Worse Things Than Cages
“Guess who is about to go on a walk and buy some nice ice cream. Guess.” Barbara looked sideways at her granddaughter.
“If I were going to buy ice cream, I would buy chocolate, not nice ice cream.” Nikki looked back at her grandma, and then started giggling.
“Oh, I see. You haven’t guessed yet. Fine and dandy. Shall we go out and weed the Dichondra?” It was always on the agenda, pulling the tough devil’s grass out from the midst of the tender Dichondra. David versus Goliath, the eternal struggle, the impossible dream, however you wanted to classify the ongoing landscaping efforts, it was always available.
“Can we go see Daddy?” Nikki hadn’t asked once since she had last seen Duane, the previous weekend. Living only one apartment complex away, about a two minute walk, made matters more complicated. Nikki had even attempted to navigate the route by herself one time, simply walking out of the apartment, while Barbara was drying her hair. Five minutes of panic had ensued, until Duane had found her, wandering one flight of stairs down from his. And Barbara had kept her fingers crossed that the question would not come up, and a ready response, for when it did.
“Your mom and dad have worked out a schedule, and we need to stick to it. I know you want to go see your daddy, and I don’t blame you. A little girl needs to spend time with her father, and didn’t you two go to the beach just last Saturday?” Asking questions was her first go-to strategy for the tough questions.
“Yes, we went over to Fort Bragg. We got to see the birds on the headlands, while looking for whales. We didn’t see any whales, but the pelicans were so funny. They fly along the water, and dive for fish. I wouldn’t want to be a fish.” She paused to think about the unfairness of it all, swimming along one second, and then finding yourself in the ample mouth of a pelican, the next. Nikki viewed it as a cage.
“Well, which is better, being scooped up by a pelican, or caught on a hook? I’d rather go for a ride than get hooked myself. C’mon, let’s go get some...rocky road, and ease our rocky road.”
When Nikki laughed and jumped up, Barbara was relieved. The walk to the convenience store was lazy and warm, with ten-year-old Nikki jabbering away, asking questions, and making comments on the state of the good ship, Nikki-Pop, as her Dad often referred to her.
On the way back they had bumped into Miss Gertie, the retired schoolteacher, who lived in the front, downstairs apartment. Nikki had a love/hate relationship with Miss Gertie; she loved to hate her, and resisted the attempts by the elders in her life, to steer her in that direction. Miss Gertie felt that young ladies should be more refined than the bouncy Nikki, and Nikki thought Miss Gertie should stick an egg in it. She had picked up that quaint little expression at school, and though there were worse, it sort of made Barbara think that Gertie might be a good influence.
Take sewing, for instance. Miss Gertie made her own clothes, and had suggested to Grace, more than once, that sewing, including embroidery, were excellent pursuits, for a young daughter. Additionally, she had a piano, and thought that rudimentary instruction in the playing of the piano, would further stimulate little Nikki’s creative impulses. And of course, these interests were all young ladies’ interests, as far as Miss Gertie was concerned.
The way Barbara looked at it, she herself was not going to be the one to tame Nikki. She loved the little girl’s spirit, and thought that to do anything to stifle it was a crime. It was a crime, unless it was a Miss Gertie-type who did the stifling. But that was as likely as Barbara was to fly. When she spoke to Grace, all Nikki’s mother would say is, “I don’t think anyone is going to dim that girl’s light.” Conversely, all Nikki would say about Miss Gertie was, “Gertie, Gertie, saw a birdie, put it in a cage. Nikki, Nikki, stays away, she don’t like that cage.” Despite the double negative, there was a certain catchy tone to the little ditty, thought Barbara.
“Why is our road rocky?” Again, the question came out of nowhere. Barbara knew she ought to have been more careful.
“Oh, Honey, everyone’s road gets kind of rocky sometimes. It’s called life, and whereas there’s lots of time for laughter and games, you know as well as I do, that things can get sad, sometimes.”
