Mommy Can’t Fly

As per The Plan, this is the first of my re-posts from The Pickle Patch Archives. First published on March 18, 2012.

A brief note about how I selected this and the other re-posts that you’ll be seeing for the next bit: I chose pieces that were some of MY personal favorites. I took into account whether they were dated (i.e. anything chicken-related was out, R.I.P. chickens), and I favored posts that hadn’t received too much attention — for various reasons — the first time around. 

WordPress actually has a tool that allows one to see the most-read posts on your blog, so for about 3 minutes I considered just re-running the top 10 most popular pieces from The Pickle Patch. But then I saw what they were, and I was humbled. The #1 most popular post? “Like Lambs to the Potty,” which is cute, but it’s not popular because of my writing; it’s popular because apparently search engines send anybody looking for “lambs” (or “jehne” or “kuzu,” which apparently mean “lamb” in other languages) to this post. Ditto most popular post #2: “Luke… I Am Your Father.” That one gets lots of hits because of all the Star Wars fans out there. And most-read post #3? I didn’t even write it: it’s the Valentine’s Day guest post written by my husband.

So much for popularity! I hope you enjoy my personal picks; feel free to let me know if  you have any favorites that you’d like to see again.

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Yesterday, an unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday, I took the girls to their friend’s 5th birthday party. In one of those perfect moments of synchronicity, the party was being held at the playground of the local elementary school, so we were all able to bask in the glorious springlike weather.

At the end of the party, each child was allowed to pick a helium balloon from the big balloon bouquet that decorated the picnic table. Now, Campbell loves balloons. She also, recently, has declared her love for the color yellow. So she was just about beside herself when she was handed the string of a big yellow balloon. Various adults urged her to allow them to tie the balloon string around her wrist. “NO!” protested our two-year-old. “I DON’T WANT TO!” Then, in more reasonable tones, “I’ll be careful, Mommy. I’ll hold on.”

So the girls and I headed off across the field that separates the playground from the parking lot, me pushing Georgia in the stroller, Fiona and Campbell bopping behind with their balloons. And I didn’t have to turn around to know what had happened when, 30 seconds later, Campbell started screaming: she’d let go of her balloon, and it was heading straight up into that blue, sunny sky.

I had to hold her to keep her from running after it, and all the while she was screaming, “GET IT, MOMMY!!! Go get it back! GET IT!!!!” Here’s what I said: “I can’t get it for you, Campbell, because Mommy can’t fly. It’s gone. BUT now so many more people will see your balloon, and think how happy it’ll make them. Maybe it’ll fly all the way up to an airplane, and everybody on that plane will look out their windows and see it. Maybe it’ll fly all the way to China, and some little girl will find it and take it home. Maybe it’ll fly all the way to Africa, and a pride of lion cubs will play with it.” Fiona started getting in on the act, too: “Maybe it’ll fly all the way to California, and Grandmommy and Granddaddy will find it!” Before too long, Campbell was smiling again.

Thinking back on it, this whole episode strikes me as a micro-example of our job as parents. The world is rough, life is full of tragedies and disappointments, and our job is not to fix these things for our children, because we can’t — anymore than I could fly up into the sky and retrieve my daughter’s balloon. But what we can do is teach our children to frame these tragedies and disappointments into stories with happy endings.

That might be a good place to end this reflection, except that if you stop and think hard for a minute (which you probably will, because everyone who reads this is pretty smart), you will start to wonder whether I am saying that our job is to lie to our children. After all, in framing Campbell’s little tragedy into a “story with a happy ending,” wasn’t I essentially lying to her? I know perfectly well that odds are that Campbell’s balloon will end up tangled in some tree branches a few miles away, where it will flap like the wayward piece of trash it is, as cheery yellow slowly turns to grey.

Okay, fine. But if, as Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the question is: what kind of lives do I want my children to live? Do I want them to have the kind of lives that would conclude the runaway balloon story as: “It’s gone, too bad. You should’ve held on to that string like everyone told you, so it’s your own fault”?  Or do I want them to have the kind of lives that believe that, maybe – just maybe – the story ended when some little girl in a dreary Chinese city found a slightly deflated yellow balloon that made her smile? I know what the odds are, but for all I know it could happen.

I believe it’s called “hope.” And I believe we all need it in order to live, or at least to live well.

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