Shopping in the supermarket the other day, I ran into my friend the Ordinary Lady. We chatted about family, the weather, events of the day. I noted the school lunch fixings in her basket and gradually the subject worked itself around to having kids. She was puzzled by the mini-movement afoot among young couples we know not to want them. We discussed a survey put out by one of the nonparent groups to determine if one is good "parent material" (as if to parent or not to parent is a rational decision). Questions like "Do you enjoy sleeping late on Sunday morning?" "Who doesn't?" she wisecracked, and continued, "If you wonder if children are worth having, all you need is an open- eyed visit to the nearest playground." Fortunately, the Ordinary Lady takes her own advice. A few days later she sent me this report:
It is a lazy, sun-dappled day as I pull into Woodside Park in Silver Spring. Early, but the kids are up-and-at-'em. A nappy-haired boy and his little brother ride the tire swing-- twisting, turning, whirling like dervishes. Nearby, two eyes peer out of a swiss cheese hole in the red plastic Saturn. "Any of you boys like to play in outer space?" wonders the eyes' owner, humming the Star Wars theme. Quickly, he is joined by two others. "Captain to First Officer: Blast Off!"
At the younger children's playground, on a tiny merry- go-round built for one, three boys take turns pushing each other, then hop on and cling to the bars like little monkeys. Shortly, they are joined by three little girls. As they jockey for place on the overcrowded platform, one notices a crucial lack. "Hey, nobody's pushing."
Across the park, a teen-aged girl thwonks a tennis ball against the backboard, her movings as loping and graceful as a young gazelle's. A solitary young man--blond hair and an electric blue T-shirt--plays the Pink Panther theme on an acoustic guitar. Presently a hip young friend of the musician, sporting shades and a goatee, takes up the guitar. All at once the children's playing comes alive to the throbbing riff of an old jazz melody.
Later that day I visit Friendship Rec Center in Northwest. The moms call it "Turtle Park" after the large stone turtle followed by four small offspring. A curly towhead in denim overalls offers a sand cake, carefully constructed with a bright red bucket and shovel, to a small companion.
Over on the swings, young girls with long legs pump high enough to touch the tree branches, their tawny hair flying in the breeze. To the boy and girl rocking back and forth on the play locomotive, a boy calls, "Robert and Kelly sittin' on the train" in the singsong cadences we use for teasing puppy-lovers. Robert is not amused. "Hey, Peter," he shoots back. "I know who you love. Yourself."
The next day is joyless, overcast. I plod past the shuttered brick faces of Georgetown to Montrose Park, which reminds me of a kind but dowdy maiden aunt. The swings hang idle; the painted ponies repose; the sandbox is empty save for a few yellow leaves that float down on the soft breeze.
Gradually, like a crescendo, the half-forgotten music of children's laughter swells in the distance. I follow the music and arrive at a labyrinthine maze of paths winding through the bushes. One look at the unruly boxwoods tells me this is no English garden.
"I'm the Joker, ha ha ha," a small voice cackles malevolently. "I tricked you, you fools --you'll never catch me now."
Mad dash into the bushes. "I got him. Batman caught the Joker," says the boy called Ali. He drags the unfortunate Maurice off to jail in the peeling white gazebo.
Not long after, lanky, lustrous-eyed Ali comes tearing around the corner, running as fast as his brown matchstick legs will carry him. "You seen Maurice?" he wonders, rearing up in his tracks like a colt. As I am the only one visible, I jerk a thumb over my right shoulder: "He went thataway."
When Ali is out of sight, shaggy-haired, gap-toothed Maurice peeks out of a bush and says, "Don't tell 'em I'm in here."
I didn't, but they captured him anyway.
Next to this playground is Oak Hill Cemetery. And standing amidst the old graves, in the shadow of a stately, ivy-covered oak, is the headstone of Benjamin Franklin Pleasants and his wife Isabella, erected by their descendants on the centenary of their marriage. The epitaph reads: "Children's children are the crown of old men ..."
I was tempted to make it: "Children's children are the crown of old age--a glimpse into the past, a glimmer for the future, and a reminder that the real meaning of joy is retaining the wonder of your child-heart when the rest of you grows up."