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Say Cheese!

I know some just think it’s a rat hole, but for years Chuck E. Cheese was my saving grace to save my sanity.

The boys may have been having a day where every word came out a wailing cry of whine, but the moment we stepped foot into the Cheese, all tears were dried, all woes forgotten, all snot just a smear on a sleeve.

They would take their golden coins and scamper away; walking up the skeeball machine to plop their balls in as high as they could reach, going from game to game swiping off any leftover tickets, getting stuck in the habit trail, forcing me to push another child up there on a search and rescue mission, before ultimately having to squash up there myself to save them both.

We’d be the first ones there, lay claim to a booth in the back and get deep-dish pizza to share even if it was only 10am. By the time the crowds piled in, just before noon, my kiddies and I had already retrieved our prizes and grabbed either a dollar ice cream from the machine or a bag of cotton candy to go. It was all sugary smiles, crappy toys, and children falling asleep in the car on the way home.

Cheesy heaven.

But that was a long time ago.

With all the kids now in full time school and the strict never on weekends rule – I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy – we hadn’t been there in close to a year. So when we had a random day off last week, I decided to surprise them with an impromptu visit. By the time we hit the parking lot there were cheers of ‘Best mom eva!” and I parked the car trying to see past my own giant head.

We walked in and stopped cold, our mouths hanging open in ‘Waaaaaa’. This was no Velvetta, this cheese had gone organic. The place had been renovated completely. It was shiny and new. The hamster tunnels were no more. There was open space and new games sparkling through the sun drenched windows.

My boys had a beat where they almost couldn’t move, then with frenzied joy tripped over themselves in excitement. I handed them each 50 tokens and didn’t see them again for two hours. Okay, not true. It took them less than an hour to burn through those tokens, but it was a damn good hour.

We had the run of the place, with only two other families to share the space with us. One was a mother and a four year old bouncing around from game to game. The other was a mother pushing a baby carriage and dragging a screaming three year old. She was so stressed and miserable, even more so than her boy in the midst of a meltdown.

I felt bad for her. I really did. I understood perfectly the stress of an overwhelmed mom. I mean it wasn’t that long ago that I was somewhat in her shoes, but she was barking at him, “You brat! Stop it this instant!” over and over, like yelling at him was going to make him stop crying, instead of making him cry more, which is exactly what he did.

I tried not to focus on them, and instead on my happy day with my boys; although every now and then I’d sneak a glance. It was hard not to, the kid was losing it and the mother was having a nervous breakdown among a thousand happy blinking lights and bleeping games. It was almost a cinematic masterpiece.

I wanted to tell her to calm down. To let him have his tantrum. That it would be okay. That she would be okay. And losing it and lashing out at a three year old wasn’t going to make him or her feel any better. But I didn’t know any of those things really, so all I did was smile encouragingly, and make a light handed comment about kids being counted on to crack just when you needed them to stay glued together. She didn’t respond. I saw the furrow of her brow, the tight hunch of her shoulders, stress dripping off of her and knew she was in a really ugly moment.

I caught a glimpse of them leaving; her pushing the carriage with one hand, dragging her wailing son with the other as my son pulled me away to a machine which was spitting out a million tickets; his face lit brighter than the game. “Mommy! I won!” I smiled indulgently; so much happy for so little invested.

We stayed for another half hour, going through 20 more tokens each. before we redeemed our tickets, got some sweets and skipped out the door. It had been a perfect morning. As we drove away, my boys busy breaking the trinkets they won, sticky sweets on their hands and faces, talking loudly over one another with residual excitement; I looked back at them lovingly through the rear view mirror.

At 6, 8 and 11, they are growing up so fast. Soon they’ll probably only hang out with me kicking and screaming, or at least muttering and eye-rolling. But I’ll take it. I’ll take every day I’ve got with them. The good, the bad, the ugly.  I’m going to appreciate it all.

Cheesy as it may sound.

Never follow men with candy, but always follow mice with tickets.

Never follow men with candy, but always follow mice with tickets.