The scene: A warm July afternoon. I am standing on line waiting to order ice cream. A young boy around 5, accompanied by his mother, shifts impatientlyi n front of me. There is time to kill as the line moves as slowly as a lazy summer day. He glances over and we exchange smiles. He continues to stare with a quizzical look both distracting and curiously flirtatious. Finally, unable to contain his composure, he looks up, cocks his headand asks the question that has been preying on his mind: "Are you a girl or a lady?"
The abruptness of his brief interrogation stops me short. It's both amusing and thoughtful, and completely unexpected. Children, in their innocence, have the ability to artlessly and creatively get to the point, and he is anticipating a reply.
"Both," I say, reminding myself that the girl inside me is still very much alive.
He shrugs it off, and seemingly satisfied with my response, swings around to the business at hand: ice cream.
For me, the question isn't as fleeting. I find myself ruminating. What about me seems both girlish and adult? Am I a strange agglomeration of the two, and which takes precedence over the other? His question confuses me. It's provocative and thought provoking, and I find myself straining for an answer that makes sense.
For a moment, I am catapulted back to a time when standing on ice cream lines was a ritualistic indulgence. I am not much older than my little ice cream friend and probably as inquisitive.The adults surrounding me seem intimidating by their largeness, and I am uncomfortably dependent upon them to satisfy my needs and wants -- needs as important as my safety and well-being, and as irrelevant as ice cream. I know my place: one dribble of disappointment and those parental giants can be withholding and punishing. If I become overbearingly zealous and childishly unwieldy, at a moment's notice, rewards can be relinquished.
But my size also allows for leniency. My childlike status permits me room to skillfully navigate around them, to apply charm and woo my parents into submission. Depending on how far I choose to go, they will decide if my acting out is acceptably appropriate, or if restrictions need to be applied.
Children instinctively know their limitations and how far they can stretch themselves before adults intervene and call it quits. In the end, the big people rule. Kids know that, and what they choose to do with that information is their one area of control.
Such thoughts, regressive though they are, flood my mind, accompanied by a slight sense of melancholy, so that even now as an adult, they instill in me empathy for children -- those "miniature prisoners" temporarily trapped their little worlds.
As an adult, I am still shrouded in smallness. While I grew emotionally and intellectually, and broke free form the confines of childhood, I remain height-challenged. Observing it now from an adult platform, the view is vastly different, but to a little boy on an ice cream line, my persona translates into either a large girl or a small lady, and he can't decide which. Admittedly, sometimes the two overlap even for me.
Are adult women supposed to look this small, or am I, in fact, a girl with strange appendages? My physical stature is indeed puzzling, and so he dares to inquire in order to set the record straight and make sense of what seems baffling. But something is amiss. I am, after all, on an ice cream mission. Do adults stand on ice cream lines in the middle of a July afternoon with the same enthusiasm as a kid? Is that part of his conundrum? I take note, and feel obliged to come to his recue.
All the while, his mother, seemingly oblivious to his momentary struggle, awaits word from her son on his ice cream selection. He finally settles on a vanilla cone. I will follow suit. Ice cream preferences often remain constant throughout life. I, the "girl" always preferred vanilla. The "lady" now requests the same.
I fast-forward, imagining that this boy's life will be filled with many questions even more significant and challenging than the one he poses now. New adventures await him at every turn, and ice cream will be but one of many pleasures he will encounter en route to his maturity. Bigger girls and ladies will fill his repertoire.
One of these days in some far-off distant future, he will be standing on another ice cream line where his own son or daughter will be shifting feet in eager anticipation of an ice cream treat. He will be tending to other's needs, and the roles will be reversed.
I wish for my little friend an easy passage into adulthood. I hope that his scraped shins will be few, his heartbreaks manageable, his concerns no more daunting than what he wrestles with today as we stand under the hot sun practically touching. And more than anything, may ice cream cones in the middle of an ordinary summer afternoon, remain a necessary requirement.
"Are you a girl or a lady?" he boldly rises to the occasion, and asks.
"Both," I tell him with conviction, and "both" I clearly am.
Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.judithmarks-white.com