Dear Lily June,
Today, I am thirty-two years old. Thirty-two is the year when you officially get to, um, be thirty-two. (Yay! Finally!) When I looked back on my letter to you last year at this time, I found it, sadly, sounded a bit bitter about what love can and cannot do.
When I looked back at the letter I’d written you the year before that, before I was even writing these in blog form (while you were still in the womb!) I found there, too, that my tone was mostly wistful, imagining what things might be like if I’d had the foresight to have you sooner.
Of my few regrets in this life, one of my most significant was waiting to have you. I wanted to be financially sound (ha!), emotionally stable (ha ha!), 1000% percent ready to be the kind of mother you would deserve. Now I get, Lily June, the old clichés the (m)other hens used to cluck at me disapprovingly–that no one is ever really ready. That there is no right time to have kids. That you learn how to be a parent like everything else: by doing.
You are old enough now to watch and imitate me to some degree. This past year, you wanted (and thus got) an “-obe” because Mommy wears her bathrobe over her clothes in winter just to keep a little warmer. You wanted to (and thus did) wear the warm bras you pulled out of my freshly dried laundry (albeit, by slinging them around you like necklaces). You wanted to (and thus will) sit in my lap to bang your tiny hands over my laptop keyboard like I do, never knowing that I mostly do so when I’m writing you.
I see you, in other words, modeling my behavior, and it makes me want to behave in ways worthy of being mirrored. I have, I realize, wasted so much time worrying about whether I’ve wasted my time, my life. But without my life, there is no yours. And while, once upon a time, a world with you in it was something I never could have predicted, now that you’re here, a world without you is something I never want to imagine.
My “gift” then, to you (in order to model better behavior for your future) is to spend this year’s birthday not caught up on what isn’t, hasn’t been or can’t be. I will separate that from what can be, has been and may be again. In other words, instead of the hard lessons I tried to bestow on you last year, this year I offer you the Top 12 Things in Life (at Age 32) Your Mother Is Most Grateful For. I look forward, someday, to finding out how many of these we share. (I hope, if nothing else, I make the attitude of gratitude a contagious part of your living!)
12. Autumns, While We Still Have Them
When I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the joke was that the four seasons were Almost Winter, Winter, More Winter, and Construction. When I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the joke was flipped: Almost Summer, Summer, More Summer, and Christmas. Now, living in the Midwest, I’m granted the gift of falls again, with their cool crisp air, their harvest moons, their pumpkin patches and their Technicolor leaf-shows.
Your mother loves her some sweater weather, LJ, which I find myself missing especially now that we’re dipping from temperatures I would dub “Coolsville” into full-on “Frost-f*cking-opolis.” No matter how many years I’ve lived on this earth, the winter always brutalizes, the spring teases, and the summer exhausts me. The autumns, though, have the power to refresh me, lighting the wick of my life back on fire.
11. Jeans that Fit, from Butt to Boot
For some shapes (cough, PEAR, cough), this is a rare commodity. Your mother’s brilliant moolah-making scheme? To create a machine like a photobooth/TSA screening panel that scans your proportions and 3-D prints denim that will not betray your muffin top, showcase your plumber’s cleavage, or rise to floodwater proportions. Women of the world, you are welcome. Here’s to that great someday. Until then, I’ll treat each glove-fitting pair like a miracle.
10. The Blogosphere’s Island of Misfit Toys / Socially Awkward Penguins
Adult Children of Alcoholics. The OCD numerology of anxiety-sufferers. Those who are too awkward to hold down conversations with their bosses and co-workers that don’t exemplify the verb “blurt.” Come unto me, you strange strangers. I am you. You are me.
9. The Sweet Hilarity of Toddler Logic
Last night, your parents took you to the mall to buy your father a shirt. In JCPenney’s, you ran up to a middle-aged male stranger and embraced him. I put that too lightly. You actually latched onto his leg harder than some dogs hump, and love, legitimate, non-world-weary love radiated from you like a lighthouse over a dark ocean of shoppers.
