“MacKenzie!” A hard female voice rings warningly across the playground. I look up from the bench where I am feeding pared strawberries to Phoebe and Violet to see who’s in trouble.
On the sandy surface near us, eight or nine small children are biffing about equably. A beribboned Chinese adoptee with her arm in a cast totters by, shadowed by a smiling Filipina. Two local toughs, each aged three, pause in the act of dumping sand on a tricycle, but it is the honey-eyed four-year-old with the curly hair and one foot on the slide who is in the wrong.
“MacKenzie, don’t climb up there, use the steps,” the voice says, exasperated. The boy withdraws his foot from the slide. He looks at his mother frowning at him from a distant bench, and I don’t think he means anything by it, but his foot strays back towards–
“Use the steps!”
The boy, singing softly to himself, moves away, and takes the steps. His mother’s bored eyes flick to the middle distance.
“Phoebe, it’s time to go,” Violet says to her sister, having gulped the last strawberry, “Quickly!” They rush off towards a wooden child-scale car with its wheels sunk in the sand, calling, “Hurry children, we’re late for school!” Hmm. I can’t think where they could have heard that before.
A short distance away, Paris is stretched along the ridge of the roof of a playhouse, fishing for toddlers. He has tied a dead balloon to the end of a stick, and is flicking it over a group of small girls who keep jumping up, trying to grab it, failing, and who tumble down giggling. “Try again!” he laughs. I notice a pair of mothers watching him, and see that they want to stop the game, but can’t think of a good reason. The usual method is to talk past the “negligent” mother in order to shame her into enforcing community standards of absolute pacifism, as in, “Riley, put that stick down. Someone could get hurt.” I wave at Paris and applaud, but throw in an appeasing, “Just be careful not to whack anyone.” Instantly, the mothers relax. Instantly I regret impugning my son’s honor.
Otherwise, the park hums nicely in the hot sunshine of late afternoon. Nannies chatter under the cherry trees, offering juice boxes and Ziploc baggies of goldfish crackers to their milling charges. Cicadas are whirring, children are shrieking, toys are going bang. In the tennis courts beside us, Molly is trying to practice her serve. Up the ball goes again, just barely above her head, too close, and I am opening my mouth to call, “Molly, throw it higher!” when MacKenzie’s mother stands up.
“MacKenzie,” she cautions loudly, “Stop hitting that against the play equipment.”
MacKenzie stops, a green plastic bucket still swinging from the handle in his hand. For the last few minutes he has been banging the bucket against a four-inch reinforced metal bar that fastens a jungle gym to the ground.
Now, goodness knows it can be fun to scold children, but this is nuts. In no way could a small boy with a plastic bucket make the slightest impression on industrial-strength play equipment that is designed to survive broiling sun, high winds, and the depredations of loitering teenagers at dusk. A four-year-old with a tire iron couldn’t dent the stuff installed on playgrounds these days. Yet here is this mother barging in and ruining a perfectly good banging session. And for what?
MacKenzie and I are still staring at her when her expression softens. I turn to see a smaller version of MacKenzie walking carefully across the playground towards her, one fat fist gripping his father’s finger. The father is wearing jogging shorts and has a cellphone strapped high on his arm in the place James Dean kept a pack of cigarettes. He waves briefly to MacKenzie, man-to-man, and checks his watch.
“Hey, pal!” the mother gurgles, pulling the tiny newcomer into a hug. The father steps away to make a call. MacKenzie climbs a little higher on the jungle gym. He is still watching his mother. She is beaming at his younger brother. Ever so gently, MacKenzie begins tapping his bucket against the metal frame. Will she notice? Will she punish him? Does she really care that he’s “hitting that against the play equipment?”
There’s a happy shout from the playhouse, where Paris has dropped the stick into the clamoring crowd. He grins at me and slides off the roof, landing with a thump amid the woodchips.
“Mummy, watch this!” he cries, and starts shimmying up one of the long poles that hold the swings. An au pair pushing two babies with alternating arms, left-right-left-right, throws him a censorious glance, and with the benighted MacKenzie heavy on my heart, I feel a surge of indignation on behalf of all boys in parks, everywhere.
“But–” he gasps, “I haven’t–Ok. Now!”
“Thanks!” He drops to the ground, and dashes off.
I drift over to the car to see how the Littles are getting on. They have collected some plastic spoons and an empty water bottle from the sandbox and are deeply engrossed in a game.
“Hi Mummy. I’m washing the dishes and making honey,” Violet says, “Phoebe’s helping me. She’s my baby.”
“Ikes!” Phoebe yelps, backing out of the car.
“Now, now, I closed the door,” Violet chides, “There’s no dragons.”
“MacKenzie, where did you get this?” comes the irate voice.
I wheel around, hardly able to contain my amazement at this scolding,
harrying, beastly fellow mother. Why doesn’t she leave her child alone, give him a second of peace? The crime he has committed now is so slight that in most families it would be resolved with a friendly, “Let’s find out who this belongs to.”
MacKenzie is holding another child’s lunch box.
He looks worried as his mother advances, but tightens his grip.
“Put that bucket down and bring this back where you got it,” says the old Warn-O-Matic, adjusting the favored child on her hip. The father walks over, flipping down the receiver of his cellphone. “C’mon, MacKenzie…” he says, as to a madman holding the nuclear football.
As the father reaches for the lunch box, and MacKenzie for the first time begins to object out loud, I turn away. You have to intervene if you see someone beating a child, but rotten, unkind parenting? You just can’t. What can you say? “Be careful, M’am, or you’ll turn a sweet boy into a sly, resentful one?” Or, “Honest, officer, they were being mean to him. They didn’t let him play?” Instead Paris and I take the Littles around to watch the end of Molly’s lesson. Boy, do I cheer–for her and for all first-borns who are subject to the most scrutiny, and the most discipline, of all the world’s children.
Some time later, we trickle back into the playground to collect Violet’s and Phoebe’s shoes. Father is gone. Mother’s Little Pal is asleep in one-half of a double stroller. And the persecution of MacKenzie continues:
“MacKenzie, if someone wants to slide you have to move all that stuff out of the way,” the mother drones from her bench in the shade. The boy quietly pushes a small truck down the slide and into his bucket. Most of the children have gone home; no one wants to slide.
“I’m not saying you have to move it now,” the woman continues, looking past her son, running on auto-admonish, “But if someone comes over. You’re going to have to clean all that sand up too, you know.”
MacKenzie is absorbed in his play; now the nagging seems to pass over his head like distant scudding clouds. I am suddenly and reassuringly reminded of a passage from Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie: “We are inclined sometimes to wring our hands much more profusely over the situation of another than the mental attitude of that other, towards his own condition, would seem to warrant. People do not grieve so much sometimes over their own state as we imagine. They suffer, but they bear it manfully.”
MacKenzie pushes his truck back up the slide, and we gather our things and go home.