City Park in New Orleans was a great big swamp after Hurricane Katrina. Its gorgeous live oak trees seemed drowned and headed for decay.
But somehow they survived, and many of them continue to be members in good standing of the Louisiana Live Oak Society, an exclusive club of oak trees. (Being a century old is required for membership.) The park includes an art museum, botanical garden, golf course, and lots of bayous for duck-feeding.
My kids love the place, mainly because it also features a little amusement park. The rides tumble under shady branches and meander lazily through the city’s ever-present humidity. It’s adjacent to Storyland, a gothic-like playground with enormous reproductions of fairy tale characters and structures. Mother Goose floats above the Three Little Pigs’ brick house, and Pinocchio sits triumphantly atop an open-mouthed whale.
And now there’s a new reason to love the park: Cafe Du Monde, the French Quarter institution that serves beignets and cafe au lait, has opened up shop there, and unlike at the original cafe, you can apply your own powdered sugar. WHICH MEANS AWESOME POWDERY BLOWING MATCHES! And there’s never a line at the new place. Beignets + strong coffee + no wait + oak trees + breeze = WHEEEEE!
But there’s a problem. Beignets are essentially big balls of sugar-infused GLUTEN, deep-fried. So when we visited New Orleans last week, I thought about sending the girls along with their cousins, and denying the Pterodactyl the Cafe Du Monde experience, but I couldn’t bear it. What could I do that was comparable? Make him some toast and throw jelly at him? Wait. Hold that thought.
So I told my better-judgment voice to Shut the Hell Up and we all went for beignets one morning. The Pterodactyl promised me he would only have one, kind of like how I promise myself I’ll only have one gin and tonic.
Later that day, we went to the Southern Yacht Club for lunch, and my dad ordered three plates of popcorn shrimp. Delicious, enormous, juicy Gulf shrimp wrapped in GLUTEN and deep-fried. With hot bread on the side. The Pterodactyl loves fried shrimp. I said, “Here, darling. Chew on this lime from Mommy’s gin and tonic while the other kids journey to food nirvana, and I’ll order you some grilled chicken.”
No, I didn’t say that. I just smiled grimly and watched my happy boy. That morning at the park, he had ridden the ferris wheel all by himself. Within the next few days, I suspected, GLUTEN would somehow gum up his brain and he would turn into a puddle of inconsolable need. I say “somehow” because I’m too old to remember the scientific details regarding how wheat and dairy screw up my child’s bio-chemistry. Google it if you need more info.
In the meantime, the vacationing continued. A few days earlier, we had gone tubing on Lake Pontchartrain, and the Pterodactyl shocked me by loving it more than anything that has ever happened to him. Our friend K was at the helm of the little speedboat, and took it easy at first – but soon, the boy was flying over the boat wake and screeching for K to go faster. Honestly, it had been so long since I had seen such pure, ecstatic joy emanating from my son that I choked back a sob or two. For a few minutes, his mere existence had stopped being so hard, and there he was, in the moment, really living and not just surviving.
On the Fourth of July, two days post-GLUTEN ingestion, the Pterodactyl spent the morning playing with his little sister, whom he thinks of as a third arm. It’s constantly a mystery to him why the two of them don’t act and think exactly the same. Consequently, when she makes a decision to do something besides play with him, it first startles him, then leads to abject despair. Recently we’ve been able to help him through these episodes more adroitly – but that’s when he’s not under the influence of GLUTEN. Fucking GLUTEN.
On this particular morning, when the Tyrant had endured enough sibling togetherness, he had trouble letting go. First he followed her everywhere, then grabbed onto her shirt and wouldn’t let go. Finally I dragged him into a bedroom and tried to calm him down. He started chanting: I WANNA GO HOME I WANNA GO HOME I WANNA GO HOME, interspersed with the occasional I WANT DADDY I WANT BUDDY I WANT DADDY I WANT BUDDY.
I let him rant and flail, even when he marched to the window and tried to open it. We were on the second floor, but the window was painted shut. There was no way he could open it.
Until he did. There wasn’t a screen. And suddenly my hysterical son was eyeing the roof.
I rushed over and pulled him away from the window, and we both fell to the floor, where we alternately struggled and recovered for the next 20 minutes as he tried to escape from both me and the searing pain he felt in his heart.
Finally, exhausted, his tantrum abated. About that time, my mother came in to see what was happening. She saw the Pterodactyl and me sprawled on the rug, both of us still in our pajamas. “What are you doing?” she asked her grandson. “Get up! Get dressed! It’s almost time to go!” We had plans to attend a Fourth of July party.
My son looked at me and said, “Okay.” He stood up, pulled out some clothes, and started dressing.
I started crying because I was utterly spent, but also because I could see the disbelief in my mother’s eyes. I see it in almost everyone’s eyes. This boy? This well-mannered child who loves to hug strangers and dotes on his sister? Surely he’s not the problem kid. And if he is, then obviously the real problem is you. Meaning me. #FAULTYPARENTING
Well. He’s like an oak tree, I guess. Most people just see how tall he stands and how strong he seems, and I see that, too. But I also see the scars and gnarled roots, and the remnants of a turbulent past. It makes me love him more, so I guess I’m lucky that way.