What Seven-Year-Old Girls Think About

Elder Girleen has over the past few months reached a stage where she likes — no, is obsessed with — jump-rope chants.  You know… Miss Mary Mac Mac, all dressed in black, black, black. Whenever she and one or more of her cohorts gather, you can bet they’re off in the corner or up in the playground play structure, playing intricate clapping games that involve saying convoluted rhymes over and over until their mothers go insane.

Meanwhile, of course, all the boys of the same age are all kicking each other in the shins.

And that right there, as if you hadn’t already figured it out, shows the difference between the genders. Talk about social currency!  The deftest hand-clapper of today might just be … the PTA president of tomorrow!  Girls are like that, you know.

I must’ve missed this stage when I was seven (which explains why I’m not PTA president this year), because I’ve been wracking my brains but can’t come up with versions of these chants from my childhood.  The current ones though, are a lovely snapshot into what’s really important to the youth of today.

Underwear, for instance:

My mommy gave me a penny

My daddy gave me a dime

My sister gave me a boyfriend

His name was Frankenstein.

He made me wash the dishes

He made me wash the floor

He made me wash his underwear

So I kicked him out the door.

I kicked him over London

I kicked him over France

I kicked him over Disneyland

Without his underpants.

Or punching people:

I went to a Chinese restaurant

to buy a loaf of bread.

She asked me what my name was

and this is what I said:

Choo Choo Charlie

I know Karate,

Punch you in the stomach

Oops, I’m sorry!

Cheese, Cheese, wonderful cheese!

Why don’t we do our elbow squeeze?

Or  even more punching of people (or at least the threat thereof):

Brick wall, waterfall,

Girl, you think you know it all.

You don’t

I do

So — poof with the attitude.

Welcome to McDonald’s,

May I take your order?

See my pinkie,

See my thumb,

See my fist,

You better run!

Dada is alive and well and roams the nation’s playgrounds.

Fall(ing)

The temperature may still hover around 97 degrees; people, somewhere, may be hitting the highways for a last gasp of summer vacation; it may have been just the other day that I was titling posts “Summer Snippets,” but  today the house is emptied of children for the first time in months, and here we are — The First Day of School.

There’s a tall iced coffee at my left elbow, and as far as I’m concerned, the cinematic riffling of calendar pages (a la old forties movies, denoting the passage of time) has just taken place, and has without further ado landed us squarely in a new season.

A cooler wind is blowing through.

Good-bye, sherpa-ing gigantic bag of sunscreen swimsuits water wings towels hair detangler flip flops water bottles hair brush dive sticks snacks to the pool.  Good-bye impromptu trips into the heart of the south side for homemade paletas at  La Estrella de Michoacan.  Good-bye  fairy house in the front yard.*

A cooler wind is blowing through.

Hello, Adult Life, it’s so good to see you again!**

I won’t even bother to list the ambitious plans I have for the three mornings a week that on this, the very First Day of School, seem to unspool themselves so luxuriously.

Suffice it to say:  I shepherded the Girleens, clad in their crisp first day of school outfits, to their respective classroom doors, where they said careless goodbyes and dove joyously into their real lives,  and then I came back home and cranked the volume knob on the stereo almost as  high as it would go.

In that minute, if this house had been a car, it would’ve been a Monte Carlo with fancy rims, the bass turned up so high it rattles window frames and splits seams on upholstery.

You know the kind of car I mean.  I am I am I am I am, the percussive beat proclaims, when you’re stuck behind such cars in traffic.  Alive alive alive — as  insistent as a heartbeat.

Same impulse — yes, I had it.  Even though I’m a frumpy mom of 44,  not some gangsta rapper cruising Moreland Ave south of 20.

Cooler winds are blowing through.

*I cannot tell a lie — good-bye also to the house ringing with the words If you and your sister can’t work things out without yelling I’m going to separate you two for the rest of your natural born lives.

** Famous last words.

Summer Snippets

Today, as we made our way home from the playground and the library,* Elder Girleen stooped to the sidewalk.

Look, she whispered as I pushed the stroller with its freight of sleeping younger sister up to her, holding her palm out flat for me to see.  A butterfly’s wing. She gave it a second look.  Or maybe a fairy’s wing. She caught her breath.  Could it really be?

Who am I to tell her otherwise?  And why would I  even want to?  The time for believing tattered bits of insect wings to be magic is as short as a seven-year-old’s summer.

Tonight at dusk, as I  headed out for the circuit of the neighborhood that’s become, this summer, my one unencumbered hour, from the shadowy elms in the vacant lot across  the street an owl called, and paused as if thinking better of it, then called again,

Who -cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you?

