Driving with Sophia

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sophia yellowYou are tall for sixteen, the year you get your driver’s permit; a recent visit to the doctor for the annual physical, a requirement for running cross country, put your height in the 97% percentile. Back at the old place your dad would measure your height and mark it on your bedroom doorframe, always the same: a little dash and next to it, the date in tiny, neat printed letters.   The marks start at age five, and move up the frame only incrementally until you are nine, when the increments become noticeably, stealthily larger.

Each time a new hash was added you would compare your height to mine, standing on tiptoe and minimizing the distance between the tops of our heads, which always made me smile, remembering how my own dad marked my height on the inside the doorway of mom’s yellow kitchen in just this way, and how afterwards, I would examine the vertical hash and then announce to my mom “Look, I am almost as tall as you.” Not quite yet, she would laugh. But soon.

When will I be taller than you, you would ask. Watching me seriously as I took pencil to paper and calculated your rate of growth from age six to seven, seven to eight, eight to nine. As I made the projections, I explained the calculations with you nodding soberly as if following it all, and then wrote the number 11, and circled it. There, I told you. That is how old you will be when you will be taller than me. You seemed skeptical that you would grow taller than me while still in middle school, but the only thing hard to believe about the projection turns out to be its truth; you are indeed the same height as me the year you turn eleven, for about five minutes.

By the time you are thirteen you are sometimes borrowing my jackets and shoes, and when you reach the age of your learner’s permit, your legs and arms seem as long and spindly as the spiders we call daddy longlegs that we would sometimes find walking daintily along the windowsills on the back deck of our garden. Baby longlegs, I call you, and you grin your shy slightly crooked grin; you might be getting taller by the day, but your smile is still pretty much the same smile you’ve had since you were two and so is the tug at my heart.

When your half sister was the age you are now, she was considering two universities: one east coast, one west. To help matters, I promised her my car, so that, should she choose the west coast option, she would have an easy means to get to the city and visit us. It was a straight up bribe, of course, and what teenage girl can resist the siren song of a yellow convertible? On a fall day in Palo Alto, she proudly took possession of what has to be the perfect vehicle for a design student to drive. To my surprise, I would be the one to teach her to drive a stick shift, an instruction she found less nerve wracking coming from me than your dad – not because your dad is harsh, but because she was able to recognize the extreme pressure she put on herself to perform well in front of him. She needn’t have worried – she, like you (and your shared dad) is a careful listener and a quick study; within a week of learning she was making the long drive from Palo Alto to San Francisco mostly without incident.

It’s nice you are so close, people tell me. You are both lucky. I smile but say nothing.  Luck, I read somewhere, is a contextual grace, relative rather than absolute. Meaning, I think, that we create our luck; it is our circumstances that recognize the preparation and reward it.

Growing up, motherhood was nothing I imagined for myself – my context didn’t encourage that. The saving grace of my childhood was not luck, but rather my sister. I am your step mom but find myself often thinking of you, even speaking to you, as a little sister. Which is not surprising, I suppose – my sister is, has always been, the closest family I have, and talking to your serious 7 year old self automatically made me my 9 year old self, looking out for you as I looked out for my own sis, she of the scarred skinny legs and the indignant sense of justice. “Take your sister,” my mom would say as I banged out the door. I didn’t always want her tagging along with me, something she knew without making me feel bad about it. On those days she’d lag behind a little, probably the first time I felt that familiar tug at my heart.

There is nothing, no one, no love, like a sister’s love, I tell you. You are curious about this person so important to me, whom you have never met. We are less than two years apart in age. When we were young, our mom dressed us identically; I was puny for my age, and the similarity in our height combined with the identical outfits led many to ask , are you twins? No, we’d say in unison, just sisters. I’ve read about the twin connection, the shared secret language, the seemingly encoded personalities, the way twins raised separately often ended up with the same dog breed with the same dog name, and driving the same make and model of car. I think of how I can call my sister, and in my first word, just a “hi”, she will know immediately if something is wrong – if I am sad, sick, hurting, wronged. It means I have to be careful of the when of my calls to her, whether shopping or driving or taking the dog for a walk; the immediate love and concern that flow toward me crumples my defenses and can find me unexpectedly weeping in the aisle of the grocery store or behind the wheel at a stoplight.

There is nothing I haven’t told my sister, nothing I couldn’t tell her, nothing I couldn’t hear from her, nothing I don’t know about her. Nothing changes this: not marriage, not divorce, not illness, not mistakes, not even long separation.

One night she came home with a still white face and eyes that would not meet anyone’s, not even mine. I went to her room, and sat quietly on her bed, asked the question I dreaded the answer to, and waited for her to tell me what I already knew. How did I know, she asked later, and only then did I tell her the story I’d been too scared to tell anyone, sure it was somehow if not my fault, my responsibility. More than thirty years have passed but it is still one of my clearest memories, the feel of her, gasping and hiccupping, so small in my arms, my heart raging with helplessness.

For all my life, my sister has been the most constant, reliable synonym for love I know. And that remains true; but now there is you.

Your own half sister is ten years older, and for a long time that in itself was enough to make you seem very different. But that was an illusion: your sister looks, at twenty six, much as she did at sixteen, which is to say, much as you look now. And so we are treated to this vision of you two sisters grown into your alikeness, pointed of chin, pale of skin, long of leg, the same intelligent regard, the same quiet, watchful beauty.

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This summer we took a week-long fly fishing trip, the longest period of time the two of you have been able to spend continuously together. You learned the skills of fly fishing together, including cleaning and cooking your catch.You floated on the glassy surface of the lake, or wandered into the woods to target practice with throwing knives, axe and slingshot. You spent quiet afternoons reading side by side in the warm California sun, and long hours in the tent together, after dark, your headlamps dimly glowing inside the fabric walls, talking softly. Just a few feet away, your dad and I fell asleep each night to your indistinct voices murmuring late into the night, the only other sound the crickets and the skittering of squirrels in the surrounding trees.

The writer Joan Didion famously said, We tell ourselves stories in order to survive, and on one of these nights, I knew, your sister would tell you a story nearly identical to the one I heard in that long ago bedroom I shared with my sis; it is a story I know she will cry in the telling of, a story I know will untie your heart, as it did mine.

One of the dictionary definitions of sister is “a fellow woman seen in relation to specific shared life experiences” and in this story your sister tells you in the star-lit darkness of the Sierras mountains – this story that is also my story, and my sister’s story, and a story many women would hear and say “yes, me too – it’s my story too” – we share a cross-generational sisterhood that I intend for you never to be granted entry to. Your sis and I pinky sweared on it.

At the end of our fishing trip we spend what seems like a day washing a week’s worth of camping dust from our clothes, shoes and selves. Your dad even washes the car inside and out, so that when we roll back into the city it’s like we’re already viewing the vacation – like the sleeping forms of you, your sister and Jake the chocolate lab piled untidily in the backseat – from the rearview mirror. As we pull up to the house, where the yellow convertible sits like a smile  in the driveway, awaiting our return, your dad gives me a wink. There’s a sight I’ve always looked forward to, he grins and I grin and, remembering, we burst into laughter. What, what! you girls want to know, but it’s the kind of story that leads to another story – the story of how we met – and though it’s one you’ve both clamored to hear, it’s another story for another day. I associate the car with good things, is all your dad will say.

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I was nearly your sister’s age when I bought the car, which is now older than you yourself are.   It was, in many ways, my declaration of adulthood: I spotted it, wanted it, negotiated for it, waiting more than a year to get the price I had sworn not to pay more than. Driving it home from the dealership, my smile was as wide as the road itself. Yet giving it away was easy, knowing it would bring your sister’s orbit closer to us, closer to you.

As much as I loved the car, I never once felt a pang or a worry giving it up, until this summer, when the receipt of your learner’s permit coincided with a cousin’s wedding in Big Sur.

We’re going to drive down together! you announce to us, and I’m, at first, only glad: driving Highway One is a trip tailor-made for a convertible – I should know, I’ve made the same trip myself a few times. The beauty is astonishing, and I am happy you will see it together. But as the two of you drive off with abundant hair flying like flags in the slipstream, my heart catches in my throat a little. I glance over at your dad and see he’s having the same thought.

Precious cargo, I manage to say, and he puts an arm around me, and I wipe my eyes and no more is said, not even when the text messages come pouring in from your sister, who is teaching you to drive a stick shift on what is possibly the world’s most winding road – a road that is also bordered by a cliff for much of the way, a road that has had huge sections swept away in sudden mudslides, a road full of speeding long haul trucks with wheels taller than bright yellow bit of nothing carrying the two of you.

Reading the elated texts, the car suddenly seems as fragile as the skin, as breakable as the bones that cradle the beating heart within you, and I have a moment of we-must-have-been-crazy-to-permit-this panic, which I am mostly successful at pushing down and ignoring. For the rest of that long weekend I do not worry, exactly- how can I, when my life has quite literally paved the way for this very moment? –   but I do not quite breathe as easily as usual until the car is back in the driveway with its yellow smirk and with the two of you completely unharmed and looking quite pleased with yourselves.

But from now on, separate cars, I whisper to your dad, and we both laugh of course, but also mean it.

