As I write this, it’s three o’clock on Halloween. I want to tell you a scary story. If you have a kid, it’s the scariest story you’ll ever hear. It isn’t a story about Halloween. It’s a story about Thanksgiving. A true story. Nobody knows this story because I never told a soul. Not a one. Until right now.
To get the full impact of this true scary story, I want you to imagine, especially if you are a young parent, that you’ve only just recently met me. I seem nice. I’m a graduate student, perhaps a bit older than I should be to still be in school, but you know that I’ve been through a nasty divorce and now, just since September, I’m living with my new boyfriend who also seems like a nice guy. I went back to school because my ex works in the industry I used to work in and I can’t get far enough away from him or it. It will be a slog but I’m going to switch gears and get my graduate degree and my license to practice marriage counseling. You and I have laughed a few times about what a cliché I am: the post-divorce grad student convinced she can be a marriage counselor. You like that I can laugh at myself. My boyfriend is a professor. That’s how we met. He isn’t as quick to laugh as I am, but like I said, he seems like a nice, bright guy. You like him, too. You think we are both really nice.
I have a daughter. She’s the same age as one of your kids. That’s how we met. In Mommy and Me. Or, maybe our kids are in the same kindergarten class. Our kids play together every day at the after-school childcare home we both live close to. We’ve started to share in pick-ups and drop-offs. Sometimes, when you have early faculty meetings, you drop your kids off at my house and I give all the kids breakfast and then take them to school. Because…I’m nice.
Today is Halloween so we’ve arranged to meet at my house after school with a few other families to take the kids trick or treating. You and your partner come in costume. I take pictures of everyone. My daughter is the only one who doesn’t have to explain what she is dressed as; her homemade costume is a big nylon orange pumpkin suit stuffed with balloons and, except that she’s a little lumpy, she’s a fabulous jack-o-lantern. Everybody says so. Your kids are some amalgamation of superheroes and their costumes require elaborate explanations. Another thing you like about me is my infinite patience with kids. I listen while your kids explain their costumes and you drink the large cocktails I had ready for all the grownups before we descend on the neighbourhood in search of candy.
You probably thank your lucky stars at some point that I am the one parent you know who can calm your unruly oldest kid and I never seem to get annoyed with his natural ebullience. More than one other parent has suggested you put him on meds for hyperactivity. More than a few have told you they simply “can’t handle him.” He’s not a welcome play date in their homes. He’s always welcome at my house.
The Halloween party is a huge success and when I invite your family and one other to come for Thanksgiving dinner in a couple weeks, you are truly happy about the invitation.
TThis isn’t a scary story about drinking and driving (or smoking), and it isn’t about any of the many scary things people think about when they think about scary shit that can happen to their kids. The scary part about that night at my house was what happened the next day.
I will make almost all the food for Thanksgiving dinner. You only have to worry about pies and wine. You arrive early to help and for a little while we play some games that the kids can play. Then, we eat. After dinner, we banish the children downstairs where the bedrooms in our rental house are. (Your kids call it the “upside down house” because the bedrooms are downstairs.) They’ve been here many times by now and they know my daughter’s toys almost better than they know their own. When the kids get bored, we put on a movie in our bedroom and let them all pile onto our big king-sized bed. Once they are settled into Charlotte’s Web, we go back upstairs and someone pulls out a rare joint. With a good deal of wine and the great pot, within minutes the grownups are all two kinds of high and laughing. So much laughing.
After Charlotte’s Web wraps up, everybody goes home and everybody gets home safe and sound. This isn’t a scary story about drinking and driving (or smoking), and it isn’t about any of the many scary things people think about when they think about scary shit that can happen to their kids.
The scary part about that night at my house was what happened the next day.
Now, you have to understand that I was raised in a big family in a small house. We shared so little space that my mother gave us each a tiny box or cupboard which we called our “privacies” and which were absolutely inviolate. Nobody looked into or opened anyone else’s “privacy”. I’m sure she was trying to teach us how to respect another person’s privacy and because of her efforts in that regard, I have excellent boundaries in certain circumstances. That is why I did not know that my boyfriend had a loaded revolver in his nightstand drawer. I must have had it in my head that his nightstand was his “privacy”. He had never lived with children before and he simply had no awareness of “child safety”.
I know that excuse for such a lapse is inadequate and I know that no parent would have mercy if the worst possible scenario had occurred because I did not know what I should have known. Believe me, I have since imagined a thousand ways that a parallel reality could have found all of our lives changed that Thanksgiving and I have imagined every possible outcome had one of those kids opened that drawer. (Probably, your oldest, the one who seems to get into the most mischief.) Had the worst occurred, no one who knew any of us would have been anything less than utterly shocked. Had the worst occurred, we would have all claimed to be shocked. Because we never asked the question, “Are there any guns in your house? Are they locked up?”
Yesterday, I saw a Facebook exchange between two mothers. They were discussing how hard it is to ask that question when your kid has been invited to play at another kid’s house. I agree, it could be a hard thing to do. But, I want you to know that, as hard as it is, you cannot make assumptions. Even the nicest people are sometimes stupid. I’ve been stupid plenty in my life, but nothing comes close to this: I once left six kids between the ages of four and six within three feet of a loaded handgun. Just ask.