Two Tin Cans and a String

Two Tin Cans and a StringSitting on the concrete edge of the area surrounding the jungle gym, I watched my six-year-old daughter climb the red stairs to the reach yellow slide. She sat down at the top, pushed her long, light brown hair out of her face and swooshed down the other end, donning her ever-satisfied smile. Julia quickly busied herself with more activities and with other children present, she was in play mode rather than mom-watch-me-do-every-little-thing-mode. Finally, this was the time: I could call my best friend.

A phone call with Katie, simple as it may sound, was far from straight forward. She was a PhD student at Iowa and I was two time zones away juggling motherhood, part time teaching, part time writing, and being married to a man in his medical residency in the Navy. As a Midwestern mother newly transplanted to the San Diego area, combined with Josh’s long hours and exhaustive training, I rarely had a free moment for the much needed adult girl chat.

Distracted or not, we would have our talk. Katie picked up and we began the important work of conversation—our own version of two tin cans and a string. At some point, Julia and several other children of the same age wandered off toward a gazebo where bands perform once a week during the summer. I realized this but kept talking, watching from afar.

The imaginary world the children created looked to have produced some sort of hierarchy. Maybe they were playing school or house, because Julia stood on the stairs with a few others, holding a long, thin stick, waving it around like a wand. Or perhaps, she’d magically become a band director.

From a distance sitting on the curb listening to Katie’s world, this appeared perfectly innocent, and I kept talking, indulging in my own moment.

It wasn’t long, though, before trouble ensued. Another mother began walking toward me, her school-aged son crying, trailing close behind.

“Hang on, Katie,” I say.

This woman was mad, despite her perfect pearls, navy blue, yellow and green argyle sweater, and long blonde hair falling neatly to her shoulders.

“Do you know what your daughter did?” she shouted.

I remained silent. I didn’t know.

“She hit my son with a stick! He’s got a scratch!” her face was red and angry.

I put the phone back to my ear and told Katie I’d call her back.

“I wonder what happened?” I said to her, standing up to walk to the scene of the crime.
“Watch your daughter better!” she hollered after me.

I said nothing and kept walking.

“Did you hit that boy over there?” I asked Julia. We both glanced at the blanket where he sat crying and his mother sat soothing him.

“He pushed me!” she exclaimed.

“That doesn’t mean you can hit,” I said.

“But he pushed me!” she insisted.

While I knew Julia as in the wrong, I also knew I couldn’t monitor everything that happened. The words of a French woman I’d met the year before, the mother of another one of Julia’s playmates, rang true: “Most of the time, children need to figure it out. It’s important they solve problems,” she told me, when Julia or her son Jules would come to us crying. I liked her laissez-faire parenting style. I agreed that children could solve many problems themselves and believed this would help them build confidence and independence.

Instead of apologizing to the mother, I told Julia it was time leave, and we walked away from the park toward home. I made it clear she could never hit anyone for any reason.

“Okay, Mommy,” she said, and seemed to understand.

At home, I turned on a show for Julia and brewed myself some coffee. While I waited for it to finish, I wondered if I’d been right to call my friend while at the park. I wondered if I should have watched Julia more closely. I wondered how much any one parent can be expected to do. I also wondered if that little boy’s mother would try to rescue him from all of life’s pain and problems. Maybe I should ask Katie what she thinks the next time we play our version of two tin cans and a string.

Laura Johnson Dahlke headshot


Laura Johnson Dahlke, MFA, studied creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles and also has an MA in English from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. Laura’s work appears in publications such as Hippocampus Magazine,, and Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal. She has particular interest in writing about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. She lives and dreams in Omaha with her husband and four children.



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