March 05, 2004,
Great waves of heat are rolling off the dark surface of the terrace, and
the sun is fiery on the back of my neck. We have dragged our kitchen
table and chairs out into the open. Violet and Phoebe are perched at
the table, their eyes screwed into slits from the glare, sipping juice
and eating Cheerios and frozen blueberries. I, meanwhile, have
discovered an external electrical outlet which, amazingly, considering
the Jurassic wiring of our house, actually works, and into which I have
plugged the iron.
So here we are, on a glorious Washington day in what is elsewhere
still winter, eating cereal and ironing linens as Twitchy the bunny
lopes picturesquely around our ankles. Cars occasionally crunch over
the gravel into the tiny parking lot beside us that belongs to a Central
American embassy, but otherwise we might be in Appalachia.
"Whoopsie," says Violet, as a wave of blueberry-colored milk washes
down her front.
"Oh dear, it's all wet. Better take off your shirt, Violet," says Phoebe,
easily. A year ago, she was just about able to produce a single-
syllabled guttural. Now she could do focus groups. I goggle for a
moment at her fluency, and then remember the soaking child.
"Okay, Miss Blueberry-face." Violet obligingly lifts her arms and
together we begin to remove the sodden blouse. And of course,
there's her soft tummy, exposed. And of course, I lean down in the
classic ambush of doting mothers, and plant a kiss on her side. I am
smooching, and Violet is giggling, and the sun is beaming down, and
it's all almost unbearably jolly, when I feel a shower of cool droplets
Phoebe has silently leapt to her sister's defense and is shaking her
juice box over both of us.
"Now my trousers are wet, Mummy!" laughs Violet.
"Hello up there!" calls an alien voice, and the fun dissipates as fast as
you can say "imminent terrorist attack."
The first contingent of PTA mothers has arrived. Now we must wipe
the silly grins off our faces and get down to work. Inwardly I bemoan
again the innocuous letter that arrived in September soliciting "a few
hours" of my time for worthy school causes. Had I known that "a few
hours" would transmogrify into "a few solid weeks, 24/7," I would
have filled out the form differently, with fruity expletives; but I didn't,
so I didn't, and consequently bunny must return to captivity and the
girls and I will have to go indoors.
"Why, hello down there," I say bravely.
There is more crunching on the gravel. Several more PTA faces
appear, hands wave, and the heavy tread of sensible shoes is heard
coming up on the back steps.
"Please come in," I say.
Our task today is to create, through an intricate and highly reasoned
process, place cards for the upcoming gala dinner dance. This will
consume the entire afternoon, for these are no run-of-the-mill place
cards. That would Easy and therefore Not the PTA Way. Each place
cards will bear the diner's name, his table number and place at the
table, his choice of grilled salmon, osso bucco, free-range chicken, or
vegetable strudel, and possibly also his blood type, favorite color, and
country of ancestral origin. I am a little overwhelmed by the details,
perhaps because, in an undertaking of this size, there are so many.
Everyone troops into the dining room, takes a seat at the table, and
lays out her paperwork. Violet and Phoebe climb up nimbly and begin
unpacking one woman's handbag.
"Not the cellphone, sweeties," she says frostily, and though I can
hardly blame her, of course I do.
Soberly, everyone gets to work.
"We'll need at least two pairs of scissors," one mother tells me a trifle
briskly, "And could we please have more light in here?"
"We're so grateful for all your help, Meghan," another compensates
These unsmiling veterans of innumerable school fundraisers are not
exactly light company there is no cracking wise in this crowd (except
for me, with tarantula-on-a-slice-of-angel-food success) but
man are they efficient. They have a genius for assembly-line
One mother has even printed out sheets of tiny stickers denoting
"soup" and "salad" and "beignet" and "mousse," along with the four
entrees. The beauty of the system is that once you have affixed the
appropriate choices of dish on the narrow cards, making sure that
Mrs. Smith gets the soup (from one sheet of stickers) and Mr. Smith
the salad (from another sheet), and Mrs. Smith gets the salmon and
Mr. Smith gets the chicken, and Mrs. Smith gets the
"Who's got the page of mousses? Ah, here it is."
mousse, and Mr. Smith gets the apple beignet, why, you merely
subtract the missing stickers from the master sticker list, and voila!
You have an exact count to give the caterer. What could be simpler?
"Drat!" I say quietly for the twentieth time, peeling another ripped
"chicken" sticker off my fingers. If, on Gala Night, the place is littered
with roasted fowl, everyone will know it was me.
"Mummy, I'm bored of this game," Violet says, putting down her
shoelace and shiny cardboard with holes in it with a worldly sigh.
Phoebe is dangling a pink shoelace into her mouth, like spaghetti.
The girls have been awfully good about the PTA invasion. So far.
"Will you read to us?" Phoebe asks plaintively, reaching for a sheet of
"Not that darling, and no, not now. All the Mummies are still
working. Here. Why don't you each make a farm with this," I say,
handing them a box of small felt pieces to stick on fuzzy boards. No
one else has even looked up. By my watch, it has already been
It is terrifying to think that all across America, wherever there are
schools, there are squadrons of mothers dragooning other mothers
into contributing "a few hours" stuffing envelopes, or persuading them
to write checks, or pressing them into phoning yet more mothers to
ask them to stuff envelopes, and write checks and make
phone calls. It happens in private schools, it happens in public
schools. It is probably happening to you. If it did not happen, there
would be no Gala Dinners, and then where would we be?
So it's a great relief when the PTA dissipates and Paris and Molly get
home. They look just as children should who have enjoyed their first
full day of springtime warmth: She has a constellation of new freckles;
he is streaked with dirt and his shirt is flapping open on one side
where it has torn halfway to his armpit.
"Gosh, Paris, what happened to you?"
He looks up blankly.
"Your shirt, darling. Did something happen?"
"I don't Wow! Cool!" he enthuses, discovering the rip. "Now I can
make it into sleeping bags for my animals. Just tear it into strips..."
and he wanders off into the sitting room, still planning.
"Mummy, it is so hard to get everything into this story and
keep it to the right length," Molly says, coming into the room with her
notebook. She's entering a D.C. Public Library story-writing
competition. The deadline is tomorrow and the restrictions are brutal:
A scant 200 words and there's supposed to be both plot and
character development. "Hey, why is the ironing board outside?"
"Good news," I tell her. "I saw the librarian this morning, and she says
the public-school teachers were complaining that their students
couldn't keep stories that short. So they've decided to be flexible
about the length."
"Aargh," says Molly. "If I'd known that "
Suddenly there is a loud crash from the sitting room.
"Wait! Don't come through yet!" Paris calls. We hear the sound of
plastic slapping plastic, then, "Okay, Mummy and Molly and girlies,
"Neat!" says Violet, as we come into the room. "But what is it?"
Paris, now shirtless, has arranged our collection of embarrassingly
retrograde CDs including Eric Clapton and the Band with Japanese
labels, from a nostalgic phase my husband went through in Tokyo
into a kind of spreading pool with a tall, precarious tower on one end.
"It's Moby Dick!" he announces proudly. "See? The tall bit is his
spout, this narrow bit is his body, and those wide parts are his
Meghan Cox Gurdon is an NRO columnist.
Gurdon lives in Washington, D.C. and writes as much as her young family
will permit. Her NRO column, "The Fever Swamp" appears weekly.