Sunday, September 27, 2009

Do Children Understand Goodbye? (Babble)

Today we drove Ian to Madison.  We had to get up very early to drop him off on time.  Aden and Mona both decided to dress up for the occasion, Mona in her red velvet dress, and Aden in a long brown sundress that she got from her aunt.  Her aunt is from India and petite, and last time we were in New York she was cleaning out her closet and gave some of her clothes to Aden.  My daughter is tall for her age and fits into a lot of her aunt’s clothes just fine, but seeing my seven-year-old in such a grown-up looking dress stopped me in my tracks for a moment this morning.  She’s old enough that this is a goodbye she will remember.

Quinn and Mona I don’t think really understand what’s going on.  I tried to explain again to Quinn yesterday that we would be saying goodbye to daddy because he had work to do with the Army and it was going to be a long time before we saw him again,  Quinn just said, “Oh” the way he always does when you present him with information, and then he asked, “Why is daddy going away for the Army?”  Mona, without even looking up from what she was working on said, “Because of the war.”  I have no idea what that means in Mona’s mind, but at least she’s able to keep the basic facts straight.  I’m impressed that unilke a lot of adults she remembers a war is even happening.
The last deployment there were too many goodbyes.

We had six days (that included projectile vomiting just for added fun) to prepare for Ian to leave in April 2006.  Here’s what that goodbye at five in the morning looked like before we had to drive Ian to the airport:
But Ian had to do training in Texas before leaving for Iraq.  He was working with a local unit there, and everyone else had families living on the base. They liked having time off to be home when they could get it, and Ian missed us when everyone else knocked off early, so over holidays like Memorial Day weekend, and July 4th, he arranged to fly home.  I was pregnant and exhausted and as much as the idea of having him home whenever we could get him was great, the reality of it was a little awkward.

Was it supposed to be a break for him or a break for me?  It was hard to explain to the girls that he was back but would be leaving in a day or two.  After he was in Iraq for a few months he arranged to return in the fall for Quinn’s birth.  There was really no choice about when he should take his two weeks leave.  How do you not come home for the birth of your son if you can?  But later might have been nicer when I wasn’t in the hospital and recovering from a C-Section and we could have really seen each other.  Was he a guest while he was home, or was he home?  The reality of running a household without him meant clearing my space of all his things.  With a new baby coming I needed all the space I could get, so I emptied his dresser and boxed up his books, but I waited to do that until after his fourth goodbye once Quinn was born.

So we said goodbye in April, and May, and July, and November….  It was beyond draining.  It was confusing for the girls and gut wrenching for me, and it’s one of those things that is hard to admit to without sounding like a heartless freak.  I felt guilty for not wanting the disruption, because he was the soldier at war and no complications I experienced at home could ever compare.  From the outside I’m sure it looked as if we should welcome him with open arms anytime we could get him–and we did, but that doesn’t mean it was all fun.  Small children change very quickly, and the routines keep shifting.  Ian would be home just long enough to realize he’d missed a lot, but not long enough to find a way to integrate himself into the new rhythm.  And each goodbye got harder, especially for Aden.

This time I’m not even sure if Ian will get two weeks leave.  This goodbye had a different sort of certainty to it, although knowing Ian is a nintey minute drive away at the moment and we can’t see him is strange.

A week ago, some friends of ours offered to take some family pictures of us all together.  It was a lovely idea, and one I greatly appreciated, but it was another one of those things that’s hard to explain to someone else why it wouldn’t completely work.  It’s one more way of drawing attention to something we’re dreading, and the dread extended to the photo session, too.  I got depressed and agitated before our friends arrived and had to take a walk alone outside.  I wanted to take Aden with me, because I could see she felt the same way, but it wasn’t possible to go anywhere without Quinn and Mona coming along too.  We got through some basic pictures with all of us sitting on the front step of the violin store, but Aden kept slumping lower and lower.  She couldn’t make herself smile.  Mona was a ham and Quinn was cute, but Aden looked like she wanted to disappear.  She tried to angle herself behind me.  Her eyes are an intense blue when she cries. The more my friends tried to get her to smile the more despondent she became, so I told them to let her be and I was just grateful she agreed to sit with us at all.

