A plastic lizard that "expands 600 percent in water!" floats in a juice pitcher. Pairs of Daughter's sandals lie askew before each upholstered piece of furniture in the family room. It's summertime, and the livin' is, well, different.
Every June, I whipsaw from the school-year silence of my house – broken only by the cycling of the washer or dryer and the clicking of computer keys – to the never-silent world of summer vacation.
Either the kids are talking incessantly about topics ranging from the absolute necessity of wearing mascara to school in sixth grade to the story behind the latest LEGO creation, usually a submarine with laser-guided plastic missiles and an old bilge pump rigged to propel it in the bathtub. Or I'm explaining the day's schedule, on the phone arranging activities, or hollering from the kitchen (for the third time) for them to come back and clear the lunch table.
Summer. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad other world of volleyball and basketball camps, baseball games, library trips, sleepovers, beach days, and friends' visits shuffled amid stretches of unspeakable – yet somehow complained about nevertheless – boredom.
Not to mention whining about chores; wardrobe travails ("Mom, I don't have anything to wear!" "If you had put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on your bedroom floor, they'd be clean because I did laundry yesterday."); and the mother of most mothers' insanity, sibling bickering.
Daughter and Son will bicker about anything. Really. Last week, as I drove to a meeting, the kids called my cellphone at the peak of a dispute about which load of laundry Son's baseball pants should go in.
From one extension, he shouted his contention that they belonged in the white load, since they are, in fact, white.
Daughter, yelling at the same time on the other extension, advocated the "light but not white" load on the grounds that the whites would be bleached, but the pants' care instructions indicated "no chlorine bleach."
I have, Solomonlike, made decisions on such life-and-death matters as whose turn it was to scour the bathroom sink, which one of them had to clean up the unidentifiable sticky substance on the kitchen floor, who started "it" (whatever "it" was), and why Daughter could have a sleepover that night while Son (whose two best friends were out of town on family vacations) couldn't.
In these moments, I find myself uttering such parental pronouncements as, "If you turn on that TV again, I'll unplug it for a week!" "Stop fighting right now, or there will be a consequence!" or, the showstopper, "Your dad is going to be really mad at you if he comes home and finds me yelling!"
I looked in the mirror the other day and caught a glimpse of the angry-parent set of mouth I recall from my youth. My mother wore it often in summer.
But last night while outside, when I heard "Mo-om!" for about the 10,000th time and was prepared to bark (or perhaps wail), "Now what?" Daughter appeared at my elbow and half whispered, "Look, Mom, I've got a firefly."
She held up her cupped hands and let me peek inside, where the beetle glowed on, off, on, off – like a calming beacon. She looked at me, wonder in her eyes. Then she opened her palms and blew. The firefly flew off, flickering as it went.
I kissed the top of her head, a gesture I no longer have to bend to accomplish, and she chased off to light a sparkler at the candle on the picnic table.
Then Son brought me graham crackers and a square of chocolate. He held out marshmallows on a toasting fork for inspection. "Mom, look. Just the way you like them – toasty brown outside, melty in the middle."
He has perfected the art of toasting marshmallows despite the fact he can't stand eating them. "Want a s'more?"
"Thanks, buddy," I said, putting my hand on his crazily scrambled hair. "I'd love one." I've never had the heart to tell him I don't much like marshmallows, either.
It's summertime, and the livin' is different. Light lingers in the sky past school-year bedtimes. Unstructured days drag or whiz by. Lawn mowers buzz, bike tires go bald, and books pile up in haphazard stacks next to lawn chairs. And my children are here with me for long days on end.
Summer. I hope it never ends.