Her Bad Mother

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Street Of Misfit Toys

There's an old man who spends a lot of time on our street. Across the street, actually, at house in which he does not live. He has a friend there, another elderly gentleman, the father of the fellow who actually owns the house. Last summer, they spent the entire summer, the two of them, on the verandah, old and gnarled and batshit crazy, singing loudly along to songs playing on their transistor AM radio, pausing in the choruses to drink coffee and beer and growl at each other like old, toothless pirates.

The second gentleman, the one who lives there, doesn't come out much anymore; he recently spent some time in the hospital and now just sits at his window, looking out at the street, watching the children and the squirrels and the birds. And his friend, the old man that comes to visit.

That old man still comes every day.

He comes every day, but he never goes inside. He turns up at dawn every morning, regular as the newspaper, and sits on the verandah with his transistor radio, listening to summer AM oldies, everything from Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey to Paul McCartney and Wings and, sometimes, Katrina and the Waves. He doesn't sing anymore, but he hums along, loudly, and growls his pirate growl at the stray tomcat that lurks near the verandah steps, and at the random ghosts that, it seems, appear and disappear and reappear to him throughout the day. Some days, he paints - he has painted and re-painted the verandah steps, and has painted and repainted the verandah railing, which itself has come up and down at least three times this summer. One day, he set up a tall, spindly birdbath on the front lawn - constructed, it seems, from random bits of scrap metal - and then, the next day, took it down. He is always puttering and pottering - futzing is the word that my mother would use - and talking to himself and humming and drinking and never, ever glancing toward his old friend in the window.

This is, I suppose, how he mourns - for his old friend, not yet gone but already, it seems, lost, and, I expect, for some long-disappeared family, some long-lost love, some yesterday that lives on only in paint fumes and AM radio. I don't know, because he's never told me.

We don't speak, not really. I wave and shout hello across the street when I open the door to collect the newspaper, or the mail. WonderBaby waves and shouts hello when we pass the verandah on the way to the park around the corner. Hi! Man! she shouts. Bye! Man! she hollers and he waves and smiles and growls - aaarrrr, aaaarrrr! - and she laughs and shouts, delighted at the fanfare. Bye-eeeee!

The other week, he spent hours on the lawn across the street, scrubbing some heap of pink plastic. Then, as I watched from our front window, he carried the heap across the street to our drive, and set it down. Then he picked it back up again, and carried back to his adopted lawn, and scrubbed it some more. Then he sat back on the grass, and contemplated it. It was a big, pink, battery-operated toddler car, no doubt purloined from someone's recycling pile. He seemed unsure what to do with it.

I opened the door, and went across the street to where he was sitting. That's a nice car, I said, gesturing to the battered pink monstrosity.

Yep. (mutter mutter mutter) Found broken fixed (mutter). Cleaned it. (mutter) Broke it. (gestures to our house.) Little one?

She'd like it, I said. He smiled, and picked it up ('good good good aaarrrr'), and carried it to our yard. A strange and lovely and isolated gesture, or so I hoped. I didn't really want that ugly pink car in our yard.

Then, last week, I opened our front door, and saw these:

The trucks, not the bathtub. My husband is responsible for that bathtub, former resident of our BATHROOM. Take it up with him.

Two toy trucks. Battered, but scrubbed clean, and lined up neatly behind the bathtub that should really not have spent two whole days on our verandah. Later, when I mentioned it to my husband, he said that he had been out on the verandah talking to contractors about finishing our bathroom, when the old man had rambled across the street and up our drive clutching a toy monster truck. He pressed into my husband's arms, saying nothing, and then growled and retreated across the street. The truck was left on our front steps by my distracted husband when he left for work, abandoned to be tripped over or kicked aside. I noticed it when I bent out the door to pick up the newspaper, but didn't give it a thought. So there it sat.

By the time I opened the door to check the mail, an hour later, there were two trucks. And now, they were lined up neatly by the door, tucked safely against the wall, the better to not be tripped over, or kicked aside.

WonderBaby was delighted. She loves trucks, and big ugly plastic things, and when she saw them she scooped up one and took it out back to put in her big ugly plastic car, which she also loves. Then she scooped up the other, and pushed it through our house, shouting vrroooom vrroooom! to the backyard where it, too, was giving pride of parking place in the front seat of her battered pink Jeep. Then she got in with them and shouted car! car! tuck! and honked the (still functional) horn.

