I hate some kids. I’m no Mother Teresa, although possibly it’s easier to love children of wretched poverty in a distant land than those of prosperity in a nearby horse-and-hunt village. Wendy Jane is the kind of sulky, chubby only child that would have inspired Berkeley students (I’m class of ’81) to shout, “Eat the Rich” – with fava beans and a cheap Chianti.
I can sense the carbuncle of hatred and envy Wendy feels for me in return, and for my ten-year-old daughter, Gemma. Sullenly staring up at me, Wendy lacks her parents’ talent for sheathing anger in false bonhomie and backstabbing. In social settings, she is a focal point of negativity. Her gloom creates a sucking black hole as she actively seeks to share the despair she feels when guiltily stuffing her cheeks with cake. She arouses in me a mix of disgust and contempt that is unacceptable for an adult to feel for a minor, and so I do what every sensible grown-up would do given therapy and gas money: I avoid direct contact.
But last Halloween, which fell on a Saturday, Gemma wanted to trick or treat with the twins from her old country day school, which my husband and I call the Thorne Day School of social drama (TDS). I can barely drive past the sedate country campus at the outskirts of Harmony with its white picket fence and farmhouse architecture without feeling a twinge akin to a divorcee’s distress at the sight of the home she once shared with an abusive husband.
I acquiesced reluctantly because the night before Gemma had hosted a costume party at our house and none of the TDS kids came (we learned too late of a conflicting school event). Gemma’s bash was, if not a roaring success, then at least a rumbling one. Sigh of relief. In my next-day multi-tasking stupor, I ignored the possibility that by joining the jolly and spirited twins my daughter adored, their classmate Wendy could be there, too.
The last time we did Halloween in Harmony two years ago, Wendy’s mother got shitfaced at the pre-amble dinner with my friends in the village, raising eyebrows even among women who could rout frat boys at beer pong. At night’s end, I saw Mrs. Jane perched on the pavement in front of the town’s one Irish bar, negotiating with Wendy to stop for a last cocktail in exchange for a Snickers from her daughter’s overstuffed sack. I rushed hastily in the opposite direction, as Mrs. Jane led Wendy into the pub. Presumably, some time later, Mummy drove home with the audacity of a habitual drunk familiar with navigating past the state troopers’ HQ and onto dark country roads past other mothers similar basted.
This history was a lot to project on the four foot six inch girl who stood before me on the Harmony high street. She wore a painstakingly assembled Charlemagne outfit: red page-boy wig, a sparkly chain mail tunic, and knee-high suede boots. In place of a sword, Wendy held a child-sized Burberry umbrella. Did plaid exist in Charlemagne’s time? Tartans, I supposed.
I wore a costume culled from my cupboard: a billowy Indian skirt with spangles that was clever one year; red polka dot sneaker-wedges that made me feel Minnie Mouse sexy; and an apron printed with cupcakes and bows. Despite my fetching yellow Rubbermaid gloves, I’m naturally more Morticia Addams than June Cleaver, but playing the fifties housewife was more fun than being one. At the last minute, I’d grabbed a red umbrella, prepared for once for rain.
On the street, when the drizzle increased, I offered to share my umbrella with Gemma. The little minx in her Goth Red Riding Hood get-up rejected me. She skipped ahead to share Wendy’s, as the chubby Charlemagne was plodding alone three steps ahead. But Wendy refused to share. I overheard her tell Gemma it was because she had not been invited to her Halloween party. Word traveled fast considering the girls no longer attend the same school.
As Gemma, upset but still upright, set out through the rain and the sticky besotted leaves to join the twins and a third former classmate at the bright door of the next house, I approached Wendy. I asked her what she’d told Gemma. ‘She didn’t invite me to her Halloween party,’ she said. I groaned internally. Couldn’t she just drop the drama for a night? The endless social positioning that poisoned the private school? But, no, she couldn’t; she couldn’t accept Gemma for a brief return engagement without a poke at my daughter’s recently reconstructed blithe spirit.
