"Mom, what if someone doesn't have a house or car and no one picks them?"
"What do you mean?" I ask Olive. "Picks them for what?"
"Like no one picks them up and gives them a ride?"
"Well, then I suppose they would walk to where they needed to go."
"What if its a long long way."
"Maybe they could take the bus."
"But what if they don't have any money?"
"Well, sometimes there are free rides but otherwise they'd just keep walking."
Olive and I lay in her bed together. Its that time of night when I am so ready for her to be asleep and yet we also tend to have some of our more interesting conversations.
"What if they don't have shoes? Or clothes? And Mom, where do they sleep if they don't have a house? On the sidewalk?" My six-year-old looks at me wide-eyed.
I push her bangs out of her eyes and say: "Sometimes people sleep on the sidewalk but there are also shelters where people can sleep. And some people sleep in tents and some stay at a friend's or a family member's house."
"If they sleep on the sidewalk, don't they get cold?" Olive asks from her nest of blankets.
"Yes, they do."
"That's so sad."
"It is sad that not everyone has a place to call home."
"And sometimes there's even kids that don't have a home Mommy!"
"Yes, you're right."
And I can't tell her that dozens of the children at her school are homeless, bunking up with relatives or living in local shelters. And that many of them don't see their circumstances as sad and even thrive amid the uncertainty, the resilient souls that they are, children like my own, bouncing between relatives' homes, churches and shelters, eager to love and be loved--just kids wanting to play.
"But that's so sad Mommy."
"I know Babe, it can be very sad. If you want, we can visit a shelter sometime and bring something for the kids. Like maybe some of your stuffed animals-"
"No! Not my animals they are all so special to me." This said in a very different tone than our previous give and take-- Olive serves me up a side dish with a little too much syrup and wine. Even though her stuffed animals currently lay in a heap behind and under her bed, neglected for weeks on end, far too many to name, or make real like Velveteen.
"I'm sure you could part with a few."
"Ok, so maybe some blankets." Olive looks alarmingly at her beloved quilts and her pink fuzzy fleece bedecked with cupcakes. "Not your special ones, but extra blankets from the house."
"Or towels," Olive suggests.
"Sure, maybe towels."
I guess her hearts not quite as big as her questions.
The next day as we drive to hockey we pass the corner of the Seward Highway and Northern Lights, a hangout for homeless folks due to Fred Meyer's proximity.
"Mommy, that man's sign said: help."
"It did, good reading."
"But Mommy, why didn't we help him?"
I glance at Olive in the rear view mirror as I think about my answer.
How do I begin to explain the complexities of our society to a six year old who is just beginning to piece it all together? I want to be that person who helps the world and I want my daughter to believe she can make a difference too, and yet I drive past men and women with cardboard signs countless times a week without stopping.
"How would you want to help him Olive?"
"We could bring him home and he could live with us."
"Would you give up your bedroom?"
"No, he could sleep in the romp room." A door-less play room between the kitchen and kids' room.
"Well, I think it would be a little strange to have someone we didn't know sleeping in the middle of our house."
And then I give an answer that makes zero sense at six and I'm not even sure how much practical sense it makes at my ripe old age of 43: "One of the ways we help is by voting for politicians who care about increasing services for people who are struggling, like building more affordable housing, creating jobs, increasing social services..."
But Mommy why didn't we help him?
Why didn't I help him?
I continue justifying our path with processes far removed from the man we just passed but it doesn't even feel real to me, so I finally switch to something more concrete: "Also if we had extra hats or gloves or blankets or food in the car, we can give those things to someone who asks for help." I look over to the front passenger seat and hold up a small ziplock bag: "Like your M&Ms, we could give them away."
Long pause from the back: "But Mom, they need healthy food."
This from my girl who likes to say: All my teeth are sweet ones. Who only eats toast with cinnamon and sugar on it and starts asking for treats soon after breakfast.
"You're right they do. We all do."
"But not bread."
"Why not bread?"
"Because I lovoooove bread... Carrots. We can give them carrots."
"Sure Olive, we can hand out carrots."
Elias interrupts our conversation to ask me something about the C gate at the Boston airport and I play his twenty questions game on the topic of Alaska Airlines and plane terminals.
For one sweet moment the car grows quiet, and I enjoy my own thoughts as I wait for another red light to turn green.
"Mom," Olive asks, "Why do more men not have houses? There's more men standing on the corners. More men than women."
"That's a good question Olive, um-"
"Is it because women are smarter than men?"
Oh, to have answered yes...
I tell Olive that neither women nor men are smarter than the other. That homeless men are just more visible because women are often attached to children and aren't hanging out on the street corners as often. We talk again about visiting a shelter as we pull into the Dimond Mall to join other middle to upper class children on the hockey rink.
As Elias and I watch Olive skate from an overlooking floor above the rink, (because of course he needed to ride some escalators and elevators), a scruffy looking man walks right up to us and asks Elias, "How you doing kid?"
"What's your name?"
Elias doesn't respond, so I prompt him: "You can tell the man your name."
"Well Elias, don't let anyone ever tell you you can't do something. You can do anything you set your mind to."
Elias just looks at the guy like why are you saying this to me. My boy doesn't wallow in his differences, at least not verbally, as I do.
"Look at me," the man points to his ears. "I'm mostly deaf in both ears and yet I'm a successful box fighter. No one thought I could do it, but I did. Don't let anyone stop you from working towards your dreams, man."
He puts his hand out and Elias shakes it without looking at him. I reach my hand out, make eye contact with the tattooed man who appears less scruffy after his words and say, "Thank you Sir, thank you for the kind message."
"You're welcome Mam, God Bless."
I watch him walk away and smile as I think: Who's helping who?
"Mom. Mom," says Elias. "Do you want to ride up to the next floor?"