4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
The playground suddenly disappeared.
This both is and is not a metaphor.
We were heading to the library, the place I would take the kids for story hours and sing alongs a mere seven minutes ago. (Or seven years and seven minutes, but still.)
We were on a mission to get some summer reading and to sign up for the summer reading contest we discovered a few years ago. You get a chart and you fill out the minutes you read during the summer and the library gives you money. Or actually funny money, builder bucks or gold dubloons or monkey money or whatever the summers theme is, and you get to buy junk at the library “store” when you have enough money. And by junk, I mean crappy skeetball tchotchkes that drive me bonkers, but also a Chipotle meal card and a pass to the old timey country fair in the fall including free rides and a hotdog, so yes, we absolutely had to do it.
But this year it felt a tiny bit different. One of my middle children asked the librarian, “Do you have the graphic novels? The ones based on the James Patterson book but illustrated and written by a different author? I think they’re in the upstairs section…” and he leaned nonchalantly against the mini circulation desk that used to seem gigantic compared to their tiny bodies but now feels sort of Lilliputian. (And yes, my kids actually now get this reference)
“Wait, wait, wait,” I interjected. “The upstairs books?”
“It has curses,” a sibling replied.
“What the what? Why are you getting this…”
“We’re allowed at school,” someone replied. Another nodded.
So now we were getting books from upstairs, where there are teenagery loungers and dark graphic novels with curses, apparently, and summer reading like A Man Named Ove (which I got for myself) laid out on the top shelf. Big kid stuff.
On the way up the stairs one of my kids noticed the art on display.
“You should show your artwork here. This wall is so big and yours is better,” someone said.
“Hmmm. That’s a good idea,” I replied.
So we got the inappropriate book and signed me up for an exhibit in our gorgeous library.
It was strange, them picking out teen books, throwing around author names, suggesting a place for an art exhibit like a girlfriend would, then leaning against me and stroking my hair, my arms, my waist, as I talked to the exhibition woman like they were my little clutch of babies, and I their marsupial mama.
Afterwards they asked for some time on the playground. I knew we had a whole afternoon in the car ahead of us and it had been aeons since we’ve been to any playground not actually at their school, so I acquiesced.
We drove to the park across from the library, pulled up in the secret dirt parking lot enclosed by trees, got out, headed along the abandoned tennis courts to the playground.
This was once one of our regular places, like the children’s room at the library. It was an old wood structure with tire features, an old wood car, chains and ropes and such. It was challenging to manage, rattling and rife with splinters. But it was shaded by the trees, less crowded, and the ground was covered with dirty sand and pea stone, softer on crawling knees than the typical wood chips. We met our first babysitter there almost eight years ago, back when I interviewed babysitters at length, actually checked references. The twins were laid out on their blanket then, rolling around in an effort to angle their legs to kick one another while my oldest ran straight for the wood apparatus, still unable to talk but fearless in his climbing.
Later the twins would learn to walk there, we’d have play dates, and they’d eventually climb on the roofs of things because that’s what big kids do.
As we rounded the last tree one of my middles said, “It’s gone! Oh, mom, it’s gone.”
And it was. No structure or wood scraps or even sand remained. It had become a green field amidst the trees, as if it never was.
I’d been thinking about writing something about what’s in now and what’s out.
Fidget spinners, playdates, baseball cards, journals, Legos, Converse All-Stars, Patriots memorabilia, Harry Potter, investing in the stock market (seriously), Minecraft, fairy houses, the ceramic plates with their names on them they glazed themselves, wearing dad’s shirts to bed, reality shows like Alone and Naked and Afraid: these things are in. Training wheels, strollers, Velcro shoes, needing your butt wiped, sippy cups, sun hats, Veggie Tales, dribble castles, mom putting on sunscreen, jumbo puzzles, swim lessons: these things are done.
I don’t know what left when or what will go next, but I recognize it even when it doesn’t scream at me like an empty field where a playground used to be. They keep moving forward, all gangly legs and long strides, opinions about art and fashion and friends and why curse words in books are sometimes okay. They laugh at my anger sometimes now, and my tears. They say, “You’re such an asshole,” to one another.
A few things have remained current, family dance parties, hiking together, baths (although now we generally can only fit two rather than four in the tub), mom reading aloud, sung lullabies, sitting on my lap. I wonder if they’ll leave eventually too. Then I acknowledge that it’s when they’ll leave, not if, that I should be contemplating.
Playgrounds are still in, sort of, at least for now. At least for the next eight minutes (certainly not for eight more years, alas.) And so we climbed back into the car, and I drove to the big playground in the middle of town, the one they tore down a few years ago, replacing the hot metal slide and rusty monkey bars with an enormous rope maze, climbing cubes, a circle swing, even a zip line. I warned my kids for the first time ever, “Hey guys! Stay to the big kid side. Don’t go in the little kids’ section,” because finally they were all too big, even my baby.
But maybe because they had that same feeling of things falling away, of the possibility of something that felt permanent, like a splintery wooden playground, disappearing in an instant, without warning or fanfare or anything, they played like kids. They climbed and spun and made me push them on the swing and the zip line. They screamed for me to look, and I did.
As we left though they climbed the tank where the big kids hang out, the one my husband vaguely remembers climbing as a thuggish kid himself, the one as permanent as the name Patton.
I’m not sure why, but I leaned down and pretended to push the tank and they laughed. In our 8 years of coming to the park I’d never done this before, tested the staying power of a very old tank once driven by General Patton.
“This won’t budge,” I huffed, stretched almost parallel to the ground, both hands on the base of the tank, trying with all my might to see if this, too, could move.
“It’s not going anywhere,” I said.