When I was three or four years old, roughly the time I realized adults couldn’t see out of the back of their heads or read my mind, I took a brief foray into lying. I say brief because kids have a horrible poker face and my Mom, after deducing that my new lucky rabbit’s foot (not so lucky it turned out) was pinched from a neighbour, sat me down and with a particular look of concern told me that if I started lying I’d stop being able to tell the difference between truth and lies. The deep furrow in her forehead told me this was a serious matter. My Mom was a fairly laid back parent and she only interceded if it merited strong parental guidance. The only other significant memory I have under the age of five was when she suggested smiling might be a good idea – apparently I was a serial scowler until the age of three. It unnerved adults when I would give them a squinty eyed stare of death after they felt the liberty to tousle my hair. Both times I heeded her advice and my family grew up with a fairly amiable and honest kid.
Childhood is great because most things are laid out in black and white. Bad: stealing, punching, lying, cheating, picking your nose and eating the booger. Good: smiling, sharing, taking turns, putting on clean underwear. It hits a snag somewhere in your teenage years when your girlfriend shows up with the high and mighty front bang held a foot above her hairline by a full can of aerosol hairspray. When she asks you if you like it you say Yes. When she asks if you want help styling your hair the same way you say Yes. And Yes, you stop being able to discern if you truly like it or you’re living a lie. Welcome to social pressure.
Marriage becomes the new frontline. The black and white is now entirely grey. Should I tell him I ate a free promotional piece of pizza on the way home while he was preparing dinner? I did. Don’t. Should I tell him his black fedora looks super dorky? I didn’t. Thank God, because he wore it for five more years. I had to school my husband on the good ‘white’ lies in our first year of cohabitation. One day, he walked in just as I had finished dressing myself in a blouse in which I felt fairly confident I looked good. My new husband informed me that I could do better and I should probably change before we headed out for the evening. In his pragmatic man head he was doing me a favour. In my head I was about to do him a favour. I proceeded to explain that our marriage would survive much better odds if he incorporated the infrequent, but awfully useful, white lie in situations where I was happy and content in my self-delusion. He balked at any kind of lying in a marriage, believing it would set a bad precedent. Then, I pointed out how ugly his shirt was. He was an easy convert.
The funny thing about getting older as your parents sidle into retirement is Mom and Dad turn up to old age with selective memory loss. The lovely folks that told you to be yourself, never steal and never lie suddenly draw forth memories that don’t look familiar. Don’t mistake this with dementia, the memories are intact, they are just more titillating. Minor characters are introduced born several years after the event occurred and when time travel is not used as a plot device, they rely on an illegitimate child raised by a distant relative. Sometimes, when I’ve had a few beers, I can listen and fuss not that reality has been abandoned for the sake of a good story. On other days I can’t resolve the contradiction of the parents from my childhood from the shysters sleeping in my guest bed.
I recently read that every time a memory is recalled it is altered, albeit in a small way. Over time, memories that are recalled frequently are the most indistinguishable from the original. The person doing the recollecting is unaware they are forever altering the past. It seems it is human to err and we are all doomed to join the Liars’ Club. It gives one pause when remembering your Mom’s furrowed brow when she was setting you straight at four years old. Or was it a twinkle in her eye?
I descend from a tall family tree of gifted storytellers. I can remember my Grandfather making his coffee pals chuckle over some saucy story or guffawing at the outlandishness of his own tales. My Mom has a story of me just hours old being encased within the hospital plastic bassinet by tensor bandages because I had nearly escaped. I’m not sure how a swaddled baby is able to climb out of a bassinet but then again, my memory from hour 3:16:05 is a bit sketchy. In any case, my entrance into the world seemed a bit more interesting than the average baby.
A few months ago, after having a sit down with our son about lying, using the same delivery my Mom gave me years ago, my son asked if I had ever lied. I lied and told him no. As he walked away with his chirpy confidence in all that is good in the world, including his Mom, I paused to think about Santa Claus. This is a humdinger of a lie perpetuated by parents the world over. As I see it, the old geezer is setting us all up for a major fall from grace. A quintessential moment in childhood is when you realize your parents are fallible and may have questionable moral character. You know the cardboard box of kittens left by the side of the road? Yep, that was my Mom. Remember when the peanut butter and jam packets were easily accessible by the straws and napkins? My Dad is the reason they are now behind the counter. My day of reckoning is coming. Even if my son forgives the fallacy of St. Nick, his world will come crashing down with the truth about the Tooth Fairy, the Leprechaun, the Easter Bunny, the Candy Fairy (she visits the night of Halloween to take some of the candy loot in return for cash), trolls, fairies, gnomes and the time I told him girls don’t fart thereby resting blame on his father for the next five years of methane outbursts. I guess if I’m in the thick of it, I might as well take a tip from the older set and develop a few indispensable plot devices. I’m sure I have an identical twin somewhere…..