Thursday, August 11, 2016

Stranger Danger

One Friday afternoon... We were at the bank. There were ten customers ahead of us and the line wasn't moving. Not one inch. As usual the baby could not stay still. I carried her in my arms and stood right at the back, behind the rows of seats. There were a few empty ones but I didn't want to sit down... until one customer pointed an empty seat to me. I guess he saw one old woman carrying a fussy toddler and was trying to be helpful.

So we sat down, Baby and I, sharing one wide chair. The waiting continued. When the lady next to us got up, a newly arrived male customer took her empty seat almost immediately. He plonked a heavy, ballooned up plastic bag at his feet and sat next to us for a few minutes before he got up and went to the counter. No number. No queuing up. No one objected. A special customer perhaps?

"He's stinky," said Baby. And only then it struck me: the odour of stale urine in the air. I glanced at the seat the man had vacated and saw it had a shiny wetness. I looked at him standing at the counter a few feet away. The inner legs of his brown trousers were wet down to the knees. Oh no, I thought, someone not normal?

I have this phobia of 'not normal' people—long story—and I didn't want to be seated next to him when he had finished his business at the counter so I returned to the back area. We continued waiting for our turn. Our line was still not moving. Baby was getting fidgety and commenting loudly about the people she saw. "Oh, look at that man. That's not a walking stick! It's an umbrella he's using as a walking stick."

Other lines were moving quite fast. It was 2.30 and there were fewer people waiting. Only our line, Customer Service, was at a standstill. Then finally one customer was called. There were nine more in front of me.

Baby was getting impatient and I was issuing threats. See that man with the walking stick? You don't want to go near him!

Mr. Stinky Man was back in his seat and had turned a few times and seen us at the back. I caught him looking with a smile on his face but as long as he stayed in his seat, I didn't care what expressions he displayed.

All of a sudden, the man got up. He went to the back where we were minding our own business—me standing up and Baby sitting on the floor at my feet. As he walked briskly in front of me he touched Baby's head with his hand before he walked back to his seat. I was taken completely by surprise. He went to the back for nothing but to touch my baby's head!  Why did he do what he did?

Did I protest or make a scene? Would you if you were me? Could you risk a violent response from a 'not normal' person? (Normal people don't go around with pee-wet pants... nor touch the heads of strange kids.) This man was somebody's husband/father/sibling/loved one—a hero in somebody’s life—so I contained my anger and carried Baby to the farthest side of the room, away from the seats, away from the man.

I was thankful and relieved when our number was finally called. I carried baby to 'Customer Service' and made her sit on my lap. While I was busy rummaging in my bag for assorted documents, my back to the man, he got up, stretched out his hand and touched Baby's head again!

Did I lose my cool and give him a piece of my mind... and frighten the baby in the process? I took a deep breath, held my peace and cursed silently. And I kept Baby firmly on my lap while making the chair a shield between us and the man.

I decided to tell Baby to be wary of strangers. I feel sad that I have to tell her about stranger danger just when she’s beginning to enjoy the company of people outside the family. I am torn between wanting to let her ‘discover’ people and the need to ensure she’s safe from harm. But it's always better to be safe than sorry.

If you had been that stranger at the bank and you're not a pervert but a decent, God-fearing man, you will understand why I was upset by your being "over-familiar" with the child.

Dear reader, how would you feel if a stranger takes the liberty of placing his hand on your head... or if he touches any part of your body? If you can't accept the 'show of affection' why would you think it is fine to do it to a kid? 

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Gone Too Soon

Courtesy of Cousin Winnie

I got the sad news at sundown. My brother has just died. It was a heart attack.

A heart attack? I don't know what to think. He was years younger than me, the youngest, save three, of us twelve siblings. And as far as I know, he neither drank nor smoked... nor indulged in affairs. He was always working to make ends meet. Life hadn't been easy for him, not with a wife and four kids to support. As if that wasn't enough a burden, he also adopted a little baby, a relative from his wife's side.

Perhaps it was this trait—this generosity—that drove him to part with his money as soon as he received his wages. He’d buy gifts just to make kids happy. He'd use his last dime to pay for a trip to visit our ailing mother—the mother who didn't actually raise him (for he grew up with my paternal aunt's family, a day's train ride away from our village.)

I saw him only once in a while at family events and there'd be long intervals between occasions. In fact, after not seeing him for many years, I didn't recognize him at my cousin's funeral. What I saw was a no-longer-young man with a receding hairline and a few missing teeth taking pictures quite enthusiastically at the front of the church. And I had wondered who that 'old man' was! Imagine my surprise when I learnt he was my own brother, Julian!

Oh Julian! What happened to the cute baby boy who joined us at our aunt's house when he was about a year old? What happened to the chubby cheeks and beautiful, round eyes peeking from under a thick fringe? The twinkle in the eyes was still there and the ready smiles too, when he talked of happy things but one could see he had too many cares, too much to think about now that he had a growing family to take care of.

There was a time, long ago, before he reached adulthood, when he was a carefree boy doted on by my aunt and growing up on a farm and I paid a visit. I'll never forget how he made feel. It was the first time we met after many years of separation. I couldn't understand why he seemed so pleased to see me but it felt good to be very welcome. As though he wanted to share his happiness, he led me across the bridge to a relative's house on the far side of the river. And he introduced me to this family, his face glowing with pride as if I had accomplished something great or I was an important person and not merely a long-lost elder sister.

Now that he has gone, it's too late to wish we should have slowed down and spend more time in each other’s company. I will miss him, my humble, unassuming, kid brother with a big heart.

Goodbye, Julian, and May the Good Shepherd guide you home.

 You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. DESMOND TUTU