“Isn’t it great how well the children are playing?” I thought to myself. They were in the middle of an after-school playdate. It was a brass-ring/blue moon playdate, no less, with both kids paired up with a friend of the same age and gender. “They’re so quiet, maybe they’re all reading,” I mused. The children had been upstairs now for twenty minutes, with no trips down to complain or tattle. I basked in my well-earned solitude. After nearly a decade of parenting, my children are old enough now not to lock each other in closets. Still, I felt I’d better check on them. “Everything ok?” I yelled up the stairs. “Fine!” a chorus answered back.
A few minutes later, a stampede flew past me in the dining room. “Going outside!” the herd representative yelled. The door slammed shut and it was quiet again.
That was my cue to go upstairs. I needed to check that the ceiling fans weren’t all set on “high.” That a sock wasn’t marinating in the toilet.
In elementary school, students learn the commutative property. This rule says that for addition and multiplication problems, the order of the operands doesn’t matter. The equation 5 + 10 yields 15, as does the reverse: 10 + 5.
The commutative property, I’ve learned, also applies to children playing. For example:
Quiet kids + Sudden stampede outside = Suspicious.
Sudden stampede outside + Quiet kids = Suspicious.
The upstairs turned out to be the usual mess of open drawers, strewn clothes, and half-played board games. I took in the scene with ambivalence. Our home belongs to the children as much as it belongs to us. They’re kids, and kids aren’t neat. But oh, the work ahead. If it’s their job to clean up their belongings, then it’s my job to let them (make them). No kid of mine is going to show up to college a slob. I stepped into the bathroom in search of a ponytail holder—that maternal calling card that says “Go time.” And there, in the sink drain, I found evidence of the day’s other playdate: the one between my daughter and her muse.
“The wood chips rinsed off my fleece cuffs and got caught in the drain,” she explained later that night as we gazed into the sink. “They made a nest. I closed the gaps with Crest so no eggs could fall through.”
Made perfect sense to me. I took her in my arms and dipped her.
There was so much good in what she’d done. The drain nest was a study in presence, spontaneity, creativity, problem-solving, and compassion. I loved everything about it. I also wanted to vomit. The unctuous tooth gel reminded me of the slugs that lurk under the lip of our outdoor trash cans. (Shudder). When my daughter left me in the bathroom to go hit her brother, I stared at the drain and imagined what friends of my age and gender would say: “Polident meets bonfire.” “Swim noodle saves stew meat.” “Scrub your grout.”
Per the commutative property, outside mischief had transpired during the play date as well. After thundering past me, the stampede found some loose boards in our fence, pulled them off, then stole into our neighbor’s yard. That’s why it got quiet again. Strangely enough, the breach, like the nest, was both impulsive and considered. When our kids were toddlers, the fence kept them safe. More recently, the enclosure has required them to walk through a gate and along a busy street to reach our neighbor’s. With the new opening, they can duck and cover two back yards in just a few steps. No traffic.
Indeed, the children had played well.