“What are you doing, Paris?”
He is bent over his breakfast pancake, studying the concentric circles left in its surface by the frying pan.
“…nine, ten, eleven….” he murmurs, then looks up. “I’m counting the rings to see how old it is.”
Phoebe comes over to me and raises both arms. “Caddy!” she demands.
“Wait, I’m just cooking Violet’s pancake–”
“Where should we go today?” Molly asks. It is a beautiful winter morning and the start of the Christmas holiday.
“How about to the Mall?” I ask.
“Ugh, not the mall,” everyone groans, as if we ever do such a thing.
“No, the Mall-Mall, you know, monuments.”
“Hurrah!” cries 75 percent of the children. “But why?” asks Violet.
You may think that because we live in Washington D.C., we are fully conversant with the pleasures of “America’s front yard,” as TV-news anchors call it. We do go to the Mall, quite often, only to troll slowly and fruitlessly along Constitution Avenue looking for a place to park.
Unfortunately for us, this being Our Nation’s Capital, patriotic families from Denver and Milwaukee and Atlanta have been up since dawn, flexing their maps and revving their rental-car engines so as to streak into the parking spots that open up at 9:30 A.M. By the time my husband and I have poured our second cup of weekend coffee, every bit of vehicular real estate along the Mall is as locked up as Saddam Hussein.
Thus after one or two hopeless passes–”Look, the Natural History Museum!” and “That sign says ice cream, can we get some?”–we invariably turn the car towards the FDR Memorial on the Tidal Basin. Say what you will about Roosevelt, and my grandfather said a great deal, loudly, but you can’t fault his supply of posthumous parking spots. The trouble with FDR is that his memorial is, for a young family, an unwalkable distance from the thrilling destinations at the top of the Mall, near the Capitol. Also there are elements of the memorial that alert parents will want to mitigate. So while you enjoy the glow of finding a place to stow the car, you will also wind up explaining to young listeners for the 800th time that FDR tried to hide the wheels on his chair, not make a feature of them, as the memorial does, and that when he said, “I Hate War,” it was rather more flavored with pragmatism than modern ears would like. Usually I am just getting pleasantly warmed up on the topic and have progressed to Hitler and Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact, when someone yells, “Wow, look, ducks!” and all the little people run away.
For once, we’re spared FDR. Just as my husband is saying, “Let’s go to the U.S. Botanical Garden Conservatory,” a parking spot opens up right in front of the U.S. Botanical Garden Conservatory. It must be a sign!
The children leap and dance to the heavy glass doors, past topiary trees decorated with lights in the shape of dragonflies, but the guard isn’t letting anyone in. We join a little knot of people just outside the doors.
“It’s cold, Mummy!” the children complain, instantly.
“Oh,” I say, peering in, “It’s a scanner, like in airports. They have to screen us.”
“Here?” an elderly woman asks, “Pshaw, this terrorism business, I just don’t know–”
“It’s opening!” Paris yells, as a guard leans on the door and grudgingly admits our throng. Inside, the air is moist and jungly. Phoebe stumps ahead of me, gets confused, grabs on to the edge of another woman’s jacket, and tries to go with her through the metal detector. Another guard holds her back–”One at a time, please!”–and it strikes me fleetingly how bizarre are these times, when a tiny blonde two-year-old must be screened, by herself, for fear that she might blow up.
“Trains!” Paris cries, and disappears into the building, calling, “Come
We find him gazing happily at a model-train set arranged amongst miniature orange trees and kept apart from spectators by row upon row of poinsettias. Towering over the scene is a papier-mâché volcano that is supposed to explode every hour, except it’s broken.
“Awww,” Paris says cheerfully, and darts after Molly into the orchid enclosure. In here, the air is especially steamy. Orchids bloom in spectacular purple profusion on overhanging tree limbs and from crevices in a rock wall.
“I think I see a crocodile!” Paris gasps, looking down into a watery ditch.
Molly narrows her eyes: “Are those real frogs–”
“A real one?” Violet sounds worried.
“–Or is it a tape recorder?”
“They’re man-eating frogs–” I laugh, and then remember the little girls. “Er, that is, they’re mango-eating frogs, ha-ha, let’s move on.”
“Suivez-moi,” Paris says, suavely. We follow him into a jungle with towering coconut palms, tropical plants with gargantuan leaves, and a tiny pond.
“Shishy? Shishy…” Phoebe calls, trying to get the attention of some goldfish darting over a surface partially paved with coins. Mist rolls out of hidden vents in the rock above them.
“Careful, girls,” says my husband, “It’s slippery.”
A few feet away, Molly is leaning against a palm tree, her lips moving soundlessly. She is telling herself a story, a custom she describes as “soothing, relaxing, satisfying.” No one is ever allowed to eavesdrop.
“Do the fish eat the money?” Violet asks me, and not that I needed reminding, really, but I am reminded just how innocent one is when one is three. The world is full of marvels, who’s to say there aren’t fish that eat pennies?
“Ow!” cries Phoebe, who has slipped. I dig around in my purse and pull out a bag of broken gingerbread men. She takes a limb and calms down.
“Okay,” Molly says, smiling. “That story’s finished. Let’s go to the desert.” She and Paris link arms, and my husband and I slowly herd the little girls into a sandy area of medicinal plants, herbs, and spiky dry-climate flora. Other visitors push past us, smiling approvingly. It’s always a relief when passersby refrain from scowling at one’s small children.
Desert naturalists are evidently witty people, judging from the names they give plants. “Look, this one’s called Society Garlic,” I say, “Mah, deah, would you caeah fo’ a baht?”
“Whah, thank you evah so much,” Molly replies, “No, girls–” Together we pry Violet and Phoebe off a rock formation. The minute we let go they start climbing again, like wind-up toys.
“Candy barrel cactus!” Paris cries, and hops around holding his bottom as if he’s just sat on one, “Yowee! Ouch!”
“Baja fairy duster!” says my husband.
“No, girls, get down from there.”
I spy a plant named Long-Mama Nipple Cactus, open my mouth to tell everyone, and then don’t. Not everything is a laughing matter. And now that you mention it, the small girls are getting that glazed, over-stimulated look that prefaces a lunchtime meltdown. “Time to go,” my husband and I agree. But where is Paris?
We find him a few rooms along, adjusting a large magnifying glass over a cross-section of Douglas fir. As he looks intently at the tree-trunk, he’s whispering, “…fourteen…fifteen…sixteen….”
“I thought so!” Paris says, looking up triumphantly: “This tree is older than my pancake.”