In July, when the Barnes family left Lawrence, Kansas to visit us in London, I discovered three really great reasons to have children.
The Barneses are our friends through Colin, my husband. Colin and Bob Barnes worked and played golf together in Kansas City. Bob and his wife, Amy, know each other because they are married to each other. Their three kids (pictured here, in a very old building in Wales)— Meris, Alice, and Candace— were born 14, 11 and 9 years ago.
Not since I took a cross-country trip seven years ago with my brother, John, and his family (then just Patty and three small children… they have five now) in a minivan have I spent so much condensed time with children and their accoutrements. Furry stuffed animals, bags overflowing with brightly-coloured pieces of plastic, bits of paper – everywhere, special squishy pillows, beloved blankets. I remembered the noise from my own large family: the sheer clamour of voices upon voices, faucets gurgling, doors slamming, cartoons characters screeching, the forever-hum of the dishwasher, or the washer or shower running. Before the Barnes family arrived, I steeled myself for the idea of 10 days, lost forever into a black hole in my life, into the white noise of time.
Expectations never fail to fail, to explode in your face, to pull out stops and trapdoors, to let you feel that rush like the first drop over a huge hill of a roller coaster. If you are ever searching for a reason to be a parent, here are three. Maybe you don’t want to actually push them out of your own birth canal, or pay their way through college, but I think these are reason enough just to have them in your life, even for a few days.
Take Alice, for instance. This is Alice, pictured here. In the mornings, Alice is a bear. She hibernates in her bed, and would sooner bite your head off than be disturbed. Preferred time for eating her Coco Pops? Not before 10:49 a.m.
But take Alice down a perfectly twee, blacktopped road in Wales of an evening. Lure her away from the cottage with a promise that she might get a few steps closer to those horses in the nearby field, and she might make magic.
While Bob, her dad, stood across the road, pontificating into a field, Alice and I were distracted by the rush of a hidden creek at the bottom of the ravine on our side. Bob talked on, pulling my attention away for a split second. I think, while I looked away, that must have been when she did it. Cast her fairy dust, waved her wand, or mumbled her spell. But I turned my head back and looked again at the flash of water far below.
“Hey, there’s a donkey down there.” Mellow as you please. Alice’s voice is lovely and low, a little creamy. She reminds me of my Dad: he doesn’t talk very often. So when he does, people listen.
“There’s not a donkey down there,” I balked, chortling. “What?! It is just floating on a log raft on the creek?”
“No, no,” she said, a little more insistent, but still easy, like cool yogurt. “I think I saw its head.”
What a head.
“I’ll call him Jack,” Alice said, after I insisted she give him a name. A few minutes later, she started laughing. And laughing. Bob hung his head over the bridge and watched the stream rush by.
“What?” I asked, feeding Jack some more water grass.
“Oh, no!” she said, doubling over. “I can’t believe I decided to call him Jack!”
I shrugged. “Why? Jack is a good name. Colin and I even… Oh! OH!” I got it. Jack, the jack… donkey.
Alice’s laughter burbled like the water on the rocks below.
2. Kids compose opera on the bus, on the stairs, and in the backseat, while the windshield wipers are running.
This is Candace, here, in this picture. Most of the time that I spent with Candace, she was singing, which was OK with me. She also whined some as well (in England, they call that “whinging” a much better term, I think), but that was just part of her charm.
Candace has fantastic, eclectic style sense. Before the family’s day out to the Camden markets, Candace donned a sky blue denim skirt, a two-toned, Tropic Drink Paradise t-shirt with cut-off sleeves, blue rubber mules, an amber necklace, three of the rubber bracelet bands she and her sisters had been tugging on and off since their arrival. She smoothed her hair back in a short ponytail and carried her necessities in a small white vinyl shoulder bag scattered with sequined cherries. Understated and conservative for a day in Camden, for sure, Candace looked comfy and stylish, ready to take on a summer day. While she stayed with us, I only found one flaw in her wardrobe: a red hooded KU sweatshirt that she wore on cooler days. Signs of brainwashing by her father.
