The little white lies we tell catch up with us all eventually and bite us on the bum. Hard.
Last August, after ten years of parenting I learned this simplest of lessons.
‘Now, are you fibbing?’ ‘If you are going to tell lies you are going to have to take time out to think about it’. ‘You know I can always tell when you are fibbing’. ‘If you are telling lies, Daddy is going to be so sad’.
My kids have learned from very early on that I’m not comfortable with them telling lies. It is not acceptable and although I am a long since lapsed Catholic (practicing Atheist as I like to refer to myself) I am still a dab hand at heaping guilt on their narrow shoulders.
They are still young, all in primary school and are blissfully unaware of the number of ‘white lies’ that I employ to get us through each day. ‘Ah,no, they don’t sell ice cream this time of year….anywhere’. The iPad hasn’t been charged and I can’t find the charger’, ‘Your Teacher just emailed me and said if you make a fuss about doing your homework she’ll have to give you double for tomorrow’. The list is endless and ongoing and I now fib at will. If I call it fibbing or a ‘little white lie’ my innate sense of catholic guilt is somehow appeased and soothed. I am, after all doing it for the greater good, aren’t I??
The fibbing started with my eldest child’s first Christmas. She was then still a baby, 10 months old, and no fibbing or cajoling had squirmed its way into our beautiful love affair. Everything she did was delightful and I was her Sun, Moon and Stars and she mine. There was never a need to utter ‘No’ to her and it felt as if we were one and the same person. Yet, that was when we first colluded in the greatest subterfuge of her childhood. Her very first Christmas. It is a mistruth that grows arms and legs before you know it. A beautiful magical mistruth that made our every subsequent Christmas’ truly magical once again for us. We are ‘Santa Claus’ and the sheer joy of watching them open their gifts on Christmas morning is one of life’s great privileges. But guess what? The privilege of watching your children grow and develop means that one day they will, year by year, move through childhood and eventually become an adult. It takes no time. Seriously. It slips by when you are putting on washes, cooking dinner, doing the school run or asking them their spellings. It creeps up on you and before you know it, you are out the other side, looking in.
In August, my daughter came back from a friend’s house and she had already moved through one of those stages without my knowledge or consent! While I tucked her into bed she asked me if I could tell her the absolute truth if she asked me a question. ‘Of course’ I answered but once the question was asked I let it hang there. I was too bewildered to know how to answer. Do I beat around the bush for a while and hope I can fob her off or do I accept that she already knows deep down and I need to come clean? She saw me flounder and since she already knew the answer she said it for me. There is no such thing as Santa, is there? She seemed resigned and very serious as she looked me in the eye. My god she was good!!! She was employing my favourite technique for extracting the truth. The eyes can’t lie. I told her if she didn’t believe she wouldn’t receive but she gave me the look, again, and asked me to tell her the truth. So, I did. The floodgates opened and she bawled crying. She sobbed and sobbed and to my surprise I joined her.
It wasn’t just that she knew the ‘great secret’ but that it was the end of a true innocence. She is crossing over to the next stage in her life. She cried on and off for a month and the enormity of the truth weighed down heavily on her up until the big day itself. It forced her to question truth and me too. We had always brought her up to be truthful so when is it ok to tell a lie and when is it just a ‘little white lie’?
Two days after the ‘big’ revelation I had a handful of letters, that I had written to her under the pseudonym of the Tooth Fairy, thrown back at me in a dramatic gesture worthy of a Golden Globe. “I suppose this is all a lie too!!” was hissed at me. This was one white lie I never wanted to endorse but it became the accepted belief at her school and the movie The Tooth Fairy only made this white lie legitimate. So when she excitedly told me that if you wrote a letter to your tooth fairy, the tooth fairy always wrote back I had to respond appropriately. It happened to her friend twice so it had to be true……Was now the time to come clean about the Easter Bunny too or should I let it go???
I let it go because I know she already knows the answer to that too.
She is crossing over to the other world. Not quite to my world yet thankfully but sadly one with a little less magic. For now, it is her job to hold the ‘great’ secret close to her heart and to help us create many more magical Christmases for her little brothers.
I am walking fast with purpose. Today as every day I am battling between getting to his Montessori in time to join the queue of parents before the door opens at 1230 and doing all the things on my ‘to do list’ for that morning. My ‘to do list’ is never ending. I’m a little behind schedule but I’m a fast walker and happy to break into a run if needs be. This usually happens 200 metres before the entrance to the school.
Today is a crisp sunny autumnal day and my walk cleverly doubles up as ‘me time’ and exercise. I can think or goof off or make lists in my head but I need to keep going as I have planned my arrival at the gates to the milli second. But today I stop. I stop outside the Train Station.
Someone has called my name. I see no one at first and then no one I recognise, so I continue walking. Again I hear my name and this time when I turn on my heels I do see someone. I am now confused. He has called my name, is walking towards me smiling, yet I have no idea who he is. “It’s me”, he says. “Paul”. Now I am even more confused. He evidently knows me and I should know him. I curse myself silently.
