On Making Friends at the Park

Tired of going down the slide, the boys decided to climb up the side.

It was the natural order of events that gave me little concern. They were taking a risk by ascending where most would descend but the sweet reward of reaching the top without having to run all the way around the playset was too much to resist.

“I have sticky hands,” Little Legs said as he embodied a boy-sized gecko using his hands and feet to move upwards.

He had the advantage of perpetually sticky hands, from a love of candy and reluctance of washing, to help with the climb. All signs of a bad parent, I suppose, but useful in the case of slide-climbing.

“Feet sticky, too,” Baby Brother added as he lizard-walked effortlessly behind his brother.

From the hill leading up to the playground, a little blond girl ran towards us.

“I’m going to make some new friends,” she said to her mother.

Her mother lagged a few steps behind her, loaded with a backpack, another smaller blond child, water bottles and a pink scooter.  

“Guys, get ready to say hi,” I prepared them.

They were about to make a new friend and I was going to make a new mom friend and we were all going to be the best of friends. We already had blond children, overpacking and the need to get them outside in common.

The girl went straight to the slide having observed the boys from a distance.

“You don’t climb up the slide,” the girl said.

“You go down it,” she explained.

Her mother caught up her with and said, “You aren’t their mommy, that is for her to tell them.”

As the window of friendship potential closed, she gave a meaningful look in my direction. Her dark sunglasses made it impossible to tell her intentions. However, the tight, lipless line that was her mouth filled in the gaps of my assumptions.

I laughed and said, “Boys, slide down. No more climbing.”

Of course, they listened.

They promptly climbed, lizard boy style, back up the slide and camped out at the top where they declared, “No mommies allowed,” and returned to catching flies and scaring off bossy girls and their mothers.   

Old Teachers

I waited for Daddy Longlegs in the car with the boys in the backseat. They giggled in a secret, quiet way as they conspired together on something. I have found it best to quietly observe than to turn around and disrupt their work. I readjusted the rear-view mirror and watched them with a raised eyebrow.

A sock hit my shoulder like a single musical note, followed by another, and a size 7 Croc landed on the dashboard and hysterical laughter rose in a crescendo from behind my seat.

By the time their father returned, the boys were irritated. There was nothing left to throw. No socks, no shoes and since they were strapped into their seats, throwing their pants was not an option. I had gathered a nice collection of everything they lobbed into the front seat.  

The trunk popped open.

“They couldn’t find the right stuff,” Daddy Longlegs huffed as he loaded stones into the back of our Honda-CRV.

He shut the trunk and slid into the driver’s seat.

“The guy in there,” he gestured towards the store with his thumb, “he was trying to match the stone to what I ordered until I said, it’s the cobblestone. And the guy laughed and said, ‘I’ll never forget it now. Cobblestone, cobblestone, cobblestone. That reminds me of my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Cobble. I wonder where he is now. I’ve been thinking about good ol’ Mr. Cobble a lot lately. What a guy.’”

It made me think of some of my former teachers, like Mrs. Landrum who seemed ancient when I was a kindergartener, but I think she was only in her fifties and blessed with salt and pepper hair, and Mrs. Prince who tossed out Jolly Ranchers for the right answer or if we were having a hard day and Mrs. Ambler who read a chapter a day from classics like Where the Red Fern Grows and Summer of the Monkeys.

“Memory is more indelible than ink.” Anita Loos

I wonder who will leave a lasting impression like that for my sons from the memories and experiences that are unformed and undone and from the people they have yet to meet. Who pops up for you, Dear Reader, when you remember those formative characters from your youth like the unforgettable, Mr. Cobble?

The Missing Chicken

“Well, guess where I’m heading?” Daddy Longlegs asked.

We had been playing phone tag all morning and finally connected after a few rings.

I couldn’t even begin to guess; he was a man of great mystery and intrigue. Sometimes he would call on his way to Lowe’s or the bank with a similar impossible query.

I always guessed wrong.

“The Home Depot?”

“Nope, good guess though.”

He stoked my ego a little to encourage the guessing game.

“I give up, where are you going?”

“Back to Publix.”

“Weren’t you just there?” I asked.

“Why, yes, yes I was but when I got home, I found out my chicken was missing.”  

He laid out all the facts like he was narrating for CSI- middle of nowhere, Tennessee, special edition.   

He was at the grocery store, put the chicken into the cart with the other list items, including: yogurt, bread, bananas and instant oatmeal. He checked out and drove home, nothing unusual there. Then he unloaded the groceries and discovered the chicken was missing.

“So what did you do?”

“I called right up there and said, ‘Hey, do you have my chicken?’”

“And what happened next?”

I was on pins and needles.

“They said, ‘Well, yes, we do have your chicken. We just put it back in the meat department.’”

We both were glad they weren’t holding onto the chicken at the front like a lost purse or blankie.

“So, I said I will be right there to pick it up and they said, ‘Take your time, we’ll get your chicken back to you.’”

“How is that for customer service?” I asked. I really wasn’t sure.  

