They Are Who They Are


It is a brilliantly sunny morning, the dogwoods are blooming their delicate traceries of pink and white, and tulips are rioting along the edges of the houses on our street. Paris is standing inside our front door, waiting for the rest of the family to come downstairs. He is dressed in shorts, polo shirt, socks, and shoes; in his belt he has tucked a curved length of driftwood. And on his head, he is wearing–

”Oh no,” I say, coming into the front hall, “Sorry, but you’re not wearing that to church.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because it’s–” My husband comes down the stairs and I appeal to him. “I’m just explaining to Paris that it’s the wrong time in history for him to–”

“What’s that on your head, Paris?” Molly interrupts from the landing.

“He’s a bedouin,” says my husband, amused. “Right?”

“What’s a… whatever-you-said?”

“Bedouin are Arabs who roam around, nomadic people.”

“Excuse me, Mummy,” comes the voice of Violet, from around hip-height, “Can Phoebe and I have some bread–”

“Oh, with tents and camels?”

“–to scatter for the birds–”

“Have you seen my keys?” my husband asks. “I think it’s fine.”

“I can’t find my other shoe,” says Molly.

“Okay, but he has to take if off before we go inside.”

“–so we can find our way home?”

I look down to find the Littles, as they are now known, standing at the foot of the stairs wearing scarves tied like aprons over their dresses.

“I am Gretel, and Phoebe is Hansel,” Violet says with a modest twirl.

“No, I am Gretel!”

“No, Phoebe,” Violet says scorchingly, I am.”

There is a dangerous pause. Irrelevantly, I think of the balding groover whose conversation I happened to overhear at a left-wing bookstore a few days earlier. He was chatting with a young mother, cooing at her fat baby, and expressing a newfound maturity that came, it transpired, from his own recent fatherhood: “I wasn’t a big believer in souls, you know, before,” he told her, “But they are who they are, and they’re not us.”

Phoebe beams and throws wide her arms: “We can be two Gretels!”

“Found it!” Molly yells from the hall closet.

“Good idea–”

“Paris, you have a napkin on your head,” Violet observes, matter-of-factly.

“No I don’t,” he replies irritably, “It’s a towel.”

My husband and I exchange a mirthful glance.

Five minutes later the caravan is under way, strung out along the road with an armed boy in hunter-green dishtowel keffiyeh swaggering cheerfully at the head, and two smaller girls in scarf-aprons scraping crumbs off the dried butt of a baguette at the rear.

Molly drops into place beside me, who am striding along in the middle with the empty stroller. The marital arrangement is that my husband pushes strollers uphill, whereas I push them on flat or downhill portions; perhaps it is my imagination, but the route always seems to be flat or downhill. In fact it is like walking on an enormous Mobius strip that a giant is forever tipping against one’s favor.

“What is the Supreme Bee?” Molly asks suddenly.

I laugh and look sidelong at her, but her face is innocent. It turns out that on a recent school trip to George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon, the children were taken to the General’s tomb. A chaperone suggested, rather bravely, considering, that the children might like to observe a small silence, perhaps even say a quiet prayer. At which point the chaperone’s own daughter piped up, “But Mom, I thought we didn’t have a religion.” To which the mother hastily replied, “Well, dear, we worship the Supreme–”

“–Being,” I tell Molly. “It’s God, but less specific.”

“Phew,” she replies, with evident relief. “I wondered, you know, worshipping a Bee….”

Up ahead, Paris has unsheathed his makeshift scimitar and is jumping around making “Pfwaah!” noises as he beheads invisible baddies. Washington streets on Sunday mornings are generally pretty quiet, apart from the inevitable joggers, but today by embarrassing coincidence we cross paths with two women swathed in head-to-toe black who are coming from the vicinity of a mosque in the direction from which we have come.

Paris biffs and pfwaah’s past them, and I see them exchange a glance. They pass the rest of us without acknowledgement, but I cannot resist looking back. When I do, I see that they too are looking back, at our small swashbuckling sheik, and only the Supreme Bee knows what is passing through their chador-shrouded thoughts. I hope they are not feeling mocked; at the same time, I hope they are not thinking what I would be thinking if I happened to be strolling through Riyadh and saw a local boy in G.I. camouflage, firing off a wooden M-249, which would be, roughly, “Huzzah!”

By the time we have gone much farther, Phoebe and Violet have both climbed into the double stroller, now apparently made of wrought iron, such is its weight, and are gnawing at their bits of dried bread. We arrive at church a mere five minutes late, and there is not a sound from the offspring until, of course, the most hushed moment in the ceremonies. At which point Paris leans across my husband and whispers loudly, “Mummy, is God English or American?”

I can’t help it. I answer, “Both.”


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