The last time Ian got deployed a neighbor took a few pictures of us at my request, and Aden was completely uncooperative and sad.  The July goodbye looked like this:
I’m amazed when I look at old photos how much the children have always been themselves.  Mona is very much Mona here, and Aden is definitely Aden.  The new round of photos will be similar, but with Quinn outside of my belly, and Aden looking even sadder.

There is also this picture from that same time that I include only because Mona looks like a lamp standing on that pedestal.  She used to climb everything and it was impossible to stop her, so we just let her get good at it and stopped paying attention.  Most people look at this picture and don’t notice her up there, but I laugh every time I see it.
After our friends had done all they could with trying to capture a decent picture of us at our violin store, Ian took Mona and Quinn home.  Aden clung to me and begged to stay while I got a little more work done.  When we were alone I sat with her and she broke down.  She fell into a heap in my arms and wept and finally said, “I don’t even know why I’m crying.”  I told her I understood and that she should cry as much as she needed to and I’d hold her the whole time.  My poor Aden.  When she calmed down I told her stories that I knew would make her laugh.  She perked up a bit and went back to her drawing.  We both worked on our own projects for awhile and she was in better spirits by the time we went home.

We’re not done with goodbyes yet.  We’re going back to Madison to spend the night in Ian’s hotel so we can go with him to the airport in the morning.  He told me someone is trying to arrange a special send off for the soldiers’ families so we can say goodbye at the gate.  It’s a goodbye with a lot of logisitics–packing an overnight bag for four, cancelling violin lessons, pulling the girls out of school, a bunch of driving….   I hesitated briefly when Ian asked if we wanted to do it, but Aden looked at me imploringly and said, “I want to see daddy.”  So of course we will.

You’d think we’d be better at ‘goodbye’ with all the practice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Cottage (Babble)

I decided we needed to get away.  Mid-September is an odd time to travel and I’m not normally one to pull the kids out of school for couple of days, but sometimes building memories is more important than consistency.  The days left with Ian at home are numbered.  If we used them all up locked in our normal routine we would forget them.  Our normal life is wonderful, but the days blur together.  For the kids in particular to remember anything from this time we needed to go.

Luckily, we had the perfect place available.  My grandparents built a cottage in Michigan back when I was in 5th grade.  It’s been a Mecca for our family ever since, with different uncles and cousins and friends developing their own traditions there, and on rare and special occasions we’ve overlapped our visits.  We had a family reunion at the cottage for my grandmother’s 80th birthday over a decade ago.  We had our Y2K New Year’s Eve bash there.  It’s where Ian and I spent our honeymoon.

(Aden at the cottage, ready to hit the woods last spring with binoculars and tutu.)
The nicest thing about the cottage is that it feels like home without being home.  It’s comfortable and full of possibilities, but there is nothing pressing beyond figuring out what to have for lunch or dinner.  When I’m in my own house there is always something to organize or clean or finish.  At the cottage you can gather what you need to go out in the canoe, or not, and either option is fine.  There is not much to get stressed about.  At home when the kids don’t put their shoes away it becomes an issue, but at the cottage it doesn’t matter.  You can read a book all day and it’s fine.  There’s more space to just breathe and enjoy being together without the distractions of having a purpose.  Being together is purpose enough at the cottage.  There is a shelf filled with boardgames from the 70’s and 80’s, and playing cards or Monopoly is raised to a whole new level when there is technically nothing else to do.
The house has one of the best designs I’ve ever seen.  It’s not really very big, but it contains everything you need very cleverly, and it feels spacious.  There is a big main room with a ceiling that slants up both stories, and it’s the room where everything happens.  It has the dining area on one end with a fireplace in the middle and a couch and TV at the other end.  There is a kitchen that isn’t closed off from anything, a bathroom, a bedroom. and a utility closet.  Up the spiral staircase is another bathroom and two small bedrooms.  If you’re not in your bedroom, you’re out with the family, and there is enough space in the big room that more than one activity can be going on without getting in each other’s way.  You can cram a ton of people in that cottage if you bring sleeping bags.  For several years we’ve met my friend Alit and her family up there each summer, and the ten of us fit quite happily. 
For this trip we splurged and took the ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon.  Driving around the lake and dealing with Chicago traffic is frustrating, so for a last little family trip avoiding that problem seemed worth the expense.  The ferry is literally only a couple of miles from our house on the Milwaukee side, and the cottage is just over an hour’s drive away from the lake on the other.  It was a wonderful vacation.  We lounged around, took walks and spotted deer, played in the water, made s'mores on the grill….  We even invited some friends and their kids up from Grand Rapids and had great evening playing Trivial Pursuit while the kids played games of their own.  An excellent trip all around.

