To my father, prince of the apple towns.

Childhood creates some of the greatest stories, the ones we keep retelling all our lives.  In my family, my parents still get a kick out of remembering that time we were driving down to Topsail, and we sped past a police car.  My eldest sister quickly said, “Dad, slow down, police.”  My mother chimed in with, “Yep, it’s the high sherif.”  And I, barely 9 years old, added, in solemn seriousness, “Rollers.”  Proof I had already watched The Blues Brothers with my father one too many times.

One of my favorite stories about my sister is when my aunt was babysitting one evening and kept asking Sarah silly questions, like, “Where did you get your pretty curls?  And where did you get your pretty blue eyes?  And where did you get your dimples?”  To every question, my sister sweetly answered with:  “My mommy.”  Finally, my aunt blurted out, “Well, what do you get from your daddy?!”  Sarah shrugged and said, “Lemonade and donuts.”

Yes, the makings of a great father indeed.

It is a day in which many children will call, remember, miss, and/or want to honor their father, because it’s Father’s Day.  Although my own dad always pushed me to go against the grain, to lead not to follow, and to wander down my own path, even if it diverged sharply from the road everyone else was marching down, I find myself joining the many, many daughters and sons who are penning their tributes to the first important man in their lives.

IMG_3622Because why not?  I happen to think that my father is, hands down, one of the most incredible people I know.

And because, lately, I’m noticing a lot of him in me.

Last week, on the way to school, I taught Grace a little diddy that my dad and I used to always recite.  It’s from The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, a 1940s movie, and goes: “You remind me of a man.” “What man?” “The man of power.” “What power?” “The power of hoodo.” “Who-do?” “You do.” “What?” “Remind me of a man.” “What man?” and so forth.  (If you’ve ever watched Labyrinth, then you’ll know David Bowie adapted it for the song “Magic Dance.”)

Forget talking about the months.  Now, when I see her, all Grace wants to do is practice “Who-do?” “You do.” “What?!”.  Again.  And again.

So you can imagine my relief when, the other morning, as I was making her breakfast and lunch for the day, and she was seated across from me, laughing as we finished yet another round of “You remind me of a man,” she suddenly asked me, “TT, where did you learn that story?”

“From my dad,” I answered her, smiling.  “Your grandpa.”

Grace went quiet, twirling an apple slice around on her plate.  Then, shyly, she said, “TT, do you know any other stories?”

“Do I know any other stories?!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands into the air in mock exasperation.  “Well, of course I do!”

IMG_3619I launched into the tale about a woman who goes down to the cellar to get some vinegar, and the cork popped off the jug, and the jug went, “Woo, woo, woo!”  And then I told her about the bum who knocked on an old’s woman door, asking her if she had a bite to eat in the house, and the old woman did but also had a big, tall husband coming home at 5pm, so “Be on your way now, bum!”  I also told her about “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport,” which my father, being tone-deaf, recited to me as a poem rather than as a song and which was my favorite of his rhymes when I was little, because I marveled at and relished in how fantastically and dramatically he enunciated every single word.

I don’t think Grace quite knew what to make of me, much less the steady stream of seemingly nonsensical stuff I was saying.  But, every time I finished one verse or song or tale, in the same manner and rendition as my father had told them to me, she’d ask for another one.

IMG_3620On the way to school later, Grace asked me what else I learned from Grandpa. I told her, with an exaggerated gravitas that made her giggle, “The list is long, child”: He taught me the names of flowers, and he taught me how to tell when it’s going to be a good crop of corn.  He taught me how to make cranberry relish and a mean batch of cookies, and he taught me to be kind and to embrace being tall and athletic. He taught me the right way to hammer a nail, use a shovel, and drive stick-shift, and how to do laundry, and to cut up oranges just right, and to recite the entirety of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and to imagine, create, write, work hard, listen to my gut, believe in my goodness, trust and use my voice, laugh often, and know without a shadow of a doubt that I am beautiful, valued, loved, respected, cherished, most of all by him.

