I have always been drawn to novels that feature unreliable narrators —you know, the tricky and compelling classics: “Lolita” and “The Great Gatsby” and “Wuthering Heights.”
Reading a story told from a limited perspective and trying to figure out the truth outside that perspective is a welcome intellectual exercise. But it’s less fun when it’s real. Recently, I discovered the perils of living with the most unreliable of narrators in my very own home: my kids.
Recently, we were invited out to Shavuot lunch at the home of a family with many children. Not only was the house chaotic, but our hosts had invited at least thirty guests, including over a dozen children who ran around freely between the upstairs, the downstairs and the backyard, so that it was impossible for my husband Daniel and me to keep tabs on our four little ones, all under six. At the end of the meal, when we were gathering everyone up to leave, we noticed that our oldest was nowhere to be found.
“Where is Matan?” we started asking around, until our 4-year-old daughter Liav piped up, “He went to walk the dog.”
“What dog?” I asked, suddenly worried. And our host repeated, “What dog? We don’t have a dog.”
“The dog,” Liav repeated matter-of-factly, as if surely I understood. Again, there was no dog.
“When did he leave?” I asked her–hoping that a 4-year-old’s sense of time would not be too far off.
“Um, I think lots of hours ago. Yes. In 10 minutes…he left,” she said, not seeing the contradiction.
“Did he go with anyone?”
“No. He went by himself. But the big kids left first. He went to find them.”
“Oh. Which way did he go?”
“He went to Raanana, I think. To our cousins.” We were in the heart of the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem, a good 50 miles away. This was not going well.
I teach Jewish texts, so my thoughts went to Joseph, who was sent by his father to go find his brothers in the pastures of a place called Shechem (Genesis 37:12). Joseph did not find his brothers there, but he ran into a man who was able to point him in the right direction, which was in fact, somewhere else.
The rabbinic commentators identify this man as the angel Gabriel, who appeared to show Joseph the way to his brothers. So, where was the angel Gabriel when I needed him? And why was my only source of evidence someone with no sense of time or direction?
A few minutes later, Liav revised her story. “I think he went with the big kids,” she told us, “Not alone.”
I looked at Daniel. If our son had left with a group of big kids, then hopefully those same kids would return him. But then I was reminded of a phrase from the Talmud: “The mouth that prohibits is the mouth that permits.”
That is, if the same person who incriminates herself also exonerates herself, then the two statements essentially cancel each other out. This seemed to be the case with Liav, whose statements kept flip-flopping. Had Matan left the house alone, or under supervision? And had he really left the house at all? Or was he merely playing upstairs behind a door we had yet to open?
A worrisome half hour later, Matan indeed returned with the aforementioned big kids, an 8-year-old and a 10-year-old who had taken him under their wing after he ran out of the house to tag along as they walked a neighbor’s dog. We reprimanded him, gently but firmly. “You can’t leave the house without telling us where you’re going!”
Matan looked at us earnestly and explained. “It’s OK. I told Liav where I was going.” Liav looked at me, blinking fast and furious. In her mind, she’d been perfectly reliable and responsible (Dog? Check. Big kids? Check). “I told you,” she defended herself. “I was right and you were wrong.” I looked at Liav, my little Nelly Dean and Humbert Humbert, my Nick and Amy from “Gone Girl” rolled up into one.
I didn’t know what to say. But the next day, when Matan told me that he’d forgotten his glasses at the Kotel—where my husband had taken the kids at 6 a.m.—I told Daniel to wait a minute before jumping on his bike to race back to the Old City.
Instead, I walked into the bedroom and looked on the ledge by Matan’s bed, where he often rested his things absent-mindedly. Sure enough, there they were–my child’s glasses, the unique lenses through which I have come to see the world.