I don’t recall any trips to the cottage that weren’t fun, unless you count the time my brother Arno had to have his appendix out.  My other brother and I still managed to have a good time playing outside all day while mom and grandpa took turns sleeping after alternate trips to the hospital.  So maybe Arno and mom can’t claim an unbroken streak of fun at the cottage, but for the rest of the family it’s been a consistently special place.

The sad thing is this particular trip may have been our last.  I hope not, but there has been talk since last year of the cottage being sold to help pay for grandma’s care in the nursing home.  I know it would make grandma sad to have the cottage leave our family, but there is something poetic about one last investment of grandpa’s helping her out yet again.  I understand it, but it pains me to let one more thing go.  It was hard losing my grandpa back when I was in high school.  It’s hard to slowly be losing my grandma.  I still can’t believe my grandpa never got to meet my husband or my kids.  He would have loved them. 

But by sharing the cottage with my kids and seeing them retrace some of my own steps up the staircase or into the woods it’s like having their lives overlap somehow with other people and times I’ve loved.  I look around the cottage and I get to have my grandparents back a little.  They did all the staining of all the woodwork themselves.  My grandpa built the bookcase that holds the record player Aden was so delighted with this weekend.  I got to feed my kids breakfast on my grandma’s dishes.  My grandma used to spend every June up at the cottage, and her things are still there.  Everyone who visits the cottage now is still just borrowing it, so even though she will likely never go there again, it’s still set up as her second house.  Her nightgown is hanging in the closet.  Her picture of grandpa still smiles at us from atop the dresser.

I’m bad at giving up things I care about.  When I was in Ohio in August I drove by my grandma’s old house when I was out by myself because I wanted to see it again.  I shouldn’t have done that, because it hurt not to be able to go inside.  It hurt just knowing that the inside wasn’t the same anymore.  I can’t imagine how painful it will likely be one day to look at my parents’ house that way.  The remarkable thing about the cottage is that it’s like having a spare childhood home.  I don’t want to let it go, but I’m one generation removed from having any meaningful say in the matter.

There is an almost ritual-like way of closing up the cottage when we go.  It starts with stripping the beds the minute everyone is up on the last day, and getting the sheets in the wash first thing.  As the laundry proceeds to the load of towels, I make the beds upstairs, folding hospital corners the way my grandma likes.  I close windows and draw curtains, and shut the door to each room as I finish it.  By the time we get to cleaning up the first floor it’s time to kick all the kids out of the house so I can vacuum.

The last thing I did this time was scrub the dining table.  I noticed as I was wrapping up the vacuum cleaner cord that there were a few syrup spots left that I’d missed the first time.  I leaned down low so the light would be right for seeing the dark spots on the dark pine table top, and I realized there were writing imprints all over the table.  Decades of Scrabble scores and Boggle words, childish scrawls and daunting looking math equations….  At the corner nearest the kitchen was one clear sentence that read, “I miss you Arno!”  I wondered if it was left over from a card maybe Barrett or I made that spring vacation when he had appendicitis, or if someone else was visiting the cottage on a different occasion and just wished Arno were there to share it.

It struck me at that moment that I missed Arno too.  I miss lots of things.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When do I start worrying about swine flu? (Babble)

A friend and I were talking recently and in the middle of her rundown of things on her plate she added, “And I still haven’t decided whether to worry about swine flu or not.”  Then she laughed because choosing to worry about it wouldn’t really change anything.  Or would it?