Cars mean different things to different people in different places. Growing up in the Midwest, a car meant freedom. Freedom from what, you ask me, and we both laugh when I tell you, parents, of course. Parents like me. On Friday nights, the streets of my small town were mostly populated by teenagers driving around looking at other teenagers driving around, stopping to congregate in the parking lots of the fast food restaurants that lined Main Street. If there were too many of us, the restaurant manager or a laconic officer in a patrol car would scatter us, mindful of the families that somehow found teenagers in large numbers to be threatening. So into our cars we’d pile to drive around the cornfield-lined roads that connected our town to the next, and the next, circling back again and again. It was a journey with no destination; it was a journey that was only and ever about the brief freedom from adult eyes, the only place that independence can be proven to the budding young self.

This is not the sort of scenario that teenagers in San Francisco enact; in a city that numbers among its public transportation options busses, trains, trams, trolleys and street cars, having a car is actually optional, but still represents, if not independence, then an unmistakable signal of maturation, and one that you are eager to avail yourself of.  Driving to your mom’s to pick up some books, I am your passenger for an eight block trip we’d normally walk, but tonight you want the practice driving your dad’s four wheel drive (besides, books are heavy), so I obligingly buckle in next to you.

We’re so high up, you exclaim, and I laugh because it’s the same thing I thought too when I started driving the 4Runner; driving a sleek little road-hugging convertible is a distinctly different experience than driving a musclebound SUV. It’s a short trip but long enough to establish that you are an attentive driver without being anxious or nervous, and you execute a three point turn with halting but reasonable finesse. You note the differences in the way a bigger car handles from your mom’s sedan and your sister’s convertible, and I manage to restrain myself from transforming an innocuous little driving lesson into a warning lecture for your own good on speeding, black ice, rain-slick roads.

Some horrors, I know – we sisters know – can be prevented by telling our stories, but driving is learned by experience. So I say only, Well done, and you smile at the praise. It is not a smile as wide as the road itself, but the freedom of the road is in it, and I feel the familiar tug, a harbinger of the day you leave us in your rearview mirror to drive whatever roads it is your destiny to travel.

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Minding the Gap with Sophia

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Minding the Gap with Sophia

Herb and SophiaThis is your gap year, the year between your fourteenth birthday and fifteenth, between eighth grade and high school, between girlhood and young womanhood.

Born in late November, you, like your father and me, are one to two years younger than your classmates, a gap that was barely noticeable when you were in early middle school, but that has become much more apparent as you enter your teens.  This year abroad will help you bridge that gap, entering high school at the same age as your peers.

You are tall for your age, but still seem young among your classmates. At your graduation some of your peers crossed the platform to receive their diplomas in grownup dresses and suits with ties, already bearing the shape and heavy footfalls of the adults they will become.   You stood with your sunflower in your age appropriate white dress, an English rose in the California sunshine; the girl next to you wore a strapless white number and heels, looking as sleek and glamorous as a 26 year old, the illusion only broken when she rushed to her friends, shrieking with giggles.

in spain.pngA year sounds like a long time but here we are in May and you are three quarters finished with your gap year. Madrid, London, Rome, Geneva, Oslo…your gap year has been so packed with travel and study, it seems misnamed – Crammed Full of New Experiences Year is more apt (though unpoetical).

At 14 your passport has a lot of stamps in it; at the same age, I did not even know what a passport was, doing all of my traveling in books. At 14 the farthest I’d ever been from home was the Missouri Ozarks to visit my grandparents, where nothing much ever happened unless you count my mom (also at age 14) being crowned Carnival Queen.

girlsYou spent the fall in Madrid in full immersion language study, attending a Spanish middle school. I thought of you often during those months, wondering what life was like, totally surrounded by people speaking a language you had, at the time, only a beginner’s grasp of. I was glad your host family has a daughter your age. You shared pictures of your new friends, managing to look simultaneously reassuringly girlish and alarmingly grown up.

In your blue plaid Catholic school uniform, you remind me of my own self at the same age; our uniforms were green, but otherwise, the parochial school education I received three decades ago in the Midwest was pretty much identical to the one you are getting in Madrid this fall.

“There are no group projects, ever,” you informed us. “We just sit and listen to the teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. “ This contrasted sharply with your progressive education in the San Francisco Bay Area, where student collaboration and leadership of their own curriculum are cornerstones of middle school education.

caceres.pngYou kept your blog dutifully if desultorily.   Your writing is direct, unadorned, reportorial rather than revealing. I suspect this is by design – you have always been a close one. You snapchat us funny selfies that show you looking leggy, unfamiliar and beautiful in your Spanish Catholic girl uniform; we send you pictures of Jake sleeping on your bed, videos of Jake romping in your beloved coastal headlands of California. In this way we stay in each other’s daily lives.

Jake misses you. If we say your name, his tail thumps, and he swivels his head toward the front door with hopeful expectancy.  While you gallivant around the world visiting the world’s largest supercollider, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Vigeland’s Wheel of Life sculptures, Jake sleeps on your bed, sometimes with one of your stuffed animals between his  paws – usually the rabbit but sometimes the owl.  He never tears their eyes out.  He startles me sometimes, his brown head lifting up attentively as I walk down the hall very late or very early, past the open door to your room; for a second I think it is you and then remember, you will not be home for many months yet.

You have a two week respite between studies in London and Madrid, and to no one’s surprise you chose Norway, a wild landscape that seems to have captured your heart as completely as it did mine, and fits your father like an old favorite coat. It’s a lot like Michigan, he says, and indeed, with his Nordic complexion and habit of wearing all-weather gear and mountaineering boots he is mostly indistinguishable from the natives.

house2We are staying in a fairy tale house made of reclaimed wood with a traditional roof that has daisies and grasses growing from it, the Norwegian woods rising up all around us. For you this is a break from being studious, for me this is a break from working nearly non-stop for too many months in a row, so we don’t mind the pouring rain and have no particular plans other than to read in the morning and build a fire in the evening and make pancakes and coffee on the beach in the afternoon, weather permitting.

You were the only one to brave the freezing Oslo Fjord – even the Norwegian among us demurred, but, hardy herself as all Norwegian women seem to be, admired how you stayed in for a good long swim. I can’t feel my arms, you call out to us, laughing but undeterred.   In this you are like your father, seemingly able to withstand any amount of cold when immersed in something you love – not only not suffering but laughing with enjoyment.

Your sister flew in from Amsterdam to join us, and after dinner one evening we went for a walk. With your long hair blowing in a chill spring wind that brings fresh roses to your fair-skinned cheeks, the two of you remind me of Athena and Artemis taking a break from your goddessy duties to sample the rain-scrubbed air and giggle together.

In an age where parents commonly bemoan the sight of their children glued to their electronic devices, Snapchatting and watching You Tube videos, you can be found more often with book in hand than phone. Texts to you might go unanswered for days at a time, something both your dad and I find more reassuring than annoying.  You have always been a dreamy one, enjoying your solitude. At age 11, after a class trip to Joshua Tree your conversation was not about boys or what this or that friend said, but the periods of solitude in nature that you were able to find, even amongst the mob of kids.

Three years later you are not much changed in this regard; in our time in Norway, when not running the trails or visiting museums you can most predictably be found tucked away reading in a corner window seat. You are content here, the woods looming all around, the sound of the rain and wind and locusts and conversations in distant parts of the house humming just below your consciousness. In this we are alike: I spent most of my time at your age with my nose in a book, or sitting at the edges of conversational circles observing, alone but not lonely, a distinction you seem to instinctively understand and appreciate.

gulhallaI marvel constantly at your self-assurance in strange settings. You are utterly unintimidated by public transportation, and I watch with some amazement as you confidently consult the maps and route boards for train, tram, ferry, bus, subway and trolley, calmly working out the transfers and then announcing “We take the L1 on Platform 4 toward Spikkestad, or we can take the R33 toward Gullhalla then catch the Metro.”

I tell you about my own first experience with the subway, in London, with an entire crew of colleagues – some of them Ph.D. engineers – preferring to expensively taxi around rather than risk the subway, too impatient or simply unwilling to learn the unfamiliar.   At my indignant insistence that we travel as locals not tourists I strode fearfully but purposefully into Picadilly Circus and figured out the Tube, a nominal feat as it turned out, with everything color-coded so simply a child could learn. I was 29, nearly twice the age you are now, with half the mastery.

You found it hard to believe that something so naturally easy for you would be challenging for grown-ups and I smile inwardly, wondering if this is your earliest encounter in the inevitable disillusionment with adulthood all children must face: that age does not always confer wisdom or guarantee greater experience. That sometimes, the young know more than the old, and must lead the way. Watching you, I have no doubt you will be ready when that time comes.

I feel a bit sorry that she is spending so much time with old fogies like us, joked one of your gap year mentors. She is an energetic woman in her sixties, a brilliant professor who is retired now but still a tireless learner and treasured family friend. Friends are so important to kids at this age, she observed. But you have always been an ‘old soul’ in that regard, as comfortable being the only child in a room of adults as you are amongst your peers.

Near the end of our time together in Norway, before your father and I return to San Francisco and you jet off to England, we find ourselves in bustling Oslo Central Station. The platform is crowded with tired workers, newly arrived travelers and local shoppers, but you thread your way effortlessly through them to the correct platform.

norway 4It has rained steady and hard on our sightseeing day, and we are drenched and tired, the type of situation that brings out anxiety and crabbiness in most adults. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this (but more likely to simply rid himself of his last Kroner) your dad makes an almost unheard of purchase from a vending machine and we share around the booty: Snickers for him, Twix for me, you sampling each.

Wow I haven’t had a candy bar since last Halloween, you remark, then correct yourself: the Halloween before last, actually.   I reflect that perhaps this, as much as anything else, marks the end of your childhood – an indifference to candy and the American holiday that glorifies it.

