, even after it had been washed. As her mother and father loaded up their Cabriolet with a few overnight bags, she sat listlessly colouring a picture of a mouse sitting on top of a pile of presents.
“What a sweet little mousie,” I said doing my best to ingratiate myself.
“Ith’s not a mouth.” Mary Jane announced in a tone that suggested I was an idiot. “Ith’s a rat.”
Allison interjected, “Ever since the movie Ratatouille, she’s been very excited about rats.”
“Is that so?” I said, all the while wondering how I might be able to parlay this information into something useful. I wonder if she knows anything about extermination, I thought to myself.
“Here's the number of the Inn we’ll be at,” Eric said. “Call if there is an emergency. Bye Bye MJ” and they were off.
“Well,” I said to Mary Jane, “Shall we get ready to see the Nutcracker?”
“What’s that?” Mary Jane asked
“A kind of dance piece.”
“I hate danth.”
“But there are pretty costumes and classical music.”
I looked at the clock. Only 48 hours to go.
At the theatre, Mary Jane informed me in no uncertain terms that I was boring, Thtupid, and ugly. I had no idea that little children could be so cruel. I wanted to sink to her level and say, “I know you are, but what am I?” But we had until Sunday and these were early days.
To break the ice, I volunteered a little bit about myself in the hopes that it might impress her to like me.
“So your Dad mentioned that I’m a writer?” I asked
“My dad thinks that writerths are just unemployed bums.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
“Look,” I said handing her a Kleenex, “Maybe you’ll like the dancing. Let’s try to have fun.”
“What’s that?” She said as the orchestra tuned up and the lights dimmed.
Here’s what I remembered about the Nutcracker. There’s a little girl and a huge Christmas tree and a Nutcracker Prince and a Rat King.
Here’s what I forgot about the Nutcracker. The Prince defeats the Rat King who is dragged away, unconscious by his minions. At intermission MJ was hysterical.
“Ith he dead?” She started screaming. “Ith the Rat King dead?”
“No!” I said, “Just unconscious. He’s fine.”
“He’s NOT fine,” she screamed. “I hate the Nutcracker. I hate him. I HATE HIM!!!!”
An usher made her way over to us. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
There are people, and you know them, who naturally assume that in ANY given circumstance they would be more useful than you.
“We’re fine,” I said doing my best to diffuse the situation.
The usher started talking to Mary Jane directly as though I were her captor and had forced her to the ballet.
“Is that true? Are you okay little girl?”
“I HATE the Nutcracker!” Mary Jane screamed. Now everyone was looking at us.
You have to understand that at this point Mary Jane’s ire had worked its way up from a four to an eight and the more attention she got from the ‘well-meaning’ usher, the more MJ screamed. Front of House was called.
“Now, now,” he said, “what seems to be the problem?”
“I think I’d better take her home.” I volunteered trying to get Mary Jane's arms into her coat as she flailed about.
“Is this your mommy?” The Usher asked.
“NO!” Mary Jane screamed
“Do you know this lady?”
All eyes were now on me.
“I’m babysitting.” I sputtered. “Her parents are away for the weekend and I’m taking care of her.”
“Is that true?” the usher asked Mary Jane who stopped sobbing just long enough to nod.
The lights in the foyer flickered.
Act two is about to begin. Please take your seats ... A disembodied voice announced and the lobby slowly emptied back into the theatre.
Mary Jane and I left the building under the watchful eye of the well-meaning usher who was still taking a mental picture of me for the police report she’d be filing later that night.
Back home Mary Jane was still distressed. Surely, I was the worst babysitter on the face of the earth having traumatized a six-year-old for life.
“Look,” I volunteered carefully so as not to set her off, “I’m a writer, as you know, and though you may have an accurate, although brutal opinion of me, occasionally it pays to be able to use the pen as a kind of sword.”
Mary Jane looked up at me from her pillow.
“What do you mean?”
“What if I write a letter to that Nutcracker and insist that he apologize to the Rat King for any wrongdoing and —
“Give him back his crown.” Mary Jane interjected.
“Yes,” I agreed, “Give him back his crown. I’m sure between the two of us, we could come up with a great letter to that phony bologna that would set him straight.”
We worked for the better part of an evening and this is what she came up with:
You are a mean, horrible, nasty, sniveling, block of wood. How dare you wound the Rat King that way. Do you have any idea how valuable Rats are? Did you know that rats outperform humans in cognitive tests? They are affectionate, and empathetic and can even laugh when tickled.
Because they drop seeds, rats are also great for the environment by planting trees everywhere they go. What do you do? Hmm? You crack nuts. Big deal. I can do that with my shoe. I think you are just jealous of the Rat King. Please consider your behaviour and apologize at once and leave the Rat King alone.
Mary Jane Higgins
“That’ll do the trick,” I lied. “You really told that Nutcracker where to get off.”
“What’s that?” Mary Jane asked
“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s order pizza."
I wish I could say that from that moment on, Mary Jane and I were friends. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. What actually happened was a week later her grandmother, completely unaware of what had transpired, took Mary Jane to see the Nutcracker again. Of course, MJ went, convinced that her letter had changed the outcome by making the Nutcracker see the error of his ways. When, of course, it didn’t, she had another meltdown in the lobby of the Hummingbird Center while the well-meaning usher questioned her grandmother’s legitimacy amid Mary Janes screams of, “I hate the Nutcracker. I hate him. I HATE HIM!!!”
As for me? Mary Jane's insights into the psychology of rodents made it impossible for me to end my mice infestation and I eventually moved.