- Boy Eats World
In the spring, it takes a long time to walk down our Chicago block, past the budding maple trees and bare, scaly sycamores. By early summer, leaves will form a canopy that casts the whole front of our building in shade, but in spring the sun is unfiltered, the world painfully bright. The sidewalk crawls with ants and the occasional earthworm, marooned after last night’s rain. A squirrel stands on its hind legs, craning its neck toward us and chattering. We’re not getting anywhere.
Not that we have to get anywhere, but the plan was to walk to the park. To swing and climb and drive the wooden fire engine. To run through the grass because I think children should run through grass every day. Still, I’m flexible. I could spend the next hour on this block, examining the beetle heading up a wrought-iron fence, loading our pockets with wet stones. But the slower we move, the more dangerous the street becomes.
Andrew is almost two years old. Everything in this enormous world exists for him alone. He lumbers toward the brazen squirrel, arms outstretched. He pinches the beetle and carries it, legs kicking, toward his lips. He waits until I glance away, at a large dog dragging its owner toward us, and pops a stone into his mouth. “No, honey, no,” I say, trying to remember how to save a choking toddler. When the dog approaches, Andrew squirms away from me and greets him, tongue to tongue.
So I hurry him along. “Not in the mouth, crazy man,” is my constant refrain. But so much captivates him! Around the corner on Glenwood Avenue, patchy gardens line the parkways between sidewalk and street. Here are clumps of prairie weeds, flowering hostas, tiny new impatiens. Andrew trudges, palm [End Page 31] open, slapping the plants, and when a leaf or a flower sticks to his finger, he licks it off. “No!” I say. “Spit!” Because there are poisons, too, along a city street. Jimsonweed, rhododendrons, jack-in-the-pulpits, pokeweed—all potentially toxic to a two-year-old. Not to mention unsanitary, since these curbside gardens are where dogs pee.
Throughout the spring and into the summer we walk to the park, and every chance Andrew gets, he eats. If we run into a friend, if I start to chat and take my eyes off him for a few seconds, I find bits of mulch around his mouth, hear him sucking on dandelion stems. Once a small hunk of desiccated poop, so old it’s almost white, brushes his moist lips before I swat it away.
Then, as June turns toward July, as we pare down to shorts and sunscreen and walk mostly in the shade, berries appear. Everywhere. Some grow on bushes, miniature blueberries that the birds don’t touch. Some look like round strawberries, or holly berries, or plastic beads, and each time Andrew reaches for one, I repeat the mantra, “We don’t eat those.” One day he bends over the sidewalk just outside the park and points. The concrete is purple with juice, and whole berries squash under our sandals. I look up to the source, a mulberry tree in the front yard of a two-flat.
Suddenly I’m thinking of an afternoon years ago, in graduate school, when a couple of friends and I were walking over a bridge. This was in a small city, early in what would become a long period of Midwest urban dwelling without a yard of my own or space to garden. Beside the bridge, on a sloping bank, stood a white mulberry tree, its branches hanging over the guardrail toward us. “Look at all these pale berries,” one of my friends said, and I stopped, dizzy. Years before, I’d lived in a cottage in upstate New York, on property filled with raspberries, blackberries, mulberries both red and white. I’d filled buckets with them, baked pies. I’d eaten mulberries on my cereal in the morning, delighted by how easy it was to walk down the driveway and pick from the lower branches, like shopping outdoors.