Growing up we used to have some very interesting conversations at our dinner table.  Sometimes we would debate some current issue (my brother Arno often slipping into the role of devil’s advocate if he thought one side wasn’t getting enough support) and other times my dad would educate us on a topic he thought we might not know enough (or anything) about.  I just got used to this, and didn’t give it much thought, until one weekend I brought a friend home from college and between dinner and dessert my dad announced it was time we all learned about the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.  My friend was utterly stunned by this, and I finally stepped back and realized that probably not all families had this as part of their routine.  Regardless, my dad’s descriptions of the Spanish Flu and how it affected the world was haunting.  My friend certainly never forgot it, and neither did I.  And I’ve worried about another serious flu outbreak ever since.

Now as a mother of young children, I feel it’s in my job description to worry about such things.  I’m responsible for the health of my kids and deciding what to do when they get sick.  It’s no longer just inconvenient to me if I catch something, it affects everyone under my roof, and as with most households with kids there is a chain reaction when illness strikes.  We all get whatever it is, no matter how hard we try to keep that from happening.  Each time another bout of scary flu stories makes the rounds on the news I start running through emergency scenarios in my head.  Do I have enough food in the cupboards to last us more than a week or two?  How many of my kids’ friends have to start getting sick before I pull my kids out of school and hole us up at home?  What about violin lessons and choir?  How am I supposed to handle things alone if I get sick while Ian’s away?  Can you really do anything for flu other than rest and drink fluids, and if it really is a dangerous strain is there something the doctor should be doing?  How will I know?

The thing about something like the flu is that deciding whether or not to worry about it changes your behavior, and spreading flu is all about people’s behavior, so maybe deciding to worry or not does have an impact.  My kids are not reliable handwashers, and one is a thumb sucker and another a nail biter, so I really worry about them picking things up.  But I don’t want to overreact and look like a crazy person.  My kids love school and I’d hate to have them miss any for no reason, but what if keeping them home keeps us healthy?  And alive?  I picture myself doing some basic home schooling if things started looking dicey, and ordering our groceries from a delivery service.  (Sick people still have to eat, and I worry about grocery stores being the kind of place where flu could easity spread.  Does that sound like rational thinking or does that sound nuts?)

These are the times I remind myself that my kids are at greater risk on the drive to school than from almost anything else, and that I will just have to rely on my judgment as things unfold.  I’m sure it will all be fine.   But I’m sure there were moms who thought that in 1918, too, before whole communities were incapacitated and mass graves had to be dug in some places to deal with all the bodies.  There are some estimates that nearly one third of the world’s population was infected during the course of the 1918 pandemic.   And just becuse it’s hard to imagine, doesn’t make it unimaginable or even unlikely in my lifetime, so it gives me pause.

What do you think?  I don’t hear much about individual households and how they plan to deal with a possible flu epidemic.  I hear about large scale plans at places like universities, but not what other parents are thinking.  Is anyone else worried?  Worried enough that it could affect how you live and what you do?  I’d like to know.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Cute Face (Babble)

I take a lot of pictures of my kids.  Babies grow so fast and kids change so quickly that it’s easy to forget nearly everything.  By grabbing moments here and there with my camera I feel like I get to hang onto certain stages a little longer, and keep them fresher in my mind later when they are long past.

I’m particularly careful to get lots of pictures of all three of my kids because I have heard way too many stories from people who either never took pictures of their youngest child, or who were that youngest child and have no pictures of themselves growing up.  It’s completely understandable and I cast no judgment on any parent for whom keeping photographic records of their kids is not a priority, but for me it is.  I don’t have the dedication for full out scrap-booking, but I do keep clearly labeled albums for each child so any of them can see what they looked like at any particular age.  We have a lot of fun once in awhile pulling out albums and seeing just how much Aden and Quinn looked alike as babies, or how funny Mona was at two.

I’ve gotten a lot of practice with these particular subjects, so I’m pretty good at catching them at a good moment.  Having a digital camera helps because you can take so many photos it’s hard not to find a nice one.  But lately I’m fighting the battle of The Cute Face (emphasis on the word ‘Cute’).  It’s a Mona thing.

