When my older daughter was a babe-in-arms and all through her toddlerhood and young childhood, she and I delivered tiny bottles of maple syrup for wedding favors, usually tied up with ribbon or raffia, with a small slip of colored paper with the couple’s names and wedding date, and a cheery phrase, like Eat, drink & be merry! Or A Sweet Beginning.
With my little kid, goldfish crackers and the Vermont Gazetteer, we met people in Price Chopper’s parking lot, tony lakeside resorts, or – one of my favorites – outside the Vermont State Asylum for the Insane in Waterbury. The hospital then had locked wards, and the purchaser of maple syrup bottles came down and met us on the grass. She was on her lunch break and had time to chat. I offered that my mother is a RN, and had amused us as children with her nursing school stories of the woman in the state asylum who swallowed spoons.
My daughter, who was four, looked up at me, completely puzzled. Why?
The woman and I laughed.
Of all the people who bought my wedding favors, this woman is the one I wonder about. We lingered on the grass that day, the sheer expanse of tended lawn a novelty for my child and I. This woman was happily getting married in a few days, and I took my child to a playground that afternoon. There were not enough playground trips in that girl’s childhood. Maybe that’s one of my few pieces of advice to young parents: more playgrounds. Linger barefoot on the grass. The strangeness of people who devour spoons doesn’t disappear.
The American way of life has failed – to make people happier or to make them better. We do not want to admit this, and we do not admit it. We persist in believing that the empty and criminal among our children are the result of some miscalculation in the formula (which can be corrected), that the bottomless and aimless hostility which makes our cities among the most dangerous in the world is created, and felt, by a handful of aberrants, that the lack, yawning everywhere in this country, of passionate conviction, of personal authority, proves only our rather appealing tendency to be gregarious and democratic. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be, and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame and so ugly.
– James Baldwin