My girls, naturally, love afternoons at the park. I had finally caved under the sheer weight of the whining. I could tell as soon as we arrived that getting a turn on the swings, their favorite, was going to be a challenge - they were filled already, with kids standing around waiting for a turn - so I tried to steer them towards the rest of the equipment. Fiiiiiiiiine, they said, eyes glued to the promised land just over my shoulder. And then they were running, four pink rubber shoes flying over the sandy earth, pell mell tumble bumble, till they came to the green poles and two coveted open spots.
Somewhere in the last six months, Lorelei learned to pump on the swings. I'm not sure if it was a skill born of necessity, since I'm inevitably distracted by Phoebe's penchant for climbing something just outside her ability and my comfort zone, or born of determination to be a Big Kid as soon as possible, but besides a quick boost up at parks where the woodchips have been scooped away by ungainly puppy paws hidden inside scuffed, light-up sneaks, she's suddenly, surprisingly, self-sufficient.
She's not, however, ready for complete independence. "Look at me, Mom!" she calls, in the time-honored playground tradition of every kid who came before her and every kid after, her feet stretching as hard as they can towards the branches above. "Look at me!" as she lifts off the seat at the apex of her arc, laughing as she slams back down into the saddle on her journey backwards. "Look at me, Mom! Look!"
I don't recall playing favorites with playground equipment as a kid. I was never the monkey that my brother was - my mom loves to tell of looking out a bedroom window to discover him, at two and a half, perched on top of our backyard swingset - though I loved to be a pirate princess scampering up the ship's rope ladder, bravely facing the fiery danger of the precarious metal slide baking in the summer sun, and hiding in the secret nooks of the wooden castle away from the wicked stepmother or the evil witch. But I did love the swings. Our park's were self-contained within a metal dome, bars curving overhead, so that the best and bravest swingers, if their legs were long enough and their might strong enough, could just barely touch the center with a satisfying ping. The swings were where you could make real all the best childhood make-believe. The swings were where you could fly.
Middle schoolers, mouths filled with pubescent attempts at profanity, might drape themselves on the tops of tornado slides or dangle apathetically from monkey bars to prove their coolness, but swinging is never babyish. Parents, arms weary from hoisting toddlers up and down the fireman's pole and hair staticky from rubbing through the covered plastic tubes, breathe a sigh of relief when they can steal a moment or two on an open swing, chains creaking in complaint. Contrary to the overused adage, I learned that you can, in fact, forget how to ride a bike. But your legs and arms always remember that magic formula of pumping and pulling to climb ever higher and higher.
Back in my days of regular flights on the swings, I was pretty sure I was going to be a writer when I grew up. Either that or an Egyptologist. But probably both. Somewhere between fourth grade and the fiction writing course I was forced to take in college for my teaching certification, I realized I just didn't have what it took to write anything worth reading. "I'm just better at being critical of other people's stuff," I'd answer when anyone asked if I did any writing of my own. When my high school AP composition teacher told me how surprised she was to learn I was left-handed, I knew just what she meant. No one would mistake me for being a creative spirit. I'm a feet-on-the-ground kind of a girl.
My parents signed me up for a creative writing workshop one year where we wrote and published our own books from start to finish, complete with a book signing party at the end. The story I wrote a rudimentary mash-up of Betsy and Tacy and Meet Samantha, my major literary influences at the time. I remember someone - was it the workshop coordinator or some overzealous parent visiting my "Meet The Author!" table? - pointed out how ludicrous it was to have my derivative little main character, a proper Victorian, looking out her window at a sundial to get to school on time. I was mortified. That same hot-cheeked, tight-chested feeling came rushing back the day I had to share my short story in my college creative writing class. A deafening chorus of voices rang out, in unison, to declare how much my pitiful attempt at originality reminded them of a much-anthologized story I must have read but somehow forgot about. Since then, I've taught and graded countless creative writing assignments, sponsored a fiction writing club, and coached a handful of students (and one teacher) through a month-long challenge to write a draft of a novel. As for me? I have a few journal pages here and there, but I could never quite find that magic formula again.
That afternoon, I watched Lorelei, pumping her feet, pulling the chains, hair whooshing back, as I pushed Phoebe. She seemed so confident as she flew, higher and higher, toes pointed hard at the low-hanging branches. "Hi Mommy!" she called. One hand came off the chain, briefly, to wave at us. Then back on again, gripping hard. Phoebe and I waved from below. Up in the air I go flying again, I heard in my head. Up in the air and down.
The gang of slouching, surly teens had gathered slowly enough that it escaped my notice at first. Then they were everywhere: raucous, swaggering. I had moved Phoebe over to a swing nearer Lorelei, but their insistent glares made me feel 34 going on 9. "Let's go back to the baby swing and give someone else a chance," I said loudly. One of the girls, sass painted in broad strokes on her face, stood with a hand on her hip. "Are those both yours?" she said pointedly, gesturing at Lorelei. "Yes," I said, clutching Phoebe, my cheeks surprisingly hot. "They're mine."
Lorelei pumped harder and waved again. She looked as if she might really touch the tree this time. Ping. When did she get to be so brave? And when did I cease to be? I pushed Phoebe in silence, watching them as they watched her, keeping up with biggest of the boys who had muscled their way onto the open swings ahead of their friends. Two more minutes, I told myself. Two minutes, and I'll make her get off. Was it my job to police the playground? Would anyone else have made room for my girl, had she been standing there? Was I unnecessarily inflating this into some sort of park morality play when, really, it was nothing at all?
I glanced over at two moms, not watching from a bench, and turned again to Phoebe. I felt a warmth next to my hip. "Mom, I'm done now," Lorelei said, looking up with magic in her eyes. "That was fun. Did you see me flying?" She gave her sister's swing a happy little push.