I can barely remember what I ate for lunch yesterday, but I just flashed back to a ferry trip I took 11 years ago. For three days, I rode the ferry from my hometown of Juneau, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington.
Partway through, I was eating alone in the ferry cafeteria. At the next booth over, a woman sat with her very chatty young son. “Why does that woman only have one leg?” the boy asked his mother. I knew who he was referring to; I had seen the passenger on the boat with just one leg.
“Well, I’m not sure why,” his mother said.
“But how does she walk? Does she hop?” I spied the young boy grabbing a French fry. “The lady with one leg goes hop, hop, hop, hop, hop, hop,” he sang, to the tune of “The Wheels on the Bus.”
I silently dipped a curly fry into a pale plastic container of tartar sauce. The mother tried to explain why sometimes people only have one leg. I couldn’t believe she was letting him dramatically reenact this woman’s handicap with greasy ferry fries.
Today, my four-year-old son has been talking since he woke up at 5:30 this morning. My husband needed to work this morning, so except for a blissful break at my gym, which boasts free child care, my ears have been steadily assaulted all morning.
“Does everybody have rolls in their neck?” he asked. I followed his gaze past my toddler daughter, who had managed to cram most of a piece of toast into her mouth. My eyes stopped at an older woman at a nearby table. I instantly knew he was referring to the saggy hammock of skin beneath her chin.
“Does everybody have them?” he asked again.
“No, not everybody does,” I whispered.
“But that lady does!” he said, pointing.
“Maxie, if she heard you say that, it might hurt her feelings,” my husband, Scott, explained. “Oh,” Max said. “I didn’t know women could eat those,” he said, pointing to my veggie sandwich.
“Huh,” I said. “Maxie, women can eat anything men can.”
“Oh. I KNOW. But I’m saying, I didn’t know WOMEN could eat that.”
“Okay…” I trailed off, hoping he would, too.
“That man is smalllll,” Max announced.
“Shhh,” my husband said.
“But why? That is a small man!”
“Shhh. Eat your rice.”
For half a second, the rice effectively blocked any words from departing Max’s mouth.
Then, a young woman entered the restaurant, assisting an older woman who walked with a cane.
“Why is she helping her? Why does that lady have a sad face? Why is that lady so small! But look, right now her face is sad!”
“I don’t think she has a sad face,” Scott said.
“But she just did! She just did have a sad face!” I glanced at the woman, who had the taut, frozen frown of a stroke victim. We briefly, quietly, attempted to explain that the younger woman was helping her walk, because sometimes people need help.
“Eat your rice.”
I see the scene I witnessed all those years ago on the ferry differently now. The mother had been locked up on a boat with her little curious chatterbox for 48 hours straight. She had probably been fielding questions about whales and French fries and captains and barnacles and ladies with one leg for most of that time. She probably wanted to poke her eyes out but she knew if she did, her son would ask her why she didn’t have any eyes and what could he put in the holes where her eyes used to be and maybe he would try to make a French fry eyehole sculpture.