Hey, Who Do You Think You Are?

When our sons were little, we provided them with a wooden chest full of random costumes, which is how we ended up being confronted in the kitchen by a buxomy matron in high heels or a helicopter pilot behind a tinted visor or a pirate of the most eclectic sort, one who wore a wide-brimmed gardening hat and a cheerful yellow Boy Scout kerchief that might be associated with the slogan “Do a good turn daily.” 

By the way, the plastic eye patch—a very necessary accoutrement for pirating—had an imprinted knife to help instill fear, but the outline of that faux knife hid little open slots so that whoever was wearing it could surreptitiously peer out and get added pleasure from duping everyone.  Which reminds me now of the feeling I used to get, as a trick-or-treater in the 1970’s, whenever I donned one of the cheap molded-plastic masks we found at the toy store in St. Joseph, Missouri.   I used to get such a weird, rare pleasure from wandering the streets of our little town, sniffing the chemicals of the plastic against my nose and hearing my voice muffled by the too-small mouth-hole and peering out through the eye holes to determine how well I had erased myself, becoming someone new.

One year, I was an old-fashioned European organ grinder with a long mustachioed mask, a checkered vest, and a Jack-in-the-Box as my substitute organ.  I also had my little brother on a tether, hidden inside his own rubber monkey mask, a stretchy thing that sagged into his face and had to be readjusted.   To simulate organ music, I would turn the knob on the Jack in the Box—until the Jack would leap out, which would throw my squatting brother into a paroxysm of screeches and bent-knee hops, tugging at the tether while a haphazard mop of synthetic black hair flapped around his monkey face.

It was theater.  It was a role and an act.  I knew that.  But for a bit, I was invested in being something “other” and wanted to do it well.  To really BE the organ grinder.  I wanted Nat to really BE the monkey, too.  Just like my own son must have really wanted to BE the pirate. 

He set his teeth in a snarl.  He squinted out of his one good eye.  Never mind the smooth chubby cheeks, the flawless skin, the sheen of his clean bangs.  Never mind the misplaced band of the eyepatch, which should have been above his eye, not under.  This was a tough guy—to be feared and avoided at all costs.  Photographer beware!      

Back then, when Luke was just a toddler, he threw himself into spontaneous, unrestricted make-believe.  He was not set in his roles.  He had not yet discovered that he was such a softy he would actually quit trying to score goals when the other soccer team fell too far behind.  He did not know that he was too sympathetic to pillage anyone for anything more costly than a cookie.  

It all seemed quite removed from reality, therefore charming.  However, I wonder now whether the impromptu acting was preparing Luke in some subtle way.  Preparing his tender heart for those moments when one sympathy would have to outweigh another.  Maybe he was already getting ready for the moment—twenty years later, during a Black Lives Matter protest—when the crowd around him stopped waving placards and shouting, not sure what to do as the police started to tackle people, knocking them to the ground.

When I was little, I experimented without knowing I experimented.  Anything was possible.  I put the costume on and donned the mask and, for a bit, became.  Never mind my falsetto 10-year-old voice or the fake organ with its Pop-Goes-the-Weasel tune.  I could measure my success simply enough—based on the grins from old people who opened their glass storm doors and dropped Tootsie Rolls into the bag.     

Who knows, though.  Maybe I was, in some sense, trying out what I actually wanted and, in the process, learning a bit more about who I was.  Part organ grinder.  Happy to entertain—to do a bit of song and dance. 

As for son Luke, perhaps he was learning that, although he was not the sort of pirate who would steal, he might, if needed, become a tough guy.  Maybe he was practicing how to stand his ground. 

I am sixty now, and I have put away almost all the costumes and props.  It is tempting, with age, to think I know who I am.  At this point in life, people don’t tend to spend much time outside the prescribed limits they have given themselves.  They don’t want to “waste” the invested effort that has gone into narrowing their focus and energies.  They feel practically obligated to maintain a solid, defined identity. 

But what if they have simply gotten used to old habits?  What if there is still more to be learned?

My grandmother was over 60 when she began oil painting, becoming quite accomplished.  My father, a half-deaf retired doctor, was at least 65 when he started to take Arabic classes at the university.  Jimmy Carter’s mother was 68 when she joined the Peace Corps and left Plains, Georgia to help lepers in India. 

So who knows.  Maybe there is still room to dress up now and then, trying out an unexpected role.  To play make-believe once again.  Which certainly seems more fun than being locked into what might be expected—what has become an assumed way of being. 

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