Saturday, June 9, 2007
This story is dedicated to Sharon Bauer, the greatest neighborhood mother of all.
I’m not the neighborhood mother. Those are women who have nothing better to do with their time. They actually want kids to come over and plan activities that are both fun and educational. They think up crafts. They usually take on jobs like Girl Scout Leader or Car Pool Driver. They are the ones who baby-sit for everyone. That’s not me.
It’s not that I don’t like kids. I had two of my own voluntarily. And I think kids are cute. But I have better things to do with my time than watch someone else’s kids. My own kids, one now grown, know the rules. They don’t bug me when I’m writing. They don’t wander into the pasture to pet the horses without supervision. They don’t take drinks into the living room. They take their shoes off when they come into the house and they know I have control over the TV in the kitchen. They basically stay out of my hair.
My husband is the same way. He’s no kid person. He doesn’t dislike them. It’s just that he barely has enough energy for his own. He’s got a full plate, especially lately since we moved three times in three years. Twice across country. We’re unpacking again. And he’s in the middle of building yet another barn and as usual, we’re on a time crunch. Everyone is cutting hay and if we don’t order some soon, they’re going to be all sold out. Since we have no place for hay storage in the horse barn, Kurt is building a hay shed. He’s doing it all by himself with a little help from me. But he doesn’t have much time because he works long hours. So he’s hurrying. He’s out there banging whenever he gets a minute.
Last week I looked out the window and saw that one of the neighborhood kids had him cornered. She’s an older one. Her mouth was moving a mile a minute and Kurt was standing there with his arms crossed. He kept stealing glances at the posts he’d just sunk into the ground. I didn’t go out there to save him. The last time this kid had my ear I couldn’t get rid of her all day.
Sometimes I have to plan play-days because there aren’t any kids in the neighborhood my daughter’s age. It’s the country; there aren’t a lot of people period. It’s not like New Jersey where she ran outside and there were plenty of kids around riding their bikes and their scooters on the sidewalk. Mothers just stuck their heads out the door to take a look and nobody had to baby-sit for anyone else’s kid just so they could play. If you didn’t see your kid, you got on the phone to the neighbor three doors down and asked, “Is Kelly in front of your house?” We all kept an eye out but no one was responsible for anyone else’s kid. When it was time for dinner or you had to go somewhere, you just called your kid in the house and didn’t have to worry if you had enough for someone else or when was the mother going to pick up your child’s playmate so you could go?
But here, because there are no other kids close by, other than the neighbor who talks your ear off, who is a teenager and too old for Kelly anyway, I have to set up play-dates. That means I have to baby-sit and this involves providing snacks, sometimes meals, constant supervision, many interruptions, and occasionally rides from and back to home. In other words, I get nothing done.
And though I don’t relish having other people’s kids over, for some reason, kids love our house. They don’t want to leave. Even before we moved here with the pool. Maybe part of it is the horses. Sometimes I’ll get the pony out and give pony rides because if I have to do an activity, at least I can do one that I like. Or maybe it’s because I talk to them with respect. I look into their eyes and stop what I am doing when they speak to me. It’s a snack house so there’s always something good to eat. I ask them questions and act interested. Sometimes I tell jokes. Hey, they’re already here, no sense resisting.
Little ones kick and scream when their mothers tell them it’s time to go. Big ones try to schedule another play-date before they leave the premises. “Mrs. Van Cleave, is it alright if I come over tomorrow?”
We had a pool party for Kelly’s birthday last Sunday. Well, it turned out not to be a pool party because we woke up to a downpour. I told Kelly we should reschedule but she started crying. She said she was looking forward to it for a whole year. So Kurt said, “Let them come and let’s just get it over with.”
“But they’re going to get mud all over my house.”
That’s another problem. I’m a clean freak and having a house full of kids is nerve rattling. Plus the house is tiny. There is no family room or basement to corral them in. But I couldn’t say no. And so I had 11 little girls in this little house, running up and down the stairs, knocking pictures off my walls, spilling pink lemonade and letting the dog in and out every time the door opened who then tracked mud everywhere. They weren’t bad. It’s just that the place is small. I’ve knocked a picture off the wall myself going up the stairs.
Well, there was one bad one. And I almost escaped unscathed because she wasn’t an invitee but when the mother dropped off her older sister and she looked longingly into the house at the other kids, I felt bad and said, “You can leave her too if you want. What’s one more?” Of course the mother jumped on that.
Two times I had to tell her not to jump on my couch. One time Kurt found her standing on the coffee table. We caught her teasing the cat and she kept going upstairs by herself and milling about suspiciously. I went up there and closed my bedroom door. I kept having to follow this one around.
When the mothers started arriving to pick up their kids, we thought, yay!—we made it! But then I opened my big mouth. Too bad about the rain. I assured everyone they could come back to swim another time. After all, we have the whole summer. I don’t think I realized what I was saying—I was so happy that the party was over.
The girls zeroed in on that. “When? When?” they cried. Before I knew it, there was a play-date scheduled for tomorrow. When Kelly got off the school bus the next day, another one got off with her. Then two more came. Then the phone started ringing off the hook, “Mrs. Van Cleave, I can’t come today but can I come on Wednesday?”
“I don’t know Lindsey, I’ll look at my schedule and Kelly will call you later.”
The phone rang again.
“Mrs. Van Cleave, can I come on Friday?”
“We’ll see Kaitlyn. I’ll have Kelly call you.”
Then Lindsey again. “Mrs. Van Cleave, my mother can’t bring me on Wednesday. Can you pick me up or can I come on Thursday instead?”
“I don’t know Lindsey, I’ll look at my schedule.”
“And would it be alright if I sleep over?”
It appears this pool is a big draw.
That night I told Kurt we have to set some ground rules or else we are going to have our hands full the whole summer. I can already see our place turning into summer camp. But what’s reasonable? Two kids at a time, two days a week? Three days a week? Go for quantity and get it over with—six kids once a week? How will I work? I write and do other work on the computer in the afternoon. I can’t watch kids in the pool and be inside at my desk at the same time. Is it okay to say they can come over any time in the morning but they have to leave by two? I feel like I need to give a reason. Even though I work, I can’t say, “You need to pick them up by two because I have to go to work,” because I don’t go TO work. If I say, “I’m working,” they will ask doing what?
“Oh, I write stories.” That sounds like, oh, I twiddle my thumbs, or comb cotton or pick daisies.
I don’t know how this new town is going to be about reciprocation but in my old town, the kids were always over my house but Kelly never got invited back. That’s what I mean, the mothers, for some reason, think I’m the neighborhood mother. It wouldn’t be so bad if I got a break now and then and had a free day while someone else was entertaining my kid. Especially considering that Kurt and I have no relatives around here and so we never get any time by ourselves. They do! All the relatives, all the grandparents and aunts and uncles live nearby, sometimes right next door. But no, the kids are always here.
Maybe I’m not that smart. Kelly got invited to a birthday party last year. It was from twelve to one. I thought it was a typo. One hour? Just enough time to open presents. I barely got home and had to turn around to go get her again. Now that’s a smart mother—get ‘em in and get ‘em out assembly line style.
But I have to admit, it does make me proud that the kids like coming here. It’s a good sign when animals and kids like a person. There are no better judges of character. Of course I do have the pony.