Sunday, August 26, 2012

Value added

I hadn't noticed her standing in line behind me at the grocery store when she said my name. I'd been too busy dreading the back-to-school shopping trip scheduled for later that afternoon. In my mind I was calculating what Expensive X 2 would cost me as my hand basket full of snacks rolled through the scanner.

I turned around to see a friend -- shopping for staples with her pre-teen sons – more tired looking but no less beautiful than she'd been mid-summer when I'd last bumped into her.

“Are you all ready for school to start?” I bumbled on, clawing for conversation as I swiped my card.

Small talk is an art I haven't perfected.

She shook her head rigorously back and forth as her sons watched, and soundlessly mouthed the word “YES!”

She is admirably adept.

“The Champ goes to kindergarten this year, right?” she asks.

I nod. “I can hardly believe it. He was just born yesterday.”

She smiles broadly, and chuckles as if I'd made an original observation.

“You know, the second one was easier for me,” she offered. “Never shed a tear.”

“I'm not sure if I will be so strong.” I say as I grab my bags to give her items room to move off the conveyor.

“She smiled. You'll be surprised.”

Truer words could not be spoken. I'm always surprised by something.

Surprised by how maddening a child's happiness can be. How mirth and song and repetitious glee can make a parent go ever-so-slightly insane.

Or surprised by how excited he is to be a big kid, for instance, even after I told him he was not allowed to get any taller.

Or how gregarious The Champ's become since graduating preschool in June. Back then he barely said peep to his classmates, now he starts conversations with strangers mid-stream as if they've been speaking in non-sequiturs forever.

“I turned five last week!”

“I'm going to kindergarten this day.”

“Hey, did you know that owls can't smell a thing? That's why they can eat skunks.”

“My mom just hit me in the eye with her pocketbook.”

“It was an accident.”

We all just laugh. Even his sister, who, at times has refused to go on shopping expeditions with him if given a choice, can't help but enjoy his company today.

He's never had to choose school supplies before and it's all so daunting.

He wants the backpack that comes with a toy keychain. I roll my eyes but she talks him out of it.

“This backpack is much cooler, and you can hang a toy from it if you want. All you need is a key ring.”

With that decided, we continue through the aisles. He doesn't care for my opinion. Only hers.

She nods at his choices of black pocket folders, yellow pencils, a ninja lunchbox and Batman Thermos. She senses a theme.

“He thinks he's Batman,” she tells a lady who leans over her to pick up a box of yellow No. 2s.

“I do not,” he corrects. “I just LIKE black is all.”

He's not angry. She doesn't take offense. They are comrades in arms.

They move on … Erasers, wide-ruled paper and fine-point ink pens for her. Crayons, glue sticks and blunt-edged scissors for him. School spirit has its price.

I can tell our cart is getting filled to over budget.

“It's only once a year,” I tell myself as the register wracks up the value-added costs of letting the kids choose their own supplies. And the joy on their faces at the prospect of summer's end is worth every penny.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On vacation

Sand between your toes. It's such a luxury.

“We need one of these,” I say to the sea, wishing I could carry it home with the sand and shells in my pocket.

The first time I came to this coastal town in Maine with my own personal tour guide I was equal parts jealous and smitten. He was born in the summer, and returns each year around that time to relive his youth and reconnect with the sea.

“It must have been so difficult growing up here,” I guestured at the sight of the rocky shoreline. “The beach – a once-annual summertime sojourn for me and my family – was year-round bike ride away for you and yours.”

My husband just smirked, and shrugged his shoulders. Youthful summers mowing lawns and painting oceanfront homes has colored his judgement.

“It's not the same when you live here,” was his reply, though I could tell the answer was more to convince himself of the value of his departure.

We were on vacation after all.

Each year since that first year, we've come here as a family. We put aside the work and the worry and we revisit this place, his childhood home; my dream home. But this is the first year we've arrived in waves: My daughter first, with her grandmother; my husband and son next for a guys-only trip; the dog and myself, last, after the completion of a job.