This is the official Cute Face:
We’ve been living with The Cute Face for a couple of months now.  It appears every time I pull out my camera or the video recorder.  I’m not sure what sort of insipid Japanese cartoon figure it could be based on, but it has invaded all our recent family photos.
We’ve all had to accept it as a new fact of life.  Aden, as she was watching me look through pictures for this post, kept saying, “There’s Mona’s Cute Face. Oh, and there’s The Cute Face again….” Quinn tries to tell my customers at the violin store about The Cute Face, but even though he speaks clearly they can’t imagine what he’s talking about and they dismiss it as typical toddler ramblings.  Mona herself dubbed it The Cute Face.  She asked if I wanted to see it one afternoon and it has remained with us ever since.  She practices lots of faces in the mirror and can simulate everything from ‘confusion’ to ‘surprise’ to ‘anger’ on command if she’s in the mood to pose for you.  Lately she’s a one trick Cute Face pony. 
Back at the beginning of summer the bigger issue with photographing Mona was the forced smile.  That’s a common one among children who are photographed so regularly they know the routine and decide simply baring some teeth and pointing them at the camera will finish the chore so they can get back to what they were doing.  The forced smile has a weird appeal for me, though.  There’s an earnestness in it that doesn’t bother me.  And Mona’s forced smile makes me laugh.
But check out Mona when she doesn’t know the camera is on:

Or when she’s being intense:
Those are the kinds of shots that make me glad I keep fresh batteries in my camera.
About a year after Mona was born, I got a form letter from an ad agency down in Chicago.  It explained that since baby models grew so quickly they are always looking for new ones, and would we like to bring our precious bundle of joy down to the windy city to be evaluated for modeling potential?  Strangers were always commenting on how cute my kids were, and the idea of getting some money in their college funds while simply getting professional photos of them seemed appealing.  Ian agreed it was a harmless day trip, so we made an appointment and took the girls down there.

It was interesting.  I still haven’t decided if it was legitimate, or some elaborate scam taking advantage of vulnerable new parents, but it’s always fascinating to have someone else take a critical look at your own kids.  Of course each of us thinks our children are amazing and beautiful.  We SHOULD think that.  And honestly, I believe it’s true.  (But that’s for another post.  Back to the Cute Face….)

The man at the agency was at first rather disappointed.  He glanced at my girls and asked if I wanted the truth.  Apparently the truth was that Aden’s hair was unacceptable.  Too thin.  Too limp.  But then he decided to continue to run her through the whole evaluation process because we had so much appointment time left, and he became very animated about Aden.  He took her aside for an interview, and for being only three she was remarkably articulate.  Aden was good with language very early and has no trouble expressing herself.  The interviewer couldn’t get over how specific she was with her answers and how pretty her face was when she talked.  Between her dimples and her blue eyes she was looking less unacceptable despite her thin, limp honey blonde locks.   He thought there just might be some use for her in commercials.

But Mona?  The verdict on her one-year-old sweet self was:  Too big.  Too bald.

Ian and I took the girls out for lunch at a nearby restaurant after that.  We had cake from a revolving dessert display that Aden was thrilled about.  It was a memorable morning, and one that made me appreciate how well I see my children.  I know people think parents are too biased to see their own children objectively and that somehow diminishes their assesment of them.  I disagree.  I think by studying your children often and closely you can see them better than anyone else.  I’ve watched the evolution of those smiles from toothless to toothy to working on toothless again.  I see their brief but endearing histories in their movements and their moods.  I do think I see my children clearly.  And they are more beautiful than anyone realizes.

So when other people tell me on the playground that Mona is beautiful, I agree, and I smile to myself and think,”Too bad she’s so big and bald.”

I’m sure The Cute Face will be retired soon in favor of some new Mona phase.  I’m looking forward to fondly missing it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Countdowns Are Nervewracking (Babble)

My two-year-old likes to take walks around the block with me in the evenings.  Sometimes, like last night, we’ll do a “night walk” if he can’t sleep.  He’s so dear it sometimes makes my heart ache.  He hangs tightly to one of my fingers and asks questions like, “Where did all the fireflies go?” and “Why did the sun go down?”  He declared the other night that the planet sitting near the full moon shouldn’t be called Jupiter, and told me he wants to call it “Abracadabra.”

