We are lucky enough to live about a half-hour away from a pretty good amusement park. Of course, “lucky” may be in the eye of the beholder. I once asked a colleague with two young sons if he was planning to take the boys to the amusement park that summer. A look of horror crossed his face. He said, “I’m trying to keep them from finding out that that place even exists for as long as I can!”
I get it, truly, I do. But I remember the first time we took Tink to our local amusement park. We spent hours on the kiddie rides. I remember the look of gleeful abandon on her face when the tiny roller coaster crested the top of its first little hill. She loved the shrieks and the music, the fries and the cotton candy. At the end of the day, a teenager who had won an oversized stuffed animal handed it off to Tink because she didn’t want to carry it around the park. Tink grabbed the giant Tweety Bird and hugged it fiercely. For years, it was a prized possession, a reminder of unbridled fun and unexpected kindness.
There were years when the amusement park became a bit of a nuisance, when Tink and her friends were old enough to squabble about which rides they were riding and with whom. I remember the agony of promising to go to the park with a friend who, it turned out, hated rides. I remember the misery of simply walking around the park for one entire, hot day, with Tink gazing wistfully at swings and coasters.
And then there was all the stuff. Good lord, the stuff. Hair wraps and face paint and hats and shirts and tchotchkes. To be honest, I never minded buying hats or, you know, anything USEFUL. But I seethed with resentment at the face paint and hair wraps. There were several face paint booths right near the entrance of the park, right where a seven-year-old would be sure to see them as she walked into the park. Here’s the dilemma: either put up with your child clamoring for face paint for the next three hours or immediately drop, like, 117 bucks on something that will be sweated off over the course of the day or washed off on one of the water rides. (Our park has three water rides. All next to the face paint.) I had exactly the opposite problem with the hair wraps: they stayed in Tink’s hair FOREVER. So, she would get a hair wrap in June and there it would be in September, faded and bedraggled but still clinging to her hair in her school picture.
But I also remember the day just a few years ago that I took Tink and one of her friends to the park. Both of them were scheduled to start school just two days later and they wanted one last hurrah. I followed both girls around the park, listening to their laughter, watching the flush on their cheeks turn to sunburn as they conquered ride after ride. I took Tink’s friend home early in the evening. As we left her house, Tink turned to me and asked, “Can we go back? I just want to ride the roller coasters a couple more times.”
And so, because summer and childhood do not last forever, we went back to the park. Together with my girl, I rode every single coaster twice. (Tink assured me that they go faster after dark.) It was breathtaking.
Over the years, our visits to the amusement park grew fewer and farther between. Instead of riding with Tink, I trailed after her, or simply dropped her off. Then, when she started high school, Tink joined the marching band. At the end of the summer, the amusement park holds parades featuring all the local high school and college bands. So, last night, I followed her marching band to the park. I didn’t ride any rides. I didn’t even follow her. I just sat on the sidelines and chatted with another band mom whose daughter is entering her senior year. She told me about her daughter’s college applications and about the campus visits they have planned; she told me, “Enjoy this. It goes so quickly.”
I looked up and saw the banner for Tink’s high school. I clapped and cheered as they marched by, confident and practiced, all those young people moving forward. I was no longer Tink’s guide or companion. I was just a spectator, watching and admiring. But for one more time, I was glad to be back at the amusement park. It’s still a thrilling ride.