WASH YOUR HANDS, PLEASE!
Synopsis: What do a three- and
five-year-old know about anthrax, or its terrorism? Perhaps more than we
think. In this story, G-Ma Lori faces some tough questions about “bugs”
that threaten her grandchildren, and how to defend against them in a
positive way. Can terrorism be neutralized with courage, conviction and
action? G-Ma Lori finds a way to use children’s imagination to
understand how to be cautious and protective without the residuals of fear
and intimidation. She employs the Angels of Vigilance to help her
assuage the fears of her grandchildren; and, to inspire her to be a
Parent Of Vigilance.
Questions to think about while reading
1.) What do you tell your children about anthrax?
2.) How do you impress on them the importance of hand
3.) If your child hears things at school or from others that
frighten him or her, how do you counter it with positives? How do you
turn fear into courage?
4.) How can you make your children feel that all the parents
are there to help and support them in moments of question, doubt, fear and
WASH YOUR HANDS,
“G-Ma, wash your hands, ‘member to wash
your hands after you touch it,” warned Matt. “Mrs. McMahon told us in
school not to touch our mail at all…and for us to tell our
parents to wash their hands after reading it.” Matt spoke as if he
were the head of the Center for Disease Control. Like most little boys
his age, he wants to be in charge all the time, even if he’s only relaying
“What a great reminder, Matt. Your teacher is right on
target,” I replied.
So, after ‘checking out’ the mail, we all proceeded to soap up
and wash up.
I asked Matt if his teacher told him why we had to be so
careful. He would only relate that she said it would be a good idea.
“Your teacher is right in encouraging you to wash your hands
more, Matt. You know what G-Ma thinks about keeping hands clean?”
“Oh, G-Ma, you’re always pestering us to wash our hands –
every time we come into the apartment, before we eat, after we eat, after
we go to the bathroom – yikes, all the time and too much! You say bugs
are everywhere.” Matt droned on.
I worked as a
Microbiologist for over thirty years
My fears weren’t misplaced. I worked in the field of
Microbiology for over thirty years. I was and still am a believer that
washing one’s hands frequently is the best defense against colds and other
illnesses. And, I shared with the kids that “it’s a kindness to other
family members to not spread your germs.” (I wished my husband listened
as well as the grandchildren.) Years ago I harassed my own daughters and
now I was heckling my grandson, Matt, and his three-year-old sister,
Sarah to wash, wash, wash. I wondered if they would always think of the
G-Ma whenever they washed.
“Hey, Matt and Sarah, did I tell you the story about your
Auntie E when she was working on a school Science Fair Project?
The story about Auntie E washing her hands using a bar of soap
versus using soap from a soap dispenser?
“What’s ‘versus’ mean, G-Ma”?
“Matt, ‘versus’ means ‘as compared to,” I
explained. “ We did the project because the State of California had passed
a new law requiring all restaurants and food establishments of a certain
size to provide soap dispensers and discontinue using bars of soap.”
“Why, G-Ma, why? Don’t they like soap?”
“Well, Sarah and Matt, the men and women in
charge decided a bar of soap didn’t destroy as many bacteria—bugs and
germs--when people washed their hands as well as soap dispenser did.” I
was offering Sarah and Matt the same information I had given my daughter
E twenty plus years ago. I decided to make the story more
interesting by turning it into a detective adventure, as I had with E
two decades earlier
Auntie "E" and I
were detectives like the Berenstein Bears' story
“Auntie E and I were detectives
like the Berenstain Bears book ‘Bear Detective.’ We were solving a
‘case’.” I won their full attention now. Sarah stopped trying to get her
mommy dollhouse doll to hold the baby, and Matt’s crystal blue eyes grew
“Auntie E washed her hands in five
restaurants using bar soap and five restaurants using soap from
dispensers,” I continued. “G-Ma took an extra, extra clean cotton swab
like one that your mommy uses for your noses and ears and wiped it all
over E’s hands after each time she washed.” (As a microbiologist, at
the time of the experiment, I had access to the required materials as well
as the necessary equipment used to complete the testing.)
