Author Archives: Sandra Stephens

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.

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

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 in New 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 a 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.

Running with Slowphia

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I’ve been a runner all of your life and much of mine.  It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing it so long – almost five of your lifetimes.

“I’m going for a run” is a pronouncement I make frequently.   Sometimes because, like now, I am training for a specific race. Other times because it is a beautiful day and I want to be out in it.  Most times, because I just like to do it, whether for 45 minutes or four hours.

What do you think about on those long runs, people ask me. They always seem surprised when I respond “nothing.”  But it’s true. My mind, that busy little hamster on its squeaky ever-turning wheel, is most quieted by the slap slap slapping of my feet on the ground.  What sleep or meditation or yoga or drinking tea does for others, running does for me.

“I’m going for a run” is a phrase you have heard many times. .Often, it’s the reason I am not with you and your daddy on some Saturday excursion.  Racing long distances means training long distances; and in runner’s physics, distance=time.

I always assumed that you didn’t notice one way or another, as long as you were with your daddy.  Divorce can be hard on kids, even sweet natured, balanced kids like you.  I figured that you might enjoy my running absences, giving you as they did the chance to have some one on one time with your dad.

So I was surprised when you piped up a few months ago from the back seat, apropos of nothing.  “Sandra, I want to go on a run with you.

“OK!” I said, thinking maybe we’d race from the car to the doorstep, a race I never let you win, something that, far from discouraging you , has turned you into quite a little speedster.  A trickster, too – you are not above taking off running and then shouting over your shoulder at the halfway point “Come on Sandra! Let’s race!”

But you read my mind and corrected me. “I don’t mean a baby run,” you said with perfect 7-year-old disdain.  “I want to go on a real run.  Like…for an hour.”  You paused, deliberating.  “And we’ll go at night.  With our headlamps.”

Your dad and I exchanged surprised glances.  Apparently, you have started picking up on how we spend our  time when you are not with us.  I wonder which story caught your imagination – was it ourGrand Canyontrip, when we hiked/ran from the south rim to the north rim and then back again?

We had our headlamps on that trek, but it  still frightened me at first, to find myself out there at night, the light from my lamp pushing feebly at the cavernous darkness.   A light is supposed to make you feel safe, but that isn’t how it worked for me; all my light did was remind me that everything beyond that small circle of bright was really. Really. Dark.   It didn’t help when orange eyes glared at me from an overhang; we flinched when a bird flew up and out into the night in a whirl of black wings.

I found myself glancing frequently behind me for your dad, making sure he was still there, and not disappeared into some ancient crevasse of rock, or time.  But when we paused to rest and snapped off the lights,  I looked up at the sky sprawling with stars and felt the light wind cooling my sweating face.  I saw the dim outlines of boulders and trees, I heard the sounds of small animals scurrying away from us in the brush, and my fear melted away.  With the lights off I was no longer pushing against the Canyon but was instead part of it, its breathing mystery and its mythy silence.

More likely you heard us talking about our “Midnight Ramble”, when we hopped on our bikes one Friday at midnight and rode around San Franciscountil sunrise. NorthBeachand theMarinawere crowded with whooping bar hoppers, but the piers were quiet and we paused to breathe the clean, fish-scented air and admire the bridge, uplit as befit a famous beauty, the darkness of ocean and sky merging like a black velvet opera cloak flowing behind her.

“Do you want to run on city sidewalks, or somewhere more open?” I asked you, to which you reasonably replied, “Can’t we do both?”

You were exacting about preparations, no surprise after having watched your daddy and I get ready for so many races.  You asked me my opinion on each item, but then took the choices back to your room to make the final selection on you own, a freedom your dad has encouraged since you were small, and a source of many amusing and surprisingly attractive outfits, my personal favorite being the horizontal striped tights, the polka dotted skirt and the vertically striped sweater (all tied together with a bright pink theme) that you favored at age three.

You chose your khaki all-weather pants, a black technical top, and  s Nike hat on which you strapped your headlamp. You wanted to know what the “N” stood for on your shoes and then wanted to know what “New Balance” meant, which I admitted I did not know.

You strapped on your Camelbak, your newest and proudest possession.  In it you carried our keys, gels, and a walkie talkie, and assured me that I could have a drink whenever I wanted, as long as you weren’t drinking too.

We started our run at the Marina Green, running our first mile alongBay Street, busy with traffic headed toward the bridge.

“Look!” you said, and I looked at the cars going by.

“What?” I asked.

