I am sitting in an airport food court, coming home after a visit with our grown daughter in Cleveland.
It is mid-April, the start of empty nest season when parents prepare to launch first and last college freshmen. God-I'll-miss-them essays are everywhere, including my own recycled pieces on the subject. On my mind today is one that describes the writer's regret over not living more presently in everyday moments of raising children.
I do this too, sometimes regret what I did or didn't do, usually when I'm already a little sad and my brain decides to tap on the glass by going, as Carolyn Hax puts it, "knock-knock, remember this?"
However, here in this food court, where I am surrounded by yester-mes with small children, I am also being reminded of context, the part our brains leave out.
A family of four has settled at a table near mine. I am guessing the two children are three and five. The parents are dressed for a long travel day in jeans, t-shirts and sneakers. The mom's hair is tied back and she is not wearing make-up.
She leaves the group to stand in line at Sbarro's, and the dad takes out his phone. The five-year old begins to yell across the food court, "Mom! Get Pizza!" and I see the mom shake her head and put a finger to her lips.
The three-year-old tells the dad he wants to "go see Mommy." The dad frowns at his phone and says "No, buddy. Mommy will be right back."
The mom comes back and reports that there is no pizza here, and the kids look disappointed and she says tersely, "I know," and leaves to find something else.
The kids start to come apart. They poke, they tease, they whine, they fight and their voices become playground high.
"Guys," says the dad with a glance.
The five-year-old suddenly leans across the table and punches the three-year-old who starts to howl. The dad says, "Hey," puts his phone down, and moves over to console the younger one who is shrieking, "He HIT me! He HIT me! I WANT MOMMY!"
"Okay, buddy, it's okay," says the dad. "Shhhh." But the three-year-old isn't having it. He scrambles to stand on his chair now, and screams across the food court, "MOMMEEEEEE!!" while the dad says, again, with a bit more urgency, "Shhhhh!"
And now I see Mommy, traversing around stray chairs to get back there, her place in line lost, her face a picture of What-The-You know what.
Incredibly, with a hopeful face, the dad says, "How was the line?" and I cringe to know what's coming.
"You know what?" says the mom with that tight, public smile that nobody wants to see, "You don't know the half of it, why don't you just go wait for the food."
She sits. The dad stands up and wanders away, phone in hand. The mom picks up the crying three-year-old and says "okay, you're all right."
"See if there's pizza," says the five-year-old to the dad's back.
A moment later, the kids are coloring but the mom looks like she's still on call for the next fire.
The only thing going on is nothing worse.
Until another couple comes in. The dad looks like a celebrity, the mom is perfectly everything. There are two small children who I'm guessing are eighteen months and five.
The dad looks around, says to the mom quietly, "I'll (undecipherable)," and heads over to Sbarro, where MOMMEEEE was a moment ago. He stands in line, hands on hips, scanning the menu.
Back at their table, "Zeke" sits in a booster seat with a baggie of veggies and crackers and says "I want (undecipherable)." The mom reaches into a bag and offers Zeke a sippy cup which isn't what he meant.
"No," he says. The mom tries again. "NO!" he says again, and begins to shake his head back and forth, saying, "I want (undecipherable)!" The mom reaches into a bag and holds out a juice box which he tries to smack out of her hand. Then he throws the baggie at her and begins to yell for the undecipherable thing which the mom and I can't understand, because now she reaches into the bag and just starts pulling out everything: keys, toys, phone, comb.
With each item that she offers Zeke he shakes his head left-right-left-right saying, "NO!" and with his feet, left-right-left-right, he kicks the table hard enough to slide himself away from it.
The mom stares. "Zeke. What do you want?"
The dad strolls back with food and says, "Hey, Zeke, buddy, okay, I know you're upset, but..." Zeke uses his small hand and forearm to sweep the table top clear of the whole show, baggie, toys, and the full sippy cup.
The mom sits back, a hand pressed to the side of her face.
The five-year-old leans away from his brother's wing span.
Meanwhile, the other dad has come back to his table bearing pizza. In the ten minutes he has been gone, the mom has grown calm and has engaged the two kids with a game on paper, the injured three-year-old on her lap.
And as they serve themselves and begin eating, the dad pauses and looks over at the other table where Zeke's tantrum has peaked and left him tearful and exhausted, and the five-year-old is still looking at his i-Pad and the mom and the dad are looking at nothing.
The pizza dad shakes his head, then looks at his own little one and says, "Hey buddy, your ear's okay now?"
"It's fine," he says.
And here is what I know. Both of those mothers will probably see their sons off to college in sixteen years or so.
In the context of things that are over, they will remember the destination of that trip possibly, but not the getting there. That part they will have to reconstruct. One, maybe both of them, will be wishing she could somehow have been more in the moments to remember them better. But I believe we're probably as much in those moments as we can be.
Context is everything.
Context is everything.