Last summer, I accidentally told my 4-year-old nephew about 9/11.
In my defense, he’s smarter than I am. Anything I come up with to distract him so that I can get something done is always going to backfire. On some level, I think he knows that adults are trying to fob him off on a distraction so that they can not pay attention to him, and he is not having any, thanks very much.
We were packing up to leave the Cape after a two-week vacation, me and Adam, my sister, and her children, and Mom and Dad. Dad was bleaching the whole house or something and Mom was probably washing Christmas decorations that she’d found in the basement. Meg, I assume, was looking for someone’s favorite toy. Adam schlepped boxes in and out from the house, and I camped out in the mini-van, trying to keep Oz from throwing himself in the lake or jumping off the roof or starting smoking — whatever dangerous thing he had planned in his preschooler mind.
We were sitting in the front seat of the van, and I was showing him Google images of New York on my phone. Although he’s only been once, for my wedding when he was two years old, Oz is obsessed with New York. (Sample conversation: “Oh, boy! You know what, Mommy? I gonna go to Uncle Jennie’s house, and we gonna go to the Statue of Livery. I gonna have a pretzel, and a lemonade.” Kid knows how to party.)
So we were looking for pictures of the Statue of Livery, and of course, the very first one was the statue in the foreground, the burning towers in the background. I tried clicking past it.
“What’s that?” Oz asked.
“The Statue of Liberty,” I said. “Look at this one! It’s an old picture, from the ’40s!”
“What was that one?”
“Uncle Jennie, what was wrong with those buildings?”
I shut my phone off and said, “Those buildings were the World Trade Center, buddy. They don’t exist anymore.”
Big eyes wide. “Why?”
“Some bad guys knocked them down. That picture was just before.”
“Let me see.”
I turned my phone back on and cued up the picture and passed it over. He looked at it, being very careful not to touch the screen so the picture wouldn’t go away. He’s significantly better with touchscreens than I am.
“Why did they do that?”
“Well, it’s complicated. Not even most adults really understand everything about why a person would do something like that. ”
Oz thought a minute. “Can I see them?”
“The bad guys.”
I had a brief mental picture of showing my nephew a photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, looking like an evil muppet who had just been woken out of a thousand-year slumber, and dismissed it.
“You know, when bad guys do stuff like this, we don’t like to concentrate on them,” I said.
“Because that’s what they want. We don’t understand everything about why they do what they do, but we know they want our attention. So instead, we look at the good guys, the guys who help.” I flicked my phone and did a quick search. “See these guys?”
“That’s right. They’re some of the people who helped, after. And these guys…”
“Policemen! Like my daddy.”
“Like your daddy. It’s better to think about the helpers, the people who make things better after something bad happens.”
“OK. You know what, though?”
“I have a whole bag of candy, and I can eat it, because it’s vacation.” He looked at me innocently.
“It’s 10 a.m., man.”
“Yeah, but maybe we should go get my bag of candy now.”
Just then, Meg came out of the house, holding a basket of beloved, absolutely essential toys that had been left to moulder under couches for a week, and Oz sprang out of the car like he hadn’t seen her in a year, and started making his case about the candy.
“No, it’s 10 a.m. You can have juice. Go ask Gaga.”
When he ran into the house, I said, “Good news! I accidentally told your son about 9/11.” And I told her the story.
“Oh, that’s a relief,” she said. “Maybe we’ll send him to you for all the difficult discussions.”
“It takes a village,” I agreed.
Image: U.S. National Park Service, via Amistad Digital Resource