(Don’t worry, Mom.  You taught me quite a bit, too.)

“He taught me how to be myself,” I concluded, with a firm nod, refusing to indulge in the sudden and overwhelming urge to burst into a bout of overly sentimental tears.

I think I lost Grace sometime after the batch of cookies—she was staring out the window, humming, mind elsewhere.  Sometimes, I forget she is only four, and I tell her these things like she’ll understand.  In her own way, I hope she does.

IMG_3624This May, my father turned 68.  He still fits into pants and sweaters he’s owned for 30-plus years, and he could outpace me any day of the week, thanks to the hours upon hours he spends working in the garden, working on house projects, and chasing my nephews.  He’s still as tall and lean and dapper as I remember him from my childhood, with his long, strong arms, his tanned cheeks, his lotion-soft hands, his sparkling forget-me-not blue eyes.  He’s quieter now, and his temper has waned.  Although he’s in good, stable health, more and more I think about the uncertainty of time.  The moment I entertain the thought of him no longer being my first phone call, I am overtaken by a raw and toppling wave of sadness that I know won’t even come a fraction of an inch close to how it will feel, one day, to lose him.

But, if adulthood teaches you anything, it’s that you can never really prepare for or protect yourself from the things that will break your heart, alter your course, and, ultimately, shape your life.

I think my dad knew this.  He lost both of his parents before he was 30 years old.  Growing up, he always told us girls that he didn’t want flowers at his funeral or laid at his grave.  “Give me flowers when I’m alive, when I can see ‘em,” he’d say, as we groaned and shook our heads and told him to hush up.

IMG_0332I see his point, all these years later.  Really, my father was telling us:  live now, give now, love now, experience all you can, be all you can, now.  “You’ll be gone a lot longer than you’ll be here,” he’d say.

And because of this, because I know the hourglass has tipped, the moments I can spend with my father, and the moments in which I feel him—his lessons, his words, his mannerisms—rippling through me, carry more and more meaning and magnitude.  I want all I can have of him.

On my visit to Pennsylvania last weekend, I soaked up the hours I had with my father.  We cut and filled colanders of kale and spinach from the garden, and walked “the lower-40,” and played with the new stray cat he’s adopted.  We talked about my work.  We stayed up late the night I arrived to finish off one of my mother’s rhubarb pies, smacking our lips in satisfaction.  I helped him hang a heavy bench swing.  He bought a six-pack of my new favorite beer, and we enjoyed a few together, sitting on the back porch, the cat meowing and the day yawning to a close.  We filled and emptied our plates at my niece’s baptism party and sat outside beneath the bright table umbrellas, guzzling glasses of the peach iced tea he’d made and musing about which would come first in the Catholic Church: female priests or gay marriage.

At some point, I noticed that my father was no longer wearing the gold chain and cross that he’s worn ever since I can remember.  Usually, I am the first to notice and comment on any little change in my father:  a haircut, a five-pound weight loss, a new watch, a new wallet, new shoes.  He’s a man I have studied and admired all my life—I pride myself on being a diligent student.

To my astonishment, he explained that he’d stopped wearing it last summer, because he was worried the clasp had weakened.  On a whim, and because increasingly I find myself asking to bring home possessions my parents no longer care to keep, I asked if I could wear it for awhile.

“Neither for borrow or keep,” he said slyly.  “For taking then!” I replied, and we laughed.

On Sunday evening, just before I climbed into the car for my mother to drive me to the airport, my father handed me his necklace.  In my excitement, I fumbled with it, clumsily, desperate to loop it around my neck so he could see it on me.  My father has never worn a wedding ring; this necklace, with its bright gold chain that my mother purchased with the paycheck from a big catering job 30-odd years ago and the small Christian cross my father had custom made, is, in my mind, as intimate and weathered and valuable as their 44-year marriage.

