Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Kill Farmer Brown

The air was so chilly when we woke up that we all put sweaters on for the first time. I decided to join the town women in their diaphanous white outfits, which turned out to be a good idea. Perhaps because of the big white shirt, perhaps because I'm just a little more familiar, I got more "Bonjours" today, each with a tight little nod. I do best when I fight my overfriendly urges, and keep my hand down and don’t wave. Our new friends from the picnic on Sunday had bisous for me as well when I ran into them this morning. They run the grocery store in town, so I decided to permanently defect from Casino (until fellow Casino fan Lisa visits from America, of course.) I hope that my favorite cashier back at Casino doesn't miss me too much, but our relationship was really not going any further, since I never had the courage to get that frequent shopper card. Presumably there is some other new girl in town she can help to acculturate, maybe the German one I saw wandering around in a fog looking for bottles of beer larger than 25 ml. Helga, I feel your pain; I've been there. But now I've moved on to Intermarch√©; give my regrets to Fanny.

Of course, just as Grace settled in with her three Amigos, and Bill and I got to enjoy talking with our new acquaintances from lunch on the lawn, Abigail started to feel left out. Since she is usually the sturdiest of all of us, and has the least vocabulary for her difficult feelings, we're not as used to helping her. We first started to notice that she was going wild at lunch time, jumping up from the table to draw our attention with a crazy dance. French school doesn't provide a lot of opportunity for jumping around and repeatedly smacking one's own butt for laughs, so I guessed this was just her getting her willies out.

But then she started to fight us on everything: getting up in the morning, putting on her clothes, taking them off, sitting down to breakfast, clearing the food away uneaten. Our usually sunny kid was giving us lip, while the mouthy one was suddenly giving us a hundred smiles a day. Apparently, like the course of true love, the four wheels of our little family shopping cart never will run smooth.

When the girls go to the playground, their favorite game is see-saw. But they never just play the usual up and down, back and forth. That would be too simple, and take all the edge out of their play. Instead, they like to take turns stranding each other up in the air, then swiftly dropping the other girl down to the ground without warning. I always see this game as a spinal cord injury in the making, but they find it hysterical. The harder the drop, the more they laugh. They call this game "Kill Farmer Brown," and seem to enjoy tormenting one another much more than they will ever take pleasure from one another's hugs. They seem never to want to show the other a softer side.

So it seems awfully improbable that Grace will use her newfound social status to help out Abigail as she is struggling a bit. We asked her this morning to include Abigail in her games with her two friends. But since she really only is certain of the name of one of the two girls, that may be too big a risk. The one she knows is Pauline, and we're certain that is her name because she made Grace a little picture yesterday and signed it. Grace refers to the other one, variously, "Nuage," "Nualine," and "Nuarage" because she is too afraid to ask her name one more time.

Grace has a big heart, but it's harder for her to see Abigail as someone she can reach out to. Last night, Grace pointed out that even though she is making friends, she thinks that French kids can be a little mean. Yesterday she saw a little girl sitting on the wall of the playground crying, and looked around to see when someone would step in to help. She didn’t know the words herself to say, "Are you OK?" Of course, I'm not sure I would know those words either -- I might just have to put a question in my voice and try out the all-purpose "D'Accord?" Pauline and N_____ walked right by, telling Grace that they didn't want to stop and help. And since this is French school, there were no teachers to come over and dry her tears. Presumably, at some point the bell rang and she had to go back to class. I wonder if there were tearstains on her little dusty face. I wonder if she hopped up a minute later and went back to her game.

As you can see, I'm more torn about how I feel about this than I have previously thought. Generally, I believe it's healthy for kids to work things through on their own as much as possible, with plenty of love, fresh air, sleep, and healthy food at their backs. Too much adult attention on children's feelings can feel so invasive. With someone watching and worrying over their every step, how can they get the confidence to make a leap when one is required?

But when it's my kid sitting on the wall at recess, I can't help but wish for a fairy godmother or godfather like all the ones my kids knew, loved, and deeply trusted back at their old school -- a gentle Pam or Kim or Mary or Kerry or Anne or Peter or Matt or literally any one of the amazing fifty adults there to step in and make things OK. When I go to pick up Grace, her teacher (a dead ringer for a 50-something Peter Fonda) has lit up his cigarette and is on his motorcycle before he has seen whether she is safely back with me. Abigail's teacher seems to make a cursory glance in my direction, but she has never met my eyes. I'm trying still to love le portail and the way it gives the kids a whole new kind of freedom and challenge. But today, it feels like we've dropped Abby off at jail.