“You mean like between Mommy and Daddy? Like that?” Nikki had been spared the worst of the troubles, but no child escapes it all. The arguing that goes on behind closed doors, overflows into the fabric of any family, and creates an ongoing tension, that is not so much solved by separation, as it is ameliorated. But being better than before, is still not not as good as being the way it was in the beginning, back before Duane lost his position at the firm, in a down-sizing move, that left him battling for a job, at half of his original salary.
Half of a pay-check was not adequate to make the house payment, and the move into the apartment had taken its toll. Much time had been spent in the back yard of their house, with Nikki helping turn the soil for the garden, and with Duane playing catch in the side yard, a nightly ritual during the baseball season, and extending through the summer and not ending until school once more opened its doors. Transitioning to a new job, relocating living situations, and a new school, had all taken their toll on Nikki.
Barbara was a huge stabilizing factor, because she had stayed the same. Grace and Duane relied heavily on her, even if she allowed Nikki more freedom than she got at home. Wasn’t that what grandmas were supposed to do? Wasn’t Nikki expected to be up before six, waiting for Saturday morning cartoons to appear? That didn’t happen at home. Walks to the store to get ice cream did not happen at home, not with Grace still working that noon to nine shift, which meant that Barbara played such a vital role, in making it all work.
In response to Nikki’s question, Barbara said, “Exactly. Your mom and dad are sad, and it’s sad to think that things change, but the memories of what we had are happy ones, and there will be more happy memories to come.” It was the best she could do.
“But Daddy is happy when I visit him, so why can’t...? Sorry, I already asked. But if I stop asking, Daddy will think I don’t care.” Her logic seemed clear to her.
“Daddy won’t know whether you keep asking or not,” Barbara knew she was not on solid ground.
The phone rang and Barbara picked up the receiver. Her face registered surprise and she said, “Wait just a second and I’ll access my account. Can I call you right back?”
She hung up the phone, saying to Nikki, “I’ll just take a minute, Honey. Why don’t you see if you can draw a picture of that pelican snatching a fish? We can put it on the refrigerator when it’s finished.” She turned back to her desk, and started to fiddle with the keyboard, while Nikki went back out into the front room, of the apartment, where here paper and markers were.
These incredible hoops I have to jump through, thought Barbara, having redialed the phone, as she waited on hold for the person on the other end, to verify the information she had presented. She went to FaceBook, for just a minute, as the music droned on in the background, and a voice repeatedly assured her, that her call was being handled with the utmost of urgency. Twenty minutes dragged by, and then another twenty. It was very quiet in the apartment, and Barbara was engrossed in a link to Guardians to the Sea and she was investigating it, with the thought that Nikki would get a kick out of the whale pictures, so that she would know what she was looking for, while standing on the headlands.
Finally the interminable wait was over, and the person was back on the phone, and Barbara was able to put the matter to rest. Hanging up the phone, she felt a guilty pang, and went in search of Nikki. It was awfully quiet, she noted again, and suddenly a real sense of urgency and fear, coursed through her, kicking in the adrenalin.
“NikkI? Honey? How’s your picture coming?” but she knew from the empty feeling of the apartment, that she was alone. Talk about going from zero to sixty in a heartbeat. Visions of every possible horror flooded over her, making her suddenly realize that this was how it always seemed to happen. Caregiver gets distracted, panic ensues, and the next thing you know, you are trying to explain to cameras, why a tax return could ever have taken precedence over the safety and care of her granddaughter. Her precious Nikki, out of her cage.
Who to call first? Whose trust was she going to shatter first? Who would be the first to say, ‘What were you thinking?’ when she meant, ‘Why weren’t you thinking?’”
Barbara’s mind stayed calm, even if her fingers were shaking as she reached for the phone to call Grace. Her own daughter should have first rights at the slaughter. Didn’t she deserve it?
The shrill ring nearly gave her a heart attack. She snatched up the receiver, blurting out, “Nikki? Is that you?”
“Not the last time I checked,” responded the disapproving voice of Miss Gertie. “But you may speak to her if you wish.” The phone dropped with a clang, while Barbara felt herself begin softly weeping. After all, there are worse things on earth than cages. Check your local newspaper for details.