Thursday, March 11, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On

I imagine what it must have been like, spending the night in the London underground during a Nazi bombing raid, then trudging up those high stairs at the sound of the all-clear. First light would be breaking, and, as I adjusted my sensible hat and pulled on a pair of gloves, I would notice a poster across the street, plastered to the only wall still standing on what had been a building the night before. Keep Calm and Carry On, the poster would say. Checking quickly to see that the dome of St. Paul’s was still in one piece, I’d clutch my umbrella to my side and head off briskly down the street, determined to do just that. My upper lip, and my resolve, would be perfectly stiff.

But it never could have happened that way. It turns out that the Keep Calm and Carry On poster was created by the Britain’s Ministry of Information early in the war. It was the secret propaganda weapon that was going to be plastered on every available surface in the event, which seemed horribly likely at times, that the Nazis actually invaded the island nation. The poster, happily never used and eventually forgotten, was rediscovered in 2000 in a secondhand bookstore in England.

Why it chose to make itself appear more than sixty years after it had been put in reserve in case it was needed to keep people from freaking out, after that “fighting them on the beaches” thing had failed to do the trick, is one of those great mysteries that always surround why things turn up when they do, like the wedding ring in the fish’s belly, found twenty years later. I like to think that the British people didn’t require one smidgen of extra bucking up in 1940, but that we need it now, and plenty. I certainly do. A copy of the poster has a prominent place in my office, and if I weren’t such a cheapskate and a baby, I’d get a tattoo of it on my bicep, just like a sailor. It evokes, for me, everything I admire when I read about the people of wartime England -- determination, energy and a complete lack of whining.

It’s a message I’ve been summoning up in my head quite often lately. I used it this past Sunday afternoon, when I was working at the Crisis Nursery. It’s my bimonthly volunteer gig, done in partnership with my eldest daughter. She is beautiful and cool and all the kids adore her on sight. Eventually, I do win the little ones over, at least the snuggle-minded ones, because they discover that sitting on Emma’s lap is like lying on a blender full of radioactive forks, whereas I have squishiness on my side.

I suppose the saddest kids at the Crisis Nursery should be the ones who obviously love it there. Three meals, two snacks, a bed of their own and a Disney movie every night? Man, sign them up to live here full time! They never take a backward glance to home, which makes me wonder just what home must be like.

The kids who really get to me, though, are the ones who clearly have something to miss – a loving parent, a space of their own, something to love and love them back. We don’t have those sorts of kids at the nursery very often, but they show up occasionally, and they break my heart.

I had spent the morning with T. and his sister, and they were clearly those sorts of kids. They understood about reading books (many of the kids, pitifully, don’t). I used my squishiness to maximum effect and we tried to forget ourselves in Goodnight, Gorilla. By lunchtime, when other kids were flipping forks off tables, falling off their chairs and cadging extra muffins or helpings of dessert, T. sat and stared at his plate. His mother, I could tell, had never served anything that remotely resembled this meal. Nothing here reminded him of her, except everything. As if I were casually looking for a place to rest my hands, I reached to his tiny, laden shoulders and attempted to rub out some of what he was holding onto.

As if confessing something, he whispered to me, “I want to go home.” Kids don’t often say that at the nursery, even if they’re thinking it all the time. “I know you do,” I said back softly, which was all I could think of to say, but of course how could I know? I didn’t know about his bed or his room or how he watched tv with his older brother, or how his mom rubbed his back, or even how she smelled. I wished very much, right then, that I could smell like his mom.

We moved over to the doorway to wait for the big eaters to finish, and I held him in my lap, like a baby. He was too big a boy for this, but, clearly used to this sort of love, he snuggled right in. Two nursery veterans, age six but already hardened toughs, had tired themselves of falling off their chairs and approached us with gleams in their eyes. “What’s wrong with him?” they confronted me. “Tired,” I said, with a shrug. “Big party last night.” They drifted away, and I leaned down and whispered in the boy’s ear. I repeated the new mantra that was getting me through the day, these days. “Keep Calm,” I said, as I patted his back, “and Carry On.” He burrowed himself further into my upholstery, and, together, we made it through until naptime.

1 comment:

  1. You are a beautiful person. I have a giant lump in my throat and tears streaming down my face. My 11-year old is safely tucked away in school today. But I wish I could give him a hug and smell his hair -- even though he thinks I'm weird for doing so.