Some questions I can answer, some of them I say we’ll ask his dad later, and all the insect related questions I promise to save up for a call to Uncle Barrett the entomologist.  I told him I thought Abracadabra was a wonderful name for a planet.  I also reminded him it’s fine to rename things as long as he remembers that it can be confusing to other people.  As an answer to almost anything I say he gives my finger a squeeze and says, “Okay.”  Quinn is the nicest little boy I’ve ever met.  Seldom fussy, always curious, easier to reason with than many adults I know.  Our night walks will be one of the many tiny sacrifices we will make when Ian leaves soon because I can’t leave the girls alone in their beds to walk around the block with Quinn.

Now that we are only a couple of weeks away from Ian’s deployment, the reality of it is starting to sink in.  Each time I do an activity that in some way requires two adults, I start evaluating if there will be another way to do it or if it goes on the list I keep in my head of things we’ll have to give up for awhile.  We’ve had so many months to prepare this time that the fact of his leaving has been harder to grasp.  It’s been a handy abstract that we’ve used to get projects done.  (We have to build a better playset for the kids before you go, we have to get a DVD player that works before you go, we have to disassemble the old crib and move this furniture that I can’t lift alone and replace that hinge on the dryer door before you go….)

I keep asking Ian what HE wants to do.  Surely there are things he’d like to enjoy before spending a year in Iraq in a life impossibly far from this one.  I keep asking him what would make him happy.  But this life we’ve made together is what makes him happy.  He likes getting projects done that he knows will make my life a bit easier in his absence.  He likes making the kids pancakes in the morning and driving them to school and helping Aden with her homework and answering Quinn’s endless questions.  He likes just being with us.

I like just being with him, too.  I remember the very first significant stretch of time we spent together in college.  We had a long weekend off from classes and hung out from Thursday through Sunday, and when he had to leave me in my dorm room to head back to his own across campus he just kept lingering in the doorway.  He finally laughed and said, “I’ve been with you for days and I still don’t want to go!”  He was the first person in my life I didn’t need any break from, so I knew what he meant.  It was confusing because the feeling was exciting yet comfortable, and from a rational point of view a bit alarming.  Needing another person is scary, and we had our first glimpse of what that was like for us that weekend.

We’re still happiest if we’re just hanging out.  One of my favorite things is when the girls are sleeping in the next room and Quinn is lounging next to me in my bed looking at a book while Ian and I lie next to each other working on our laptops.  We each do our own thing and once in awhile read each other something amusing or interesting.  Eventually, either Quinn passes out or we tell him it’s late and walk him to his own bed.   Being with the people I love makes me happy and I try very hard not to take it for granted, but counting down the days to when Ian leaves imposes an urgency on our time together.  Just having him nearby doesn’t seem like enough somehow, even if it’s what we enjoy.  It’s hard to relax.  My nails are bitten down to the point where my fingertips hurt.

I can’t imagine being away from my kids for a year.  I don’t know how Ian can do that.  I see him looking at our kids as they go about their busy lives and know he’s wondering the same thing.

But at this point it doesn’t matter if I don’t want him to go, or even if he doesn’t want to go.  It’s the Army’s decision, not ours.  The countdown continues.  The kids seem blissfully unaware of the approaching date because we haven’t discussed it much.  They know he’s leaving soon, but the idea of a week or two weeks is still hard for them to grasp.  I think Aden probably could if I showed it to her on a calendar, but I don’t want to.  I want her to enjoy this last bit of time this year with her dad.  She’s enough like me that I’m pretty sure she would stress herself out rather than let the days unfold naturally.  She can resent me later if she feels the date came upon her too abruptly, but I think it will work out better if I give her a heads up just a day or two before.  I’m sure Ian wants to take memories of Aden to Iraq that are honest, even if that means she’s being whiney or grumpy once in awhile.  The best thing any of us can do is to keep being ourselves.  Regardless of the countdown.

