n recent years, good parenting has become the star of its own show. It inspires books, stories, anecdotes, admonishments and sweeping e-lore. Children are the sum of adult worth, the only icons adults can worship skepticism-free. That children should be seen and not heard, a nanny-driven 19th-century dictum intended to enforce a literal generation gap seems now like so much fascism. Parents are no longer merely the makers of their progeny, but a class of relentlessly participatory beings who constantly leap backward into the painful act of growing up, hoping to make it less painful and taxing by belonging more closely to a process that isn’t theirs. They fret relentlessly over the emotional wellbeing of their children seemingly unaware that too much meddling can subvert self-reliance. Fear of aging has made 40 not so much the new 30 but often the new 17, with social networking permitting parents to mimic the know-it-all righteousness of adolescence. Hard knocks are seen as meanness. Medication is used to pretend away potholes. Fretful elders unwittingly regress toward puberty. Emotionalism is the first response of choice.
All of which brings me to Alda, the mean-spirited Italo-Canadian banshee who cooked for the family that lived next door. Alda stirs up some of my least pleasant but most vivid and enduring childhood memories. She and her tiny mustache stand out decades later. So do her object lessons.
There’s the famous milk episode (famous to me, that is). As a child I loathed milk. I still do. One day after school, parked at my friend Tony’s house while waiting for my parents to come home, Alda served us each a glass of milk. The act of pouring, like all of Alda’s acts, came with a scowl, as if children, even Tony, were a kind of weed she should work to root out if not poison. This at least was how I saw it.
Tony drank his milk and ran into the living room to play with his bevy of ruined little toy cars. I loved ruined little cars and was eager to join him. In my path was the milk.
I had a variety of milk strategies. The most obvious was fondling the glass until others finished theirs and running off with them when they left the table, leaving my own glass full. But Alda was wise to this. She stood by the kitchen door.
Another strategy was to intentionally spill the milk, which Alda checkmated by saying, “Do not spill the milk because there is more milk.”
I finally capitulated and told Alda that I didn’t like milk.
“Drink,” said Alda.
By this time Tony was making honking noises while zooming around the living room with the ruined little cars.
I again told Alda I didn’t like milk, this time saying it made me sick.
“Drink,” said Alda.
There I sat, frozen at the table, my tall glass of milk staring at me dumbly, Alda refusing to budge. I decided it was time for tears, which I’d archived at around age five (I was now eight). I began with a whimper, which I modulated deftly into a sob.
“I… can’t… drink… milk…”
Tony paused, laughed, and returned to his cavorting.
Alda said: “You drink, you play; you do not drink, you sit, you cry, you sit more.”
I stopped sobbing, since there’s only so long you can sob to no effect.
Dissembling didn’t work with Alda. She was a cook on a singleminded mission. Her rural logic was simple: If Tony drank, so should I. If boys weren’t forced to yield to authority, they’d always be boys, doing as they wished, indulging their clever side, finding ways to trivialize the rule of law.
To me, drinking the milk was just another aspect of my repressive day, which included school, after which the bevy of ruined cars and other delights could enter the picture. Much as I disliked the maddening scheme, I understood its carrot-and-stick adult logic. I could later seek to overturn these rules, when I lorded over the universe, but for now I was very much a prisoner of Alda’s world.
Alda in turn never bullied or tried to advertise the merits of milk. She wasn’t cooing or cloying or harsh or sweet. Or maternal. She merely hovered, her mustache twitching, looking immoveable.
“Drink your milk,” Alda repeated again on cue.
And this time I drank my milk.
I scowled and gurgled, doing all in my whining power to make clear the immensity of my sacrifice. The milk tasted predictably horrible. But I didn’t die. In fact, I was proud of my resistance, however brief. Alda vanished. Compliance, I reasoned, could sometimes be a higher form of shrewdness, albeit disguised.
Then, finally, came the ruined cars.