Creating a Cozy Life for My Son, Despite Our NYC Roots

In our eyes, A is an international super star, but in reality he rarely leaves our Brooklyn neighborhood or ventures beyond our small community in the Catskills.

When he first arrived from Ethiopia, about to turn age 5, we didn’t go anywhere, not even upstate. We wanted him to feel at home on our own street and in our apartment in Brooklyn, and we didn’t want to overwhelm him with lots of people and unusual sights. We were also acting on the advice from our adoption agency social workers: Keep it simple and keep in mind where he’s from.

To help prevent A, who knew only a few basic English words, from being too inundated, we waited several months to take him to a restaurant or even to the grocery store. Remember the scene from Moscow on the Hudson where Robin Williams’ character is confronted with hundreds of coffee choices and breaks down? I imagined a toned down version of that happening. Before we drove to the airport in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, A had never been in a car at night!

There are too many “never befores” to list but New York City can be daunting —  even to me now (the people! the traffic! the zillions of everything), but also in my memory of coming here as a child for Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house. Driving through neon-coated Times Square with my family was thrilling, but we were safe in our car. We would never have taken the subway at age 6 or 7, or even older.

I try to cull moments from my childhood as we raise A. I know this is the modern age, and I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, but when we were kids under ten living in the Philadelphia suburbs, we pretty much stuck to our street — and mostly only took trips to places such as the A&P supermarket, Woolworth’s, music lessons, and school. For us an adventure was to go sledding on the big hill across the street or walk to the stream at the bottom of the hill. To see a film at a theater was a treat; we usually just watched Disney movies on Sunday night on television. And dinner out? Hardly ever. Mom cooked most of the weeknight meals, and Dad created some gourmet feasts on weekends. Everything was centered on home.

A’s been here almost two years and has spoken fluent English for more than half of that and, like any kid, is curious as all get out. Times have changed and we live in the Big City, but I still try to recreate that small hometown and home-y experience for A. We don’t do much take out (pizza’s the typical exception) and the places he frequents the most are the neighborhood diner, usually with his dad on a Saturday, or a Vietnamese restaurant (he has mastered chopsticks!).

Many parents take their kids to museums, art galleries, baseball games, which is cool, but up until now, it’s been unnecessary. My brothers and I didn’t go to museums until much older (probably on school trips to Philadelphia) and we are fairly “art literate” (mostly due to our family’s influence). Before you all think I’m holding out, A has gone to Brooklyn Museum of Art on a school trip, and I do plan to start taking him to more museums this summer. We’ll probably even go to a Coney Island Cyclones game.

But he still doesn’t want to do any sleepovers, (although many first graders do them, which is surprising to me). He watches some streaming movies (traditionally on Sundays) and plays Wii on weekends and at play dates, but he isn’t on our iPhones constantly texting or playing games (believe me though, he would if he could).

A doesn’t clamor yet for Chuck E. Cheese — or even McDonald’s — although I know the day will come. Once at my brother G’s house, someone mentioned Mickey D’s to my two nephews. G quietly said, “They don’t know what McDonald’s is,” indicating that he wanted to keep it that way. They didn’t watch too much TV then, so weren’t barraged with toy, fast food, and candy ads that say buy me.  Of course the boys know all about Mickey D’s, TV shows, and computer games now that they’re older, but I admire G and his wife for delaying that awareness and I hope to do the same for A.

He went Trick-or-Treating for Halloween for the first time last year. Lots of parents took their kids to the local Brooklyn parade, but his and our dressing up then knocking on a few doors for candy was enough. We didn’t tromp all over Brooklyn either, we just went up and down few streets in our neighborhood and then came home and had dinner. He had one piece of chocolate and split the another piece with dad. His choice.

When A hits second grade we will probably take him to the Halloween parade also, and venture outside of our neighborhood and into Manhattan a little more. At this point we are his home, and he trusts us enough to feel comfortable whereever he is. However, I am trying to give him strong memories of his neighborhoods (he’s lucky to have two, the city and the country) now, not cram his life with so much activity and so many adventures that he doesn’t focus on the simple stuff that makes childhood. Places of heart and home.