If only my fingertips didn’t hurt as I type.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pachinko Anyone? (Babble)

I feel fortunate that there are several objects from my childhood that I have been able to pass along to my kids.  There’s something wonderful about being able to read Goodnight Moon to them from the copy I held as a child.  They have many of my old books, some old toys, a bit of jewelry….  But my favorite plaything from back in the day is the pachinko machine.

I don’t know how many people are familiar with what that is, but it’s sort of a Japanese pinball game.  Ours is a model from the early 1970’s and it looks like this:
I love the thing.  I’m particularly attracted to the sounds it makes.  There is a very satisfying ‘plinkita plink plinky plink’ as the metal ball bounces down along all the pins.  There’s also a nice ‘shwoosh’ as you launch the balls.  When you get a ball into any of the flowers or the jackpot wheel in the center you win more balls, and they run over a bell on the way into your tray.

The other cool thing about the pachinko machine is it’s completely mechanical.  It doesn’t plug into anything so you can stick it anywhere, and there is something fun about watching kids gather around it instead of a video game.  Pachinko is so low tech compared to most of what my kids’ friends have available.  It’s simple and vaguely hypnotic, and it has anachronistic touches like an ashtray built into it.

My mom got it as a gift from her brother John when we were little, and my brothers and I spent a lot of time playing it, jamming it, opening it up, and jerry-rigging it to go again.  When Ian and I bought our house almost ten years ago I asked mom if I could have it since it was just gathering dust in the basement.  My mom’s always looking to clear space in the basement and was fine with my taking it off her hands.  I played it a little, jammed it, fixed it….

Then I had Aden and put it up high where little hands wouldn’t find little balls to put in her little mouth.  When Aden and Mona were each old enough we’d let them stand on a chair to play it, and eventually we brought it down to the floor so they could share it with their friends.  By the time we had Quinn the girls had jammed it and whacked it too hard for me to fix anymore.  I didn’t have the time or parts to effectively deal with it.  It sat collecting photos and post-it notes on the front of it like a small, broken refrigerator.

But the internet is a magical thing.  I can’t imagine trying to live without it anymore.  It saved me on more than one occasion during Ian’s last deployment because it was so hard to get out while pregnant and carting around little kids.  To be able to open my laptop and have the world there was amazing.  If in the middle of the night Aden wanted to know what a turkey vulture sounded like (they have no vocal chords–not pretty) we could Google it and instantly find out.  If I wanted a particular book I could order it.  Netflix kept me supplied with movies to watch during late nights up with the newborn.  I found a contractor to do work on the basement online, and a doula on Craigslist, and I could have gifts sent to friends that I couldn’t get out and see.  Obscure music and peculiar toys and even our treadmill I ordered online.  With a little practice you can find almost anything.  Including pachinko repair people.

There is a nice couple down in Texas who have a sideline of repairing vintage pachinko machines like mine.  I shipped it to them, they fixed it, restocked the supply of balls, and now it works beautifully.  They even repaired the wiring so with a nine volt battery installed it lights up when you get a jackpot.  I’d never seen it with the lights working before, so now it seems new even to me.  When I was a kid it would have been impossible to track down a pachinko repair person, especially if you had to look as far away as Texas.  I love that with a few taps on my keyboard I could know in a matter of minutes whom to ask.

So now I sit with my kids on the dining room floor and we shwoosh and plinkita plink plinky plink and Quinn says things like, “So close!” and “I got it in that flower, mom!” and Aden reminds them all to take turns and Mona still manages to jam it up occasionally, but it’s an easier fix now that everything has all its proper parts.  In those moments at the pachinko machine with Aden, Mona, and Quinn, I don’t just get to experience things through my kids’ eyes, I get to have kid’s eyes of my own again.  It was worth the cost of shipping to Texas.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Last Trip to Incrediroll (Babble)

My girls were both sad about school letting out back in June, so to help make the summer laid out before us more enticing, I told the kids they could each pick a day of the week, and on that day each of them would get to choose what we did as a family.

