let playing kids play (even when Mom really wants to leave)

My family is on vacation this week in Florida, where it is at least much warmer than New York City, if not exactly tropically balmy. My kids and the other tourists here are having a ball swimming in the resort pool, and you can just tell the locals think we’re all nuts. It’s November, their wide eyes say, walking by on their way from one indoor location to another. It’s only seventy-three degrees. For heaven’s sake, put a sweater on.

I took the three kids to the beach this afternoon, and when I say we had the place to ourselves, I am not exaggerating. We were the only people I could see in either direction. Maybe it was the red “no swimming flags,” or maybe it was the quite brisk winds, who can say? After about sixty seconds on the beach, I could see that the rest of Florida had the right idea, and we should go home: it was freezing down there. But it is always at those moments when a mother is ready to leave a place that her children are suddenly totally and happily occupied. The more you want to leave, the more your kids seem like they could stay forever.

Had it been a warm and gentle breeze blowing, and had I had a good book with me, the kids wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes. But there I was, wrapped in a wet towel to keep myself warm, with nothing to do but watch my children have the time of their lives. It was an exceedingly rare occasion: all three of them were happily playing the exact same thing. Starbucks.

“This Starbucks really windy!” Maggie announced, lugging a pail full of wet sand that must have weighed as much as she did. She handled the “mucky sand” part, her eight-year-old brother handled the trips down to the water, and her six-year-old brother ran up and down the low-tide beach collecting seaweed and bits of foam. They put all these together into some beverage cups I had scrounged up (having only one pail), and asked me what I wanted to order. “A gingerbread spice extra-hot no-whip skinny latte,” I’d say, or some such thing, and the three of them would fall to their baristing with such concentration I could only marvel. Really? My second grader playing “pretend kitchen” with my preschooler? But it was happening, and despite the high winds, we stayed for over an hour, me ordering one exotic beverage after another.

For the first twenty minutes or so, I fought it, fidgeting, wishing I had my book with me, asking them if they weren’t cold. Then I saw the gift with which I was being presented. The three of them were getting along like they were Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters, sharing one corncob doll and declaring it the best Christmas ever. My kids were not fighting. My kids were ENJOYING each other’s company. My kids were using their imaginations. My eight-year-old was embracing being a little kid, for just a little while longer.

We were chased off the beach by angry approaching storm clouds. That and the sand starting to blow into our eyes. And all of us were sorry to leave. I forced myself to stay, seeing that my kids saw something in that empty beach that I didn’t; and it gave me a moment with my kids I hope I never forget.