He kept looking back at me. He was smiling, almost flirting, hoping I suspected, that I’d smile back. And I did. I couldn’t help it. He was cute and playful and happy, and that kind of attention, after a 12-hour work day, was somehow calming. I diverted my eyes to glance at the drive-thru menu, still not close enough to place my order, and I looked back at him. There he was, smiling the same smile, but this time he was holding a gun, pointing it squarely at me, and simulating shots. I didn’t smile this time, and he was confused. I could tell. So he smiled more, stilling shooting his fake shots, imploring me for a response.
“How old do you think he is?” my husband questioned from the passenger seat.
“Not more than three I think. He’s not even wearing a seat belt. Look at him. He’s up on his knees now, and his mom is just yapping away on the phone.” The judgement dripped haughtily from my mouth when the irony of my own bad parenting slapped me hard in the face.
“Welcome to McDonald’s, would you like to try our….”
“No, thank you,” I cut her off, ashamed of myself and a little annoyed.
“Go ahead with your order.”
My own parenting style and decisions have often caused great debate among my friends and friends of friends. My children don’t and won’t have birthday parties every year. I just don’t think it’s necessary or particularly prudent. I don’t spend hundreds of dollars on name brand clothes and shoes, especially when thrift stores and bargain stores sell perfectly good products at a fraction of the cost. And I have never, ever, let my kids play with guns of any kind.
My father who was a police officer for over 20 years obviously had guns in my childhood home. It was customary for us eat breakfast while he cleaned them, to move them over if we were having company over at lunchtime, or to have dinner with them in the middle of the table. Another member of the family almost. I was neither fascinated nor particularly concerned with their presence. It was just so commonplace.
There was an instance, though, that scared the life out of me. My dad never announced when he was going to have a serious talk with us. It just kind of happened. My dad, normally a jovial, loud, and upbeat guy, would sometimes get into these somber moods that often followed some type of tense telephone conversation we weren’t allowed to be in the room for, and he’d emerge a lot more contemplative and quiet for the next few days. On one such occasion, he asked that my brother and I come upstairs. We were instructed to sit down on the floor outside of his closet, and he carefully removed a bag that we knew existed but weren’t allowed to touch. He opened the bag and pulled out a gun he only used when he had to wear his uniform or go on “special assignments.” It was the fancy one.
“This is called a 9 millimeter,” he began. My brother and I smiled these big, impressed smiles. “It’s heavier than the one I carry every day.” He turned it around, allowing us to admire it. “It’s bigger too. Touch it.” My brother eagerly rubbed his fingers across the gun. I held back a little unsure of where this was going. “Go ahead,” my dad said thrusting the gun my way. Using only my index finger, I rubbed across the bumps and ridges of the big black gun. “Hold it. Feel how heavy it is.” My brother willingly took the gun from my father and remarked at its weight. “You too,” my dad insisted. I cautiously held my hands out and allowed its entire weight to fall into my hands. I couldn’t help smiling nervously, too.
My dad lit a cigarette and took a long drag from it, allowing my brother and I to admire the gun a little longer. Blowing the smoke over our heads, my dad took the gun from us and locked his gaze hard and simultaneously on each of us.
“These kill people,” he said. “Dead never to return. These kill people.” My dad then launched into a loud and forceful diatribe: “not to be played with,” “not a toy,” “responsible for death and utter destruction.” I was too afraid to move. I was too afraid to cry. From that moment forward, the guns were never so readily visible or accessible in our house.
My kids can’t play with water guns. I don’t care how hot or how many other kids are doing so, and when they approach me with sad eyes, I am stubborn and steadfast. “Why?” I ask.
“Because guns kill people and they are not toys,” they recite for the hundredth time.
My husband and I have often felt compelled to defend ourselves at backyard barbecues or birthday parties because our “kids are the only ones who can’t play with them.” We look like oppressive monsters hell-bent on ruining our kids’ fun to our friends. Other party goers roll their eyes or shift their bodies in new directions, physical manifestations of their disapproval. And I admit that I’ve felt guilty and almost like giving in, especially when someone inevitably argues “Didn’t you play with water guns when you were a kid?” Of course, I did. I mean, the Super Soaker came out with these awesome, sales inducing commercials when I was ten-years-old. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had one or were about to get one or had just broken one. But this is just one thing that I just can’t budge on. Every parent has that thing, right? For me, especially living in a city whose gun violence is infamously legendary, I just can’t get behind my kids possibly having an understanding of guns as anything other than weapons that kill people, especially my black son.
I have often thought about that little boy from the drive-thru. I imagine him at 16 like my own little brown boy cute and playful and happy with oversized sense of confidence and positive ambition, a smile, and a well-stocked backpack, trying to get some girl or another to notice them and smile back. I imagine them at 21 graduating from college and forging a career doing something they love and will make them feel fulfilled while simultaneously swelling their parents with pride. I imagine them at 30, deeply in love with their spouses and having wide-eyed, smiling children of their own to protect and have weird little parenting idiosyncrasies that cause other parents to roll their eyes at the obligatory summer get together. I imagine them at 60, retiring from their jobs with family and friends and mentees smiling appreciatively and giving congratulatory slaps on the back and hugs. I imagine them as old men with hairs long grayed or gone, fussing at grandkids and great-grandkids who run over their flowers outlining freshly manicured lawns doubling as football fields. I imagine them sipping lemonade unable to mask the pride as they look down on their progeny, a legacy of love and peace manifested. I never, not once, imagine there’s a gun. To do so, might negate everything else I pray for them.