He is by now beaming at me from the other side of the street as if we were long lost friends. He rushes over, skipping past a cyclist and a truck. I force a smile and wait for him to come up to where I have stopped. He can see I am still utterly confused so he helps me out. “We were in school together”. I frantically search his face for signs and then it hits me. Yes, we were in primary school together for a few years but we were never friends. That was 30 years ago and we haven’t crossed paths since. I do remember, as a 9 year old being asked by the Teacher to help him with his times tables. This was possibly the only time we ever interacted with each other. He was considered to be a remedial student. A child that was a ‘slow’ learner. He came from a tough background, was absent a lot and when he was there, he was disruptive in the class. He never had time for me, nor I for him. I was probably just ambivalent towards him. There was a huge number of children in our class so it was easy not to know him. I was at a loss at what to say. Even small talk eluded me as I knew next to nothing about him, nor him me.
I stumbled through an “Gosh, yes, of course, Paul. How are you?”
I hadn’t factored this delay into my journey-time and I would most definitely be late now. “Ah, I’m ok you know. Well to be honest I’ve had a tough few years. Been in trouble with the Police an’ that, but you know, trying to keep my nose clean. How are you? Are you living here?”. I replied I was good and yes I was living back here again. He wanted to know where abouts and was I married and was I working and had I children. The clock keeps ticking and I’m conscious now that I don’t have time for this and so I explain I was in a hurry to collect my youngest from pre-school. “Right, of course, you look like you are in a hurry. To be honest I just need some money. I’m having trouble with my folks so I’m homeless and I need some cash. Could you help me out?”. Then the penny dropped. He was a drug addict. I had heard stories years before that he was on heroin and his eagerness to search me out on a busy street rammed this fact home to me with urgency. He was clean and his clothes looked new but he had that unmistakeable drive and focus a junkie gets when they need to score. I frantically searched my bag already knowing I had no cash just a cash card. I felt so sorry for him but a little anxious too. He never had a reputation for being a nice bloke yet this smiling pleading face belied what little I knew of him. I made my apologies and left him standing by the train station desperately looking for another familiar face.
This encounter stayed with me for a long time after. How different our worlds were, yet we grew up in the same small village and went to the same schools. His struggle in school was apparent very early on ( even as a 9 yr old I knew this) but he was allowed to struggle, either by the Teachers or his Parents, or both. He was failed as a child by an educational system that couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate a child from a challenging background. How different might his life be now if someone somewhere along his educational path had taken the time to figure him out. Maybe he was always doomed to have this life but as I walked home holding my 4 year old’s hand I thought how circumstance and some luck have given me a life in it’s full meaning.
Saturday lunch was a big deal when I was little. Saturday was my Mother’s ‘Day off’ from us and from the house in general. Where she went or what she did was never of much concern to us. Possibly she went shopping but whatever it was we weren’t too interested. Dad was in charge and that meant the rule book was ripped up and scattered to the four corners of our tidy dust free home. Anything could happen once the chaos theory was implemented but our one grounding constant was that Dad was cooking and Saturday lunch was only ever going to be Spaghetti.
We liked to think of ourselves as being cosmopolitan and well traveled. To be fair my Dad had lived in Vancouver, Canada for five years and had traveled to New York, London and Paris but his growing fear of plane travel meant that we had not got much further afield than the Isle of Man in England. Dublin in the 1970’s was pretty grim in the culinary sense but our Uncle ( Franco) was Italian and therefore we had a claim on knowing a thing or two about pasta. Our dark hair and our ability to tan easily only backed up our exotic claims when in fact Franco was married to my Aunty Sheila and had none of his Roman blood coursing through our veins. They also lived in Rome so we were lucky to see them once a year. Be that as it may, we ate Spaghetti once a week in his honour. My Dad’s signature dish was Spaghetti with meatballs but sadly this didn’t involve a sauce of any description. He hadn’t learned how to make tomato sauce (or any sauce) and wouldn’t until he summoned the courage to get back on a plane and visit Rome quite a few years later. In the meantime Saturday lunch of Spaghetti and meatballs stayed firmly on the menu. To counteract the dryness of the dish a large dollop of Heinz tomato ketchup was dished out to each child. It had the desired affect and encouraged us to swallow the dry meatballs. Once our plates were licked clean (unlike my impeccably mannered Mother, Dad had no problem with this) plastic bowls with vanilla Ice cream were our reward. We all made an attempt to clear up and then we were free to run amok around the house, the garden or the street.
Dad usually mowed the lawn or tinkered with the car until our Mother came home in time to cook us dinner and rescue the house from the rampant disorder that had already taken hold in the few scant hours since she had left. As she prepared dinner I could hear her tutting about the state of the house or that the washing machine had not been turned on and it was then that I discovered that there is no such thing as a ‘Free Lunch’.
“You take the bed”, he said grinning. “The floor isn’t as hard as it looks”. I stopped protesting & sank drunkenly into the cool sheets. They smelt of him. With closed eyes I listened to the air-con. “How about a pillow fight?” he whispered softly. I grabbed my pillow.