On the question of why

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I wish I had paid more attention in eighth grade earth science class. I was pretty convinced my teacher was wrong at the time; I would never need to know what a cold front had to do with the creation of wind, or how the moon’s gravity affected the tides. Surely the practice of teaching children nomenclature and the classification of creatures was simply an exercise in tedium, meant to keep us stationary in desks until we reached the age of eighteen and could be released into the wild.

 “Mama, why is it snowing?” my three year old asks. I really should have paid more attention in class.

“Well, honey, because it’s cold, and when it’s cold out, it doesn’t rain, it snows,” I reply, feeling that should be sufficient.

“But why? Why does it not rain? Why does it snow?” Foiled again.

I rack my brain. I don’t mind the questions. Part of me enjoys the exercise, seeing if it is possible to reach into the deep recesses of my brain and see if I can dust off anything I accidentally kept from those middle school classes. Another part of me enjoys that he is old enough for conversation, a break from the long quiet days with an infant, with only the sound of my own voice and his laughs to pass the time. But it is becoming increasingly rare that I actually know the answer.

“I don’t know honey,” I reply. This has not been an acceptable answer for at least the last six months, but I give it a shot anyway.

A higher pitched voice joins the chorus, and the younger brother throws in his own “Why?” Growing up next to a curious toddler has caused the little one to enter into the “why?” stage prematurely, assuming it is the acceptable response to any declaratory statement. Now they both interrogate me, giggling between their yelps of, “why?”

I try again. “Well, everything is made out of molecules. Or atoms, or uh, little things, well, anyway, when the air gets really cold it’s hard to move. So the little drops of water get really cold and stop moving and freeze together and form crystalline structures called snowflakes, and then those accumulate in clouds and when there is enough of them, or maybe when there is a cold front, or wind, or, well, anyway they start to fall out of the clouds onto the ground and that’s called snow.” I wonder if any of what I am saying is even remotely accurate. At least its sounds pseudo-scientific. Language development is the benefit of these conversations, I convince myself, and not actual scientific knowledge.

Perhaps I should have taken a class on the geosciences in college. Eighteen year old me would have scoffed at the idea of choosing a class that would help me be a better stay-at-home mother. If only my sons would ask me to extemporize on things like the influence of political economy on the development of critical medical anthropology, then I could put my education to use and answer effectively.

“Why?” they chorus together.

The questions are constant. Why is it sunny today, why do birds fly, why do dogs have fur, why does bread rise, why do astronauts fly to the moon, why is there no gravity in space, why can’t I have cookies before dinner, why do we ride in car seats, why is that tree so tall?

To them, the world is fascinating, it is shiny and new and, if one only asks the right questions, it will become understandable. For me, it is ancient and well-traveled, and ultimately unexplainable. The crevices of time have cracked the earth and have been filled with more questions than answers. I have not travelled much of the world, but enough to learn that there is much I do not know.

My boys do not believe this. To them, I am their mother, the storehouse of all answers. And so they call to me, unendingly, asking why, over and over again. They will soon learn that I do not hold the answers they are looking for, and strike out on their own. I hope they find what they are looking for, but more than anything, I hope they fall in love with the search.

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