If I had to show you innocence, I would show you smocking on a dress. A cup of milk. Frost on a jack-o-lantern. A dandelion in a plastic cup. Sidewalk art made with chalk. The way a baby’s lips move while he sleeps. A toddler hanging an ornament on a Christmas tree.
I think of innocence as a gift given to the new, the young. It’s a gift all three of my children are clinging to right know, though they don’t know it. And I know the knowledge that life holds bigger travesties than time-out and hunger for milk is coming.
I was not yet 5, catching lightning bugs with neighborhood friends, when the world became a bigger—and meaner—place to me. Up until that day I considered fireflies magical insects, fairness to be a given, and humans as beings who at least tried to be good. And then I watched as a little boy caught a lightning bug, ripped it apart and wiped the firefly’s softly glowing abdomen across his cheek, like primitive war paint. He laughed about it. No one scolded him. The lightning bug died, not in a Mason jar filled with grass but by the hands of someone who could have—and should have—simply cradled it and then let it fly away.
I was horrified.
Daily I’m amazed at what Sophie knows and yet, grateful for what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know war. Illness, to her, is on the level of a skinned knee—not, say, cancer. She knows of death, in that two of her favorite dogs—Molly and Droopy—are no longer with us—but she doesn’t really know death, the absolute makes-you-want-to-cry permanence of it. She doesn’t know poverty. She gets upset when we’re out of milk—she has no idea the lengths many human beings go just to get clean water. She loves going places—she has no idea our car could crash. I believe she truly believes all people love her, respect her, are out for her best interest and that the worst people can do is not share their toys or scold or demand baths.
As a mother who holds innocence dear, and is OK with a white lie for the young, I love this season. I love telling my children that a plump, jolly, old Santa dressed in red and tarnished with soot is going to drive a reindeer-driven sleigh to our house on Christmas Eve, land on our roof, come down our chimney, fill our stockings, put presents under our tree, go back up our chimney, and then visit millions of other children’s houses—all in a single night. I love that they believe this.
I know life will slowly chip away at my children’s innocence. Or, something terrible may happen and their innocence may be gone in an instance. I don’t know how it will happen, I don’t know the horrors—and beauty—they’ll witness. And as much as I love their innocence I know it would be a disservice to never reveal life’s truths, both good and bad. They need to know them to grow. They need to know them in order to (I hope) become people who can change them, for the better.
Still, for now, I relish soft, white onesies. Well-worn picture books. Dolls that have been put down for naps. Angel imprints in backyard snow. Squeals of laughter. Hands that smell like clementines. And a plate filled with cookies and carrots, and a glass of milk, left by the fireplace on Christmas Eve.
“The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time.” —William Butler Yeats