- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006

“Gumball machines or pinball machines?” Amy breaks the easy silence of our twilight car ride by continuing the game we’ve been playing all weekend.

“Gumball machines,” I say. “My turn. A hike in the woods or a walk on the beach?”

She answers with no hesitation. “A walk on the beach.”

I knew she would say that.

It had been a long, lazy weekend of questions and answers as my youngest daughter and I had enjoyed a “mom and Amy adventure.”

The opportunity to go away together wasn’t planned; it appeared on our summer calendar by serendipity. I had signed up to help transport our older daughters’ high school cross-country team to camp — a four-hour drive north. However, I didn’t drive any team members, just their luggage. This left an empty seat for Amy and an excuse to take my 8-year-old on an overnight excursion (leaving my husband at home with our son).

I figured the time alone together would give me the chance to bond with my baby — to learn even more about my youngest child, so often the tag-along on the grown-up activities of her busy siblings.

We didn’t map out our trip. Instead, after delivering a vanload of suitcases and sleeping bags to their rightful owners, we put our fingers to the proverbial wind. “Let’s start looking for a hotel,” I suggested.

The first thing I learned was that Amy prefers luxury accommodations.

“How about that one?” She pointed up the driveway of an exclusive resort.

“We’re looking for something a bit more affordable,” I said. Note to self: Must work with this child on setting realistic expectations.

Before long — and only after I had reassured Amy of its safety and cleanliness — we checked into a modest hotel.

The weekend unfolded in unhurried and effortless fun. Playing miniature golf (she had two holes in one, but I prevailed overall), staying up late to watch the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America,” church on Sunday morning, brunch at an outdoor cafe.

Eventually, the day found us on a lake beach, where Amy bounced from the playground to the water’s edge while I watched her and wondered how my motherhood job could have changed so quickly and so profoundly.

Suddenly, I realized I was spending the weekend in my future.

After years of traveling in a perpetual pack with my four children, traipsing en mass from the grocery store to the park to the pool, conquering errands in the midst of a boisterous bunch that often seems larger than the just four persons to whom I gave birth, I was down to only one child.

“Do you realize,” I say to her at the end of our beach day, “this is the first time in 14 years I’ve spent a day alone on a beach with one of my children? The last time was with your big sister Katie — who was only 2 years old at the time.”

“Wow. I’m pretty lucky,” she says.

“Indeed,” I say. Yet most of the time, I don’t think so.

Most of the time, I feel guilty for schlepping this child to every basketball game, track meet, play practice and teacher conference on our family calendar — very few of which involve her. In truth, she spends a lot of time complaining about her life as the caboose on our collective train, and I can’t blame her.

Being the youngest in a large family means waiting to be one of the “big kids,” though this never actually comes to pass because no matter how old you get, the family members ahead of you already are blazing new trails. It’s an exercise in frustration, to say the least.

Now, though, borrowing a page from the future we are yet to enjoy together, I finally get that her life as the youngest isn’t so bad after all.

On the one hand, she’s experiencing a loud and loving home where two sisters and a brother “torment” her with teasing and tickles.

On the other hand, those older siblings will fly the coop before we know it, leaving this last chick with the undivided attention of a mom and dad who aren’t in any hurry to inhabit an empty nest.

When you look at it this way, she has the best of both worlds.

To be sure, it’s lonelier for Amy than it was for her siblings when they were her age. Rather than play on the beach with a built-in band of buddies, she circles the swing set looking for a welcoming smile. In this, she’s gaining the confidence to strike out and make new friends — something that doesn’t come as naturally to her older sibs.

My pondering about the changing nature of my family fades with the orange summer sky. We’re making the trip back home, drifting in and out of conversation. For a while, it’s quiet, and I figure she’s asleep; the only sound is the hum of the tires on the highway.

Then, from the back of the van, Amy asks, “Chocolate or vanilla?”

We agree on chocolate, of course.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. hicks@comcast.net.

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