Illustration by James Callahan
"Clean my fingernails?" The Boy screeched, backing away from me with an affronted glare. "Are you going to make me wear a fancy viewing smock, too?"
His words called to mind a perfect little Victorian gentleman. I was just hoping to de-grubbify him enough so that, when the lights came up at the end of the play we'd be seeing, no one in the adjacent rows would be tempted to call Child Protective Services on me or plant carrot seeds under his nails.
It would be inaccurate to say we don't get out much, because we get out all the time. From a young age, The Boy has frequented restaurants and coffee shops, bookstores and festivals. He's politely applauded everything from puppet shows to belly dancing, and he's actually a surprisingly well-behaved audience member. Maybe that's only surprising if you know him (and then it's really stunning). Part of his compliance might be due to the fact that, as the child of the most underdressed parents at any event, the bar is set pretty low for him as far as formal attire is concerned. Then again, the places we tend to go don't always have the snazziest dress codes, anyway. At the sideshow we attended at the State Fair, we looked downright debonair.
I do sometimes feel a twinge that I don't up the ante on The Boy's cultural experiences. It's the same kind of twinge I feel for not offering him organic produce at every meal, or for letting him read crappy novelizations of Lego product lines instead of insisting on Newbery medal winners. It's a twinge that lasts just until I regain my sanity and my sense of self-preservation, because I am a real person, not some magical perfect mom from the pages of a magazine. I mean, I am from a magazine, but things kind of fall apart after that. And I hope that I let at least one of you off the hook with that admission. Even the moms in the magazines aren't making kale rosettes, I promise.
We do sometimes take our son to more uptown productions than carnival sideshows, but at the same time, I remind myself that we don't need to get too highbrow. The Boy has an impressive vocabulary for his age, which makes it easy to forget that behind that big mouth, there is an 8-year-old brain trying to make sense of what it sees onstage. When I took him to see Jonathan the Juggler recently, he guffawed at the slapstick and chuckled knowingly at the jokes that were intended for parents. Later, he confided that he knew that only a few of the tricks Jonathan performed were actually magic.
Growing up blocks from the Carillon, I was a seasoned theatergoer before I could walk. I remember seeing everything from Grimm's fairy tales to Shakespeare at Dogwood Dell, sometimes with my parents and later, when I was older, on my own, just wandering up after dinner to catch pieces and parts of a play and maybe grab a snow cone in the bargain. The lineup at the Dell slants more toward grandparents than kids these days, but we make it a point to catch the musicals. Like I was at his age, The Boy is more interested in hopping up and down the stone steps of the Dell and seeing how many flavors he can fit in one snow cone. I'm hoping he's getting at least a little culture by osmosis.
Over the summer, the Richmond Shakespeare Festival taunted me, particularly The Comedy of Errors. A perfect mother would have read her son an abridged version, reviewed the important plot points and nuances, and then trotted the family out to Agecroft. Reader, I am not that mother. Also, I know my son, and a 90-minute play would not hold his attention even if the lead character were a Lego robot who repeatedly sprayed the crowd with Nerf darts. The Shakespeare Festival went on without us — and we were delighted to take in the shorter, but no less enriching, Virginia Repertory Theatre performance of Busytown at Willow Lawn. It was fantastic, and we already knew Richard Scarry's oeuvre by heart.