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War and Protest: Scenes from the Homefront on the First Day of Spring

My heart is racing when Ze asks me, "What does 'blown up' mean, Mama?
War and Protest: Scenes from the Homefront on the First Day of Spring by Shaunna Harrington
Story submitted by Jennifer on Thu 25 Mar 2004 - 11:44 h
War and Protest: Scenes from the Homefront on the First Day of Spring
by Shaunna Harrington

My day officially begins when my four and a half year old daughter runs into my bedroom and announces, "It's the first day of spring, Mama!"

ZoŽ's nursery school has been counting down all week. We toast "Happy Spring!" to each other and to Ennya, our 5 month old baby, and the three of us snuggle under the covers in my bed and talk about the great things that happen in spring: leaves and flowers and chirping birds and going to school without snow pants.

We eat breakfast and get ready for school. I open the kitchen door and the fresh smell of early spring immediately greets me. With the first gulp of warm air, I feel the winter tension in my body begin to dissolve. I smile uncontrollably. I know I will not spend this day counting down the hours until bedtime.

We pile into the car and I look at the radio and remember with a jolt that Iraq is being attacked, that people there are hiding in their homes hoping to survive. There's been a news blackout in our house since the bombing began a day and a half ago. We don't want ZoŽ to know the war has started.

ZoŽ has been at anti-war actions this winter, she knows all the key players. For many months she has been catching snippets from the radio news and asking, "Why are they talking about Saddam Hussein again? I'm sick of hearin' about Saddam."

"Me, too," I always tell her.

This is followed by her standard question, "Why does George Bush want to have a war, Mama?"

I give her my scripted story. "Well, Lovey, Saddam Hussein is a bad man and George Bush thinks the only way to make him stop being bad is to have a war, which means to fight him. But we believe there's always a better way to solve problems. We don't want there to be a war because people will get hurt. It's our job to tell President Bush, 'Keep talking! We don't want war!'"

Our conversations about Saddam and George have been going on so long that they have become intertwined with the kids from "Arthur." Sometimes it feels like we're talking about Muffy and how she has a hard time working things out with the other children. But other times, it's clear that ZoŽ knows this is more serious than the students in Mr. Ratburn's class leaving somebody out of the game because he hasn't lost any of his baby teeth.

I know this when she asks me, "What bad things does Saddam do, Mama? Does he kill people?"

When I hear this, I am sure I am doing the wrong thing. Little girls shouldn't be thinking about murderers. I remind myself that religious holidays are filled with tales of violence, but this does little for my confidence.

"I don't know if he kills people, Sweetie, but I know he has a lot of unfair laws."

ZoŽ has strong opinions about rules and laws. If I steer the conversation just the right way, we will start creating silly laws that let me know we are back on four year old territory. She will tell me through her giggles, "If somebody poops in their pants they have to go to jail!" I will laugh too and start trying to one-up her.

But I don't want to talk about Saddam and George today. I'm not ready to answer questions about what happens in a war. The radio remains silent. I roll down the car windows and ZoŽ and I sing silly bathroom-talk songs on our way to nursery school.

The baby and I drop off ZoŽ at school and spend the morning with a friend and her daughter and so there is no talk about the war. On the way back to the nursery school, I hear a little news on the car radio: Marines hoist an American flag on Iraqi soil; protestors around the world take to the streets. When we pick up ZoŽ at noon, the temperature is pushing toward 60 degrees and the sun is trying to break through the clouds. ZoŽ has had a great day at school which means she is eager to talk on the ride home. We chat about riding bikes and watching flowers grow.

ZoŽ chooses to use her half hour of TV time soon after we arrive home and I sneak upstairs with the baby to listen to the radio in my bedroom. NPR is carrying a press conference with Ari Fleischer. Nothing specific at the moment. A friend calls to talk about the war. We share our outrage, our disbelief, our sadness. There is no question for either of us that this war is wrong. We try to console each other with stories we heard of anti-war protests from the day before. "A thousand people were arrested in San Francisco! Huge groups were in the streets of Boston last night." Neither of us participated. We were home with our young children. Getting out on weeknights requires more organization than we had time for. She asks if I'll be going to any demonstrations today. Six days ago we were together with our children at an anti-war action, but that was easy -- the war hadn't begun. The public reaction would be more hostile now, the mood of the protestors more intense. We agree it isn't a good place for our children to be. My friend and I describe to each other what our signs will say if we can get to a public demonstration.

"I'm going to write 'not in my name,'" I tell her. My friend tells me she will write, "Our troops are not expendable."

ZoŽ yells from downstairs, "Mama! Mama! Where are you? My video is over." She marches up the stairs to my bedroom and asks, "How come whenever my video is over you're not there?"

The phone call ends. The radio is turned off. We eat lunch and head out to the front porch to enjoy the beautiful day as we wait for ZoŽ's friend to arrive. The sun has broken through the clouds and its warmth on my skin makes everything seem different. After months of dragging, I feel alive again. Ennya and I rock on the swing and ZoŽ dances across the porch, her arms and legs moving gracefully to the music in her head.

