A cool September breeze blows across the playground as I sit on a bench staring at the brightly colored equipment, lost in thought. At this park, time stands still, at least in my mind.
Suddenly the shadowy figure of my 2 year old appears at the top of the metal cargo net, grabs the bar, and swings bravely out past the edge. For a second a twinge of panic comes back to me and my heart drops into my stomach. But then I smile. The shadowy figure exists only in my memory. The memory of a time when we first discovered this park, halfway between our house and a friend’s. It felt so nice to finally have a place to meet and hang out that didn’t require a 45 minute drive.
Somehow we ended up there alone a lot, just the two of us and our kids. So this park became the place I could let my kids be daredevils and spread their wings without the pressure to keep them safe. Free from the eyes of other parents and their opinions. I could sit on a bench and outgrow my hovering as they grew into their own abilities to try out the monkey bars and fireman’s pole, or walk up the slide.
Sometimes, a mom would show up with a toddler and a new baby. I recognized the tired, frazzled look in her eyes. Then powerlessness when her oldest climbed to the highest, most precarious spot on the playground at the exact moment she sat down to feed the baby. It felt nice to be the veteran mom then. To keep a watchful lookout for the younger kids, but know and reassure her that they’d be ok. To whisper, “just watch”, as we witnessed the kids figuring it out on their own.
At this park, my boys climbed higher than they’d climbed before. They met new friends to have lightsaber battles and play ninja turtles with, if only for an afternoon. They ran far away from my reach, as long as they stayed in eyesight while I sat under a tree chatting with my friend, nursing my new baby, and remembering the time my son took off his shirt and shoes. Yep, I had “that kid” on the playground that day, but no one cared. I remembered the times we raced each other across the empty parking lot and soccer fields and they won. I remember the first time my oldest ran out of my reach. Ahead of me so far there was no way I could catch him. He was safe, of course, in an empty parking lot running toward a field with no cars in sight, with me walking toward him carrying his baby brother. Zero chance of something going wrong, but I still felt panicky.
At this park, I once borrowed wipes from another mom because I accidentally forgot to pack them and my kids asked my friend to drink the last of her water because I didn’t pack enough. Other times, I was the mom loaning out the sunscreen and extra snacks.
At this park we found a gypsy moth caterpillar in the middle of the bike path and my 4 year old lay down on the hot pavement to watch it. I wanted to capture the wonder of that moment and hold it in my heart forever.
At this park, my son and I made our own new memories without his brother. We rode bikes and strolled through the woods peacefully without whining or competition. Picking up acorns, seeing how many squirrels we could spot, balancing on fallen trees, talking. He learned how to swing without being pushed.
I wonder, when the time comes to go to the park without the kids, will I remember all of this? Will there be a time I’ll come to this park and not see the shadowy figures of my kids everywhere? Be driving and glance to the back seat whenever I hear “Wish I could turn back time… to the good old days.” And not see two little boys sipping Coolattas, bobbing their heads. I hope not. We all grew up here at this park. Them from toddlers into young boys, leading the younger kids in imaginary games. Me as a mother, on the sidelines, learning to let them go.
Sometimes my thoughts race forward to dropping them off at college, or some other teenage milestone. When it’s just me and my husband here in the quiet with an empty nest. Sometimes I think of it longingly and other times I wonder how I’ll ever survive without the noise and chaos.