The holidays brought my son a new toy—an odd and disconcerting one, but he loves it more than any other.
It’s a molded plastic house that he carries around by a handle, and there are buttons and levers to press. There is a tiny bird in the chimney that makes a high-pitched tweet and a giant bird that replies in a basso profondo. A strange exterior refrigerator intones, “Hmm, where are those eggs?” and lets you move a tiny head of cabbage from side to side to search. There is a lever that operates a lamp, underneath which is a book-shaped switch you can press to hear a weird story about hot spaghetti that turns cold while we wait.
And there is a door—one that opens and shuts to reveal a slightly warped mirror (a reflective sticker, in fact). An outsized red doorbell is positioned beside the door, and you press it, of course. There is a ding-dong, and then one of several phrases is offered.
“Someone’s at the door! It’s … a cowboy! Yee-haw!”
“Someone’s coming to lunch! It’s … the mailman!”
“Someone’s ringing the bell! It’s … a dog-walker! Woof, woof, woof!”
“Someone’s at the door! It’s … YOU!”
See? It’s disconcerting—even kind of trippy—to go to the door after a failed attempt at an omelet and a brief-but-perplexing pasta tale, only to open it and find that you yourself wait on the other side of the threshold, either beckoning or entering, but, whatever the case, taking you by surprise. Had you known you were coming, maybe you’d have baked a cake.
Weirder still is another potential guest. “It’s … an astronaut!” the voice announces in a merry way. The alarming notion of this particular visitor has yielded a house rule: If an astronaut, recognizable to a toddler as an astronaut, is at the door, you must come and get mommy at once.
What would it take for a small child to identify a visitor as an astronaut? The reflective fishbowl helmet is an obvious necessity. The puffy onesie is another. White boots with wide-wale treads. A large pack. Valves and gadgets. Tubes. A flag patch. And he or she would have to breathe loudly, like blowing through a toilet paper roll.
A better question: What would bring someone to our quiet, tree-filled neighborhood in a full hazmat suit? A gas leak of some kind, I would think. Beyond that, the imagination fails and the family rule kicks in. When the atmosphere is suddenly and mysteriously toxic, so much so that it requires astronaut garb, get mommy.
An equally important rule? If the person who is at the door turns out to be a warped and wavy version of you, offer a bit of cake. Unless someone has had a birthday, you probably won’t have any cake—you usually don’t—but in that case, you know what you like. A bowl of cereal, maybe. But let her in. See what it is she has to say.