The phone interrupts us and I go inside to answer it. It's my husband, Greg. He tells me there are mushroom clouds over Baghdad.

Panic overtakes me. "No! Oh my god! No!"

He understands what I am thinking and clarifies, "Not nuclear bombs. Shock and Awe. They're bombing the hell out of Baghdad."

My thoughts turn to the people of Baghdad, but I am quickly brought back home as ZoŽ announces that her friend is here. The girls begin painting on the front porch. I can tell from the way they are playing that I don't need to hover over them. Ennya and I move into the living room. She happily pulls at the toys on her floor gym and I sit beside her watching thousands of tons of bombs rain down on Baghdad on our television screen. The remote control is in my hands, my index finger poised to push 'off' if the girls come in. I hear the commentators speak with words like "awesome" and "spectacular." I hear the girls on the porch talk about playing dress up. I am mesmerized by the images on the TV. I am distracted by my children. I am horrified. I am numb. I can't believe I am sitting here watching this.

I call Greg to find out when he'll be home. "You know I'm going out tonight," I tell him. "I have to protest. I can't sit here."

"Okay," he says, his tone conveying, "I never said you couldn't go."

"All right," I offer back, admitting it's not really his fault that I feel like I have to ask for permission to go out without our daughters while he does not.

He breaks the tension by teasing me, "Just don't get arrested, okay?"

I try to figure out how I am going to get downtown. I'm a nursing mom and there's no breast milk stored and even if there was, Ennya falls asleep at night nursing. Greg could probably rock her to sleep, I tell myself. The baby would be fine without me for three to four hours. But it's Friday night, it's been a long week. Dinner time and bedtime are always tough. It feels like a lot to run out the door when Greg walks in. I consider taking the baby with me. I could stand with the mellow folks. But I want to be at the protest by myself. I have done the family protests throughout this long, brutal winter. I want to be alone on this spring night moving freely through the streets. I don't want to have to worry if my chanting will startle Ennya.

I spend a little time with the girls. The playdate is still going well so I make a couple phone calls to neighborhood activist friends and find out there's a vigil in our town square from 4:30 to 6:00. Greg won't be home before six. I'd have to go to with ZoŽ and Ennya. I struggle with whether I want ZoŽ there. She'll find out the war has started. I don't want to scare her. I don't want her thinking about four and a half year old girls in Iraq hiding from American bombs. My moral reasoning is halted by two little girls who want a snack. We move out to the back yard and eat ice cream and strawberries and giggle at everything: ice cream mustaches, squeaky lawn chairs, a neighbor's barking dog. I bring out our camera and the girls make funny poses that make us laugh even harder.

By 4:45 ZoŽ's friend is gone and I suggest to her that we go for a walk around the neighborhood. I put Ennya in the front pouch and we head toward the square. The sidewalks are full of people enjoying the beautiful late afternoon. Ennya is kicking her legs with glee, giggling at who knows what. ZoŽ and I hold hands and chat about how good it feels to be wearing sandals with no socks. She identifies people we pass as "winter people" or "spring people" based on what they're wearing.

"Mama, he must be sad that he's wearing a sweater," she says.

We approach the square and I see about a dozen activists holding signs. It's a quiet action. I know it will be okay for us to be there.

"Look, Zo," I say, "There's a peace rally. Let's go say 'hello' and see what's going on." She's all for it.

I recognize almost everyone at the vigil. They are glad to see us. They make a special point of welcoming ZoŽ. This is a group that believes children have a place at anti-war actions. There's an area to make signs and ZoŽ tells me she wants to make one.

"How do you write no war, Mama?" I tell her the letters and she writes them on the poster board "NO RAW."

"Now I'm going to make an American flag and an Iraq flag," she tells me.

"Great!" I say, "There are some red and blue markers over there."

"No. I'm going to make it my own way," and she continues drawing with her green marker.

A fellow activist gives ZoŽ a small American flag on a stick and she stands at the intersection with me holding her sign in one hand and waving her flag with the other as if she is directing traffic. She has a huge smile on her face. She is loving this. But I am nervous. I don't want her to know the bombing has started. I speak in ambiguous verb tenses about not wanting war. I listen carefully to where other people's conversations are heading and distract ZoŽ from hearing about details of the war. I want so badly to talk with the other adults about what I saw on TV and about how I feel, but I refrain.

ZoŽ and I talk. "What's a bad beep, Mama?" She heard people conveying to newcomers what the cars' reactions have been.

"That means the driver doesn't agree with us."

"What!" she yells incredulously. "They want war?" She starts laughing at the idea.

I tell her, "Nobody wants war, Sweetie. They're just frustrated because Saddam Hussein is still being bad."

There are a lot of cars in this busy intersection and a few aggressive drivers give us the middle finger or shout "boo" and I wonder if I'm doing the right thing by being here. Ennya is awake and from the feel of her kicking legs I know she's happy, but I turn her around inside the baby carrier so I can look at her face. I watch ZoŽ closely. She really is happy. She thrives on adult attention and public performance.