IMG_0551He entrusted it to me—his youngest, the child who climbed atop his back and galloped him, a gangly horse and ecstatic rider; the adolescent who tried daily to emulate the friendliness, confidence, and leadership that won him class president; the young woman who wrote a graduate school thesis inspired by and based largely on him; the 30-something aunt who catches his parenting in every, single interaction I have with my nieces and nephews.

And, I am so thankful.  So wholly, wonderfully thankful—for him.

I haven’t taken the necklace off since, and I don’t intend to any time soon.  Seeing the sunlight catch on its glow, touching it, feeling its warmth and weight against my skin, makes me smile, and think of my father, and think of how much I love him, how much I still, at 33 years old, want him to be as proud of me as I am of him.

IMG_1210I roll the necklace’s thinness between my thumb and forefinger, and I wonder when Grace will notice and ask me where I got it.

My daddy, I’ll say.

My papa, mi padre, Pops, Dadda.  His many names, across my many ages, but always all mine, my father.

 

 

The measures of time.

The other morning, when my niece asked me over her bowl of strawberries, how many days until Topsail, I couldn’t help but duck my chin and smile and think, “Yep, she’s a Newell alright.”

My family—we like organizing ourselves by time.  Ever since I was little, I have understood my life in increments of the calendar or the clock.  Daily, specific hours were devoted to swim practice, horse-back riding, homework, or music.  Certain days of the week were spent doing chores so that other days of the week could be enjoyed at the Boiling Springs pool or playing with friends.  Each season, particularly fall and spring, signified a different sports schedule and work schedule and level of ensuing exhaustion.  And the calendar hanging on the refrigerator always bore the important milestones, accentuated by stickers and highlighters: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, visits, trips, and, of course, Topsail.

For the past month or so, Grace has routinely asked me how many days until her birthday, which is today, finally.  She is four years old.  Later, she’ll open up a present from me that includes a few workbooks to help her practice writing her letters and numbers as well as a ridiculous sparkly, feathered, pink princess cape that she will no doubt wear as she proudly pens her A, B, Cs.

The cape, I admit, was an impulse purchase, as was the enormous inflatable ball that I imagined her kicking down the sunlit stretch of Preston Beach.  Because when I placed all the presents I’d originally picked out on the counter, I saw a stack of items that will further usher Grace out of childhood and into the realm beyond: letter books, number books, and a crisp packet of colored pencils to hold in her small hand while mastering the lines and curves of the alphabet and numerical system.

Sure, the kid needs to learn how to write.

But, a part of me instantly worried whether, at barely four years old, I was already encouraging the common demands of adulthood: you constantly need to learn, work, practice, aim for accuracy and possibly perfection, and not give up along the way as you take on what the world expects and puts in front of you.  As my mother would say, focus on the focal point, and stay focused.

I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.

I’m also my father’s daughter, and my father believed strongly in encouraging that I be a student of my surroundings as much as I was a student of books, and in cultivating my imagination, and in protecting my innocence.  My parents were firm in many ways, but most of all, they set iron-clad parameters on how we spent our time and with whom that ensured we were kids as long as possible.  Because you’re an adult the rest of your life.

Hence, the princess cape for Grace’s many hours of four-year-old make-believe fun.

Thankfully, Grace is proving herself a courageous and eager student, of the real and the imagined, and she is surrounded by equally eager teachers.

I love this, and I am proud of her.  She’s wonderfully and hysterically inquisitive.  She asks me things like, “What does gravity mean, and how does it work?” and “Why do people have to pay for things?” and, when I tried introducing her to cursive writing, “Why are there two ways to write the same letters?” and, my recent favorite, “Where are the clouds when they’re not in the sky?”

IMG_0823Just the other night, when I was putting Grace to bed and remarking on how she would be turning four in only 7 days, she looked up at me with eyes as deep and full and blue as the sea, and said, quietly, “TT, what happens when I turn four?  Where does three go?”