They're ugly, these toys. They're big ugly plastic things, the sorts of things that I turn away from in the toy store. And they're battered and broken and - despite the labours attended to them - a little dirty. But they delight her. They make her smile. She sees beauty in these old, misfit toys, and watching her love them fills my heart to bursting with an inexpressible, ill-understood pain-tinged joy. A happy hurt that I can't quite explain.

That she would fill the heart of this crazy old man, that she would move him, inspire him, I understand. She is breathtaking, and that she smiles and waves and calls to him every morning (Hi yooooooo! Maaaaan! Hy-eeeee!) must be like a fresh, forceful breeze, blowing the ghosts away - or, perhaps, pressing them more closely to him. I don't know. Whatever it is, it is something good. Something beautiful.

That she has so embraced his gifts, that she so loves these dusty, battered tokens of affection, that she so delights in his incomprehensible growl and in the salutory hoisting of his beer bottle - this has taken me by surprise. But why should it? There is magic in dust and wonder in what is old and endless mystery in all that is strange and different and misfit. He is no less amusing and interesting to her than seagulls and goats and the sweet Portuguese baker lady who gives her cookies, and his gifts are no less delightful than anything that my credit card can buy. Perhaps more delightful, because they are scavenged treasure, delivered by a pirate.

She sees beauty and magic where I see age and dementia. She sees treasure where I see junk. She sees friendship where I see loneliness.

She sees far, far more and far, far further than I do, and I love this, and I envy this. From deep, deep in my heart, I envy this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for a beautiful post. It moved me to tears.

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi--I'm a regular reader who's never commented. Have to comment now. I had a similar situation, but our "gifter" (a junk collector by vocation--and I use that v word loosely) happened to be a wife beater with a bad temper. We'd just moved to our neighborhood, and said fellow kept gifting our little boy almost daily. We finally wrote a thank you note telling him we appreciated it but we felt very welcomed to our new home now, thankyouverymuch, and he should please not be so generous. He has since let up on the gifts,which made me more comfortable--especially after I overheard him yelling obscenities at his wife. I like your story much better--an elder pirate is much more appealing than a wife beater, isn't it? And on a related note, I, too, watch how my little boy charms everyone, often even the cold and untouchable ones. Ah, children. Keep writing--you certainly have a way with words.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Candace said...

You are wonderful with words and I very much enjoyed reading this touching story. Please, keep us updated on what happens through the summer...I can't wait to read more.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Julie Pippert said...

How lovely...how you told this story, and his story, a man who takes someone's trash and makes a treasure for someone else.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is beautiful.

My daughter was carrying around a plastic piggy bank as a lovey for a while and not one but two homeless men put money in it. Maybe it is in our nature to get pleasure from giving even when we also need to take but also she is someone who responds with total acceptance and delight to everyone she meets. That might mean something to them and yes, I have so much to learn from her for that.

Sometimes I want to shield her and pull her away from certain people but I think this is another part of her innocence I don't want to touch yet. It is so brief and beautiful and rare.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's amazing how children make others feel...they are little gifts aren't they...children.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Lawyer Mama said...

Of course Wonderbaby would inspire an old pirate. I love her reaction to a man many of us would find a bit...odd, a bit creepy. But children, they know just what to say, just what to do. And, of course, children don't care if toys or people are broken. They just see the fun, wonder, and play.

Beautiful post, HBM.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Julie Marsh said...

I love that story. Your WonderBaby really is a wonder.

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, so very much for writing this. It's beautiful to read and was truly moving. In a way, your old pirate reminds me of my father (who passed on 2yrs ago). Thank you for that, too.

2:45 PM  
Blogger Jen said...

What a lovely post. It reads like a movie - I felt like I was there. Thank you.

2:47 PM  
Blogger flutter said...

This was absolutely beautiful and wonderous. What a sweet soul she has and he too.

2:51 PM  
Blogger flutter said...

This was absolutely beautiful and wonderous. What a sweet soul she has and he too.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was absolutely beautiful. I have tears in my eyes and am wishing that I could give that old man a hug.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Gamer Girl said...

Awww! You put me in tears. This is the sweetest thing I have ever read. Children are amazing, your little girl is an angel. Hug her close for all of us.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Jenifer said...

