We were playing outside.
This happened a long time ago, when we’d just moved into this rickety rental house on a moderately bad street in LaBelle. I’d forgotten all about it until I saw it come up in my Facebook memories, and it made me sad.
Adrienne, who used to be called Rosie, was almost four. She and I had just gotten back from Dollar Tree. We were even poorer than we are now, and there usually wasn’t a penny to spare, but this had been a good week. In addition to our usual trip to the Schiappa branch library for books and the Aldi across the street to spend the EBT card, we had gone on a shopping spree at Dollar Tree. Adrienne picked bubble wands and sidewalk chalk and a squirt gun, and also a jump rope. I told her the jump rope was for older children, but she wouldn’t put it down.
When we got off the bus, the six-year-old neighbor boy I’ve called Ezra was playing outside, and he wandered by to inspect us. Ezra was autistic, at a different place on the spectrum than Adrienne and me. He didn’t speak very much. He liked to steal toys and throw them on the porch roof because it was exciting to see them go up and not come down again. A six-year-old who barely speaks and a hyperverbal three-year-old make a good combination, so Adrienne and Ezra were best friends. A little boy by the name of Frankie, who was visiting his grandfather for the summer, wandered by from another house to see what the fuss was about.
The boys wandered up to inspect the Dollar Tree toys while I unpacked the groceries and put them away.
The bubbles were usually a crowd favorite, but today nobody wanted to play with bubbles.
The chalk was often a big hit– Adrienne liked to color in a whole square of sidewalk with chalk, and Ezra liked to grind the chalk into dust between two rocks. But today, nobody wanted the chalk.
All three children wanted the jump rope, but none of them could jump rope.
I tried to referee. “All right. Frankie and Ezra, you two each hold an end. That’s right, hold the plastic part. Now Rosie, you jump over the rope while they twirl. Everybody together! Cinderella, dressed in yella, went upstairs to k– no, not like that!”
The boys were waggling the rope around to make waves instead of twirling it so that Adrienne could jump. Adrienne was fussing because she wanted to hold the rope herself. I gave Adrienne one end of the rope and told Frankie to jump, but that didn’t work either because none of them knew how to twirl the rope. Ezra, in particular, just wanted to move the rope up and down to watch it wiggle.
“Here, let me show you!” I said, taking Frankie’s end. “You have to twirl it in a circle like this. Cinderella, dressed in yella, went upstairs to kiss a– no! Stop!”
Ezra was jerking the rope straight up and down to make waves. Frankie was fussing because he didn’t have a hand on the rope. Adrienne was halfway to a meltdown because she wanted to hold both ends of the rope and jump by herself like Sister from the Berenstain Bears.
I relinquished the rope and let them play without direction for a moment, to see what would happen.
What happened was that Ezra bolted away with the jump rope in his hand.
Adrienne fell to the sidewalk and had a tantrum because her new toy had been pilfered. Frankie stood back and laughed.
Ezra was headed toward the corner of the street where the cars don’t always stop at the sign, so I sprinted after him in my long modest skirt, calling in a gentle school teacher voice. “Ezra, come back! Ezra, that’s not your jump rope! Ezra, honey, come back and have a cookie! Don’t go running into the street! Remember to stop when you get to the corner!”
Ezra did not stop.
Finally, I caught up enough to step on the edge of the jump rope.
Ezra kept running until the rope was taut, and then he tripped.
I helped him up and started to gather him and the rope back to the yard.
“Wow!” said a woman’s voice. “You’re a GOOD mother!”
I looked up to see a stranger wandering toward me– a woman, skinny, older than I, enjoying the contents of a plastic cup.
“I’m a WHAT?” I asked.
“A good mother! Come here!”
Ezra was meekly walking back to my yard, so I took a few steps toward the lady, certain I was being mocked.
“You talk to them real well,” said the lady. “Are you a foster mom?”
“What? Oh no. Only Rosie is mine. The other two are just visiting.”
“How do you make them do what you want?” asked the lady.
I was close enough now that I could smell the piercing fumes of alcohol coming from the cup. I realized for the first time that she wasn’t teasing me, but genuinely seeking information. “What?”
“I yell and yell at my kids and they don’t do what I want. They’ll do what their foster mom wants, but I can’t make them listen to me. Do you hit her? Sometimes I think you just have to hit ’em, you know? What do you do?”
I looked back at the child I’d just tripped. Ezra was wiggling the rope back and forth on the ground like a snake, and the other two were giggling and trying to evade it.
“Cinderella! Cinderella! Cinderella!” chanted Adrienne.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
I don’t think I ever saw that lady again. The house she’d come out of was the duplex where people live only for the shortest time. One minute they’re there, and then they go wherever it is poor people go when they’re evicted.
Ezra’s house burned down in an electrical fire the next year, and he and his mother were homeless for months. They lived in their car until they found another rental on a different block.
Frankie went back to live with his parents.
Rosie is called Adrienne now– a young woman, going to middle school this year.
I didn’t know it was possible to miss Dollar Tree chalk and jump ropes so much.
Of course, it’s not really the jump rope I miss.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.