Hot cars and good Samaritans

My sister and I were finishing up a quick grocery run towards the end of this year’s week-long family gathering at a beach in South Carolina. As she grabbed a bag from the cart, she laughed and said, “Well, we haven’t been arrested yet, so the kids must be ok.”  I hefted the other bag and exchanged a rueful glance with a woman nearby – a mother, I assumed – who had smiled at the comment. “We left them reading in the car,” I explained. She chuckled and we walked into the thick, warm southern air.

Frankly, I thought the boys were crazy to stay in the minivan because South Carolina’s humidity can be oppressive, but we’d just been to the bookstore and all four of them had new books. They’d been reading since the minute their seatbelts were on, and they had zero interest in abandoning their stories to watch their moms get salad fixings and fish. My oldest has already had a babysitting job, and all four of them walk to and from school every day, so my sister and I had left the windows down, reminded them to be nice to each other, and told them we’d be back in ten.

We probably took closer to fifteen minutes (we ended up with chicken instead of fish, so there was a little negotiating), but we were still shocked to see all four of our boys out of the car and heading reluctantly towards the store accompanied by several adults just as we stepped into the parking lot. It turns out that two women had seen the boys reading in the car and decided they were in danger. One of the women was already on the phone with “someone” before either of them said anything to the boys. My oldest immediately asked if they were calling the police, and the other woman said no, but it’s hard to imagine what else was going on when the boys overheard “yes, four young boys in a car in the Publix parking lot.”

The way the boys tell the story, the women were annoying, overbearing, nosy, horrible people. But I’m not sure I trust the outraged tweens. Still, it’s clear that one of the women asked where they were from and freaked them out by answering her own question. (She read our license plate.) And they all agree that when the boys said they were fine because the windows were open, one of the women said, “Would you leave a million dollars sitting in your car? You all are more precious than that.” (At which point a real miracle occurred: my more outspoken child thought, “Well, actually it *is* pretty different because a million dollars can’t walk away if something happens, and my mom would definitely not leave the windows down if there was money in the car” but he kept his mouth shut.) And we know that the good Samaritans declined the boys’ repeated attempts to have them call us – “We know their cell phone numbers. They’re just in the store.” – in favour of having the boys to get out of the car and come with them to the store.

That’s when we came out, groceries in hand.

When they saw us coming, the two women skedaddled. My sister and I didn’t immediately know what was going on, so we weren’t quick enough to stop them or even to make eye contact. They were gone. The boys got back into the car, we sorted out the story, calmed them down, and headed off on one more errand. That time, I stayed in the car with them while they read. The temperature was identical. No one looked at us.

Days later, I keep running through the whole incident in my mind. I am not even remotely sorry about leaving the kids in the car. They are not babies or toddlers or even early elementary children. They know when they are hot, they know how to open a car door, and they know how to find us in a store that is mere yards away. I was actually pleased that they wanted to read, and I’ve done my research (because I care about things like this), so I also know that more children die or are injured in parking lots than in parked cars. No one would have glanced twice if I were in the car alone, reading; my children were also safe.

I’m not mad at the women for worrying, either. To be fair, I think they were wrong, but I’d much rather live in a world where communities of people look out for children than in one where children are neglected. They were worried and they acted on their worry. This is what I told our kids.

That said, I found the whole situation unsettling. In a society where parental actions are regularly judged and where mothers, in particular, must walk a terribly narrow path in order to meet other people’s expectations (here we had to choose between being overly protective and too blasé), concern for children’s well-being should spring from a sense of community and kindness rather than from a performative sense of what “should” be done.

