Children, parenting, and sending them in the right direction.
“I want to go to Germany,” you say as we flip through the pages of National Geographic, laying on the front porch together, your red popsicle dripping onto the pages.
“Where is this?” you ask, grimy finger pressed against the wall map, pointing to Alaska. You say you want to see mountains that have snow on top.
“I want to go to a place with prairie dogs!” you laugh, snorting and covering your nose so the chocolate milk doesn’t come out. You watch the silly little bandits ganging up on a rattlesnake on the screen; you double-over and point your tiny finger. “Can we go?”
“Okay,” I say, not to commit or give false hope, but to let you know I have heard you.
But you know I can’t get you there. That I can’t take you on vacations or send you to that movie production camp you heard about from a friend. I can’t throw your birthday at the trampoline park or bring you and your friends to the water park. Our life is different than that.
I can only get you as far as this tank of gas.
* * * * *
Your feet are out the window, shining in the July sun. You are wiggling your toes to the music — The Rolling Stones crackling out of the one working speaker, old truck, a can of boiled peanuts sits open on the dashboard, our fingers are salty.
“This is the stretch,” I say, leaning forward and slowing the truck down. You pull your feet inside and sit up, your small head just high enough to peer out the truck window.
“Why are they always here?” you ask quietly, never taking your eyes off the asphalt in front of us.
“There are creeks on either side for a few miles,” I say. The kudzu overhang creates a mottled Virginia summer shade; cicada hum. We drive on in silence, in concentration, just Mick Jagger, insects, and us.
“There’s one!” you screech excitedly.
We get out into the tall roadside grass that is sharp and dry against our calves. You run on your spindly 9-year-old stick legs along the shoulder. “Mama, I can’t get it!” you say, suddenly nervous, hopping around.
“Watch — just grab it from behind,” I say. The turtle withdraws into its shell as I pick it up. “Now, remember, we always put it in the direction it was going.”
You follow behind me as we cross the road and walk down into the woods.
“Careful, poison ivy.”
* * * * *
You are wading nearly chest-deep, slowly moving through the water, placing each foot hesitantly on the uncertain bottom. Your shoulders are shimmering in the late morning sun, flecks of mica clinging to your dark summertime skin and to the downy hairs covering your back. “Do cottonmouths swim at the bottom?” you ask, suddenly pulling your knees up and treading water.
“No, the top,” I say. The ripples from your body splash up on my thighs, muddy Southern red water.
“Remember, Baby, they are more scared of us.”
* * * * *
“How long until home?”
“Not long now, Boo.”
The truck is rumbling, heaving, in the heat. The plastic dashboard is faded and cracking and the windows are down and the turkey feathers we pinned under the visor are trying to take flight again. The summer heat is creating illusions on the pavement ahead, and the road melts into water, blurring the horizon, making mirages we can never reach.
You put your feet back out the window. Your toes look long to me.
“You are growing,” I say.
You put your hoodie under your head and lay down. “Thanks for saving turtles with me today,” you whisper, closing your eyes. The humid air streams over you and your toes stop wiggling in the sunlight. You fall asleep.
I think to myself — Yes, I can do that for you. Baby, we can save turtles all you want. Point them in the direction they are headed.