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“Higher, mama!”

 

My daughter’s shrieks punctuated the heavy afternoon summer air.

 

“Higherrrrrrrrrrrr!”

 

I heaved my entire weight into the next push. Her tiny two-year-old body catapulted into a graceful ark in the swing. My success was affirmed with gleeful squeals.

 

“Okay, now it’s your turn,” she proclaimed once back on land.

 

Wanting to prove myself adventurous and not wanting to risk the rigmarole of disagreeing with a toddler, I slowly plunked myself into the swing and began pumping. It had been years since I had graced the rubber saddle, and I could tell. Instead of the slight “tummy woo” that I relished in my younger years, I was met instead with an overwhelming nausea. I gritted my teeth and tried to smile through the unpleasant falling sensation.

 

Steeling myself to a stop before my insides came out, I stopped to look around at the park. Nothing had changed in the past 20 years. There were the large wooden seesaws, the merry-go-round, and the “tornado slide” nestled under the shade of a large oak tree. The gravel crept its way into the small crevices of my sandals, and I thought back to the many long afternoons of summer spent in this space, of scrambling up the steep slide steps, and of the many games of hide and seek played with my cousins under the sole supervision of the steadily beating sun. For me then, as for my daughter now, the park was a novelty, a place for escape, adventure, and imagination. We only came to the park near our family’s lake house once a year, and each time we looked forward to the “special” park down the road. While the aunts and uncles played cards and lounged on the docks, we were construction workers digging to China, storm chasers tracking down a tornado, birds soaring to the heavens. The park was our world and the world was our park.

 

Today when I looked at the playground I saw it with the cautious eye of a parent. Every piece of equipment held its own separate but equally dangerous liability. I grimaced at the nearly certain scalding metal of the slide, a baking sheet in the sun’s oven. I noticed warily the long potential plummet from the top of the rickety old seesaw. Too easily I could see my children flying off the merry-go-round as the momentum from the rotation pulled them from its safe center. My imagination conjured up graphic injuries involving loose gravel and jumps off the swing gone wrong. What had my parents been thinking leaving us here to play alone?

 

“Mama?”

 

My daughter’s voice brought me back to reality.

 

“Mama, take off my shoes, please.”

 

I obliged her request and watched as she shifted the small pebbles with her toes. What was nuisance to me was novel to her. When had the park switched from a paradise to a perilous place? When had I lost the appetite for tummy woos and dizzying merry-go-round rides? When had the freedom of flying through the air switched to a panicked free fall on the swing? I didn’t know, but I longed to recapture some of her simple joy and free spirit.

 

My hometown, Tulsa, just opened a new $465 million park. For the last two years, the city has been crafting hills, repaving roadways, and researching the best play equipment in the world. On our initial visit to the new play area, my family and I marveled at the zip lines and waterwheels, the towering play structures, and the beautiful boathouse for kayak rentals. This felt like a theme park, or some creation of the effortlessly cool Pacific Northwest, not Tulsa, Oklahoma, land of oil rigs and country music.

 

My husband and daughter made a beeline for the castle equipment while I attempted to cajole my infant son into a much-needed nap. I walked on and on through the winding paths with him strapped to me, trying to hit a sleep-inducing rhythm with my steps. And as I walked, I continued to marvel. I felt like Alice in Wonderland seeing familiar sights come undone and reimagined. Where before there had been flat fields for Frisbee golf and football, there now stood rock cliffs and full-grown trees. As we walked we passed underground slides, a mirrored maze, and basketball courts as far as the eye could see. If ever a park was to be called special, this was it.

 

As we continued my brisk pace through a secluded area, I was stopped in my tracks. The percussive hum of cicadas vibrated around me, pulsing to the beat of the warm sun on my back. Here, in the middle of the city, nature rang out loud and clear. Its voice seemed to say, “Stop. Notice us. Remember this.” I was far away from the roar of traffic and the bustle of the daily grind. Far away from the demands of everyday life. Far away from adulthood. I lingered in that spot for several minutes with trees towering above and cicadas serenading me with their siren song. Closing my eyes, I could almost picture myself in a dense forest, hiking through exotic foliage in search of ancient ruins. In that space I felt, if just for a moment, my childhood capacity to imagine return. 

 

After gawking at the giant towers and trying out all of the slides, the place my daughter liked best was a simple sandbox. Despite my best efforts to move her along to other sites, she was content to dig in the dirt with other like-minded kids.

 

When billionaire philanthropist George Kaiser imagined this new park, he imagined a space for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status. He believed that creating a physical space for play might give the city the emotional space needed to heal from its historical wounds and come together in an increasingly unequal and divided world. That afternoon as I watched my daughter burrow in the sand with two cornrowed girls, I thought about George Kaiser and his dream. I thought about cicadas in the city, and I thought about my lost ability to fly on the swings. I thought about the need for space. Space to breathe, to listen, to leave reality for just a moment.

 

Then, I fought the urge to clean the sand particles from my toddler and slipped off my shoes. I sunk my toes into the cold sand and listened carefully for the cicadas.

 


Laura Andrews' essay received an honorable mention in this magazine's 2018 Young Alumni Essay Contest. Andrews teaches middle school language arts and resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband and two children. 


 

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