A Trip to the Aquarium
My five-year-old has always had a mind of her own. And by always I really do mean that; she’s been loudly expressing her own opinions since the time, as a fetus, when her little feet kicked us away from the dining table my pregnant belly was wedged up against, because I wasn’t giving her enough space. These days we’ve got the art of conversation, but that’s an evolving skill.
Given free reign, my daughter would just sit and draw all day. Of course I can’t give her complete free reign. Grudgingly she accepts school because she likes her teacher, and the other kids. But when she has the freedom to fill her own time, she does so with art. Art is her way of processing a world about which she has more opinions and emotions than her small body can hold.
My daughter’s opinions can be developed dramatically on the spot, but it took her half a day to ask me about the Code White lockdown we went through at an aquarium yesterday afternoon. When she asked about the lockdown on the way to school this morning, she did not refer to it as lockdown, of course. What she wanted to know was why we had to suddenly leave the sting ray pool and assemble quietly in the main building of the aquarium, why they locked the doors and everyone got very serious.
She’d asked no questions at the time. When the lockdown started, my daughter took advantage of the stillness to draw, with crayons, a picture of the bat ray she had just met, a giant one by name of “Flappy.” She added to the picture, in short order, a picture of “Nemo” (i.e. a clownfish) and another of a jellyfish, although we had met no jellyfish, unless you count the toy jellyfish in the aquarium store which caused tears when I told her I wouldn’t buy it.
Usually, when my daughter is drawing, that gives me time to sink back into my own mind and remember who I am. But yesterday, surrounded by this strange crowd of children and their caregivers, all my attention was on the aquarium keepers, talking with each other in low voices, peering out the glass doors. I was doing my best to read the situation from the worried looks on the keepers’ faces.
We’d been given no information about the lockdown, only that we needed to stay inside. But as the time ticked on I grew increasingly anxious about those glass doors, just beyond us. I was looking for signs that I needed move my daughter and her friends and their crayons away from those glass doors. Those doors seemed like they might provide no protection at all.
Protection from what? It didn’t take any great leaps to imagine protection from what. I could easily imagine bullets shattering that glass. But would the rainbow trout exhibit protect us any better than the glass doors?
What kind of question is that?
The kind I couldn’t ask out loud.
When the doors opened and our small crowd dispersed, my daughter made a beeline back to the sting ray exhibit to get the name of the keeper there. She wanted to give the picture she’d just drawn of “Flappy” the bat ray & friends to Flappy’s keeper, but we’d exchanged no names before, so now the keeper spelled her name out for my daughter, who wrote it, in black crayon, on the back of her picture. The name was a short one, the exchange took little time, but the bat ray’s keeper, who might have been half my age, kept looking from me to my five-year-old, back to me, with her hand over her heart. This woman whose face I’d been studying only minutes before to assess how much danger we might all be in, she looked astounded now. Close to tears.
No, I didn’t ask my daughter to do this. Those weren’t words I needed to say.
My daughter has a mind of her own. She wouldn’t draw pictures for other people if I asked her to. No, those words didn’t need to be said either.
This gives me as much joy as it gives you.
One more thing that didn’t need to be said.
If there’d been someone with a gun outside, neither the glass doors nor the rainbow trout exhibit nor my own arms would have saved us.
On the face of the keeper half my age, slowly descending from her own fear, I could see the truth of my thoughts.
After the lockdown lifted I was ready to leave but the children were not. So I let my daughter keep drawing and exploring. Me, I couldn’t stop staring at the ten-year-old sea turtle (twice my daughter’s age), with algae growing on her belly. I envied the sea turtle a life so stable that algae could grow. The sea turtle’s slow-moving turns around her enclosure made me think of an old woman in our neighborhood who grew, from an acorn, a full-sized oak tree. I watched the turtle and thought about the patience required to grow a tree from seed; the trust in the future that requires.
I stood there thinking about the patience and trust required to grow a child, from the time that it’s a fetus eager for the space to run.
“Why did we have to sit quietly in that room at the aquarium?” my five-year-old asked me this morning, on the way to school.
She asked me and I didn’t know what to say. We are working on the art of conversation, she and I, but I still struggle to translate the world I know into the one my daughter draws. Maybe if I wasn’t driving I could have drawn a picture, like she does, to hold all the emotions my small body can’t carry. Maybe I could have drawn a picture of what it’s like to be so amazed by a five-year-old’s soul.
“There might have been danger,” I told her. “But we were safe.”
Anjali Vaidya is a writer currently based in San Diego, California, where she lives with her family. She was the 2020 Pen Parentis Writing Fellow. Her non-fiction has been published in venues such as Orion Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boom California, Public Books, Dissent Magazine, The Wire and Khabar Magazine. She has also published two children’s books with Pratham Books (India). You can find more about her work at http://anjali-vaidya.com.