The Spanish way of saying “It’s a small world” is “El mundo es un pañuelo,” or “The world is a handkerchief.” The most common response is to finish the thought by adding, “and we are all boogers.” When I lived in Spain, during those unimaginably ancient days of youth when a guy could just drop himself in a foreign country for a year without a second thought, the metaphor always dissolved quickly into a literal image of my dad’s handkerchief, pulled from his pocket in response to a runny nose or tear. In my mind, it’s an unfolding minefield of crusty green ones, though I know he would never have offered it to me in that state, or at least would have re-folded it to a cleaner sector. Either way, nothing says Dad (pronounced as in “Come on, Dad,” “Give me a break, Dad,” “Get away from me with that thing, Dad,” etc.) like a hankie.
So naturally, as you probably saw coming, now I’ve got the world in my own hand, hankie-wise. It first appeared on the day I got married, appropriately enough, wrapped as padding around the twine handles of the shopping bag my dad was using to carry our wedding present (two tile serving trays brought all the way from Delft). Coming across it after he’d left, I slipped it into my pocket without a thought, and it’s lived there ever since. Unless it’s in the laundry, in which case there’s now a full bench of substitutes in my socks-and-underwear drawer.
It really is quite useful. Before we had kids, it came in handy for a leaky pen or a sneeze, but it really came into its own once they were on the scene, wiping not just runny noses and teary eyes but Doritos-dusted cheeks, ketchup-smeared sleeves, fingers filthy with dirt or worse, dew-damp swing seats, napkinless restaurant spills—it truly is the cloth of a thousand uses. So yes, Dad, you were on to something all along.
That’s not the only point I’ve conceded over the years. My first best friend and I used to laugh over the impossibility of getting a full glass of milk or juice out of a dad. Whether you saw it as half full or half empty, it was never anywhere near the rim. Complaints brought the inevitable “You can always have more when you finish that,” as if that had anything to do with it. To this day, anything less than a full pour invariably brings pleas from my friend of, “Come on, man, don’t give me the Dad Amount! Fill it up!”
What would he say if he saw me doling out the sample-size servings to my own kids? Not having any of his own, he’s never had the pleasure of picking up dozens of half-full juice boxes after a birthday party with only half that many kids, or thinking back to the pints of curdled remainders dumped out over the course of the week when you discover there’s not enough milk left for the Saturday pancake batter. And that’s not to mention the proven direct correlation of the volume of liquid in a container to the likelihood of a spill. Has any child in history ever overturned an empty glass?
So many parenting mores that once seemed arbitrary or capricious make sense to me now—the fetishes for coffee and NPR, the haranguing about going to the bathroom one last time, their dismay about impending social engagements that they always followed through on anyway. Now that I’m the light sleeper prone to insomnia, I understand why there was never any room on my mom’s side of the bed when I came in with a nightmare, but plenty on Dad’s side. As committed as I am to the principle of respecting a child’s curiosity and intelligence, I don’t blame Dad for a moment for replying to my question, “What’s Watergate?” with a brusque, “It’s news.”
And then there’s the overstatement of risks. I’m all about free range kids and learning the hard way about hot radiators, but my kids live under constant menace of cracking their heads open, breaking their arms, choking, impaling their faces on lollipop stems, ruining their eyesight, scrambling their brains, desensitizing themselves to violence, oversensitizing themselves to adult content, and falling through seemingly solid surfaces into a higher-dimensional limbo from which nothing escapes but the faint cries of the lost.
Okay, fine—none of those things ever actually happen, or hardly ever. But when there’s so much at stake for your babies, in terms both of long-term prospects and survival of the immediate moment, even the remotest theoretical possibility of harm can be too much to contemplate. At the end of that year I spent in Spain, I took off alone for Morocco for a couple of weeks with no way to reach or be reached by anyone I knew. My mother later told me that she’d assumed she’d never see me again, which seemed awfully melodramatic at the time. Now I feel the same way whenever I lose visual contact at the playground for more than half a minute.
So what’s the moral of the story? I’d say, “Don’t laugh at your parents because you never know,” but what kid would be caught dead reading the PSP blog? I guess it comes down to this: A clean handkerchief can ride in your pocket indefinitely, but once it’s been used, make sure to cycle in a fresh one for next time.