Quinn got Sunday, and dutifully asked every morning what day it was.  He was thrilled when the answer was Sunday and would say proudly “It’s MY day!” but I don’t think he ever picked something to do.

Aden, who has raised indecisiveness to an art form worthy of its own awards show, never did select a day.  If you ask her, you will get a long explanation about how it was Saturday, but the first one fell on the Fourth of July, so then it had to be Thursday, but mom works on Thursdays, so it’s Tuesdays or Fridays when it’s not Saturdays.  She never really picked out things to do either.

But Mona, as usual, was a whole other story.  Mona’s day was Wednesday.  Wednesday is family night at Incrediroll.  Every Wednesday this summer that we were in town, we went to Incrediroll.

I’m still sort of amazed by the mere existence of Incrediroll.  It’s a roller rink where you can rent skates and play video games and skee ball and buy junk food and it’s straight out of my own childhood.  I honestly didn’t know people still used regular roller skates anymore, rather than the inline variety that I never felt comfortable in.  I had my thirteenth birthday party at a roller rink and spent most of my summer evenings between sixth and ninth grades skating in front of my house with my friend Jen from around the corner.  Maybe it’s just because I don’t run in circles anymore where roller skating comes up, but I thought skating as I experienced it had faded away.  Not true!  People are still happy to go around the same oval space again and again under a mirror ball while music plays.  It was even more reminiscent of my own childhood after Michael Jackson died this summer and they revived all his old hits at the rink.

I don’t know where Mona even got the idea to start roller skating, but she latched on and never let go.  Even when it became clear that she was not improving week after week as she wobbled around the rink, and that the skating itself was not a lot of fun for her, Incrediroll was set in stone as our Wednesday night routine.  She got to pick, and she always picked Incrediroll.  During our third or fourth visit I remember sitting with her and Quinn at a table, eating our cheap and awful pizza, and Mona gazed around appreciatively at all the blinking lights and gaudy colors and said dreamily, “Incrediroll is my favorite place in the whole world.”  For a split second it was mine, too.  There are few things better than to feel truly connected to your family, and everyone agreeing to head out to Incrediroll together every Wednesday was nicer than I ever could have predicted.

Quinn gave up skates the second week.  He never made it into the actual rink, but at first he liked the idea of having wheels on his feet like his sisters until he decided it wasn’t making skee ball any easier.  He’s still at that marvelous and inexpensive age where you don’t have to put quarters in the video games for him to think they’re entertaining.  He sat his tiny self in the seat of a driving game every Wednesday, turning the steering wheel like he was controlling something, happily sipping water and telling us, “Soda tastes terrible.”  On our last visit of summer he hung out with me by a window at the end of the rink and waved to Aden, Mona and Ian as they rolled by.

For Aden this turned out to be the summer of mastering wheels.  She got really comfortable on her scooter, she learned to ride a bike without training wheels, and by the last trip to Incrediroll she was starting to get the hang of those skates.  She’s worried she’ll forget by next summer, but I reminded her about the bike.  She was nervous about getting back on her bike after being on vacation for a couple of weeks, telling me she was sure she’d forgotten what to do.  I explained to her that there was an actual expression that goes, “It’s like riding a bike,” meaning once you get it, you get it forever.  She smiled at that, then hopped on her two wheeler with no problem.  I told her as we left the skating rink that if I could still manage to remember enough to roll alongside her after more than twenty years out of skates, she would be fine next summer.  She smiled at that, too.

We’ll see if I can actually manage it next summer.  It’s one of those activities that seems too hard without Ian.  Aden’s old enough to go around the rink alone, but Mona needs help and I can’t leave Quinn.  Many things are getting easier as the kids get older (and I’m so happy to be done with diapers I can hardly describe the joy) but some stuff remains stubbornly out of reach.  There are moments you just need an extra adult around, and managing three small kids at Incrediroll is one of them.

But I’ll roll across that bridge when I come to it.  In the meantime, the leaves are changing here, school is starting, and we have a whole new set of adventures ahead.  Of course, now that we’ve had a taste of it, we may need a mirror ball in the kitchen.