On the bus from the train station to the airport in Cardiff, Candace and Meris and Alice and I got singing. Don’t ask why, because there is never needs to be a good reason for singing, in my mind. I am always singing, and kids, I have found, will latch onto anything that isn’t the norm. We sat at the back of the bus, the girls and I, imagining a tragedy unfolding for a few others on board. That man was the hero. His love was leaving him. An image, of the bus driver leaning out of his enclosed room, turning his head, bursting into song, flew into the scene. Bob and Amy and Colin talked and glanced at us as we sang, everything to the tune of some classical tune I remembered from the album “Hooked on Classics.”
The opera planning continued, choreographed with spins and arias on the staircase in our Welsh cottage, driving from Castle Coch, lost in the Brecon Beacons, over breakfast at Penrhadw Farm. Over pale scrambled eggs, our server, a rail thin middle-aged blonde Welsh woman with a wayward front tooth, added to the chorus, singing “Che Sera Sera” one morning, and “It’s Raining Men” the next. Candace, a buzzsaw of energy, directed the show, pressed it to continue the weekend through. She was indomitable of spirit. She wanted us to write the lyrics down, to actually compose the opera.
So much for the attention span of children.
3. Kids walk on the edge of adulthood, and always leave room for us to play.
I didn’t have any photos of Meris where she was not smiling. Meris was never far from her little sister, Candace. Meris didn’t like it much when the four “adults” left her with her sisters in the cottage in Pontsticill while we went up the road to the pub. It doesn’t matter if it was because she did not want to be left behind, or because she was a little tired of the expectation that she would look out for her sisters, or because she was getting just old enough to want to be included in a night out, or because she was just young enough to be a little afraid to be left alone in the country, in a strange country, in charge. Meris did not mope or whine or complain. She didn’t buckle or slump in chair with her arms crossed. She stood up tall and asked how the phone worked and if there was a phone number where we would be.
Meris is strong and intelligent and easygoing and loving. She has so many of her parents best qualities. She is skidding at the edge of adulthood; when she grins, a mouthful of wires tell the truth of her age that her visage could otherwise belie. Still still cracks up over Sponge Bob.
Meris is 14, an age I remember as torture, pure discomfort, an emotional jack in the box. I remember being her age, still feeling like a child during those long, hot summers climbing trees, racing to cannonball into the pool. But I also remember feeling, seeing hair, smells, bodies, friends, morph before my eyes. Meris chewed her shrimp at the pub at lunch, sharing chips with her sister, arguing with her Dad. I then watched as drunk louts at the bar let their eyes fall over her. The earth trembled a little. She was artlessly oblivious, but time was not.
I met Meris and Alice and Candace once before, over fondue at the Barnes house in Lawrence. Lawrence is a lush, tented oasis in a barren, desert land of closed minds. It hides secret treasures and aches to keep back the shifting dunes of suburban sprawl encroaching from Olathe. Their house down the lane is hidden in cove of trees, off a rural route. They have sandy dog and a rowdy cat.
Amy and Bob live in a quiet setting, but their hearts and minds are not quiet. They are bent under the pressure of a gutted American consumer and political life that does not represent their view of peace and harmony. They, like so many desperate and loving parents I know, claw their fingernails everyday to correlate the lives they live, moment to moment, with the ideals they cherish. And everyday, they feel despair looking at the “role models” surrounding their daughters. False politicians, hypocritical religious leaders, trashy rock stars, idiotic newscasters.
Fortunately, kids are smarter than we think. They don’t always understand verb particles or common denominators or when to say no to marijuana. However, they do come with excellent instincts for joy, kindness, and love. They understand trust from the moment they are first held. And they look to their parents, first, for support, for direction, for boundaries, for inspiration. Meris, Alice and Candace are their own people, of course. I hope they get up every morning and look in the mirror and say: “Look at me! I am a success, and always will be.”
For now, I suspect, every morning (or, in Alice’s case, the afternoon), they look into that other mirror— the faces of Amy and Bob— for the validation and the answers they need, and for the challenges that will set them in new directions.
I did not get much work done while the girls were here. Our flat was trashed: there were origami cranes and dragons everywhere. But I’ll never again expect that time with kids will be time lost. I was glad to see Bob and Amy, but I sincerely relished the time I spent, individually, and as a group, with Meris, Alice and Candace.