Some afternoons we leave right away: for his swimming lesson, a haircut, or perhaps just to beat the post-school rush at the grocery store. He will run up to me with books and artwork spilling out behind him, and once they are gathered up we bundle ourselves into the car.
On the days when we don’t have to scurry away, he often asks to stay and play. I always say yes. It’s a chance for me to catch up with other parents. We sit on the wooden ledge that borders the vegetable patch and talk about work and family and weekends. Mostly, at this time of year, we grumble about the cold. I’ve taken to making myself a hot tea before I leave the house, and as we sit chatting I wrap my hands around the plastic keep cup, wondering if winter will ever end.
I don’t remember my school being like this: a place to stay and play, even when lessons are over. Thirty years ago, when the last bell of the day rang, we headed straight for home. But things are different now. Everyone takes the opportunity to let their kids run around and burn off that excess energy.
There are stacks of old tires for free play. The kids work in pairs to carry or roll them along, before arranging them in patterns across the grey asphalt. Occasionally a rogue worker will haul one up the steps and launch it back down with a whoop, cackling away as children scatter on either side.
There’s a dress-up box on a nearby bench, and the resulting princesses and pirates form a conga line around the edge of the playground. On the monkey bars, a big sister helps a little one across, cheering loudly once her feet touch the platform on the far side. It’s a happy place. The occasional bumps and tears are far outnumbered by hugs and giggles.
Recently, it seems, my son and I are always the last to leave. When the playground is empty of everyone but us, it turns into such a different place.
The noise subsides slowly. We hear shouted goodbyes at the top of the driveway, then laughter and chat along the pavement before finally that too fades. The sun drops low in the sky, and blackbirds emerge from the bushes to peck spilled blueberries and raisins from the ground. There’s a pink bucket lying on its side, which my son returns to the sandpit, and tiny green chairs that he stacks in neat columns by the wall.
“Are you ready to go?” I call.
“Almost,” he shouts back. “A bit more tidying first.”
I watch as he wheels the bikes and trikes into a line, arranges the tyres into rows by the fence, pops a stray plastic tiara back with the other costumes.
I see the teachers leave one by one, until only the principal is left. She gives me a cheery wave from her window. The janitor does his last walk of the day, checking that all the doors are locked and lowering the flags from their poles.
As the light falls lower and the air starts to chill I stand up and stretch, before moving to one of the raggedy old armchairs that still holds some warmth from the day’s sun. From here I can see boats scudding past on the river. Just behind my head are kindergarten paintings pegged in the window: beautiful rainbows all in a row.
My son doesn’t have long left at this school. It is the only one he has ever known, but after the summer holidays he will be moving on to Grade 3. Onwards and upwards to a new and bigger place. He has not said as much, but it feels like he is already aware of how much he’ll miss it. I watch him stop sometimes, just standing and looking around as though he’s trying to take it all in and save the memories for later.
After one last go on the swings, one last spade that he returns to the sandpit, he is finally ready. As I stand up to leave, I reflect on the fact that this tiny playground is full of legacies. A plaque for a teacher loved and lost. A lemon tree gifted to the school by a family who moved interstate. A buddy bench donated by the school community.
A few months from now this playground won’t be ours anymore. Such is the nature of a school: people come, and then they go. But I hope my son will leave some trace of himself behind. A plant, or painting. A toy car buried deep into the dirt. Perhaps a memory of his laughter and a whisper in the trees: “Soon Mum. I’m nearly ready. Just one minute more.”
Ruth Dawkins is a freelance writer and mother-of-one from Scotland, currently living in Tasmania, Australia. She has been widely published on lifestyle and parenting sites in the UK, US and Australia. She blogs as DorkyMum (http://dorkymum.wordpress.com) and her professional website is http://ruthdawkins.net
It was summer and whenever we tired of our house, or the television, or of each other, one of us would proclaim, “Let’s go to Paradise!”
We’d make a quick change into our swimsuits, grab towels, head outside, load up the canoe, and off we would go.
Paradise. All that lies between us and Paradise is 150 yards of murky pond water, surrounded by lush green trees and overgrown shrubs. Rhododendron, wild azaleas, and mountain laurel bloom along the water’s edge. Tall white oaks, hemlocks, and tulip poplars tower over us. We can see the sky, but not the horizon. And once we’d made the decision to go, we had a well-established plan of action.