We all perk up at the sugar, which helps us shake off the doldrums of a long day coming to an end.   On the trip home you gaze out the window, lost in thought, and I surreptitiously photograph you, something you notice no more than the constant furtive little glances of young men as they pass you on the street and in the shops.

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You are as yet unaware of your beauty and the effect it has, another final remnant of girlhood. As I watch you, an image of you arises in my mind’s eye, your suddenly womanly form emerging dripping from the freezing Oslo Fjord, a sight whose loveliness will take the world’s breath away someday, but for now, is still the provenance of your girlhood and those of us lucky enough to witness the last of it.

 

 

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Everything’s Jake with Sophia

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Everything’s Jake with Sophia

The city of San Francisco has many charms, and one of the most idiosyncratic of these is the ubiquity of dogs.  One of my earliest impressions of the city is walking down the sidewalk of a Saturday and seeing dogs waiting patiently outside the shops, some tied to parking meters or trees, others completely unfettered.  It is a charming sight.  San Francisco is, without a doubt, a dog city.

This is the story of how you became a dog person.

Some people are dog people; some are cat people. You though born in San Francisco, started out a cat person, much to the dismay of your father and me.

I’m a dog person.  If I pass you on the street, I’ll make eye contact with your dog before (or possibly instead of) making eye contact with you.  If you are a dog  person too, you’ll smile at the way I smile at your dog.  I’ve always felt a connection to dogs that is as strong as my disconnect from cats.

I don’t dislike cats solely because their owners let them freely stalk the night time streets like gunslingers, taking out 4 billion songbirds a year from our collective neighborhood trees, but it’s definitely a contributing factor.

(but seriously what’s up with letting these pygmy lions wander freely about murdering birds? Imagine if dogs killed songbirds for sport, how outraged everyone would be.  We’d never allow them to freely roam the night streets to do so!  So why are we OK with cats doing it, again?)

At five, your favorite game was “Kitty” which consisted of me pretending to be a cat that you rescued from the SPCA and brought home to live in your room.  You wore a tiara during the selection and adoption process, and for my leash, co-opted a feather boa that your dad bought for me on our infamous New Orleans date (our third).

I would be required to crawl around after you on all fours and when this got old for me (which it quickly did) I would simply herd you and the unfolding story of Kitty Finds a Home from the kitchen with its painful ceramic tiles to the hallway with its thick pile Turkish runner that was so much easier on my 40-something knees.

kitty skull and bonesYour love of cats persisted and it’s  a testimony to your cuteness that we indulged this whim; we bought you t-shirts with sparkly kitten faces on them, and socks with kitten skulls and crossbones.   We even took you to the  Moscow Cat Circus, a grandly named traveling folly that  turned out to be a few non-English speaking Russians and Ukrainians who looked as if they would smell of mothballs and vodka, dressed as derelict clowns and doing odd tricks with their cats.

It was a shabby affair but you were thrilled:  at six, you had no regard for production values.  A cat balancing on a man’s head while he rode a unicycle was plenty entertaining for you.  For the occasion, we wore matching cat ears and cat tails and eye liner whiskers on our cheeks.

We even ‘adopted’ a neighborhood cat, a skittish gray and white girl with long luxurious fur that we named Luna (after Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood) that would come meowing to my basement office window in the after midnight hours, and deign to let me pet her now and then.

But over time, as you heard your dad and I talk of different breeds, of good dogs we had  known (and our barely concealed disdain for cats), you were persuaded to the dog side, and by the time you were eight, you had begun to pester us for a puppy.

We all wanted a dog, but your dad was adamant – not ’til the time was right.  Not ’til we were traveling less, not ’til we were sure we’d be around to train him to be the good dog we just knew he would be.  Most of all, we told you, not ’til you, yourself, were ready for the responsibility.  Dogs have to be walked, fed, played with, and trained.  They needed the the same care and attention any family member did, and were dependent on us not to forget.

You, former casual murderer of pet mice (I squished it, your five-year-old self explained calmly, snapping your hand shut to demonstrate), took all of this in with great seriousness, and soon the sounds of Cesar the Dog Whisperer could be heard coming from your room, where each day after your homework was complete you’d retreat with an iPad to learn how to make our future dog sit, stay, never eat leather or furniture, and go to the bathroom outside and not on dad’s priceless rugs.

cartoon jakeYou’d emerge from your Cesar marathons with a list of do’s and don’ts that we’d discuss.  Cesar was firm about matching the breed to the need, and we dutifully considered and rejected Vizsla’s (too nervous and wiry), labradoodles (too expensive), toy breeds (too small), golden retriever (too hairy) and border collies (too energetic).

You and I evinced a mad love for pugs, but your dad wanted an athletic dog, and after picturing a pug waddling after us on one of our two-mile runs, we reluctantly agreed (for now). We finally settled on a labrador – either white (our choice) or chocolate (your dad’s preference).

After about 100 episodes of Cesar you felt ready, and you jumped up and down with excitement when your dad announced, OK, Let’s find our dog. For weeks we scoured the internet for a litter that would be available for adoption during your summer break.

We found Mr. Blue, a white lab pup that you and I instantly fell in love with, despite your dad’s determination that we would not buy the first dog that we looked at.  You hovered over your dad’s shoulder as he tried to contact the breeder, crushed when he could not reach anyone.  Your dad found a backup pup, this one chocolate-brown and improbably blue-eyed, and  with the kind of wise old puppy face that only a future big dog has.

Is that snow? you asked, pointing to the white fluffy stuff surrounding the pup. Your dad squinted at the picture. Nope, he said. It’s garbage. Oh, no wonder he looks so sad, you said.  Sometimes I think everything was really decided right then.

The next morning your dad and I drove out to look at the pup who was not, after all, blue-eyed – his light amber eyes had simply reflected the blue-painted wall behind him. He was, however, surrounded by garbage; the breeder lived next to a dump, and abandoned cars were everywhere.

carsOur guy was the only chocolate in a litter of black puppies, all of them cheerfully dangling from the arms of a pack of children that matched the dogs for energy and chaos.   After an initial greeting, he scooted under the shade of a parked car and calmly surveyed his trashy domain.

When your dad reached in to pull him out, he was so relaxed his back legs trailed behind him,  leaving long parallel lines in the dirt.  Your dad held him by his little armpits, and stared into his face, and he stared serenely back, never wiggling or whimpering.

The moment stretched out, and in all that kid-and-dog hubub it was as if the two of them with their similarly calm demeanors had created a little bubble of silence, man and dog, communing with their light eyes, blue and yellow.

And that, really, was it. The choice was made.  Your dad paid the owner, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen.   As we made the transaction, a stream of family members came pouring out of the little house in celebration, so many that it reminded me of the clown car at the circus.  Everyone was celebratory, even the puppy parents bumped around our knees, wagging and laughing in that way dogs have.

jake pupAs we walked to the car and got in I thought our new puppy might struggle to get down from your dad’s arms, or at least whimper for his mother, but  he did not look back at the garbage-strewn yard behind us, chaotic with children and his litter mates.  His little amber gaze moved placidly from your dad’s face to mine, and he radiated a calm confidence that seemed to say, everything’s fine and right in his world, everything’s good.

So that when your dad asked me What shall we name him, it was obvious, maybe even ordained.  Jake, I told him. Look at him – he’s jake with everything. In a way, he’s already Jake.

jake definitionAnd so he became, riding in your dad’s lap tucked beneath the steering wheel like a contented little prince, and a few minutes later we were pulling up to the house where you were waiting on the sidewalk with your best friend (a position Jake was soon to occupy), jumping from foot to foot in anticipation.

What’s his name was your first question, and we told you, and we stood watching him gambol about the sidewalk with his eight week old legs and his hilarious eighty year old face and we all agreed the name fit him like a chocolate glove.

A white blaze on his chest was found to be shaped like a heart, askew on what would one day become a marvelously broad and powerful chest, big enough to hold the whole of all of our hearts which were now also decidedly askew (something that was also maybe ordained, and that we were also totally jake with).

In the next few years his growth spurt matched yours, and you matured together to the cusp of adulthood, it became a common site, you skipping off on legs grown impossibly long, Jake bounding after you on sidewalks, paths, through woods and lake and ocean.

It would only be a short while before Jake learned all of our names, and could come and ‘get’ us on command, rousing us from bed with a pink nose that was as born to root birds from cover as it was people from covers.

But that was all in our future, something as unreal to you as it no doubt was to Jake, both of you fully present in the moment, in your respective childhoods.  In the now, it was a beautiful sunny day in June and the previously sleepy street rang with joyful sound of young girls calling in voices that pealed like bells, Jake! Jake! til he must have thought in his delight at this new part of the world, in his old-puppy sagacity, that everything was, indeed, Jake.

And that’s how you became a dog person.


p.s. Luna was not jake with Jake, and after the first shocked inspection of Jake’s amiable face, darted off into the night, perhaps to her real owners

In the Norwegian Woods with Sophia

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ImageAt eleven, you have already traveled extensively: Tahoe, New York, London, Spain, Hawaii, Iceland.   This summer we visited friends who live in the woods on the outskirts of Oslo.  The home in all its bohemian rhapsody could not be more different from your mom’s paean to sophisticated modern luxury back home in the city. Here, the bare wood face of the house is crowned with a thatch roof where grasses, daisies, seedling trees and ferns wave to and fro in the cool breezes.   It lends this house a fairy tale air, with its weathered boards and mossy statues hidden among the wild blueberry thickets that blanket the back yard.

