Talking to strangers

I wrote this essay about five years ago, and reading it today, realized how much it still captures who Jessica is and what my life with her is like. I hope you enjoy —

My eight-year-old daughter Jessica is a friendly soul.  From the time she was tiny, she would march right up to strangers on the street and say “Hello!” with her brown eyes twinkling, a big grin on her face.  This friendliness unnerves me.  I prefer my transactions with the world to take place quietly.  Her gregariousness forces me to engage with the world in a way I would rather not.  More than that, I’m concerned because she is so vulnerable.  Not only is she young and female, but she is also disabled: cognitively impaired, with a debilitating brain disorder that causes autistic and obsessive compulsive behavior. 

But that is why I’ve done my best to curb my nervousness.  Children like Jessica don’t relate to others in ordinary, social ways, and I don’t want to discourage her attempts.  Not that I could discourage Jessica, anyway.  When she wants to do something, she will do it despite any disapproval I express.  I only hope to give her guidance so that she will learn how to decide which people are worthy of trust in her life.

Happily, in our small town, when Jessica strikes up a conversation with someone, that person almost always responds kindly to her.  I don’t know how she chooses, but women with babies or young children, anyone walking a dog, and big dark-haired men are favorites.  She’ll spot such a person and stride up, standing right in the stranger’s path, her face upturned, eyes searching.  She never expects to be rebuffed but I am always waiting, tense and ready to collect the pieces if it happens. 

“What’s your name?” she asks these total strangers.  Then she wants to know about any animals that might be in the picture.  If there’s a dog, she needs to know its name and what it likes to do.  If not, she goes directly to her next question, which is “How old are you?” 

This one always embarrasses me, but I have to laugh at the things people say in response.  Some tell her their age and ask hers.  Others laugh and say, “Older than you, my dear,”  or “That’s a secret,”  “I lost track,” or “I’ve been 29 for many years now.”  They are never offended.  I don’t understand this, personally: if some eight-year-old came up to me, demanding to know my name and my age, I would say “none of your business!”  Or maybe I wouldn’t.  People must sense something about Jessica, that she’s a little bit different.  They never seem to expect me to stop her, although I’ve tried. “We don’t ask adults that,” I say to Jess.  “That’s a rude question, sweetie,” I tell her to no avail.  She asks anyway, and people tell her.

When she is done with her inquisition, she will turn to me and say, “We know Michelle now,” or “That was Mrs. Crawford.”  She moves them easily from one category to another: people we don’t know, people we do know.  Strangers are merely people she hasn’t yet asked for their name.  I’m less sure that finding out their name means we know them.

But it’s a small, easygoing town and I don’t fret too much.  There are so many other more important things to teach Jessica that this one just doesn’t weigh heavily on me.  It’s not as if she goes about unsupervised or that she tells them anything too personal.

Talking to strangers in our small town is one thing.  In New York City, where we visited last year, it’s another.  I wasn’t surprised to hear her saying “Hello!” to every single person we saw as we walked the streets of midtown Manhattan, but I certainly wasn’t comfortable.

On the first day, I opened my mouth to say something to her and then decided not to.  This will be a good lesson for her, I thought.  People will snub her–these are New Yorkers, after all–and then when we get back to the hotel room tonight, she and I will talk about big cities and small towns and how people in big cities aren’t mean, they’re just different.  And maybe she will learn not to talk to strangers.

But I never got a chance to have my discussion with Jessica.  Because every single person she said “Hello” to said “Hello” right back.  And smiled.  The businessmen in their somber suits, scurrying from one place to the other; the gawking tourists with their cameras at the ready; and the doormen standing at attention in their uniforms.  She even said hello to the homeless people.  They grinned, mostly toothless, and didn’t badger me for change.  She would ask what they were doing there, and they would tell her.  I’d never asked because I don’t talk to strangers.  But Jessica saw them, recognized them, and acknowledged them while the rest of us walked on by, not making eye contact.

Every single one of those dozens–scores, hundreds–of people she spoke to looked her in the eye and returned her greeting.  One man on his cell phone stopped in his tracks and told her not only his name and his age but his occupation and what he was going to do with his girlfriend over the weekend.  As he strode off after Jessica’s grilling, I heard him say into the cell phone, “I have no idea who that was.  Just a little kid.”

Just a little kid.  Who doesn’t know better than to talk to strangers.

She was delighted with the multitudes of people teeming around her and gave me a delighted grin.  She was in her element, a girl with a mission: to say “hello” to every person in New York City.

Later, we were at a corner waiting for the light to change and Jessica greeted everyone there.  Over the top of Jessica’s head, I met the glance of casually dressed man with curly brown hair.