The musician-who-rents stands outside his apartment, smoking, hand-graffiti’d guitar propped against the building:  tattooed sleeves and skinny pants and Beatle boots and floppy hair.

Hello, ma’am, he says politely as I pass.

And off in the distance is the organ-grinder’s music of the ice-cream truck that idles in the parking lot of the apartment complex labeled derisively by the neighborhood’s gentrifiers as Section Eight. The tune’s almost Do Your Ears Hang Low (aka Turkey in the Straw) but not quite.

According to the neighborhood listserv, any ice cream trucks that might cruise through the neighborhood could really be fronts for drug sales.

Could be, I suppose, could be.

But in the meantime, Turkey in the Straw wends its way through the neighborhood and the cicadas sing out their paen to glorious summer —Hot, hot, too hot — and then begin it all over again.

*our cache of books:  Spoon and Crazy Hair for Younger Girleen, The People in Pineapple Place for the Elder,  Parenting, Inc and Kon-Tiki for me (ruminations on why on earth I might be  Im simultaneously reading parenting polemic and nautical adventure tales being grist to some other mill).

What the Squirrels Left Us, Part II

How much grist for the mill can one person get out of this particular topic?  Can’t this crazy woman stop talking about… squirrels in her garden?

Short answer:  Nope.  We’re not done with ’em yet.

In fact, even as I write this, the aluminum pie plate tied to the front yard apple tree three weeks ago is clattering in the breeze, scaring not the squirrels it was intended to, but with every rattle causing me to pull back the curtain to see what’s going on out there.

The apples are long gone.  Every. Single. One.

The tomatoes — oh, what visions I had of them when we put the seedlings in the ground!  Chadwick Cherries gathered in a bowl like jewels; the Girleens eating them by the handful.

The nibbled train wreck the raised bed of tomato plants has become would make a strong man weep.

And the figs? … Not ripe yet, but with already with a scar bitten into every single one.

Ah well.  Such is life, and as the friendly soul you encounter on the internets when googling “squirrels eating my tomato plants”* is so eager to point out, squirrels can’t buy produce at the grocery store but you can, so they deserve those heirloom tomatoes.

We’ve come to terms with the absolute desolation of our garden (except for the cucumbers, with the squirrels have let be), but my relationship with the squirrels continues.  Continues to be adversarial.

Yesterday, Elder Girleen was safely, happily occupied at the pool with a friend, and because I am nothing if not magnanimous, I said to the Younger Girleen:  What would you like to do today?  I am at your service.

The answer came quickly.  She wanted a cupcake from here, and then she wanted to go to the park.

Your wish is my command, O my Daughter.  At least today. We spent much time selecting a cupcake (Red Velvet, Strawberry, Key Lime, Grasshopper, Vanilla with Burnt Caramel, displayed more in the manner of jewels than any hypothetical produce I might’ve dreamed up); we got ourselves to the nearest park and sat down on a bench by the playground where she gave eating an incredible cupcake an old, messy, college try.

I want to save the rest for later, she explained after about twenty minutes, using extraordinarily sticky fingers to replace what was left of the cupcake in its plastic clamshell container.  She headed for the playground.

I followed, leaving the cupcake in its container and my bottle of water sitting on the bench — took my purse, of course, because I’m nothing if not an intown Atlanta mom, long ago indoctrinated into the lesson of holding on to one’s bag at all times, even when it seems least necessary.

Ah, the playground!  The fodder I can get from squirrels in the garden is nothing compared to what I can wring from playgrounds.   Even they are politicized, fraught — I’m so certain they’re one of the crucibles of 21st parenting culture that I even set my story coming out in the fall issue of Brain, Child**   in one.  (The fact that it’s set in a playground has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I spend a lot of time in playgrounds.)

Two younger mothers sat at one edge of the playground, heads close together, talking Montessori.  A nanny waded the shallows, casting alternating glances at her charge, a boy around 4, and the two mothers, who I had a feeling had already rebuffed her efforts at initiating conversation with them.

Want to play hide and seek with me? Younger Girleen asked one of the kids belonging to the public-vs-private-school-debating mothers.

No answer.

Giving up, she took me by the hand and led me to the swings.

A cry of dismay from the nanny.  Look! she cried, pointing.

The first thing we’d noticed when we got to the playground was the sheer number of … squirrels… in the area, and how inured to humans they were.  In fact, if Hitchcock’s The Birds had squirrels in the starring role, the way these particular squirrels were acting might’ve served as the tip-off that something was not quite right at the beginning of the movie.

