The Missing Puzzle Piece
Today, I watch kids running up and down the aisles of a grocery store, snatching up whatever they can, screeching demands at their parents.
It makes me crazy.
I take pride in my child's behavior. Rosa is 5 years old. She acts up a little at home, but in public she knows to stay by my side and not touch a thing. It's just consistency and training, with an occasional whack to put her back in line (not to worry, it looks worse than it feels). Other parents just don't know how to discipline their kids.
When Rosa and I reach the magazine section, we sit on the floor by the comics rack take half an hour to read together. I sit cross-legged, and Rosa settles close to me. It's a little bonding thing I like to do with her. I want to encourage her to read and to offer an incentive for grocery shopping with Mami.
Rosa has me giggling at an Archie comic when I hear it. On the toy side of the aisle, a blonde boy about Rosa’s age has gotten too attached to one of them. He has a death grip on a Koosh ball. His mother had asked him to please put the ball back, and he had a complete meltdown. I was disgusted at how passive she was being.
A white woman with zero parenting skills. How is it that so many white people don't know how to discipline their kids?
He is throwing himself on the floor, kicking his legs up in the air and screaming. His mother looks pale, and doesn’t seem to know what to do. I watch the exhaustion in her eyes, but can’t find it within myself to feel empathy. I roll my eyes and poke Rosa. "You see that, mija? There's an example of how you don't behave, especially in public. If you ever do that to me, I'll knock your teeth into your throat. Hear me?" She knows it’s an empty threat, but she also understands how serious I am. She looks up at me with her large brown eyes and nods, her brown curls bouncing.
I get up and dust off the back of my jeans. “Come on, mamita,” I say to my daughter. She gets up and I grab my daughter's hand to pull her away from the scene. How dare that mother subject my daughter and me to her personal parenting failure. And to think, the same society that offers useless parenting tips to that mother looks down on us Puerto Ricans for the way we raise our families. I may be a single mother, but I've got things handled.
With the grocery list complete, we head to the checkout line. I pick the shortest line without realizing who is right in front of us-the woman and her crazy child. He is silent at this point. I notice that he was about the same height as Rosa. He was pretty cute, and I smile despite myself. I see the Koosh ball in his hand and shake my head. She gave in, and now he'll always think he can tantrum to get what he wants.
The mother whispers something to the cashier, who just nods with understanding. The mother kneels down to her son's level and says, "Eli, the nice lady is going to scan your ball. I'm going to pick you up and let her scan it, but it is staying in your hand, ok?" The boy isn't looking her directly in the eye; he looks to the side and nods his head once. Wondering how this will play out, I take a small step back and watch the mother cautiously pick up her child so the cashier could ring up his toy. She put him back down and smiles, clearly relieved for his cooperation.
I felt furious; my daughter was seeing another kid get as spoiled as rotten milk. But I could feel my gut trying to tell me a story that I didn't understand yet.
The mother pays for her order, picks up her son in one hand, and pushes the carriage with the other. I smile at the cashier, who rings up my items. Rosa slips her hand in mine as we walk through the parking lot.
Rosa is in the backseat of the car while I am unloading groceries from the trunk. I see a gray minivan drive past me with the same mother and boy I saw in the grocery store. We briefly make eye contact; I see her son in the backseat, holding onto the ball.
I watch her drive away, thinking of all the wrong things she’s doing as a mother.
Then I see it: one of those tacky decals people absently slap on their cars. It was blue and in the shape of a puzzle piece. I squint and barely make out the words: Autism speaks.
All the shame in the world rush through me in that moment. I want to vomit my ignorance. As the moment of guilt and shame pass, I close the car trunk and push the cart away. I get in the car and look at Rosa through the rearview mirror. She is singing to herself, and I smile.
“I love you, Nena,” I say.
She stops singing and smiles, revealing her row of baby teeth. “Love you, Mami.”
I know that I am going to have to explain this moment to her so she doesn’t grow up to be judgmental and ignorant to the complex issues in this world. I sigh, click in my seatbelt, and put the car in reverse. My ego is bruised; what have I been doing wrong as a mother all along?