Arts : Home on the Range 

A former New Yorker’s guide to the Texas adjustment

What a drag it is getting old.

- “Mother’s Little Helper,” The Rolling Stones

Since moving to Texas, I’ve expanded my vocabulary to include a lot of new words: Roadie cup. Bucket of tea. H-E-B. Shiner. 85mph speed limit. But the term that’s had the most positive impact on my quality of life has to be “Mother’s Day Out.”

The first time I heard this phrase bandied about, I was confused. If they have Mother’s Day Outs back East, they call them something else — “day care,” perhaps. With its 1950s flavah, Mother’s Day Out conjures images of ladies gossiping under giant hairdryers or taking three-chardonnay lunches at Neiman’s or popping a Valium and sinking back on satin sheets with a Whitman’s Sampler and Days of Our Lives (or maybe that’s a “Mother’s Day Off”).

Of course, my immediate reaction was: Where do I sign up? Unfortunately, I’d moved to San Antonio in the first throes of August and all the best Mother’s Day Outs had been booked since February. But the following year, I was on top of it, and for nine blissful months my 3-year-old daughter Dale has gone to school twice a week, giving me, her sainted mother, two six-hour respites in which to work, run errands, tidy up, exercise, loaf, and get pedicures — lots of pedicures.

Now the party’s over and I find myself staring into the great maw of summer, wondering how the hell we’re going to make it to August 24, the first day of school. Because contrary to what you may have learned from Schoolhouse Rock, 3 is most definitely not the magic number — that appears to be 4, when a child miraculously becomes mature enough to take part in all manner of organized summertime entertainment, from day camps to vacation Bible schools, leaving her mother plenty of time to enjoy certain freedoms. (“Vacation Bible School” is another new term I learned in Texas — seemed like an oxymoron at first, but I think I’m starting to get it.) Oh, sure, we’ve got playgroups and music class, gymnastics and swim lessons. But that still leaves me casting about for age-appropriate ways to fill our downtime and get us out of the house without being immolated by the San Antonio sun.

If my daughter had her druthers, we would spend the whole summer at America’s Original Kiddie Park on Broadway. And I have to admit that I’m not totally averse to the idea. On a recent Friday morning, the ramshackle park was relatively shady and hardly crowded — a handful of parasol-toting grandmas with their grandkids, a family that was clearly from out of town (judging by their bewildered wait-a-minute-this-isn’t-Fiesta-Texas expressions), and a raucous group of Starbucks-swilling adults allegedly there to shoot a corporate video and allegedly not drunk.

I’m a fan of the place because we only seem to have to pay for half the rides we go on. I arrive with a wallet full of little red tickets from our last visit, and I always seem to leave with my wallet equally stuffed, even after Dale has completed her circuit twice. First she hits the merry-go-round (three times, three different horses), then the cars, the airplanes, and finally she boards the good ship Comet Christian and traverses the toxic waters of the boat ride. When I tell people that I take my daughter to the Kiddie Park, many recoil or at least wrinkle their noses. As a veteran of the amusement park at New York’s Coney Island, where many of the attractions smell of burning hair, perhaps I’ve just built a tolerance for these things.

Another reason I like the Kiddie Park is that Dale adds a new ride to her repertoire on almost every visit, so it’s become a way for me to track her developmental milestones. Not long ago she steeled her nerves and rode the School Bus from Hell (not its official name) and the last time we were thrilled to see the coach-and-horses ride actually functioning. As Dale gathered her reins and the operator cranked up the ride, I was momentarily transported back to NYC — the clattering din a reminder of my first post-college apartment, the one underneath the 125th Street subway stop.

So this just leaves the Ferris wheel, the helicopters, and the intermittently operating roller coaster on Dale’s to-do list. I doubt she’ll overcome her fears — or grow tall enough — to ride all three before August 24. And that’s OK. Once she’s done them all (several hundred times), I’ll have to get one of those season passes to Sea World, and I doubt I’ll be leaving there with a full wallet. I’m sure I’ll also be melancholy for the time when she went to school for only 12 hours a week and never seemed to get tired of hanging out with me. Instead of pining for my lost Mother’s Day Out, I’ll be feebly trying to convince her of the coolness of mother-daughter spa treatments.


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