So, today was my birthday and the lead up was NOT good.
Birthdays, holidays and milestones mean a lot to me. I demand real Christmas trees, that we hopefully have to cut down ourselves, and will stay up all night baking Christmas cookies with the girls because IT’S CHRISTMAS AND THATS WHAT PEOPLE DO.
Maybe it’s the ritual, or maybe I like the idea of setting days aside to make quality time spent with your loved ones the top priority, I don’t know. But either way, I spent my last birthday trying to keep the kids from killing each other and setting the house on fire and was determined not to do it again.
Because it made me really sad, like any holiday that passes without comment. Any day that’s supposed to count which brings feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
So, we planned to do something we’d never done before, which made me so happy:
We would wake up really early and go to Gilroy Gardens, a small amusement park with lots of waterslides and rides for the family. John and I had been hit with some unexpected expenses this month, so it couldn’t be anything extravagant, but I asked for a few chocolates for my birthday and a little trip with the family if he could comfortably get the day off from work.
He could, and the girls were EXCITED to hear about the fun trip to the water park. Since I firmly believe showmanship is 50% of proper parenting, I’d been pulling up internet photos and planning for the past week, whetting the girls’ appetites until it turned into a nightly ritual of “How many more days until Gilroy Gardens?’ answered by “four more days,” “three more days,” “two more days.” Right after the book and before the goodnight kiss.
Well, things started going wrong on Two More Days.
First, after a week of 100+ degree weather, the pool was finally warm enough for me to swim in. I was laying stomach-down on a big blow-up alligator, closing my eyes and trailing my arms through the water as I felt a startling amount of stress magically float away, when suddenly I felt a sharp stinging in the worst place one could feel it…
Flipping up, bewildered and disoriented, falling off the alligator because someone just set my nether regions ON FIRE…
Me: WHAT THE HELL??
John: Hey, I tried to get him off you.
And here, I stop talking because I find myself barking and yelling and trying really, really hard not to swear because I used to swear a blue streak before the kids were born but kids repeat what you say and I can’t have them dropping F-bombs everywhere because then people would think they were Born In A Barn and they just wouldn’t be received in the best houses and I’m trying to work out what John meant by “I tried to get him off you” as I wonder why my first sense of timeless, weightless Nirvana in months had been interrupted by melting privates…
John: Hey, the bee was sitting there already when I knocked him away to help you. You want me to pull out the stinger?
Me: NO, I WANT TO WALK AROUND WITH A STINGER UP MY ASS.
John: Well, if…
Me: YES, I WANT YOU TO PULL THE STINGER OUT.
He pulls it out and scrapes it off on the side of the pool as I notice a dead bee laying there. Was that the bee who stung me? Stinging kills honey bees. Suddenly, it occurs to me…
Me: HEY, I have NEVER been stung by a bee since I was four years old and touched one, but YOU have been stung A GAZILLION TIMES.
John: Well, I grew up in the South, so…
Me: No. Just, NO. I’ve seen TONS of bees and we have NEVER had a problem with each other. YOU get involved AND SUDDENLY, I HAVE BEES STINGING MY PRIVATES.
John: I WAS HELPING YOU!
Me: I DO NOT WANT YOU TALKING TO BEES ON MY BEHALF. CLEARLY, YOU PISS THEM OFF.
Well, once the raging pain subsided, I calmed down and asked John to just tell me next time instead of smacking it. Everything was going fine (apart from the trouble I was having sitting down) until the next day, when I was eating some toast for breakfast and half a tooth falls out in my mouth.
Oh, crap. This can’t be good.
This is about to suck.
I look this up online to figure out whether this is an EMERGENCY before realizing that the tooth I’m holding in my hand is actually a broken crown, since my teeth have been good to me apart from two back molars which gave me enough trouble to ultimately get crowned a couple of years ago. I call the dentist…
Me: I think the crown broke because it’s just the top with no root and is it really a huge emergency because my birthday is tomorrow and my husband took the day off work so we could go do something fun and we have plans and I really, really don’t want to cancel them to spend my birthday having dental work done, so is it okay to handle this later?
