Vivian hopped off her bike with the flowered seat on 79th and Lex just as social media whiz Naomi snapped a photo of Harry and me standing toe-to-toe in our heels. Before heading to the train after dinner, I wanted to document the fact that my son was wearing platforms higher and cuter than mine. It was Harry’s colorful footwear that prompted Vivian to stop.
She was on her way home from seeing The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey and was struck by how closely Harry’s shoes resembled those pictured on the show’s program cover. She pulled it out of a bag hanging from her bike’s handlebars and handed it to Harry. Then she stuck her hand back in and dug around for her camera. She wanted a picture of Harry’s shoes, too.
Vivian asked if we’d seen Absolute Brightness. We hadn’t, but I told her I remembered the image of the shoes from ads I’d seen. She said the play was about the disappearance of a gay14-year-old boy who’d made his own rainbow platforms by gluing layers of brightly colored flip-flops to the bottom of his Converse sneakers. And like Harry, he wore nail polish.
Vivian admired Harry’s pastel print skirt suit and rainbow sunglasses. “Just be yourself,” she said. “That’s what the play was really about.”
“Oh, that comes naturally to Harry,” I chimed.
“Does he belong to you?”
“I’m the proud mother,” I beamed.
“You’re lucky,” she said to Harry. “You were born at the right time. I was born at the right time too. For me that was the fifties. But that wouldn’t have been such an easy time for you, I’m afraid. People are more accepting now.”
She dropped the show program to the ground next to Harry’s feet and snapped a photo. Then she got back on her bike and pedaled off.
“I wish she were wearing a helmet,” Harry said. “But I guess she’ll be okay if she stays on the sidewalk.”
I wanted to hug my son for their compassion and brightness, and for their refusal to be anyone but themselves.
Whenever I go to the dark thoughts that I failed Harry as a child in the ‘90s by not letting them wear so-called girls’ costumes at Halloween or clothes from their dress-up box to school, I’m reminded of their self-confidence, self-love and resilience. They just didn’t care what anyone one else thought. That doesn’t mean the bullying and teasing that came in middle school didn’t hurt, but it didn’t affect their strong sense of self.
As a parent, I’ve learned we can’t allow ourselves to be driven by what others think. We can’t expect our children to be anyone less than who they are. Harry used to say, “Sameness is boring.” And he was right. Not everyone has to be the same.
If we all simply want the freedom to just be, maybe it’s conformity that messes us up!
The little boy who wears nail polish or the girl who wants to carry an Obi Wan light saber delights in exploring their inner selves. Like all kids, they deserve the opportunity at home, school or on the playground to find their joy and express it.
I appreciate Vivian for our random Sunday afternoon encounter and her reminder that life is getting easier for kids who don’t conform to society’s expectations about gender. It’s a trend that I know parents, families, educators, and equality-driven organizations and legislators will continue to fast-track. The absolute brightness of children demands it.
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