Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Of Cats and Camellias, Boys and Girls

My son doing boy stuff, back in 2010, when he had his hair long and people kept thinking he was a girl. Picture by "B" Gordon

I stood on the sidewalk, watching the boys. They were playing, hollering, running—doing the crazy things that boys together do. I’d walked to Daniel’s house hoping to find him by himself and instead he had a friend. With the friend here, the rules of our usual friendship did not apply. No tea parties or dress-ups, no complicated fantasy book schemes. Should I go home? I stood awkwardly on the sidewalk, which was wet with recent rain, shifting my feet and waiting for clarity about what to do. On the ground around me, worms were drowning, and sodden flowers fallen from the yard’s camellia bush lay flattened on the ground. The sky was ready to erupt again at any time.

“Bam!” yelled the second boy, a redhead. A wet camellia went spinning through the air. I dodged it—barely.

“It’s a bomb,” he said. “You’re dead.”

I didn't want to be dead. I stood there, calculating stubbornly my response to a scenario in which I did not want to play my part.

“Come on, Tara,” entreated Daniel. “Play along. You can bomb him back.”

Well, I supposed. I bent, picked up a flower. It was as soggy as a sponge. Pink like Pepto Bismol, rose-like, damaged by the rain. In my hand it felt substantial, a water balloon ready to be tossed. I chucked it. I couldn't aim and it missed the redhead by a yard. It landed with a satisfying splat on the concrete by the steps. The boy ran away, whooping. The war was on.

Racing, smacking through wet shrubberies, running over saturated grass, we gathered up camellias and lobbed them at one another until out of breath. I was hit once. Surprisingly, it stung. The flower smarted when it smacked me on the cheek! Nothing but petals and yet there it landed, hard as a mother’s warning slap, leaving my cheek red. I felt anger rise up in my gut.

“I’m going to get you now!” I roared.

I came home later, covered in mud, the marks of petals on my skin. The world of boys was enchanting. A world of war and terrible aggression—of letting go and going after—it was a carnival ride, and sword wounds just a bloody grin.

Boys had never really been interesting before, as boys, as suddenly they were.


"Come back here!" I yelled and then muffled my voice. The cat with the leaves in her tail would not consent to let me place the tail in water, and relieve her of the leaves. And if someone caught me at this, I was definitely going to be in trouble. Adults, who never really undertook anything of importance, would not understand.

"Bear-Bear!" I insisted.

The bowl of water slid and tipped.

"Mraaaaaooowww!" the cat complained.

Finally, I got hold of the tail, which was interminably tangled, always filled with leaves and things. Her nose was filled with snot. She breathed it in and out—she was a snot-dragon full of tangles, knots and the leavings of old trees. "A permanent cold," my mother said she had. Pneumo-something. 

She looked to me like something needing care. Holding onto the captured tail with both hands, I directed it into the mixing bowl. 

"You're going to be fine," I told the cat in a motherly voice. "You need a bath."

Submerged in the cold water, the leaves got wet and the tangles stayed in place. Over the course of several seconds, it occurred to me that perhaps I'd miscalculated. Lacking a brush and the necessary fortitude to work the tangles out by hand, I let the kitty go, and she scuttled off and hid. I emptied the bowl into the sink and left a small, hairy puddle on the floor. Then I set about making her an apologetic milkshake made of milk with cat food sprinkled in.


Right now, I'm thirty-seven. I have three boys and a husband. A boy dog who chews up garbage and a boy cat who pees in anything rectangular which I leave in the kitchen corner that he likes. Two male ducks, one of whom likes to bite my jeans as I turn and leave his coop. There are my egg-layers, of course—six of those; two white ducks who spend spring underneath the boys with the feathers wrenched out of their necks, and four hens, who squat obediently when I go out to pick them up. They all live outside. Inside, there are penises wall-to-wall.

Except for a few moments of wild abandon, I spent my childhood preparing to nurture things. I dressed cats in little outfits, placed them into various houses and set up a battle triage for wounded shrews. When shrews kept dying anyway—because of the activities of my cats—I set up a war memorial for them on the refrigerator door. This was a stark exposition of life lost, bearing simply a date, the cat responsible, and the posthumous name of each shrew. I wrapped them in paper towels and masking tape and deposited them in the earth, where I said a solemn prayer over their souls. And so it was that I prepared myself for motherhood.

The boys, while I was doing this, were preparing themselves for war. They were throwing down their lives for a cause greater than themselves, unnamed, and collapsing in splendid agony on the concrete to die with howling cries, only to rise again later and launch a last attack. Every day on the agenda: Kill. Die. Rise from death. Kill again. Perhaps die. Win, if possible. Then, snack.

I have given up combating this tendency in my kids.When I initially forbid cartoons and movies, Rowan pretended he was a lion and the girls at playschool were gazelles. The last thing they heard was a roar in their ear before they died. I kept on getting phone calls with requests to cut his nails even shorter than they were. If you want to comment on my parenting, don't. It's too late for me to parent him differently now. He's fifteen and, happily, he's stopped roaring in people's ears. Nobody cares anymore how he keeps his nails. At any rate, it was then that I introduced superheroes. At least they were "good." Rowan stopped being a lion and started being Spiderman. I think this may have been an improvement, ethically.

Boys on the playground, forbidden to play-fight, play-fight surreptitiously or simply get in trouble all the time. Not every boy. Lots of boys. The ones I'm talking about. What is this war they are girding themselves for? Am I missing something about adult male survival that they really need to know?

"I didn't want to play World War II games," confided Mikalh to me, "but that's what everyone was playing, so I just pretended I was an archaeologist in World War II."

"It sounds like a good compromise," I told him.

Later on, he killed his evil brother with one powerful kick to the head. I hope this training will prove useful someday. 

On second thought, I fervently hope that it will not.


  1. This is fantastic and it should go in your book. I love it so much - it speaks volumes about something so complicated and it breaks it down into amusing and poignant pieces that we can all taste.

    1. That's funny. It started as an essay for my book and got kicked down to blog status when it didn't seem to fit anywhere. Maybe I'll rework it later on if it seems to have a home.

  2. I agree, you should publish a collection of this type of thing!
    Re the subject matter: My mother used to look out of the window and watch little boys walking home from school. They would pick up sticks and hit things with them - the bushes, the fences, whatever. My mother would say, "Why do little boys always want to hit things?" She obviously never had any little boys of her own. I think probably it's in the genes - the male Homo erectus has to go out and run down prey like a male lion and attack it with sticks. He also has to protect his females from being carried off by his fellow males. We're all animals at heart, seeking to survive. But we try our damnedest to make the more advanced traits of humanity win out so we can live a civilized life. Let's work harder to be archaeologists and not warriors!

  3. My son and his little-boy-best-friend used to bite their grilled cheese sandwiches into the shape of guns and then aim them at each other at my kitchen table. In my "no guns allowed," "guns aren't toys" house.

  4. I loved this so very much. In addition to being the mother of three boys, I am an overgrown tomboy with maternal instincts--an odd combination. Reading about the war games reminded me of walking in on my sons when they were five and six and they were playing with action figures. Son-One said, "Fire at will!" and Son-Two said, "Don't shoot Will, he's my dog!" To this day, I'm still not sure where Son-One had picked up the phrase "fire at will" at that age. Thanks for sharing this piece.


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Faith in Ambiguity by Tara Adams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License