“It’s pretty!” you said, and I realized you meant theGolden GateBridge, and that this was probably the first time you were seeing it at night.

The night was clear and mild for February, and we wore only light jackets.  Cars beeped cheerily at us, and a few late night walkers gave us surprised smiles, their laughter chasing after us.

We took a path through Crissy Field, a pristine grassy plain with an inland marsh where ducks and pelicans float in placid nighttime flotillas.  I told you how it used to be down here,  all broken concrete runways for military planes.

“I like it better this way,” you said, and I agreed.

We kept an eye out for skunks; which are common down there.  You were charmed by my tale of the stripey waddler I encountered on one evening run, how we both backed up in mutual terror, his bushy tail pressed so far up against a fence his pointy nose nearly  touched the ground. We agreed we hoped to see one, but at a safe distance.

You told me about a run-walk you took with your granddad and mom on a visit to the wine country; and how the three of you picked up trash at the side of the road.  A neighbor spotted you and complimented you, insisting on paying you part of the fee he paid to whomever he paid to keep that stretch of road free of the trash dropped by tipsy tourists.

“He gave me three dollars!” you said  “I hid it in a place that’s safe, it doesn’t have a key but you have to know where it is to find it.”   I was amused to note that you provided no other clues. That’s another thing about you – you are a great secret keeper, and always have been.  I told you when I bought a ring and was going to propose to daddy and you kept that secret for nine months, and kept quiet even when he tried to tickle it out of you.

I complimented you on your money management skills. “Now I have money at daddy’s and money at mommy’s,” you told me in  a practical tone, and I admired the sensibleness of this, thinking of all the apocalyptic movies I’ve seen that demonstrate this is a prescient strategy

Mile two was a path along the water.  You marveled at how dark it was, and how our  headlamps created a sort of bubble of light to run in.  You barely missed a hole and we went back to examine how the light from the headlamps gave everything a flattish aspect and how that could fool you, could lead you right into the very trap you thought illumination alone would protect you from.

We ran on, alertly.  You surprised me with your speed but when I asked if you wanted to slow down you said cheerfully  ”I don’t think I can!.”  We agreed that we were going pretty fast, and that the balmy breeze that wafted from the bay felt good but did not quite qualify as ‘wind assisted’.

We had an energy gel and you laughed at the way I laughed when you sipped at it daintily.  “Like this,” I showed you.  “Eat it all at once, like squeezing toothpaste up into your mouth.”

I gave you a choice: orange or espresso.  “What’s espresso?” you asked, and I explained it would taste like coffee.

“Well, I like adult tastes,” you reasoned.  “I like wine and olives and black licorice.  But maybe I better take the orange, and just have a taste of yours.”   When you tasted mine, you nodded to yourself, confirming your wisdom.

Mile three:  we crossedBay Streetand then ran through the winding streets of theMarina, the architecture more Edwardian than in our own neighborhood. We admired a wrought iron gate with a billion curlicues, and laughed when we spied some people watching TV in their living room, the TV bathing their faces in a rippling underwater blue so that they looked like fish in an aquarium.

We were speedier now, whether because of the gel or the idea of the gel I’m not sure.  “Do you want to slow down?” I asked, and again you said no, but I noticed you were bumping into me now, losing your form, so I slowed us in imperceptible stages.   I did not use the nickname “Slowphia”,  a name we gave you to tease you, mostly so we could hear your indignant correction:

“No…I’m Fastphia!”

We passed singles carrying laundry baskets who grinned at you chattering along beside me.  “I need a walk break,” you told me, and so we agreed to a cool down.   I complimented you on being smart about the way you spent your energy.

“Well, my legs are tired,” you said matter-of-factly  “But we can walk fast.”

We passed couples that laughed in surprise at the two of us, behatted and headlamped, and once I caught the expression of the woman in the pair, the way her eyes went far off for a second, smiling secretly at some briefly contemplated image.

We passed groups that spotted you and cried out “Aw, that’s cute!” which made you shrink slightly against me.  You are cute, that’s a fact, but an attention-seeker you are not.

We finished up at a coffee house, where our ride home had prearranged to meet us.  You were quiet at your daddy’s questions, in part because you were tired, in part because that is your way – you are not one to tout your own accomplishments.  You are more a doer than a talker, a quality that you share with your daddy  – and, now, me.

“How did you like it?” daddy asked you, and you shrugged and said “Fine.”  He looked at me for amplification and I shrugged in solidarity with you. Your answer was short, but like our run, long enough.

Fine described it just fine.