In this case, I think what upsets me is that the women left without talking to us. Granted, they didn’t do what many people do: call 911 but do nothing about the children they have deemed to be at risk; there is a lot to suggest that they were genuinely concerned about the children. They did go too far, in my opinion, by asking the kids questions about where they were from (all four informed us indignantly that they won’t even tell people that online) and especially by getting the kids out of the car. I don’t want my children to ever follow a stranger out of a space I’ve determined is safe. I think I would feel better about the whole thing if they had spoken to us, the mothers, once they saw us. But as I judge the actions of these good Samaritans, I entrap them in the same snare I resent so strongly. Were they overprotective? Do I have any more right to say that than they do to suggest that I was negligent?

I want to believe that these women were actually watching out for my children not just performing goodness. I want to keep firm hold of my conviction that my own judgment was correct and that there was no need for their intervention. But I’m finding both of these beliefs to be slippery. One way or another, I keep repeating what we told the kids: “let’s be grateful there are people in the world who are looking out for children who might need help.” I have a feeling I’m going to have to say that a few more times before I’m done thinking about this.

 

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I’ve got his back

To be honest, no one is exactly sure the last time he had a bath. We’re about to start renovations on our house, so we moved into an apartment on Tuesday (yes, during the last week of the school year). He has not bathed in our new tub, so it’s definitely been at least a week.

He used to shower on Sunday after swim team, but we gave up swim team a few weeks ago because life was too busy, so he didn’t shower on Sunday. I try to work backwards and realize that it is entirely possible that no soap has touched his body in two weeks… or more.

Still, he doesn’t stink and there’s no visible dirt, so that’s something. And tonight he slides happily into Grandma’s deep bathtub, filling it until the water covers his shoulders, glorying in the warmth cascading over his head. He rolls and twists, slippery and happy, creating his own watery universe, filling the bathroom with stories.

Eventually, he calls to me, “Mama! Can you soap my back? It’s so hard to reach!”

When I come into the bathroom, he is on his knees, a sliver of soap in his hand. His chest is white with lather. He is perfectly unselfconscious as he twists to deposit the soap in my hand. I feel his back under my fingers, the hard muscle that is beginning to displace the last layer of baby fat. Already he is taller and slimmer than he was just months ago. This will be one of the last times I get to wash him.

I linger over his tawny body for a minute, then I hand him back the soap. “Nearly done?” I ask.

He nods, slips back into the water and thrashes around like a fish to get clean. “Almost, Mama.”

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Lost and found

I saw it fall. It slipped out of my fingers and my eye caught a quick glint of silver as it arced away from my hand and down to the carpet. Then a nearly inaudible thump as it landed on the carpet and bounced. My eyes tried to follow its pathway; my ears strained for the next sound. Nothing. The earring was gone.

I got down on my hands and knees. Obviously it was right there. There’s maybe two feet of cream carpet – low pile – between the bed frame and the dresser. I had seen it bounce. It couldn’t be far.

My eyes scanned for a gleam of metal or a shot of green. Nothing. I moved a wayward child’s sock which had inexplicably taken up residence next to the bed frame. Not there. I ran my fingers along the bottom edge of the dresser, certain I would quickly encounter the small hard shape of the earring. Nope.

I sat back on my knees and took a deep breath. It had to be here. I had seen it fall. I adjusted the lights. Still no metallic shine from the floor. I changed position and again ran my fingers along the line where the dresser meets the floor. I found a dime but no earring.

Now I began to get desperate. I had seen it. I had heard it. I checked on my dresser. Yes, there sat its companion, waiting. One earring. The other, vanished. This simple fact upended my understanding of the physical universe.

I proceeded to check on top of the bed which is, what? Two feet high? Then I looked on top of my nightstand, at least two feet away from me and, again, about two feet high. Under my pillows? Over near my closet door? As if my earring had developed supernatural powers, I checked the most unlikely of places. No earring. It had completely vanished.

After one last desperate search right where I’d seen it fall, I gave up, defeated. Perhaps it went for a short visit with some of our mysteriously missing socks. Maybe it is waiting for the right moment to pop out and taunt a cat. Could be that it’s just out there in the universe, laughing at me for believing that all lost things can be found.

