I took the kids to the park yesterday afternoon, despite the gray skies and generally uninviting outlook outside. Sometimes in the afternoons around 4:00, the lag between snack time and Daddy-gets-home time at 5:30 is just too long for this momma, and we have to get out of the house. (Not gonna lie, sometimes we just go for a drive. As I like to say, good for the mental if not for the environmental.) Gabriel, Elliot, Christine, and I showed up at Laguna Park with pretty low expectations, other than filling the hour and a half space with Something To Do. As we neared the playground, I saw we were not alone: a middle aged woman was pushing a broad-faced boy on one of the "big kid" swings. Coming closer, I realized we had met this pair here before, months ago when I was still (very) pregnant with Christine. I have a memory for names, and recalled that the woman's name was Gwen--the caretaker for the boy, Ryan, who is severely retarded. We smiled at each other with the awkward obligatory friendliness of the only two adults at a playground, and I could tell she didn't remember me. Finally after several minutes I re-introduced myself, saying we had met months back. I think it kind of weirded her out that I remembered not only meeting her, but her and Ryan's names, but she rolled with it, and we started talking. She told me a bit about her work with Ryan--the way she shows him "yes" and "no" cards to get him to answer her questions ("yes" with a happy face on it, "no" with a sad face), the fact that he was never expected to walk but has begun to do so since she started working with him three years ago. I watched her spot him as he practiced walking on a half-wall surrounding the picnic tables.
Gwen is not like the people I usually hang out with. She's quite pretty, but she looks like she's been around the block…maybe even "occupied" the block. She has no less than six piercings in each ear, each one droopier than the last and each one holding a dangling turquoise earring. Yesterday she was wearing a fleece with a loud southwestern pattern, accompanied by a neon pink scarf. When she pushes Ryan on the swing, she lets out this guttural, bordering-on-manly grunt--I assume to let him know what a big kid he is that it requires so much of her strength to push him--and when he groans at her (his version of speech), she gives him attitude and says, "Oh, yeah?" like she's about to pick a fight. I'll bet she drives a motorcycle.
It became especially apparent to me that Gwen is not my usual crowd when, about twenty minutes later, a couple of WASP-y young moms showed up with their four Baby Gap-ad little girls and I squinted over at them to see if I knew them. I guess I just assume when I see women who look vaguely like myself (one of them even got out of the exact same car as mine--same make, same year, same color) that there's a decent chance I know them from somewhere. You know, somewhere like my old women's ministry, my playgroup, or the gazillion baby showers I've attended in the last few years. It turns out I didn't know them, but the closer they came, the more they looked like what some corporate marketing genius might mass produce as Stay At Home Mom Barbie. Or, to take a more philosophical turn, they reminded me of an archetype or one of Plato's Forms--a template or idea of what it means to appear like a normal woman who takes care of children in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix in 2012. By this I mean nice dark wash jeans, shiny ballet flats, sleek hair, and (bonus trendy points!) an expensive professional-grade camera carelessly slung over one shoulder. While Gwen and Ryan worked on short-wall ambulation, I listened in on the SAHM Barbies' conversation. And wouldn't you know it? They were talking about several of the charter schools I've looked into putting my son in, a documentary I've watched part of on Netflix, and various kids' issues commonplace in my own life.
Any casual observer drawing social lines would probably group me with the Shiny Flats Ladies. I look like them (more or less--I don't actually own shiny flats and I definitely don't have sleek hair, but we're talking generalities), I speak their language, and my kids are probably much more like theirs than like Ryan--but I feel so much more drawn to someone like Gwen. As I sat there observing these two very divergent versions of Woman, I thought about how I want to be around people who know who they are and don't find particular value in trendiness. Women who are comfortable in their own skin, who don't have to fit a particular image. I know I can't judge those two young moms based on my brief playground surveillance, but they as representatives or archetypes of a particular kind of woman in my generation gave rise to questions in my mind…like what kind of people do I want to make my friends? How do I meet people different from myself on the outside but similar on the inside? What does it mean to be feminine? And am I awfully obnoxiously judgmental for pigeonholing these two unsuspecting moms who are quite likely lovely people?
Long after Gwen had pedaled away with Ryan strapped in a weathered bike trailer, I thought about my time at the park. All in all, it was one of those encounters I think we are all blessed to have from time to time--the kind that leaves you thinking, almost leaves you wondering if those people were even real, or were they strange angels put in your path to give you some message, remind you of some truth…then again, I think southwestern-patterned fleece is out of fashion even in heaven. ;)