“Then what, G-Ma,” Matt was deep into the story and Sarah was
following his lead.
“What did Auntie E do next, G-Ma,” she asked.
“Then we went to G-Ma’s work and I showed Auntie E how to
gently rub the swabs over the top of some chocolate agar plates. We
incubated them to count all the bugs, and we both compared the set of
plates from the soap bars to the set from the dispensers.”
like my chocolate eyes?” Sarah gleefully squealed.
“The agar is only called chocolate
because it is a chocolate brown color,” I added, adjusting the kids on my
lap. They were pressing close, as though the closer they got, the more
the adventure would become real. “It is special media and the bugs and
germs really like to eat what’s on it.” I hoped my explanation of the
nutritional aspects of the rich growth media for most bacteria sank into
“Incubate, G-Ma, what’s that, like putting them in an oven to
cook?” Matt wisely guessed the answer.
“Exactly, Matt, you incubate in a kind of oven. Then
the germs kind of hatch like little chickens from an egg and are counted
after twenty-four hours and after 48 hours. Guess what detective Auntie
E and I learned?”
“Hmmmmm,” Matt wrinkled his brow, contemplating what I said.
“G-Ma, I think the bars are just as good. We use both kinds of soap at
“What do you think, Sarah? “
“The soap bottle is better, G-Ma. We use one at my school.
The bottle has a sea horse on the outside. My teachers are just like you
G-Ma ‘minding me to wash my hands lots at school.” Sarah nodded her
head, her eyes dancing with authority given to her by her teachers’
“Good work, detective Sarah. Long ago detective E
found the same answer. She proved using the soap dispenser destroyed more
bugs than the bar of soap did. That’s why your mommy has a soap dispenser
at the sinks at your house. She also has a bar of soap for you to use in
“That’s right, G-Ma. Sarah and I like to squish the bar of
soap after it gets soft from the water. It’s easier to use the bar to
wash each other’s backs and feet.” Matt’s smile vanished. I braced for
one of non-sequitor questions, those curves he likes to throw that force
you to swing the bat hard to make contact. After all, it was World
Series time, and I was thinking baseball and 'go Yankees'.
“But, G-Ma, G-Ma what’s wrong with the mail? You said you’d
tell us why we can’t touch it and have to wash our hands if we
do…even…even if we aren’t going to eat right after?” I smiled. Ah,
little Matt was beginning to think like a detective himself. He wanted to
keep the “main thing the main thing.” His curve was a fastball, right
over the plate.
I decided to be careful. I wasn’t their direct Parent of
Vigilant; I was a Grandparent of Vigilance. I wanted to be as
general as possible, not treading on what the kids’ parents might say, but
I also wanted to be honest enough with them not to lose my credibility.
The recent harsh realities affected them in many ways, some direct, some
I don’t believe children should be totally shielded
from the world’s realities since little things like washing one’s hands
has become a major safety issue. I cautiously continued.
“Some bad people have put very bad germs on
some of the mail and at some of the post offices.” I told them the sad but
“Our mail,” gasped Matt. “Not mail to us,
G-Ma! Our mail isn’t full of bugs and dirty germs? Right, G-Ma? Nobody
would want to give us germed mail.”
“Right, Matt, right. But, sometimes a germ
slips through by accident. So, we want to make sure we aren’t going to
get sick. We will be even more careful to wash our hands even more
often than we ever did before, especially after we touch our mail. We
need to be ever vigilant the bad bugs didn’t jump into our mail box – on
purpose or by accident.”
“Are the detectives finding out where the bugs
are from? Do they know who is giving the bugs to us?” He scrunched up
his face, rattling off questions faster than I could remember them. “How
can they put the bugs in the mail?” questioned my special boy.