————————–

I spent last weekend in Washington, DC, my former stomping ground. Although only in town for 36 hours, I made it to my old, favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant in Dupont Circle.  I walked the entire Mall and visited my favorite monuments, resting on the very park bench I sat on with a beloved ex-boyfriend so many years ago.  I walked for miles, actually, rediscovering my old city and pointing out landmarks of my past life along the way.

I stumbled across my old self, too.  That young woman I was more than a decade ago when I arrived in Washington, so raw, so unprepared, so unsure, and working so damn relentlessly to find clarity and stability and happiness.  I retraced the sidewalks that young self ran in an attempt to outpace the pressure and poor decisions that chased her.  I passed her first yoga studio, where all the letting go began. I took the same Metro train that carried her to work every day for three years.  I stared at her out the window as we sped down Reno Road, and I wanted to grab her hand and tell her to stop trying to change just so she fits more comfortably into the world around her.  I wanted to tell her that she will always love hard; she will always work hard; she will always dream.

I wanted to tell her that it is the leaps, those very chances and risks she so feared then, that I’m most grateful for and proud of now.

Returning to the place where I both lost and unearthed my self was such a remarkable reminder of everything I have experienced, good and bad, in the first decade of my adulthood and how those experiences both radically altered and solidified who I am. It was a stark reminder of the gift of time—it’s passage, yes, but also it’s steady measurement of the life you’ve lived, and are living.

My darling niece turns four years old today.  A small measurement, yes, but one that stands significant all the same. In these early years, she’s grown into a girl who’s curious and sweet, stubborn and dramatic, smart, silly, adaptable, agreeable, and overwhelmingly lovable.

When I pick her up from school later, and when I hug her, and when I watch her open her presents, I know I’ll relish in her joy—what child doesn’t exude the ultimate happiness on a birthday?  And after she blows out her candles and has a piece of cake, I’ll kneel next to her and whisper that, not to worry, three is tucked safely inside of her, maybe there, scooted up underneath her ribs.

IMG_3153I’ll try to explain that when we grow, as we age with the years newly and long-ago passed, all we’ve lived stays within us.  She can’t see it, and she might not be able to feel it, but that time, those experiences, the lessons learned, and the love shared, are woven through her, roping together the net of confidence and moral code that she’ll fall back on and bounce off of for decades to come.

Someday, I will tell Grace about my years in Washington, DC.  Someday, I will explain to her that she’ll always have questions, that she should always ask more, learn more, explore the world more, because in that act of outreach, she will only pull herself closer to who she is: the incredible self she is already beginning to cultivate.

I will tell her that I’ve learned the true test of character is placing your self in the midst of the chaos of the world, having faith you’ll stay strong, brave, and true, and experiencing, fully, the result.

For now, though, for today, this balloon-filled, sugar-filled, excitement-filled turning-four celebration, I’ll offer to tie that cape around her neck and treat her like the little princess she dreams she is.

The anticipation of touch.

We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.
– Robert Ardrey

The anticipation of touch:  it is the hint of a hand, hesitating, a flit of fingers, hovering over the flush of your skin like a rainstorm bursting in spring, all lush and promising, smelling sweet, timely, rolling in with a warm, purpled breeze of lilacs and turned earth that is as dark and rich and mysterious as his eyes that last time, even though you’d sworn never again, telling yourself that you don’t have to move like the seasons, drifting for awhile but always returning, and changed, yes, but not to your own accord:  rather, by the pull of nature and memory, because you crave the known even as you hope for the revolution that will unshackle him, that will unshackle you, so that you can put this—all of this nonsense and hurt and anger not buried so deep, no, not anymore—atop that spring breeze, that strong, certain pull of the wind lifting and carrying that past, those eyes, the browned edges of your affection and his promise—

and carrying it far away, planting him in another’s unlucky arms, so that when you lay down and look up and open up and arch yourself into the cupped palm of the world, to those awaiting fingers, that eager hand, you see only blue, and white, and the whisper of a kiss.

