“I made something today,” Violet announces from the backseat as I pull the car out of the nursery-school parking lot. “It begins with a “huh” sound.”
”A hippopotamus?” I venture, flipping down the rearview mirror to see her face. Seldom has child ever been so pleased with self: Violet is practically vibrating with suppressed information. She shakes her head. Phoebe sits beside her, sucking on two fingers, her eyelids drooping and her platinum hair standing on end.
“Ok, then, a hat?”
“Not a house!”
“A heated howitzer?” I ask softly, for my own amusement, “A hispid hodad?”
Every plausible noun beginning with “H” has evaporated from the maternal memory. Flipping the mirror back up, I concede defeat.
“I can’t tell you anyway!” Violet says gleefully. She draws in her breath, then asks in a rush, “When is Mother’s Day?”
“On Sunday. Does this–”
But she has already turned to Phoebe: “Let’s be fighter kings, and you are on my ship.”
“Good morning, King,” Phoebe says, perking up immediately and using the hem of her dress as a talking plaything, “Do you want some chocolate?”
Of all the advantages that young children enjoy over their worn and raddled elders–the satiny skin, untroubled 12-hour sleeps, and sense of endless potential in life–the one that makes me most jealous is children’s ability to vacation anywhere, at any time, just by the merest of efforts.
For adults, transportation, whether cars, aircraft, trains, or buses, is a mixture of boring, dangerous, and expensive. Unless you are a yogic flyer–which reminds me, whatever happened to Dennis Kucinich?–you are, as an adult, confined to established modes for getting from A to B.
Thus here I am, still in the car, still signaling and turning, braking and accelerating, searching my memory for words that begin with “h” and half-worrying about what to cook for supper. The girls, meanwhile, have magically floated free of the vehicle.
“Hurry, the dolphins are chasing us!”
“Look out, king!”
For a child, travel is so effortless that she can dip her spoon into her cereal, think “white sand beach,” and by the time the oatmeal reaches her mouth the Pacific is lapping at her toes, native islanders are roasting a goat nearby, and a schooner flying the Jolly Roger has just hoved over the horizon. No wonder children sleep so soundly, and wake so refreshed. They’re constantly on vacation. They can travel to Neptune and not get jet lag.
When at home alone I sit
And am very tired of it,
I have just to shut my eyes
To go sailing through the skies–
No wonder the Victorian critics hated Robert Louis Stevenson. They were probably jealous, too.
On the weekend, my husband and I stay in Washington while the children travel. One morning, we bring our coffee out on to the terrace and discover that they have turned the backyard into what they passionately defend as their “fort,” but which is more familiarly known as a “total mess.” From unknown passages deep in the house, they have dragged sheets of plywood, rolls of old carpet, broken bricks, and chipped ceramic tiles. They have stretched a dozen bungee cords from Jeep to house, from rabbit hutch to fence, from fence to lump of concrete-
“Aargh, children, wait a minute–”
Molly looks up, beaming, from the control deck where all the bungees converge. On it she has set up a keyboard someone gave her alongside the hand-cranked shortwave radio from our dismantled terrorist hamper. Beside her, Paris is carefully laying out rows of metal discs–”These are the power source!”–from a magnetic construction kit someone gave him. Violet meanwhile is wafting regally between the stretched cords in an old white lace First Communion dress someone gave her.
“You can’t expect to have children and not have a bit of chaos,” Molly points out reasonably.
“I know, but–”
My husband shakes his head tolerantly, and sits down with the paper.
Phoebe picks her way through the rubble to the control deck in a floral bathing suit. She has blue socks pulled up over her elbows, like gloves. “Excuse me, Teacher,” she says politely to Molly, “I am Sister and I would like to have sweets in my bucket.”
“Here you go,” Molly replies, handing her a pebble.
“Ow!” Violet suddenly yelps.
“I’ll save you!” Paris cries, rushing over to untangle her hair from a bungee intersection.
“As for this mess,” I begin again.
“Pleeeease…,” the children chorus.
“Only if you promise to clean–hey, where did you find that ladder?
Paris puts his hand on his heart: “We will tidy everything up–”
“–tomorrow,” Molly interposes swiftly.
“O.K., but only–”
After the first syllable, they know they’ve been granted the indulgence. I am still in mid-scold when someone announces lift-off, and the whole pack of them roars into outer space.
Two days later, Paris comes home from school with a game already in mind, and disappears up the stairs to get changed. The little girls trail after me into the kitchen for a snack. From the window, I can see the inevitable bungee cord still hanging from the fence. Molly is languid and a little cross. She is just passing by the stairs when–
“Kai-Yah!” Paris yells, flying through the air in ambush. He lands at her feet wearing a bicycle helmet, two of his father’s belts worn bandolier-style, and brandishing a blunderbuss made of Lego.
“Ugh, cut that out,” she snaps, “I’m not playing.”
“Gee,” he says mildly, a little hurt, “Guess I’ll go hunting somewhere else.”
On the weekend, they were astronauts together; also, variously, secret agents, orphans at a workhouse, and hedgehogs. After two days at school, Molly has drifted again towards the brutal realism of older-girlhood.
Next weekend, they will rampage again as pirate comrades, but the day is coming when she will not want to roam as widely. Her juvenile frequent-traveler card will expire first, then his, then the little girls’. Eventually they will all have to travel on real passports, and on trains and buses, like the rest of us. I am wiping my eyes and looking for a hankerchief when Violet comes up and tugs on my arm. I lean down, and she presses her cheek against mine.
“Mummy,” she whispers moistly into my ear, “It’s a heart.”