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Cambodia

Reflections

by Karen Capel

My son was an uncommonly intelligent person. That's not just a mother talking.

I
When he was a toddler and we were going through the throes of divorce, I used to take him downtown to the antiquarian bookstore on Saturdays. One book he coveted was a great big atlas that had been printed in the early 1950s, I think. All the continents and countries and oceans of the world as they were represented then, during those times. Little bits of cultural and historical things interspersed throughout. This book was huge, maybe 11 inches wide by 17 or 18 or so long, and very heavy to carry. Especially for such a little boy to lug around. There were animated historical pictures for the frontispiece and the back piece (is that the back frontispiece? I'm lost for the word). The pages that are frequently blank and that are glued into the hard covers of a book. Those were printed with cartoony representations of events in history.

One day my parents were here visiting. My mom and dad were sitting with Will in the family room overlooking the patio. I was in the kitchen, making dinner, and I could see and hear through the "hole" in the wall where the microwave oven later fit in. The television was turned on in the family room and Will was seated on the floor about three or four feet in front of the TV. There was a game show on TV. It was a game in which the host of the program gave three clues about something and then the contestant had to guess what one unifying thing that the three clues all related to. The host said "elephant," "mountains," and a third word that I can't remember. Will leaned forward, toward the TV, and yelled "Hannibal crossing the Alps!" I dropped what I was doing in the kitchen, my folks sat in stunned silence. Will was four years old. In the frontispiece of his big fat 1950s atlas was a cartoon picture of Hannibal crossing the Alps. It was only a picture. No words, no "ID." I have no idea how he made the connection between the cartoon-bubble picture and the actual historical event, not to mention the phrase "crossing the." "Hannibal crossing the Alps." It's what is commonly said about that thing that occurred in history.

II
When Will was about six, I bought a paperback book on how to talk to your teenager about divorce. I couldn't find a book on how to talk to children, and I thought maybe I could find some hints that I could scale back on or scale down somehow because Will was still so young. I brought the book home and settled into a recliner in the family room and started to read this book. Suddenly behind me, I heard Will's shoes on the floor. He'd been standing behind me, and I, engrossed in the book, hadn't noticed him there. I didn't want to draw attention to me reading a book about divorce, so I tried to appear casual and just turned around and said something like "whatsa matter?...you don't have to go away." He said to me "you're not turning the pages fast enough."

III
When he was in the second grade, I went to a parent-teacher conference at the grade school. I didn't know what to expect, it was probably the first or second such conference I'd ever been to in my entire life. I was totally taken aback by the teacher and what she said. I had been expecting comments like "he's very bright, he does..." or "he spends too much time chatting in class." That kind of observational thing about "achievement" or "behavior." What she told me was that she was very frustrated (and angry, too, it seemed) because whenever she made any kind of error--grammatical or spelling--on the blackboard, Will would raise his hand and then tell her about it. Not only was this interrupting her teaching flow, it was embarrassing and maddening. And this teacher was complaining to the parent that the parent's child was catching her mistakes in class?

IV
Will was in Boy Scouts. I remember that the summer when he was 10 or 11, he went on a camping trip for several days to a Scout camp about thirty miles from home. Camp Drake. I heard afterward about something that happened during that week at camp that made me profoundly proud and grateful for the little boy who was in my charge. And made me quickly forget how much I missed his presence for the few days he was apart.

There was a younger boy in the group. I think he was around 8 years old. His parents were going through a divorce and this little boy was very very upset. He cried a lot. To make matters worse, the parents of this boy were either using him as a football in the family crisis situation, or they were "trying too hard" to share him between themselves. One parent would drop him off somewhere, and then the other parent would pick him up. This happened for the camp situation too, but to make matters worse, there was air travel taking place. Parents were flying in and flying out, picking up their son or dropping him off. I think the little boy was confused about who would "rescue" him next to keep him safe. He wasn't sure of anyone or anything. "What's next?"

The boy would wake up at night, in the tent, crying. And he would start crying, spontaneously, while out with the group on a trek somewhere. Will took him aside on one of these hikes, when he broke down crying, and he explained to the little guy that things were very hard now, but that they would soon get better and, yes, that's true and he should believe that. Isn't it typical for a 10- or 11-year-old to make fun of younger kids? To taunt them? To tease? Not show empathy and concern? Wasn't he risking his own esteem by his age-peers in this situation, by showing such mature compassion and empathy? He was only 10 or 11.

V
Will's father has said in the last few days that Will inherited his (my ex's) ability to be relaxed and friendly and "network" with people and my ability with writing, whatever that might be. Although I was shut out of things when Will became a teenager, just by virtue of his progression into normal male teenage-dom, I think that overall this observation about Will is true. It's easy for me to take the contrary opinion, though, because when I met Will's father, he was not really that way. I would have characterized him (Will's father) as being, yes, friendly, but also jerky and spasmodic, indicating underlying uncertainty, insecurity of some kind. It's easy for me to denigrate my own writing, too. Will knew what he was talking about, and I do not. Will was overtly more of a factual kind of person, and I rely on intuition.

I don't think that Will's avoidance of family, his refusal to invite family people into his life, was necessarily a rejection of the person or people, per se. I think in some instances, perhaps as pertains especially to me, "the mother," it may have had something to do with wishing not to "hurt my feelings" in some way or not to "worry me." I think that may have been an unconscious justification on his part, too. A way of convincing himself that what he was doing, in the way of avoidance, was "okay." I also think that in order for him to really feel, to discern, his own life, in its purest form, he had to abstract himself totally from situations that would have otherwise diluted him and his life and meaning. Take himself away, really and metaphorically, from all those things that could cast intruding definition, "color," on him and his life and its meaning. If you take a glass of water from the ocean, what can you tell if you pour the glass right back into the ocean? What's the difference? If you take the same glass of water from the ocean and pour it onto the dry ground next to the ocean, there is something to behold.

All conjecture, surmising, on my part.


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