Siren song

The photo is from 1992. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since yesterday morning, since I heard the news of the tornado.

I knew exactly what I was looking for when I started in on the faux-leather-library bindings of the photo albums to look for the photo, though not which yellow-paged book to check first. I checked the label-maker labels on the outside of each book–would it have been 1993? 94?–looking for this exact picture, unforgettable and iconic for the small group of moms who were there.

It was taken, in 1992 apparently, at something that was called the Fairway Fun Festival, a much-anticipated local carnival in our old neighborhood. It was held every year, and we all loved it; there were always pony rides and rolls of wispy, sticky cotton candy. Hamburgers and hot dogs sizzled on grills which had been wheeled over somewhat comically by the neighborhood dads who stood over them. There was always a live band in somebody’s driveway and that is what the kids in the picture are listening to.

Our tiny Kansas town of modest Cape Cod houses was named for the two golf courses that flanked its two sides and created the “golden triangle” of Fairway. At the top of the street was the Fairway Shops, just across a busy parkway that had a pedestrian tunnel underneath. At the quieter bottom of the street was a creek, a destination just close enough for boys of 8 or 9 to ride and park bikes without chaperone, just far enough to make that seem like a real adventure. Parallel streets with vaguely British-sounding names like Aberdeen and Canterbury were flanked by huge sugar maples and pin oaks that dangled rope swings and shaded both the lawns (then) and the memory (now) in filtered light. 

We Fairway moms found each other mostly while pushing strollers down these leafy streets, on a search for what we thought we needed–a little sunshine and solace from the screaming baby–and finding what we actually needed more, which was something like a sisterhood. My friends Mary and Molly tell the origin story of their first meeting, how they noticed each other pushing strollers on opposite sides of the street one freezing afternoon, the sort of day when only someone with a serious case of cabin fever would be out. Wordlessly, simultaneously, they turned their strollers on straight lines towards each other, giving in to the gravitational pull of recognition: another member of the tribe.

Mary and Molly were strolling together regularly by the time we moved in to the neighborhood, by the early summer day when the man mowing the lawn in front of our house flagged them down. “Hey!” he had boomed at them, waving, then quickly silencing the mower and striding towards the street. “Hey!” They’d walked over. “We just moved here,” he’d explained, introducing himself, “and my wife is gonna need some friends.” (Incidentally, it was some of my husband’s best work; Mary, Molly and the rest of the Fairway moms have been my friends for almost thirty years.)

The neighborhood was so quiet and the houses so close together that an argument in one’s bedroom with one’s husband could–hypothetically of course–be transmitted to, and recounted to one’s brother in law at a party by, a neighbor with who, like you, has a baby monitor, though that is another story. Dave the mailman wore shorts and a pith helmet as he traveled on foot from house to house across the lawns; his wife Dianne sometimes cruised the long streets of the triangle on hot days looking for his mail truck just so she could bring him an ice cream cone. My son and the local bike cop J.P. bonded over their “initial names” and J.P. shouted hello whenever he cycled by on what, it occurs to me now, must have been the softest beat since Mayberry. I knew that it must be the first Wednesday of the month when the tornado sirens wailed, and that it was three o’clock and the wind out of the west, when I could hear the church bells tolling the Angelus from my front yard.

These were halcyon days.

But what marks those days more than anything was the gang of kids and moms who got together to become something we called “Playgroup.” We acted like it was for the kids, and I think maybe we even believed it at the time, but it is clear to me now that it was really for the moms so that we didn’t completely lose our minds. Playgroup was a place where we could mostly be ourselves, where we one-upped each others foibles and mistakes and insisted that we were all failing miserably, but at least we were doing so together. Which made us feel that we were probably doing a good enough job, that things might be ok. We took care of each other, bringing glasses of water to the nursing mother, beautifully wrapped picture books to the birthday party. We arrived with fresh arms and hot dinner in the bewitching hour when babies grew colicky and scooped up siblings in a hurry before a trip to the labor or emergency room. It was one of the other Playgroup moms that we called for coverage, for advice, for a sympathetic ear.