“They were going to keep my chicken,” he said, still incensed at the bird-napping.  

I can only guess that Daddy Longlegs is going to propose keeping chickens, to cut out the middleman, but again, it is hard to tell with a man of such mystery.

Sneak Attack

“Oh, and one more thing,” Barb said distractedly as she rifled through a file.

“It would be great if you would come in on that Saturday to help out.”

Interesting, the date of discussion was in two weeks. And as far as Rachel was concerned, there was nothing great about working on a Saturday.

“I don’t think so,” Rachel responded after a second of hesitation in which she considered the possibility of a joyful termination from the position.

“You don’t think so?” Barb repeated, suddenly paying attention.

Barb’s eyebrows and voice lifted at the same time. She looked up at the small woman standing in front of her, purse slung over her shoulder and shoes pointed toward the door.

“Ok, see you next Tuesday,” Rachel said with a wave.

 Barb, too flabbergasted to respond, waved back in confusion, certain that Rachel’s next day was not Tuesday.

The Meeting

Once we returned to the office, I typed up a quick thank you note for the meeting.

My coworker had attended with me, arriving late and full of extraneous information and stories. She rattled an empty Starbucks cup back and forth as an endless flow of words gushed from her mouth. I focused on controlling the furrowing of my brow and the contorting of my mouth, forcing my face into a mask of pleasantness.

Inside, I begged and screamed for her silence but would settle for any amount of professionalism. Why are we talking about your retirement plan 20 years from now?

Yet, on she went oversharing and underlistening.  

As I was about to curb her enthusiasm, our host began to follow in the same pattern, explaining her life course and interests and hobbies. They clicked in a soulmate kind of way that left me behind on a different plane of existence.

Within a few minutes of sending the thank you email, our original host responded with a request for my coworker’s email and for what I am sure to follow will be a lifelong friendship, job offer or invite to dinner and drinks.

I have been ruminating over this interaction and found the following things to be true.

Meetings start late here. They require small talk to move forward. Professionalism is optional. And perhaps most interesting, I was envious for my colleague’s ease in quickly slipping from a professional to a personal relationship, and making a real connection, while I remained buttoned up, sharing and receiving next to nothing.

Was this style of communication living fearlessly or recklessly?

There is a thin line between the personal and professional world, separated by carefully curated boundaries, meant to protect and support those of us who must go back and forth between the two.

For me, it is a thin line that I am not ready to start straddling.

Strawberry Fields Forever

The rows of strawberries stretched on forever, long ribbons of black and green, with serrated leaves and heart-shaped pops of red. Runners shot out and away from their mothers, landing in the soil between the established plants, and rooting where no berry had ever grown before in an exciting bid for independence.

Dark soil was carefully tilled between the rows in a continual fight against the weeds that desperately wanted the same nutrients, water, and sun as the berry plants. The prickly purple thistle and milkweed and ragweed remained blissfully unaware of their uninvited status as they continued to show up with friends and family only to be pulled and discarded, again and again.

This field was my first place of employment; my brother was my (only) coworker, and our mother was the site supervisor. Begrudgingly, we learned to till and turn the soil, to plant and pick strawberries. We learned how to quiet our minds and settle in to do the work. Quart after quart basket of strawberries passed through my red-stained fingers as I grumbled about the things I would rather be doing.

It wasn’t that the work was hard, it was, in fact, easy to pluck a strawberry from the plant and put it into a basket. The hard part was to do it for an hour and then another hour. It was overcoming the boredom and tedium of doing the exact same thing over and over in the hot Indiana summer sun. I hated every morning that there were strawberries in the field. I prayed for rain and thunder and lightning, especially lightening, if only to strike me with a bolt to end my strawberry picking misery.  

Yet, now when I think of summers growing up, it always starts in the field, wiping the sweat from my brow, feeling the perspiration drip from the tip of my nose and chin and run down my chest. I recall my brother, in one of his protests, selecting a particularly fat and rotten berry, lining up his sights and launching it directly at our mother’s back where it landed with the most perfectly spectacular splat between the straps of her tank top.   

Now, the field is a dumping ground for old construction equipment. The old farmhouse is long gone, burned to the ground, rebuilt without a single bit of the original character. And the strawberry pickers are scattered around the world, left to reminisce about the old days and time spent together.

Sticks and Stones

Jagged, ragged sobs come from the next room.

Little Legs is on the floor, sleep-crying, after the last thirty minutes of yelling, screaming, begging and pleading for release from naptime.

“You don’t have to sleep, but you have to rest in your room,” Daddy Longlegs explained minutes earlier, gently leading him back to his room for the fourth time.

“Hate naps. Hate sleep. Hate Dada,” Little Legs said.

Daddy Longlegs said, “You don’t have to like it, but you have to have quiet time.”

He let the stinging blow of his son’s words glance off his cheek.

If only Little Legs understood the power of words, he would know the pain and joy they can give.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never (not) hurt me.

I hear a rustling from his room, a moan and another cry. The moan is from me, there will be no napping today, for anyone except Baby Brother. Little Legs is back up and well-rested enough to change tactics.