How lovely. This reminds me so much of my best friend's father-in-law. He frequently visits the "goldmine" aka garbage dump up at their cottage and comes home with all kinds of toys, dolls, etc. (not to mention all the other stuff, I think I counted 6 blenders, 4 vacuums, 3 lawnmowers and 5 or 6 coffeemakers in his shed)that his wife lovingly washes and scrubs and then they give them to my friend's two children as gifts.

Some of the toys are still in a state of disrepair, but his grandchildren love them none the less.

Such a sweet story and you both are good people for warming to someone who appears to be less approachable.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Phoenix said...

I don't know why exactly, but this post made me cry. Thank you for that.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The baby, she is wise!

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your storytelling gifts have conveyed a story that is heatrending. I think that WonderBaby and her thoughts and actions, guileless as they are, have given you the opportunity for epiphanies. Children accept things for what they are, every day is filled with wonder, filled with people of all different ages, shapes and sizes and children are indifferent to these masks. They see beyond the, at times, incomprehesible bluster, and embrace all.

A very lovely posting.

Very poetic.

3:32 PM  
Blogger MsPrufrock said...

Thank you for this post, it is so, so wonderful

3:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fantastic post. I hope someone nominates it for the perfect post award. :-)

3:55 PM  
Blogger ewe are here said...

How wonderful and sweet and sad all at the same time.

In a strange way, the post reminds me of my grandfather. He and my grandmother retired to Flordia, where he took up shuffleboard. Years went by, then one by one, all of his friends that he'd played with for years started to pass on. Until he was the only one left...
He passed away on my birthday during my first year of law school... as I was undeniably his favorite grandchild, it was somehow fitting.

3:59 PM  
Blogger tracey.becker1@gmail.com said...

Oh, what a lovely post...

You DO see beauty in small things, though. Don't you see it? You see the beauty in how your daughter appreciates the world. You are relearning that old and dirty stuff isn't always garbage, and that shiny and new isn't always treasure.

4:10 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

It often seems like the very young and the very old share some kind of bond, unseen, unspoken.

I was thinking this morning about eccentrics and how Pumpkinpie may not have as much exposure to them because our neighbourhood has changed since I grew up with old newfie broads, tiny withered chinese grandmas, and black-shrouded Greek elders, any of whom yelled freely at us. And I wonder if some oddness around you isn't a plus, really.

4:15 PM  
Blogger The City Gal said...

Dear HBM,

My colleagues think I am crazy, sitting at my desk and crying while staring at the monitor!

I am so glad that you accepted the old man's gifts for WonderBaby. I am sure it meant a lot to him to see he made her happy.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Mimi said...

Yes. It hurst because you can't be that way, and she will only be that way ... until she develops taste? I don't know. These sorts of scenes move me in the ways you describe, because of their innocence, the fragility and unexpectedness of the ties they mark. WonderBaby and a crazy old man, making each other happy, inexplicably. It's exactly what you'd want to happen, but it rarely does, and both of them are worlds away from you. Two vulnerable people, getting along.


4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gorgeous post. Just beautiful. I hope you don't mind, I added it to today's Mommy Blog RoundUp page, a blog that features the best daily mom blog posts I (and others) encounter.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

*typing thru the tears* you and your kid...ROCK. Arrrgh! :)

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The innocence of a child truly is bliss.

Once again, another fantastic post C.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Robbin said...

Absolutely beautiful.

6:16 PM  
Blogger S said...

Oh, Catherine. Damn, this was gorgeous.

So many heartbreakingly beautiful posts around the internets today. But yours and Alice's (of finslippy fame) both made me cry.

It's good for the soul, to be moved to tears.

Thank you.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Lara said...

i realize it's a bit inane to say this, not to mention repetitive (i'm hoping you're not getting sick of it), but you are an amazing writer. i just love reading your posts.

6:58 PM  
Blogger MeganZ said...

Fricking beautiful post! I was so moved...

6:59 PM  
Blogger Dawn said...

I always think it is because the young and the old are not really as far apart as they may seem

7:05 PM  
Blogger SciFi Dad said...

That? May be your best post ever.

Seriously, one day I have to meet this amazing kid of yours. Seriously.

7:33 PM  
Blogger PunditMom said...

The clarity of little children can be amazing, can't it?

7:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love this. What a great story - I wonder if she'll remember him as she gets older.

7:37 PM  
Blogger Beck said...

