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Elephants in the Kitchen and other Stories from Children
I was the neighborhood babysitter ever since I was old enough to watch the other kids. I had a playhouse, art supplies, legos, My Little Ponies, blocks, and a basketball hoop, essentially everything any kid could want to play with. The families all knew my family, a plus for being the third generation to live there, so safety was never an issue. Sometimes, however, there were odd questions that came up.
One new family was assured that I was a great babysitter, and promptly started having their two daughters hang out at my house. I was a teenager then. My mom got a call from the girls' mom a week after they first started coming over. The mom had one question for her, "What is this about elephants in your kitchen?" It turns out, one of the girls was quite concerned that we had a picture of a recent trip to Wildlife Safari on the counter, showing me riding an elephant! After that was explained, and the mom was told we also had a deer hanging on the wall (another photo) and cats in the cabinet (my mug collection), she was convinced that we were a little nutty, but good people. She never worried about us again, and to this day her daughters and I are still great friends.
As an adult, I still find myself entertaining the neighborhood children. Part of it is that I'm still a bit nutty, and kids always find that a bonus when a grownup can share in their silliness and imagination. Part of it is because I am a teacher, and parents know that I know how to take care of kids. Part of it is that mysterious thread that holds all of us together, somehow putting the right people in situations to enrich all of society. So, here are a few more stories from my adult life with children.
After I moved into an apartment, my neighbors quickly found out that I was an artist. I would frequently put the card table up outside, take my rubber stamps and paper, and set up making cards. Of course, this was an immediate attraction for the children, who would come over while playing, sit down, and say, "What'cha doing?" I'd send them running back to get their parents' permission to be there, then show them how to make their own cards and printed paper. Sometimes I would have one visitor, sometimes five or six.
If I wasn't out and the kids wanted to play or do art, they would knock on my door. If I wasn't available, there was a notepad to write a message for me, or draw a note. When I answered the door, even if I was busy, I'd often let them take the art supplies outside by themselves (provided their parents had said it was alright to have them come inside).
Once inside my house, however, they found other things to play with! Preschool teachers and artists collect a lot of fun "junk", and it doesn't take long for kids to realize that. They found puppets, books, legos, stuffed animals, and (a perennial favorite) my childhood My Little Pony collection. I have one rule about the stuff they can play with: keep it on a blanket or table. Neat sheets come in very handy, so the kids have a defined play area that also keeps the toys clean no matter what the weather conditions (unless it's raining).
One of the parents became suspicious of the toys her children were playing with, and came over to investigate. She took one look and joined in, telling me "They said they were playing art and dressing up ponies, and I just had to see what they were actually doing!" Every so often, she would come borrow a toy or two for home, if one of the kids was sick or just needed something else to play with.
Every so often, I nanny for families outside my neighborhood, especially in the summer. I ride the bus, and taking children on public transportation is always a bit of a challenge but a rewarding learning experience for them. At three years old, one of my nanny charges with developmental delays was just learning how to talk. After his first field trip, he happily told his mom, "B! B, Mac, Nene (he couldn't say my name properly) B owl! Arooooo, yip, yip, yip, boat!"
She looked at me, completely baffled. I translated, "We went on the bus and the MAX (light rail) to the World Forestry Center, and got our pictures taken on a raft there." The little boy nodded happily and showed her the picture. The forestry center was, from that day on, christened "the owl", because of a hooting owl when you first walk in. It also has a coyote sound, which accounted for the "aroooo, yip, yip, yip".
Another time, that same little boy's cat got outside and got pregnant. The day before she had kittens, I was telling the boy how to be nice to the babies when they came. I described how to pet them carefully, and never pick them up. I explained that they needed to be warm, and be with their mom kitty in a nice, warm place. He'd already been over to my house, and played with my four cats, so he knew how cats behaved, but I didn't want him getting scratched or trying to play with the kittens right away. I went to make lunch, and he went to play with toys (or so I thought). Suddenly, there he was at my side, wanting me to come look at something he'd built for the mama cat. He led me over to a pile of pillows, blankets, and shoes: a "nest" for the cat and kittens where they would be nice and warm! I told him that it was a good, warm nest, and listened as he told me that the blankets would be cozy for them to curl up in, and the pillows would be soft. I then asked, "But what about the shoes?" He said, smiling, "Because kitties like shoes."
True enough, because he'd watched my cats play with my shoes like toys! One of my cats puts his paws in my sandals and "wears" them. Two others use them as chewing and kicking toys. Little did I know that he had noticed that!
I recently got married, which was a subject of great wonder for my students. They all had questions for me, such as where I was going to live, what would happen to my cats, and what I was going to wear. One little girl, about four years old, had a really perceptive question: "Are you still going to be Miss Karen?" She'd obviously heard that women who got married changed their name, and wanted to be sure what to call me. I explained that some people change their last name, but my first name wasn't changing, and told her I would be "Mrs. Karen" now. That change made sense to her.
I know there will be other stories in the future, so long as I'm around children. They always have a great perspective of the world, and it's so refreshing for us adults. It keeps us from becoming too jaded, when we hear what kids have to say.