The forsythia blooms. The storm windows are replaced, one by one, with screens to let in the air. The sun warms my face, and the house fills with the shouts of the neighborhood children. I was once informed that the best kind of parent owns the house where the children congregate. This settled in nicely with my sometimes over-parenting, where I hover like a helicopter over them as they play, butt in when I should let them work things out for themselves, and watch.
I look out for them right here. I am in this awkward situation where they want to play at neighbors’ houses, which means I have to either let them go, go with them, or make sure they play here. I opt for number three because I am too shy to invite myself over to someone else’s house, children in tow, and I just cannot let them go, out of earshot, out of sight. They can stay with family or friends, but neighbors here aren’t like they were when I was little. The street was safer, the neighbors all in one another’s houses, playing cards, borrowing sugar, relaying gossip about the others.
Here we are separate. We wave a cordial hello, see each other at block parties and occasional barbecues, but live out our own existences. The warm air brings people out of their houses and we wave again as the hum of the lawn mowers welcome in the spring, but beyond pleasantries, I don’t know who I live among.
Across the street, where two small children live, police cars pull up from time to time. Three or four of them. We watch from the window and speculate. The dad has been taken away in handcuffs. He’s the friendliest one here, ready with a wrench or a beer, affixing American flags to all of our telephone poles after the towers came down and we invaded Iraq. A show of solidarity with the country on our little lane, but among us, still strangers. There’s gossip, of course. I’ve heard rumors of domestic violence, bipolar disorder, drugs.
No, I’ll keep the kids here. Wii game? Check. Bouncy house? Check. Yard with swings and hiding places and gardens and dirt? Check check check.
I keep a watchful eye and an open ear to the playful shouts of laughter and challenges. Who can run fastest? Climb highest? Get the highest score? I’m on point, waiting for the more sinister turns of conversation, talk of best friends and that there is only room for one, boys who do not like girls, girls who really like boys, divorce, death, war, guns. All of these things are learned, and have been taught by the neighborhood kids, bringing with them not only the hierarchy that is normal to children’s social structure, but more grown-up ideas than my kids have ever heard or had become aware of.
My son asked me after one such play-date, “How come I don’t have a step-mother? It’s not fair!”
Ask your father, I told him. Maybe you can get one.
“There’s a war in Afghanistan,” my kindergartener informed me. “We’re winning because we’ve killed more people than they have.”
It’s a bit more complex than that, I told him.
“How?” he asked.
Go ask your father.
I’m staying in the know, I want to hear what they hear so I can arm myself with answers to these eventualities, the loss of innocence that comes in fits and starts, and misinformed information gleaned from neighborhood kids.
I’m keeping a vigilant eye out for bullying, so rampant in this country, and hammered into our consciousness by the nightly news. As if adulthood could ever wash away the memories of an awkward childhood and neighborhood kids who pounced at the slightest betrayal of weakness.
I was a little girl, hair unkempt, wearing ill-fitting clothes that were flea market knock offs and hand-me-downs from my sister and second cousin. My socks never matched. My only friends were boys. I took my social cues from them and played army and soccer and manhunt.
I remember being at the bus stop in September, the temperature still in the eighties. My shirt had no sleeves and when the breeze from the Great South Bay blew over to where we stood, I caught a chill. I flattened my hands and fit them over my flat chest into my armpits, as I had seen my neighbor Eddie do time and again. As soon as I did it, I knew it was wrong. Not something girls do. Rachel, with curly blond hair and a mouth too small to contain her giant teeth and protruding gums, immediately latched on, pointed at me, and whispered in a way to draw the most attention her way. Everybody turned. I brought my arms down, but didn’t know what to do with my hands. They found a home in my pants pockets and my face burned until the bus came.
Rachel was the girl who lived to torment me. I couldn’t take a turn on her new bike because I had germs. I was excluded from birthday parties and pointed at mercilessly. Next to Rachel, I was gangly, ugly, smelly. I lost my equilibrium and could’t remember what there was to like about me. I hated her, and feared her, for the rest of my childhood.
Even our close-knit neighborhood wasn’t safe. I keep my children close, and let them know I’m here if they need me for a juice box or a bandaid, but the message I hope to convey to these neighborhood kids is that I’m listening and watching.
I know that I can't be there to protect them from every hurt, every childhood torment that ultimately helps shape them as much as anything I contribute. Being a child as sensitive as I was felt like driving without a windshield, the tiniest thing hurled at me, easily brushed away by the others, made deep imprints on my face, leaving me scarred and pockmarked for everyone to see. I will lay down and be that shield for my children, if only for a little while, just a few more days, to put off the inevitable hurt that comes with growing up.
I know they have to move forward, out from under my umbrella, but not yet. Please, not yet.