It was dark outside and snowing. The first flakes of the year, always silent and magical, had begun camouflaging the cars, the streets, even the garbage cans around their house.
For one night at least, it seemed that any griminess in the world would be, could be, white-washed.
But inside the house, the people in front of the television set were watching the newest version of an old story, "The Diary of Anne Frank."
The background of Anne's life in her family's hideaway was not new to the grown-ups. They watched the performance with a different eye, a different hide. But the girl beside them wasn't as tough.
She had not learned yet to take magazine covers of starving children off the breakfast table. She had not learned to discuss the inhumane intelluctually. She had not learned what grown-ups learn: to put pain in its place.
She was still a child who closed her eyes at scary parts in the movies . . . and was afraid of Anne's Nazi murderers.
When it was over, well past her bedtime, the girl turned to her mother and said -- didn't ask, but said -- "That couldn't happen here."
Her mother paused for a moment and answered honestly, "I hope not."
The girl, unsatisfied, got under her quilt and said directly, "I just want you to tell me that everything is going to be okay until I grow up." The mother answered, "I know you do. I'd like to tell you that, too."
They had been here before, talking about cancer and war, accidents and evil. At some of these moments, the girl wanted a gift of reassurance. The mother wanted to give it to her. The child wanted protection. The parent wanted to protect. It is in the nature of things, of parent and child things.
Yet somehow as the girl grew older her mother was unable or unwilling to frost reality with an inch of fresh snow. She was reluctant to give false assurances.
When the girl was a baby, safety was a matter of putting covers on electrical sockets and gates on stairways. Now, this mother was far more conscious of her own inability to protect her child's safe world.
Halfway to adulthood, children have to be armed with their own awareness.
But it wasn't quite that simple. There are always the contradictions. We don't want to frighten kids and don't want to lie to them. We want to be realistic but not ghoulish. We want to make them feel secure but not sanguine.
She knew a woman who parented by terror. The woman's mind was a file full of every known childhood disaster from crib death to choking. She enlarged her list of cautions until her sons were straitjacketed in her paranoia. Yet the childen remained, like all of us, vulnerable to accidents and events.
She knew a young woman who floated into a college dormitory untouched and out of touch. She was almost blessedly unaware of bad intentions, of the dark side of human nature. But the very first blow -- a flawed man, not an evil one -- left her crippled.
Parents are the careful people. We want to wrap the children in gauze. We want to save them from war, disease, evil. We have an investment in believing the world will be good to them.
But we are equally aware they may be caught between the ideal and the real world, between their good impulses and the dangers.
So we tell them to be trusting and not to take candy from strangers. We tell them to be generous and not to let anyone take advantage of them. We tell them to believe that people are good and watch out for those who are evil.
We worry that some will be trapped, like Anne Frank at the end of her diary and life, "trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be and what I could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world" -- if there weren't any evil in the world.
The mother watched the snow falling past the window next to her daughter's bed. She wanted to paint and promise a safe world . . . but she didn't. This is, she thought, one of the things parents do. We supervise our children's loss of innocence before the world does it for us.