In the Trenches

Mildly (it’s to be hoped) entertaining anecdotes about squirrels and cupcakes set in playgrounds aside, I’ve spent a heck of a lot of time in City of Atlanta parks this summer, and being in such places has made me think.

About what?

Oh,  among other things …  littering; our tax dollars; how children socialize and play; how adults socialize and play; why parks north of interstate 20 are better equipped than those south of 20…

But mainly, just about every time we set foot on a playground and Elder Girleen looks around in dismay and cries But there’s nobody here to play with! I think

Where are the kids?

It being summer and all, you’d think that playgrounds would run a close second to swimming pools as places overrun with children.  This turns out — in Atlanta, GA, at least — to not necessarily be true.  Sure, there’s the random nanny or two, and  sometimes a couple Baby Mamas (by that I mean moms with infants who come to parks to compare notes) but kids above the age of say… four?  They’re an endangered species.

You could explain this away by saying it’s hot; or that they’re too jaded for playgrounds — but the thing is, they’re not really anywhere else, either.  Not on the playing fields, or in front yards, or on sidewalks playing hopscotch or riding bikes, either.

They’re all at Day Camp.

Circus camp, rock climbing camp, tennis camp, art camp, nature camp, science camp — Atlanta’s full of them. And though I don’t have a single bone to pick with day camps (you’d have to work hard to get worked up about something so benign), over the summer I’ve realized that  it wouldn’t hurt any of us parent types to actually sit down for  a second and think about the reasons they exist in such numbers, and examine the implications that existence might have for the ecosystem we swim around in.

What is the reason an aimless kid over six is such a rare bird?

I posit:  If both parents have to work outside the home from 8 – 6 year round, you’ve got to park the kids somewhere.

And voila, just like that, the idea of unsupervised, freewheeling, laid-back summer disappears from our world.

Of course, I have selfish reasons for questioning this status quo — due to The Husband’s enforced hiatus from the working world last winter and spring, we refrained from planning much of anything during the summer that cost much of anything, whether it was a couple of weeks of day camp for the kids or a week’s vacation at the beach.  Because of that, we’ve spent a lot of time trolling playgrounds and the streets and pools for things to do, and gee, I wish we’d find more folks who were doing the same.

But selfish motivations aside, all these empty playgrounds might raise a few larger questions.

Do I have the answers?  Heck no, I’m not even sure I know what the questions are, other than this one:  is this really where we want to be?

Lately, I’ve run across a couple of motherhood-related blog topics/essays on the New York Times website that have given me pause.  One, a posting in Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode called “Scaling Back Career for Baby,” included the following comment from a woman who, having just had her first child, was finding that returning to “work” (by which she meant socially-acceptable work outside the home that one gets paid money for, of course) was more complicated than she’d imagined:

I used to secretly look down on stay-at-home moms. I’m not proud of being so judgmental, but opting out seemed like the easy road to me, an excuse to avoid the 9-to-5. If I asked someone I just met at a party what she did for a living and her answer was “I stay at home with the kids,” I’d mentally check out of the conversation. Surely I had nothing in common with this person.

Oh, granted, she’s contrite, and acknowledges her sins. Oh, granted, this divide’s been around since Day One and is nothing new.  But still…

Also on the NY Times website, exhibit two; a recent Judith Warner column, “Insult and Injury,” which took as its turf Warner’s suspicion “that highly successful working mothers suffer a disproportionate amount of scorn when they fail to have the time or available space on their mental hard drives to do things like memorize school handbooks or master Bundt baking,” in which she offers up her friends’ credentials as a”high level newspaper executive” and “a long-time television reporter, anchor and mother of two…” as if only that would make  them legitimate human beings in her reader’s eyes.

The fact that the major debate of modern parenthood is still being framed in this way — and by highly intelligent women, no less  — astounds me.  The biggest question of our time might be not which is better, the stay-at-home mom, or the “highly successful working mother,” but why we have all  have swallowed the idea, hook-line-and-sinker, that economic productivity makes one a more valuable person. That the “work” that takes you away from your “life” is more important than anything for which we don’t get paid.

Because, meanwhile, the tumbleweeds are blowing through —heck, not just our playgrounds and parks, but down our streets — and wouldn’t it be great if along with the adults getting to be adults, the kids got to be kids?  If we all stood up on our hind legs and roared that all this working  just might not be working?  That women who are fulfilled by work they do outside the home deserve more time, and that women who are fulfilled by work they do within the home are just as productive members of society as anybody else.