Afterword: Before I published this, I decided I simply had to go check for the earring one more time. I repeated essentially the same steps as last night, beginning with the sane, careful search then tipping dangerously towards that place where the laws of physics no longer apply. This time, in my final fit of pique, I opened the bottom dresser drawer and started to rifle through it in search of that dang earring. And wouldn’t you know it? There it was, under a shirt in the closed drawer. I am still shaking my head.

Fairies. I just know it.

 

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Bedtime by the numbers

“Wait,” he says, pulling my face close to his “are you older than other moms?”

I equivocate: “older than some; younger than others.”

“Why aren’t you younger?”

Oh, the stories. I tell one. Or two.

He’s stalling, wanting bedtime to last just a few more minutes. “Maybe three more minutes,” he suggests.

“Maybe now,” I brush my nose against his.

“Did you sing all three songs?” He’s hopeful.

“Yes.”

“Maybe you should do four.”

“Your bedtime was five minutes ago.”

He snuggles closer. “How old will you be when I am ten?”

We do the math.

“So when I’m 20…” He does the math.

“Will you have a baby when you are young so I can play with my grandchildren?” I tease.

He is serious, “I don’t know about that yet.”

We do the math. If he has a baby when he is 25, I will be the same age as his grandmother is now when his baby is eight, like him. It’s a lot of numbers.

He frets, “I just don’t know.”

Then he brightens, “If you want to be the best, just change the scale.”

“What?”

“Just say, ‘what am I out of two?’ then if you are a one that’s still second from the top. So that’s good. Nearly the best.”

I’m still catching up, but now he’s drifting off.

“Or you could say ‘what am I out of 0?’ and then you would always be the best. Because there’s only one number.” He’s nearly asleep, murmuring over the numbers, measuring something his old mother can’t count.

“You’re the best out of all the numbers. The right boy for me.”

And my number boy has fallen asleep.

 

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Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

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The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

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https://twowritingteachers.org

Tidying up #SOL19 24/31

Buried deep in the folds of a soft blanket on the couch, Thomas whispered, “She’s so nice” and I knew we were in trouble. He was at home sick for a second day, something I can hardly remember happening before, and he had turned on Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. It was that bad. Also, he was in love.

Thomas is our tidy child. He likes predictable days, down time and organized spaces, so I should have known that Marie Kondo would appeal to him. Once he felt better, he surveyed our home with barely hidden disdain and declared, “Our house is WAY too cluttered. We need to declutter and tidy up.” He was relentless and March Break was coming, so we spent a fair amount of March Break decluttering, as per Marie Kondo. And Thomas. 

On day two, I attacked the papers. Twelve years ago I moved from Paris to Ottawa. The year before that I moved from Washington, DC to Paris. In both cases, I had to fill out reams of paperwork – visa applications, work permits, teaching certifications, permanent resident applications, banking information, moving documents… Getting married in the middle of all this meant marriage certificate, followed by birth certificates, passport applications, dual citizenship forms… My whole life seemed to depend on a flurry of papers, originals and photocopies, sorted and organized into binders and folders and sent to various agencies or presented at kiosques to people who made decisions based on paper.

So I didn’t throw much out.

Actually, the evidence suggests that I stopped throwing out any paper at all. I had a lot of paper.

My husband and children gave me some space (hours and hours) and I went through the papers, a history of my life in documents, keepsakes and cards.

A horoscope, ripped from the newspaper and squirreled away for reasons I can no longer fathom
More than one to-do list, partially checked off
A moving announcement – the toddlers in the picture are now in middle school; the family has moved twice since this announcement – and baby photos of children who are now in high school
A Father’s Day card which I’d swear I’ve never seen before from my mother to her father when I was a few months old
Multiple bookmarks and untouched writing notebooks
French poems, papers, and general teaching materials. I haven’t taught French in nearly a decade.
A 22-year old checkbook register
Handouts from a course I’d forgotten I’d taken
A printout of an article I was quoted in from the Chicago Tribune
Patterns for sweaters that I am frankly glad I never made
Annotated texts I taught 20 years ago
Evidence of early decluttering attempts – saved, of course
More than one article proving that I’ve been worried about my weight forever. Sigh
Approximately a million cards from friends, family and former students. I was not able to throw away any of these away. 

