“I found money!”
Three-year-old Juno, from her booster in the backseat, holds up a quarter plucked from the carpet of single socks and winter hats and pieces of desiccated food the baby threw onto the floor of the car.
“Finders keepers,” I say, smiling at her in the rearview, wondering as it crosses my lips if that maxim still holds, or if these days it’s more like “finders are obligated to locate a worthy recipient who’s been marginalized by the patriarchy and bestow upon them the piece of money.”
She goes back to admiring the shiny quarter. When we pull into the school parking lot, she pockets it in her fleece and on the way inside, asks: "Can you buy a wot of candy fow a dowar?"
Not a lot of candy – but a piece or two, yes. She nods, serious. It strikes me that most of the time when I talk, my intended recipient is half-listening at best, waiting for me to get to the point while doing three other things at the same time.
Juno, my little heart and soul, is listening with all her might, taking it in and sitting with it. Her motive is so pure: she is trying to calibrate how many jelly beans this mysterious shiny orb is worth.
Looking at the quarter through Juno’s eyes, I see it anew. It is fascinating. Money is truly weird, first of all, like a grown-up version of playing store where we all agree to pretend this silver trinket is exchangeable for those goods. But while cash is simply the lingua franca of the adult world, for kids it’s this strange totem that (as opposed to other inscrutable grown-up things, like where babies come from or impeachment hearings) actually crosses over into their magical bubble world.
They get $5 bills tucked into a card from their YiaYia on Halloween. They occasionally get motivated to do chores, whose rate is determined on a sliding scale based on difficulty of task and what assortment of nickels and dimes are lying around. When the time comes, the tooth fairy is good for a couple bucks a pop. We’ve started collecting cans and bringing them to this redemption center that just opened, where the girls get to split the proceeds and take a lollipop from the bowl. Most of their cash, though, I suspect comes from Papa’s vase into which he’s been emptying his pockets over the last decade, which they secretly dip into and transfer into their own piggy banks.
With this money in their eager little palms, zap! They are endowed with the power to pierce the skin of the bubble dividing them from the grown-up world. They can walk into any store and buy, well, whatever a grown-up can buy. (Except gum. I retain veto power, and when I was little a wad of gum wound up in my bed and my mom had to extricate it from my body hair with scissors, so we’re waiting on the gum. Which of course only serves to make it more desirable.) Their sense of scale is still off – Kai, 7, who’s been very patient and uncomplaining about squeezing her tiny backside between her younger siblings’ car seats in our diminutive Prius, has offered to go in with us on our next car.
Cash seems like a decent enough place to dip our toes into the noisome adult world. I’m holding off on the big one, the techno-monster, as long as humanly possible. No matter how long I’m able to fend it off, the day my kid gets her own phone will come too soon for me.
But maybe, by then, I'll have a better idea of how to play Virgil, to guide my kids through this ring of purgatory, which might be called: The Things Grown-ups Have Invented and Now Cannot Figure Out How to Live Without. Maybe money can be our practice round. Lord knows I need the practice — because so far, I'm not doing so hot. I recently overheard Juno telling Kai not to put money in her tzedakah box (which in the Jewish tradition is for charitable giving), because "Mom will make you give it away!" Which explains why Juno's tzedakah box went from hefty to empty when I wasn't looking.
As we wade in little by little, maybe I can find some way to impart the idea: these are the imperfect tools of our flawed world. Learn to bend them to your will if they’re helpful; throw them to the wind if they weigh you down. But they are merely tools. It is your boundless grace and curiosity, your keen powers of observation and contagious sense of adventure, that will carry you through whatever lies ahead.