We were on vacation at my mom's house, my childhood backyard: the North Cascades in upstate Washington, along the Stillaguamish River during an epic sunny heat wave. I felt happy to be home, ecstatic to watch my kids play in the river and wake up late, with no plans or agenda except to hang out with their grandparents and cousins. Relaxed, free, and soaking up the natural beauty and silent sounds of wind through woods.
On day 2 of 9, we hiked to Boulder Falls near my tiny hometown of Oso: my mom, stepdad, niece and kids. It was a magical start to an epic trip. After a 2 mile hike along a moss-lined trail, we reached the waterfall, at the base of Whitehorse Mountain. I could imagine the Greek gods siting atop the freezing, pure water, looking down at us staring up in wonder. I envisioned Thor himself walking amongst the rocks, moss, looming trees and filtered sunlit path. My city kids quickly accustomed themselves to the rocks, and jumped right into the glacier water. I smiled, content.
By day 3, rumblings of "divadom," as I call Audrey's world when she asserts control, started to appear. Liam took a few days to settle in, adjust to the new surroundings and schedule (or lack thereof). "Mom, can we have a conversation?" he asked me at 8 pm, still in full day light, pulling a chair up. We conversed, he accepted, falling asleep calm, understanding the fact that he was missing camp, that the new vacation schedule would be awesome, that dad would join us the following day. I'm proud of him for adapting and adjusting - I could not have dreamt that a few years ago.
Aedan escaped the house every morning to go swim by himself: through the current, jumping off rocks, quietly navigating his own river adventure. He's my nature kid, my camper, my stick and pinecone collector, my mud between his toes Tarzan boy; he would start to ask for electronics though by day's end, have little meltdowns or tiffs, would regroup with a short "sensory break" with his second love, video games. I loved watching him do his thing, with the family yet enjoying his own companionship, sitting on the deck watching the trees and eating a popsicle solo.
And then there was large and in charge Audrey. She flew up on her own a few days before we did, in honor of her upcoming 10th birthday. She watched home videos with grandma, wanting to know who was who, what was happening where, talking over the commentary, excited to know the ins and outs of my family as we grew up lanky and carefree on that same property. She couldn't get enough of it. Visitors came and left the house the whole time we were there, complete with her cousin Claudia, a few years younger, whom she lead around with the authority (and enthusiasm) of a peppy little general.
On July 4th, day 4, Audrey woke up with her own plan, unbeknownst to me. A little demandy getting dressed, slightly lippy at breakfast. "Audrey," I warned quietly, "you're starting to sound disrespectful. You need to turn that around." "Okay mom," she acquiesced, earnestly. "Sorry. I'm trying." I drank my coffee, cranked out some eggs, helped clean up for the people arriving for a day at the river. Problem solved, I thought. I hoped.
By noon, the natives were getting restless. We needed ice, so I loaded Aedan, Claudia and Audrey into the rental car to drive to the tiny neighborhood store, a few miles up the road. The only store for the next 10 miles. With promises of a treat, nice mom / awesome aunt me headed merrily up the driveway and along the country road to the store, full of tourists and locals alike stocking up for the holiday.
I let them pick out one candy each while I bought ice and ordered a few coffees to take back. Audrey asked if she could choose something for Liam and Gibson, her cousin coming up from Seattle.
"Of course. That's very thoughtful of you!" I effused. From the corner of my eye though I saw her slightly elbow Aedan out of the way, saying "No, mom said I get to choose for Liam. Not you." I chose to ignore it, let them work it out, since bickering between them had become as commonplace as mosquitos in the summer dusk.
I didn't know yet that I would need to summon Thor's hammer in the very near future. I sensed it though, before it happened. "Hon, are you sure you want that chocolate one?" A strawberry Charleston Chew - something she'd never had before. "I don't think you're going to like it."
"Mom, it's fine. It's strawberry. I'll love it."
"Okay, just be open minded if it's not what you expect," I reasoned. After purchasing their treats, I asked them to sit on the couch while I waited for the barista. (If you haven't had a coffee from a country espresso stand in the Northwest, you're missing out.) Claudia and Aedan, munching away, obediently sat down, legs swinging, side by side. But Audrey was having none of it.
Warily, I noticed a local lady with crinkly eyes sitting with her dog across from us, enjoying a corn dog and reading the paper. I knew though that she was watching.
Audrey opened the package loudly (how she does everything) and enthusiastically bit in. She paused. I stood there, amused, waiting.
"Yuck!" she screeched. "Ick, this is gross. It's chocolate!"
"I told you! I didn't think you'd like it, babe. I'm sure Aedan will let you share."
"Disgusting. I'm picking something else," she said with a huff, starting to stomp back to the candy section.
"Whoa, whoa, hold on. I told you all that you get one choice. Remember? We talked about rules in the car. You choose, and you don't throw a fit if you don't like it."
She paused, looked over her shoulder at me, then marched over to the garbage can. Was it my imagination, or did her voice increase in volume and depth within two minutes?
"That's so unfair! I never get anything good," as she crumpled up the wrapper, threw it in the trash, and started to shove the candy in.
"AUDREY," I said through gritted teeth. "Don't you throw that away. You need to save it for later, or give it to someone else. You are not being gracious."
"WHATEVER! YOU ARE NOT BEING FAIR!" She yelled, arms across her chest. She glared. And she turned her back on me.
My observer shook her head, looking at me from under her glasses.
"Whoa, oh man. How old is she? The lip on that one."
