The children took every towel in my mother’s bathroom. They were playing beach in her bedroom with a trio of ceiling fan lights headlining as The Sun. The roles The Beach and The Ocean were filled by foam mattress toppers laid side-by-side. The topper posing as the beach was cream colored, resembling the white sand beaches of nowhere my kids have ever been. Had they wanted more vérité, beaches cast from their own experiences, they’d have picked dishwater grey sand or sprinkled the tan expanse with cigarette butts and the occasional used maxi pad. But then, imagination is for our best selves and it would be cruel to exclude pretend beaches from the practice of positive self-actualization.
My mother didn’t mind the towel stealing, so I resigned myself to not minding either, until I tried to dry my hands on my mother’s bathroom wall. I went to get fresh towels, bent to grab an armful, enough for the other members of the household to use after showering, but thought better of it. Children are nothing if not gluttons so maybe my best play was to bring only one towel back to the bathroom, such a paltry quarry that they’d be encouraged to look elsewhere for their stash. It’s been my observation that children are motivated to hunt where there is excess, avoiding solitary prey because, even if it’s their favorite thing, what’s the point of having only one of something?
To prove my point, my kids squirreled around the house from room to room to collect necessities for their faux beach. My mom’s house was their warehouse store. On this score I’m still only as evolved as a five-year-old. I’ve never been to a Costco for toilet paper and a sleeve of 24 frozen turkey burgers without also feeling the urge to buy a pound of smoked paprika and a pack of 30 tube socks. I don’t actually buy them, though, because I have outgrown the “adolescent hoarder” stage and moved into “middle aged with children,” during which the prevailing characteristic is standing in a room full of toys and asking no one in particular, “Where did all of this crap come from?”
Back at the beach the kids had water bottles for quenching the thirst of dozens, although by all accounting theirs was a private beach with only four bathers. Maybe the others were caught in a horrific undertow and were drowned beneath my mother’s queen bed. I’d like to think the extra beverages were a silent toast to the lost. No party pooper, I encouraged the kids to put on their bathing suits over their filthy bodies. Baths have been somewhat spotty while we’ve been engaged in vacation loafing. I figured the worst thing that could happen was that they’d sneak into the bathroom to “swim” in the tub. It would be a rare thing, the spontaneous combination of play and chore. I can remember occasions when I tried to combine the two. “Dusting? No! We’re crime scene investigators looking for fingerprints! Who wants this bottle of lemon-scented Luminol?” That didn’t work out either, but on vacation everyone’s an optimist.
They finished their game, still dirty, and left their coastal goods in piles among bunches of towels and swim goggles. Taking in the scene after the fact, they weren’t playing Beach Party after all. More like Red Cross Responds to Terrycloth Tsunami. More is more, I guess. I offer the kids a piece of gum they ask if they can have two—packs. I’ve seen one of my daughters reach for half a dozen carrot sticks, when I know and she knows that she’ll consume a maximum of none. Whether it’s candy or cotton balls, they’d like nothing less than all of it. This is likely the impulse of their hard-wired lizard-brain, this amassing of stuff. Back when they were cave children they probably fought each other for scraps of mammoth and the best stones for their primitive games, like Throw Things at Other Things and Checkers.
I’ve come to think this is just how personality and peccadilloes are teased out from the lump we begin life as. We start out mushy bobble heads whose only interests are eating and pooping. Feed me! Change me! Put me back in the womb! The call of the infant means nothing more than “I don’t know what I need.” Toddlers might assert preferences: Elmo over Barney, food you’re not giving them over the food you are. When they become children, when we stop counting their ages in months, they get serious about personality. They become consumers of everything, burying their noses in every glass, inhaling deeply, swishing the world around in their mouths then spitting it out and declaring it too tannic. What better way to determine preference than to ingest everything and leave the mess for the wait staff to clear up? “ Waiter, we’re done with the towels. And yes, I’d like fifty radishes and a tall kitchen garbage can, garçon. I’m sure I’ll hate them but one never knows unless one tries.”
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