When I was in high school and college, my father, a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy, had adjoining computers set up in the basement of our house in a suburb of Boston. He was at work on a multi-lingual years-long project on Averroes Middle Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. To say this was esoteric is to state the obvious. To say I was mostly oblivious to this project is likewise true.
The basement was also our “play-room,” and where our family TV was located. In those years I was addicted to thirtysomething. Fans of that show will recall that Nancy, the unhappily married and somewhat sour-faced wife of the nebbishy ad-man Elliott, received a diagnosis of cancer in the third season.
One night, home from college, I went to watch the show, but my father was at work, painstakingly translating centuries-old Arabic thought. He was doing so mere feet from me.
By then I knew my dad’s taste—it did not extend to network melodrama. I knew he’d find the dialogue, the acting, the whole thing mediocre at best. So, I got a pair of headphones, plugged them in, positioned myself inches from the screen, and sobbed as Nancy, frail and wan, confronted mortality.
My father couldn’t stand my tears and gasps—I had failed at stifling them—and he railed against the show, angrily intoning something along the lines of: “If you want to cry at the horrors of the world and at its sadness, read the newspaper! You’ll find plenty there to make you weep!”
The other day I received a copy of The Tree in the Courtyard, a new children’s book by Jeff Gottesfeld. It has gorgeous, detailed sepia drawings by Peter McCarty and tells the tale of the chestnut tree upon which Anne Frank gazed before she was taken away and murdered in World War Two. Nearly anthropomorphized, the tree knows Anne is hiding in the annex; when Anne kisses a boy at the window, the tree blooms extra exquisitely just for her. It bears witness to the war and to Anne’s fate, and decades later, when the tree is struck by lightning, its salvaged seeds and saplings go round the world as memorials to the Holocaust’s most iconic victim.
Who is this book meant for, I wonder? Though the gorier details of the war are mercifully missing, the gist is intact. Frankly, I can’t imagine reading it as a bedtime story to my child. I don’t want to elicit questions about bombers and men in gray uniforms and why the father, the only one to return after the war, was thin and had sad eyes.
Not right now, anyway.
The other day I returned a book I’d failed, when I bought it, to read to the end because it dealt with September 11, buildings collapsing, and people dying. It’s not that I live in a bubble or that I want my child to live in one. I won’t always shield him from knowledge that the world is violent, that people commit evil, dreadful acts. But I’m on the fence as to whether I ought to introduce such concepts—such realities—before he’s even started kindergarten. I’ve little doubt they’ll saturate his consciousness without my help before long.
Last week Isaiah used the phrase “shoot someone dead” and I felt like I’d been struck down. Where did he hear it? A class-mate, in a game, it turns out. Violence is there, even at playtime. Idyllic childhood includes combat, is what I’m learning. And since it’s there, in the ether, I feel no particular need to expand upon that lesson. Not yet. Not while my son is still wearing pull-ups at night and skipping from 19 to 21 when demonstrating how high he can count.
For now, I guess, I’m following my father’s lead: I expect of the books and TV that I make available to my child that they offer entertainment, not anxiety. That they veer away from brutality and sadness, not open a door to it. We will, in due course, discuss all these horrors and other ones, too. There’s no need to hurry all that along.