They paged me last night at a youth event to let me know my son had injured his toe. Apparently, he’d left a trail of blood from the incident site to the bathroom. I finished my conversation, found a toenail clipper and band aid in the car and headed into the boys’ bathroom to assist.
By then it was under control. Just a small patch-up and he was good to go, fortified with a lecture of why God made shoes. Other mothers of boys gave me nods and knowing smiles, the fist-bump of the Boy Mom Sisterhood. Blood and guts? Just another day in the life.
After seventeen years of this, I am unphased. I’m sure my own childhood contributes to my cavalier attitude towards mayhem and injury. I don’t know if my parents’ five offspring were an unnaturally accident prone bunch or if our magnificent lack of supervision toughened us up. Maybe some of both.
We grew up in the glory days of being sent outside to occupy ourselves in the sunshine, leaving my mother to do mysterious “alone” things like crossword puzzles, soap operas, and, I imagine, basking in an hour’s worth of silence with no one’s needs but her own. We ran from yard to yard with neighborhood kids brandishing sticks, dashing through sulfur lawn sprinklers, pulling sandspurs out of our feet and getting bitten repeatedly by mosquitoes, ants, and chiggers. We drank from the garden hose and constructed rickety skateboard ramps in the middle of the road, scattering left and right when cars came. Helmets were unheard of; shoes were an afterthought. Road rash from meeting the asphalt was common, sunburns a given.
Between us, we amassed four broken bones (at least ones that counted and required casts) from falling off a horse, flying over handlebars, tripping on a golf course, and falling off a tire swing. We used up spools of nylon in the ER getting stitches. One sister was attacked by a hive of hornets, another was knocked cold by hitting a plate glass window. My brother almost lost an eye from the broken end of a walkie talkie antenna, and the oldest sister, trying to free debris from beneath the lawn mower while it was running, had to have a couple of fingers reattached. We stepped on rusty nails, got bit by snapping turtles and crabs, threw rocks at wasp nests with unhappy results, and got burned by tailpipes. Once, we four sisters each grabbed one of my brother’s limbs and pulled to see how far he would stretch. Result: not far.
Unless the injury was dire, we got treated with home remedies. If you got stung, Mother would unroll one of her Tareyton 100’s and make a witch’s poultice out of tobacco. Splinter? She’d dig it out with one of her quilting needles. For scrapes and cuts, there was stuff called Merthiolate, a red-staining liquid that burned like the fire of a thousand suns. A few doses of that and we learned not to complain and just walk it off. It was the hydrogen peroxide of its time, and I’m pretty sure it was laced with mercury, so if it didn’t heal our cuts, our consolation prize was a damaged nervous system.
Weren’t all families so afflicted? It wasn’t that our parents didn’t care. Whenever some new calamity occurred, we would draw straws to see which of the remainder would have to go tell mom. She would be appropriately concerned but remain calm as we piled into the station wagon for the familiar trip to the hospital. It was only after we’d arrived safely back home that she became emotional, her left hand trembling as she chain smoked and muttered to herself. When dad got home, he’d check on the patient, exhale heavily, pat us on the head and declare that the experience would “put hair on our chest.” Since most of us were girls, such comments would elicit wails and more than a little anxiety. Bedside manner was not his greatest skill.
Surely it is from these almost daily occurrences that I learned not to overreact to a child’s inevitable knocks and mishaps. When mine were small and learning to walk, I was matter-of-fact when they crashed into a table leg or coffee table. Up you go! You’re alright! As time went on, we got through three broken bones (at least ones that count), dislocated elbows, and more cuts and bruises than you can shake a stick at. Their dad’s medical skills were constantly on call. My daughter still has surgical glue in her forehead from a gash when she was four. We patched them up and told them they’d be ok. I learned the more you gasped and fretted over them, the more fragile they thought they were. Less hovering and coddling meant more independence, confidence, and risk-tasking–elements, one could argue, children can usefully bring with them into adulthood.
I am not a detached mother who never bonded with her child, a wire monkey type. On the contrary, I mourn the dwindling regularity of sweet boy hugs, declarations of undying love from my children’s lips, and girl time with my daughter. I love them fiercely, as my mother did the five of us. All my father’s advice to “rub some dirt on it” and my mother’s off-handed tendency to let us make our own adventures instead of providing entertainment on demand certainly fostered independence. We knew that when we left the nest, we’d survive the fall.
As my own chicks approach the nest-leaving stage, they need us less. The circle of life and all that. The kicker with teaching them independence is that they actually become independent. I knew last night I didn’t need to rush over to my son’s gory toe. He knew from past experience what to do. As I handed him the limited first aid tools I had, he flashed me a lopsided grin, half chagrin, half machismo. I resisted the urge to tell him this would put hair on his chest. He was with his friends, after all. This kid, I thought, he’ll survive the fall.