Maddie spends half of her life upside down. Her back turned to my scolding, she scampers out of the house before school in her nightgown and bare feet to coast down our sloped driveway on her hot pink Razor scooter, only to skid to a stop before she slams into the rear bumper of my Civic. She sets up her mini-trampoline next to her inflatable wading pool so that with a running start she can bounce herself into cannon ball bliss. She ate Swedish meatballs at nine months, walked at eleven months, and scaled her crib at eighteen months. Back on February first, 2006, she even popped into the world all by herself, well before the on-call doctor managed to slide on her scrubs and gloves. Needless to say, Maddie’s not shy.
But while other kids’ knees knock at the threat of the Kiddie Dragon Coaster at Canobie Lake Park, Maddie disintegrates at the mere mention of three very traditional—and you would think, harmless—components of contemporary culture.
Here’s the first fear.
I know a single guy in New York who shares a fairly committed relationship with a group of these vagabonds. They live above him in an apartment building, and he visits them often; he displays a particular affinity for one named Bernice, a decent listener who likes to dance. These quiet but alert wanderers dress in urban grays and blacks, blending into the concrete of their city surroundings.
They convene sometimes in parking garages, intrigued by the flurry of comings and goings of multi-colored people, the excitement of destination. The most aggressive clan members will spot a potentially food-equipped passerby, jut their noses toward her, and allow their hungry nostrils to lead their scurrying feet. Most targets ignore their cooing suitors and sweep into the elevators without even so much as a glance over their shoulders.
Not my daughter, though.
On our second family excursion to Boston’s Museum of Science about two-and-a-half years ago, as the floors of the garage wound our SUV in fruitless eddies toward the sky, Maddie pressed her fingertips against the glass of her window and said accusingly, “What’s that?”
“They’re just birds,” Andrew said.
“Birds?” she clucked. “I don’t like birds.”
“Pigeons won’t hurt you,” Andrew said. “You don’t have to be scared.”
“I don’t like them. I want to park somewhere else.”
“There’s no other place to park, sweetheart.”
Andrew always exercised such patience with Maddie at those rare times I burned to tell her to get over it, whatever it was. I knew her as a strong-willed girl, a “bullet,” as parents of classmates in her gym class had often remarked as they watched her zoom past their own children on the tumbling mat. She didn’t have to know that birds made me shudder, too—the way their heads (crushable in an instant if you could get your hands on them) tilted at you in mechanical tick-like movements; the prospect of their almost imperceptible beaks pecking the blood out of your skin or the sight out of your eyes. Believe me, I had grown up with a babysitter who showed me Hitchcock films before I was seven years old.
We were approaching an open spot on the tier beneath the roof, directly across from the elevators. Maddie started her whiny, heaving breaths.
“Uuuunnnh…uuuunnnh…I told you I don’t want to go here!”
I glanced into the backseat at Drew’s oversized lollipop eyes. He was nursing his thumb in the spirit of Maggie Simpson and shifting his stare back and forth from me to his sister’s accordion face.
“Well, then, we can’t go to the museum,” I sighed.
“I wanna park on the street!” Maddie wailed.
“The street is the highway,” I said.
“Then I wanna go home and go to Target!”
“Aww…don’t you want to see the big T-Rex?” Andrew halted the truck in the open spot and reached back to lay a reassuring hand on Maddie’s bruisey knee. “The butterfly garden?”
“The journey through the birth canal?”
Andrew looked at me.
“What?” I shrugged. “It’s my favorite part.”
Drew’s mouth released stickily from his thumb long enough to murmur, “Target. Toy.”
Maddie kicked Andrew’s hand away. “No!” A clop of overgrown bang tumbled into her tear-dusted eyelashes and her lips protruded. “I’m not going!”
“C’mon,” Andrew said. “We’ll all go to the elevator together. Mommy and Daddy won’t let the pigeons hurt you.”
Maddie hooked her limbs into the crevices and onto the curves of her carseat, but her tenacity could not match the power of her dad’s pull. He grabbed her by the waist, pinching her ribs, and she contracted in giggles. In seconds she was sniffling and snorting again and wrapped around Andrew’s torso like a starfish on a rock. He was laughing, now.
We shuffled toward the elevators, weighed down with diaper bags, umbrella strollers, and a child who harbored no empathy for the ravenous, impulsive little creatures that milled about our ankles, ironically enough.
Despite a petrifying moment when the elevator doors hesitated too long before closing and a brazen bird scuttled toward our near-safe-haven at the chance to take a ride, we continued on to enjoy our afternoon at the museum. Maddie dragged us to the Theater of Electricity, where I spent thirty minutes of a live Lightning! presentation swallowing against my heart-lodged throat and plugging my ears against the cracks and snaps of the lightning bolts above our heads. She sat on the floor in the front row of a snake show in the Live Animal Center, and nearly vanished in the exclusive traveling dinosaur exhibit, darting around gleefully in the skeletal shadows of prehistoric beasts whose naked incisors and claws seemed to quiver with the possibility of reincarnated life.