How things change.

For three weeks our kids have been visiting the library, taking swim lessons, collecting blueberries for breakfast, breading themselves on the sandy beaches and rinsing off in the breaking waves with their grandmother as if this place was home.

Arm over arm they practice their strokes in the pool. The Champ follows in his sister's path of not wanting to go under water, vexing his youthful teachers.

“I do it at home in my pool, but I didn't bring my pool with me,” he says for the laugh.

“I didn't bring mine either,” says the instructor. “It wouldn't fit in my backpack.”

If only such things were possible. It's not the first time the notion of lugging the sea home in our luggage has wormed its way into my wishful thoughts.

It's just better when one of the smalls says it out loud.

These things haven't changed. Long days, filled with sun and ocean air. Family walks on the beach start early and include balancing coffee and muffins against the strain of the dog bearing down on her leash.

The kids smell of sea and sunscreen as they chase the gulls like it was their job. They don't even mind the cold waves or the grainy pastries they collect in pay.
When a woman with a big-old yellow lab asks me how he likes the beach, I say “She's not a fan of the water yet.” “Ah but he likes the sand.”

My face reddens when I realize she's talking about The Champ as he tries to build a sandcastle a few feet from the encroaching tide.

I will blame the sun, whose kinship with the surf fogs minds and whets appetites.

The combination makes the us almost hungry enough to eat the occasional spiny fish the ocean turns inside out and tosses out of its tide each morning.


The dog, however, would happily partake if allowed.

“Skunk would smell better,” we tell her as we drag her away from the putrid prize.

It doesn't matter that it's not true.

We are on vacation.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In an instant

I was just in the next aisle. Standing next to Ittybit, who was facing the daunting task of choosing a bicycle helmet to replace the one our dog ate as an evening snack.

The Champ, bored of pink helmets and bikes no one would buy him, had ambled over to peruse toys in the next aisle with my blessing.

Is he your boy?”

I looked up to find an older woman trying to be in two places at once. She was leaning toward me and trying to keep her eye on my son.

Yes. He's mine,” I said quizzically, walking toward her to see what havoc he'd caused.

I hadn't realized it just then – as I was looking down the aisle at my son who was quietly weighing the options (LEGO Friends for a school chum who had a birthday coming up or LEGO Star Wars for himself) by holding the boxes of each alongside his ears -- but she was almost in tears.

It only takes an instant,” she whispered. Her hand lightly pressed my arm.

Do they know they shouldn't go with strangers? Do they know what to do if someone grabs them?”

Noticing me talking to the lady, my son hop-skipped in our direction. My daughter, already clinging to my side and to a periwinkle helmet with reflective swirly bits drew her arms around him protectively. She had understood what the woman was talking about.

I lost my daughter. … in Washington. I turned around and she was gone. I was frantic. For three days there was nothing.

And then they found her ...”

Her eyes explained with tears the word she couldn't say.

Teach them to scream, to bite and to kick. Just teach them.”

Up until this moment I hadn't given much thought to what-if scenarios about stranger abduction.

Oh sure, I'd recited by rote what they should do if they are lost or can't find me. Who would likely be a safe choice to approach for help: A police officer, a store employee, an elderly lady, much like the woman standing before us now.

But I hadn't considered strangers a true threat. I don't want to live in fear. I don't want to tether my children to my side because I can't shake the fear that danger lurks everywhere.

In fact I'd felt confident in my belief that Don't Talk To Strangers, Stranger Danger and other blanket approaches to rare but horrifying incidents of stranger abductions were completely wrong-headed.

We have to talk to strangers,” I've told my kids. “You may find yourself in a situation where you need help and you can't always wait until you see someone you know. … But the trick is to understand what IS danger.

