Illustration by Kurt Wiese in All The Mowgli Stories by Rudyard Kipling
In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that women often preface a remark or opinion by saying, “when I was a little girl,” when what they mean is, “when I was a human being.”
When I was a little girl, and my sister was one too, she asked our mother for a pet for her birthday. It was early in the fall and her birthday wasn’t till January. It was agreed that, living in a four-room walk-up apartment overlooking 86th and Park, the most appropriate pet would be a canary. The birthday bird was given his name in advance: “Dandy.”
A day or two later, so help me, “Dandy” flew in through an open window overlooking the street. My parents, normally scrupulous, made not the slightest effort to advertise for any previous owners, since to them it was super-obvious that Dandy was a Providential gift.
Dandy lived with us for some years. My sister and I would harmonize with him on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” In after years, he was never replaced. My mother shopped around but said all the other canaries looked dumb.
He departed this world by catching a summer cold. We summered at a bungalow colony named “Camp Hilltop.” My parents laid him to rest in one of those large match boxes people had then, digging a little depression by a rose bush, on a hill overlooking the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey.
After the interment, they sat on the porch of the two-story bungalow they shared with Reba Gopan . Reba was the landlady at Hilltop. She was a gravel-voiced theosophist. When she caught sight of my parents looking tearful, she snapped, “Oh stop your blubbering! The bird has fulfilled its mission!”
Reba had a son-in-law named Lenny and Lenny had a pet monkey named “Benny” who was being groomed for a career in Hollywood. I never saw him since. Perhaps he was not a success. He was a source of social peril for my mother, who could never remember names and would ask his wife, “How’s Benny?” when of course she meant, “How’s Lenny?”
I named all my playmates after favorite characters in the Mowgli Stories, reserving “Mowgli” for myself. When I showed my closest playmate, Arnie, the picture above he said, “No wonder Abby likes Mowgli! He’s a naked boy!” But Arnie was mistaken. From the picture, at age ten, I had no idea what might be behind Mowgli’s hand on Baloo’s shoulders and he looked like a possible version of me, to me.
In Hilltop, I learned the essentials of fighting. We dueled with sticks and, if you held your ground, after a time your adversary would get confused and — mistaking his own impatience for defeat — would take a step backward. Then you could drive him to the wall.
One day it ended. I did not know that Reba would sell Hilltop that winter and we would all disperse, never to meet again. But it ended before that. The last week of summer, for various reasons, my friends were occupied elsewhere and could not play with me.
It was during that interval that I first felt it. It was the thing grownups often warned about in a tone that said, you’ll see; the world is not as you think; no one escapes it.
It was boredom. Time hung heavy. I saw what grownups meant.
Suddenly and irreversibly, time would become a problem. It wouldn’t flow of itself, effortlessly. One would have to learn how to live in it.