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Thursday, December 29, 2005


One of my earliest memories is of a swing.  I was in first grade, maybe second, at a birthday party.  We were all in the backyard playing and I was swinging, going way up high.  The mom called us in for cake and ice cream and I suddenly realized my dilemma:  I was going too high to stop in a timely fashion, and too fast to risk ruining my white patent Mary Janes by dragging my feet to slow me down.  I started to feel panicky.  Would everyone go in and eat cake without me?

Then Patrick stepped up.  He gently reached out and grabbed the chain nearest him.  In just a few more arcs of the swing, each one becoming smaller and smaller, I had slowed down enough to step out of the swing, which I did in a ladylike and graceful way.  "I wouldn't want you to get your shoes all dirty," Patrick murmured.

I liked Patrick, but I wasn't in love with him like I was Gerald.  Gerald, who had rushed in for cake the moment the hostess announced it.  Gerald, who a few months earlier had tossed an invitation to his own birthday party carelessly onto my desk while saying, "My mom said I had to invite everyone." 

Twenty years later, another swing memory.  We've just moved to a new town with a four-year-old and a two-year-old.  Moves are always expensive, so I've agreed to watch the two-year-old daughter of one of BIll's new co-workers.  She's a terror.  I'd thought that she'd fit right in with my two children while we read books together and watched kids' shows on PBS.  But Kirsten is an only child of a workaholic mother who spoils her rotten to make up for the amount of time they spend apart.  She's a brat.

My kids and I enjoy going to the neighborhood park to feed the ducks and play on the playground equipment.  There's a small swingset there for kids their age; they're not old enough yet for the big-kids' swings, but there are only two seats in this swingset.  The first time we ever went to this park with Kirsten it became clear that she would not tolerate taking turns and watching one of my children take a turn on a swing.  Two swings and three toddlers seems to not be a good mix.  Privately I have explained to my kids that with Kirsten there we won't be swinging.  I'll bring them to swing when she is not with us.  Having both witnessed the screaming-kicking tantrums that Kirsten throws when she is not getting her way, they both have solemnly agreed that this is wise.

I know no one in this new town so one day, as I watch the kids playing in the cedar chips underneath the playground equipment, I am happy when a woman strikes up a conversation with me.  She tells me that the six or eight kids that she is there with are her charges in her home daycare business, and that it is actually her last week in this business.  She asks me if I would be interested in taking on any of these kids, as I have told her that I am watcing Kerstin for pay.  I vehemently decline.  Perhaps I was a bit too vehement, but I'd spent the last twenty minutes watching Kerstin boss my four-year-old around and try to derail the perfectly nice pretend-store game that my kids had started by demanding that they play HER game and I was weary.  I honestly didn't know how much longer I would be able to stand this babysitting gig, but we had had to take out an emergency credit-card loan when we'd moved and the interest was unconscionable.  We had to pay this off before I could even think of sending Kerstin packing.  Also, I am absolutely terrible at quitting things.  Taking a stand and just admitting up front that something isn't working for me.  I tend to drag my feet and ignore the situation until it finally gets so bad that the other party calls things off.

But I must have conveyed my unhappiness with my situtation because when Kerstin's mother arrived that evening to pick her up, she took me into my kitchen and said, "I got a call this afternoon that disturbed me..."   Apparently the woman I'd been talking to in the park recognized Kerstin because she had previously gone to her home daycare, and she interpreted my abrupt refusal to run such a daycare myself as proof that I disliked children in general.  She had warned Kerstin's mother that I was unfit to watch her child.

At the time this hurt me deeply.  This woman had been the first person I'd spoken to, other than Kerstin and her mother, since moving to this town and she had turned around and betrayed me.  I also replayed the entire episode over and over, looking for clues as to how I had appeared to this woman.  I had been a little depressed since the move.  I had left friends and a home I'd loved.  I had lost control of my life with my own kids because Kerstin was so domineering and high-energy and attention-starved.  Gone were the quiet afternoons of reading books aloud because Kerstin hadn't the patience.  A simple errand such as the grocery store, never simple with young children in any case, became unbearable with the addition of Kerstin.  So, yes - I was no Mary Poppins.  Even I could see that.  But was I really a menace to these children?  The one thing I had any confidence about at this point was my relationship with my children and suddenly this was shattered after one brief exchange with a stranger at the park.

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