I was struggling to keep this subject simple,
non-threatening. Matt’s questions dug deep to the heart of the issue of
terrorism—where bad people indiscriminately threaten the innocent, the
women, children, and old people. I couldn’t tell him we didn’t know who
they were—other than they were bad, mean people who wanted to hurt other
people. And I wanted to avoid getting into that area of moral damnation
and keep the conversation as medicinal as possible.
“Well, Matt, I know all the detectives and their helpers are
working harder than they’ve ever worked before to find out where the bugs
are and how to destroy them.”
“What about who put the germs in the mail to
make people sick. Who are they? Will the detectives find and stop them?”
Matt hammered the questions at me. I felt myself being pushed into the
corner by this aggressive five-year-old who wanted to know everything.
“Yes, they’ll find them, that’s for sure.
Everyone who knows about bugs and detective work is working together.
They’re like a big team, trying to strike-out the bad people.”
I thought about the fear of
a “bug attack” in a child’s mind. Matt and Sarah had many “bug
toys,” big beetles, even a Rhino beetle, and spiders and cute ladybugs
that scooted around a track and spun in circles.
But they had no anthrax toy bugs. My goal was to promote hand
washing as a precaution, not talk about bad people. We played
in a lot of community playgrounds all over New York City.
Kids on merry-go-rounds, swings, monkey bars, all had a great chance to
passing something, whether it was a cold, the flu or an anthrax spore.
I resolved myself to keep the discussion about washing hands.
“Well, we won’t forget to wash our hands,
G-Ma. Sarah and I will remind mommy and daddy. But, what about G-Pa? He
doesn’t wash his hands that much. Will he get the ‘AMTRAX’?”
I laughed. We all laughed at G-Pa. Even
though Matt mispronounced anthrax, I was a little surprised he knew the
name. Here I was dodging being specific, and Matt spewed out the word.
It isn’t a friendly word. It has a terroristic sound to it—Anthrax.
Russians call it a hard-palate sound. I called it the terrorist sound.
In New York City, or anywhere in the world, a
parent can’t plug a child’s ears to information—especially scary
information like “terrorist attack,” or “anthrax scare.” Kids are
sponges, they inhale information. Everyone was talking about it--people
on the street, in the delis, at the museums, in the parks. We were being
driven bonkers with a constant inundation by the news media, especially
television and front-page newspaper photos. I was thankful Matt and
Sarah’s parents are scrupulously careful about not allowing ‘threatening’
and ‘upsetting’ news or TV programs portending ‘the end of the world’ in
their apartment. The kids watch Discovery channel, National Geographic
Specials, Sesame Street, Winnie the Pooh, Arthur, Clifford, Little Bear
and the like. Even Tom and Jerry cartoons are ‘off limits’.
But now I realized that ‘AMTRAX’ was replacing
the usual monsters kids pretend to threaten other kids with. I wanted to
know what Matt knew, or thought he knew about AMTRAX.
“Matt, who told you about Anthrax?”
“At school, G-Ma.
Jason told us at yard
time. His daddy and mommy and him have special medicine called 'sippo' to destroy the
bugs. We wrestled with the ‘AMTRAX’ bugs and stomped them dead until Ms.
McMahon said to stop. She didn’t know we were killing the bad bugs.”
Oh, no, I thought. What a bad decision to
give a child an antibiotic like Cipro. I am an advocate of getting
tested before using antibiotics and know how serious it is to misuse a
drug. The drug Cipro is touted to destroy Anthrax when, in fact, it is
one of several treatments. Indiscriminate use of such a potent antibiotic
oftentimes results in its ineffectiveness later on. Those who work in an
area where known exposure has occurred should take one of the drugs, but
the rest of us should NOT be terrorized into prophylactic treatment. Once
more, I thought, the terrorists are positioning us where they want us.