In fact, Marie Kondo would be horrified by how much of this I kept, and I pretty much can’t let Thomas into the attic for fear of the righteousness of a 10-year-old, but I was pretty proud of how much I recycled and shredded.

And I was rewarded for all my hard work. In the middle of the keepsakes and the papers, I found a small envelope with a pink border and my name printed in pencil. It was thick enough to make me curious, so I opened it and found… 500 euros! Triumph! We just won’t discuss the fact that I haven’t been to Europe in 12 years and I have no idea who this came from or how long it’s been there.


This was obviously the ideal place to take a break. And after a few hours away, I realized the break could possibly extend for months, or even years. Those papers are still up there waiting for me, but that money is in the bank. And hey, someday maybe the memory of that will encourage me to follow more of Marie Kondo’s advice. Next thing you know, I might be letting my socks breathe or spacing my t-shirts out. Not so sure about keeping up with the papers. 

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Hey, Turkey! #SOL19 23/31

After yesterday’s post, which included turkey vultures, the children would like me to explain how turkeys have come to figure prominently in our family jokes.

Our camping trip had been largely a bust. We’d had a good first day, but now everything everywhere was wet. The rain came sporadically – just enough to keep us from doing anything but not quite enough to send us home. Mercifully, our tent wasn’t leaking, but keeping an almost-4-year-old and a 6-year-old occupied in a tent was taking a toll on everyone. Finally, after an aborted attempt to tell yet another story, Andre declared that it was “just water” and loaded us all into the car to go find a trailhead and take a hike.

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The children were shocked.

“But it’s raining!” protested one.

“And muddy!” objected the other, looking at me because I, too, was grumpy and this sudden decision to hike in the rain struck me as, um, unwise. I kept my mouth shut and tried to be impressed by Andre’s enthusiasm, but I was mostly annoyed as I imagined more mud in more places.

We shoved everyone into rain gear and drove the five minutes to the trailhead in silence.

As we got out of the car, the drizzle began again and a breeze shook water from the trees onto our heads. Commence loud complaining. Andre, whose ability to be creative and funny in the face of daunting circumstances never ceases to amaze me, stepped onto the trail then stopped short and said, “Ssh… you don’t want to scare the turkeys!”

Wait. What?

He crouched down a little and looked towards the forest as though turkeys might appear at any moment. “Ok,” he whispered, “these are special giant turkeys unique to this region. The biggest ones can get as big as a small car. Actually, one was nearly as big as our car.”

The boys looked doubtful. I was trying very hard not to laugh. Andre continued, “If we want to see them, we need to proceed carefully. And we need to call them. Do you know how to call a turkey?”

We all shook our heads no. Andre, still crouched and tiptoeing, started to gobble while the three of us, convinced he had lost his mind, just stared at him. Then I thought, what the heck, and I started to gobble, too. Thomas watched us briefly and joined in. We proceeded cautiously towards the trees, gobbling like maniacs. Only 3-year-old Eric hung back.

Andre turned around and said quietly, “C’mon, Eric, don’t you want to help call the turkeys?” Eric just stared at him. He shook his head.

Thomas and I chimed it, cajoling, “Come on, it’s easy, you just say ‘gobble, gobble’.”

Eric shook his head again. He was not going to gobble. The rest of us might have gone insane, but he was maintaining a firm grip on reality.

Andre tried one more time, “Ok, Eric. If you don’t want to gobble, how do you call a turkey?”

Eric fixed us all with narrowed eyes, put his hands around his mouth, leaned back and bellowed, “HEY! TURKEY!”

The rest of the hike was lots of fun.

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