Secondo in the park

In my mind, Secondo is still little enough to be entitled to a generous dose of playing hookie.

Most days, after crabbing for 20 minutes about school, she suddenly becomes ecstatic about going. When I pick her up in the afternoon, as she sits with her classmates listening to a story or quietly playing with her backpack on, her joy radiates. As we walk to the car, dark clouds form and she’s suddenly furious at me – both for picking her up and ruining her fun and that I don’t immediately have a glass of warm milk and a delicious snack ready to shove into her plump little hands.

She’s a Gemini and built that way.

Sometimes in the mornings when her protestations are furious and my resolve is weak, I let her stay home with me. This is one of the advantages of being a freelance writer and free of the rotten old 9 to 5.

I let Secondo stay home one Friday recently when Prima’s school was out on spring break. They could keep each other company, I thought, and play cheerily all day long together.

By 10:30 a.m. they were at each other’s throats and I was about to report myself to CPS, when I realized we had received a last-minute invite the day before for a birthday party in the park. I had dismissed it at the time, thinking my little darlings would be much too engaged in the sublime spirit of sisterhood to pry themselves away.

“Get your shoes on girls!” I hollered a little too loud. “We’re going to the park!”

Mrs. Bailey used to dream of the meaningful talks she would have with her Zuzus, over a cup of tea at the kitchen table -- errr on the playground with sand in her shoes.

Prima is getting to the age – who am I kidding? – Prima is at the age where bringing your adorable and charming younger sister to a birthday party is not a very good idea. But I figured Secondo and I could while away the time on the playground a respectable distance from the party. That is to say, in true Mom fashion, I thought I would take care of a few loose-end thank you notes and sundries, while Secondo distracted herself on the playground with another random and clean-looking kid her age.

But that was not to be. Five minutes into my ideal scenario, Secondo bonked her head on a low-slung bar and was crying in my arms. We regrouped, went and bought a smoothie, and came back.

But the vibe had changed or I had dismissed my earlier misgivings about prim multi-tasking.

“Play with me,” Secondo begged, “push me on the swings! Watch me on the monkey bars.”

A cool smoothie coating my stomach, I happily agreed.

We fooled around on the monkey bars and then Secondo dashed over to a smaller play structure with those new-fangled metal telephone-like horns popping out on either end, so that you can play telephone across the playground. This will be fun, I thought, AND stationary.

“Secondo!” I called to her, “put your ear to that blue horn over there and we’ll have ourselves a little chat!”

“OK!” she called out, loving the suddenly engaged interaction.

I smiled at the thought of what her 4-year-old mind might invent to whisper to me.

She galloped over to the horn and leaned in, her face disappearing into the blue funnel.

“Moommmy,” she chirped, playfully, then her tones dropped, “Why did Zsazsie die?”

ZsaZsie was my mom, who passed away from pancreatic cancer almost a year ago. My heart sank a little, I paused for a second and smiled, knowing what I thought I understood about the day, the mood, the mind of my little ingénue was woefully inadequate.

“Well,” I started, trying not to pause too woefully, creating a sunny, matter-of-fact tone. “She had cancer.”

“But how did she die?” Secondo asked from across the playground equipment, the other kids’ shouting, playful voices just a backing track.

“Her heart stopped beating, and she went to heaven.”

“But Mommy, where is heaven?”

“I’m not sure,” I answered craning against an awkward twist of my neck to speak into my horn.

“Mommy, we can’t see heaven. Why can’t we see it?”

And on and on it went in this vein for several minutes, until Secondo grew bored of talking about the crux of our human existence and ran off to find other fun.

I sat back down in my parent’s playground corner and watched her, and Prima, off in the distance, subdued. I wondered if I should worry about this exchange. Should I engage energy in contemplating just how deeply my mother’s death has wounded or confused or unsettled her? I felt like I should worry, but somehow the impulse seemed to float above my mind, vagrant, and numb.

It’s funny how kids think, I thought, and felt myself become a little bit delighted in Secondo’s boldness, proud of her apparent comfort with asking me the tough questions, and duly impressed by her sheer aplomb. My heart and mind validated her, and envied her, too.

Children have such expansive minds, with brand-spanking new neural connections popping up everywhere, all the time. Thoughts of playing with your mom on a school-free day on a brand new playground dash between synapses at the same moment as the concept of death and heaven are unloosed and make a break from left hemisphere to right.

When they play, what does Secondo think about?

The beauty of it is that it’s done without fuss, or worry, or over-analysis, which is what our grown-up minds are forever doing. My Secondo and other children, do not fret over these wild intersections, don’t seek to master the inner chaos that begets, “monkey bar-hand-monkey bar-hand-drop” and then suddenly “why did my grandmother die?”

I sigh a little, of course, and felt a bit weary. But not at all worried.