We go over that, too. “Adults you don't know won't need a kid's help for any reason. If they lost a puppy, they'd call the animal shelter. If they had car trouble they'd call a tow truck. Beware of strangers bearing gifts and all of that. And remember if there was an emergency, believe me, we wouldn't send someone you've never met before. So Never. Ever. Go with a stranger. Anywhere.”

They repeat after me: “Don't ever go anywhere with a stranger.”

Adults don't need kids' help.”

Mom will find me. She won't send someone I don't know to look for me.”

I can tell from their eyes and robot voices they probably won't remember any of it should a really, really nice person tell them he lost his dog.

What do you do if someone tells you they're going to take you to see me?”

I'll tell them My mother wouldn't send a stranger to get me. ...”

No. That's what you THINK. Don't reason with them. Don't tell them anything. Just say NO! Loudly. And then find a policeman, a store employee or an elderly woman.”

So … Don't talk to strangers then?”

In that situation … where you're just minding your own business and someone comes up to you with a story about how they're supposed to take you to me … No. Don't talk to them.
And …

Two blank stares headed my way, tell me the lady was right.

It only takes an instant for a lifetime of regret.

If someone tries to grab you, scream, bite, kick and run.”

They seemed happy with than answer. For the rest of the afternoon they practice on their own with forceful “Nos,” “Hiyahs,” and “You're NOT my Mothers.”

As I watch by kids fight imaginary foes, I understand something, too: Living in fear isn't a result of hearing information you'd rather ignore, its the consequence of ignoring information that you might need to hear. 

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Dragging our feet

“You need to put your foot down!”

No matter how much I think it, say it or feel it, the words never seem to morph into action.

Every time we stop, the kids just sit on their bikes as if they were lawn chairs. The training wheels keep them balanced.

Why would they pay any attention to me, their mother? I'm just trailing along behind on our commute one-half-mile to day camp as they buzz along the sidewalk – the tiny third and fourth wheels branching off their bikes' rear tires scraping against the ground like nails against a chalkboard.

The sound reminds me of yet another failure as a parent: My kids – ages 8 going on 9, and 5 going on 25 – don't know how to ride their bikes.

Not that I haven't tried to rationalize my inaction in this area:

Maybe they're just not ready.”

Or “They're just not interested.”

Or “We live on a high-traffic road.”

There is also my favorite: “The dog ate their helmets.”

That one was good for a least three weeks of blissful inaction until I got around to visiting the sporting goods store.

Once I run out of Perfectly Legitimate ExcusesTM, I just shift the blame.

Isn't it the father's job to teach the kids how to ride bikes?”

Oh ye of shirking feminism.

The truth is, I am scared.

I don't remember when the training wheels came off my bike. I don't know if I was five or seven or nine. Memory has a way a minimizing some stuff and magnifying others.

I do remember falling a lot until I managed to muster enough courage and speed to balance. I remember scraped knees and ankles. I remember pants getting caught in chains.

I also remember the summer a kid got hit by a car and died. At least I remember my mom telling me about it, and reminding me to be careful out there. I thought helmets were weird; my kids think people not wearing helmets is weird. At least that's an improvement.

But I wasn't scared back then. I barely even thought about how my blue Schwinn alloy 10-speed changed my life.

That bike meant freedom. It expanded the diameter of my world by 10s of miles each year as I got taller, stronger and more reliable in traffic.

It wasn't until I was a parent, driving along the narrow, winding back roads of my childhood bike commutes, that I wondered how, exactly, had my parents let me ride alone there with all the hidden driveways, blind curves and joy-riding, newly-licensed teen drivers?

Things weren't really different back then.

Sure, there are more cars and more distractions in those cars, but accidents have always happened and we have more safety features built into our lives than ever before to protect ourselves against them.

Getting over all the what-ifs is hard.

It's not as if I'd be letting The Champ drive his tiny Spider-Man two-wheeler down the center of a freeway once the training wheels come off. It's just that I know, eventually, I won't be trailing behind to give them pointers.

Eventually I will have to stop dragging my feet, and allow them to pick up theirs.