Beautiful. Your elderly neighbour-visitor reminds me of my husband's grandfather, who's a spry old reprobate of nearly 90 and who adores our kids - he makes them wooden treasures and plays endless hands of go fish and they're not quite old enough yet to catch the steady stream of dirty jokes. Some day he'll just be a sweet memory for them....

8:13 PM  
Blogger Girlplustwo said...

it's simply flooring, isn't it...how much they teach us by simply being.

8:15 PM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

Gorgeous. Just... gorgeous. Beauty is everywhere. Thank you for writing this. Your insight is so inspiring.

8:17 PM  
Blogger mamatulip said...

Wow. This is such a riveting, awesome, amazing post. It reminds me of Boo Radley.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Niksmom said...

When you parent a child with special needs, you get those sort of wonderful moments —treasures really — and learning and growth all the time. My son has taught me so much about being a better person than I ever thought I could be (or, frankly, ever wanted to have to be!). Relish the moments...they go so quickly. And find it in yourself to help WB hold on to that innocence as long as you can.

9:00 PM  
Blogger theotherbear said...

What a wonderfully written post.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Crazed Nitwit said...

What wonderful insight you get from WonderBaby! Toddlers are so amazing, aren't they?

9:22 PM  
Blogger metro mama said...

I love this. I too am envious of their simple, honest appreciation.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

Ah, but you do, perhaps not at first glance, but you have a faith many are missing. You see through your daughter's eyes, if only for a moment. You allow her to roam, to explore and experience, and in doing so, I believe, you are able to alight for a moment on the vision you had as a child, the belief you passed, WonderBaby's birthright.

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amazing post! When I thought it could not get any better two more trucks appeared! I love it and am glad it's you. lol

10:06 PM  
Blogger moosh in indy. said...

You dazzle...aaargh.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Granny said...

I love the innocence of children and the compassion of moms who don't throw the toy away just because it's tacky.

10:18 PM  
Blogger Kyla said...

Oy. My heart! It aches!

10:25 PM  
Blogger painted maypole said...

Beautiful and touching. Our children can sure teach us how to love! It's posts like these that make me mourn I didn't start blogging when my daughter was younger... I think of all the stories that I missed putting down in to words.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Run ANC said...

Confirms my opinion that a child's job is to teach us the real meaning of love.

10:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How lovely.

11:00 PM  
Blogger kooolaidred said...

I smiled and teared up all at the same time. This post brings back memories for me of the little old woman across the street from me who was my friend when I was in first grade.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of your best. Lovely.

11:47 PM  
Blogger mo-wo said...

compelling read that.

and, kittenpie is right about the young/old.

12:43 AM  
Blogger OhTheJoys said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Beautiful.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Magpie said...

OMG - what a beautiful post. Thank you. Touching.

7:31 AM  
Blogger Fairly Odd Mother said...

This is why all old people need a little person in their lives; and vice versa. Beautiful post. And, btw, I hope to spend my last days puttering around and growling too.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Laural Dawn said...

How wonderful :)
I am always fascinated when I bring my son to see his 98 year old great grandfather. They can't really communicate, but there's so much love between them. Love to watch it.

9:06 AM  
Blogger Heather said...

It takes a special child to be able to see these things. It takes an extra special parent to be able to see beyond our adult minds and from our child's eye instead.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Extra-special, maybe. But whatever extra-specialness I have, I get from her. xo

10:11 AM  
Blogger landismom said...

Great post, I can really visualize your neighbor and his friend.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This would make a great short story for a magazine. It sort of has a feel to it like that movie As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. The beauty of life interacting to change people, to open the eyes of the sighted to see things they hadn't previously seen.

This is truly beautiful. Really.

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to thank you. What I am writing is so difficult for me that I need a witty detox afterwards. You really help.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely post. Children do amaze...their acceptance of ALL things, regardless of how they look, is sadly a gift that belongs only to the young. WonderBaby will remember him, same as I remember a very old woman who was constantly being called upon to sew up my Mrs. Beasley doll every time my dog ripped her to shreds.

12:19 PM  
Blogger Bon said...

beautiful post. that strange intimacy that the very young and the old often offer each other fascinates me, and breaks my heart.

you have done Wonderbaby a service by writing this down for her, this piece of herself and her history and who she is in the world that she will not be able to remember by herself.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I love this post! It is hilarious and yet also gave me a happy hurt in my heart.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Aliki2006 said...

Beautiful story and very moving. I had a moment like that some months ago and it was truly transformative, too.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Christine said...