Dentist Receptionist: Ummm… are you in a lot of pain?
Me: Noooooooo….. I mean. I have to chew everything on the left side of my mouth and if I make a mistake it’s pretty unpleasant, but other than that I’m totally fine. It’s great, actually. I’m not even noticing anything. Feels awesome.
DR: Hold on…
Okay, we can see you the next day after your birthday in the afternoon.
Me: Whew, okay sounds good.
Tomorrow was saved and I was so relieved. Even if I spent today dealing with a right-side-of-my-head headache as my kids spent their afternoon trying to solve their boredom by winding each other up. That’s when my husband came home from work…
He looked troubled, but didn’t say anything until the kids were outside playing. Which made it even scarier.
Turns out, the loan for the replacement HVAC just got added to our mortgage which unexpectedly drove up out mortgage this month, which we didn’t see coming. And, the deductible for our insurance for the mold issue that happened in our laundry room because the previous owners hadn’t built the washer outlet up to code had suddenly come out of our account. That, and a few other unexpected bills had cropped up, which meant we were squeezing by and didn’t have enough for luxuries this month, like going to Gilroy Gardens or buying chocolates.
I braced myself to tell the kids.
Because I felt sick about promising them something fun then having to cancel it because mom and dad, the Titans who rule their world, had gotten their math wrong and now we’d have to be super practical for a while. They had underestimated and maybe the entire universe was resting on shaky foundations because the demi-gods they answer to and expect to keep the trains running on time were apparently two bad events away from total chaos at any given moment…. I was afraid they would think.
But they took it surprisingly well. Until they got into the car to run a quick errand with John, where they cried their eyes out the entire way, he later told me.
Which means they kept up a brave face for my sake, which felt even worse.
Disappointing your children is agony.
While they were gone, I scrambled for something else to do and came up with the idea of visiting the Egyptian museum a couple of hours away. Tickets were pretty cheap.
“There’s a real mummy in there,” I told Brontë when she returned.
“Ancient Egypt,” she asked in wonder.
“Yes,” I said. “And you can see the mummy’s tongue. It’s all black and dried up.”
“Ohhhhhh…” she said, grinning.
It wasn’t until after they went to bed that I looked up the hours and realized it would be closed today. As would be most other things.
I scrambled even harder and came up with a plan: we could go on an Underground Sacramento tour, which neither John nor I had done, before then checking out the Folsom Prison museum, which could be accomplished for $2 adult tickets and children-under-12 are free.
John and I had already bought the sacrificial Underground tour tickets online before reading that “TOUR NOT RECOMMENDED FOR CHILDREN UNDER SIX.”
And Bridget is four.
It’s an outside walking tour, over an hour long, and it would be over 100 degrees outside.
(Let’s hope for the best.)
So… we woke up early today, scrambled to get the kids’ hair brushed and shoes buckled and sunblock and snacks stuffed into backpacks, which took longer than it should’ve and meant we would hit bad traffic while watching the clock tick down to ten minutes before the tour would leave when we were still 20 minutes out.
We parked the car too far away because we saw an open space, then jogged to the ticket booth, grabbing the kids’ hands across the street as Bridget endlessly asked “why?” and finally passed the tour that had already started as the grey-bearded, prospector-looking tour guide in full, period costume saw us and said:
“It’s okay. You get your headsets and I’ll talk real slow.”
There have been a couple of desperate moments in parenting when a few kind words completely restored my faith in humanity.
One was when John and I took a screaming infant Brontë out in her stroller at 3AM, in the crazed hope that her five hours of tortured, window-shaking shrieks would be calmed by a gentle morning walk, and that she’d stop screaming outside before waking up the entire neighborhood. Another father took one look at our crippled faces, tilted his head in sincere sympathy and promised us, “It gets easier. it really does.”
And this was the other time.
