My mother used to say young children and dogs are best at judging a person’s character. For years, I attributed this generalization to Fivel family folklore fed by a love of both children and canines. Or just a shard that made up the world according to The Betty, which since she couldn’t be queen was the name we respectfully gave my mom long ago.
There was no arguing that a seemingly gentle dog might be growling at a good guy who resembles a former abusive owner. Or that a polite child may have her pockets stuffed with sticky Jolly Ranchers swiped from the drug store. Those things were brushed aside.
“Dogs and kids always know,” was a given.
Over the years, The Betty and I rehashed the premise of intuition and decisions, and as my innocence waned it turned into the Life-Isn’t-Fair drama school of thought. In particular, was the time in sixth grade when I was sent home with a note after calling Mitchell Cohen ”a smelly loser.” Forget the fact that he made fun of my “railroad track” braces and called my friend fat. What kind of character did he have, I asked indignantly?
Later that evening, The Betty sat me down and explained that my own character and reactions were more important than Mitchell’s, and why it mattered. Her words were mostly over my head and she blabbed on like Charlie Brown’s teacher until I interrupted.
“How do I know if I have a good character?” I asked. “I need to be kind, but how do I really know?”
Softening, she turned to me and said, “Honey, that’s what your conscience is for.”
To say I miss that woman is an understatement.
After watching the Sunday morning news, the interplay of character and conscience was already on my mind when I headed solo into the Valley Street Dog Park on this Mother’s Day. With spaced benches, the tree- and hill-bordered park is a space appropriate for sunning and watching dogs of all shapes, ages and sizes sniff, run and frolic as off-leash dogs do.
My attention was caught by a big dog that ran directly over to slobber on my foot but snubbed the woman on the next bench. Thinking of The Betty, I watched a little boy with a Batman mask come just close enough to talk.
“I have to stay way over here because I’m with my mom (pointing to a woman and waving) and our dog,” he said. “I have to wear this mask ’cause of the ‘demic. If my dad was here I wouldn’t have to ’cause he said the ‘demic is maybe a fake. I’m Kevin and my dog is Ripley.”
Not a shy child, Kevin continued: “My teacher wears a mask and talks a lot about science, but my dad says no one is really sure. My mom thinks the president doesn’t care about us that much. I don’t get that part. It’s his job. My dad liked him, but now he doesn’t.”
Unsure if Kevin was referring to his teacher or the president that his dad didn’t like anymore, I was momentarily in awe. This peanut of a kid had summed up the national sentiment on the handling of COVID-19 in a parentally influenced, yet innocent way. After hearing in detail about Ripley vomiting chicken bones in the car, I asked Kevin what else he thought about the ‘demic.
“It would be better if everybody thought the same,” he said. “My mask is hot but I don’t want to get sick so I wear it ’cause that’s science my teacher said. I miss school and scouting. I was going to do baseball this year and my dad is mad about that, too. I really like that my dad is home so much, though.”
Then, as quickly as he said hello, Kevin waved goodbye and ran across the park to the water spigot where Ripley and the slobbery big guy were both trying to drink out of one bowl. Jostling for position, they eventually took turns and I hoped Kevin noticed the not always simple give and take of problem-solving.
Deciding it was time to go home and to enjoy my Mother’s Day zoom with Number One, who is in California (where I was supposed to be), I waved again at Kevin and said hello to his mom who was walking toward me.
“I hope he wasn’t bothering you,” she said. “I’ve been worried about him with all that’s going on. He misses his friends, and usually doesn’t talk to people.” She couldn’t see the smile behind my mask, but for the umpteenth time, my thoughts turned to The Betty.
We wished each other a happy Mother’s Day, and I so wanted to hug this woman and her little boy, but obviously, that couldn’t happen.
Even if they were willing, my conscience wouldn’t have let me.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].