As the boys strip down and hunt for their swimsuits. I pack a cooler with provisions: frozen juice boxes, PB&J sandwiches, Triscuits, bananas, and a box of Chips Ahoy cookies.
I am wearing my oldest bathing suit, flip-flops, and a ball cap. The boys are still of an age where they think it is cool to wear their matching trunks. No T-shirts. No shoes. Just two towheads with tan shoulders, soft bellies, and patterned swim suits. I grab our oldest towels and we head out the back door into the warm summer sun. On our way to the lake we stop to gather the paddles and life jackets. I don’t have many rules during the summer, but this one is paramount: no one goes into the water without a life jacket.
“But Mom!” Addison pleads. “I know how to swim!” He views my insistence on the flotation device as doubting his athletic ability. “If you kick a snapping turtle and he bites your toe, I want you to be able to stay afloat.” The prospect of pain ends his complaining.
I snap the smallest vest onto Aaron, hand one to Addison and put one on myself. Addison waves a paddle in the air like a drum major as we march down the winding path.
The three of us work together to slide the canoe out of its resting spot in the woods. It is dark green, fiberglass, eight feet long. It is not heavy, but unwieldy. None of us can move it alone. We slip it into the water at the landing. I hold the canoe tightly as Aaron gets in first. He is scared of falling. Addison climbs in next and I hand him our provisions.
As I shove us off from the dock, all ennui evaporates. Something mystical happens when we are on water, bathed in sunshine. Out from under the restraint of a ceiling. Breathing fresh air. Away from interference and distractions (these were pre-smart phone days). The hurried pace that we embraced to get out of the house softens to a languorous mood of deep sighs and relaxation. We are on our way to a better place.
Our trips to Paradise were part of a magical season for our boys and me. I wasn’t working, so we had the entire summer without a schedule.
However, facing three months without anything organized—no preschool or sleep-away camp or daycare —was rather frightening. So I made a plan. We wrote down all the things we wanted to do together and worked our way through the list. Our goal was simply to do something fun every day. Sometimes it was little: get ice cream, pick blackberries, have a picnic. Sometimes they were special occasions: Aaron’s birthday party and Fourth of July. A handmade calendar hung in the kitchen with a box of colored markers and stickers nearby. At the end of every day we recorded what we had done: “Played with water guns” or “Rode bikes” or “Went to the Aquarium.” There was no question about whether we would have fun this summer. The question would only be, how much fun could we manage.
Before making our first trip across the lake that summer, I called our neighbors to get their permission to play in their backyard. They were happy to share the space with us. When I told the boys to prepare for an adventure I wanted to make it more appealing than simply describing where we were going. I decided to give it an exotic name, one that would never be confused with someplace else. I called it Paradise.
Where we are going is easily visible from where we live. But the distance between what happens in each place is vast. By traveling slowly, propelled only by oars and our own strength, anxiety melts as we move from one world to the other. The cool waters lap alongside the canoe. Frogs hop from the marshy edges kerplunking into the lake as we disturb their peaceful days. The geese nesting on the floating dock fly off at the sign of foreign creatures near their property. Grass carp, some more than two feet long, follow the little wake of our boat, their ribbed backbones skimming the water’s surface, looking prehistoric and Loch Ness-ian.
Locals call this body of water Running Knob Hollow Lake. And while it is something more than a puddle, it is not a lake. It is a pond just the right size for a canoe or kayak. Our side is muddy and clouded with decades of leaf litter. At our bank, there is a stone wall, an embarcadero of sorts, that holds the water back from the land, a place where water irises bloom yellow in the spring, dragonflies sparkle and flit, and marshy grasses grow wild.
By contrast, the landing at the place we call Paradise is pure white. Long before we moved to the neighborhood, the owners of Paradise took the opposite approach of the man who built our house. Rather than erect a rock barrier, at Paradise they trucked in and deposited tons of sand. Crystalline white quartz fragments stretch from the fringes of the hemlock trees near the water’s edge, and well into the lake, so there is an easy approach and a perfect place to gently wade in the water. When you step beyond the sand, the firmament drops off and lake swimming begins. For a timid toddler, an adventurous child, and a sometimes-nervous mother, it is perfect.
A wooden dock at Paradise stretches over the sandy spot. A thrill-seeking boy can run down the dock to the watery end and jump with delight into a six-foot deep pool of cool water. It is an easy swim back to the sandy beach, and a quick climb out to do it again. And again and again.