There is a usual cure for what ails Abigail, and generally it takes the form of little toys, extra candy, some TV, reading aloud, and extra snuggling. We do what she wants, let her play in the bathtub for extra long stretches. Since the French school week is just two bursts of two days, with Wednesdays off, we're never more than two days from a sort of weekend. There will be plenty of time with her to play with the kids next door tomorrow, and we can make all of her favorite meals. I've already got a little chocolate bribe packed for when I next pick her up at school.

Last night, after the girls came home from school, they played with the five kids next door until it got dark. They have found a cache of roof tiles, broken pottery, craggy orange stones and even a huge animal femur and knee joint back in the woods. Freed back into her own language, Abigail was once again back in the pack, carrying the giant leg bone like a prize, or a club. She and the other girls were certain it was human, and it took awhile for us to convince them that wasn't the case.

But they were not so easily dissuaded. They drifted back into the woods to dig and catalogue and hypothesize. Soon they returned bearing some pottery with strange runic designs on it, and then another few shards of bones. By the time they brought us some rotted leather shoes that laced up at the front, we started to be a little more impressed. We wondered whether they might have stumbled onto an early-20th century crime scene rather than the Olive Mill's dump. We all began to wonder: what exactly did happen to Farmer Brown?

The girls have decided that they need to take all of their finds to the Museum of Prehistory on Wednesday to have them identified, sorted, and properly categorized. (I of course am trying to figure out how to get them off this tack of focusing exclusively on archaeology.  I know that not everybody buys this whole evolution thing, and would hate to be the person responsible for having their kids hear for the first time that a lot of people believe that we are the children of super-smart monkeys, just fancy primates with clothes and computers.)

At this point, the kids all fully believe that they have made an archaeological find worthy of some real adult attention, but they already have voiced the fear that they won't be taken seriously for what they have found. One took on the voice of an imagined patronizing scientist, "Oh, kids, aren't those little pottery pieces cute. Now run along and play." They want to be taken seriously, even as they want to be left alone to make their own discoveries. They want our attention, pushing the cow bones in our faces and shouting about the Roman Empire, even as we want a few minutes alone to be able to drink a glass of wine and turn ourselves to pointless grown-up talk.

We want them to be happy, but we want them to be challenged. We want them to be close, but never too dependent on one another or on us. I hate it when they drop each other to the ground, dreading the time they will really get hurt, but live to hear them laugh when they fall.

And how conflicted am I to be touting the benefits of hands-off parenting and giving kids room to grow while still worrying in three long pages over the shadows that cross her sweet little face?

As Bill pointed out this morning, of course Abigail is the one struggling the most with the start of school. Bill and I are enjoying a freedom we haven't had for years. Yesterday I felt so good that I even went for a run, (I KNOW! Can you believe it?) tracing out a flat little dirt path from our olive grove to a big field of vines on the other side of Sillans-la-Cascade. Grace gets a reprieve from starting middle school for a whole extra year. She can spend the time playing in the cement schoolyard with Pauline and whatsername, adding to her French skills and sense of self. But Abigail, our superstar first grader, had by far the most to lose. She was the one most on top of her game when we packed up all her stuff and threw her on a plane. At the time, I thought that it was me who was giving up more than I was gaining -- but now I'm clear that it was she who had the least say in the whole decision to come here. "I just wish I had tried to learn French," she told me today, rueful and unfairly angry at herself, and I heard myself speaking in her words.

(An update, six hours later, to reassure any worried Friends Of Grace and Abigail back home: by the time I picked up the girls from school for Tuesday lunch and offered them their compensatory chocolates, Grace had managed to infect three of her friends with her favorite vague psychosomatic illness: mystery leg pain. She is somewhat anxious and also quite pleased about this development. If this isn't social success for an offbeat kid, I don't know what else is.

And while Grace never worked up the empathy and courage to include Abigail in her fun game of Let's All Have Leg Cramps, Abby made her own fun. She and two other girls spent playtime chasing a boy in their classroom and shoving him repeatedly into a sink. When I looked worried, she reassured me that the boy definitely liked it. A new version of Kill Farmer Brown is born. Look out world, we have our old Abigail back.)


  1. Have I told you how much I love reading this? Very much. Thank you.

  2. Me, too.
    Tell 'em to give Farmer Brown a whack for me.