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The Mistake

I made a big mistake the other day, one that my four-year-old Emma and I both paid for.

Our city has a new Aquarium and Botanical Garden, and my friend MaryAnn and I took our kids. The place was jammed with tourists, locals, and busload upon busload of school-aged kids several sizes larger than our own, banging around with the Brownian energy of billiard balls in a blender.

With our toddlers on our backs and our older ones by the hand, we worked our way through the lines and went inside. Despite the noisy, boisterous crowds, with a little judicious worming and wiggling, our kids were able to see the exhibits. We were all happy and excited to be there. Twenty-month-old Carita was interested, eyeing everything from her vantage point high on my back, but it was Emma who was really cranked up - agog at all the sea life. She especially loved the crabs, the sharks, and the scuba diver who fed the spiny lobsters.

Now, the average length of time my little rocketeer spends at an exhibit is a few microseconds. Boom! She's off, pointing, shouting, and laughing, coming back to take me by the hand and show me the new delight she's discovered around the corner. And boom! She's off again. MaryAnn's three-year-old, Benjamin, on the other hand, is more laid-back. He likes to take his time, linger over the exhibits and study everything in detail. Early on, MaryAnn and I realized we weren't going to be able to stay together or even find each other in the crowds. We agreed that we'd reconnoiter out on the open, less crowded plaza.

Sure enough, we soon left MaryAnn and her kids behind. At the exhibit by the exit, we waited for them a bit, but both girls were getting restless, hungry, and thirsty. Since I'd rushed out without assembling a snack, I decided we'd go to the snack bar on the plaza outside, and buy ice cream and a drink to share.

We ate our mushy, messy chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream and sipped at some 7-Up. The weather was absolutely fabulous: breezy, not too warm, with startlingly clear skies. It was fun.

But time stretched on, and we all began to grow restless again. I was concerned we might have missed our friends. We started wandering around the plaza. Emma saw a boy with a toy and asked for one. She was philosophical when I said no; not right now.

And then, after wandering a bit, wondering where MaryAnn and her kids could be, I made the big mistake. I took the girls into the gift shop.

Why, you ask, did I take Emma into a shop filled with colorful, fun, too-expensive toys, after I'd just said she couldn't have one? I've been wondering that, too.

At least partly, it was exhaustion. I'd been sick and my husband had been out of town; when I'm run down I rarely have the mental faculties to string two events together in my head and come up with a causal link. Perhaps also because I have a magpie nature - I like to look at pretties, so I was curious. And probably also because I was bored, myself.

The minute Emma saw the toys, the temptation was too great - she started asking again, trying to bargain, and she cried, hard, when I said "no" and tried to offer alternatives. I knelt down and comforted her, and explained that these toys were quite expensive - but that I'd be willing to buy her some stickers (we'd just run out, and these were the same price as they are anywhere, unlike the toys). Yes, she wanted the stickers, that was fine, but she wanted a toy too. I said that, if she was willing to use her allowance (she gets 75 cents a week to spend as she pleases), when we got home I'd take her to Wal-Mart and we'd find a more affordable toy. No, she wanted it right then. (Waiting is so hard when you're four and totally in the moment.) But after a while she was able to calm down enough to think it over. "Okay," she said finally, mollified, still a little teary but drying her eyes.

As the cashier was ringing up the stickers, Carita got her leg jammed in the backpack and started fussing. I managed to get the pack off; set it down; get her foot untangled and buckle her back in; then I gave the cashier the money; then I struggled to get the pack back on; meanwhile Emma was excited again, and started tugging at me to come see something. And right then, through the open door, I saw MaryAnn pass by across the plaza, heading for the exit.

"Emma," I said, pointing, "There's MaryAnn! Go to her and tell her we're right here. I'll be right behind you."

"But, Mom, I need to show you something-"

"Hurry, honey, or we'll miss them!"

Emma went outside, then just stood there outside the door looking at me with big, fresh tears rolling down her face and a look of betrayal and anguish in her eyes. I felt my heart would break.

The cashier handed me change and a bag. I knelt down and held out my arms and Emma came to me. "I wanted to show you something special!" she wailed.

I tried to explain that I was afraid we'd miss MaryAnn amid the crowds, but she just couldn't hear it. She'd found some miniature papier maché fruit in little cups, inside the case, and all her mind and being were focused on that. So I went with her, and we looked at them. I murmured something appreciative, but my mind was still on MaryAnn.

I then hurried the girls outside, but of course, MaryAnn and the boys were nowhere in evidence. We headed toward the exit, where another crowd of school kids had gathered, with me complaining about the fact that we'd taken the time to look at something in the store instead of going right out.

My friend's car was still in the parking lot. Which meant she was wandering around somewhere, back in those crowds, looking for us.

"Damn it!"

So saying, I took Emma by the wrist - not hard, but I'm sure there was no doubt in her mind that I was very angry - and we crossed the street to the parking lot.

"Mommy, you're walking too fast!" she said in a quavery, scared voice.

Laura, I thought, you're behaving like a real jerk. I knelt down and hugged her, and tried to explain that I was worried about not finding MaryAnn. I was hot, cranky, and tired, frankly - and not looking forward to braving those crowds again. But I couldn't leave MaryAnn in there looking for us. So we started back.

And, of course, right then, MaryAnn and her two boys walked out the gate.

It wasn't till later that I realized I'd been blaming Emma for the fact that we hadn't been able to find MaryAnn, when after all it had been my choice to go see the fruit (instead of suggesting, say, that we'd get MaryAnn and then come back to see it). And anyway, everything had come out just fine, if not for my temper tantrum in the parking lot. My apology to Emma at the time had been hurried, almost cursory, and probably confusing to her. I felt I owed her more clarity.

So the next morning, while we were cuddling in bed, I said to her, "When I got mad yesterday, I was blaming you for the fact that we couldn't find MaryAnn. You were just trying to share something beautiful and special with me, and I yelled at you. That was a big mistake, and I'm sorry."

Never have I been so grateful to hear words I've said before come back to me as I was when she put her little hand on my cheek and looked at me with those midnight-blue eyes.

"But Mommy," she said seriously, "Mistakes is how you learn."

You are so right, Emma. You are so right.

Copyright 1997, Laura J. Mixon-Gould. All rights reserved.

Laura J. Mixon-Gould is a native New Mexican, an unregenerate green chile-eater and coffee lover. She has been writing fiction for pleasure since tackling her first novel at the age of eight (five yarn-bound pages with crayon illustrations), and over the past decade has published (as Laura J. Mixon) two novels and some shorter works.