I sit on a hard wooden bench at the American Museum of Natural History on a rainy Saturday afternoon. My daughter has fallen asleep, and my son is looking at the dinosaurs with his grandparents in another wing. I am enjoying a rare moment of stillness and quiet in the middle of Manhattan as my two-year-old’s heavy, sleepy body presses against my chest.
A woman walks into the room. Her long, denim skirt reaches her ankles, and her orange sweater is frayed at the cuffs. Her son follows. He is about nine years old, and he’s wearing baggy red pants and a rumpled, long-sleeved white t-shirt. His hands are jammed in his pockets.
“Look at this beautiful crab,” the mother says, her hand making a circle in the air above my head as she gestures to the crab that’s on display behind me. Her voice has a creamy quality. Her son’s voice cuts into the milky trail her voice left behind.
“Why would I care about a snowshoe crab, Mother?” His voice sneers, and he uses his shoulder to bump into her body, pushing her aside. The mother seems not to notice the anger in his voice and gesture. She talks to him as if he had just responded to her comment with an interested look or an “ooh” of understanding.
“My, but look how beautiful it is.”
“Come on, Mother. I told you a hundred times already I want to leave, and I mean now.” He uses the word “Mother” as if it represents something dirty, disgusting, contemptible. Nothing in her face registers a reaction. Her eyes seem far away. She strolls toward the place where her child glowers at her with rage. She moves to him without looking at him, taking another second to look at the crab above my head.
I’m fascinated by their dynamic. I want the boy to notice my disapproving frown and to hear the reprimand I silently rehearse in my head. As the mother saunters out of the room with her son dragging his angry feet behind her, I am disappointed that I won’t get to watch more of their interaction.
It occurs to me how infrequently I am in a place where I am able to be quiet and still and watch the parents around me. I don’t usually hear what they are saying or see what they are doing because I’m one of them: moving along, reacting or failing to react to my children’s anger, glee, frustration, humor, or boredom. Sometimes I am the one who’s too busy trying to keep a stroller that’s loaded with stuff from tipping over to realize what I’m saying or doing. But in this place, where it seems all parents in New York City come on rainy Saturday afternoons, I have a chance to sit for a moment with my sleeping daughter, and I watch and I listen to parents around me.
“Look, an orange crab. Talia, get down from there. It’s not safe.”
“What’s that, Dada?”
“I don’t know. Oh, wait, it’s a horseshoe crab. No, it can’t be. Wait a minute. I guess it’s not really that big. That’s just a close-up picture.”
A woman with straight, black hair falling almost to her waist wears a Chicago t-shirt.
She pushes a stroller containing a girl old enough to walk. The girl’s toes drag on the floor. She leans around the stroller to look at her mother and ask, “What’s the Galapagos Islands?”
“What did you say? Can we just sit down for a sec?”
“Let’s just see this last thing and then we’ll go, okay?”
A girl, maybe four and a half, with a head of curly brown hair surrounding her head like pillow fluff, pulls her mother’s ring finger saying, “Where are the dinosaurs? I want to see the dinosaurs.”
Her mother doesn’t look down. The seconds roll into moments. She scans the room, looking ahead and behind.
“Let’s find the bathrooms first.”
A mother holds her toddler son’s hand. She walks at his slow pace, her hand balancing his unsteady walk. She wears a long dark skirt, her hair is pulled back and covered with a blue scarf. He wears tiny black pants rolled up at the ankle. His hair is just beginning to curl at the ears. She points to the picture above my head.
“It’s called a Bushman crab.”
A man carries a pink, plastic doll stroller in one hand; the doll is tucked under his armpit with its blond hair covering its face. He has a red backpack slung over one shoulder. With his other hand, he holds onto the hand of a little boy, almost three. The boy slows to look at the crab. He makes a noise and points. The man looks straight ahead. They walk on.
“Come here, let’s read about it. It’s a crab. Some kind of crab. Come over here, Alex. No here! I mean here! Did you hear me, Alex? Forget it. Let’s go.”
A father pushes a stroller with a blue coat hanging off the right handle and a black coat dragging on the floor off of the left handle. He wears a black pack around his waist, a larger pack on his back and a camera hangs from his neck, rhythmically bumping into the draped coats as he pushes. His eyes are tired as he says, “Just ten more minutes. I promise.”
When my daughter wakes up, I can finally turn my head to look at the photograph above me. I see the giant crab, with its brilliant orange colors and spindly legs, looking almost as if it is still in motion. The caption below it reads as follows:
“Horseshoe Crab — Limulus Polyphemus” Actual size: 10 in., 25 cm.
Invertebrates are a vast and virtually untapped source of valuable new chemicals and technologies.”
My daughter leans into my chest, her cheeks warm and flushed from sleep, and as I rub her back in slow circles, I try to tap the value of this rare, still, quiet moment alone with her among all these moving people.
Rachel Iverson lives in Malibu with her husband, son, and daughter. She earned a B.A. in English literature and journalism from Valparaiso University and a J.D. from the University of Minnesota. She is the poetry editor for Literary Mama, and her poems and prose have appeared in publications including Illume, a Journal of Universal Ideas; The MFC Forum Magazine; edifice WRECKED; Books and Babies; Onthebus; and The Philosophical Mother. She is also the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Glimpse Over the Edge (2002) and Mother & Other (2003), and is a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective. You can read some of her previously published work at www.racheliverson.com.