I am standing in the front hall with three small grandchildren, bundling them into jackets against the April chill. It is 9 a.m. on the first day of my week as caregiver. Breakfast eaten: check. Kitchen tidy: not really. Children dressed: sort of. I struggle with a zipper, sigh with impatience. The 4-year-old studies me with grave interest. Why are we hurrying, she asks.
She has a point. It's school vacation. We have nowhere to be and no special time to be there. We could lounge around in pajamas until noon, but I have rejected that notion out of hand. It's what slugs do, I tell them briskly. We are not slugs. We are people who go out and get fresh air and exercise.
And we do it all fast, because, well, that's just the way we do it.
The last time I had charge of three under six, I was a 28-year-old mother in Manhattan. Every day was fast-forward: school run, laundromat, grocery store, park, dinner, baths, bed. Eyes front, pick up your feet. As they used to say in the old Westerns, you know what happens to stragglers.
Even on a rare childless sortie, I would find myself race-walking to the subway, sprinting through Bloomingdale's, scarfing a chef's salad in three minutes flat. Once, my in-laws visited us from Memphis. I took them on a neighborhood tour and turned to find them strolling a block behind.
A move to the Chicago suburbs did little to slow my pace. There, too, my days seemed measured by a giant, invisible stopwatch. I brought it along when we moved to Knoxville, where people often wondered aloud if someone was chasing me. Time was of the essence for me then: filling it, managing it, keeping one step ahead of its relentless course.
Now I'm rushing three kids to the playground as if the gates were about to slam shut. I breathe deeply, force myself to slow down.
We have the place to ourselves. After the slides and monkey bars, we stand on a wooden bridge and throw stones in the stream. The toddler loves it; she could do this all day. Tiny yellow flowers grow on the bank, and I pick some for the 4-year-old and show her how to put them in her buttonhole like a corsage. The 6-year-old floats sticks and narrates secret missions for special agents visible only to him. I think of lunch and the already messy kitchen. I think of naps. I calculate the number of tasks I can accomplish before they wake up again.
And then, abruptly, I stop.
I was going to be the grandmother who missed nothing, who treasured each moment. Relieved of the pressure of everyday parenting, I would immerse myself in the present. I would listen with rapt attention to every question, frame each answer with care.
"I know that there is room in me for a huge and timeless life," wrote Rilke. He wrote lots of wise things, and I read them the way I read diet manuals, with mounting joy and anticipatory excitement and finally, a quiet sense of failure. I believe that what he describes is possible, only not for me.
I look at the three before me, each absorbed in play. For a second, it's as though I am watching creation at work. In the silence of the spring morning, I can almost hear it: a faint whirring of energy. The stones splash into the water. The 4-year-old hums softly under her breath. The sticks swirl and bob and disappear beneath the bridge. Life, huge and timeless, presents itself for inspection.
The stopwatch in my head clicks off. Lunch can wait, as can the toy-strewn living room and the laundry basket. I've been there, done that. Time is of the essence, and the time is now.