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Once Upon a Time Mom was Shot Dead

No mom snuggles up to her toddler for a cosy bedtime read, with a book in which the protagonists' mother is shot and killed just one page into the narrative. Surely.
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No mom snuggles up to her toddler for a cosy bedtime read, with a book in which the protagonists' mother is shot and killed just one page into the narrative.

Surely.

Yet when our daughter was given l'Histoire de Babar, Which I had read so long ago I had no recollection of aside for jolly images of impeccably-dressed elephants (and a frail lady who introduced him to suits and chocolate eclairs) I found myself scrambling to change the story mid-sentence.

Just before reading the line about a wicked hunter killing Babar's mommy, I spared our three-year-old the tears and fumbled around with something like the mummy tripped but was fine.

Enough has been written about the colonial implications if Laurent de Brunhoff's Babar, but how about French kids growing up with the death of a mother as the preface to the story?

Our daughter grew up with a sanitized version of events, because as we sat reading the book in her bed, I managed to fumble through as soon as I realised what was about to happen and paper over the death I moved swiftly on to the happier narratives about Babar meeting Celeste and becoming the ruling royals of the jungle, and luckily since she couldn't read yet, she didn't realize what had been omitted.

But fast forward five years and our toddler son is in the waiting room at the Rome pediatric dentists' clinic (his front teeth were smashed in a tumble so they rather appropriately look more like little tusks than teeth) and 56 minutes into the wait in a stuffy, overcrowded room, I break all rules and pull out my phone and YouTube to avoid the impending meltdown.

I try to rapidly think through what would be the most innocuous cartoon I can show him, and suddenly those affable, elegantly-dressed elephants comes to mind.

Searching on YouTube with an extremely fussy toddler tugging at you can be trying at the best of times, so I quickly poked what immediately jumped out at me: "Babar's First Steps".

Harmless.

Surely.

Innocuous.

Of course.

But no. A little while into the story, I glance down and see a wicked-looking hunter lurking behind Babar and his mother, taking aim at them as they amble happily through the jungle. Shots ring out. She tumbles. She falls. Babar starts crying desperately and I whip the phone out of our son's hands.

Big mistake of course, especially in a tiny room packed with people.

He tears up and starts bawling.

He wants to see the gun. And who is that man? And is the mummy elephant hurt? Or dead?

"Mummy is she dead? I want to see."

What does our three-year-old know about death? What does he need to know right now about mothers dying? Really, did I really have to choose that cartoon?

I damn myself and wish I had gone for my husband's favourite, the infallible Peppa Pig.

I may well find that grunting family inane and un-educational, but there are definitely No Dying Mothers in that one.

So now I am trying to wrestle the phone away from our toddler (what is it about ending cartoon-time that turns them into wrathful Rottweilers?) and after a huge amount of fast-talking, coercing and cajoling (what is it about toddlers on the verge of a tantrum that turn parents into top terrorist negotiators?) I succeed, but only just.

I still need to deal with the barrage of questions.

And, I wonder, should I have just let him continue watching and not done all of this? Was I making more of an issue than necessary?

I decide that, given children's photographic memories and their ability to retain images they have seen in the heads for what seems like forever -- and to keep chewing the cud around them -- I did the right thing.

And then the words start tumbling effortlessly out of my mouth. Guns hurt. And they kill. That was just a story, but did you see how sad Babar was? Did you see how horrid the hunter looked? And how cruel he was as he took more shots at her? (that was the point at which I interrupted it. I later checked and the scene goes on much longer. Oh bliss.) Is it kind to shoot someone or even pretend to? Is it a nice game to poke a stick in your friend's face and go Bang Bang like the hunter did?

"No. But it wasn't a true story, right? That would be really sad," he asks looking searchingly up at me.

It's just a little early to start telling him that in the real world mothers do get killed. And that firearms often are the cause. And that while their children might not always be there to witness the murder firsthand, they live with that immense loss firsthand.

And they live with it forever.

Luckily for now, he looks at me and gets it.

Or so I think.

"I don't like guns." he declares.

I smile. There, I was right.

But then:

"Mummy, you know what I like? I like fighter jets."