ImageInside the house are piled, stacked and propped everywhere towers and troves of books, oddities, treasures and antiques from the family’s travels across Europe.  Your bed for the week is a wide-bodied, elderly leather couch (Spanish) laid with an actual wolf skin (Norwegian) in front of a great ancient stone (French) fireplace where you take great delight in stoking a roaring fire each night.  Your dad and I sleep above you in a crow’s nest of a room with one wall composed entirely of a mélange of antique windows, where we drift to sleep in the flickering orange-and shadow glow of your pyrotechnics.

Although your young life includes the luck of luxury, you’ve always been a camper at heart.  By age four you were a veteran of tenting in the wilds of the backyard deck, your preferred venue for popcorn and movies. Your dad and I would creep upstairs to sleep on a bed vs. boards for a few hours, then creep back down before you woke.  I was certain you never knew, because if you woke up in the wee hours alone in the dark in the backyard like that, we’d surely hear it  through the crackling sentinel of the baby monitor.

But the baby monitor emitted only the soft sounds of your breathing, and we congratulated each other on our stealth, only to have you much later remark casually over your Cheerios, “You guys sure were gone a long time.”    We laughed and I asked you why you didn’t come up and join us in bed. “Because we were camping,” you say, with perfect comfort-is-for sissies disdain.

Since then you’ve camped in all manner of places – from beside the Blackwood Canyon creek in Tahoe, to the remote lakes alongside the rugged mountain biking trails of Downieville.  You’ve camped in Idaho, Nevada and California.   But it is here in Norway, that your jones for camping is finally, fully satisfied: outdoor life is not so much a respite from daily life as a part of it.

Our first day you are charmed to take part in a Norwegian custom of a breakfast barbeque right on the windy beach, the sound of the water lapping counterpoint to the crackling fire.  We make pancakes in a cast iron pan, the batter thick with blueberries we’ve picked from the  back yard that same morning.  You even sip the coffee percolated over the fire in a bialetti well-darkened with age.  Afterwards we swim in the fjord water, its icy sharpness snatching our breath away.

foodIt is the first of many meals on the beach, the wind sending the smoke after first one, then another of us, as we gather around the grill propped between rocks with its bounty of mackerel, salmon, peppers, and asparagus spears laid out like soldiers on the grill

The people of this house are as lovely and unique as the surroundings; we both agree that Ingvild, with her slim limbs and long, wild curly mane looks just like a mermaid. It seems almost impossible that she is the mother of four, ranging from age 8 to 20.  The boys have the famous Norwegian tow-headed beauty of the crown princess herself, the girls  with  the same thick flowing locks of their mother are sun-and-moon beautiful, one blonde, one dark.

Theirs is not a lifestyle but a life lived in natural full; the garden is an abundance of greens, herbs and edible flowers which find their way to our dinner table each night. The soaps are handmade, the jams are home-canned, and the great porcelain bowls of eggs laid at nearby neighbors’ farms.

Everything here doesn’t just look old, it is; from the metal café chairs (Greek) with the pillows softening the seats (Turkey)and the leather poufs (Moroccan) and the wooden steps that creak with Grimmish maleficence at night, the entire house is painted in a patina of time.

The bathtub is a century old; our host asserts that indeed, his wife can float within its depths, news at which you and I exchange a secret mermaid glance.

At night, the rushing Norwegian wind slithers through the cracks between the reclaimed wood walls with a hiss that makes you shiver with the ghost of winter’s past, even in the midst of midsummer, and sleeping by the leaping light of a fire I find, as you seem to, a comfort that is about more than mere warmth.

Another day finds us on another beach, where we perch on rocks above the fjord waters and eat fresh caught shrimp Norwegian style: open faced sandwiches with mayonnaise and just-picked dill, plus a squeeze lemon .   Shrimp are of the few foods you’ve never cared for, but you cheerfully twist off pink shrimp heads and tails into a pile for the seagulls to squabble over.

We wadImagee into the fjord like old pros; the water is a touch less icy here, protected as it is from the wind.  The water is clear and we can see straight to the bottom to the blue mussel shells piled amongst great moss-carpeted stones, where the white and purple starfish pulsing gently with the lapping waves are almost unremarkable in their expected magic.

Your entry into seventh grade has augured many new developments, including (what seems like overnight) an extra twelve inches (all in your legs!) and a transition in sports focus,  from soccer  to cross country.  I am thrilled to see you embrace running, which you have a natural gift for.  I made the same transition at about the same age, and nearly forty years later I’m still running and even sometimes winning, which is not lost on you or your quiet competitive intensity.

ImageYou run with a deceptive long-legged diffidence, whether the terrain is through city streets or mountains, and the Norwegian woods are no different.   Only a half mile from the house and we are running a single track deep under the dripping tree canopy, you bouncing along ahead, our feet thumping across the mossy, rocky, root-strewn trail.   Your improbably long legs cover the ground in a skipping lope that looks as aimless and effortless as a dragonfly –  an elegant deception that utterly  belies your actual speed,  which is as sure  as it is startling.  Though you never seem to even breathe hard, you are the fastest in your grade, not just among the girls but the boys too.

How far was that, you ask me afterwards, and marvel when I estimate four miles, and how the miles passed almost unnoticed.  We agree that trail running with its elevation climbs and steep descents, is nonetheless easier than track running, where the simple brutal monotonous measure of the distance confronts the runner at each step.  Already you run with the heart (and the frantic hamster wheeling mind) of a true champion.

Later we revisit the same path, this time hunting mushrooms for the evening’s meal, a sopprisotto.  We venture well off the rocky single track trail we had pounded down earlier.  Off the trail the landscape is rocky and unforgiving, boulders poking up through the thin forest soil like the humped backs of buried brontosaurs.  Our shoes and pant legs are immediately soaked in the long grasses and fiddlehead ferns still heavy with the morning’s rain.  The tree branches form a canopy overhead that drip drip drips all around us.

We find pale mushrooms and dark, small in crowds and huge and craggy loners, speculating if the ugly ones were more likely to be poisonous. We  hold out our finds to our Norwegian mermaid, who has two bags: one for mushrooms she recognizes, one for the mushrooms she’ll look up in her book back home.  You ask why they need to be separate and I tell you about the movie The Beguiled, starring poison mushrooms as the murder weapon of choice by a little girl who doesn’t want her sister to run off and marry Clint Eastwood’s Union Soldier.   You are respectful of the power of a mere vegetable, and your dislike of mushrooms is shiveringly reinforced.

The sopprisotto turns out well.   Norwegians in general are deadly serious about their coffee, and these Norwegians of ours with all their world travels are particularly deadly serious about their wine, so our sopprisotto with garden salad and roasted root vegetables – a meal we’ve assembled almost entirely from the backyard and surrounding woods –  is paired with a biodynamic wine (Argentina) poured from a fragile-looking  decanter (France)

ImageAnother day we visit a park crowded with the sculpture of Vigeland; the sculptures themselves are crowded with humanity, a tangle of arms and legs and heads tumbling together in great groaning groups and tortured spires. We try but do not find the sculpture of a monster eating children, one in his mouth, three more screaming in his arms.   We laugh at the idea of such a sculpture appearing in any American park, ever.

On still another day we wander up the road with our buckets until we find great clusters of wild raspberry bushes.  The fattest, reddest berries hang on the lowest branches and fall into our hands at the merest touch.  We wade deep into the bushy depths, you chanting in a low voice “one for the bucket, one for my mouth; one for the bucket, one for my mouth.”

A seven day vacation seemed like an eternity when it starts, but the day of leaving finally arrives.  The rains have finally cleared  and in the early morning light the sky is scalloped with salmon clouds.  The stone fountain with its silent watching angel tinkles goodbye, the lily pads in the pond undulate gently, the daisies nod at us from the roof.

Hugs are given all around and you inform you love Norway,  Typically (ever the Bridge)  you decline to list a favorite thing about it – there were too many, you say, though you quickly add “blueberry pancakes on an open fire at the beach” at the exact moment I imagine you in that same scene, bending delightedly over a cast iron pan, your hair whipping across your forehead, your rain-spattered face lit with a smile.

ImageWinding down toward the train station we note that only a few of the traditional thatch roofs can be seen – red metal seems all the rage these days. We discuss how roofs are the perfect place, really, for daisies. Your favorite flower would always be there, you say, and wouldn’t that be nice?  And I agree, having one’s favorite flower growing constantly overhead would be a fate I’d wish on anyone.  As we start our long journey home I picture it for a moment, every roof across the world dotted with daisies, a scene to rival the star-spread sky.

 

Sophia and the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer

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Last Saturday you took a sort of entrance examination for sixth grade.  There were 70-some odd kids applying for about 15 spots.   As part of your day of tests and participation, the kids were asked to come up with an invention, and explain how it would work.

“So what did you invent?”  I asked.

“A transporter,” you responded.  “So I wouldn’t have to get up early for school.  I could just be transported in two minutes before the homeroom bell rings.”

“I don’t like getting up early,” you said matter-of-factly, a sentiment I sympathize with – I an not a notably early riser, myself.

“A transporter would be pretty handy,” I conceded.

“Only, it’s not really a transporter. It’s a Mystifier.”

I liked the sound of that, even better after you explained the etymology: “Because people would dissolve into a mist, then they are transported, and reappear like mist.”

But you weren’t done yet.

“It’s the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, and each dot represents a place you can program it to go.”

