A World Full of Shape-Shifters

by Tina Blue
January 7, 2001

          I have mentioned in another article ("From the Mouths of Babes") that my daughter Becky was a very early talker. By the time she was eighteen months old she had a remarkable vocabulary and could speak in clear sentences. Her precocious verbal skills offered me a rare window into the strange workings of a young child's mind.

          We forget sometimes that very young children are brand-new in the world. They don't have enough experience to really understand much about the way things work.

          For example, how does a child know which features of any person or thing are essential and which are fluid? The table looks pretty much the same every day, but one day its location might have changed, or maybe a fancy tablecloth and flowers have suddenly appeared on it where nothing was the last time the child looked. Even Mommy might change from one day to the next, if she, say, gets a drastic haircut or dresses up in a way the child has never seen before.

          Over time, the child categorizes things and begins to recognize what can be counted on to stay the same from one day to the next and what might be capable of drastic change. Naturally, those things and people that he encounters most often will be easier to categorize on the basis of experience.

          But what about those people or things that the child encounters only rarely? Is it not possible that the child has not yet managed to get them properly fixed in any category? Let me tell you a story that illustrates what I mean.

          By the time she was twenty-one months old, my daughter Becky had seen my sister Carol only four times, even though we lived just thirty-five minutes away from each other. I had my two toddlers and a home daycare, and Carol had an infant and a toddler of her own. We were both pretty tied down.

          My sister and I actually resemble each other a lot, but people seldom notice that, because Carol is taller and darker than I am. Whereas I have long red hair and freckles, Carol inherited the dark hair and olive complexion of our father's Sicilian family. Becky liked Carol, of course, since Carol loved her to pieces every time she saw her, but she just had not seen her all that often.

          At that time Carol was selling Mary Kay cosmetics. One day, she was making deliveries to her customers in Lawrence, which is where I live. She had to hurry, because a friend was watching her two sons back in Olathe, and Carol needed to get home as soon as possible.

          A Native American friend of mine named Gloria had purchased some cosmetics from Carol, and Carol had dropped by my apartment to leave Gloria's order with me before rushing off to make her other deliveries.

          Becky and her brother Michael were quite disappointed that Aunt Carol only had time to pick each one up for a quick hug and kiss before hurrying out the door. Becky was still watching the door that Carol had left by when, just a couple of minutes later, Gloria walked through it.

          Now, Gloria was at least three inches shorter than Carol, but her complexion was about the same shade and her hair, which was as dark as Carol's, was cut in almost exactly the same style.
Furthermore, except for the fact that Gloria was shorter, she and Carol were also about the same size and shape, and both were dressed that day in light-colored T-shirts and jeans.

          My normally friendly daughter ducked behind my legs as soon as she saw Gloria, whom she had not met before. She peeked carefully around my legs and stared at my friend--I mean really stared, so much so that Gloria asked if something was wrong with her. I couldn't coax Becky out to introduce her, nor did she utter a word.

          After a few minutes, Gloria collected her cosmetics and left to go back to work. The minute she closed the door, Becky dashed over to it and stood there with her mouth open. Then she turned to me and exclaimed, "Mommy! What was that that Carol turned into?!"

          No wonder she was spooked. Sure, Mommy and Daddy are the same people from day to day. But Becky thought she had just seen incontrovertible evidence that other people, even people she knew and loved, could transform themselves within minutes into different people altogether.

          Gloria and Carol had enough features in common to convince Becky that they were the same person--but enough differences to make her believe that the world outside her own home must be full of shape-shifters!

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