We ran to the ticket office and fitted the kids with their headsets and receivers and scrambled outside to join the rest of the tour. I looked at Bridget and inwardly prayed… please, Bridget… Please don’t break the headset and don’t get bored and start babbling in the middle of the tour and throwing a fit until we have to leave and waste our money and time and deal with you freaking out while every other adult in the vicinity judges us and thinks we are terrible parents who are ruining everything…
And then the guide walked us to the Eagle Theater, made of canvas apparently because it’s a mockup of the kinds of canvas buildings built in Sacramento before brick became the standard because anyone could boat down the river and scoop up discarded, easily-transportable canvas for free when Bridget took my hand, lead over, and whispered:
“I love this, mama…”
And I smiled, and she kissed my hand. She was perfectly-behaved during the whole tour, beaming as she followed instructions and squeezed my hand the entire way. We went under a few buildings to learn how floods were destroying Old Sacramento and how rich people paid people to put cranks under buildings with the tenants still living there, raising the buildings, inch-by-inch, until Sacramento was lifted several feet up and the American river had been hand-diverted by workers shoveling dirt into buckets.
The guide even picked me out as the imaginary rich woman of Old Sacramento who would hire the lifting company to move my fancy brick building full of city bigwigs… I got special attention from the guide, even though he didn’t know it was my birthday, and any woman over 25 is always flattered to be referred to as “young miss” repeatedly, even if the referrer is over seventy if he is a day…
We finally reached the underground building where an archeological dig is going on, which had unearthed surgeon/dentist/guy-who-owns-whisky-and-knives tools, where a ghost with a beard and red vest had apparently been spotted yelling at an angry woman who disappeared–on more than one occasion. The guide seemed reluctant to mention supernatural facts around my young children, but they were thrilled and would later call it their favorite moment.
We then bought a little candy from the nearby old-timey candy shop and I pretended the piece I just accidentally chewed on the right side wasn’t driving ice-picks into my right temple before departing for Folsom Prison, which Brontë could hardly believe.
Is it a real prison, she kept asking.
Yes, it is real.
They aren’t pretending?
No. They are real prisoners who did bad things. They killed people or did something really bad, and some of them have to stay there forever. See that tower over there? (She nods.) That’s where guards are watching to see if prisoners try to escape. They can shoot them from those towers.
Brontë blinks rapidly. Are they there now?, she asks.
Yes, real prisoners. Right now.
Can we see them?
No. But we can see the museum.
We enter the museum and are led to a video of Huell Howser visiting Folsom prison. Huell Howser was a very tall man with a very rural accent who once made a career at PBS out of being super impressed by simple things.
Like a box of rocks. Huell Howser once wouldn’t stop talking about a small box of rocks he saw at a quarry. Adam Corella called him exactly the guy you want seeing your new house in front of your mother-in-law. I really miss that guy.
Well, Huell was checking out the original Folsom Prison cells, which didn’t used to have air-holes and existed in open-air in 1890, when prisoners would poop in a bucket and empty said bucket every morning before breakfast.
Feeling the 100+ degree heat, I couldn’t help wondering how many of them died of heat exhaustion.
Huell may have been the most positive human being who ever lived.
We also saw pictures of Death Row, where prisoners pooped in buckets in slightly bigger cells with a few more air-holes before being hanged with ropes and buried in graves whose gravestones and ropes we would soon see in the museum.
Which we did, along with early Gatling guns and a giant toothpick Ferris wheel built by a bored-but-talented prisoner. And roses made of toilet paper and marker pens, which smelled like roses, though the placards didn’t mention how the artist had infused the rose-like scent. We saw a wall of improvised shanks, dating back to the 1930’s, which John found titillating.
It was altogether most creepy and fascinating.
And on the ride home, the girls couldn’t stop talking about how awesome the day had been.
“What was your favorite part?” I asked them.
“Seeing where prisoners live, and how they made toys out of toothpicks. And getting candy. And hearing about ghosts,” said Brontë.
“See where the ghost with a beard likes to yell,” said Bridget. “And holding you hand because I love you.”
We grabbed a pizza and went home and to swim. The girls wanted me to hold them in the pool and talk about all the crazy, wonderful things they’d seen.
Which made it a pretty nice birthday, overall.