So, looming over Wendy, I responded briskly that we’d invited her to Gemma’s birthday slumber party last June; she’d made a list of demands, accepted and then blew us off without an apology. Therefore, we didn’t invite her to this party. Case closed. The girl beneath the wig clenched her jaw; all I saw was her father’s scowl and close-set eyes imprinted on her unwrinkled face.
I cursed the phone call I’d made that afternoon to arrange this date; Gemma wanted it, but I knew it would end up in tears (possibly mine). We crossed upper Front Street: five girls on the verge of social splat; five parents discussing real estate and school politics: and me trying to bite my tongue in housewife camouflage. The girls approached a twee Victorian settled on a stone foundation, threading through roving bands of rangy tweens seeking PG-rated trouble, and toddlers waddling like geese before their watchful parents. I corralled the girls, did a head count, and proceeded past a shuttered realtor’s shop where families gathered in the breath between houses.
Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the other parents gabbing in front of the twee Victorian. Looking ahead to slow the girls down, I noticed Wendy standing stiff but solid beneath her umbrella, and my little red riding hood Gemma weeping beneath her hood. One of the twins in Santa gear consoled her; the other approached to report that Wendy had told the other girls to ignore Gemma, and that incited the sobs.
I was ignited. How very dare this bully I’d deleted from our lives start right where she left off: manipulating emotions like sprinkling salt on a slug? I planted myself in front of Wendy in my polka-dot wedges and, in the semi-intimacy created by our umbrellas, I told her to stop; right now. “We didn’t invite you to the Halloween party because we only invited friends. Stop,” I said in a low yet firm voice, “you are just being mean.”
I suppose I might have said: you are just mean, but I think I used the more temporary, hope for possible redemption, “being mean.” In Spanish, estar instead of ser; either way, Wendy didn’t cry as much as diminish. She faded back to her parents, where she remained the rest of the night, alternately clutching her father’s hand or her mother’s, small again. I had set her straight, and robbed her of Halloween. The Janes became more subdued, but said nothing to me. When we finished the village rounds, they quickly said goodbye and didn’t enter the twins’ house like the rest of us, begging off saying Wendy was tired and they needed to go home.
What had Wendy told her parents? If it had been me as a kid, I would have spilled every thing basted in tears. But a friend suggested Wendy might have felt the weight of guilt – she had been mean. And, worse, she’d been caught by an adult and berated in front of her friends. And, so, she might not have told the whole story, holding it close like a teddy bear of shame.
Still, news traveled fast, just like the invite list of Gemma’s Halloween bash (unattended by TDS kids but not unnoticed). That night, the twins spilled to their mother. On Monday, they spread the word at school: Gemma’s mother had scolded Wendy on Halloween.
But what they couldn’t know was how triumphant squashing Wendy made me feel. I had defended my daughter, like my mom stood by me when she grabbed Jonathan Handrus’ collar and yelled at him to stop stuffing grass in my mouth at a family picnic. It wasn’t taboo to scold other parents’ children then. Every adult watched, admonished, and occasionally, praised. The cost of this league of adults against children was high: conformity. But it offered the security of limits. Our parents knew other eyes were monitoring their kids, ensuring they didn’t run into traffic and protecting the weak from the strong.
I could justify my actions on Halloween night by hiding behind the larger issue that the contemporary etiquette of leaving parents to criticize their own children has failed. It’s time adults took back the sandbox, and told off misbehaving kids throwing sand in spite of their parents.
However, I enjoyed Halloween too much to mount that high horse. Add to the list of guilty pleasures calling out somebody else’s kid when they’ve bullied your own. I bitched out a ten-year-old forty years my junior, the poisonous offspring of poisonous parents. Perhaps not every mother knows the singular joy of taking on their child’s bully and reducing them to a puddle of costume and, can I dare to dream, remorse, clinging to a bewildered parent’s chubby ringed fingers.