Wash Your Hands, Please


G-Ma Lori

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 this story:
            1.)  What do you tell your children about anthrax?
            2.)  How do you impress on them the importance of hand washing?
            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 intimidation?



G-Ma Lori

          “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 information.

         “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?” questioned Sarah.

      “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 large.

      “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.”
           “Chocolate, 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 their imaginations.
           “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 our house.”
           “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’ actions.
           “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 the tubby.”

           “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 indirect.

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 true reality.

      “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.

Rhino Beetle

      “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 children.

             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.
           “Yes, my 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.

Special angels 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 him?”

      “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 like children.

Go To Sophia 7: "Thanksgiving Empty Chairs"


©2001 - 2004, VigilanceVoice.com, All rights reserved -  a ((HYYPE)) design