We are now going to take a vote. Because this conversation has gone on too long. It's raining. We were supposed to take the kids -- all five of them -- to the amusement park. We do this every year. My sister Claire and her family come out to the farm for a week, and we pick blackberries, pitch a tent, ride the pony and sooner or later note how Claire's kids, 5, 8 and 10, aren't, actually, the farm type (she has corrupted them into believing that a barn is a predominantly stinky place). These rituals are followed each year by the highlight of the trip, indeed the very climax of summer fun: a day at the nearby amusement park.
So it goes. We've already done blackberries, tent, pony and many horrified exclamations of "peee-youuuuu!" and today, the last day of the visit, was to be the big day of roller coasters. "Oh, well," I thought, when I awoke to see the rain. But my two preschoolers are young enough to be diverted by spin. "Wow, it sure is a splishy-sploshy day!" I could say. "This is why God invented . . . movies!"
Claire was in the kitchen, hunched over her coffee, all bones and agony. "What's up with the hag look?" I said, as sisters are permitted.
"The husband," she said, shaking her head. "The son . . ." There was, apparently, a movement afoot to ignore the downpour. To go ahead and pack up the car with snack bags and juice boxes and those little walkie-talkies we always take, and just behave as if this were one fine Ferris wheel day.
Claire's husband, James, walked into the kitchen. "Look, I understand weather patterns, Claire," he said, as if continuing a conversation. "This rain will stop, and then it will be clear until 3 p.m."
Now, I know better than to get between a husband and a wife, so I bit my tongue and did not say, "Whence comes this meteorological expertise?"
"Where in the name of barometric pressure are you getting this?" was the way Claire put it. (Well done!)
James explained that he was up most of the night in the tent, and as he and his two sons tried to stop the leaks, they noted that hard rain seems to last for about an hour, and then you get a series of breaks before it really kicks in again.
"You were up all night doing this?" I said. "You could have come inside."
"We finally came in around 5," he said.
Ack! Males without sleep! Matthew, 8, came in to champion his father's idea. He was determined to ride the roller coaster he was too afraid to ride last year. He went on to give his list of rides we took last year, and didn't take, and which ice cream we liked, and the caramel corn we shouldn't bother with, and wasn't it fun getting that photo of us dressed up like old-time bandits with Sasha, then 2, dressed like an itty-bitty baby and aiming a pistol at the camera? (Okay, that may have been a misguided decision.) "Let's do that again!" Matthew said.
Listening to him go on like this, I remembered that there's a thing about rituals when it comes to kids, a very big thing. Rituals are serious business. Rituals exist in muscle memory. To a kid, any change in ritual is a matter of profound disruption.
I sympathized. I started thinking that an amusement park in the rain wouldn't be so bad. I even brought up the idea of umbrellas and boots.
"I'm sure the place isn't even open," Claire said, prompting James to call. "A few showers doesn't stop us!" the woman on the phone said, prompting Claire to open the newspaper and note that it didn't say "showers" or even "occasional thunderstorms." It just said "rain," underneath a little picture of a completely committed cloud.
Matthew was near tears, Claire was descending into guilt, and James was tapping his foot. Then my husband came out of the shower, saw us like this and wasted no time in divorcing himself from the drama. "Well, I'm not going," he said. "Anyone want oatmeal?"
And so we have decided to resolve this, to take a parents-only vote. "Yes" means go, "No" means stay home. We will cast our ballots on little pieces of paper, fold them up, toss them in the crockpot. "I don't need a secret ballot!" my husband is saying. "I want to be known for who I am!" Right. So I fill out his ballot for him. Then mine. James reads them: "Yes." "No." "No." And "Whatever Claire voted."
That last one was mine. Yeah, I'm a weenie, I know. But I can't bear to be the party pooper; that's why God invented sisters.
"No fair!" Matthew rightly says, erupting into tears. He runs outside, plants himself on a bench, hangs his head in the rain.
The grown-ups are thus forced to come together for an emergency meeting. Can we salvage this child's summer vacation? Is a ritual something you can replace? Soon Claire yells out our consensus and our hope: "Hey, Matthew, how about bowling?"
He looks up mid-sob, lets the information settle in. "Yesss!"
Jeanne Marie Laskas's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.