The Free and the Brave

On Saturday our nation celebrated two hundred and thirty three years of independence. I think for parents of small children, independence is always on the horizon. We marvel as our babies take their first steps or step off to kindergarten, but we are always focused on what comes next and the freedom we will receive when the child sleeps through the night or weans or potty trains or spends a few hours a week away from home. Independence for them means freedom for us, however bittersweet some of the milestones may be.

Beth had the day before the Fourth of July off work because it was a federal holiday. Noah had drama camp and if we could have found a sitter for June we might have had the rare freedom of a few hours alone together. Alas, it was not to be. Still, when Beth took Noah to camp, she offered to take June along and then they went to the playground so I had a nice block of time to myself. Not as exciting as a date, but pleasant nonetheless. After puttering around the house a bit and doing some work for Sara, I settled in under the silver maple in the back yard with a book (the collection of haunted house stories I received for my birthday back in May). I finished a story I’d started approximately two weeks before and read another in its entirety. It felt luxurious to finish a short story the same day I started it.

That afternoon we all went to pick Noah up at camp. It was the last day of the one-week session so there was a performance for parents, which consisted of skits of fables. Noah was in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” He was a sheep. I was amused to find I could actually pick his “baaing” out from the general din. As we left, we ran into some counselors from previous years, who are now working with the ten-to-thirteen-year old group. They greeted Noah with enthusiasm and asked when he’d be in their group, which actually puts on real plays. Two years, we said. Noah’s been going to drama camp since he was just short of six (he started in the spring break camp). It’s hard to imagine him in the middle of the three age groups. June will be five and old enough for drama camp herself that year! I imagined both of them in camp at the same time. The mind boggles.

After camp was over and before our pizza dinner, we went over to the fountain. The fountain, a circular mosaic with jets of different heights (low at the edges, high in the middle) is a popular gathering place in downtown Silver Spring. In the summer, there are almost always some kids splashing around in it. On a hot day or on weekends, it can get quite crowded. Noah will dash into the fountain with abandon, though he avoids the biggest jets. June has been hesitant about even getting close enough to get wet this year. She was actually more daring last year. I think she might be old enough to process potential threats in more detail now, so while she’s still a daredevil on the swings, for instance, she finds herself scared of things that she used to enjoy, as my stepfather found out recently when he hung her upside down. We’d been at the fountain on Wednesday morning with a friend from music class and his mom and younger brother. June had gone in enough to get her bottom damp. I wondered how she’d be this afternoon. At first, she said she didn’t want to go in, but then she ventured closer. She stuck to the perimeter of the fountain, taking her foot in and out of the water, and experimenting with blocking the flow of water by stepping down on it. Every now and then it shot up, soaking her, but she kept going back, taking her own exploratory steps toward independence.

As the kids played in the fountain, Beth showed me printouts of cars. Our fifteen-year old car was starting to show its age after 126,000 miles. There have been a series of problems, but the latest, multiple oil leaks, would have cost $2,000 to fix, so we were in the market for a new (to us) car. Beth wondered out loud if the car we buy now would be the last practical family car before the Mustang convertible she imagines herself driving once the kids are grown. Probably not, she mused, as we are buying used and ten years is the best we can expect. The second to last, maybe, she said. I said she could have the Mustang if we could move to the beach. She said she’d drive it around Rehoboth and hot women would flock to her. But she’d turn them away, I said. Of course, she added. Sometimes fantasy is its own kind of freedom.

The next day was the Fourth. We marched in Takoma Park’s parade, with the contingent from June’s nursery school. Last year Noah and the Bumblebee’s older sister held up the banner for the whole parade route, but this year he opted to ride his scooter instead. At home, just before we left, we deliberated—stroller for June or tricycle? The stroller would be faster and easiser to control, but she loves her trike and it lets her do at least some of the work of propelling herself (there’s a stick in the back a parent can push). We decided to ask her. “My bike!” she exclaimed, and so it was. When we got to the staging area where kids and parents were decorating their wheels with crepe paper and balloons, we saw that the Ant has the exact pink, purple and yellow trike June has. We got it at an independent toy store in downtown Takoma (; I wondered if they did, too. I wrapped red, white and blue paper around the trike’s long handle and tied on a red balloon and a blue one, each sprinkled with white stars. And even though it did not match the color scheme, I also put on two pink ones, because June asked me to. As we worked and waited to get started, we chatted with other parents and said hi to the Squash Bug, resplendent in her pink nursery school t-shirt.