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.

The Written Word

It’s not on the stands yet, but another of the motherhood/fairy stories I’ve been working for the past little bit (uh, doesn’t she mean the past five years?) will be in the Fall, 2009 issue of Brain, Child.

I love Brain, Child. And not just because they publish fiction along with personal essays and nonfiction (which is how ALL magazines should be, isn’t it?) I mean, a magazine with articles like “Eco-Housewives:  Enlightened Caregiver or  Feminist Nightmare?” —  what’s not to love?

Really, though, if you’re a parent, especially one new to the game, check out Brain, Child.

Becoming My Mother’s Daughter

 Slow rain, long rain, steady rain, all night rain.  Rain the way it used to rain, so very long ago, when Georgia was a place considered lush, and dense with dampness.  A place where the late-spring leaves on the trees were always achingly green. Where those leaves turned belly-up, silvered as fish, to the wind.

Backdrop — such an overused word, we forget its genesis in stagecraft, in velvet curtains dropped and raised, the creak of rigging kin to ships’.  But always, back in those long ago days before the drought, the sky turned the color of lead every afternoon, the wind picked up, and branches began to flail, to rail, against it. A backdrop.  

For now, for this particular spring, the drought is over, and in the early mornings the bewetted peonies in the neighborhood nod nod nod their big round blossoms like drowsy children. They seem constrained behind the borders of their flower beds, the way blowsy women were once constrained by corsets.  They are Rubenesque and overblown, the painted majas of the garden, leaning over balconies and blowing kisses and  — I want one.  For Mother’s Day,  A desire stoked or perhaps instilled within me simply because peonies in pots are currently positioned outside the entrance to Whole Foods. I am nothing if not a good American and, susceptible to marketing, I long to … buy. 

For now, of course, I can’t.  And so instead I admire those that populate the neighborhood.  I admire the way they die back every winter and arise phoenix-like from the dead stalks of last years’ foliage; I love their tightly-packed round buds, perfect Earths made miniature; and the way the ants that trail up and down their stems perform some mysterious necessary function and should not be dissuaded from their work. 

My mother told me about peonies, long long ago, when I was six or seven, probably, along with the names of  all sorts of other things that grew:  forsythia, flowering quince, columbine.

She told me things like that, and then I grew up, and older, and my relationship with her grew quite fraught, as relationships between mothers and daughters often do.  It was years before I gave peonies another thought.  Just as it was years before I gave my own mother a thought, in terms of her being anything other than my mother — for instance, a fully-fledged person in her own right. 

A person whose thumb is exceedingly green, who with extraordinary patience coaxed a garden from a large shady lot of pecan trees and overgrown ivy.  A person who when I was a child clipped St. Augustine grass runners away from where they spilled over the neighhor’s  curbs — so embarrassing  to her offspring! — and planted them in a grassless yard that now, lo these many years later,  is a beautiful green expanse, one her grandchildren take for granted, and walk upon barefoot.  A person who when she walked her children to get ice cream heckled cars that sped down her street because she wanted children to be able to play outside safely.  A person who protests wars and the demolition of historic houses and for most of my childhood dragged me along as she did so. Good God, a person who was enthusiastically talking up Obama while I was still sitting in the election bleachers!   

 My mother makes me count her silver knives and forks after every holiday dinner I share with her, a task I spent decades of my life certain she’d thought up only to annoy me.  But now I know; she does it because her mother once did the same thing, and maybe someday — who knows — I will tell Elder Girleen she must count silver, too. 

Because I already tell my daughter some things.  Iris, I say.  Winter sweet. That there, with the pink flowers, that’s Oxalis.   

It’s such a gossamer filament, the cord that links parent to child.  It binds so tightly sometimes, but then again, it is the thing that keeps us stitched in place, between who we were, and where we need to go.

Clap Your Hands if You Believe

We are at the age: Elder Girleen has left princesses and their overly-sweet attendant glitter and frills far far behind, putting them aside as childish things.

We are at the age: she’s become all arched feathery eyebrows and long strong scraped-up legs, and mind that works and works and works, so quickly that it takes my breath away (would that I had such a mind, still).

