It was my first Gramsy-grandson date, and Niko and I had chosen Chick-Fil-A for lunch after our adventures at the local botanical gardens. We’d wandered miles of paths for two hours, admiring plant varieties and waterfalls, lamenting the lack of mosquito repellent. (The blood-thirsty creatures preferred me to my favorite 3-year-old, for which I was thankful.)
We’d managed to find a parking space, despite the double circle of cars looping around Chick-Fil-A to get food at the drive-through. It was barely 11:30 on Saturday. As I unleashed Niko from his car seat, he looked at me and said, “You know, they have a playground here.”
I placed him on my hip and wove our way through the mostly stationary cars in line, now aware that we’d come for more than lunch.
“You know why cars can see you?” Niko said to me as we neared the restaurant unharmed.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you’re big.” (The words you’re and big when used together to describe me are fighting words, but I let it slide. Tall is more accurate; tall and slender preferable. But to a 3-year-old, I graciously admitted, I probably seem big.)
“And why don’t the cars see you?” I asked.
“Well, because I’m … three.”
He paused before choosing his adjective, likely as unwilling to call himself little as I was to be called big.
(My grandson “speaks like a 6-year-old,” as I would be told multiple times just in the short time we would be at the restaurant — and playground. Where I use quotation marks, I literally quote him in this post.)
We ate our lunch and then had a treat (me, a heavenly Icedream cone; Niko, a calorie-laden chocolate chunk cookie, every bite of which he ate — except the trace of chocolate he couldn’t see around his mouth). Lunch and treat finished, we entered the play area.
Inside was utter chaos. Big children (though they made the restaurant’s height requirement; I checked) were running, jumping, throwing themselves under and around the equipment and pretending to shoot machine guns at each other. It was loud.
Niko sat in my lap on the bench I’d commandeered to aid in removing his shoes. We both looked around uncertainly; I’m positive my face showed utter disdain for the older, unsupervised children. (They were unfazed by my expression.) Niko leaned into me and watched.
“I don’t understand what he is doing,” Niko said, meaning the child who had yanked the other bench from the wall to hide behind while he used his imaginary rifle to shoot the girls and boys running and jumping through the steps and tunnels. He accompanied his antics with various weapon sounds — “ratatatat!” and “pew pew!” and “takka takka!” — and, finally, “tzing!” when he hit his target.
“I’m winning! I’m winning” the young man then raged crazily, leaving his post to run toward the others waving his arms.
“I don’t understand what he is doing,” Niko repeated. I had no real answer, just an overwhelming desire to retreat. We stayed seated.
Chick-Fil-A came to the rescue, carrying the group’s food to the table. Mothers (who had failed at supervising their children on the playground) came to the door, and chaos — in the form of five big children — exited.
All was peace and quiet.
Niko slowly emerged from his shell shock to explore the play equipment. The large, triangular steps acted as self-limiters. The height between each step increased as the steps went up to various tubes and slides. The smallest children managed one or two steps; Niko got to the third.
And there he sat, only partly in the way. Some of the bigger children had bolted their lunches and returned to the play area. They didn’t resume their gunfight, but they agilely climbed around Niko to reach the subsequent steps and the reward of access to tubes and slides. He conversed with them as they passed, and then announced to me that he was going higher. He began climbing and then disappeared from my sight.
While the older children flowed up and down the stairs and slide, I saw no evidence of my grandson. A hint of the previous chaos had returned. But just a hint.
A text from my daughter reminded me that we were due back at 1. It was time to go.
“Niko, we’ve got to leave in a few minutes,” I called to the play equipment, hoping he could hear me. “Start coming down.”
“Are you Niko?” I heard an older boy ask. “Your mom or grandma is calling you.”
(Score! He wasn’t sure I was old enough to be a grandma! But, then again, he didn’t say “Your sister or mom is calling you…”)
I had already determined that the configuration of the play area was self-limiting to small children — and big grandmas, too (no matter how young they may look). Unless I were willing to crawl and climb, this body wasn’t going up to fetch her grandson. I hoped I didn’t have to be willing.
The bigger children were climbing up the curvy tubular slide as I waited at the end for Niko to emerge from sliding down it. He didn’t.
After a couple of minutes passed, I called to Niko again, walking around the play equipment to put my eyes on this grandchild of mine. He was at the very top. And though he didn’t seem upset, he wasn’t moving, and I had the distinct impression it was because he felt he couldn’t.
“Don’t make me come up there!” I thought to myself. Begging.
Then I noticed the older children, who I’d earlier held in disdain for being wild and insensitive, coaching Niko, showing him how to get down the steps.
Under their tutelage, I saw his little legs dangle about six inches above the next lower step — and then watched him pull himself back onto the higher step as if that little drop of faith was a bit bigger than his inner confidence.
“It’s easier to go down the slide,” a patient girl told Niko. “I can show you.”
“Feet first!” I called up to them.
She nodded at me, like an older, wiser friend indicating she understood and had this under control. I knew Niko regularly went down the tall slide at the playground in the park, but I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about a winding, tubular slide.
But shortly afterward, Niko arrived at the bottom of the slide, no worse for wear, no evidence of discomfort or worry. His big friends soon appeared at his side, and I thanked them. Profusely.
Remembering my earlier disdain for their wildness, I felt humbled by how I’d secretly measured their height against the painted height limit on the Chick-Fil-A door, suspecting they were too big for the play area.
I wasn’t the only one. By the comments of two other grandmas in the room, I knew that they had wondered that too.
“They’re the right height,” I’d said when talking with my fellow grandmas earlier, “but they act bigger.”
Now I was thankful.
As Niko and I drove toward his house, he talked about what he saw from his window — a bucket truck and a conveyor truck. Then he launched into reciting his numbers: “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10!”
“What comes after 10?” I asked.
“And after eleven?”
And so on, until we’d explored the relationship between the numbers he knew well and the teens (11, 12, 13 and 15 are a little tricky) and begun to tackle the 20s.
Probably not a typical conversation to have with a 3-year-old.
But then, it hadn’t been a typical day. It had been one in which children acted bigger than they look and this Gramsy’s heart was bigger because of it.
And though it was my first Gramsy-grandson date, it won’t be my last. I’m big on time with my grandson.