Saturday, May 21, 2011

I couldn't help

          (If you are a sucker for foreshadowing and haven’t read my last piece then go back and have a look before you keep reading.  Because, seriously, I couldn’t have planned this one better if I was … well, if I was planning.)

          We’ve had another cold rainy week here in Buckeye Nation, but this time around I’ve enjoyed it.  See last Thursday and Friday it hit 95 degrees and, being out of my element, I panicked, thinking we were going to be at 90 plus for the next four months.  So a week of chilly rain never lifted my spirits quite as much as this one has.
          But last Thursday, in the heat, I took the kids back to the Audubon after we picked Hot Shot up from school.  The air conditioner in the minivan doesn’t ever work for longer than a couple of months; we wore it out last summer and haven’t had a need to fix it since.  So we were all pretty depleted before we even got to the park and Hot Shot and Moon Boy were griping in the back seat.  But, I remembered,  no afternoon exercise means wakeful children at bed time, and I pressed on.  Sure enough, as soon as I slid open the doors the older two were running down the path and poor little Ankle Biter was scurrying out of his car seat calling, “Wait a me!  Wait a me!”
          When we finally caught up with them, Hot Shot and Moon Boy were sitting on the boardwalk looking at the green stuff floating in the shallow water.
          “Look!” Hot Shot said with excitement, “Lilly Pads!”
          I honestly wasn’t sure if she was kidding or not, because she has plenty of experience with lily pads and these were not lily pads.   Usually I would have no reason to correct that kind of thing.  Her survival does not depend on botanical trivia and one day she will no doubt learn to recognize a lily pad when she sees one.  But today I couldn’t help but say:
          “They’re not lily pads, it’s algae!”
          See, mucky water is one of the things that pushes my buttons.  Toddlers dancing on the dining room table I don’t mind, but water with green floaty things makes me want to hose my kids off for just looking at it.  And there were more than a few large masses of the florescent gooey stuff lurking about.  If it were a duck pond (a core aesthetic of Buckeye Nation) I would make them keep their distance, but since the Audubon water is bigger and not stagnant, I do let them lie on their bellies on the boardwalk and splash with their hands.  Which they proceeded to do for a bit.  Until Hot Shot hopped up and continued across toward the playground.
          She balanced on the low rail as she went, checking a few times to see if I was watching and then pretending to fall.  “Oh!  I scared you didn’t I!” she cackled.
          “No, you didn’t scare me.” I couldn’t help but give her a full dose of mom-knows-best.  “It’s fine with me if you fall in.  It’s not very deep and you know how to swim.”
          I didn’t want to be the bubble burster.  Really.  I don’t take joy in it or anything, but I know how much Hot Shot hates getting wet while clothed.  She won’t even run through a little sprinkler if she’s not in her bathing suit.  She steers clear of the broccoli misters in the grocery store.  So I just wanted her to think ahead a bit about her decisions so I wouldn’t have a wet mess on my hands before we even got to the playground.
          But then Ankle Biter zoomed by and the force of his speed pulled us all away from the water and on to our destination.  We didn’t stay long that day.  It was too hot.  The kids spent most of their time in the sand of the volley ball courts, burying their legs in the cold underneath.  All that rolling about in the sand is a bit of a no-no for black hair, especially when the boys start pouring it over their heads.  But I couldn’t stop them.  They were like little piglets cooling themselves, and at least it wasn’t mud.
          When they had played long enough for me to be satisfied that they would sleep reasonably well, I gave in to their begging and let them start walking back.  They were hungry and thirsty, but mostly hot, hot, hot!  Moon Boy gets a little wilty in extreme temperatures, so I lagged behind with him a bit while Hot Shot and Ankle Bitter ran ahead.  They messed around at the climbing wall for a few minutes and then just as we caught up, they sprinted off together toward the boardwalk.  About half way across Moon Boy noticed that the turtles were out so we stopped to look at them.  Ankle Biter, seeing the objects of our gaze, circled around at top speed and came to a screeching halt beside me so he could have a look too.  Hot Shot continued on slowly balancing again on the rail. 
          Moon Boy’s attention for the turtle’s lasted a while, happy as he was to rest for a moment on my knee,  but Ankle Biter was up and moving again quickly.  “Bye bye turtles!” he called over his shoulder as he tore off down the walkway.  I was looking at the turtles and didn’t watch him go.  I only heard the scream.
          It was Hot Shot.
          When I took my gaze off the sunning turtles and moved it in the direction of the scream, I found her there: frozen in mid air, arms outstretched looking for something to grab hold of,  one leg lifted awkwardly sideways, trying to use its weight to bring the rest of the body back into balance, the other foot on tiptoe still technically in contact with the rail, but not in a way that would produce a lasting effect.  I had told her so, hadn’t I?  Still, I couldn’t help but emit an instinctual gasp of motherhood as I searched her face for panic, trauma, tragedy, what would it be?  What would she feel as she hovered there in the air over that mucky water?  Her eyes reached for me like lassos, but, to my great relief, did not flash alarm.  Only out-and-out disbelief.  And rage. 
          That’s when I turned my head to find Ankle Biter, who wore a little disbelief himself.  Not I-can’t-believe-I’m-about-to-fall-in-the-water disbelief so much as I-can’t-believe-I-just-dug-my-own-grave disbelief.  He was suspended in the air as well, but in running position.  Toward me.  Awaaaaaay from Hot Shot.
          And then everything returned to real time.  I ran to Hot Shot and pulled her up out of the water.  Ankle Biter ran to Moon Boy for comfort and protection.  Moon Boy put his arm around Ankle Biter’s back and said, “that loud splash surprised me!”  And Hot Shot screamed, “HE! PUSHED! ME! IN!”
          She was wet up to her neck.  Dripping.  Water gushing out of her shoes with every step.  I knelt down and held her to my body and couldn’t help but feel thankful for the rush of cool.  And funny, now that she was covered in the murky water--now that we both were covered in mucky water-- its harmlessness was immediately evident.  If algae was a concern at that moment, it was way down the bottom of the bag of concerns.
          There was no calming her down.  She was wet, yes, but she was unjustly wet.  That was the kicker.  So she kept up her screams: very loudly.  The Audubon has never been less peaceful. 
          “He did it!  He pushed me in!  I’m gonna get that little creep!  He actually said, ‘Push in the water,’ and then he PUSHED ME IN!”  After a little while, the words stopped but the level of volume persisted as her lungs pushed out a series of rising wails.
          I couldn’t help but count.  “Push in the water.”  Four words.  That’s a pretty good sentence for Ankle Biter.
          So we walked on, she with her head nuzzled into my belly.  Me leaning down to wrap my arms around her.  She screaming and screaming and screaming.  Me picturing her face as she hung out over the water and forcing myself not to laugh.  Not even a little.  That would be the death of us all.
          And then Moon Boy and Ankle Biter followed about thirty steps behind, keeping their solemn distance: holding hands, hanging their heads.
          And I couldn’t help but think of all the times people can’t tell we’re a family:  the good-natured man in line buying stamps; the inquisitive woman in the produce section; the parents at the playground.  They see our mismatched skin and they have to ask our story.  Are we a day care?  A foster family?  Babysitting?  But walking back to the car that sweltering afternoon  I couldn’t help but think our story had never been more clear.  The enraged big sister, dripping murky water and revenge.  The mother, holding her oldest baby, catching the sobs, sucking in her cheeks to prevent even the illusion of a smile.  And then, keeping his distance, the impish little brother, eyes glued to his toes, taking slow deliberate steps.  And finally the middle child, who knows all, comforting the little devil on his gallows walk.  The bikers, the joggers, even the dogs that panted passed, they all looked at us with knowing grins.  We were unmistakably family.


  1. THAT was like cold pizza for breakfast! (delicious!)
    Pond scum, mid-air arm-windmills and baby brothers, oh my!
    I can just see you biting your cheek to keep from laughing, or smiling or leaking the slightest smirk. But over here, on this side, it's a regular hahaha-&-grin-city!

  2. Holy moly. What a great story - I certainly did not keep a straight face or keep my chuckles inside. :) (I think I'm doomed in that respect if Marc and I have kids.) Liz, your writing is amazing. I have just caught up on your blog from the beginning. Thank you for sharing your family with all of us. Beautiful job - as a mom, partner, adventurer-to-a-new-land, and writer!

  3. Thanks Kate! I'm honored you spent the time given all that's on your plate. Loved hearing that you and your tall friend had a reunion. Miss you both!