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As Clear as Mud

 Yitti Berkovic

Ignorance is bliss.

Well, it’s bliss up until your crisp white blouse is splattered with mud and ruined beyond rescue. 

But – of course – I don’t see it coming. 

Instead, I sit together with a group of women, unaware of impending doom as we commiserate about how much we miss black tights. 

It’s hot. It’s muggy. And the afternoon looms long. We fan ourselves with empty snack bags as our Shabbos sheitels plaster themselves to our foreheads. I could go inside where there are cold drinks and air conditioning, but I’ve already read the latest chapter in my favorite serial, and besides, I need to save my reading material for when my little one is asleep and there is still more than an hour until Havdalah. Plus, my son is having a ball running around with the neighborhood kids, keeping my playroom closets safe from his playful destruction.

So, I smile and I chat, swatting away errant mosquitos and occasionally jumping up to chase the toddler who gets a little too close to the street. And when one neighbor leans in to share the most amazing low-fat salad dressing recipe, we’re all too busy schmoozing to notice it’s gotten a little too quiet.

Our reverie is broken when one woman looks up and wrinkles her nose in consternation.

“Anyone see where the boys went?” she asks.

“They were just here a second ago,” someone else offers helpfully.

We spin around and crane our necks, feigning calm even as we know that for our boys, only a second out of our sights can prove dangerous.

“Where can they be?” someone wonders, and in the silence that follows, it dawns on each of us at exactly the same time.

 “The construction site………!”

We jump from our chairs and race toward the kids, finding them exactly where we hoped they wouldn’t be.

And it’s too late. The damage has been done.

The first woman to reach her child is inconsolable. “How did you get so dirty?” she wails to her son who is squirming like a fish in her grasp. “There isn’t a clean spot left on your shirt! Or your pants! Or your socks! Or your shoes!”

The rest of us reach our kids.

“Didn’t I tell you that shirt was expensive?”  

“Didn’t I tell you to stay out of the mud?”  

“How many times did I tell you I don’t want you get dirty on Shabbos? 

But it doesn’t really matter what we say. The kids stare at their mud-caked feet, their eyes glinting with guilt – but also with triumph. Laundry is their mother’s problem. This is what they live for: unfettered access to the dirtiest, slimiest, grimiest corner of the world.

One by one, we march our swamp creatures into the house. Their gorgeous clothing is heaped forlornly in the corner of the laundry room – likely never to be restored to its former glory.

The irony is rich.

Only a few weeks earlier, I stood with these same harried mothers on endless lines at the children’s clothing store. As we rummaged through the racks with urgency, we asked each other important questions:

“Does this navy go with this navy?”

“What headband would you match to this skirt?”

“Do you think this color is flattering for a two-year-old?”

Though the price tags turned our stomachs, we’d elbowed each other to make sure we’d get the right sizes, keeping alive our dreams of having the best-dressed kids on the block.

All that effort – for what? So, our kids could dredge themselves in mud? What had we been thinking?

We can chastise our children for their mindlessness, but really it is we who have lost our minds. We’re the ones with the ridiculous expectations. We’re the ones who thought it was a good idea to buy our four-year-old raw silk pants or a dry-clean-only skirt. We’re the ones who waited on a three-hour line for shoes and then deliberated for nearly as long whether we should buy the leather loafers or the smoking slippers. Right now, those fancy shoes are so caked in mud, there’s no way anyone could tell the difference.

After the construction site debacle, our group of mothers eventually reemerges, children in tow, impish faces now scrubbed clean. 

This time, the kids are in their pajamas and Natives and the mothers are in Shabbos robes and snoods.

The kids play around us, staying far from the mud pile, fooling us into believing that this time they’ve learned their lesson, and that next Shabbos it will once again be safe to break out the overpriced clothing we spent hours ironing.  

But deep down, we know better. 

Despite our delusions, our children will never look like images in a magazine for too long – and they shouldn’t be expected to. Maybe we should let our children be children instead of mini fashion models. Maybe we should laugh when they end up in the mud – because it’s natural and inevitable, and also pretty adorable.

It’s too late for this season – my kids’ closets are already stocked with clothing I bought for me. But maybe next season I’ll remind myself of the lesson that’s as stark as the mud on my white shirt and on my son’s once-white shorts: 

Kids just want to be kids.

It’s our job to remember to let them be.

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