At this pointI felt mildly guilty for already knowing about this invention you were telling me about. A concern had been voiced that your invention – more specifically, its reason for being – might be interpreted by the powers that be in charge of admissions to reflect a lack of motivation – or, at the least, an unacceptable commitment to staying in bed as long as possible – but we needn’t  have worried.  You don’t imagine things so much as engineer them, and whether it’s a picture you’ve drawn or a story you’re telling, there’s always a reason for everything you’ve put in the frame.

I’ve always liked that about your imagination – never reliant on someone else’s input or prompts. The stories you tell yourself  unfold like a Dr. Seuss staircase, the kind that meanders up into the sky, seemingly all directions at once, with a twisting and turning, cheerfully accommodating kind of logic that is both fantastic and eminently sensical.

The conversation that followed reminded me how little we get right when we think we know the why of what children think, and say – mostly because we forget to suspend our disbelief, something that still comes as naturally to you, at age 10, as thinking itself.

“There won’t be any more airplanes so we won’t need any more gas to fly them, and the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer can be made from old airplane parts,” you explained.

“The airline pilots will do all the testing,” you added.  “So they’ll still have jobs but even more fun ones.”

The thought of beta testing a transporter reminds me of a science fiction  story I read – I think by  Ray Bradbury – in which the narrator is the father of two, with a young son who is brilliant – the kind of math and science whiz kid that aces applications like the one you just completed. The family is in the waiting area much like an airport, but it’s for a new machine – a time travel machine. Not a Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, but close.

In the story, the father explains to his ever-curious son the history of how the time travel machine was built.  He withholds some of the gruesome details of failed early versions of the machine – some really gross stuff happens to the testers, such as arriving at the destination inside-out, or drooling and unable to speak –  until the inventor figures out that the transportees have to be unconscious.

Fast forward to the glorious future and people are time traveling by the thousands, with nothing more required than taking a light hit of laughing gas in Seattle in order to wake up a few seconds later in Nigeria, or the moon.

As is so often the case, telling a kid some of the truth while withholding important details didn’t work out so well.  The son holds his breath during the administration of the gas so he can see what it’s like to time travel, and when the family wakes up at the destination, the kid has gone white-haired, and is quite mad, with a face gone ancient as a lizard’s, screaming “Longer than you think, dad! It’s longer than you think!” before clawing his own eyes out.

I decide not to mention the dangers of being a test pilot for the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer, at least, not until we have a working prototype.

“Will it be expensive?” I ask.

“Well, not for my family,” you say in a practical voice.

“But yes, it will have to be, because if you’re going to London, instead of twelve hours, it’s just two seconds.”

You paused.  “But all the poor homeless people can go free, because after all, you only have to push a button. It’s not like I have to work more to send more people.”  You nod at your own logic.

Can the whole family go together, or just one at a time? I ask.

Everything that fits into the Mistifyer can go, you say.  You pause again, considering.

“You could lay all the luggage on the floor, and everyone can sit on top of it, since it’s about the size of an elevator.”

I remember in the movie The Fly (the Vincent Price version is better than the Jeff Goldblum version); the time travel machine that the scientist creates mixes up the DNA of the scientist with  a fly that somehow found its way into the capsule.  The scientist emerges  with a fly head; weeks later, the bereaved wife hears a tiny voice in the garden; bending close to a spider web, she sees a tiny fly with her husband’s head – now very aged, screaming “Help meeeeeeee!” as the spider moves in for the kill.

imageYour time travel machine doesn’t evoke these fears, however — maybe because of the brand name you have chosen.  Polka-Dotted inventions just sound safer, and the worst thing I can conjure is an elevator door opening to reveal people genetically jumbled up with one another and their belongings – a woman with a purse for a head, a boy with a portable dog kennel for a body, a man with a newspaper face, a stuffed animal with a little girl’s pigtails.

My teacher said that of all the inventions, mine is the one he’d buy first,  you say shyly, and I have to agree – the Polka-Dotted Mistifyer is one of those ‘everyone must have’ things, for sure.

“Sign me up,” I say, and your answer is, again, a reminder of how little I understand about how much you understand.

“Sure!” you say.  “But only after it’s tested.”

Holding Hands with Sophia

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We’re walkers, your dad and I – fast walkers.  We pound along at twice the speed of most people, often breaking apart to flow around the sidewalk slowpokes without breaking stride or conversation.

A flashing crosswalk signal is like a red flag we can’t resist charging; if the light is green and we’re thirty feet from the corner we’ll break into a simultaneous run as if the signal light emits some sort of warning siren that only we can hear.  We never jaywalk, preferring instead to jayrun, something I can do as expertly in high heels as  flats.

Though you are only eight, you walk right along with us. Not since age 3  have you asked to stop for a rest.  Your penchant for skipping derives directly from efforts to keep up with us.

You always demand that I skip with you and I always cheerfully oblige, and so we are seen all over the Castro, skipping past crowds of men  clustered on the sidewalks outside of the gay bars, skipping past the cafes and restaurants and the BDSM shops with their window mannequins dressed in leather codpieces and studded dog collars.

“We’re getting milk” you say to the mustachioed and the muscle tee’d men, and they laugh and tell us to go, girls.

You have kids of your own, right? People often ask, assuming the easiness we’ve found together is attributable to experience.  I always snort at this, because it irritates me to no end, this idea that one cannot fully appreciate something unless they have personal experience with it.

They are always surprised at my ‘no, I have no other children’.  What I do have is a good imagination, and with you, it serves me well. I am always able to think up something to do, or something to talk about.  Lacking that, we skip.

Recently you realized you could crack us up with your version of speedwalking, your skinny little legs (and when did they get so long?) scissoring along, your tiny butt switching back and forth,  a perfect genetic blue print of your daddy in miniature.

The first time you reached for my hand you were only following the oft-repeated parental dictum:  never cross the street without holding someone’s hand.   Reaching for my hand symbolized nothing more than my adult status. Still, I was surprised – and touched –  that I fell into a category where trust was automatically conferred.  I have never thought of myself that way, though perhaps I should – after all my name is derived from the Greek, and means “Defender of mankind.”

But somewhere along the line, you began reaching for my hand as a matter of course.  Was it the weekend when your daddy left for a bike race, and I was solely responsible not just for your street crossing safety, but everything else as well?  I was anxious about that weekend –what if you cried and wanted your mom? (she was out of town).

So I kept us busy – we drew chalk flowers on the sidewalk, and we colored the giant Strawberry Shortcake coloring book, me being careful to put each of the magic markers back in their designated slots under your watchful eye.

In the evening we skipped to dinner – a pasta place a few blocks away.   We skipped home, and in a truly hilarious and utterly unconscious mimicry of your daddy, the “Walk” sign began flashing and you skip-raced to beat it.  You did, too, but tripped on the curb and fell and hit your forehead and cried.  We sat on a low stone wall while I examined your smooth pink forehead, which bore a small but definite scratch.

Should I kiss it, I asked you hesitantly, and you nodded, tears streaming.  I hugged you and worried that your mom might think I couldn’t be responsible for you – and maybe you worried about that too because you hugged back and surprised me by saying in a practical voice, “We don’t have to tell anyone.”

Well, I told you, if anyone asks, I think you should, and you agreed. “But I’m OK,” you amplified, which was my first lesson in how my anxious heart might be more visible to you than I perhaps realized.

Maybe it was the weekend we became ski buddies.   Your daddy likes to hang with his girls, but he also likes to hit the back country, sometimes spending hours hiking with skis on his back in order to reach the top of some impossibly high, mist-draped peak, where he’ll launch himself face-first down a run of intermittent rock and powder.

It’s not a place I can follow or deny him, so I volunteered to watch after you on the slopes for the day – a day that turned out to be surprisingly fun.

Walking back to the car, your daddy asked how our day went.  “I was fast! We’re ski partners,” you responded, clomping along in your black ninja ski boots. Then, taking my hand (and my heart) “Aren’t we?!”

Maybe it goes back all the way to that weekend in London when you were visiting your grandparents. Your daddy and I chose to vacation in Paris at the same time, just so we could take the train through the Chunnel to visit you for the day.

We arrived in time to have some tea and toast with you, and then off we went, and to this day when I think of that visit, it is always with a circus music soundtrack: we went to the park, and a museum, and to lunch, and to another museum, then a ride on the London Eye, then a walk along the Thames, then to Harrod’s for tea, and then another park.

We took the tube everywhere, and you loved the conveyors and escalators, grabbing my hand and shouting “Run!” because that was the game, for me and you to beat daddy –  at age 4, you were newly socialized by preschool into the concept o f girls vs. boy.

At the end of the day we raced into the final train, now filled with commuters who scowled disapprovingly at our raucous American fun.  Snoots, I thought…. right up until the moment you suddenly began to cry, hiccupping “Whee Daddy! Whee!”

“What?” he asked, picking you up, and you answered by spraying all of us with a powerful stream of warm  (and very yellow) wee wee.

Now four years later we are still up to the same tricks, this time in New York, skip-racing down Madison Avenue to Zibottos, an Italian style coffee bar.  “I’m in the mood for an espresso,” your daddy said, to which you responded “Yes, I’d like a nice iced coffee,” the kind of thing that you sometimes come up with that makes us wonder, who is this little person, anyway?

We skipped to M&M World (a rip off, we all agreed) and speedwalked through the late-night throngs of Times Square to see Toy Story 3 one night, The Karate Kid another.

“I don’t know, it ends pretty late,” daddy said doubtfully, and you said reasonably “But its summer vacation, we can sleep in!”

Which movie did you like better, you wanted to know, and for me it was no contest: Toy Story.  “Me too,” you said, taking my hand, and we skipped back to the hotel, past the garbage bags piled on the curb and the street food vendor stalls of sizzling chicken and warm cones of nuts.

