Two plus one equals five

One, two children no problem (well, not exactly no problem, but when I compare it with the alternative, it looks a lot easier).

When you get a group of children together, their molecular structure changes. They become something not quite human. They become deaf balls of light and energy encrusted with mud.

We spent the holiday weekend at the family ranch nearly 1,000 acres designed to wear out both kids and dogs to the point of an early bedtime and a restful night.

In theory.

In practice, both the kids and the dogs congregate in a 20 square-foot area, which also includes the grill, picnic tables, unattended drinks and work-weary adults. The only time they branch out is for activities that stain their new white socks black and clog their shoes with dust they empty on the floor at bedtime.

Sunday was the day guests, fresh from the shower, show up for a community barbecue.

Sunday is the day the rest of us sponge off and take a quick lotion bath.

In preparation for visitors, I dressed Katie in a pretty yellow sundress with matching panties.

In preparation for visitors, she rolled in the dirt. For added effect, she used it to highlight her cheekbones and eyelids.

There was an unexpected guest. Rachel is just a little younger than Katie (you couldn't tell it by her full head of hair). They made friends over their mutual interest in the dog (by mutual, I mean Katie and Rachel. The dog had absolutely no interest in them).

Rachel brought a ball, which Katie immediately commandeered, but offered to share. Rachel was quite willing to give it up in deference to Katie's take-charge nature, but as soon as she discovered Rachel didn't want it, Katie lost interest.

Their friendship was cemented when Katie discovered Rachel would sit quietly while Katie poured dirt into her hair and tried to feed her twigs and pine needles.

There was a time when they took turns putting handfuls of dirt onto each other's head. Rachel's father was a little dismayed at the thought of getting the dirt out of Rachel's hair.

I didn't have a problem. With little hair for the dirt to cling to, a strong wind would shine Katie up.

Three boys, ages six to 10, had their own havoc to wreak. They filled up on crackers when no one was looking, they rode bikes through clusters of adults and dogs and they stole everyone's seat the second they rose.

When they're teen-agers, I guess I'll look back fondly on these days and be thankful it was so easy.

What became their distraction, and a full afternoon's worth of work, was the creation of a fire pit.

They spent hours digging in the sand and collecting little rocks to make a perimeter.

Why did they go to the trouble?

We didn't have marshmallows. We didn't have hot dogs or popcorn or any other roastable treat.

They did it so they could watch it die down enough so they could pee the rest of it out. Great quantities of water went into the effort, and when they were done, they still needed shovels of sand and a little water to finish the job.

They vowed to do better next time.

It wasn't so long ago I had to convince them that when camping, you just went. No facilities needed.

Look how much they've grown.

When by themselves, they tend to shadow their father, but their courage grows directly in proportion to the number of friends with them.

So does their capacity for making noise, breaking things and eating.

Ironically, their hearing diminishes, also in proportion to the number of friends with them.

If two children seem like four, then three seem like five.

Adults have the opportunity to get their work done in peace when the kids have friends there to distract them, but they can cause enough havoc to make it not so worthwhile.

Coming home brings a chance to relax after the weekend (seems backwards, doesn't it?). But between unpacking and thinking of a way to skim off their remaining energy are harder than you'd think.

A bath is a priority it relaxes and confines them (that in itself is a heck of a benefit). And it works. The long, energetic weekend, the feeling of clean and the penetrating heat combine to put them to sleep.

That would be my chance to relax, but I'm too busy shoveling ranch mud out of the bathtub, sorting laundry on the porch (because there's no way I'm going to let those clothes touch anything else) and emptying the cooler (evidently one or more kids decided to put their open juice in there to keep it cold and forgot about it.

Getting packed, living through the weekend and getting unpacked aren't restful, but a couple of dirty-faced grins and secret laughter made it worthwhile.

It balances. I think.

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