So where are you off to?

Eight-year-old Emma chooses Chloe as the name for

her newborn baby sister but keeps Cruella in reserve

Image: Fountain Bandit, drawing by Julien Mercure, 2016, courtesy of the author.
Fountain Bandit, drawing by Julien Mercure, 2016, courtesy of the author.

'I am certainly most impressed'

By Geneviève Hone
True North Perspective

“So, where are you two off to?” asks my husband as Emma and I are filling a small backpack with water bottles, snacks and a camera. “Just down to the park to see what there is to see,” I reply, as Emma and I exchange conspiratorial looks. She knows that “just down to the park” also means “and then for ice cream.” She also seems to sense that I am quite happy to be interrupted in my work of reviewing a book for a writer friend who argues that showing empathy to others can improve one’s mental and physical health. Emma, the granddaughter of dear friends, is staying with us for a day or two while her mother is off to hospital having another baby and we are thoroughly enjoying the company of this very bright eight-year-old.

 According to her parents, Emma is trying hard to show that she is happy with the arrival of a little sister after two brothers, but with us she talks freely, and she has admitted to being quite upset with her parents for having made a girl. She has specifically asked that they produce yet another boy so she won’t have to share her room with a little sister. Sharing is not a skill that most children master easily, especially when they don’t see why they should acquire that skill in the first place. Emma has often been reminded of the importance of thinking of others but, truth be told, she can’t yet see the advantages of doing so. From her point of view, she is about to lose control of her domain to somebody she hasn’t even met, but whom she is quite ready to dislike, sight unseen. Emma might turn out one day to be a great sister, but for the time being, she is not interested in any babies, let alone a sister, as evidenced by the dolls gathering dust in her bedroom.  Emma’s mother, in an attempt to engage her daughter somewhat, has asked her to suggest a name for the newborn and Emma has grudgingly accepted that honour. She has confided in us that she has settled on “Cruella,” but she has not yet informed her parents of her choice.

At the park, we walk along the river admiring the skill of the gulls that fight over the smallest of food morsels to be found on the river bank.  After a while, Emma declares that witnessing the food fights has made her realize she is quite hungry for ice cream, so we start walking toward the corner store located several blocks away. At the large fountain at the edge of the park, Emma suddenly stops. She has spotted the many coins in the basin: mostly pennies, a few nickels and dimes, but all excellent fodder for her piggy bank if she were to be allowed to take some home.  “Well, I am most impressed!” declares Emma.

Emma, as many children do, picks up “grown-up” expressions of all kinds and throws them into conversations more or less discriminately. But this time, the words fit! Emma is definitely most impressed by the money in the fountain. “Whose money is that?” she asks. “And why do people throw their money in the water?” I explain that it is a tradition from a long time ago, when people believed that water was sent from the heavens. They would leave coins and other objects in fountains to say thank you to the gods. While they were at it, they might pray to be given a little something they dreamed about and with time prayers were transformed into wishes. “Okay”, says Emma, “but who owns the money in the fountain?” I answer that the money is probably picked up by the fountain cleaning crews and then used to maintain the fountain or perhaps given to a charitable organization.

 “Would it be wrong for me to take a penny?” asks Emma. And so starts a long (five minutes) philosophical and moral debate on the intricacies of pocketing money that is not ours. Is stealing money from a poor person more wrong than stealing it from a rich person? Is it okay to steal money to help a person who really needs our help? Is it okay to steal money from a thief? In the end, Emma decides that it would be acceptable to choose one penny for herself. She spends the next few minutes circling the basin, carefully examining the coins, and finally fishes out her chosen penny. She dries it carefully with a tissue, puts it in her pocket and we start walking toward the ice cream store.

We have perhaps walked fifty metres when she stops in her tracks and declares that we need to go back to the fountain. So we retrace our steps back to the basin where Emma pulls her penny out of her pocket and gently puts it into the water. She then sighs deeply and says: “Let’s go to the ice cream store now.” We don’t speak at first, but after a while Emma says: “I was afraid that the person who threw that penny in the fountain might not get her wish because I had taken her penny, so I put it back.”

Once again, we start walking toward the store, each in our own thoughts. I finally break the silence. “Emma, I am most impressed! You have never met the person who left that penny in the fountain, you probably never will, and yet you showed kindness towards him or her by bringing back their penny. What made you do that?” Emma answers with a shrug, the kind of shrug that children use to indicate they don’t particularly care to answer a given question. So I go on, knowing I am pushing my luck. “You know, Emma, often people make wishes to be granted something for themselves, like winning the lottery. But it’s important to also make wishes for other people, wishing that nice things will happen to them.” Emma’s look stops me right in my tracks. She can recognize an approaching sermon! “Right now”, she says, “I am seriously wishing that a large ice cream cone with caramel and nuts will soon happen to me. You can wish that for me if you want.”

Walking back home, ice cream cone in hand, Emma is silent and absorbed in her thoughts, apart from occasional grunts of satisfaction and a big sigh when the cone is gone. I wonder what she is thinking about, but I know not to ask; children have a right to private thoughts. My husband greets us at the door: “Emma, your dad just called. Your little sister has arrived and you will get to meet her tomorrow. Meanwhile your mom would like to learn what name you have chosen.” “She will be called Chloe,” Emma replies. “Oh”, says my husband, slightly surprised, “What happened to Cruella?”  Emma gives him a sneaky look: “I’ll call my sister Cruella if ever she crosses to my side of our room without my permission.” With that she walks to the phone and dials her mom’s number. My husband turns to me and says. “Well, I don’t know what brought that on, but I am certainly most impressed!”


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