Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Birds Under the Big Tent" by Lynn Wilcox

One side of the funhouse mirror stretches our bodies like pulled taffy; the other side shrinks us into squat figures – no legs or neck. Before I turn away from my deranged reflection Shelby insists, “You stay there.” She steps back to the taffy side, smiles and says, “Look, Mommy, I’m taller than you.”

First grade is almost over and she can’t wait for July when she will turn seven. She stacks birthdays like building blocks, the higher the better. Each year compounds her inquisitive nature. Since starting school she asks questions like, “What does inverted mean?” or “How do balloons rise?” or, more recently, “When am I old enough to have boobs?”

“C’mon, Mommy,” she says and pulls me by the hand. We pass a booth with a man hollering, “Try your luck; everyone’s a winner.” Across the way, the Ferris wheel flashes its evening colors and churns the warm air, sweetened by cotton candy and grilled kebobs. She leads me to a kiddie ride – convertible cars equipped with steering wheels on both sides that go around on a platform. I hand the attendant a ticket and Shelby fits herself into the seat, knees against her chest. In recent years she’s stopped asking if I’ll ride too because she knows, “Mommy gets sick if she goes in circles”. As a child I enjoyed the spinning rides, but that stopped in my early twenties after I spent an evening curled over, suffering.

A younger girl in pigtails climbs into my daughter’s car and gazes up in awe of the big girl – something Shelby did a few years before. They ride in slow circles, round after round.

The carnival came to town just after parent-teacher conferences. Her teacher gushed, saying, “She’s such a joy.” And I couldn’t help but agree. As an infant she awoke every two hours shrieking from colic. For seven months, I held her close and assured her, “It’s going to be okay.”

We spent many nights in a rocking chair reading Hop on Pop and Goodnight Moon, the two books, in that order, that quieted her cries. Eventually she grew out of the colic, but I kept our bedtime reading ritual. Dressed in pajamas, she toddled to her bookshelf and selected five stories, saving Goodnight Moon for last. At the age of four she began reading books; Hop on Pop was first, Goodnight Moon second. Now her first grade teacher is challenging her with books often given to third graders.

When the kiddie ride ends, she leaps from the car and runs to the exit. I stand by readying for a hug, but she latches onto my hand, urging me onward.

I spot the grain sack slide. “Let’s try this one,” I say, trying to slow her down. “We can go together.”

“I want to go on the swings,” she says, pointing to the ride that looks like a gigantic mushroom with seats tethered by small chains to the perimeter of its cap. Adolescent boys are pushing through the gate.

“Maybe something else,” I say.

“No, I want to ride this one.”

“It’s for big kids. I don’t think you’re tall enough.”

She skips over to the height chart and clears it by a quarter inch.

I didn’t want to ruin the night or dull her enthusiasm, so I hand the man a ticket. Shelby runs in to claim a seat and I’m left standing behind the metal fence.

A group of teenagers, electrified with talk of high school graduation and summer plans, enter. They push each other as if playing musical chairs for the remaining seats surrounding my daughter. A girl kicks the back of Shelby’s chair, trying to swing herself before the ride begins. My stomach tightens and I hold my breath, hoping she stops, but the idea takes hold, and soon all the teenagers are pushing against each other and my daughter joins in. For a moment, I imagine her at that age, excited about high school graduation and college.

When the man flips the switch, the stalk of the mushroom doubles its height, lifting the children into the sky. I hope she’s not frightened and look for her expression, but can only see pink sneakers dangling. The mushroom cap begins to spin, twirling them through the air. I keep my eyes on her seat as if chain links can’t break as long as I keep guard. I struggle with the repetitive motion going faster with each rotation. I steady myself against the fence but soon find it impossible to watch. For a moment I close my eyes and focus on later, when we will sit side by side and read stories. She has five new selections from the book fair. When she reads the funny parts we’ll laugh. If a bad guy does a dirty deed, I’ll scowl, saying, “That’s not very nice.” And we’ll cuddle close during the sad parts. However, she’s already read the stories, several times, and will assure me with confidence, “Don’t worry Mommy, it’ll be okay.”

When I open my eyes, Shelby leans forward in her seat, the breeze blowing through her hair. She closes her eyes and smiles as she spreads her arms like elegant wings readying for flight.

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