I am very protective of my son’s experience of my childhood. When he stumbles across some detail that was shocking, formative, or pivotal to how I related to stories and how they relate to the world I do as subtle a dance as I am capable between revelation and obfuscation. I recognize that this is futile. I do it nonetheless. This was made abundantly clear to me recently on an evening walk.
My son collects sticks. He thinks they are for his grandfather’s fireplace. The fact that it is in the 100s and humid and the family would collectively strangle his grandfather if he tried to build a fire doesn’t dissuade the collection at all. One might think that, being in Brooklyn, stick collecting might be difficult. One would be wrong. We live near a park that apparently has sticks flown in from all over the Tri-state area. After recent wind and rain storms the sticks on the ground are outnumbered only by the number of sticks in my son’s arms as he screams that they are for grandpa for the fireplace and no he doesn’t care that it’s blisteringly hot, that strangers are grasping our ankles while gasping “water” in death-ridden rattles, that we won’t be seeing grandpa for at least a month.
Normally, I allow him to bring home a stick or two which we then place in a basket for “safe keeping.” The basket then gets emptied a few sticks at a time while certain parties are asleep. (I will be in serious trouble if my son learns to read and finds this essay, so please, no one tell him about this post until he is old enough to handle the truth or I am armed, whichever comes first.) Normally, that’s what we do. However, he recently found the most excellent “Yoda’s Cane” stick I have ever seen. I not only allowed its retention, I actively encouraged it. My wife shook her head with the same sad acceptance of me that she used when I suggested a spot on the wall where we might hang my STAR WARS U.S. postage stamps. They are framed.
While I was the one to suggest that the stick looked like Yoda’s cane, he was quick to agree with me. He has not seen the films, but has seen some of the cartoons. He has a novice’s understanding of Star Wars, The Force, Death Stars and banthas. When subjects such as this come up, questions follow. I give answers both complete and incomplete. This day, as we walked through the muggy evening, he asked me about Yoda. Why does he use a cane? Why does he live in a swamp? Why is he old?
Finally, he stumped me. “Does Yoda die in the movie?” I realized he already knew. My first thought was, “Who told him? Some ‘friend’ at school?” The word “friend” actually floated in my head in quotes, as if talking about spaceships and lasers should be off-limits to five-year-old boys, off-limits until I’m ready to show my son stories that captured me when I was six.
I behave as if artifacts of my youth must be maintained, as if his discovery of them in the wrong way will diminish them. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes before Great Glass Elevator. Winnie the Pooh is read in Pooh’s voice (the best imitation of Sterling Holloway I can manage, a difficult task given the man’s effortless, dreamy, depth). Anakin-is-Luke’s-father-is-Vader-is-killed-is-redeemed-kills-Obi-Wan-is-Yoda’s-student-is-Luke’s-teacher-in-secret must not be discovered.
Here he had discovered something, and not just any bland detail of a B or C level childhood element (does it really matter if he figures out that Flynn goes into the computer in TRON? Well, yes, of course it matters, it matters a very great deal, but not as much as Yoda’s death. In the hierarchy of geekdom there are truths and there are Truths. This was the latter). I struggled for just a moment with the idea of lying, flat out “no”-ing it away.
“Well, I’m not sure. We’ll find out when you’re older and we watch the movies.” I patted myself on the back.
The pat was premature.
“Tommy said he dies. He said he dies and Obi-Wan dies and Vader is Luke’s father.”
I almost enacted a Kirk-like “Tommy!” scream from deep within my proverbial asteroid tomb, buried alive in the cave of my childhood’s secrets. Instead, I took the mature approach: I silently cursed Tommy to a pit in Hell and took a breath.
My son was casual in his question, in his discussion of these character’s deaths, in his curiosity about their relationships. I looked at him and in a sad and sudden flash realized that to him this was only information. These characters might mean something to him someday, something wonderful and exciting and dramatic, or, just as possible, they will simply be something that his Dad loves and so he enjoys it because it’s something we can enjoy together. Worse, maybe he won’t enjoy them at all (someone please remove the spear from my side, thank you). Surprises and shocks in storytelling can only really be that for those who consume them at the forefront. Keeping oneself in the dark on the details, especially after decades have passed (God, I am old) is useless and no fun. (Fun fact: I was the boy who walked from EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and excitedly yelled to my mother, “Vader isn’t really Luke’s father, is he?” We were walking past the line of people waiting to buy tickets, people that groaned and swore at me as if I were their Tommy. (Bonus Fun Fact: I recreated this exact scenario after WRATH OF KHAN, simply replace the Vader phrase with, “I can’t believe Spock died to save the ship!” A college-aged man threatened physical pain, swear to God, and my Mother rushed me to the car. There may have been torches and pitchforks.))
So, why so protective, why so certain that I must keep information from my son until he can experience it “first hand,” experience it, in short, as I had? Because those things had meaning for me, they felt not only important but real. They were the images my childhood language aspired to convey. I wanted us to have those same visions. I wanted his childhood language to be like mine. Yet, I am slowly learning to let go. As we walked from the park, my son doing a remarkable impression of Yoda on the cane, I took a breath and I said, “Yes, he does, but it’s not horrible. He dies because he’s so old and he’s done teaching Luke how to be a Jedi.” This prompted questions about Luke and the Jedi and Death Stars and we had a lovely walk home.
Days later, leaving a theater after watching Toy Story 3, I realized that my son has his own discoveries. On the way home from the film he excitedly reminded me that in Toy Story 2 it was revealed that Zurg is Buzz Lightyear’s father. Missing was any recognition that this was a Star Wars joke, that the joke was for me and not for him. Growing was my realization that it’s always been that way. It’s why people create new works that steal and remake and improve upon what came before. My son will have his own heros and discoveries. They might be like mine, or they, more likely, will be stories being written now. One’s that don’t yet exist. If that’s not a fantastic reason to create something new then why bother creating? We are the crashing wave of culture. We are the newness that awakens other’s need to protect the discoveries of their childhood. We write tomorrow’s spoilers. We write to recapture that surprise in ourselves, to control that piece of culture that shocked us as children. Someone, right now, is making that thing that will give my son’s childhood language.
Still, it can be hard work remembering that my son’s childhood discoveries will be his, that they will be unrecognizable to me. Part of me still clings to the details that have value for me. For him to unearth artifacts of my childhood isn’t wrong. Those details are already out there, spilled by those who can’t help but share the details. I have forgiven Tommy. I had to. I was the one who ruined Spock’s death. I, too, was the one who released Luke’s paternity upon the world.