“Need Mama,” he says.

I jump up and my heart swells, ready to rescue him from his room, until it hits me.

Not only does he understand the power of words, he is using it to crush his parents, each one in a unique and specially tailored way.

Toddler 1: Parents 0

Egg Salad

“Do you want to talk to your grandpa?” the woman asked her daughter.

The woman sat next to her aging father, recently discharged from the hospital. His once-grey hair flowed from one side of his head to the other in a sea of white waves.  

He peered into the screen of the phone with bleary eyes. Deep lines around his mouth and eyes gave away his sickness. His heart was broken. He was broken. Without the woman who made up his other half, he was not long for the world.

Obviously, saying no was not an option.

The woman’s only daughter hated when her mother asked her a question with an obvious, single answer. She had just called to verify the ingredients of her egg salad recipe.  

What could be more New Years-ish than a slurry of hardboiled egg and mayonnaise?

“How are you, Grandpa?” the granddaughter asked with an immediate sense of regret.

“Not good, not good.”

This was moving day; the day he was to leave his house, his independence and the place where he spent the past sixty years with his wife, from whom the recipe for egg salad originated.   

It was eggs and mayonnaise with a pinch of salt.

Just a pinch with the extra tossed over one’s shoulder.

For flavor, for luck, forever unmeasured and never forgotten.

Was it really ever just a pinch?   

Hunting Season

“Hey y’all. Haven’t seen you around,” the voice came from the shadows and was followed by a man with a pointy beard wearing a head to toe suit of camouflage.

“Where y’all been?” he asked with a good-natured twang.

It was only 5:00 and already dark on the street. Daylight Savings saved nothing. In fact, it stole the last bits of lights the couple had to walk during the cool fall nights.

The couple was not to be deterred from their few minutes of peace with both boys contained in the enormous double stroller. They wore matching reflective vests and carried flashlights. The stroller glowed an eerie green under the streetlight, outlined in reflective strips.

“Well, you’re pretty hard to spot these days, too, in your all camo outfit,” the woman said with a laugh.

The man looked down in question, unsure to what she was referencing; he wore this outfit so often it was a second skin, an unofficial uniform that he never gave a second thought to as he dressed in the morning.

Camo t-shirt, check. Camo pants, check.

It was also hunting season which came as news to the Northerners, announced by the constant gunfire in the woods behind their house.

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right. I would be pretty hard to spot. We’ve been out hunting, round these parts. Fact is, we just got back from those woods out past Creek Bend Road.”

Good Lord, the woman thought. He is the one who was firing his gun in our backyard.

Her husband volunteered, “Hey, that’s where we live.”

“So’s you live in the house back there. Well, I’ll be darned. Its just me and my boys that ever hunt out there. Sure would be nice to have a place to park so we don’t have to walk so far from the road.”

Silence.

Awkward silence ensued as the couple refused to give the man what he wanted.

“Come on back here, I’ve got to show you something.”

The woman refused to budge. “No thanks, I’ve got to stay here with the boys (and the living world).”

“Ok then, just you,” he pointed at the man who agreed without hesitation and then followed him into the dark shadows in what seemed like a bad idea to the onlookers who remained on the side of the road.

The woman was not a religious sort, but she suddenly found herself praying for the safe return of her husband. Long, drawn-out seconds passed into a minute and then another before the men reappeared and the woman exhaled, realizing that she was holding her breath.

“What in the world did he show you?”

Her husband took over pushing the stroller, “He has the head of a 10-point buck that he shot in the woods behind the house. I guess he’s the kind of guy we need to know if its end of days.”

This was the standard for making new friends, if they have useful skills in case of the Apocalypse.

Apparently, things were looking rather grim.

The Bees

Daddy Longlegs pushes the door open, steps inside and pulls off his white hooded bee-keeper top. Lately, he doesn’t bother with the matching pants or with the smoker. He is very confident in his relationship with his bees.

“You can’t be afraid, they can smell fear.”

He tries to get me to put on the suit, but I refuse. I am surprised this needs explaining but obviously someone must survive to take care of the boys. And to eat the honey.

I encourage him to wear the pants next time and remind him, “A sting hurts.”

Somehow, I am the only one to sustain one since the colonies took up residence in the yard, while Daddy Longlegs has blissfully forgotten his last sting from years ago. Time has a merciful way of dulling the memory of pain, it is the only way we can go on after childbirth or the death of a loved one.

Perhaps it has been too long since his last sting.  

“Well, how are they?” I ask.

“Any signs of a wild animal trying to get in?”

Apparently, our neighbor with diabetes has spotted the hives and is dying for a taste. We have been warned by his wife. He must be kept away or like an unmanageable bear, he will come after the honey.

Daddy Longlegs is somber.

“I saw a big one at the entrance carrying a dead bee out.”

“Doing a little housekeeping?” I wrongly assume.

“He didn’t just throw the dead bee out. He flew it to the ground in front of the hive and gently placed it next to a leaf.”

“I am sorry for your loss.”  

And I truly am. These bees are now family.