Finally it was time to go. As we marched, the Butterfly ran ahead of the banner and dropped behind, fluttering about like a real butterfly. For a while, he defected to daycare just behind us—they had a bubble machine. It was a long route, but June pedaled most of the way. Several families with kids who had been in Noah’s nursery school class, plus other friends, yelled to us from the sidewalk and waved as we marched through the streets of Takoma.

After we passed the judging stand and the parade was over, we stopped at an ice cream truck and indulged. (In our family Easter and Christmas are the two days of the year you can have candy in the morning and the Fourth of July is the one day you can have ice cream before lunch.) On the way home, we let Noah scoot ahead of us, as long as he stopped and waited for us at intersections. This is our normal rule, but because of the crowds, it meant often we could not see him. It was unnerving, but we have been trying to give him a longer leash recently. He goes on scooter rides by himself up and down our block and we have left him home alone for short periods of time (sometimes over a half hour).

We were all full from ice cream when we got home and tired, too, so we skipped lunch and June and I went to our bedroom for a nap while Beth and Noah went to get his hair cut and pick up a few groceries for our Fourth of July picnic dinner of veggie hot dogs, baked beans, corn on the cob, green bean and potato salad and watermelon. They were longer in getting home than I thought they would be, but when they arrived Noah ran inside, yelling that they’d bought a car. It’s a 2005 red Ford Focus with a roof rack. It looks like a mix of every other car Beth has ever driven during our relationship, all of which have been blue or red Ford or Subaru station wagons. This car is number four, so I guess the Mustang will be number six.

Today was the last day of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival ( and we hadn’t been yet so we decided to go, even though it made for a busy weekend. Sasha called Noah this morning and asked for an afternoon play date. We wouldn’t be home, so we invited him to come along with us. Once June had napped, we all got in the new car and drove into the city. (Normally we’d take the Metro, but it’s been very slow due to the ongoing investigation of the tragic accident last month.)

All I wanted from this experience, I told Beth, was to listen to some pretty music, eat some interesting food, and take our annual picture of me and the kids by the Washington Monument. Every year the festival features three cultures. We entered the mall at Wales and I was immediately drawn to tent where a trio of Welsh musicians was playing. Noah and Sasha wanted to explore, however, so Beth went with them and June and I stayed at the tent, listening to a love song, a sea chanty, a song about a miner’s strike and some instrumental pieces. June was engaged for about fifteen minutes, and then she decided climbing up and down the bleachers was more fun than listening to music. Our section was not crowded, so I let her go. “Look how high I am!” she called to me from the top bleacher.

When Beth and the boys came back, we snapped the picture and sought food. It turns out the last forty-five minutes of the festival on its closing day is not the best time to try new cuisines. Almost everything was sold out. Beth got a small plate of Welsh cheeses and I got some fried plantains at the Central American food tent, but we were actually forced to go to the permanent food pavilion to get a hot dog and potato chips for Sasha and fries, cookies and ice cream for everyone else. It was not our most nutritionally sound dinner ever.

On the way back to the car, Beth, Noah and Sasha ducked into the Marketplace tent. They were the very last people allowed in. June and I straggled a few steps behind and were cut off by the guard after they entered the tent. A little while later, Noah came out with a cd of corridos ( and Sasha had an African shaker made from a gourd. We drove home, tired out from a weekend of celebrating. We were celebrating America’s birthday of course, but also June’s bravery in the fountain and Noah’s independence as he gracefully scooted through crowds and away from us, and all the small displays of gradually increasing independence we and our fellow parents see every day while we are raising children. Now it was time for the free and the brave to go home and go to bed.