Traveling with Sophia


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.

About Sandra Stephens

I never thought I'd arrive in my 40s just in time to acquire a ready made family, but there we were: my husband, and his two daughters (who are now also mine): one who lived with him and one who lived all the way across the country from us, in Miami. They are 10 years apart, both beautiful girls, sweet and considerate and independent and interesting. This blog is the story of our journey to get to know one another, among the best adventures of my life.

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