Worlds apart

April 01,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

There's a beautiful little park in our city--downtown, not too far from L.'s school. I used to take L. there at least once a week when he was very small, and I love the park no matter what time of the year we go. But by far my favorite time of the year to visit the park is in March, when the flowers are just beginning to bloom, and the rides have opened up for the season. For a mere $1.00 you can ride a train around the park, or take a pint-sized boat ride, or ride a pony on the historic Dentzel carousel. And T. loves carousels--they are her most favorite thing in the whole entire world (and that's just how she would say it, if you asked her). I took her to the park on Monday in the hour and a half we have between picking her up from Scott and having to get L. from school. While we were waiting in line for the carousel an older, sensible-looking grandmother came by, with five kids in tow--all of them ranging from maybe six years to three. They weren't fancily-dressed, but their clothes were clean, their hair neatly fixed up, and they were happy--and well-behaved. They lined up, one behind the other, in perfect Madeline-like style, clutching their little green tickets. When the carousel gate opened they ran in, scattering like butterflies, to grab the rabbit with the big ears, the ostrich, the gray cat. T. and I saw them again at the boat rides, lined up just as before, tickets clutched in their fists. "They're my grandbabies," the woman told me when she saw me smiling at them. "All five of them." "Are they brothers and sisters?" I asked. Two were, as it turned out, but the rest were cousins. She also told me that she takes care of the kids while her children--two of whom are single parents--work. A granny daycare! "That's so wonderful that they have each other," I said. "And you." The grandmother surveyed her babies for a moment. "I'm blessed," she said. And that was that. When the boat rides were done she gathered her children up, fussing at them now and again like a mother hen. But I could see that under her sometimes sharp tongue there was nothing but love. After the boat rides T. and I stopped to play at the playground on the way out of the park. As I sat under a tree and watched T. play, I noticed two women nearby, talking. They were both impeccably dressed, and strangely dressed for the park--expensive gold and diamond jewelry, perfectly combed hair, clutch pocketbooks (who brings a clutch pocketbook to the park?). They each had two matching impeccably dressed kids kicking mulch and stuffing sand down the water fountain. I couldn't help but overhear part of the conversation. I thought at first the women were talking about thongs (yes, thongs), but, as it turned out, they were talking about dogs--fawn-colored English mastiff dogs. Thong/fawn--that strong Southern drawl gets me every time. "Yes," the one woman was saying to the other. "I bought the most beautiful fawn (faaaaaahwn) one in the fall (faaaaaaaaahl)." "How much?" The other woman asked. "Well," the woman answered, "Jim wouldn't let me spend more than $800 for him and that's EXACTLY" (here she laughed) "What I paid the breeder!" I thought about how many different worlds there are out there--strange ones, sad ones, beautiful ones, crazy ones, each with their own set of people in them, doing their own strange, or crazy, or sad or beautiful things. Try as I might I can't help but judge the impeccably dressed woman a little, and wonder about a world in which it's okay to spend $800 on a dog. And I can't help but marvel and rejoice at that hard-working grandmother's world--and at her grandbabies, who are growing up under so much love and good sense.