The river flows in you. Well, all of us.

After nearly six months of storms and blizzards, below freezing temperatures, bleak skies, and a record-breaking number of weekends spent “hunkered down,” I think it’s safe to say:  we survived, and spring has arrived to greet us.

Here in New England, it was a winter that stretched long and snowy, a winter that tested and hurt and crept under our skin and filled the spaces between our ribs with an ice-white chill.  It was a winter of quiet, of isolated hibernation. Never before have I heard so many people lament about a season or ache for the rapid passing of time.

I also have never before understood fully the concept of being a “snow bird,” but after two trips to Florida in the last few months, I can safely say I get the appeal of trading Massachusetts for Miami in the dark bleakness of February.

Yes, it was a winter that we abhorred, because it felt, at times, infinite.

And yet, it is now, slowly, slipping away.  Soon, like many other things and people and events in life, it’ll be only a memory, a story of a season ago.

This past weekend, Grace and I went for a walk together.  It was just around 5 o’clock, one of my favorite hours of the day: the sun is still bright, the work is winding down, the light is golden and the shadows long, and you have all the potential of the evening ahead.  As we walked, I was talking to Grace about the seasons and about how we’re on the cusp of spring.  Can she feel that low-lying, balmy breeze in the afternoon?  Can she see those few eager buds bursting open on the trees?  Does she know how many daffodils we’ll see abloom in nana and grandpa’s garden—too many to count!  I called out, “Good-bye, winter!” and ruffled her curls.

Grace, as she always does, listened so attentively, so wonderfully curious, and then she wanted to know when winter ended.  She asked, “Where did it go?  Did you see it leave?”

And, as I always do, I paused, caught in a classic case of, “Huh.  Yep, good question.  Well.  Okay, so the mostly correct response to this one is…”

I bumbled through how, yes, we’re seeing winter leave right now, because one season fades into another, gradually, over a matter of days and weeks, and the changes are small enough that we don’t always notice them until one day, we wake up, and the world is lush and green, and the sun is hot, and we’re stripped down to shorts and sandals and craving the ocean and ice cream.

“But, where is winter when it’s spring?” Grace pressed.

And that I honestly struggled to answer.

Where does anything go, when it’s run its course?

During this winter, with its unforgiving bite, its sharp and bruising elbows, I’ve both experienced and witnessed a handful of truly sad and truly joyful life-altering changes.  The kind of monumental events that rattle every bone in your body and crack your heart into pieces, in happiness and in sorrow. Moments so big and surreal that even I, ever trying to capture the world in words, don’t know what to say or write.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months thinking about these life events.  How do you rationalize the urgings that “life is short” with the reminders to “plan for your future?”  How do you know when right now is more important than the someday you hope and prepare for ahead?  How do you stay present—and, perhaps, more importantly—push forward when the past fires a relentless attack of nostalgic “remember when”s and “what if”s?  What (and who), truly, matters most?

I’ve also thought a lot about endings, good-byes, the inevitable pain that comes with loving people. That’s the catch-22, right?  Love is the greatest gift, and yet, love exposes us to the deepest pains.  And yet, who would want to live a life without it?

There’s the argument that we are, all, ultimately alone in the end, we all lose each other, and so what’s the damn point?  (Similarly to the seasons, you never quite know when the end is, really, the end—I remember in March talking to a friend about how you never know when the last snow storm is really the last one. Because, who knows, another 10 feet could fall next Tuesday.)  But, I don’t buy this mindset.

Rather, I believe that our innate aloneness in the world is merely a footnote to the great novel of our lives, which reads rich and colorful and hilarious and heartbreaking and true, because of the courageous leaps, the craziness, the love that cements us, the clamor of experiences captured within its pages, and mostly, because of the characters, the ones we love and hold tight to, so tight, for all or as little time as we are given.

