Richmond is a hothouse of mosquitoes in summer and ice slicks in winter. A haven of deep potholes and elaborately painted murals. River and hills, it is both the site of my birth and the bewitcher of my children.
It appears that somehow, in a city whose reputation is for stagnancy, I am late. My children are 10 and 13 and I am behind the curve on their sex education. The city I perceived as a dusty behemoth has turned out to be a spry gossip full of questionable tidbits and peculiar tales. The city whispers into their always listening ears.
Daily the kids come home with notions brewed from a miasma of bus stop rumors, glimpses of taboo, and the partly overheard, of which they believe every word. The city apparently doesn’t have time for clarification.
When these surprises began I assumed the city was too preoccupied with the past to be influencing the next generation and so focused on the most likely culprit: climate change. This was when my then second-grade girl-child cultivated an interest in all things bra. I chalked it up to unseasonable warmth — she was seeing them around. Yes, I blamed the ozone layer when I should have blamed the Fan District and its student dress code. Denial happens.
My son started acting weird two Decembers ago regarding the open-air ice rink downtown. Suddenly there were weekly requests for skate nights with friends. I thought it was a sporting interest, but ever since that fateful season no one skates and alternately giggly and growly female people appear in the proximity of my frontyard.
Like new grocery stores, for every X-File created, two more would pop up with the children. I checked both for fever and sore throat. I watched their grades. Then one seemingly innocent day they were laughing their heads off in another room and when I entered, I nearly shrieked, “Witchcraft!”
Through imitation of the moves, my precious angels were demonstrating what gets one in trouble at a city school dance as witnessed in their respective grades. Mine eyes had seen the twerk and it was bad, very bad.
There could be only one answer: Richmond had bewitched my children. Once diagnosed, my son showed all the signs: humming along to No BS Brass albums, curiosity about the river, requests to go walk around Carytown. My daughter developed an interest in dance, art, music and science brought on by a grandmother’s exuberant museum memberships and extra tickets to theaters. And after all these activities — questions. Of me. Really hard questions.
“What does — mean? I saw this T-shirt that said … ? Is it true that people pierce …? Why did Romeo and Juliet …? Why did all my classmates turn into moody weirdos overnight? Is it the zombie apocalypse? Please say it is.”
I will naturally testify that I did not deserve this. Like every other failed parent from Eve to Old Mother Hubbard, I tried. From their preschool years I described babies to babies in lush but nonthreatening botanical terms: seeds, flowers, gardens. When they turned 4 and all interests had wheels, questions were answered with automotive engineering metaphors. By school age, they could grow radishes and they knew where to wash, how often and with what on their bodies and my Honda Accord. What could go wrong?
I stopped listening to the city. That’s what went wrong. I work, read, have my routines, but lost touch with Richmond’s seasons. As a parent it seems that lurking around every historic, restaurant-bedecked corner in this town is another provocative lure into a Grimm brothers wilderness of sex myth. You have to be on watch.
But it’s on, Richmond. It is so very on. You were my broken-down old town of mystery before you were theirs. I don’t have to just react to what they bring home — I can use the city as my lesson plan.
My daughter wanted to talk about cute famous people. I chose author China Miéville, whom I wouldn’t recognize in person, but who beats out other bald, buff contenders Common, L.L. Cool. J., and Mr. Clean because, duh, I’ve read him. I may as well have spoken in Greek parable to her. But armed with my new awareness of the city’s complicity, we went to the art museum where it was determined that Rodin wasn’t cute, but he could sculpt like nobody’s business, which enlightened her on both poor Camille Claudel and her mother’s thinking.
Also unsuccessful when undertaken alone was a discussion with my son about gender identity. I talked for a week. Benedict Cumberbatch covered it in a comedic 10 minutes of “Zoolander 2” at the Byrd Theatre. Next time we’ll just hit drag brunch so we can get a waffle, too.
I was young for many a Richmond spring, so I got this. I know how the mélange of your dogwoods and azaleas in bloom makes couples have an allergic reaction to their clothes with a concurrent magnetic attraction to each other. I know what’s on parade at the annual Easter parade and I’m telling. I have lived the intoxicating combination of hot sun and ice cold river water. I remember how parks and statues, museums and historic battlefields were places to go with a cutie — to get to know each other and also perhaps find out if they’re ticklish. And don’t get me started on cobblestoned alleys.
It may be the ultimate season of Richmond enchantment with blossoms, birds and bees but I fear no witching. Whisper away, Richmond. Ask away, children. I’m ready now. I’ve got this covered.
Until summer. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister, freelance teacher, writer, and grief and bereavement counselor.