Conversation with a seven-year-old old
She asked to come along when I offered to drop off the dry cleaning for her mother. It’s a short drive to Patterson Cleaners, a little over a mile—six or seven minutes each way.
Who would expect to cover topics ranging from scatological vocabulary to the origin of the species in less than fifteen minutes?
The conversation started out innocuously enough. I defaulted to the standard weekday afternoon starter, “What did you do in school today.”
The report on “Library,” “P.E.” and “the misplaced backpack” was proceeding apace, when a car blew through the Stop sign at the five-way intersection. I slammed on the brake and the word was out of my mouth before I could stop it, “Shit! Oh, I mean Shoot!” But it was too late.
The pronouncement was delivered calmly from the back seat, “That’s a bad word, Nana!”
“I know. I’m sorry. I never should have said that.” Pause. “Don’t you ever say it.”
Thoughtful silence. Then, “Can I ask you a question?” She always asks if she can ask a question, before asking it. And we always answer in the affirmative. This time I did not want to do so, but of course I said, “Sure. You can always ask me a question.”
Inevitably and not surprisingly, “What does ‘shit’ mean, anyway?”
Hmmm. “What does ‘shit’ mean? It means ‘poop,’ actually.”
An astonished giggle from the back seat.
“It means ‘poop’?” An incredulous tone, as though to say, That’s it? What’s the big deal?
“Pretty silly, huh?”
“Then why is it a bad word?”
“Hm. Good question. I guess because it’s a kind of nasty word that people think of as not being very nice. And when you use words that aren’t very nice, people think you’re not very nice.” I could feel the “don’t ever use this word” lecture getting out of hand. So again I defaulted, this time to one of my favorite topics: etymology.
“You know the real word for ‘poop’ is ‘feces.” Now what had possessed me to go off on this tangent?”
“Feces?” She repeated the pronunciation correctly; I resisted the temptation to tell her how to spell it.
“So then what’s the real word for ‘peepee’?”
“Ah, ‘peepee’? The real word for ‘peepee’ is ‘urine.’”
“Urine?” An incredulous chuckle, as if to say, Is this the best they could do?
More thoughtful silence.
Luckily, we had arrived at the dry cleaners. I parked right out front, opened the back door grabbed the overstuffed laundry bag. She undid her seatbelt buckle and came inside with me.
Soon enough though we were back in the car and headed back to her house.
“So, Nana, I have another question…”
Oh good grief, now where is she going? “You have another question? What is it?”
“What I’m wondering…. What I want to know is… Who were the first people? “
“Who were the first people?”
“I mean how did we get here? How did people get here… on Earth?” A brief pause. She was probably trying to figure out how to re-word the question so I could understand it. “How did the first people get to be on Earth?”
“Well, now that’s a complicated question…”
Luckily, it wasn’t such a complicated question because it seemed that her nine-year old sister already clued her in. “My sister said we used to be animals. She said scientists found bones of animals that turned into people.”
“Well, that’s sort of true. Scientists have been figuring this out for a long time.” I decided to skip the detail on Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species, and the theory of natural selection. “They have collected bones of lots of animals that lived a long, long time ago. And when they studied these bones they realized that very, very slowly over many hundred of years certain animals began to change until eventually they became human begins. But it took a really long time. Thousands and thousands of years. Maybe millions.”
While she pondered this monologue full of too much information, I decided to work Adam and Eve into the narrative. Otherwise, what would happen when this topic came up in Sunday School?
“Now, you know, honey, in the Bible, God made the first man and woman in just one day, and the whole world in just six days. But some people think that’s a symbolic explanation… or that back then a day was really many thousands or millions of years…”
Silence from the back seat.
Maybe she was thinking.
Finally, “You know, Nana, they didn’t even give me a ring.”
“Who didn’t give you a ring?” (Who cares who didn’t give her the ring! I was off the hook for explaining the unexplainable.)
“The people in the dry cleaners. They always give me a ring when I go with Mommy.”
“Well, maybe they only give rings to girls who are with their mothers, and not with their grandmothers.”
A pause to process this disappointing news, and then…
“Nana, do you think a pumpkin is a fruit or a vegetable?”
“Hmmm. That’s a tough one. I’m not sure. Why are you asking?”
“Well, someone asked our teacher today, and she said ‘Let’s look it up!’ That’s her thing: look it up. So we looked it up. And guess what! If you ask a scientist, the scientist will say a pumpkin is a fruit. But if you ask a chef, the chef will say it’s a vegetable. So it’s kind of both!”
“That’s very good to know; thanks for telling me.”
At this point, we were just pulling up in front of her house.
She was out the door and inside in a flash. I followed. I was on tap to help with the dinner hour that evening. My daughter and her husband had to attend a school conference. He wasn’t home as yet. I was washing up a few stray dishes left in the sink while my daughter prepared the kids’ dinner.
The three girls all seemed busily engaged. The baby boy emptying the toy basket and crowing over each item in that preverbal language; he knows what he’s saying but to us it’s just cute sounds.
Then, suddenly another voice–drowning out his ca’s and uh’s–made and announcement from across the room:
“Guess what! ‘Shit’ means poop!”