Politics & Policy

Spring Sap

Great waves of heat are rolling off the dark surface of the terrace, and

the sun is fiery on the back of my neck. We have dragged our kitchen

table and chairs out into the open. Violet and Phoebe are perched at

the table, their eyes screwed into slits from the glare, sipping juice

and eating Cheerios and frozen blueberries. I, meanwhile, have

discovered an external electrical outlet which, amazingly, considering

the Jurassic wiring of our house, actually works, and into which I have

plugged the iron.

So here we are, on a glorious Washington day in what is elsewhere

still winter, eating cereal and ironing linens as Twitchy the bunny

lopes picturesquely around our ankles. Cars occasionally crunch over

the gravel into the tiny parking lot beside us that belongs to a Central

American embassy, but otherwise we might be in Appalachia.

“Whoopsie,” says Violet, as a wave of blueberry-colored milk washes

down her front.

“Oh dear, it’s all wet. Better take off your shirt, Violet,” says Phoebe,

easily. A year ago, she was just about able to produce a single-

syllabled guttural. Now she could do focus groups. I goggle for a

moment at her fluency, and then remember the soaking child.

“Okay, Miss Blueberry-face.” Violet obligingly lifts her arms and

together we begin to remove the sodden blouse. And of course,

there’s her soft tummy, exposed. And of course, I lean down in the

classic ambush of doting mothers, and plant a kiss on her side. I am

smooching, and Violet is giggling, and the sun is beaming down, and

it’s all almost unbearably jolly, when I feel a shower of cool droplets–

“Hey!”

Phoebe has silently leapt to her sister’s defense and is shaking her

juice box over both of us.

“Phoebes, naughty-bad!”

“Now my trousers are wet, Mummy!” laughs Violet.

“Hello up there!” calls an alien voice, and the fun dissipates as fast as

you can say “imminent terrorist attack.”

The first contingent of PTA mothers has arrived. Now we must wipe

the silly grins off our faces and get down to work. Inwardly I bemoan

again the innocuous letter that arrived in September soliciting “a few

hours” of my time for worthy school causes. Had I known that “a few

hours” would transmogrify into “a few solid weeks, 24/7,” I would

have filled out the form differently, with fruity expletives; but I didn’t,

so I didn’t, and consequently bunny must return to captivity and the

girls and I will have to go indoors.

“Why, hello down there,” I say bravely.

There is more crunching on the gravel. Several more PTA faces

appear, hands wave, and the heavy tread of sensible shoes is heard

coming up on the back steps.

“Please come in,” I say.

Our task today is to create, through an intricate and highly reasoned

process, place cards for the upcoming gala dinner dance. This will

consume the entire afternoon, for these are no run-of-the-mill place

cards. That would Easy and therefore Not the PTA Way. Each place

cards will bear the diner’s name, his table number and place at the

table, his choice of grilled salmon, osso bucco, free-range chicken, or

vegetable strudel, and possibly also his blood type, favorite color, and

country of ancestral origin. I am a little overwhelmed by the details,

perhaps because, in an undertaking of this size, there are so many.

Everyone troops into the dining room, takes a seat at the table, and

lays out her paperwork. Violet and Phoebe climb up nimbly and begin

unpacking one woman’s handbag.

“Not the cellphone, sweeties,” she says frostily, and though I can

hardly blame her, of course I do.

Soberly, everyone gets to work.

“We’ll need at least two pairs of scissors,” one mother tells me a trifle

briskly, “And could we please have more light in here?”

“We’re so grateful for all your help, Meghan,” another compensates

kindly.

These unsmiling veterans of innumerable school fundraisers are not

exactly light company–there is no cracking wise in this crowd (except

for me, with tarantula-on-a-slice-of-angel-food success)–but

man are they efficient. They have a genius for assembly-line

production.

One mother has even printed out sheets of tiny stickers denoting

“soup” and “salad” and “beignet” and “mousse,” along with the four

entrees. The beauty of the system is that once you have affixed the

appropriate choices of dish on the narrow cards, making sure that

Mrs. Smith gets the soup (from one sheet of stickers) and Mr. Smith

the salad (from another sheet), and Mrs. Smith gets the salmon and

Mr. Smith gets the chicken, and Mrs. Smith gets the–

“Who’s got the page of mousses? Ah, here it is.”

–mousse, and Mr. Smith gets the apple beignet, why, you merely

subtract the missing stickers from the master sticker list, and voila!

You have an exact count to give the caterer. What could be simpler?

“Drat!” I say quietly for the twentieth time, peeling another ripped

“chicken” sticker off my fingers. If, on Gala Night, the place is littered

with roasted fowl, everyone will know it was me.

“Mummy, I’m bored of this game,” Violet says, putting down her

shoelace and shiny cardboard with holes in it with a worldly sigh.

Phoebe is dangling a pink shoelace into her mouth, like spaghetti.

The girls have been awfully good about the PTA invasion. So far.

“Will you read to us?” Phoebe asks plaintively, reaching for a sheet of

stickers.

“Not that darling, and no, not now. All the Mummies are still

working. Here. Why don’t you each make a farm with this,” I say,

handing them a box of small felt pieces to stick on fuzzy boards. No

one else has even looked up. By my watch, it has already been

eternity.

It is terrifying to think that all across America, wherever there are

schools, there are squadrons of mothers dragooning other mothers

into contributing “a few hours” stuffing envelopes, or persuading them

to write checks, or pressing them into phoning yet more mothers to

ask them to stuff envelopes, and write checks and make

phone calls. It happens in private schools, it happens in public

schools. It is probably happening to you. If it did not happen, there

would be no Gala Dinners, and then where would we be?

So it’s a great relief when the PTA dissipates and Paris and Molly get

home. They look just as children should who have enjoyed their first

full day of springtime warmth: She has a constellation of new freckles;

he is streaked with dirt and his shirt is flapping open on one side

where it has torn halfway to his armpit.

“Gosh, Paris, what happened to you?”

He looks up blankly.

“Your shirt, darling. Did something happen?”

“I don’t–Wow! Cool!” he enthuses, discovering the rip. “Now I can

make it into sleeping bags for my animals. Just tear it into strips…”

and he wanders off into the sitting room, still planning.

“Mummy, it is so hard to get everything into this story and

keep it to the right length,” Molly says, coming into the room with her

notebook. She’s entering a D.C. Public Library story-writing

competition. The deadline is tomorrow and the restrictions are brutal:

A scant 200 words and there’s supposed to be both plot and

character development. “Hey, why is the ironing board outside?”

“Good news,” I tell her. “I saw the librarian this morning, and she says

the public-school teachers were complaining that their students

couldn’t keep stories that short. So they’ve decided to be flexible

about the length.”

“Aargh,” says Molly. “If I’d known that–”

Suddenly there is a loud crash from the sitting room.

“Wait! Don’t come through yet!” Paris calls. We hear the sound of

plastic slapping plastic, then, “Okay, Mummy and Molly and girlies,

come see!”

“Neat!” says Violet, as we come into the room. “But what is it?”

Paris, now shirtless, has arranged our collection of embarrassingly

retrograde CDs–including Eric Clapton and the Band with Japanese

labels, from a nostalgic phase my husband went through in Tokyo–

into a kind of spreading pool with a tall, precarious tower on one end.

“It’s Moby Dick!” he announces proudly. “See? The tall bit is his

spout, this narrow bit is his body, and those wide parts are his

flukes!”

Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist.

Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family

will permit. Her NRO column, “The Fever Swamp” appears weekly.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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