In the hubbub of working for a living and cleaning the house so we can stand living in it, we need to set aside time for PLAY. Children were created for play. They know exactly how to release all of the stress (what stress?) from their little beings, pounding their little chests with their little fists, kicking up their little heels, braying and hallooing with their little Tarzan-brand vocal cords. And that's just the girls. Parents, encumbered with the numerous burdens of adulthood, can hardly remember what having fun is all about. It's hard for them to cut loose in utter informality. Imagine the difference in Dickensonian England if they'd had the Hokey Pokey instead of corporal punishment.
A case in point was the night we finally got curtains on our front windows, months after moving into this house (my delay factor.) Two of our friends actually came over with blinds and a drill and put them up for us or we still wouldn't have them! (I'm terrible at domestic details.) (Give me a rake and I'll show you a clean carpet!) Anyway, on that glorious day, Peter came home and said, "Children, do you know why we have curtains?" "Why Daddy?" "So we can do this!" he said merrily, and danced on the coffee table like Farmer Hoggett from "Babe." The children totally cracked up.
Adult burdens are incomprehensible to children. Many times my husband and I are hard at work for a client and my son Ranin comes into the office and wants us to come and turn somersaults on the carpet with him.
"Why not Mommy, come on!"
"I can't, we're trying to make money."
"Why do we need money?"
"So the IRS can take it away from us."
But often at a moment like that we'll decide to stop and play. We chase the kids wildly around the house until we catch them and fling them on the bed, and tickle them unmercifully. (Invasion of the Body Squeezers! Run for your lives!!!)
Sometimes we try excursions off the beaten path. One night we turned off all of the lights during dinner and lit candles. The kids immediately started to play "Shadow Theater", making finger ducks on the wall. Then they ran and got plastic dinosaurs which made very impressive and threatening shadows. Dinner evolved into bathtime. What the heck, let's keep the candles on and the lights off. I happened to flip on the radio as they were getting out of the tub. The ominous sounding "Capulets and Montagues," from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" just happened to be on, which lent itself well to shrieking and maniacal laughter.
One night we were singing a little ditty in the kitchen while washing dishes. Tadin, who is two, started to do a funny little dance with shoulder wiggles and legs kicking out in all directions. That was a cue and everyone started dancing like King Louie and Ballou from Disney's "Jungle Book." None of us knew the real jitterbug, but we faked it howling, "I wanna be like you, Scoobie Doo Doo..." The jitterbug became the tango which ended abruptly when the kids slipped in spilled water and whacked their heads on the floor. Bedtime!
Inspired by the trips I took with my parents, I spoke to Peter about taking little trips with our family too. We wanted to experience traditional family fun. Disneyland. Six Flags. Even the fifty cent merry go round at K-Mart. Living in Virginia there are a lot of places to go on day trips. We went to the beach, to old plantations along the James River, and to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
One trip to the mountains was particularly memorable. As we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway, we saw a cluster of picnic tables under a canopy of trees, with a little sign that read something like: "Humpback Rock--Scenic Overlook--20 Minute Hike--This Way". We stopped the car thinking, oh a twenty minute hike. We can do that. Our littlest boy was one and half at the time and had to be carried. We began walking up the slight incline, dum de dum, hmm, this isn't so bad, laughing, (sweat sweat) marching, marching, (feel those thigh muscles pulling), steeper steeper, hmmm, hasn't it been twenty minutes yet?
People passing us on their way down looked at us and said, "You're brave." We shrugged, thinking, gee, it's just a twenty minute walk, isn't it? We took Indian names to make the climb more authentic. Peter was Sitting Bull and I was Princess Tiger Lily. The boys were Squanto, Geronimo and Crazy Horse, and Gracie was Pocahontas -- of course.
The sign should have said that it was a twenty minute hike for graduates of Mt. Everest expeditions. The path steepened into vertical steps that some diligent and thoughtful park work crew pounded into the rock face for the climbing-impaired. Our thigh muscles strained and our knees trembled. Our tongues panted and our eyes rolled back. Our pulses quickened, our chests pounded. (Gee, are our bodies trying to tell us something?) Steeper and steeper, along a zig-zag muddy path, we passed the baby back and forth--you take him--ok--can you take him now?--OK--can you take him back?--OK. This seemed to go on for an hour and a half until we emerged onto a huge granite rock. Before us was a stunning view, going for miles in all directions. There was also a sheer drop-off which seized me in the solar plexus as I imagined my children running off the edge like Wyle E. Coyote -- standing on the air one moment, and plunging to the rocks below, the next.
Peter and I crawled on all fours to the center of the boulder. We made the children sit down and hang on with everything but their teeth. Then we looked at the world God made. Hawks circled around us. A hush fell upon us as we took in the grandeur. The hush lasted a split second as the children began cawing at the hawk.
The hike down was faster than the hike up. Our kneecaps felt like they were going to pop like champagne corks. At the bottom we recovered with salami sandwiches and soda from our cooler, on a picnic table under the trees.
I got out of the habit of reading bedtime stories during the last couple of years. I was really faithful about it with the older two when they were little, then somehow I became lazy. (Shame shame!) Reading Barbara Bush's biography recently reinspired me about the importance and fun of reading to children. Now we're doing it at least a couple of times a week. We're learning a song before bed too. I taught my children, "Home on the Range" recently. Teaching a song gives you a chance to hear it as if for the first time. That particular one is actually very sentimental. It conjures up images of some lone cowpoke away yonder on the range, alone with his beans and his dawgies. If we sing it sincerely we almost cry. The kids throw their heads back and Peter howls like a coyote in the background.
Experiences like these make terrific memories. So many things can help strengthen our relationship of love with our children. I don't think it matters if we go to Disneyland or if we jump up and down on the bed with them. I think what truly solidifies the family is when we share our real selves with each other. No secrets, no pretense. Even the mundane can be fun if there's laughter and warmth.
The difficulties we all face at one time or another can be more easily weathered when our memories have a little tenderness or a little comic relief. One way I hope to accomplish this, in the far distant future, when my bereaved family drives my body to the cemetery after I die, will be to leave instructions for the undertaker to play a recording of my voice asking, "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"
Kim lives in Maine, which is lovely, and where she continues her enthusiastic relationship with Art, Music, Nature, Books, Animals, Humor and Trees.