A lovely afternoon in Raleigh

May 12, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 12, 2015

Turnabout is fair play. And in this case, fun play, too!

Sometimes, when I drive north to visit my beloved Parental Unit, I’ll do things the right way: I’ll email my friends several days or a week ahead of time to let them know that I’ll be in town.

All too often, however, I’ll inform my friends of my impending arrival in belated fashion. I’ll send a message a day ahead of when I’m coming…or after I’ve started the nineish-hour-long drive…or, sometimes, after I’ve actually arrived.

Something not unlike that happened last week, except that this time, I wasn’t the traveler.

When I was in New York last month, my friends had mentioned that they were going to take, for the second year in a row, a driving tour of the South. My friend Y. has a brother who lives in Florida with his wife and children. Y. and her husband, mother and two young children were planning to visit the brother, making stops with friends and family as they journeyed there and back again.

I heard this, I mumbled something about how Y. and her husband, H., should let me know if they were coming anywhere near Durham, and then…I forgot all about it.

But last Wednesday, around a quarter to noon, H. sent me this message:

Hi Matt, we’re driving back from Florida. We just left Manning, SC and are heading to the Marbles Children’s Museum in Raleigh.

We should be there around 2:30.

“Cool!” I replied. “I’d love to meet you in Raleigh. Should I swing by the museum at 2:30 or a little later?”

We agreed to meet at Marbles at “2:30ish.”

A little after 2 p.m., as I was en route to Raleigh, I sent a follow-up: “Had a snag, don’t expect me before 2:45.”

“Us, too,” H. replied. “It’s potty time here in Dunn!”

Shortly prior to 2:45, I got another message from H.: “Ugh…now our ETA is 3:12.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I answered. “I won’t be that far ahead of you!”

And I wasn’t. I parked just up the street from the museum, paid the meter and strolled over to Moore Square Park, which the Marbles museum faces. I happened to pass a historical marker that informed me that the park’s namesake was one Alfred Moore (1755-1810), a lawyer and Revolutionary War soldier who went on to serve as North Carolina’s attorney general and then an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. (I’d either forgotten or, more likely, never known this information.)

I wandered around for a few minutes before settling on a bench. I pulled out a book and started reading.

The bench was in the sun, so after 10 minutes or so, I walked across the street. Marbles Kids Museum sits on the northeast corner of East Hargett and South Blount streets. To the museum’s east is Longleaf School of the Arts, a college prep academy. Behind the school is a movie theater and cafe; a rectangular courtyard allows pedestrians to walk to the theater from Hargett Street. I found a wide rock on which to sit, which was shielded somewhat from the sun, if not the heat. I resumed reading.

But I was a bit restless, so I kept on looking up. At one point, as I twisted my head to the right, I saw a familiar figure entering the museum.

“Those are the people I’m waiting for,” I said aloud*. I put my book in my backpack, stood up and briskly began walking toward the spot where I’d seen Y.’s mother, I., go into the building.

When I got inside, I stepped up beside I. and said, “Hey, there.”

I. looked at me dismissively, so I said something like, “Hey, it’s me, Mrs. —.”

After a second, it clicked, and we hugged. It turned out that I. hadn’t been aware that I would be meeting the family at the museum, so I really took her by surprise. I felt a bit guilty about that.

Y. was at the ticket counter. (It turned out that she’d been messaging me using her husband’s account.) I said hi to her and the kids, a 5-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl.

I’ve been inside the Marbles museum before, but only in the front hall, which is a quasi-public space. Y. distributed stickers to me and her family members and we proceeded into the exhibitions proper.

Marbles calls itself a museum, but it’s really a building with several play areas dedicated to children 12 and younger. We started off in a sprawling space geared to kindergarteners: There was a bus, a speedboat, a fire truck, an ambulance, a news helicopter, a veterinarian’s office and a farm.

Every vehicle had controls that could be manipulated; some of the buttons activated console lights. The ambulance’s flashing lights could be activated; a button started up the chopper’s rotor, which did not rotate nearly fast enough to elevate itself. The chopper also had two monitors — one showing an overhead shot of part of Raleigh (presumably not live), one showing a view of people in the play area. Every area had props; one or two had costumes.

There was also an area, which I visited momentarily, devoted to water — there was a small aquarium, a mockup submarine and some outdoor fountains.

The second floor had at least three different areas, of which I only entered two. The first was a workshop which, like the first-floor playground, had a number of different segments. One was oriented toward fashion and textiles; visitors could design dog costumes, cut up fabrics and sew stuff together. Next to this was a balcony on which kids could paint and draw. There was also a workshop where kids could put together simple toy cars and then propel them down a ramp. A carpentry area allowed kids to play with blocks of wood, clamps and actual saws. (Bins contained safety goggles.)

The most popular section with our crew had big stackable blocks, like oversized Legos. Both the boy and the girl liked these, although the 5-year-old seemed to prefer knocking down structures that other people had assembled.

He wandered off with his parents while grandma I. and I watched the 3-year-old stack stuff. With a little guidance, she assembled a tower; when it got too high for her to add to the top, I helped. At first, I lifted her so she could place new blocks; then, I. and I encouraged the girl to build steps so she could climb up herself. Grandma and dad got heavily involved in the ramp. I never saw the final product except in a photo, but the tower seemed to reach about six feet high while the collection of steps was at least that long.

I didn’t see what the trio ended up doing because I walked off to find the 5-year-old and his mother, who were in a bank-sponsored exhibition. This area, which is called Moneypalooza, uses small rubber balls to represent currency; the balls cycle through the financial system in various devices powered by kids.

There were levers that could be pulled and air-powered tubes that could be aimed. Buckets were provided so children could gather up stray balls and use their favored devices. I figured out how to work the air shooter, but after I jammed one of them, I started throwing them around.

The museum closed at 5 p.m., so we mustered outside in the courtyard between it and the school. The kids spent the next two hours or so there darting between two play features. One was a small house that was empty except for a ladder leading to a low loft; the other was a fire truck with two hoses. The kids briefly became bored with this, at which point the 5-year-old organized a few rounds of hide-and-seek. I spoofed the whole game by squatting behind the child as he or she counted and then pretending that I had successfully evaded being found as the seeker twisted or ran around to point at me.

This was quite a hot day, one of the hottest of the spring, and it was mildly humid as well. My shirt became uncomfortably sweaty, but I was having too much fun to mind particularly.

As we closed in on 7 p.m., it was time for H., Y., I. and kids to head off to meet a cousin’s family for dinner, and I had an activity of my own to get to. We walked around the corner — the family’s van was parked on the same street as my car — posed for a group picture and said our goodbyes. I got a nice hug and kiss from each child and was on my way.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon.

* Standard disclaimer: Since I wasn’t taking notes or recording the conversations described in this post, all dialogue is guaranteed to be only kind of, sort of accurate. Fortunately for you, the valued reader, this free blog comes with a money-back guarantee! 

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