“Is she here?”
“Did she bring us anything?”
Molly and Paris crash cheerfully into me, book bags, and lunchboxes banging against their legs, hats damply askew. The schoolyard is thronged with uniformed children milling around and desperate mothers in sundresses trying to corral escaping toddlers. Over everything is the science-fiction thrum of millions of cicadas vibrating high in the trees.
“She is here, she did bring treats, and–”
“–she can’t wait to see you–”
We jostle past two eleven-year-olds begging a harried mother to let them have a sleepover, please, they will do their homework this time, promise, and you can tell the mother is relenting because she is shaking her head with diminishing emphasis even in the seconds we observe her.
Outside the gate we come across a scene so clichéd it could only be true: A gray-haired father is standing with his arms folded, gazing out across the parking lot. He is paying no attention whatsoever to the small boy stretched full-length on the asphalt in front of him, small hands clamped around one of the man’s ankles. From the ground comes a muffled sobbing sound. “I’m not going to carry you,” the father says, addressing the air. He glances at me. “I’m not going to carry him,” he insists. I smile understandingly, but I doubt it. We know that child.
“Did she bring chocolates?” Molly asks eagerly, then stops, remembering.
“I don’t want sweets from Granny,” says Little Paris Fauntleroy, climbing into the car, “I only want to have fun with her.”
“That’s virtuous of you. No doubt you’ll have both.”
“You are not going away!” Molly’s face is suddenly fierce. A white hand grips my arm.
“Oh, but we are,” I say lightly, with a leaden heart. Granny has come to stay so that my husband and I can go away for an unprecedented long weekend to celebrate my–well, my–look, how hard is it to say? As it happens, I’m about to turn–
“Why can’t you have your birthday at home?”
“How old are you, anyway?” Paris asks grumpily, having taken his cue.
I unpick Molly’s fingers from my forearm, and gently push her into the backseat.
“At this exact moment,” I repeat for the hundredth time, “I am thirty nine.”
I do not like utilitarian arguments for the existence of children–that their future tax dollars will pay to support our materially gorged generation, for example, or that without them immigrants from hostile societies will inherit the United States, or that in some misty sense they are “our future”– but it is a fact that children justify themselves in a thousand small ways, not least of which is in providing a humbling sense of perspective to the passing of time. Bumping up against a large-ish birthday, as I am about to do, is only an italicized version of the little homily that children deliver every time they outgrow a pair of shoes. They are getting taller, you are getting older, and no amount of alpha-hydroxy acids can make it stop.
Children are not absolutely required to make this point. Washington cocktail parties will also do the trick. We attended one the other day so packed with surgically altered middle-aged females it felt as though we’d walked onto the set of the Stepford Mothers-in-Law.
“Memento mori…” my husband murmured, fascinated, and repelled. Champagne glasses rose to innumerable silicone-plumped mouths set in wide-eyed girlish faces. Loose necks quivered gently above countless pastel distressed-tweed cocktail suits. As with portraits in a haunted house, staring mascaraed eyes seemed to follow us around the room. I left vowing to greet each birthday with noisy insouciance. My friend Danielle thinks if women are going to lie about their ages, they ought to round them up. No surgery needed: One white lie and you’ll will always look younger than you “are.”
That night over dinner, after the children have ransacked Granny’s luggage for sweets, we run through the schedule she will be managing in our absence. When grandparents come to stay one occasionally bristles at their interference; it is magical how this irritation evaporates when you really need their help.
“–and carrots for Twitchy. Also Mrs. Whitney will take Violet to Sadie and Katie’s birthday party on Saturday,” I say, running my finger down a long, inky list, “And on Sunday afternoon, Mrs. Portnoy will bring Paris to Ian’s party–” I pause for a moment to think with fondness of Ian’s mother, who in exasperation one day said to a griping left-wing parent, “Look, we’re Republicans, too. Do you still want that playdate?”
I snap out of my reverie and proceed: “Okay, ballet lessons, birthday parties, piano practice, soccer, lunch boxes…. oh, yes, and while we’re gone, you will have to contend with the life force of the kidney bean.”
“What Meg means,” my husband interjects dryly, “Is that Molly will need reminding about her science project.”
“Yes, don’t be surprised if you come across pale, spindly beans desperately trying to grow in dark cupboards–”
“I already have!” Granny interrupts indignantly, “Why, today I rescued one that was almost completely dried out. I gave the poor thing some water and put it on the windowsill, where it could get some light. And there was another one–”
“That,” says my husband, “Is Molly’s project. Was. To observe how beans grow under varying circumstances.”
There is an outraged pause on our side, a defensive one on Granny’s. Then she laughs and shrugs. “I guess I’m just a typical soft-hearted liberal,” she says, “I see a pale bean, struggling for life, and I have to give it water.”
–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.