I took a deep breath, suddenly aware of every face in the crowd. Mortified, embarrassed, humiliated. And pissed. You could hear a pin drop from where the other kids sat, waiting and watching.
I narrowed my gaze at Audrey, who narrowed hers back at me from over her shoulder. I firmly gripped (okay, grabbed) her forearm and said under my breath, "You get in the damn car right now."
"I'm SORRY," she shouted as I dragged/guided her through the open doors, across the creaky threshold and into the back of the Chevy.
She started to cry spiteful tears.
"I'm sorry! I said I'm sorry! Does this mean I don't get candy?"
"This means you are rude, disrespectful and mean, and you just ruined a nice moment. You sit there and don't make a sound."
I firmly shut (okay, slammed) the door, heart heaving. For the past 12 years of being a parent, I have had a naive image of obedient kids not wanting to disappoint their parents, of patience and fun all around. Finally, I am making a grudging peace with the fact that 1) I have sub-par patience; 2) kids do not automatically do the right thing; 3) sometimes they could care less if they disappoint you; and 4) you are not your kids' friend. In fact, you are an ass if you constantly buddy up to them just to keep the peace.
I willed myself to calm down, collected my drinks and the two quiet other kids, hands sticky and lips red from suckers. Driving onto the main road, I warned Audrey that I was upset, embarrassed and mad, and that she needed to be quiet while I decided her punishment. But she couldn't.
"Are you going to tell dad?" the first thing out of her mouth.
Brendan the disciplinarian - the one they respect - calmly sitting by the river, reading his book, enjoying a moment of rest amongst the wind and trees and rocks. With some shame I realized, driving down the driveway of my youth, that the only person I had to blame for Audrey's lack of respect for me was myself.
And she had not shut up once since our dramatic Oso Store departure.
"Okay mom, I am going to go down and tell dad. I will tell him what I did and then you can decide my punishment. Maybe I can't go to the river later today - maybe I don't get a popsicle or something?"
"YOU DON'T GET TO DECIDE YOUR PUNISHMENT! I WILL TELL DAD - YOU WILL WAIT FOR ME IN THE TENT."
Pissed, I parked the car while the kids scuttled out. I gave Claudia a quick squeeze, Aedan a reassuring pat on the head before he (wisely) ran into the house. "To the tent - now," I barked at my errant red-faced kid. I marched down to the river, threw Liam's Reece's cup onto the sand - "Here buddy, we got this for you" - and splashed over to where Brendan sat on a lawn chair, ankles in the water, smile frozen.
"What the - " as I handed him his coffee. Sitting down, I shook my hair back and started in.
He listened, shaking his head.
"Do you want me to go take care of it? Go talk to her?"
I paused. Usually, this was the case.
"No," I said quietly, calming down. I summoned it, quietly, under my breath. Thor, I need your help. "Thanks, but no. I have to do this myself. I have to start now or else she will never respect me."
He nodded, eyeing me warily, taking a sip of his Breve.
"Okay, babe. I support you. You got this."
I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started an almost slow motion walk to the elk tent, set up for our family at the base of the property. Peeking out, Audrey's face registered palpable relief when she saw me. I could almost her her thinking "Oh good, it's just mom." With that, the hammer metaphorically materialized before my eyes. Small, about the size of my hand, but durable.
"Mom, what did dad say? Is he coming too?"
"No, it's just me. You embarrassed and disrespected me, and stressed out your cousin and brother. Come stand in front of me, right now."
Her pretty brown eyes widened, and her face fell. I put her over my knee, and took a deep breath.
"No mom, just put me in time out!" she pleaded.
"You don’t get to decide. I hate doing this, but you leave me no choice. This is for being ungrateful in the store" - Swat, a light spank. "This is for glaring at me " - swat - "this is for yelling at me and being disrespectful" - swat - "and this is for talking over me on the way home, when I asked you to be quiet."
I released her, and she squared off, inches from my face, tears in her eyes. I willed my own tears to stay at bay. The imaginary hammer hovered to the right of my vision, so I held steady.
She threw her arms around my neck.
"I'm so sorry!" This time, her words were genuine, her voice catching. Here she was - my sweet, open-hearted girl behind her need for control, behind the impulsivity, behind that strong will. "I am sorry I was disrespectful and that I embarrassed you. Please forgive me, mom!"
I folded a little. But not all the way.
"I do forgive you. I did this because I love you and I want you to learn how to treat people, because I know you don't want to hurt anyone." She nodded so fast, I worried she might get dizzy.
"You need to think about your plan to change this behavior. You are in time out in this tent until you see me again, until I decide you are ready to come out. Understand?"
She dropped her head, then looked back, eyes shining. Was it me, or did her gaze carry a little bit more respect?
"Yes. I promise I won't leave until you say I can."
I kept my expression loving but stern, gave her a quick hug, then exited. Standing out in the shade of the trees, I looked up at the sky and took a deep breath.
"That's what I'm talking about," I whispered, smiling, thanking Thor. And pocketing the tiny hammer, just in case I needed it again.
After a half hour I fetched her and we bounded out, with no further mention of "the tent incident." She checked in with me more than usual throughout the afternoon, uttered "I'm sorry" for small incidents that may or may not have been disrespectful. I saw softness and love in her eyes, and I hope she saw the same in mine.
"It's alright, sweetie!" I promised, lifting her up onto my hip, a beer in my other hand. "I love you no matter what, my little firecracker. You're going to figure this out, I know you are."
Sometimes you're best friends with your kids; other times you need help being badass to set limits and teach lessons. Thank God (and Thor) that there’s a hammer for that.