New parents can be pretty amusing as they rattle off all the things they will never do with their children. Some declarations are honorable: I’ll never serve fast food to my kids! Some are sensible but unrealistic: I’ll never let them stay up past ten o’clock on a school night! Some are control-freaky and horrible: Unless they get straight A’s in high school, I won’t help pay for college! And then there’s my personal favorite, the sweet: I will never lie to my kids!
Inside, I chuckle. After all, how cute that they have such high ideals. It’s like a four-year-old announcing she’ll invent a time machine when she grows up. You wouldn’t tell her that time travel isn’t possible because why disabuse someone of a lofty goal? Also, who knows? If a kindergartener, back in 1960, told you that you’d be reading this on an all-purpose electronic device that also makes visual phone calls, sends mail, plays movies, and puts all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips, you might have dismissed him with, “That’s very nice, Stevie. Now go clean your room.” But he would have been right.
So, I just smile when I hear these assertions that they won’t lie to their kids, because I know that this is actually the very first lie of many, and these parents are telling it to themselves. For example, somebody bought all those Elf On The Shelf toys last December. What’s that you say? You don’t consider that lying? It’s just a playful fib? Oh. I see.
I’m not judging you. Oh no, no, no! I just want to give you a teensy little reality check. And I don’t mean to be a spoilsport. The truth is, I don’t see anything wrong with traditions that lead children to imaginative play, like believing in magical candy-bearing bunnies, or fairies bartering cash for teeth. In fact, I love them. And I concede that there’s certainly a distinction between a fib: Keep making that face and it will freeze that way, a white lie: The supermarket was completely out of ice cream, and a downright whopper: Your real father is an exiled prince. For his own safety, and ours, I can’t tell you who he is.
Then there are lies of convenience. These are the lies we tell to save us time, aggravation, or to avoid an awkward conversation for which we are unprepared. I knew a mother who, when asked the purpose of a certain feminine hygiene product, told her prepubescent daughter that they were shoe inserts used to prevent sore feet. Then there was the father who gave such a cursory explanation about the birds and the bees, that his 8-year-old son asked, “Next time mommy lays an egg, can I see it?”
It was one of these convenience lies that sent me on a wild goose chase for nearly 25 years. Here’s how my odyssey began:
When I was a little girl, I wasn’t a terribly fussy eater as long as everything you served me was turkey. Turkey was my favorite and the only “meat” I’d eat. No matter where my parents took me, turkey was on the menu (or so they said. I couldn’t read.).
Once, on a visit to New York City’s Chinatown, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch and my parents ordered for me. When the food came, I was served a warm, bready, fluffy orb, flat on the bottom, and about the size of a softball. It was golden brown in color with a delicate sheen to its crust.
“What’s this?” I asked my father.
“Turkey,” he said.
I bit into its soft, chewy exterior to discover the most delicious, sweet, moist turkey I had ever tasted.
Thus began my quest for the elusive Chinese Turkey Roll.
When I became old enough to read, I searched the menu of every Chinese restaurant for turkey rolls. I never found them. As an adult, I’d ask waiters, “Do you have those rolls? You know the ones I mean – they’re soft and kind of shiny? They have turkey in a sweet sauce inside?”
Waiter: “You mean pork bun.”
Me: “Um, no…not pork. Turkey.”
Waiter: “No. No turkey. Pork!”
This is how it went every time. They didn’t have what I wanted, so they’d try to sell me on pork buns. Even though I’d never had one, I knew pork buns weren’t what I craved. Give me Chinese turkey rolls or nothing.
I once asked my father if these rolls were some sort of delicacy, or if the restaurant in Chinatown made them as a specialty, or if he remembered the name of the place.
“You want to ask me what we ate for lunch 15 years ago? I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast today,” was his response.
Fast forward to 1986. I was working as a research director on Wall Street and living on my own in Brooklyn. My downstairs neighbor, Olivia, called me one night to invite me for dinner. When I arrived, a deliciously pungent aroma welcomed me at the door.
Olivia greeted me with a hug, “You’re in for a treat! I was in Chinatown today and picked up lots of goodies.”
After brewing a nice pot of oolong for us, she served our first course: scallion pancakes. I’d never had them before, but my taste buds had come a long way since I was little. Now I tried new foods all the time (however, turkey was still my favorite).
The pancakes were crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and had a sweet oniony flavor. We dipped them in a dark sauce that was salty like soy, but slightly sweet and tangy. Yum!
Then Olivia brought a platter to the table. It was piled high with, what looked like, smaller versions of my gastronomic Holy Grail. But I’d been disappointed before, so I checked my excitement until that first bite. Gently lifting one to my mouth, and hoping against hope, I took a tentative nibble. And then I heard the voices of a cherubim’s chorus.
“Olivia! You have to give me the name of the place where you bought these turkey rolls!”
She tilted her head and gave me a quizzical look, “Turkey rolls? Those are pork buns. You can get them anywhere.”
My ecstasy was tempered by the knowledge that my father’s fiction had deprived me of over two decades’ worth of pork buns. Add to that the embarrassment I felt replaying all the times I’d grilled restaurant employees about those non-existent rolls (sometimes I did this on dates!). It’s like going into Home Depot and demanding a flying carpet because you just know they really exist. And when the salesman tells you there are no such things, you think he’s stupid and he thinks you’re crazy.
So parents, next time you tell that little white lie, please don’t forget to straighten things out somewhere down the road. Yes, my father fibbed about the turkey. Was that the end of the world? No. Did he inadvertently spare me from years of eating something that, let’s face it, would not have made for the healthiest of diets? Yes. And in the grand scheme of things, there are worse outcomes born from parental subterfuge. I could have been that bride walking down the aisle with panty liners stuffed into her shoes.