That’s the only answer I’ve come to lately, against the list of seemingly endless questions.

And so as Grace and I walked the hill toward home, I stopped and leaned down over her stroller and tapped her nose with my finger.  She giggled and squirmed.  I laid my cheek alongside hers, the sun pressing against my back with the reassurance of my father’s hand, the gentle guidance of my mother’s palm, and I whispered into her ear, “The seasons are like people, my little duck.  You won’t always see all of them at once, because they each have their own special moment in time.  And they might come and go more quickly or more slowly than you’d expect.  But, they always exist in the world; they’re always here.”

Grace smiled and sighed, contented, and I pushed the stroller on, and I felt my heart would nearly burst, from gratitude and want and conviction that I am just where I need to be.

And the first truly beautiful twilight in what feels like forever settled around us, quietly, preciously, with the pink promise of spring.

———————————

A recent obsession on repeat:  River Flows In You by Yiruma.  Close your eyes, and enjoy.

Let’s not make it harder than it has to be.

Although I love my niece’s curls and her questions, her small hand in mine, her face against my neck, what I oftentimes treasure most is her ability to keep things simple.

When it’s time to eat, she eats.  When it’s time to sleep, she sleeps.  When we play a game, it is, usually, a silly, strange, let’s-pretend-we’re-making-carrot-cake-and-feeding-it-to-kitty-cats exercise that lasts all of 15 minutes before we move on to the next attention-grabbing activity.  When she asks a question, you answer, in the best and most honest way you know how.

And she listens.  And she believes you, and she trusts you.

She doesn’t make it any harder than it has to be.

It’s both awesome and overwhelming.  Because in those moments, you catch how grossly misdirected we can be as adults, how badly we make a habit of expending our time on the things that don’t matter.

In the past few weeks, the universe has dealt me (and many around me) some bone-rattling blows.  Hours upon hours of tears, talking, testing limits, tossing and turning, and trying to answer the unanswerable questions, those black-bottomed pits of “why” and “what if?”  An exhausting and futile wrestling match with unmovable, ungovernable forces beyond our control.

And so, the other day, I stopped by my sister’s house, my purse heavy with a bag of jelly beans, a bag of plastic Easter eggs, and a package of those sticky window art designs, Easter-themed of course.  I slipped in the front door, hurried up the stairs, and surprised Grace, who was sitting at her toy vanity.  She was sporting one high-heeled slipper, an enormous Big Bird sticker, and a bright red headband that was pushed so far back in her curls it was nearly off her head entirely.

“Oh, hi, TT,” she greeted me nonchalantly, before jumping up, jumping in my lap, and proceeding to show me the three new things in her room: a packet of stickers, a card game, and a book about the Disney princesses.

The simple joys, I tell you.

I then presented her with my new play things.  We sat together for a good 10 minutes on her bedroom floor, carefully filling each plastic egg with a colorful selection of jelly beans and discussing her adventures at the bowling alley the night before.  (Bumpers buoyed the experience.)  Once the eggs were full, Grace looked at me, wide-eyed, and asked, “Now what?”

“We hide them!” I exclaimed.

Grace blinked.  “And then what?”

“We find them!” I answered, suddenly realizing that, at barely four years old, Grace might not remember in full how Easter egg hunting works.

“That’s it?” Grace said, climbing to her feet suddenly and cradling the bowl of eggs against her belly, eager to begin.

“That’s it.”

We spent the next 45 minutes taking turns hiding six, rattling plastic eggs for one another, Grace usually using her turn to place the eggs in the exact same spot I’d left them for her—tucked into the drawer of the vanity or nestled on the lap of one of her baby dolls or resting safely in a fold of her bedspread.  We giggled and feigned surprise and practiced her math—”If we found five eggs, how many are we missing?”—and talked at length about how many tricksy hiding spaces there are in a house.  We sat together while she ate her lunch, and shared a plum, and ruminated on the week ahead.