“She’s autistic, isn’t she?” he said to me, with a directness that took my breath away.  After all, he was a perfect stranger.  I put my hand protectively on Jessica’s shoulder as she asked an older woman how many dogs she had and what their names were.

“Yes,” I said, not qualifying my statement, despite my impulse to do so: “She’s not exactly autistic; she’s developmentally delayed with autism spectrum disorder characteristics.” Just yes.  This is the kind of encounter that I dislike and that being Jessica’s mother subjects me to.  I was terse; what would be the point of elucidating? “Yes, she is.”

His face smoothed into a look of compassion.  “I work with autistic children,” he explained.  “It’s a challenge, isn’t it?”

I felt something inside me weaken: a wall, perhaps, I had never known I built.  Because I expected people to be indifferent to me, to us; or to be judgmental.  That talking to strangers meant I would hear things I didn’t want to hear:  What is wrong with her? Why don’t you control her better?  What did you do to make her turn out this way?  

The light changed. Jessica took my hand, chattering about the woman with the dog, who grinned at me over her shoulder before departing down the street. 

“She has a good mom,” the brown haired man said, simply, and walked away.

I caught my breath.  If he had thrust a bouquet of gardenias in my hands, I would not have been as surprised.  His words were like that, an offering, a gift, for which he wanted nothing in return.  Just a thing he said to a woman on a street corner, out of an impulse of kindness.

The tension in my shoulders eased, the tension I always had when I was out in public with Jessica.  Someone understood and responded with compassion, not judgment and intolerance.  Welcome, the man said.  You are welcome here.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

14 Comments

  1. What a lovely story, Jennifer.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, and for reminding me that for every disapproving stare there are so many other kind, compassionate, generous people who are more accepting than I give them credit for. It's been a hard week with my son, and I needed this today.

  3. Thank you for sharing. It is so true that sometimes the encouragement we need comes from the most unexpected places.

  4. Good for Jessica and good for that man who congratulated you. Maybe it's the reporter in me, but I tend to be pretty frank and ask inappropriate questions myself, and I'm 38! What are we all trying to hide, anyway? In my book, there's nothing more interesting, and freeing, than the truth.

  5. Author

    My friends and I always say she's going to be an investigative reporter. One day I was talking to a friend on the phone and Jess took notes, then asked follow-up questions afterward 🙂

  6. I love when you write about her.

    My brother (who has Down syndrome) has similar social tendencies, but not to the same extreme. He loves greeting people and asking them questions, and I'm always stiffening and preparing for bad reactions. Luckily, the reactions are almost always positive.

  7. What a lovely story – unexpected kindness and grace are treasured gifts.

    As for the gregarious child… I have so been there. My son is developmentally disabled and on our trips to the grocery store (or pet store or hardware store or anywhere really), he says 'Hello' and attempts to chat with everyone. Most people are wonderful, but, like you, I am always waiting for someone to be offended or freaked out by Kevin. Nothing he does is inappropriate, but it is kind of 'out there'. I'm not sure I'll ever be completely comfortable with his gregariousness.

    I end up narrating our life out loud – "yes, that is a nice lady. She is a shopper like us. No, I don't know if she needs pasta too". One time Kevin decided he needed to help an elderly woman with a cane and tried to hold her hand and guide her. She was surprised at first, then politely declined his help. "I will help her". A nice gesture from a kid who needs so much help himself.

  8. Author

    I love your line about "narrating our life out loud." I do that with Jess, too. Sometimes she needs me to interpret the world for her; sometimes I use it as a means to quietly alert others that things are a little different here, and I'm okay with it, and you should be, too.

  9. A well-told and lovely story, Jennifer. With every piece I read about Jessica, I have a clearer picture of her – and you. He was right about you being a good mom.

  10. I just read this essay out of the "Chicken Soup for the soul Children with Special needs." My daughter has Williams Syndrome she is extremely social. People with Williams Syndrome are often described as having a cocktail personality. I felt like you described a day out with my daughter. She is currently 2 and can only approximate words but everytime we go out she must greet every one around her with a "hello" "how are you?" It warms my heart.

    I find comfort in reading other parents journeys with our special children. Helps me feel that I am not alone.

    Thanks for sharing your story

    Amber

  11. Your post made me cry, actual tears down my cheeks. That's weird, right?

    Your daughter is beautiful, so beautiful. And so are you. Thank you for your honesty and frankness. It reminds me of me (although way more eloquent). I get what you are saying.

    Liz

    I guess the world can be kind and beautiful, if we let it be.

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