The Girl at the Park

Andy had an early softball game tonight so the kids and I met him there to cheer him on. And by cheer him on I mean I tried to catch him at bat at least once while watching Sophie climb all over the bleachers and feeding tiny cut-up grapes (dinner) to the boys. Schmidt Field has a nice playground area, and Sophie knows this. I think Andy was only into his second inning when I finally gave in to Sophie’s pleading and took the kids to the swings.

We had almost reached the playground when a little girl who looked to be about Sophie’s age ran up to us. She said she liked our stroller. She helped me push it. She tried to unbuckle Owen while I was putting James in the swing. Once the boys were in the swings Sophie pushed James and the little girl pushed Owen. She wanted him to go high. I said not too high. She listened. I noticed she was staring at the boys’ shoes. She looked up at me. She said she liked them.

I looked down at her bare feet, caked with dirt, bits of long-ago red polish on her toenails. Her plaid green skort and halter top were soiled and stained—and not the kind of dirty that clothes get after a hard day’s play. But the kind of dirty that clothes get when they’re worn often and not washed. She was missing an arm and as such her halter top was skewed sideways so that one nipple was exposed. She had a wide scratch underneath her chin and a small one above her right eyebrow. A young boy walked past—someone she obviously knew—and she scowled at him and said, quietly, “dirty bastard.”

I thought so many things at that moment. I thought about her home life. I thought about those words, “dirty bastard.” I thought about her mother. I knew her mother wasn’t there because at one point a teenager slowly walked over and said “Be good or I’m going to tell your mama on you.” The little girl scowled at her, too. I thought about the girl’s scratches and hoped they were akin to the bruises covering Sophie’s legs—signs of playing hard rather than hard living. Looking at the girl, I should have felt blessed with all I have but instead I felt ridiculous. I thought of my Amy Butler diaper bag, the expensive Stride Rite tennis shoes and sandals on my children’s feet, Sophie’s Dora-branded, fancy flip-top water bottle, the smart phone in my purse. Although I am not rich, I felt spoiled. I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry, for all of us, living in a world in which so many have so much and so many have so little.

Sophie, of course, wasn’t thinking any of this. She was just delighted to have someone to play tag with. The girls chased each other all over the playground. They slid down the slide together, hand in hand. They climbed up the rope ladder together and sat on a platform together and at one point, when the little girl was elsewhere and Sophie was swinging and fell, the little girl ran over, concerned.

They were friends.

Eventually the little girl joined some teenagers and children at a picnic table. And Sophie found someone new to play with. But when it came time to leave, Sophie insisted on saying goodbye to her. So we walked over. And said goodbye. Sophie gave her a hug. The little girl hugged her back.

We left.

While walking back to Andy’s game, still in progress, I asked Sophie about the little girl. Sophie said she had fun playing tag with her. And then she paused. I braced myself. For questions about the little girl’s missing arm. The scratches. The dirty clothes. The words, “dirty bastard.” And then Sophie said, “She wasn’t wearing any shoes.”

“No,” I said. “She wasn’t.”

“Well, I don’t want to wear any shoes then, too.”

The little girl was admiring my boys’ sneakers. Sophie was admiring the little girl’s bare feet.

I love the way very young children so quickly friend each other, without thought to sex, class, race, popularity, appearance. I hope Sophie maintains that sense of openness, always. Especially during those oh-so-difficult middle-school years, when absurd things like a shirt’s brand name matters. (And, let’s be honest. For many of us, it still does.)

And while I loved their short friendship, I hated the fact that I met a child tonight who was forced to wear such dirty clothes. Who was missing an arm. Who knew the words “dirty bastard” at the age of 3. It made me hate what I have. And hate what she didn’t have. And hate that some—many—have much, much more. And then I hated all the hate that was flowing through me. And so I tried to be grateful. Grateful for the two girls’ smiles and laughter, for their quick friendship, for their goodbye hugs. Grateful for what I do have, even if it makes me feel spoiled. Grateful I had the childhood I did and grateful my children have the childhood they do. And grateful that, despite it all, a game of tag is still a game of tag—oblivious childhood fun.

I hope I remember that little girl always. Especially on days when I want. And I hope I can embrace Sophie’s attitude and instead, turn it around and wish for bare feet.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” —Nelson Mandela