We went to the neighborhood playground today. Archie, Kit, Jack and I had a great time, climbing, sliding and swinging. Archie sang several songs for us while I pushed him on the swing, and I danced around to his sweet music, twirling around in the mulch between each push that renewed the swing’s cycle. Kit and Jack laughed at my antics, all the way down in their bellies, and their amusement only coaxed more song from Archie, more silliness from me.
Eventually a few older kids from the neighborhood came to play on the equipment. Only they weren’t playing on the swings, the slides, the climbers in the way the equipment is intended to be used. Instead they climbed on top of things, way up high, ran up the slides, pushed each other on the swings erratically, haphazardly, played King of the Mountain on the ladder, pushing and shoving and screeching.
I should have taken my three children and left when these older kids showed up, but I didn’t. Instead I stayed to visit with the other mothers who had gathered at the playground with their small children. Instead I decided to let Archie, Kit and Jack stay out just a while longer to enjoy the company of the other little boys and girls. We’ve gone too long cooped up in our own house, just the four of us, after all.
Archie watched the older kids play. He was intrigued by their horseplay, their raucous laughter. I kept my eye on him as he followed them around the playground, smiling at them, trying his best to get them to look at him.
“Hi, friend!” he bubbled enthusiastically as he was close enough to reach out for one of the girl’s forearms. But she turned away from.
So Archie positioned himself in front of her again. “Hi, friend!” he repeated. He smiled bigger this time, slapped his palms against his jeans to make a smacking noise, one that I’m sure Archie decided would draw the girl’s attention and adequately convey his enthusiasm.
The girl ignored him again.
I watched as Archie followed this girl around and called her his friend, again and again. I watched as she pretended as if she didn’t hear his greeting.
By now Jack was near the girl, over by the tire swing. She reached for him, tried to pick him up, but Jack ran away from her. Archie was right behind the girl, but still she turned away from him, made believe he wasn’t there.
I didn’t know what to do. It was obvious the girl heard Archie. I could hear him myself across the playground. It was obvious she saw Archie. Her intentional ambivalence toward him told me that was true. There was no use directing her attention toward him. I seemed, as I stood there watching, that would only make the situation worse.
“Oh, this is breaking my heart,” I whispered to the mother standing beside me. I don’t know that she knew what I was talking about, but she followed my fixed gaze and she watched, too.
Then Archie stepped behind the swing as the other girl in the group was sitting on it and another boy was shaking it. The girl dug her feet in the dirt and pitched back wildly, suddenly. She smacked into Archie, knocked him down.
That was it for me.
I yelled meanly, breaking away from the other mothers and walking toward the swings only a few feet in front of me. I bent to pick Archie up out of the mulch. He was crying. Wood chips were stuck to his chapped cheeks and there was thick, cloudy snot dripping from his nose. I swung his bottom onto my hip and brushed at the debris on his coat, his pants, his face.
“It was his fault,” the older girl blurted out, the one who’d ignored Archie’s attempt at friendship.
“No, it wasn’t!” I snapped at her. “You can’t play like this when there are little kids playing here, too! You have to be more careful! They don’t know any better, but you do!”
Even to me my voice sounded loud, angry. Hurt.
I rejoined the other mothers, but I kept Archie on my hip. I wiped his nose with the crumpled Kleenex I pulled from my back pocket. I told him it would be okay.
I didn’t see it myself, but one of the other older kids did something else unsafe and one of the other mothers cautioned her against the behavior. We mothers began avoiding eye contact then, looking around and counting our children, and we all began clucking about how it was late, how our husbands would be home soon, that it was time to eat dinner. We kicked at the dirt with the toes of our shoes. We gathered our children, turning toward home.
Archie, Kit, Jack and I kept to the sidewalk. Archie and I held hands, and the twins beat on a few steps ahead, stopping every now and then to check in with us. It seemed to me that Archie had forgotten all about his fall and the rebuff he’d tolerated so graciously. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. And even now as I sit here typing this, with all three children tucked safely into their beds upstairs, I can hear Archie’s little voice in all its hopeful earnestness, “Hi, friend!”