A FICTITIOUS CHARACTER TAKES OVER
As our children grew up, my husband and I did our best to ensure that they’d be good people. We tried to present them with role models who were generous, caring, hard working, creative, honest and G-d-loving.
Of course, once our daughters became parents, our days of “hands-on” became days of hand wringing. My husband still believed in role modeling, but I decided to take a more direct approach, and to this end, I devised a clever plan.
Our grandchildren loved to hear stories about my childhood, so I decided to make up thrilling, moral-bearing whoppers. I told the grandchildren the stories were true to underscore my message.
In these fake tales, my brother Aaron and I were always good and heroic protagonists – characters with whom I believed my listeners would side – and there was also an entirely-fictitious third recurring character to demonstrate what not to do: the antagonist, a bad girl named “Suze.”
The “Chana, Aaron,and Suze Stories” became our grandchildren’s most requested entertainment. If they wandered toward the TV set, all I had to do was shout:
“Oh, I just remembered something else that Suze did!”
Suze was every adult’s nightmare; every mischief imaginable, she committed it. Every story I made up involved Suze doing something awful, and Chana and Aaron would always deal wisely with her.
The wrought stories always showed altruism trumping selfishness: In them, being bad was, well, bad. Thus, when our grandchildren began to beg for more of the tales, I was overwhelmed with self-congratulation. What a fine grandparent I was!
For a year or so, the three-character saga was told and embellished, Scheherezade-like, until I (the tale-bearer, so to speak) had my comeuppance. It came to pass on the playground, as I was enjoying the antics of our grandchildren and their friends, when I was approached by a group of parents.
They seemed upset. Had one of my grandchildren swiped a swing out of turn, stomped a sand structure or cut into the slide line?
I moved over on my bench, but no one sat.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Who’s this ‘Suze’?” one of the parents challenged.
“How do you know about Suze?” I responded in disbelief. I’d only told the stories to my grandchildren.
“How do we know about Suze? Our kids don’t talk about anybody else,” they responded. “It’s, ‘Suze did this’ and ‘Suze did that!’
“So, does Suze go to this school?” was their demand.
“Suze isn’t real!” I exclaimed. “I made her up to show my grandchildren how they shouldn’t act! Do your kids talk about Chana and Aaron? My brother and I are supposed to be the heroes of the stories.”
“We don’t know anything about you and your brother,” they replied. “Your grandchildren told our kids every single bad thing that Suze does, and they just love Suze. What were you thinking?”
“They love Suze? Impossible!” I cried. “She’s a horror. She’s despicable. She’s mean, selfish, tricky, bossy, sassy.”
“That’s right!” the group called out in unison.
“But I invented her to show my grandchildren how NOT to be!” I stammered. “They keep asking for more and more stories. It’s hard work thinking of horrible things for Suze to do!”
“Right, especially when she gets in trouble and has to go into time out,” was the sarcastic retort. “They just love that. They know it won’t do any good, because Suze will be bad again the next day. Even our older kids are crazy about her!”
“There is no Suze! None of it’s true!” I begged. “You’ve got to tell your children I made it all up!”
The women simply stared back at me.
It was I who’d gotten us into the morass, and I had to get us out. I wondered if Suze could undergo an experience that would make her turn good, and I turned over countless scenarios in my head, each one too gory or tragic for a young child’s mind. Even more traumatic for all involved, I’d have to admit to my grandchildren – and the rest of the neighborhood – that Suze was totally fictitious.
The next day, I picked my grandchildren up from school, and we went directly to the playground, where I hoped to meet the accusing parents.
I finally admitted to my grandchildren that I made the whole thing up.
“Bubbe! No, you didn’t! You told us the stories really happened!” they cried. “Suze tricked you and your brother! Suze stories are the best!”
The slanting of their eyes and the clenching of their fists didn’t escape my notice.
“I made the stories up to teach you not to be mean and selfish!” I weakly explained.
“No you didn’t!” they whined, stamping their feet. “Tell us more! Now!”
These kvetchy, bossy grandchildren of mine sounded something like Suze, despite my having planned the opposite (emulation of the idealized Chana and Aaron).
That settled it.
“It’s over!” I declared.
Word spread quickly along the jungle gym and seesaw set. “The Suze Saga” had ended.
Still, every once in a while, I’d be asked to reprise a Suze incident – like when she switched the contents of Chana and Aaron’s salt and pepper shakers, or the time she covered Aaron’s swing with mud or affixed real flowers to Chana’s hair with school glue.
But I wouldn’t comply. No more Suze. I had created someone much more enticing and engaging than my brother and me.
There’s something thrilling, titillating and compelling about evil. Sometimes it’s made-up, and sometimes it’s very, very real. I’ll bet most people who play around with malevolence would agree with me: I really wish I hadn’t started.
By Chana Shapiro / AJT Columnist
Editor’s note: Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines.