witnesses and companions

“Is Nels still having problems with being angry?” my friend R. asks me tonight as we watch the kids play. I feel a moment of deep, personal gratitude. One of the surprising benefits of moving back to the area has been the almost accidental acquisition of a handful of devoted, intelligent childfree friends – each one of them showing a genuine and consistent interest in my children. My children call them on the phone, ask for them by name from Ralph and I, know their workplaces and when they see them, hug them tenderly.

I’ve been a parent now for over seven years and I wouldn’t exactly call it grueling… but it’s been a heck of a lot of work that began years ago and has kept up – a road race, a long one, something I feel proud of. Having friends along side-by-side has made the adventure exciting and satisfied the very social part of my nature. I feel a fierce love in my foursome, my family; I feel honored by the friends who have shared their lives and their time with us.

This evening, having just arrived home from a roadtrip, we keep our supper simple. R. and the kids fold origami swans, contently working side by side. I roast orange cauliflower in the oven and squeeze a lemon to deglaze the pan of tender vegetables when they emerge from the oven. Ralph peels carrots and slices them on a plate; scoops a small dish of ranch dressing to set on the table. I saute garlic then toss in freshly cooked pasta, grated pepper, and grated cheeses.

The table is set, hands are washed. A casual meal followed by a trip out to ice cream and then, in the gloaming, a visit to my children’s favorite park. Sophie finds herself amongst a group of young men goofing off – in between bites of Chinese takeout these boys perform ostentatious jumps off the dry-docked boat sculpture and land in fantastic somersaults. Activities twentysomething males and a seven year old girl have in common. She is tall and almost queenly in a long summer dress, denim jacket, with two buns up high on her head, a flush in her cheeks and a precision in her steps along the narrow ridge of the boat’s hull. My daughter’s beauty is not experienced precisely as her physical presence – more by a correctness of health, vigor, and life she manifests.

At home, later, the kids bathe and I fold laundry, then tidy fabric in my sewing room. Tomorrow is the beginning of our week, which is mercifully less scheduled than many families I know. Nels off to his preschool, my daughter to a lunch date with her father. Myself with not quite enough time to myself, but I’m satisfied, for now.

of swimming pools and young hellions

Last night, messaging with a friend who was recounting a babysitting “adventure” involving my then very-wee son drinking rubbing alcohol, I found myself relating:

The same child that stole the rubbing alcohol keeps his parents busy to this day: attempting to smoke cigarette butts off the ground, running down the block to enter a scary bar, going around the neighborhood asking for food and water and getting CPS called on me, and emerging from a bathroom at my restaurant workplace – pants down – to yell at my mom, “Grandma, GUESS what I found in my foreskin?”

Here’s the thing: these example of Nels’ behavior were just a few I could think of off the top of my head. This is Nels. Classic Nels. My father once looked at my son at twelve months old, just beginning walking, and said, “He’s going to be Hell On Wheels”. At the time I thought there’s no way my father could intuit this at such an early age; I also am relatively resistant to “labeling” a child – setting in stone some aspect of their nature can serve as a way to be lazy and not see who they really are.

Labeling is one thing. Beginning to know one’s child is another. And yes, Nels is Hell On Wheels to me sometimes.

Even a small thing like today – one incident of so many! – as the Boy and I exit the pool (preceding Sophie, who can stay in for a solid two hours at a stretch). As we approach the showers Nels walks with one foot in the grate of the large, cold lap pool. Nels can’t yet swim. He is also not supposed to enter this pool. By walking with ONE foot in the grate he is technically not doing anything “illegal” but he is causing me a minor headache. I am a tiny bit worried he’ll fall in (especially when, at the last possible step, he actually dips the foot and ankle into the water, unable to resist I suppose). I am also waiting for the lifeguard to bitch at me (always at me; not at him). I let him do it, though.

See, I would be okay allowing him to do this, even okay with him falling in the pool as well. And even though Nels would be frightened by a sudden submerging, he would also enjoy it (the look on his face of excitement, nervousness, and exhilaration at the tipping point of the balancing ankle experiment confirms this). His nature informs my interactions with him, often to my discomfort; he makes me see the world differently. I see many people expect kids to behave like “adults” – that is, observe rules that are boring and make little sense, do what authority tells you simply because they’re authority, and if you’re a child, trust other people’s arbitrary limits, not your own sense of capability.

This is why, when Nels runs away (which he managed to do before we left the Y) – or drinks my coffee or pisses in the playground at school or plants every seed he can get his hands on before we’re ready – there’s a right and a wrong way to handle it. Sometimes I screw up and get mad, yeah. Most times I patiently, patiently make the request: “Nels, would you please not use all of my spices to make a tea? They are expensive” (last week). He always listens to me when I make the request, and because he is not a sociopath (no, really – he’s not) I can see he considers my feelings. He won’t be a twelve year old pissing in a playground, I know that much.

Sometimes it’s like parenting a wee tornado. Like owning a monkey. Like attempting to order entropy. But I’ll tell you, I’m so glad I don’t hear myself speaking unkindly about him, the way I remember my parents doing so about me (selfish, asshole). “Oh, she was a brat at this age,” or, “You have one of each, boy and girl – which is worse?” (the latter examples I have heard in the last few days from parents I know). It’s not that I don’t think I have a right to being angry. It’s that I remember these slights, character attacks, and labels as a kid; they always felt indistinguishable from the removal of love.

assignment: go down each slide in GH county

* This weekend was dominated by a sleep/swapover; we had our friends’ children over on Friday night, and they took Sophie last night. Nels was scheduled to attend as well but he spent Friday running away from me a handful of times, including at the YMCA then later around the block to the iffy Trios bar on Simpson Avenue where had he stayed one more minute he would have schmoozed his way inside and smoked a few Camels. Exasperated I pulled his sleepover privilege. One of those things as a parent where you don’t know what to do so you just do something. I do believe (and cross my fingers) Nels will take this to heart and begin asking me before running off to skeezy taverns.

So anyway.

Avast ye Trees
We planted trees on Saturday, hauling the four kids along. They mostly played and threw giant rocks in the stream. As for me I thought it was a ceremonial, plant-one-tree-in-a-park kind of thing (I think in a half-assed way I thought it was Arbor Day) – not the wet, cold, muddy work party that greeted us when we arrived. I wasn’t dressed for it, and it was so cold it would have taken the damper off my spirits for anything, even things I like so much more than planting trees, like eating Mexican food or doing some ass-grabbing.

We are working on lots of projects for homeschool. My children’s talent is wonderful, in part because it pops up in ways I heretofore had never realized they had:

Playground Map
“MIRICAN FAG”. Here we see much of Nels’ artwork and spelling. The red lines are “bridges”. The flag is a majestic specimen located at Morrison River Park in Aberdeen. At first he’d written “American” with no “a”; a couple days later he intuited the vowel sound at the beginning of the word and updated accordingly. The weird thing is a lot of people pronounce it the way he first wrote it. Nels is an expert: phoenetics, olfactory identification, and social justice (although he occasionally seems to consider himself exempt from the latter).

* Shown in photograph: Sophie’s seventh tooth lost, kicked out of her head by her brother on Friday morning.

it all makes sense in his monkey-brain

Life with children is precious, amazing, hilarious, and quite freeing – if you actually hang out with the children and observe them. Bonus if you let them decide things about their own lives – you know, the things that don’t really matter all that much, so why not let them have it their way. This is something I think my dad did well while we were growing up. In fact if it had been just him raising me, I think I would still have leaves and twigs in my hair and missing a few teeth, but I’d probably be a more happy, peaceful soul.

Two minutes ago: my son, wearing skirt, bandanas tucked into waistband, soccer shinguards, and sparkly silver mary jane shoes (he tells me he’s a Princess; Sophie is a Leopard) – he’s standing in the hallway, looking into the bathroom while our stripey cat Harris hunches on the floor making horking sounds. Nels holds a Barbie lunch box and just watches, emanating total focus and curiosity, as the cat goes on and on (at this point I call in Sophie to help him deliver the cat outside – they’re a good team on this).

As I type the above paragraph Nels has moved on from the cat drama to compose and deliver a hand-typed message to his sister (we have an old Royal typewriter set up in the living room). Sophie kindly tries to read it but has trouble because of his typos. “It says, ‘I love you!'” my son yells furiously. She, used to his Random Outbursts of Rage, offers to read him her newest library book. They settle in, sweet as pie.

Today: making French bread, packing up dinner, and catching the bus to Cosi for Sophie’s first soccer game of the season.

two wives, three kids, and a bun in the oven

So starts the first morning of a new partnership. For a week it will be Jodi and I corralling our three little ones and she’s knocked up to boot. Things are going well so far. The two girls are ecstatic to have a playmate their own age and are still high off the fun of a new friendship. Sophie is alternately bossy and helpful to the littler girl, much more scattered than usual and less of a help to Mama. Cyan is a willing accomplice.

The Man leaves for work a few minutes late at quarter to eight, toothbrush poking out of his mouth. Then it’s on to Jodi and I to get ready for the day. Changing diapers. Helping with the potty. Putting hair up. Dressing three kids. I get my brood ready and Jodi and her girl are at the table for breakfast #2. Michelle arrives to help with housework while we’re out, so I let her have care of my children for my 15 minutes to myself. I step into the shower and experience a few wonderful minutes of washing my face, scrubbing my scalp. The hiss and splash of the water obfuscates whatever the hell is going on out in the living room. By the time I am dressed and my hair dry Paige is here too. It’s time to go. The ratio of four adults to three kids allows us to get carseats, kids, diaperbags, etc all loaded up in the car in a timely fashion.

Stop at the husband’s work to pick up some cash. Drive through for coffee. Head to playschool. Kids run around; parents steal an hour for “class” in the next room. Normal chit-chat: how to get our kids to eat, unfairness along gender lines of parenting, sex (or lack thereof). There are two husbands there and they valiantly stick up for “their side” of the whole mess. Three of the women at the table are pregnant. All of us are looking for a safe place and strength in numbers. We head back to the kids’ room and sing, pack everyone up, head home.

Groceries and then home for lunch: sandwiches, pickles, carrot sticks, tomato soup, milk. Kids are winding down; lunch is cleaned up; children are changed, nursed, soothed, read to.

I figure Jodi and I have twenty minutes to talk with no distractions before it’s time to get back to work – wash diapers, do laundry, figure out dinner, do dishes, and get our kids to the grocery store again before heading home to cook. Foreseeing this brief respite we have stocked up on good coffee and some bistro cookies (carefully hidden from the kids).

Time to enjoy a break.