Fear and Intimidation—that’s what they want. And, they want it in our
Perhaps, I thought we should be more
concerned with getting our flu vaccinations and not be traumatized into
getting our family Cipro-ized. I knew it was the beginning of the flu
season. The flu is one of the most deadly of all biological agents that
attack our country almost every year. Twenty thousand Americans are
expected to die from the flu this year--primarily the very old and very
young. They will pass their illness on to others, incapacitating
thousands of us for weeks. I wished the headlines would shout that news,
rather than driving people to Cipro solutions.
I thought the terrorists are truly ‘winning’ if we pay so much
attention to anthrax and don’t get flu shots that are readily available to
those at risk.
My microbiologist brain snapped back to reality, as Matt’s
demanding question broke up my wandering thoughts. “Can we get that
‘AMTRAX’ shot so we won’t get sick? I want Sarah, you, G-Pa, Auntie E,
mommy and daddy to get the medicine,” Matt was insistent.
“Our cousins too,” Sarah contributed…” little
Ben… Pauly and Nana and Grampa Joe, too.” Sarah puffed out her chest
defiantly. “I’m not being sick. I’m not,” she emphatically announced.
“I’m not ascared of AMTRAX. I’m not ascared of any monsters. My Angel, my
special-special friend watches over me, my teacher said so. You have an angel
too, Matt. Your angel won’t let the AMTRAX monster bite you. Do you have
an angel, G-Ma?” Her chocolate eyes hurled the challenging question to me.
love,” I answered, calmed by the welcome and wise words warbling from my
sweet little bird, Sarah “The angels are the Parents of Vigilance.
They stand guard to make sure you, Matt, and you, Sarah, are extra
protected. They work with your own special angels, backing
them up. These are ‘angel parents’, the Parents of Vigilance. They beat
away Anthrax bacteria and other such bugs so you don’t have to be afraid.
Their wings are made of peace and love.”
“Wow, G-Ma, do they look like my giant rubber butterflies?”
Matt was excited. His earlier concerns and fears seemed to flap away on
the wings of the angel conversation.
beat away bugs like a butterfly flaps its wings
“Well, all I know is that G-Pa looks like a
giant Pterodactyl and most unlike a butterfly. Can you see him flying?
Shut your eyes. He is wearing his Semper Vigilantes armband. He zooms
and crashes all over Manhattan. He is ever on the alert for those who
would harm or scare you two.” I grinned at the thought. “Can you see
“Ha,” giggled Sarah and Matt. “Yes, we see
him. He’s funny.”
“ That sounds just like our big and silly
G-Pa.” I patted both their heads.
“I know, G-Ma,” Matt said. “And we can help,
G-Pa. Our medicine can be washing our hands and reminding mom and dad, our
friends, kids at school and in the park, to wash their hands. We can help
fight those bugs from spreading and be our own medicine.” Matt announced,
as though he was the head of President Bush’s Home Security for Children.
“We use the soap ‘suspenser’, right, G-Ma,” Sarah asserted.
“G-Pa and my angel are friends,” she bragged, nodding her head.
“I know, little love-bug, Sarah,” I knelt down
and put my arms around my two angels.
“G-Ma, G-Ma, you know I’m NOT a love bug, I’m a
girl, a big girl,” she corrected me.
“And, what a wise girl…and what a caring boy,”
I proudly thought. I said a silent ‘thank you’ to my angel since little
Sarah reminded me I did have one. I relaxed and pictured my angel and me
soaring over the city wearing our Semper Vigilantes armbands joined by the
other Parents of Vigilance with their banded angels; all of us ever
watchful and on guard detectives working vigilantly to ensure the
safety of the children of our city and cities elsewhere.
If cows can jump over the moon, and dishes can run away with
spoons, why couldn’t we—the Parents of Vigilance-- all fly and tell
everyone: “Wash your hands—with soap dispensers!”
Terrorism, I pondered, wouldn’t have a chance if everyone thought
To Sophia 7: "Thanksgiving Empty Chairs"