The church steps are crowded with men sleeping on cardboard, many uncovered in the mild air, and your daddy and I exchange a glance that is a conversation unto itself.  It is hard times in the city.

“Is that a boy, or a girl” you asked of the androgynously pretty 11-year old star of Karate Kid, and I smile because you are unsure of the cues – braided longish hair equals girl, but skateboard equals boy; the character’s name (Dre) provides no further clues.

I think that your question is one that John Irving would appreciate, he the author of The World According To Garp  in which Garp encounters a child who, in her same smooth pink sexless perfection Garp  describes as “she was only a Child, not yet Boy or Girl”.

I’ve always loved John Irving’s novels which I suppose is not surprising – if there is novelist equivalent of circus music, he is it (maybe he even agrees, hence his story “Son of the Circus.“)

I sometimes think of an interview I read, one in which Irving tells of being asked, did you have a child that died – are you Garp? His answer resonated with me – at the time I thought of it as a writer’s answer. But skipping through these last years with you, I find that the resonance has undergone a quiet but nonetheless deep sea change.:

“I haven’t lost any children,” he said.  “I’m just a father with a good imagination.  But in my imagination, I lose my children every day.”

Riding Bikes with Sophia

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We’re a bunch of late babies, the h and me and little one three.  Our birthdays are within 30 days of Christmas, more or  less.   The downside of this is not getting your fair share of  birthday booty AND Christmas booty, but getting the dreaded combo booty.

Actually, not all combo booty is bad booty. A lifetime of experience has taught me that Combo booty comes in two types:  lame, and jaw dropping.  Did you ever get a jaw dropping gift?  I’ve had a few in my life, and I remember them all, but none so much as my first new big girl bike with no training wheels, a snappy sunburst yellow Schwinn with hot pink daisy decals on the seat, and a white wicker basket wound all around with white and yellow plastic daisies perched pertly between the handle bars (most of the daisies fell off when I crashed my bike into a parked car while riding no handed, showing off for the Stubblefield boys).  It had yellow and white streamers that flew like the thick blonde ponytails of Jan and Marcia Brady, and when they flowed out behind me in the breeze as I rode, I tasted true freedom.

Growing up, we didn’t have much though it wasn’t something we kids talked about  – many of my parents’ friend (and of course their kids) were in the same boat.  Christmas gifts always included necessities, like clothes.  At dinner, if we had meat, it was the kind that needed to be pounded really hard to be edible and there was exactly one small piece for each persona at the table – no extras.

We were sometimes reduced to powdered milk.  Cookies were bought in bulk, because broken ones were cheaper.  For years I associated true wealth (or just extreme luck) with branded snack food: Oreos, Hostess Cupcakes and those little individual sized bags of chips and single serving boxes of cereal  – indulgences that simply cost too much for a family that had to watch every penny.

I was  young but I understood the meaning of that brand name, Schwinn.  I knew I was getting the best brand, though we were relatively poor.  It meant my dad could do anything, that even in a world where I sometimes left the dinner table a little bit hungry, he could find a way to pay for the best yellow bike in the world.   My dad wasn’t one to talk about love but I knew it when I saw it.

Now some forty years later, the little one is jumping up and down in front of me, excited about the birthday gift that she has been instructed to prevent me from walking in on, as the h thumps around upstairs getting ready for the all important Presentation of the Birthday Gift.  She runs up and down the stairs, reporting how many more minutes it will be until I am permitted to come up and see my gift.  Her excitement is sweet if not contagious, and I  watch  her from over the top of my laptop monitor with some amusement as she dances in and out with her updates.

I hear her pounding down the steps and she hits the door full tilt to my office.

“It’s so cool!” she reports.  She has just brought this word  home from school, and she is judicious in her use of it.   Curiosity stretches in me like a cat.

“It’s READY” she bellows through a space she has found under the kitchen sink, a space in which you can, if you are a small eely eight year old girl, talk directly to the person in the basement, if that person were sitting at the computer desk, which I often am.   The business is busy these days, so I didn’t come up right away.  But when the second call comes drifting from the ceiling “SAAAAAAN-DRY!” ( a nickname I now think of as my  Na’vi name) I start catching some of her excitement. What is this present, that it has her so excited?

She leads me down the long narrow hallway of our Victorian and in there it is, learning rakishly in front of the fireplace, gleaming.

“IT’S A BIKE!” I shout, in unison with the little one.

It is not just a bike, it is THE bike: it is white and sleekly urban, with shiny black fenders and a most excellent glove-leather seat.  The h points out its attributes: it is a city bike for the streets of San Francisco, with 21 gears that can be shifted with a flick of the wrist.

But just like a woman, my mind is on accessories, like a bike bell the silver kind that goes rrrring rrrring! when you push the little silver lever.   A basket, maybe silver, for the back where the h has thoughtfully installed a rack . And streamers for the handle grips, of course – shiny black ones (preferably sparkly).    I imagine them fluttering and snapping in the breeze I create as I ride up the hill that is just around the corner from our house. It’s a big long hill and I can’t wait to ride it because I’m weird that way about going uphill – I actually look forward to it –  but also because I’ll have to go slowly and that will give all the car traffic a good long chance to get an admiring eyeful of my Totally.Awesome.Cool.  new bike.

The h waits for me to notice that it is a Schwinn; when I do, my eyes feel damp.

“We’ll have so much fun bike riding!” the little one hollers, jumping with excitement.

It is the most beautiful bike in the world, I tell him.  A bonafide jaw dropping combo gift.

Singing to Sophia

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sophia bangsGo ahead, sing to her, he said, but I hesitated.  We got along well, you and I, but I felt like an intruder in these nightly rituals.  I am unused to the bedtime rituals of love, security and affection.  I am from a different place than you. My bedroom was a place of both refuge and punishment, my bed a place to hide from the tears and the fears that, both real and imagined, chased me into uneasy sleep.

Sing to her, he insisted, I love to hear you sing.  And so I found myself kneeling by the side of your bed, your face above the covers like a flower smiling up at me.    How practical you were.

“What songs do you know?” you asked, seriously.

I told you the titles, and you asked for a sample of each before deciding on which you wanted to hear.

I sang from an amalgam of selections from the musicals of my high school youth, Phil Collins and Elton John singles, and oddball radio hits from my childhood.  I sang:

Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me

 I sang slowly, remembering the words as I sang, remembering the scene in the movie, where Captain Von Trapp sang a song as novitiate Maria listened, the song a code for the joy he felt seeing her each day:

Small and white, clean and bright,

you look happy to meet me!

I like that one, you said judiciously.

Wouldn’t you agree,

baby you and me

got a groovy kind of love.

What does groovy mean, you wanted to know, and we discussed the intricacies of cool.

Somewhere, out there, beneath the pale moonlight,

someone’s thinking of me, and loving me, tonight.

What is that from, you wanted to know, and I told you about Fievel Mouskavitch from A Mouse’s Tale, how Fievel got lost from his immigrant mouse family, and how he and his sister perched on rooftops and sang about reuniting, to comfort themselves.

Why were they separated? you wanted to know. How did he find them? You, an only child, were charmed by the idea of a brother and sister singing up at the sky,

And even though I know how very far apart we are

It helps to think we might be wishing on the same bright star!

And when the nighttime starts to sing her lonesome lullaby

It helps to think we’re sleeping underneath the same big sky….

Were they camping, you wanted to know – a recent love of yours,  you accepted as calm fact the idea of English-speaking mice dressed as Russian peasants, singing and camping inNew York, a place you visit courtesy of your stepdad.

The story captivated your imagination so that we were sorely disappointed to find that it is no longer in circulation, not at Blockbuster, not at Netflix, not at Amazon (and why is that, movie creator  people? The Wild West sequel is stupid).

A favorite is The Onion Song, by groovy performance artist Laurie Anderson:

I don’t like snails or toads or frogs or

strange things living under logs

but mmmmmm

I love onions!

We sing it interactively, and I see your daddy’s shadow hovering at the door, listening, amused:

Me: I don’t like shoes that pinch my toes

You: or people that squirt me with the garden hose

Me: but mmmmmm

You: I love onions!

Soon it is a ritual, me singing to you, and when your daddy asked, Who do you want to put you to bed, me or Sandra? your answer rang my heart like a bell.

What new songs do you know, was now the question, and I surprised myself, how I’d wrack my brain scanning  my memory, and iTunes, for something you might like.

Your tastes are sophisticated. You like Bjork, she, appreciator of the mountains you are growing to love like your daddy:

We live on a mountain, right at the top

This beautiful view from the top of the mountain

Every morning I walk towards the edge….

And throw little things off

Like car parts and bottles and cutlery

Whatever I find lying around

It’s become a habit….

…but you sniffed indifferently at the Beatles, a song I was sure a 7 year old would love:

You say yes, I say no

You say stop, I say go go go!

 

I know that song, you said, and I was excited at your recognition.

Shall I sing it? I asked.

No, you said in a bored voice

The ritual goes thusly:

What shall I sing? I ask.

What songs do you have? you counter.

I run through the titles.

Do you have anything new? you ask.

I do, I say.

Let’s hear it.

Where are the simple joys of maiden hood?

Where are all those adoring daring boys?

Shall two knights never tilt for me?

Shall kith not kill their kin for me?

Oh where are a maiden’s simple joys?

That’s pretty, you say. Then: what’s a kith?

Or:

There’s a sad sort of clanging from the clock in the hall

And the bells in the steeple too

And up in the nursery an absurd little bird

Keeps popping out to say cuckoo!