We stay for hours at Paradise. Addison running and jumping. Aaron wading and splashing. Sometimes I read, but mostly I just sit, soaking up the warmth of the sun overhead and appreciating the joyful noises my children make. We catch crawdads in the shallows, watch tiny fish swim near us, see the water striders skimming atop the warm surface. Blue and black butterflies dance around us. The neighborhood hawks soar high above the treetops on the afternoon updrafts. We feed cracker crumbs to the fish. Aaron always tires first, getting chilled as the sun sets behind our house. I wrap him in a towel and we snuggle as he sits in my lap, me whispering little songs to him. We make up silly stories. Eventually, Addison exhausts himself too. We all look up and watch the day’s sunset reflecting on the clouds overhead, transforming them magnificent shades of lavender, orange, and pink. Loading up the canoe with the scraps of the day, we shove off again and travel home.
Though our trip is just a few dozen yards, it feels as though we too are traversing days and weeks and years. That summer was Paradise. We were in a place of delight and happiness. It was a transcendent time of youth and innocence and bliss that lives on in our memories, even if we can never recreate the moments we shared. And every time we made the trip, we always landed back in the place where we began. Home.
And yes, we can still see Paradise from our back door.
Laura L. Willis is the author of “Finding God in a Bag of Groceries: Sharing Food, Discovering Grace” (Abingdon Press, 2013), about which Desmond Tutu said, [This is] “a wonderful account of God’s attractiveness and goodness communicated through God’s children. I was deeply moved.” She was editor and publisher of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger for five years, and has also written for Tweetspeak Poetry, MakesYouMom.com, and regional publications.
The days just before birth are spent pushing minutes around the clock. We busy ourselves with chores, knowing the work of life is never-ending, but hoping anyway that if we finish just these few tasks, something will be made ready. It takes days of cleaning and laundry and throwing things away to prepare for a new beginning. At least, this is how it has always been done by the women in our family.
All the while time stays stubbornly the same: Never speeding up or dragging.
No matter how we coax the clouds of dust away, they only shimmer in the sunbeams before settling down on newly swept ground.
At some point, I catch sight of my sister bending awkwardly over the sink. Does time freeze her there, the cup in her hand hovering over water? Everything is still except for the contraction, an invisible wave of tension. It lasts only seconds and she’s rinsing the suds again.
Time is ticking in the kitchen…
It will take more than that to hurry this child. She should try scrubbing the tiles.
Half past two.
This baby waits. On his time.
He’ll decide when to pass through.
I glance to the window and see the snow, falling too thick and too fast for comfort. This outside tableau seems to threaten the secret realm where my sister’s body does the work of slowly wearing down its own resistance. Here now we have a baby, advancing his hard journey by millimeters, while snow accumulates by the inch.
She is almost done washing dishes. I get up to shovel the driveway.
We are passing time together.
Julia Rose is the mother to two children, a parent coach and educator, and a writer. Her background is in education, specifically working with girls impacted by trauma. She has always been fascinated by the ways lives intersect and influence one another. Becoming a mother deepened her belief that we are all connected; She is fascinated by the science of fetomaternal microchimerism and often write about the ways mothers and children inhabit one another.
Together we mixed the mud of creativity. We gave of our cells some from you and some from me – though in the beginning, you weren’t complete, just these small compartments,
huddled together, forming part of the whole that was to be multitudes of possibility.
Our cells made an organ, entirely new, and I grew it for you.
Cells swam in and cells swam out; to every room they
flew about! To lungs, liver, kidneys! Blood, skin, and heart!
Indeed my love, you left an imprint on all my parts.
If I could unfold the tissues, delicate and soft pink inside,
I would find you, little chameleon, under each layer trying to hide. And now we know from autopsies, that your cells could be embedded in me. Your little chimera cells could change,
become nerve cells in my brain that fully integrate.
Are you helping me now, to think this all through?
And if all this is true, the Me that I know is also You.
And parts of Me are swimming in You,
along with probably your grandmother too!
So what is this notion of autonomy?
When I can’t escape You and You can’t escape Me?
Julia Rose is the mother to two children, a parent coach and educator, and a writer. My background is in education, specifically working with girls impacted by trauma. I have always been fascinated by the ways lives intersect and influence one another. Becoming a mother deepened my belief that we are all connected; I am fascinated by the science of fetomaternal microchimerism and often write about the ways mothers and children inhabit one another.