So they walk. Around the neighbourhood, to the elementary school, through the playground. Stopping and talking with the moms & their kids. They're interested, sincerely interested in the health and welfare of the young families that congregate at the playground. They, I mean she, is ready to scold us if she feels we are not parenting properly, to her expectations. He tries to stop her, he says quietly "Maria, no, this is too much". She shushes him and he steps back, gives us a little smirk that says I tried. They have numbers tattooed on their forearms. We, everyone, assumed they were Jewish, we didn't ask.
It's Sunday morning, Middle has had a few days indoors recuperating from strep throat, he's still pale but feeling better. He's going stir crazy so we...me, #1 son, Middle, and Little Sister go to the playground.
Within minutes Maria and Max are there, they show up out of nowhere. We usually keep a lookout for them in case we need to make a quick getaway...some of these interactions can be time consuming...but we're not at the top of our game.
"The boy looks terrible, what is the matter with him"? I explain...strep, doctor, antibiotics. This makes her angry and she dives into instructions of home remedies I didn't retain, using Max as an example of her success, "I cured his cancer myself, you must do as I say".
The question...and my answer I regret to this day. Oversharing, my lifelong struggle.
She asked "Why are you not in church on a Sunday morning'? I didn't think to ask her the same.
So I explained...Atheist..the kids will choose when they're old enough etc. etc.
"Surely he has been baptized"
Her anger escalated to rage..her face distorted and red. We were terrified, I think Max most of all. He took a couple of steps back, didn't even attempt to utter his customary "Maria no..."...no smirk this time.
The rest happened very quickly...she grabbed Middle by the arm...she dramatically wet her thumb...used it to draw a cross on his forehead...mumbled some words I didn't understand...said "Max, come" and they hobbled away.
Me, left speechless, wanting to get home quickly...clean Maria's saliva from Middle's forehead. Worried an impromptu religious ceremony at a playground might be hard to explain, given the kid's lack of exposure to religious ceremonies.
Kids, thinking differently.
Middle was convinced this meant he was Jewish now. He started using the word Shalom (a beautiful word, I looked it up, meaning peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility) for hello and goodbye. He started planning for his Bar Mitzvah. He was determined to have a lavish celebration no matter how many times we told him we are not Jewish. He was only eight. How he knew so much about Bar Mitzvahs, I don't know. Little sister wanted one too. She reasoned it's only fair, the boys have a brother and a sister, she only has brothers. Her reasoning for everything, to this day. #1 son started introducing him as his Jewish brother. His friends accepting this new information without question.
I needed to clarify the contradiction of the tattooed numbers on their forearms and the baptism Maria performed at the playground. I know I should have been better educated. I know I could have researched this myself. But I decided to ask Maria to explain next time we saw them. I thought it would be better for the kids to hear their story first hand. I was sure it would make more of an impact. Sure an impact was a benefit.
So I asked "Maria, I realize you're not Jewish but why do you have numbers tattooed on your forearm?"
"Stupid girl" she spat out but explained anyway.
Her father, a prominent doctor. Refused to cooperate with the Nazis. Entire family imprisoned in concentration camps. Maria, a young girl. Max's story, similar. They met there and found each other again, after.
A story of cruelty, heartbreak, romance, survival.
She told me all this with impatience and contempt. The look on her face seared in my memory, becoming frighteningly vivid whenever I have the urge to ask a question before I go to Google.
The kids went off to play after Maria's initial reprimand. I felt conflicted. Worried they missed an opportunity to learn about history. Relieved they didn't. They, running around, misbehaving. Maria, disapproving, too busy scolding me to comment. Me, happy kids not noticing any of this. Almost sure they would not benefit from the impact.
Later, we discussed at length. Kids, getting annoyed, clearly understanding, not wanting more discussion. Me, underestimating, again.
At home, the kids telling their dad the most significant part of the story, making it instantly clear our encounter with Maria and Max did make an impact. Though not the impact I worried about.
It was not the impact of any (of the many) scenarios in mind that could cause permanent emotional scarring.
It was the impact I didn't give a second thought to...
Like every other significant impact.
"Dad, Maria called Mom a stupid girl."
Still unsure of the benefit.