You liked that one. Cuckoo! Cuckoo! you sang along.

The romantic theme to Romeo and Juliet was judged nice, I think more for the melody than the words

A rose will bloom.

It then will fade

So does a  youth,

So does the fairest maid….

But the song in a different context:

There once was a man

Who loved a woman

She was the one he slew a dragon for!

And there once was a woman

Who loved a man

He was the one she took the poison for!

…….left you cold.  (on reflection, I’m glad.)

Other favorites include Take It Easy and Desperado, by the Eagles, and Daniel by Elton John.   I sing this last because your mom is from here:

They say Spain is pretty, though I’ve never been

Daniel says it’s the best place he’s ever seen

and he should know, he’s been there enough

Lord I miss Daniel, I miss him so much

That’s sad, you say, and I agree, wondering not for the first time if Daniel was one of those early ones who died of AIDS, a death hidden and unremarked on, immortalized in the days before a befeathered, platform-shoed Sir Reginald Dwight started selling ersatz emotion to Disney.

Sing the funny song, you ask, and I comply:

It’s a little bit funny

this feeling inside

I‘m not one of those who can easily hide,

I don’t have much money but

boy if I did

I’d build a big house where

we both could live.

Should I send daddy in to kiss you? I ask, and you say yes. What if he’s gone, and I can’t find him anywhere? I tease, and you say seriously We can live together here, and I wonder if you can see the shine in my eyes and I kiss your forehead.

Early on, you surprised me with your comprehension – you are not just hearing the songs, but listening.

What shall I sing, I asked, and you said, The little white flower song, please, though I never once explained to you that that is what edelweiss is, the national flower of Austria.

Not long ago, the news was filled with the tragic story of the death of Natasha Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave, the actress who played Guinevere in Camelot, she the plaintive singer asking whereof the simple joys of maidenhood.

Natasha Richardson was exactly my age when she died. She had a skiing accident. These two facts, seemingly unrelated, have been flitting around my head like moths.  Perhaps because you and I have recently discovered camaraderie in skiing –  this past weekend I took you up on the mountain alone, and we had a grand time, and it was your idea and not mine to eat the peanut butter and jelly on the lift so we didn’t waste precious ski time at lunch in the chalet.

The lift to the top carries six, so we inevitably rode with others.  How are you girls doing, our lift chair compadres asked. They’d lean forward to get a peek at you, small in your pink parka and pink ski pants, your black boots and mittens and gaiter making you look like a scary sweet Ninja.

They grin at us, even the brash young boarders grin at us, happy to recognize kindred spirits twenty years their senior and twenty years their junior.  It’s all good! they shout into the blue sky, and you smile shyly ad kick your feet and ask me, can we ski the bowl this time?

My mind drifts to the death of the actress and I tell you again, never take your helmet off. Never, do you hear?

And you nod and say, not even when I’m going slow.

Good girl, I say, and the lift  moves us steadily up the mountain, higher and higher, our feet dangling over the pines and the snow spread out below us like ea cloud fallen to earth, and I am suddenly, acutely aware of the passage of time, how small you are but how soon you will be the age of the snowboarders jostling and joshing on my left, and how none of you can imagine being my age, an age when, barring accidents, there should still be much to look forward to.

Did you hear, a friend asked. Did you hear, at the end? Her mother held her hand and sang “Edelweiss” and then they unplugged the machines, and she was gone.

That night you ask me, can you sing the little white flower song? I sing it for you, perhaps more slowly than usual

Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow

Bloom and grow, forever!

My voice is steady and sweet until the end when it wavers only a little, but you are asleep and so do not know.

edelweiss

Skiing with Snowphia

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We had a big weekend, you and I. We went skiing in Tahoe, where hopefully we will continue to own a cabin by the time you are old enough to want to  read this.

Your dad is an expert and has always had high hopes that his joy and passion for this sport are something you have inherited from him. He has never pushed you, not once, not even a little..but the hope was there.

From age four through six you were interested, but not exactly excited. Now at age seven, on this trip that all changed.  A few feet of fluffy, forgiving powder was apparently all it took to unlock the daredevil in you.

Where before, you were ready for a hot chocolate after two runs, this trip you were irritated when we stopped for lunch, and were anxious that we ski right up until the end, catching the last chair of the day.

“Watch me!” you shouted gleefully, and all around us heads swiveled, the skiers grinning at you whooshing past in your little pink pants and pink puffy coat, your goggled and helmeted head looking huge and wobbly on your tiny frame.

“Way to go, Snow!” I shout, because on this weekend, you have been re-dubbed from Sophia to Snowphia (sometimes Slowphia, when you are too pokey getting your gear together).

“Are you her mom?” the laughing skiers ask, and I tell them “Im her step mom.”  For some reason this is a conversation ender, though it’s totally possible the same silence would ensue if I simply answered “Yes.”  It seems that my correction is interpreted as an assertion of not just biological but emotional fact as well. Which gets me thinking.

Stepmom is such a strange term.   Hearing it always evokes the image of the small green step stool of my childhood, ever-present in the bathroom behind the door, the one that we kids used to stand on so we could reach the tap to brush our teeth and wash our hands.

My grandfather – my dad’s dad,  a man I never met –  made that step stool.  He died of a heart attack before I was born, so all I ever knew of him was my dad’s description of him (“a gentle man”) and this stool I used each day to boost myself up.

You declared I was your best ski partner, and when I handed you your ski poles and said “Here you go missy!” you smartly responded, “Thanks, missy!”

“Look how fast I am!” you bellowed, and then got in a tuck position so that you were about two feet tall as you barreled head first down the slope, leaving a dozen skiers cracking up in your  snowy wake.

“Let’s show our daddy how fast we can go!” you shouted, confirming the Man’s suspicion that to you, I am neither fish nor fowl, adult nor child, but a combination of both: a friend like all the other second graders, only taller.

All weekend, we did the same drill: I would let you get a head start, then enjoy a hundred yards of decently speedy skiing to catch up. The consistency of this ploy convinced you that you are a much faster skier than I.

“But I’m letting you stay in front of me, in case you fall!”  I protested, which you clearly  found dubious.  I’ve always liked that about you: “Lying back in the tall grass” I called it, when you stared at me, unsmiling, at first meeting.  You were too small for words then, but your expression was clear: I’ll have to watch you for awhile before I decide if I like you.  Maybe a long while.

In the end, a two hour game of peek-a-boo in the car, complete with a red rubber ducky stamped all over with “love hearts” (your term, now mine too) won you over.

Back at the cabin, you would not go into the hot tub without me; once in, you would not stop piling snow on my head.  Back inside, you wanted to shower together and copy my routine: shampoo, conditioner (both apple scented), face lotion, baby oil on the legs, tie the hair up in a turban until time to dry. Your turban looked more like a squashed fedora, but you were proud to have done it yourself.

It is these times together when I sometimes muse on the word step, and how like that green bench I am in your life. I’m the little boost you need to help you to the next level: to see yourself in the mirror when you put lotion on, to reach the faucet, to learn how to wash your hair in the shower, to lift you and set you down when you fall on the slopes, making sure that you are steady and won’t go sliding away at speed before I can tell you the things  you need to know about falling, and getting back up.

“She’s such a good girl,” your daddy says often, and he is right, you are truly, amazingly good.  Never whiny, you have your own methods for cleaning your room, get ready for  bed without being asked a second time, eat what’s in front of you and actually enjoy foods other kids hate at your age: olives, a sip of red wine, onions, guacamole.

You virtually potty trained yourself, one morning pushing away the pull up pants and marching, bare bottomed, to the toilet to demonstrate your understanding.

When the visiting little boys said “We don’t like chicken” your reply was equal parts incredulity and certainty: “Everyone likes chicken, and anyway my daddy makes the best barbeque chicken.”

Just wait, everyone tells us. Wait til she’s two, wait til she starts school.  But there was nothing to wait for but more of the same: your sweet requests to play, your joy in games that required inventing vs. established rules (me crawling around pretending to be your kitty being a recent favorite), our long interludes of drawing and coloring together in companionable silence on your bedroom floor.

When friends heard of my new step mom status their next question was predictable. I suppose  “Do you get along with her” is a reasonable thing to ask, but it always makes me bark with startled laughter.  Yes, I say, picking at my elbows where the scabs have formed from propping myself on your bedroom rug as we diligently color  Strawberry Shortcake. We get along famously.

One of your favorite things in the morning is to have a ‘latte’ – steamed and frothed milk with a sprinkle of chocolate served in an espresso demitasse.  We drink with our pinkies sticking out stiff as bony bird wings and speak in elegant tones, why yes, thank you, and of course.

The word stepmom sometimes evokes a mental picture of you walking, flanked by your parents, me a smiling step behind.  I wasn’t there for your first words or first step; I didn’t love you from the moment you were born.  I was a step behind in getting to know you and learn your ways.  Our first couple of years together were full of mutual examination – you liked to play with my long hair, and eventually demanded to grow out your cute pixie crop.  I would get unduly excited when you obligingly ate something I prepared.

For a couple of years now you’ve liked girly things like the color pink, my collection of hats and rabbit fur scarves, anything sparkly or gaudy; your little tops are decorated with rhinestone lady bugs and glittery cupcakes. But recently your tastes have taken a more avante garde turn – our matching ski beanies feature a spider picked out in rhinestones, an item you were drawn to based on the many eight legged denizens of our back garden.  You put your face right up to their webs, their hairy legs inches from your nose, without the slightest squeamishness. 

