Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: ARTIFICIAL (08/11/16)
TITLE: Neither Plastic Nor Silk
By Jan Ackerson
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Once there, however, I plopped him into a shopping cart. As an older-than-most grandma, I wasn’t up to chasing this little imp all through the store.
We started with groceries—I only had a few to get, and those were mostly for Porter’s house, where I was babysitting for a few days. Porter and his parents lived about an hour from me, and to satisfy my granny-urges, we had come up with an arrangement once my daughter went back to work: I’d come on Thursday evenings and spend the night, then babysit on Fridays, saving them a few daycare fees.
But I got restless in their house, reading the same board books and making the same block tower, so we started our own routine: lunch at the little family restaurant in town (applesauce and cottage cheese for Porter, a mushroom-Swiss burger for me), then a shopping expedition.
I’d been working on colors with precocious Mister P, so after he slam-dunked several items into the cart, I wheeled him over to the aisle where the artificial flowers were shelved. “Here’s a white one, Porter,” I said, pulling a plastic stalk from the display. “No, don’t eat it.” He reached for the flowers, so I pulled out several of them, naming the colors, putting them back when Porter started to pull the blossoms from their little plastic stems.
The visit to the fake flower aisle became part of our weekly routine, and Porter started to add variations of his own; these he insisted on, week after week, making our excursion to Plastic Flower Land as monotonous to me as the board books and the block tower. He demanded that I hand him a flower of each color, always in a certain order. If I missed a color, or if I took back a stem too quickly, he cried as if his heart would break. A few months into this routine, he developed a variation in which he’d gently bop my shoulder with each plastic or silk flower, as if he were the king, very gently dubbing me a knight.
Months passed. Porter being a very bright little boy, he learned the names of all the colors and of many of the flowers—the ones I knew to teach him, at any rate. He never tired of the routine, and could talk well enough to insist on it, from the time his parents left for work on Friday mornings. “Go see flowers, Grandma!” he’d say. “Go see flowers! Go see flowers! Go see flowers!” Sometimes I could distract him for a while with a new book or toy, or a walk around the neighborhood. Most times, though, I’d bundle him into his car seat and off we’d go: applesauce, burger, superstore. White, yellow, pink, purple, red. Bop, bop, bop. Repeat, ad infinitum.
This childcare arrangement lasted for a year, until his parents’ work schedules changed and our arrangement was no longer convenient. But an hour isn’t so far, and Porter was growing up; he started to spend a weekend with us every month or so.
There were lots of red flags about my little Porter on those weekend visits, but I missed them, as I’d missed them earlier. Did you catch them, up there in the artificial flower aisle? If so, you’d maybe have been a better grandparent than I was. He’s eight now, just about to start third grade, with a handful of diagnoses that make school a place of crippling anxiety. I probably should have seen the seeds of those diagnoses, planted in the plastic and silk of the superstore shelves; before I was Porter’s grandma, I was a mental health worker. If I’d seen them, could I have helped him, alerted his parents, started interventions earlier?
Porter visits for his first weekend after the start of third grade. “How do you like your new teacher, Mister P?” I say. “Do you think school will be okay this year?”
He grins. He’s missing an incisor, and he wiggles its loose companion with his tongue. “It’s awesome, Grandma. Mrs. Washburn has a dinosaur center. Can you believe it?”
He runs off to find my dinosaur box. A flower of hope—neither plastic nor silk—blooms in my grandma heart.
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