And it was all so simple: her satisfaction in my attention, my pleasure at her enjoyment, our appreciation for each other’s company and imagination, our love, and the day’s slow and settled and sunny passing.

I skipped out of that house about 10 times lighter and happier, as if Grace was the balloon string wrapped tight round my heart, lifting me up and out and above the unnecessary fray.

As adults, our compulsion to overcomplicate every last, little thing and feeling and situation oftentimes blinds us to what’s most important:  love, compassion, kindness, truth, joy.  Appreciation for what we have been given, for all we have.

In yoga, we’re told that, most days, the hardest effort on our mats is to breathe—just breathe—when, really, that should be the most basic, the most fundamental and thoughtless action.  But, our minds get in the way; our minds churn with self-critique, with analysis, with questions and disruptions and pains.

We take the simplest thread of our existence and knot it, ten-fold.

We adults do that—with breath, with love, with our own hearts.

Kids—they know better.

In my life right now, I have several loved ones who are hurting, deeply, and who are wrestling with pains I can’t relate to or wholly understand.  Trying to place myself within their struggles, I am reminded daily of how precious and precarious life is, how much the smallest gestures and attentions mean, how the most casual of outreaches or offerings can give a person the greatest comfort.  How priceless an hour of my day is to a beloved child.

And I am reminded that hurt and joy will come to me no matter what I decide to do or where I decide to go or who I love.  I am keenly aware it is futile to complicate matters by chasing one or ducking the other.

Grace will one day—but, hopefully, many years from now—outgrow her inclination to take the world at face value.  She will, like the rest of us, learn to doubt and suspect and avoid and add question, layer, and complication to what she doesn’t know or isn’t comfortable with. She will learn hurt and joy.  I accept this; I did, too.

But, I think—I hope—that if I can teach her anything, now and in the years to come, it is what she’s taught me:  that love is life’s greatest and simplest gift, if you commit to showing up and giving honestly, hopefully, with heart, and humor.

Hearts are made to be carved out.

A recent find and revelation:

My Life was the Size of My Life

My life was the size of my life.
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
It rode elevators, bullet trains,
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose.
It ate, it slept.  It opened
and closed its hands, its windows.
Others, I know, had lives larger.
Others, I know, had lives shorter.
The depth of lives, too, is different.
There were times my life and I made jokes together.
There were times we made bread.
Once, I grew moody and distant.
I told my life I would like some time,
I would like to try seeing others.
In a week, my empty suitcase and I returned.
I was hungry, then, and my life,
my life, too, was hungry, we could not keep
our hands off    our clothes on   our tongues from

by Jane Hirshfield

My Valentines.

My niece likes to talk about the months.  A lot.

No matter what time of day, where we are headed, or what else we might be right in the midst of talking about, within roughly 30 seconds of getting strapped into her booster seat, hearing the key turn and then the ignition spark, she asks me, “TT, can we talk about the months?”

Although listing out our family birthdays, the national holidays, and random seasonal highlights felt like stale material as long ago as last November, I have a hard time not indulging this little love of mine in this simple yet clearly treasured routine.  Somehow, listening to me shuffle through the calendar of the year never gets old; rather, I think it’s become a source of comfort to her, like a lullaby or a fraying blanky.

Children are a wonderful reminder of how big the little things really are.

Lately, when I respond by asking my niece, “Okay, which month should we start with?”, she kicks things off with January.  Which I appreciate, because it is the logical place to start and because it’s my birthday month. January is a pretty slow month, though, on the whole.  New Years, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my birthday (read: immediate tangent into talk about cup cakes, balloons, and how old I am), Aunt Joscie’s birthday, cousin Reese’s birthday…and snow storms.  We get through it pretty quickly.