At night I sing to you from a motley selection: Groovy Kind of Love, The Onion Song (a long-forgotten gem by performance artist Laurie Anderson), Somewhere Out There, Edelweiss  and The Goodnight Song from The Sound of Music, songs from The Eagles, Beatles, Elton John.  I often wonder what your reaction will be when you hear these songs on a radio somewhere, or see them on “Behind the Music” on VH1 which perhaps you will watch religiously throughout college, your dorm room filled with the sound of your squeals “My step mom used to sing this to me, listen, I know every word!”

Your dad and I sometimes wonder aloud about what’s in store: the first sex talk about where babies come from, the discovery of boys, maybe (but maybe not) the encounters with mean girls, the other sex talks, the ones that have to do with exposing all of the unseen bits, not least of these your heart.

We smile at your bobble-headed ski-helmeted head buzzing confidently past us, your embrace of the speed that is already invading our time together, showing us how quickly and easily you will be whisked forward into your future, a place we are likely to be seen as cute old relics (who are sometimes still fun to ski with).

I don’t know how we’ll handle your passages from each phase of your life to the next, I only know I’ll be here and I’m glad of it, glad to give you a step up here, a boost there, whatever you need from me.  We’re partners, missy!

Traveling with Sophia

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This weekend was our first family trip – me, the h, you, the step sister who  lives in Miami.

Or, as the flight attendant called us, mom and dad and their two girls.  That was fun to hear – my first time being referred to as mom.

Lately your thing is to correct us at every turn: The sky is blue begets “No, it’s *light* blue”;  The flowers are in bloom begets “But not in *full* bloom.”  All said with perfect seven-year-old assurance, but when the flight attendant said, Here you go, mom as she handed over my Diet Coke, you passed the can to me without comment or correction. In honor of this I will not make a big deal out of it. But I’m smiling as I write this.

So it’s our summer vacation and the h and I went to New York, it was supposed to be a getaway for grownups but when he told his older daughter, your stepsister, she exclaimed “Oh, I’ve never been!” and how could we not invite her to spend that time with us?

She was thrilled to not be carded at the Brazilian bistro and pronounced the caipirinha inauthentic.  We visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and went to a play, “The God of Carnage” which was pretty good, though James Gandolfini, he of the big bear frame and no neck and lowering brow always has a whiff of violence about him, even when playing a husband trying hard to be sympathetic to his wife’s shrill somewhat liberal sensibilities.

The oldest is seventeen, a tall graceful ballerina of a girl with the brains of a rocket scientist and the face of an angel.  I love you I love you, you tell her while shinnying up her legs and giving her smacking kisses.  There are few sounds as smile inducing as two girls giggling away in the other room.

Then it was off to North Carolina, where a relative has a lake house.  You are a self-assured little traveler, a woman in miniature with your floppy hat and sunglasses, your rolly bag and your shoulder tote (though peeking into the tote destroys the illusion with hilarious finality, containing as it does a stuffed baby seal, R2D2, three pairs of chopsticks, a coloring book and a packet of magic markers).

I got to share some of my own childhood rituals with you on this trip – swimming in a lake, fireworks on the lawn, staying up late in a pile of cousins.

In the lake, we swam under water with our eyes open, our legs glowing ghostly white in the greeny depths.  Look, no hands! I said, treading water with my feet.

Me too! you said brightly, lifting your arms high above your life vest.  When we told you it was harder without the vest you didn’t believe us and insisted on giving it a try.  Whoa! you said, and sank. But you were a sport, trying it three times before conceding the point.

We ran with sparklers and threw exploding caps at each others feet and engaged in a completely silly conversation about the word nude, which we decided is better than the word naked. We contorted our commentary to say nude as often as possible always with a long “ooooooooh” sound, spoken like a finicky librarian who smells something unpleasant.

We sat in the grass to watch the homegrown fireworks display and your daddy joined us in time to hear you hold forth “A person with no clothes is nude, a person with clothes is not nude, a person with no clothes too much a prude to say I’m nude can say “I’m not not nude”.

We laughed hilariously and he shook his head and walked back down to where the other daddies were setting up the fireworks.

An uncle produced glow sticks and because your love of Star Wars is total and complete, we immediately engaged in a slow motion light saber battle.  The h took our picture and it was your idea to do a scary pose – you held a red glow stick at your neck.  Look, I’m bleeding from a massive neck wound, you said calmly.  Isn’t that cool?

I guess our love of horror movies has begun to rub off on you, and who would have thought that at seven you are already more composed than I over such things.  Sometimes late at night we’ll turn to catch you standing sleepily in the doorway, staring fixedly at a film that invariably features a psychotic slasher or demon or some such.

We have no idea how long you’ve been there, or what you’ve seen. Did you see the man cleaved in two, lengthwise? How about the girl with the hook in her eye?

Your face gives no clue, though I have to consider that your calm is actually shock, that perhaps you are traumatized.  After all, my first boyfriend took me to see The Exorcist, a date I’ve never recovered from (and hello Rick’s mom, if you’re out there – what the hell were thinking driving us to that movie? I was 13!! Way too young to young to watch a film about demonic possession! Come to think of it, I’m still too young for that movie.)

You know it’s only make believe, that those are just actors pretending, right, I ask you anxiously and you say I know *that*, your voice faintly disdainful, your eyes not leaving the screen.

I wonder if this is bravado but your calm is the real deal:  when we put you back to bed, you are asleep in seconds. No night terrors or requests to leave the night light on, or the door open (both rituals of my own childhood).  I admire how you are indifferent to the dark, something that took me some thirty years more than you to accomplish.

I sometimes wonder if I am drawn to horror because all horror films feature both luckless victims and one survivor – paradoxically, I identify with both roles, having lived them in my childhood.

That could never happen to me, I’d never be that stupid, I think when the idiot big-breasted girl in skimpy t-shirt and underwear descends barefoot to the cell with a single flickering candle, the better to check out the mysterious sound she hears in the farthest, darkest corner.

Yeah, that’s the ticket, I think when the heroine finally arms herself and fights back despite the fact the bogey man that has escaped her nightmares to murder her friends one by one has already proven himself to be supernaturally fast and strong not to mention indestructible by fire, metal, wood or full throated screaming.

That would totally be me, I think.  After all, I’ve faced my dad drunk and enraged. How bad can Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers be?

But it seems no such thoughts trouble you.  If our childhoods shape our dreams, and our dreams somehow shape our movie preferences, then I can only imagine that just as your childhood is filled with bikes and running and skis and horses, so must your nighttimes be filled with the hair-stirring sensation of speed.

As we unloaded the bikes from the car today you dance side to side, squealing “I can’t wait to get going!”

It’s only my fifth time without training wheels, you tell me as we bike through the park where the streets are closed off from traffic each Sunday.

We’re not racing, you anxiously tell me as I pull slightly ahead. You are always alert for injustice, a quality I sympathize with.

But when you do race, you have to go like this, you add craftily.  Your chin swoops down to an inch above your handle bars and your elbows jut up and out like baby bird wings while your skinny little legs pump madly.  You whiz past me, cackling at your subterfuge.

I like to coast! you shout at no one in particular.  “Earn the downhill” is one of your dad’s  mountain biker mantras you seem to have instinctively adopted, because you don’t hesitate or complain when a challenging slope forces you to dismount your heavy one-speed bike. You hop off and trudge up, pausing at the top to ask for some Gatorade and a bite of power bar, looking cute in your purple knee pads and you pink helmet with the butterflies.

We ride down to the ocean and perch on the sea wall and watch the dogs racing on the sand.  When can we have a dog, you ask your daddy for maybe the thirtieth time this month. I really want a dog, you amplify, your eyes following them into the surf. Your daddy says nothing but gives me a sideways look, a look that says I blame you for this, oh Campaign Manager for the Doggy Elections.

The dog is of course inevitable, because we are dog people.  Or rather, I am a deeply committed dog person and you two are my pack, which means we will soon own a dog, which means you will soon be deeply committed dog people.  See? Inevitable.

Besides, there is a hole to fill now. The end of our vacation travels brought with it another end to another trail: Crazy Daisy, that puffball of a hamster with her dainty white filament whiskers, has run her last lap on the wheel.  I knew, as soon as I saw the cage. It didn’t matter that she normally sleeps in the daytime – I knew.  Something about the cage was too silent, too still.

Sure enough, when I lifted the lid to her little house, there was no dainty white nose poking up through the blue chips. I pushed aside the cotton batting she likes to bury herself under, and there she was, her little nose pushed between her delicate paws, her tiny stillness heartbreaking.

You held her gently, petting her soft white belly (something she’d never permit when alive), then carefully placed in her a tiny box lined with cotton balls.  We dug the grave under a giant palm in the back, and we each threw a fistful of dirt, somehow making it more real.  You cried in earnest then. We all did.

We went for another bike ride to cheer ourselves up (it’s my sixth time without training wheels, you solemnly inform me).

While we unload the bikes, a family walks past us, a family that includes five year old twin girls, one of whom stops to stare in that unselfconscious way little kids have.  I think she likes my bike, you stage whisper to me, proud.  It is so like your father, this total embrace of the moment, of the *gear*, that I can’t help laughing.

I wish I could ride my bike for a week, you say. I’d only stop for lunch and dinner and breakfast!

We biked through the park, stopping to admire the flower beds with their swaths of yellow marigolds and purple petunias, color exploding in geometric shapes in front of the Conservatory, a glass building like a princess might dream of.

But your patience for flowers is brief; there is daylight left, and a long swoop of road that needs coasting down.