We have a sandbox nestled under a listing oak tree in our yard. The tree, struck by lightning years before our arrival, has a hollow in its back where animals nest. We moved to our house 14 years ago in December — having fled Manhattan after a measly seven month stint. Transplanting from our home in the Santa Monica Mountains to city living with a one-year-old, a Doberman mix and a German Shepherd rendered me anxious and dizzy. When spring came a year later, I resurfaced. Finding myself again in the open outdoors.
The decision to place the sandbox under the tree’s shade wasn’t one made lightly. We had been advised to take it down. “It’s a safety issue!” We were told. Despite the warnings, the spot called to me because it not only afforded cover from the sun but a clear line of vision — and a beeline sprint to rescue children in distress — from our kitchen sliding doors. I remember going through all kinds of fatal scenarios in my mind. Some involved the tree suddenly crashing to the ground on a calm-weathered day and others involved children choking on silica-laced sand and dying from toxic overload. Ironically, the sandbox wood is formaldehyde free. The sand, silica free — but the tree was a risk I was willing to overlook. I had an affinity for it and trusted it would stay rooted. Doing its job of sheltering my children for me.
More than a decade later both the sandbox and its leaning oak remain. The box, now weathered, blends into the grass with its moss-covered wood. Weeds have wrangled their way through and above the ground cloth I placed just so beneath the sand. In fact, there’s little sand left and in the center there’s a forgotten faded plastic dump truck. Bugs have made their home there and I often wonder if it’s more the spiders than the lack of sand that keeps Elias out of the box.
I’ve been trying to remember if this was the first season we didn’t play in it but I can’t recall. “We should probably take the sandbox down,” I said absently to Rob the other night. We were sipping wine under the covered patio and I found myself staring out at it wistfully. “Really?” He asked in a surprised voice. “Let’s leave it. We might use it.” “Okay. That’s fine. We can leave it.” I said gently. We spent a lot of time in that sandbox. Running to and from the pool. Days morphed together in one timeless blur — infancy, toddlerhood, preschool. Years where I need the photographs to remind me that time did pass in increments, although it felt like it was standing still.
Today, as summer winds to its end and school is just a breath away, I find that I am once again experiencing time as this fleeting standstill. Kids bicker and fight and vacillate between such hate and love I find that I keep fleeing through the sliding doors to our patio. Closing the glass to shut out their shouts. Sitting outside with my journal, my espresso, my lists and my knitting … or a book I can’t really pay mind to. Anything to remove myself from the angst that is presenting itself inside our home.
More often than not, my heart rate escalates as their fighting reaches its crescendo. It is both infuriating and exhausting. My only salvation is to step away and quiet myself. I find that the more I disengage and remove myself, the better they succeed at resolving their conflicts. Their behavior feels like toenails being ripped out and resentment encapsulates me. God can’t school just start already! I keep muttering under my breath. Holding back a few F-bombs as I surreptitiously shovel chocolate into my mouth behind the cabinet door. Until it doesn’t.
Until I see them through the windows, working through their own discomforts, their own worries and their struggles. Making sense of chaotic summer bedrooms and clutter. Weeding through their piles of old things and making room for the new school year. They keep trying to step up and communicate with each other instead of screaming. I’m always surprised by how quickly they move beyond their conflict. The more I lean back instead of over, the better they do.
Like the sandcastles that were built and inadvertently knocked down. And the tears that were sand-caked on soft pudgy faces as tantrums of frustration erupted. They moved past them. Rebuilding after the outburst. They did. I remember it feeling far easier to sit still and hold a space for their explosiveness when they were younger. Was it easier? Or am I just a little foggy in my remembering? I’m not sure. We don’t have many photos of the fits. Just the laughter.
Summer will end. I’ll go kicking and screaming. I always do. Even when I am so done with my children — I can’t stand to be within an inch of them. Oh my God they’re breathing on me with their hot breath. They’ll leave and I’ll ache for them. Their slow, sleepy-morning breath, their shouts and their un-yielding demands. I always do. Beyond the dizzying chaos are the softer, gentle moments. The growing pains of self-awareness and their resiliency to stay both rooted and connected despite the storms of family living. The sandbox and its tilted oak will weather another winter. We’ll see what surfaces when spring comes around again. I’ll be curious to see.