The dank humidity swam in with the force of a tidal wave. I coughed and squinted as I turned my body on the leather seat and scooted out of our Ford Expedition. At least no mosquitoes were buzzing. Yet. Supper of cold fried chicken and cucumbers had been eaten in a haste with seatbelts strapped to us. After an already full day of activities, it was only five o’clock and an entire four hours of obligation loomed ahead. We were tired. And miserable. Why do we put ourselves through this?
“Hurry up, we’re late for warm ups,” I snapped, glancing at the four kids in the back. After an hour’s drive, stretching my legs towards the cement was a welcome reprieve. I was barefoot. As usual. Growing up poor in the south creates habits that never die. I walked to the back of the SUV and eyed the distance across the parking lot to the swimming pool and noted the steam rising from the black tar. Other pools around the Midlands were shaded with broad oak and pine trees. Not this one. This one had nothing but cement. Ok, maybe I should wear my flip flops after all.
“Grab towels, kids!” Dad said, dropping keys into his pocket, wiping a drop of sweat from his brow and opening the rear driver’s side door. At the same moment, the passenger door popped open and our two oldest children tumbled out. No towels. Dad rolled his eyes as he slammed the other door shut and walked around to join us.
“I unbuckled Juli,” six year old Maggie assured matter-of-factly, squinting up at me while leaning against the faded red Expedition’s tire rim. “She didn’t fight me this time!” Eight year old Jack licked his finger and stuck it in her ear. She scowled, scooting away to the rear bumper. He grinned and followed her, his next sibling maneuver obviously planned.
“Thank you! That’s really helpful, Magpie,” I smiled, using the nickname her brother had given her as a baby. Jack poked her in the armpit, resulting in a shove that almost toppled him. I stepped around them, amused at their ongoing interactions. I never had siblings of my own.
Sitting down again in the passenger seat, I dug through the glovebox for the black sharpie I hoped was there. It was there last week but things disappear easily in our large family. Pens. Bookbags. Left Shoes. Money. Relief washed over me when my fingers felt it. I slipped sandals on my feet and stood up. Ready.
Our two other children were still in the back of the SUV. The feet of my third child flailed near the round air condition ceiling vents as he hung upside down over the second row fishing for his lost goggles under the tan leather seat bench.
“Hurry up, Caleb!” I begged before closing the front door.
Juli, my twenty one month old, poked her head out the back passenger door, grinning, her eyes begging for a ride down to the ground far below. I leaned in, reaching around her to snatch up the towels we use every weekday morning at swim practice. Two navy towels for the boys and a tan towel for Maggie. Then I smiled at Juli.
“Ready, baby?” I cooed. She wrapped her arms around my neck and I backed out, lowering her to the ground, giving her a quick armpit tickle. I dropped two towels by her feet, and inhaled at the dampness of the third, trying to sort out if I was happy or sad that this was the last week of swim, and our very last meet. Eight weeks of daily morning practice with two evening meets per week is a beast. But swimming skills are a life necessity when one lives so close to Lake Murray and “Famously Hot” Columbia where summer heat index often tops 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Hey, that’s mine!” exclaimed four year old Caleb, his face appearing in the door frame, dark chocolate eyes squinting at me from behind goggles lenses. He lept, like superman, from the seat down onto the towel pile. I tossed the towel that was still in my hands over his sun-streaked surfer blond head. “Now you can’t see me!” he said in his squeaky lisping voice. His charm is infectious. I popped off the sharpie cap, stifling laughter. I have to be tough.
“Alright–first up, face forward. Bend. Hands to knees. DON’T WIGGLE. Time to write your names!” Even after a full summer outdoors, eight year old Jack’s back was still pale. He inherited my freckly Irish-laden skin. My other three brown up quickly. Just like their Dad.
Jack wiggled at each letter stroke. “BE. STILL. Stop moving. You’re making me screw your name up, son!” I insisted. He twisted his neck around to look at me, grinned and wiggled intentionally. I managed a final lopsided exclamation mark and affectionately swatted him away.
The same process repeated with Maggie. And then Caleb. “But it tickles so much, Mom!” they both laughed.
I swirled the final S at the end of “Sea Monkeys” on Caleb’s back and stood up straight.
“Ok, let’s walk, kids. The pool is way over there. C’mon,” Dad urged.
And I almost tripped over her. Juli, I mean. She was rooted to her spot, refusing to move. After watching me write names and our team cheer on her siblings backs all season, she decided enough was enough. She, too, needed an official back-tickle. I looked down at her bent head, no higher than my knee. Her exposed tan shoulders, with a swatch of blank skin between her sundress straps, faced me. Her hands were on her knees–her pose mimicking that of her siblings.
Her desire to be included swelled the edges of my heart and love bubbled over. How could I say no?
GO JULI! I scribbled out in sharpie on her shoulder. Maggie read it out loud and cheered. Caleb joined in. Juli clapped at her brilliance and spun around and around, craning her neck, attempting to see my handiwork. Jack caught her up in a big hug. “Yay! You look so cute!” he said, spinning her around.
“Hurray for Juli!” they yelled in unison.
“Guys. We have twenty minutes until the swim meet starts. Move it!” Dad shoed us all forward, away from our SUV. And we began walking, hand in hand.