“O.k., now blow out your candles!”
Everyone beams as Paris messes up his face and sends eight precise blasts across the lumpy surface of his birthday cake. There are no candles. I forgot them, as I did the toothbrushes. Furthermore, I had tried to keep the whipped cream pristine by sticking plastic spoons along the edges to hold up the tin foil, but traveling for five hours in a large storage container on top of a car does not enhance the appearance of any dessert, spoons or no.
Nor, for that matter, does traveling beneath such a box through Friday-afternoon gridlock enhance the disposition of the car’s occupants, but that was yesterday’s drama. Today there is nothing but a brilliant blue sky, sore backsides after a morning’s bicycling, a motel room, six forks, and an icebox cake made with two pints of heavy cream. What could be better?
It turns out there is something. It is: All of the above, in the company of four children who have miraculously suspended all rivalries and who give every sign of being thrilled to be in each other’s company.
“C’mon girlies,” Paris announces, wiping chocolate off his chin on to his–
“Not your shirt!“
“Oops. Sorry, Mummy. O.k., girls, let’s play!”
It is a sunny day in every sense. Our family is “away for the weekend,” an airy phrase which here means, “has avoided giving a birthday party for a classful of eight-year-old boys by taking our children to the seaside instead.” I booked the room months ago, partly to avoid another grueling birthday party and partly on the understanding that if our side lost the election we might want to get out of Washington to clear our heads. As it happens, things went our way, and all is heady and giddy and very, very cheerful.
My husband and I smile at each other, glance at the cake, grimace, and redevote ourselves to consuming it. Four cups of cream is, I have to say, an allurement that loses its allure remarkably fast when you’ve taken three bites.
The children drop to the floor brandishing the plastic medieval figurines they received at breakfast. Molly opens a small case and begins arranging a selection of old figures inside a glass case that holds the motel DVD player. Out come a swan, an otter, a donkey, a dog, a wolf, Maid Marian, Robin Hood, a girl pirate, a mandrill, a bear cub, a tiger, two cavaliers, four princesses, Robin Hood (again), and most of a family of fuzzy cats with jointed limbs from a different species of toy.
“And they threw their swords away, jumped off their horses, and began to wrestle,” Paris tells his sisters, beginning mid-Game. He entangles two new plastic knights and twists them around, all wrestly-like.
“What a terrible sight,” Violet remarks blandly, wafting a princess in a sparkly blue dress over to the field of battle.
“La, la, la…” Phoebe sings, waltzing her princess with a cat in an apparently unrelated scene.
“And Molly, you looked down in the garden and saw them fighting,” Paris gasps, still wrestling furiously.
I glance at Molly, who is arranging figurines in a kind of trance. These imaginary games used to absorb her utterly; she and her brother could play for hours, literally, with nothing more than, say, a bottle top and a bit of plastic scrounged from the park and maybe a Playmobil pirate or two. It wasn’t cheeseparing on our part that accounted for the paucity of playthings, they didn’t need anything much to spark an epic. These days, however, it is harder for her to disappear into childish narratives, and Paris knows it.
“You shouldn’t put yourself forward like that,” our eldest murmurs finally, manipulating two argumentative princesses, a blonde in white and a brunette in red.
“And Molly, you saw a cat in the water,” says Phoebe.
“And Molly, they stopped wrestling now, and went off to their rooms in a huff,” Paris concludes.
“The prince wants to dance with me,” Molly says quietly, speaking for the blonde.
Her brother pauses in the act of setting up his two warriors along the edges of a folded luggage stand. The figurine’s capes are perpetually wind-torn, their faces craggy and resolute. “Which prince are they talking about?” he asks a little jealously, and my imagination flashes forward to him as a young man pressing his suit for some undeserving female. Molly does not reply. Her lips move silently as she gazes into the faces of her figurines.
“You’re beautiful wonderful girls, I’ll dance with you,” comes the voice of Violet, rapt in her own storyline. I do not know whether other children play in this manner, but our children always keep up a running narrative that, if you’re the older party, involves telling the younger players what they are supposed to say, as in: “And then you said, ‘I want to eat that cheese!’”
“I want to eat that cheese!”
“And you are mad, and you said, ‘Grrr.’”
Even if there is not a younger party to boss about in this manner, it means explaining out loud to the dolls who is doing what, line by line, which is what Violet is doing now, speaking earnestly to a prince and two princesses: “And then she stuck out her tongue at her, and he said, ‘O.k., I’ll dance with you.’”
Some years ago on the radio I once heard a rabbi explaining that people owed it to God to strive to be joyful. His theory was that if we, God’s children, were not contented, then there was no way that God himself could be happy. I wouldn’t presume to know God’s views about this idea, or about that rabbi, but it seems to me a fair extrapolation from human-scale parenthood. Life loses its fizz if your children are struggling or melancholy. On days like this one, where everyone is the picture of health and joy, one’s corks, metaphorically, are popping.
“May I ride on your unicorn?” Paris asks politely.
“No,” says Phoebe.
“That is actually my unicorn,” Molly interjects, suddenly no longer playing. “That is my unicorn.”
“Why not let her use it?”
Molly’s face flushes red. “Because then she pretends it’s hers, and she’ll keep playing with it, and the grownups will say, ‘Aw, let her play with it,’ and it’s mine!”
“Wow, okay. Phoebs, Molly is asking nicely. You must give back the unicorn.”
“No, she’s not,” says Molly, grimly sotto voce. “Hey, don’t you hit me!”
“Faker,” my husband chides. Phoebe stops squalling and smirks at him.
“Queen! Mother, mother!” cries Violet breathlessly.
Instantly, Phoebe drops the unicorn. “The cat is in the water, help!”
Violet immediately changes tack so as to attract the attention of the next oldest: “Pa-ris, you didn’t eat all your ca-ake,”
“I did so, you little stinker,” says he good-naturedly.
“Hey, she’s not a stinker,” I interject.
“Yes, she is.”
“They’re all raxals,” my husband says with infinite satisfaction, settling back on the motel bed having echoes Violet’s long-ago inversion of c’s and s’s. When she was two, birds flew through the xsy, children went to xsool, and those fluffy things you see hoarding nuts were xswillers. Naturally, we still use these terms, along with yodit (a dairy product eaten at brekiss and bekfrist), franditches (a conventional luncheon item), and wahdooin (an enquiry into one’s activities).
“We’re not raxals,” says Phoebe. “We’re cats.” She takes a rolled-up piece of Genoa salami out of her pocket and bites into it.
“Eeeeew!” says everyone else.