And we used to blow right through February, too, in a rush to get to March, which is Mommy’s birthday, which means it’s Grace’s favorite month of the year.  (She is, quite devotedly, her mother’s daughter.)

However, all of this—and our conversation about the months—changed quite dramatically a few weeks ago.  Because last week, on February 3, my newest niece, Lillian, was born.

You can imagine the build up to this event.  Grace and I would sometimes spend the entire morning of getting ready for school talking only about how Aunt Joscie was going to have Baby Lily sometime in early February and how Grace would have a new cousin and how Lily would be our family’s first February birthday and on.  We talked about what Lily would look like, and whether Grace would visit her in the hospital, and how long until Lily could talk and play, and how did Baby Lily eat if she didn’t have teeth?!

The day after Lily was born, I picked Grace up from school.  On the way home, in a moment’s pause from talking about everything that happens in July (“Fireworks!”), Grace asked when she could see Lily, and could we go to Pennsylvania tomorrow, please?  I suggested we Facetime with Aunt Joscie and the family at the hospital instead, after we finished her bath and brushed teeth.

A few hours later, laying curled together, Grace and I stared into my phone screen at Lily, asleep in my sister’s arms.  Jack and Sam hovered nearby, first shy then straining over top one another to wave and point and shout hello’s and tell us everything about their newest sibling: she was soft, she was small, she slept a lot!  My eldest sister smiled quietly in the background, looking tired but so beautiful, and content, full of the life she just brought safely into this world.

After we hung up, Grace caught me wiping away a few tears and immediately asked why I was crying.  I tried to explain that it was because I was happy, that we had a baby in our family again, that Jack and Sam now have a little girl to love, that my sister’s joy, for her new daughter, was my own, too.

Grace played distractedly with my necklace, bit at her lip, and then whispered, “TT, can we talk about the months?”

And she told me to begin with February.

*

The other morning, as we barreled through the snow-slicked streets on our way to school, Grace and I got to talking about Valentine’s Day.  I informed her that she was my Valentine—along with Sam, and Jack, and Lily, of course.

Grace asked me a string of questions about Valentine’s Day, the only holiday worth discussing in the month she’s now hung up on, thanks to Lily’s birth.  What was Valentine’s Day for?  Who is Valentine?  Why are the painted Micky and Minnie kissing with hearts all around them in the window of the Muffin Shop?

It’s a blessing—children’s propensity to force us adults to think rationally about the ridiculous so that we can explain it in a way that makes sense. Because, usually, kids make a whole lot more sense out of things than we do.

Grace asks me these kinds of things, the way she asks me about those damn months of the year, and I have to filter out the cynicism, the disbelief, the monotony, that inevitably creeps in as you get older.  Because I am responsible for helping shape the way she sees the world.  And I want that view to be positive, imaginative, creative, confident, open, and excited.

“TT, Valentine’s Day—” Grace prompted me, crumbs of peach muffin catching in the creases of her pink coat.

I told her that Valentine’s Day is a day for people to say “I love you.”  For people to remind those they care about that they’re special and appreciated and remembered.  For people to send silly cards and share silly and serious sentiments.  For daddies and mommies to buy chocolate and send flowers. For children to have sugar-filled parties.  For stores to sell pink everything.  For Micky and Minnie to kiss because they like one another.

Grace stared out the window, thinking.  I drove, thinking, too.

“Grace?”

“Yeah, TT?”

“You know, you don’t need a holiday to tell someone you love them or to tell someone they’re special.  Or to send a card, or to kiss and hug a friend, or to buy flowers or wear pink or whatever.  You can do those things every day, any day, any time you want to, my little duck.  Okay?”

I paused.  Sometimes, I know I give her more than she can handle.

There, in my backseat, covered in crumbs and curls, Grace’s cheeks lifted in a small, sweet smile.  Our eyes met in the review mirror.

“TT?”

“Yeah, Grace?”

“I love you.”

Yes, these little, perfect Valetines of mine.