What a beautiful, moving, heart wrenching story...on so many levels.

My heart is breaking for that old man. He needs to be needed, to still be relevant, to have a purpose. WonderBaby gives him this. You do, too.

2:28 PM  
Blogger crazymumma said...

I predict I wil become the old woman version of that old man.

He sounds like a beautiful soul and I am sure giving these treasures to WB fills his heart in an amazing way.

In my estimation oh Bad one, this was your best post ever.

2:38 PM  
Blogger NotSoSage said...

This was indeed a beautiful, thoughtful post. It's funny how truly you recognise the cliche that you see the world anew through your child's eyes when you become a parent. We have a similar old man across the street whose voice, I was sure, would scare off Mme L, but she is madly in love with him and screams his name every morning should he happen to be outside.

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mulling over your latest posting made me recall life as a four year old.

Across the street at the corner house lived a widower, Mr. Jones. He was about 85. He lived simply, he had made his money through owning a taxi cab company. Unlike the neighbours, he actually had a maid who looked after him. It seemed, to my eyes, that they really weren't that far apart in age.

I can't remember what we talked about, but I do remember sitting in one of the rocking chairs he had on his verandah in the summer evenings. His maid would come out from time to time and offer fresh fruit -- cherries, plums and other tender fruits. I think it was there that I first tasted cherries -- my mother was not one for fresh produce but for pies, cakes and cookies -- and negotiating the first pit in my mouth. The tangy-sweetness was a revelation.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Damselfly said...

Aw. Sounds like she's teaching you, though...

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shabby beauty of the used item cannot be discounted. This is such a lovely lesson and more zen than you realize. To see the use in something, despite its worn exterior, is clearly an ability your child has. By accepting these gifts, you also elevate the purpose of the elderly man across the street and it brings balance to the universe. How wonderful.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Animal said...

DAMN! You are a fine writer!


6:30 PM  
Blogger Namito said...

In what unexpected ways do we learn from our children.

This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you. And thanks to that wonderful old pirate, who has inadvertently touched so many more people than he can know.

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This child of yours is truly an angel on earth. Truly!
I love imagining her calling out "Hi! Man!" :-)

8:58 PM  
Blogger FENICLE said...

I've never commented here before...but read often.

You see such life & beauty if small things. It's a great perspective to have and a wonderful view to take in.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

lord, woman. that is one hell of a post. i love it so much, and it's exactly what i need to be reading right now. makes me want to start writing writing writing something substantial and meaningful like this.

i'll get on it.

so pleased to call you my friend, lady.

10:12 PM  
Blogger tallulah said...

Thank you. Your gift for the written word is just what I needed today to keep me in perspective of what is true and lovely.

11:19 PM  
Blogger Mama's Moon said...

This was beautiful, and really, has helped me to view things in a different way as it seems I'm going through something similar with my parents and their 'old, pirate' ways. Thank you for sharing this, as I said, it was beautiful.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Miscellaneous-Mum said...


5:46 AM  
Blogger petite gourmand said...

beautiful post- it's amazing what we can actually learn from our children.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Inspired by Alice and Henry, You guys did a good thing.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Michelle Constantinescu said...

Oh, so beautiful! Thank you for a quiet, reflectful moment in an otherwise hectic day!

1:51 PM  
Blogger scarbie doll said...

Haven't been here in a while. Loving the new look. Now I can read you from work again. The tell-tale green was like a magnet for my boss. Plus it hurt my tired, sleepless eyes.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

read often - never comment... My husbands grandfather is not well liked by his children.. Growing up as immigrants there were always difficulties and often the father was rightfully or wrongfully blamed.. I see an older man who smiles huge when i walk into a room (even though he is blind he always knows it is me) who hugs me tight and puts five dollars in my pocket, who always tells me how beautiful his wife is and laughs and sings with joy.. I tell the family that he has a gentle soul and they role their eyes at me. Maybe he wasn't a great father, maybe he tried and maybe he didn't - but in old age he has softened and he is a giving caring man.. Your neighbours friend reminds me of him.. YOU with your baby made that mans day. You for accepting.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you write two amazing posts in a row like this? breathtaking and so very sad.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Rita said...

it brought me to tears... :)

2:14 PM  
Blogger Quiskaeya said...

Simply beautiful!

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still works second time around - great reminder.

11:43 AM  

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