A Tale of Two Parks

Posted on May 19, 2013 by

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We bought our house because it is across the street from a park that has been recently renovated as part of a city-wide initiative. On sunny days I pack the baby up in her stroller and wheel her over to the little kids’ play area, which is distinctly separate from the big kids’ play area nearby. The ground has been covered with soft foamy stuff so that they won’t hurt their tiny, crackable skulls. There is a sun shade so that they won’t get burnt while playing on the molded plastic play structure, which has no sharp corners or exposed hardware.

Every time I take my daughter to the park I am intimidated by the other moms. In their Lulu Lemon yoga pants, with professionally done highlights, they make me feel like I’m in middle school again, and that I have once again shown up at school wearing irredeemably discount-store outfits. Or, as I did on one memorable day, bell-bottoms, platform clogs, and a paisley-printed vest. In 1994.

If it’s not the super-fit, extra-young-looking moms with classy jogging strollers, it’s the glamorous Eastern European women with their beautiful bilingual kids or the lovely young Mexican mothers with amazing hair. These women are also raising small children, but seem to be doing a better job of it, since they manage to fit in showers and makeup.

I tell myself not to be weird, which then makes me doubly weird. If I still smoked I would just focus on that, chain-smoking in the corner, which always worked for me in awkward social situations before. But I quit three years ago, and something tells me that the mom holding a lit cigarette while helping her child navigate the curvy slide is not going to make any new friends.

Instead, I just smile at everyone and focus on my daughter’s developing coordination. I may feel like Ma Kettle, but maybe they won’t notice.

A few weeks ago, on one of our monthly trips to Jasper, I took my daughter to the park that I had grown up in and around. It was attached to my elementary school, which was just a few blocks from our house, though one of those blocks included a terrifying highway overpass with an uninviting sidewalk.

This park, too, has been recently renovated. And then renovated again, because someone set fire to it after the first renovation. The play area is called the A.P.E.X., which stands for Accessible Playground Extreme Experience. All of the play structures are wheelchair-accessible, there are special swings that can accommodate a supine body, and the ground has been replaced with the same soft foam.

The main thing about this park is the splash pad, an invention guaranteed to cause small children to lose their minds. Little fountains set into the foam ground covering shoot up water jets at regular intervals, and there is a bucket at the top of a tall pole that gradually fills with water and then tips over, dumping its contents all over any waiting, shrieking kids. In mid-winter you can find children shivering under this bucket, waiting patiently to have ice-cold water poured over their heads. It’s that big of a deal to little kids.

Of course, this is all new. When I played there we had pea gravel as ground cover, which was basically guaranteed to lodge in your flesh should you be so unlucky as to fall. We had no sun-shade, but we did have lots of tall things to jump off of. At the time, we knew nothing of splash pads, and so had no idea how underprivileged we were.

Since we don’t have swings at our park in Birmingham, I took my daughter to them first. She was initially unimpressed, but started to get into it after a while. The swing next to her was occupied by a little boy half her size, who looked completely nonchalant about the whole experience. Every now and then a woman would come over and give his swing a push to set him back in motion, and that seemed to be all he needed.

“How old is he?” I asked her. This is standard mom-to-mom conversation starter.

“Fourteen months,” she said, which was the same age as my daughter. We compared birthdays and milestones, and then she said “He’s so small for his age because he was a meth baby.”

I tried to keep my face neutral. I nodded and said “Oh, really? He seems to be doing very well,” while wondering if I should ask if he was her meth baby. Before I could she said “He was just three days old when we got him, and he cried all the time.”

My brain stopped reeling, and she could probably see the relief on my face. We kept talking, and various children would occasionally come up to her asking for juice boxes, tissues, or for her to go tell someone to stop doing something. Turns out, all of those kids were hers, or were hers now. Seven, she said. Seven kids at home.

“And are they all foster children?” I asked.

“No, two of them are mine, and the rest are all… related. My sister’s.”

I thought for a moment about sisterly love, and about how, if my sister had five children that she couldn’t care for, who in my family would pick up the slack.

Just then a dog appeared on the playground and walked up to each group of kids with his tail wagging happily, begging for a pat. I called him over and scratched his ears for a while before I noticed that he didn’t have a collar on and that he looked pretty rough. I looked up at the other mom.

“Is this a stray dog that I’m petting right now?”

She nodded. “Yeah. Do you want some hand sanitizer?”

Once we were sanitized we said our goodbyes and walked down to the pond where a flock of loud ducks and thuggish geese poop and swim. It was a beautiful day, for once, and my daughter was delighted with the ducks. A family was fishing at a little pier near where we had squatted to get a better look at a particularly impressive duck, and I listened to their conversation for a while. It was nice, because it was all about people I don’t know and things I don’t care about, like the size of the fish in that pond and the best place to catch them.

When my daughter had enough of the sight of real live ducks I picked her up and we walked back to the car, past the shrieks of kids getting a bucket of water dumped over their heads. When I went to put her in her carseat she bucked and fought and tried to get out of the car again. Oh, no, I thought, no way are we staying. There may be ducks and splashpads here, but there are also stray dogs just waiting for suckers like us.