Long story short:  A squirrel was running across the playground with Younger Girleen’s cupcake, still sheathed in its plastic container.  Up, up a tree, twenty or so feet.  Squirrel and cupcake container tumble.  Container cracks open, squirrel runs off with the plastic container and leaves the crumbled cupcake on the ground.

Don’t touch that! one of the mothers cried.  She and her compatriot resumed their conversation about schools.  The nanny stood beside me.  She told me that she liked my sandals; we discussed the foraging habits of urban squirrels.

Because that school conversation  — I’ve hadit  a hundred times.  But I’ve never, ever seen a squirrel carry a cupcake up a tree.

* And why does one google “squirrels eating my tomato plants”?  Because one can, of course.

**Which was just cited in Judith Warner’s latest NY Times column, rock on!

Possibly the Shallowest Post Ever

It’s probably jumping the gun just a little to start referencing the dog days less than a full week after the official onset of summer, but hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll call things whatever I want.  Besides, these are the go-go years:  everything’s accelerated these days, and if elementary school starts on August 10, well, then, maybe June 25 falls squarely during the dog days of summer, after all.

Dog days or not, it’s hot and drowsy ’round here, and most folks are trying to stay out of the midday sun.  One of the things that has given shape to our days the past few weeks (along with watching the squirrels carry off our produce) has been the summer’s requisite round of swimming lessons, which along with making the Girleens more proficient swimmers (Starfish Two and a Guppy Two, respectively, and Thank God we’ve moved past the Mommy-and-me class level and I no longer have to sing “The Wheels on the Bus” while trying to coax a one-year-old into the water) have meant a heck of a lot of driving for Mom.

Swimming lessons have also led to discovery that there’s a place that makes a mean Vietnamese Iced Coffee on the way to the Emory University Pool.

Emory may be intown Atlanta to most folks, but since it’s north of I-20, it might as well be Ultima Thule to us so it’s been nice to check out a new neck of the woods:  along with the above-mentioned Vietnamese Iced Coffee, we’ve had some great Indian Food, found a new ice cream joint, and experienced… the consignment store.

The consignment store of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with either motherhood or writing (not that much of what goes on here does).  In the spirit of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, it sells the high-end cast0ffs of (I speculate) Emory co-eds* and currently contains a pair of Kate Spade pumps for twenty-something bucks.  The first time I dragged the Girleens into it (first Iced Coffee; the Vietnamese place is five doors down in the same strip mall) I looked, my second visit (second iced coffee, earlier today) I came in carrying a clutch of half a dozen coathangers bearing dresses I haven’t been able to zip myself into since the birth of my first child.

I’m not a person who usually waxes either nostalgic or rhapsodic over clothes, but one of those dresses was a Betsey Johnson number circa 1998.  I bought it (on sale) soon after moving back to the States from Europe when two years of walking everywhere (we had no car while in Germany) whittled me down to a size one.  Black silk shantung with a cheongsam cut; it fit like a glove.  I wore it twice, quit smoking, and that’s all she wrote — it’s been hanging in the back of my closet ever since.

Actually, maybe I have waxed rhapsodic over clothes before — the leather jacket I purchased on layaway while  in high school (coming in the vintage store where I bought it to visit “my” jacket weekly until I paid it off); the miniskirt I bought years later at the same vintage store, said by the person who brought it in to the store to have belonged to the wife of the owner of Capricorn Records around 1972) — but that was in another country, and besides, the kohl-eyed wench who wore those clothes is dead, at least figuratively speaking.

These days I’m just another mom in bermuda shorts and comfortable sandals, and most of the time, I’m fine with my status as such.  I’ll never wear that Betsey Johnson dress again — so why was my last sight of it as I handed it across the consignment store counter the least bit wrenching?

I tried to keep the kids from wreaking havoc on the shoe display while the shopclerk priced the “goods”; I began to think about how humbling it would be if the store declined to consign anything I’d brought in.

Cute clothes! the salesclerk chirped when I walked back to the counter.  We’ll take them all.

Goodbye, Betsey Johnson dress.  Goodbye, halter dess cut as befits Marilyn Monroe. Goodbye purple skirt with lime green (!) embroidery.

I walked out the door, a child holding each hand, disengaged one to slip my sunglasses back down on my nose.  Who knew it could feel so good, to consign clothes?  I felt cleansed and affirmed both. Cleansed, as if I’d just lightened my load.  Affirmed —but why?

Motherhood is so much about blending in, it seems, and requires so much … toeing of the line.  If anyone knows how to fade into the woodwork it’s a mother.

But it doesn’t hurt, to have it recognized now and then:  once we were all birds of fine feather too, and young, and just learning to fly.

