ladder up diptych by Max Greenstreet
Isaac Bashevis Singer, one my favorite writers, wrote several stories set in pre-holocaust Poland about children who are thought by their Jewish elders to be old souls. These children are prodigies and seem to possess knowledge and wisdom gained in previous lifetimes. This idea of an old soul occurs in nearly all societies and is particularly appealing to those who want to believe in reincarnation. But reincarnation aside, I have always been intrigued by especially wise young children and how they came to be so wise.
When I was in my twenties, I worked as a teacher’s aide in a day care center for low-income children, two-and-a-half to five-years-old. Among our thirty charges were a few unusually mature children, but there was one girl named Susie who seemed to be an adult in the body of a cute little 3-year-old blonde.
Susie gladly played with the other children, especially the quieter ones, and she routinely sought me out for conversation, which none of the other children did. She had a large vocabulary and liked to share with me her insights about what was going on emotionally with the other kids and staff members. These insights would have been remarkable for a teenager, but coming from a three-year-old, they boggled my mind. Susie could be goofy and giggly, but more often she was serious and introspective.
One day Susie came running to me, hugged my leg tightly, and said, “My mother came here. I don’t want to go with her.”
I had not been given much background information on any of the children, which I think was a mistake on the part of our director, an extremely moody woman who often seemed overmatched by her job. But I knew Susie lived with a woman she called Auntie, a woman she related to in a somber way, and by that I mean Susie always became quite subdued when Auntie arrived to pick her up at the end of the day.
Most of the mothers of the kids at our center were single women in their twenties; Auntie was in her fifties. I also knew that Auntie and Susie were in dire straits economically because Auntie frequently asked me for food, which I would give her; cans of fruit and beans and tuna and soup from the day care center kitchen, though I wasn’t supposed to. I could give Auntie food without anyone on the staff knowing because I was also the janitor and the last to leave, and Susie was frequently the last child to be picked up.
So on that day when Susie told me her mother was there, I went out to the playground half-expecting to see Auntie, but there on the street-side of the cyclone fence surrounding the playground was a careworn young woman.
She gave me a fearful smile and said, “I only want Susie for an hour or so. I promise I’ll bring her back before five. Okay?”
“You need to speak to the director,” I said. “I’ll get her for you.”
“Never mind,” said the young woman, running away.
When I reported the incident to our director, I was informed that the young woman was, indeed, Susie’s mother. She was a prostitute and drug addict, and Susie had been taken away from her by the authorities. I asked if Auntie was Susie’s actual aunt or a foster parent, and the director said her records listed Auntie as Susie’s temporary guardian. The director then instructed all staff members to call the police whenever Susie’s mother showed up, which she did a few more times while I worked there, though we never called the police. I think she just wanted a glimpse of her daughter.
On the evening of that first visit from Susie’s mother, while giving Auntie a bag of food, I mentioned that Susie’s mother had come by, and Auntie, who was usually reserved with me said, “If that bitch tries to take Susie away from me, I’ll kill her.”
A couple weeks later, Susie arrived in the morning so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open. The minute Auntie left, Susie lay down on a pillow in a corner of the playroom and slept all morning. And she repeated this behavior almost every day for the next several weeks. But because Susie seemed otherwise well when she woke up, the director decided to allow Susie to sleep when she needed to and not make a big deal out of her sleepiness in the morning. This abrupt change in Susie’s behavior, I later realized, coincided with Auntie no longer asking me for food.
Then one afternoon, I came in from supervising the playground, and found Susie performing a disturbingly sexy dance and singing a torch song for a spellbound group of kids. When she finished her performance, I asked her who taught her the song and dance, and she said, “Auntie did. For my show.”
The finale of this story is that on a weekend a month later, Auntie engaged me to move a new bed and furniture up steep stairs into the little apartment where Susie and Auntie lived. Auntie rewarded me for my labor with a beer, proceeded to get stoned and drunk, and boasted that she had money now because she was taking Susie to private parties in San Francisco where Susie, dressed in a variety of alluring costumes, sang and danced. In between Susie’s performances, the people at these parties, mostly women, passed Susie around, caressing her and kissing her and talking to her, for which they gave Auntie money.
I reported this to our director, she made the necessary calls, and Susie was eventually taken away from Auntie. Susie was then placed in a nearby foster home and continued to come to our daycare center for as long as I worked there. She no longer arrived sleepy and her new guardians picked her up every day shortly after four in the afternoon. Susie would be forty-eight today if she’s still alive.
Another old soul I knew was Amelia. She attended the California Summer School for the Arts when she was fourteen. I was boss of the Creative Writing department at that time, and before I learned otherwise, I thought Amelia must be one of our oldest students. The age range at the school was fourteen to nineteen, and Amelia was by far our most emotionally mature student. She quickly became the motherly friend and confidante of several of my students, and within a few days of her arrival on campus she had a handsome summer school boyfriend, one of our nineteen-year-olds.
Amelia was calm, smart, loquacious, an excellent writer, and very wise for one so young. We became good friends and stayed friends for many years. When Amelia was a senior in high school, I went to visit her and her mother and stepfather. Being with Amelia and her mother was fascinating—Amelia a mature adult, her forty-seven-year-old mother a charming adolescent. And when Amelia and I went to lunch with Amelia’s father and his very young wife, Amelia and I were the adults, while her fifty-year-old father was a classic stoner teenager.
One day when I was six-years-old, I sat in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade classroom observing my fellow six-year-olds, and I was overcome with the surety that I was an ageless being in the body of a child. I told myself to never forget this and to check in with this feeling over the course of my life, which I sometimes remember to do.