I worry a little when she yells out, "Good God we're not in Iraq!" I tell her a few times to just let me know when she wants to leave. Each time she assures me, "No, Mama, I want to stay!"

I break my silence about the real disaster only once when a driver stops at the yield sign in front of me and yells, "You wouldn't be standing there if that little baby of yours was blown up." I feel the driver's words crash into my chest. In the second it takes me to catch my breath, I look at ZoŽ and see she is waving to friendly passengers in another car.

I shoot back at the driver, "I'm standing here because there are children in Iraq getting blown up tonight."

He scrunches his eyebrows together and speaks to me as if I am an annoying child, "They're not hurting kids."

Now I'm the one who is frustrated. "Oh yeah? Watch the news. We'll see."

The lane in front of him opens up and he speeds off.

My heart is still racing when ZoŽ asks me, "What does 'blown up' mean, Mama?" I tell her apologetically, "It means 'get hurt'."

We leave at 6:00 when the organizers start packing up. I wonder if there are large protests taking place downtown. People tell ZoŽ she can take her poster home with her but I tell her to leave it for the next time. One of the activists leans down to ZoŽ's height and tells her with genuine respect, "You did your job here very well." ZoŽ smiles proudly.

We take our time walking home. It has gotten a little bit cooler but we're still happy in our sandals with no socks. ZoŽ notices everything and I love to see the world through her eyes.

"Look! They're getting ready for Easter!" she shouts in front of the flower shop. We admire the bunnies and eggs and brightly colored flowers and talk about celebrating the holiday at Nonny's house.

As we walk by the parking lot near Mike's shoe repair shop she asks, "How come there are so many American flags everywhere? Because nobody wants war?"

"Right," I smile, liking the idea that she associates the American flag with peace instead of war.

We stop for a long time in front of the fingernail shop. ZoŽ is intrigued by the Chinese letters and the little house with a small statue inside.

"Who is he?" she asks of the smiling, fat man.

"He's the Buddha. He's special to Buddhists the way Jesus is special to Christians," I tell her.

We are still talking about religion when the sweet smell from the Persian bakery catches our attention. I think of the owner, Mohammad, who spoke at a public forum about how he was verbally threatened in his shop the day after 9-11. We stroll on hand in hand and I realize that my desire to be downtown has passed. I'm right where I want to be.

We approach our house and see the lights on and we know that Greg is home. I hear the hum of the TV as I open our door. He turns it off only after ZoŽ jumps into his lap. He can't bear to miss a minute of the news.

"Anything new?" I ask.

"Not really," he says.

We all move into the kitchen. ZoŽ and I plop into the stools at the counter across from Greg who begins cooking. It feels so good to be off my feet, sitting in my cozy kitchen with my family. I listen to ZoŽ and Greg entertain each other with jokes and stories about their day. I cradle Ennya in my arms and stare at her as she nurses. I bring one of her tiny feet to my lips and cover it with kisses. Oh, life is so sweet. I close my eyes as they fill with tears. It's the first day of spring... and Baghdad is burning.


Epilogue

We kept ZoŽ out of world politics until the day Baghdad "fell" to the Americans. I told her on the way home from school that day that Saddam Hussein was no longer the ruler of Iraq.

"He's just a person now?" she asked.

"Yeah. Well, probably a prisoner," I explained.

"They had the meeting?"

I was confused. "What meeting, Sweetie?"

"You know!" she exclaimed. "The one where they talked and worked it out."

I was prepared to lie to her, to avoid telling her about war, but I admitted to her that the meetings had not worked, and that Saddam Hussein was no longer the ruler because "he lost the fight." We talked for quite a while and the story that emerged from her imagination (I just kept turning her questions back to her) was that George Bush and Saddam Hussein had a sword fight ("Saddam Hussein is not about guns, Mama. He's about swords.") and Bush won so Saddam went to prison and can no longer make bad laws in Iraq.

Later that day she asked me, "So, was George Bush right, Mama?"

I admitted to her that I felt confused too: I was glad Saddam Hussein was gone, but I was not happy that there had been a fight - "a war," I finally said.

As we snuggled in bed that night, she said to me, "Mama, you were wrong. George Bush was right."

In her words I heard the voice of a contemplative mind. She had come to the conclusion that sometimes things cannot be worked out in meetings with people talking. I showed her my respect by letting her have the final word that night. I know there will be plenty of time for her to learn why imperialism and occupation and dropping bombs on civilians are wrong. I just hope there will be enough time for me to learn how to talk to her about these things in ways that are right for her age.

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Mesmerized 02.Apr.2004 22:29

gk

I was mesmerized in the beauty of these words. I recall raising my children during the Viet Nam war. However, we lived in a small country town, and I was not only not near any protests or rallies, I was isolated from it. Now...it is my turn to to dissent in public, and I am!