*What leads someone to sell their jewelry on consignment?  I imagine love affairs gone sour.

Going Slow

IMG_2314_1First day of summer — our summer, which is defined not by equinoxes nor the wax and wane of the moon nor extended daylight but by the APS (that’s Atlanta Public Schools to the uninitiated) calendar.  

It’s an odd construct, that calendar:  it has little to do with the natural world, and more to do with … God knows what.  I mean, school starts back up on August 10!  When we will still be limp with heat, enervated.  Sapped. The nine-months-on, three-months-0ff school year may have been conceived of as a helpmeet to a farming society requiring many hands during the harvest months, but now the kids have to go back to school in what was once  high summer, according to a timetable as vestigial as the appendix or the stump of a tail.

But all that is months away and neither here nor there — for now it’s glorious summer.  When we can throw off our fetters and live by a more natural clock.*

First day of summer!  The pole beans twine up the bamboo teepee installed in April, two handfuls already harvested, so crisp and sweet they don’t even make it in the house before they’re gone.

The Chadwick Cherry (a tomato) is already taller than even the elder of the Girleens, flaunts an inkling of the fruit to come.  

Ripen.

My intent this morning — before dawn, when the Girleens are still luxuriating in that first summer lie-a-bed — was to marry the sublime to the mundane and mention the Go Slow Hour we’ve helped organize for the neighborhood from 5 – 6 tonight, the viral call that’s gone out for everyone who lives here to celebrate the start of summer by going outside and visiting with friends and neighbors.  By slowing down.  

It seems like a no-brainer, but here on the south side of the interstate in one of the U.S.’s largest urban areas, if you don’t actively think about such things, the majority  of folks tend to view summer not as a time when neighborhood kids are out riding bikes, playing hopscotch, in short doing exactly those things that we used to do back in those halcyon days of the mid-seventies when we were so often left to our own devices but as one when crime rises and they have to batten down the hatches (ie, lock those windows and stay inside).  

Yes, I planned to talk about how we’re all going to head outside with our chalk and bubbles and balls and just why that might be important — which is delineated much better here —  but all that seems the work of a woman with her head still in the lists and musts and shoulds of  the school-year.  

Instead I will drink coffee in my pajamas.  It’s 6:53 a.m.  The girleens are still abed.  It’s glorious summer.  

Ripen.  

*All of us, that is, except The Husband, who dives back into the mainstream after the unexpected break  from it  that started back in November (you know, that rite of passage for certain levels of worker bees these days called being laid off.)

It goes without saying that we’re all extremely grateful he’s back in the swim.  

I also suspect he may be secretly overjoyed not to have to spend the summer at home with two kids, the eldest of whom started, less than 24 hours after school got out, declaiming that she was already bored.  

Weather Report

If I had a favorite saint, St Jude, the patron of lost causes, would probably be it.

I’ve always preferred my underdogs bedraggled.

I especially enjoy that hackneyed old chestnut come-up-from-behind story, when the weakling who’s had sand kicked in his face all his f-ing life  surprises everybody and delivers upon the neighborhood bully a surprising sucker punch.  

This penchant for championing the underdog, this belief that lost causes can in fact always be saved has held true throughout my life —whether for people, for places, or for actual dogs (or horses, or cats, for that matter).  

This personality trait and the intro I just typed could  be the beginning of an essay about last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby — but it’s not. (Though that  essay might be the better, more interesting, more relevant one, for whoever might take it on).

I love my gentrifying-in-fits-and-starts Atlanta neighborhood with the sort of fierce loyalty I’ve always tended to shower upon lost chances and underdogs.  

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a bit extreme when it comes to love of place — when I fall for one, I fall hard, and never  forget, and the places I have the most affection for tend to be underdogs.

If nothing else, they’re never easy.

My neighborhood south of the interstate, redlined in the 60s, white-flighted by the 70s, has had a hard- knock life.  The interstate exit ramp that leads you to it is shellacked with white MacDonald’s bags, and half the time some one you wouldn’t see in neighhorhoods north of us — a fetchingly dressed prostitute, a vagrant pushing a shopping cart — will cross against the traffic light as you proceed into the neighborhood proper.  “Old Ormewood” we call that, the Husband and I, as opposed to “New,” with its faux-craftsman bungalows and VW Passats in driveways (Old Ormewood considers us new Ormewood, though, having been here ten years, we by no means think of ourselves as that).  

In my neighborhood, old and new uneasily co-exist, and my neighbors are continually heading for greener pastures, further north, with — as they perceive it — better schools, better infrastructure, better amenities.   