We are at the age: for fairies.

Even fairies, poor things, have been painted by the broad marketing brush that colors every stage of childhood nowadays: they populate Target, genus Disney (most specifically, Tinkerbell). Those fairies are of little interest to Elder Girleen, or the other seven-year-old girls who talk fairies over, dissect fairy behavior, and attempt to ensnare them, during recess.

Maybe they (those commercial fairies) are too spunky, too bouncy, too easy. They’re too easily purchased, too easily possessed.

The ones that have cast their glamour over Elder Girleen and her crew are more hypothetical, and thus, more seductive. They don’t like the color red. They might pinch your toes while you are sleeping. They are well-inclined toward girls, but most of the time they can take them or leave them. They are other, they are magic, they are wild.

They are all id, and reckless. They are the part of childhood that’s already passing out of Elder Girleen’s life, so very quickly.

The sort of fairies the seven-year-old girls in Elder Girleen’s set are besotted by resemble most the ones in Peter Pan — and not the denatured Disney version, which rubbed off all the sharp edges and dark corners and left nothing but cute.

No where else is there a better depiction of the engaging and brutal heartlessness that is sometimes part-and-parcel of childhood than in Peter Pan, for it’s a story that, along with fairies of the sort it contains, reminds us that magic isn’t necessarily all sweetness and light.

Which doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. Magic isn’t magic if we can get a handle on it, and this is something that our children haven’t lost the knack of knowing.

Of course we don’t ever want our children to want, or to fear. But at the same time, we are so well-meaning, and we sanitize so much!

And how much smarter our children are than we are, to pick the complicated over the easy, the old-school fairy over the new.

In Praise of Indolence

I’m sure there must be some quasi-official name for that period of time during which a business or individual is busiest, but I’m afraid my pollen-stoppered brain can’t access it from the data files.

Nonetheless, whatever you want to call that insanely busy period — the crunch, being in the weeds, being slammed — we’re currently in the thick of motherhood’s version of it. There’re three short weeks until school’s out — the calendar is jam-packed with school assemblies final projects field days teacher appreciation recitals, and… you get the picture. In addition to all that, of course, is the knowledge that adult life, what little of it a stay-at-home-mom possesses, ends on that last day of school. Oh, and don’t forget all those people who conspired to conceive offspring nine months ago so that every single weekend from the end of March until the end of May includes a birthday party.*

In short, there’s much to do. But last Saturday night, I was walking through our breakfast room, past the bookended cookbooks on the china cabinet and one I’d never given a single whiff of thought to, one I’d never even cracked open, caught my eye.

Friends from Liverpool gave it to us as a sort of thank-you present about this time four years ago, when they stayed with us after a trip to Savannah. Where, it was clear they’d found the cookbook — there was something so Savannah-fied about it.

Maybe it was the blue and white crockery on the table photographed on the cover of it, the lace tablecloth that draped the same, or maybe it was that title The Great Tea Rooms of Britain — we thanked them politely and set it aside.

But a week ago I walked past it and thought: scones and clotted cream! Cucumber sandwiches! Dining al fresco! I wanted them.

Oh, we have everything right at the tips of our fingers here in the big city. I don’t even have to make scones — I can buy them. Clotted cream, a substance an American wouldn’t have even heard of two or three decades ago, is in our local Kroger, for god’s sake.

And so, Sunday afternoon, I baked, I arranged. We sat outside at a a wrought iron table positioned in the newly-greened shade under the sweet gum tree in our backyard and ate and ate. Terrible food! So full of calories, so rich.

The Sunday New York Times — paper version, mind you, not bits and bytes — sat on the table. We drank milky iced coffee, glass after glass (at least the adults; the younger set was happy with lemonade).

And then we pulled out the croquet set bought years ago on a wild hair and not used since a previous attempt (offspring too young for games) left them throwing croquet balls at each other.

We played all afternoon. For hours.

It had no point.

What was it I really wanted to eat up with this April tea party?

Leisure. Doing nothing, for no reason.

It felt white-lawned, slightly decadent, as if around the corner the tumbrels were rumbling toward the guillotine or World War I was brewing.

But it was also luscious, our lazy afternoon.

*It’s strange, and comforting, and strangely comforting, to meditate on the seasons. This blog has been part of my life long enough that the self-same topic has already been discussed once, here.

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.