Because we were young, and often overwhelmed, and always overtired, some days we competed a little, or clashed over things that felt important to us. Some days we even left early, scooping up our toddler and tearing up on the walk home, our spirits weary, our feelings bruised. But even then, even when things weren’t perfect with us, or between us, or between our kids, a call would come in to bridge the distance. There’d be an apology: she’d thought later that her tone might have been a little too harsh? Or sometimes an admission: her child’s behavior was deeply worrisome and she hadn’t wanted the group to know, seeing how everyone else’s kid seemed to be doing so great. Sometimes, there was simply a loaf of banana bread left in your mailbox with a note. “I made extra. Thought you might like some with your tea.”

We looked out for each other’s kids at least as much as our own. Once, in the days before back-up cameras were standard in minivans, I backed into my friend Mary’s driveway before slamming on the brakes as I realized with horror that her boy must be behind the car, that I’d nearly hit him. He was unhurt, and Mary was unfazed, but I cried, and shook, and cried some more. What if I had hit him? I kept saying. I wondered if it was terrible to think that it might actually be worse to accidentally harm your beloved friend’s beloved child than to do the same to your own.

For the Fairway moms, this photo has become a symbol of that time, with miniature versions all of the “oldests” in our young families, before many of them even had siblings, when they were all shorts and chubby legs in impossibly small frames. I think of the photo all the time, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since yesterday, since I heard news of the tornado.

You see, two of these toddlers are doctors in Nashville, now, though technically speaking neither of them belong to me. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am not the mother of either of them. Because, while waiting for news of their safety–one, I heard quickly, was fine, but the other, well, there’d been no response, no news–all I could think of was this photo, about how the Playgroup kids were all of our children, about how they belonged to all of us moms, and how the moms belonged to each other, too. How, all these years later, we still do.

Though my friends’ grown children, it turns out, are both safe, they were not entirely untouched, not entirely unscathed. Their stories, however, are not mine to tell, and anyway the details don’t really matter. Because the point is that the death toll in Nashville rises, the pictures of the destruction rock us, and we know that the news received by other mothers is not as good. We are glad that those we love are safe but we are again shook by the close call, and by the knowledge that other mothers’ children are not.

Sometimes I think I have the heart of a gambler–not the Kenny Rogers or Rain Man kind, but a really bad gambler, whatever the opposite of those good ones would be. Which is to say that I am always trying to figure the chances but I can never keep track of the cards. I think I understand the risk of tornado as being higher in Kansas, the place of Oz and tornado sirens, and then one hits Music City, the place of bachelorette parties. I think any reasonable person would see how unlikely it would be for two of these five toddlers in Kansas to end up doctors at the same hospital in Tennessee but then they do. I am sure, as I hear the news, that anyone I know was probably nowhere near the danger but then I learn that that was not the case. It seems way more dangerous to be a sailor on a Navy destroyer than to be at home in your apartment after a long day at the hospital but on a given day that may not be true. I wash my hands and try dutifully to stop touching my face to avoid the Coronavirus while lives are taken by the wind.

We didn’t have the capacity, as young mothers, to even imagine these children grown up, much less to imagine what any of these kids were going to be. We thought we knew what was dangerous and we thought we were managing that; we thought we were the ones who kept them safe in little towns with bookstores and bike cops and mailmen carrying ice cream cones. But there was always risk. We almost hit them in the driveway with our minivan.

And now they are the oft-maligned millenials whom we have sent out to the world, to do their life’s work, which they are doing in jobs and places which may or may not be dangerous. Who even knows? We think we do and sometimes we beg them to choose the route we think is safer. They don’t listen to us on this, and maybe it is because they know how flawed our thinking is. They are idealistic, yes, but maybe it is more accurate to say that they see the risk, the randomness of life, better than we do; that instead of perpetuating the illusion of control and safety, they are putting their necks on the line to make the world a better place.

We are old enough now to know that sometimes bad things do happen: to our children, and to other people’s children. We are relieved that ours are ok, but still we shake and sometimes cry a little at the close call, and at the knowledge that another mother’s child is not.

I am praying for Nashville. I am grateful for those who are safe but I am mindful that many are not and I find myself praying for the mothers. I, too, feel the gravitational pull of recognition, of another member of the tribe. I am reminded that these young people belong to all of us. And that we all belong to each other.