But me, I love the underdog.  

I’m a sucker for margins, rough edges, those spaces in between, where interesting stuff happens.  

Right now, our weather is all humidity and honeysuckle.  From one window, my view is roiled dark sky and green leaves showing their white underbellies to the wind; from the other, it’s all blue-skies-and-smooth-sailing.

This morning as I drove the girleens to school there were  chunky carats of safety glass  spilled out onto the grassy median between the street and sidewalk, and each faceted sliver contained the lovely seafoam color of waves far out at sea.

This morning, as I walked, there was a tiny bit of butterfly, like a lavender paint chip, carried skyward.  

And in the park, there was a pile of scratch-off dollar lottery tickets.  Along with the convenience store receipt that had accompanied them out into the world.  

One hundred dollars’s worth.  

One hundred dollars!  Who on earth spends a hundred dollars on lottery tickets and sits in the park to take time to discover their negligible winnings?  And who knew — that buying a hundred dollars nets you exactly … nothing.  

Or does it?  Maybe one of those tickets was a winner, and in his haste to redeem it, the lucky guy forgot to throw the rest of his tickets in the park trash can.

No way of knowing.  But somebody somewhere could write a story about such things, if they were so inclined.  

 

Rolling in Clover; or Luck, and Where to Find it

img_21821The more common variant of the saying being like pigs in clover — but let’s not go that far.

But if I had some magic elixir bottled up that could whisk me back to childhood, it would consist of a distillation, an inhalation of the following:

…The scent of the pinpoint-sized white flowers of a privet hedge left to run wild and leggy in mid-June, and the dappled green shade discovered when one crawls behind its interwoven branches…

…The grit-and-spoilage taste of ripe figs, and the way they weep milky tears onto your hands as you pluck them…

and…

…clover, its scent pedestrian, not quite floral; the way it quilt-tops the front yards most of our neighbors wish were lawns instead, a bed calling for a child-sized body to flop down atop it…

So if my childhood (version, happy; there being others as well) were boiled down to its essence, the lovely claret-colored jam that resulted would consist, in part, of the above. As well as southern summer heat, and time spent outdoors doing what I mostly labelled nothing, alone much of the time, even though I had a sibling.

That — what else can I call it but communion? — with nature, even though the nature itself was not all that natural (vacant lots figuring largely in it), was certainly not wild; that freedom — these are things I want my girls to experience.

Oh, I know it may happen in Girl Scouts, when we drive to the mountains, when we make an effort, but mainly, I know, it’s beyond my orchestration, takes place despite me, in the backyard, in the cracks of our life, unplanned.

It has been lamented better and more thoroughly elsewhere, but this fact remains — I live in a neighborhood rife with kids (granted, most of them still infants, given the gentrifying nature of this particular ‘hood) and I have yet to see them engaging in the activity that gave us all such joy when we were in elementary school: walking the neighborhood sidewalks from one house to another, unparented for an hour or two at least. Free to stop and sit the curb and look up at the sky; to look down between our sneakers and track ants traversing dirt clods grown mountain-sized.

Last Friday night the Husband and I lived dangerously, as dangerously as two middle-aged, gray-haired sleep-deprived sorts can, and cast caution to the wind: the two of us slept, soundly, deeply, well, with our bedroom window open wide. To do so was a decision the public safety-minded types among our neighbors — and there are many because when a gentrifying neighborhood such as ours gentrifies enough that it takes two incomes to afford a house, those houses become sitting ducks full of ipods and flat screens and empty of people — would consider folly when feeling generous, and suicide when feeling grim.

Our window open wide. To the sound of motorcycles being raced somewhere not too far away, around 1 a.m. To birdsong, a swelling chorus that, cliche´d as it is, can’t be better described.

Most of the windows in most of the houses in this neighborhood are painted shut. Lack screens. Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to the birds and watching the dawn come and was struck — not for the first time of course, this isn’t a profundity I’ve come up with here — by how sealed away from life we’ve — all of us — become.

And so.

On Saturday afternoon, I let Elder Girleen walk unattended to a friend’s house a block away. The other mom and I co-ordinated; I talked cars and their blindspots with Elder Girleen before I sent her out of my sight.

Out of my sight, which after all is where so much of what my child needs to learn will occur.

The other mother called me when she started back home; I walked outside and one house down the sidewalk to watch for her to dance around the corner and head down the sidewalk toward me. Sat down on the curb to wait, in the clover the neighbor had an hour or so before tried to mow down.

The luck I found was frayed, pressed practically flat by the mower’s roller. But oh my, it had four lovely green leaves all the same.