He threw his hands up like your dad and I were police, the affection clearly unnerving him. “I wasn’t expecting that,” he joked, as we pried you from his limb and apologized. But then we all just laughed it off. You, Lily June, are the kind of girl who lovingly embraces a complete stranger of your own volition. (It is, in equal parts, an absolutely beautiful, and slightly terrifying, thing.)
And yet, later, we spotted the mall Santa and thought, why not? Let’s go for it. For forty-five minutes you waited, laughing, dancing, being propped on one or the other parent’s shoulders, getting fidgety but never fussy, to get to see the magical man all your Christmas books include, a face you might, at this point, even find familiar. When we propped you onto his lap, though, you erupted into a volcano of terror, rippling a domino of discontent through the children of all the other shoppers still waiting in line.
You’d have thought, for all your wailing and shaking, Santa was a dentist who intended to use the candy cane he was handing you as a makeshift pair of pliers to pull a particularly painful molar. I plucked you off his lap unceremoniously, and your dad and I high-tailed it out of there like we were celebrities spotted by paparazzi.
I don’t know the moral here. Maybe you’re a budding feminist, driven by agency and consent. Maybe you sensed something in the stranger, some instinctual notion that he was a widower or something, struggling through a first Christmas without his beloved. Or maybe, as is most likely the case, the toddler brain is just a stocking stuffed full of random crazy. Either way, I feel lucky to play spectator to your antics.
8. Your Hugs (Obvi)
Speaking of that, when you hug me? I understand what people mean when they say that their children taught them how to fall in love all over again. On Saturday, when we celebrated my birthday as a family, you granted me the honor of real hugs, the kind where you burrow into me with your arms wrapped around my sides without a hint of ever wanting to leave.
(These are in contrast to your “Get It Over With” variety, where you just lay limp for five seconds or less in front of someone so they can barely give you the bro-pat before you leap off into the universe to do something more important, like diaper your stuffed doggies.)
7. Your Dad’s Hugs (So He’s Not Too Jelly)
When I was a kid, my sister and I were sentenced to hugging our father before bedtime like we were the soldier children of the von Trapp family. That he was usually drunk and never interested made this act of love into a chore, and it soured me for a long time on hugs altogether. Your dad’s hugs–true, honest, deeply held, meant, and felt–taught me to love being hugged again. If I could, I would hibernate into his arms all winter.
6. Rebuilding Bridges that Had Been Lit on Fire
After his ex-wife passed, while my father grieved, he asked that I check in with him everyday. We’ve kept the habit up, which has made me want to reach out more to my mother, which has made me want to reach out more to my stepbrother, too.
And I find that others from my past have been reaching out to me, like a friend I used to have named Matt, who, out of the blue, sent me a message on Facebook days before today just to wish me a happy birthday. (He’s a story and a half, my first crush who burned me out for years after I turned him down for a date–I was dating someone else at that time–only to seek me out after a decade of silence to admit that even then, he’d known he was gay!)
I am so grateful for the opportunity to begin again with those who are willing to let me. For the silence of the others who aren’t? I carry their memories like stones in my pocket, hoping to never collect enough to sink me.
5. Rediscovering Old Passions
My paternal Grandmother Mary used to make decorative Christmas trees by stitching colored yarn and gold beads (to serve as candle flames) onto plastic canvas frames. There were such a simple little craft, but even as I lost my physical trees, I held onto their simple beauty in my memory. They were one of the two things that inspired me to take Home Ec- in high school (the other being my own mother’s “sewing box,” a cardboard grave where she sentenced clothes we’d torn or ripped to die, claiming if we put them in the box, she’d get to sewing them eventually. She never did.)
Anyway, of all the things I made there, from enormous, ultra-wide, straight-leg camo pants lined on the sides with plastic army men (that looked like there were parachuting down my legs) to my prom dress–pink taffeta and cream chiffon and lined with a corset made with rosette strings–my favorite craft remained cross-stitching. When I graduated high school, I would do it on my hour long commute to a city college, which doubled as a way to scare fellow passengers away from sitting next to the twenty-some-year-old freak who takes public transportation while wielding multiple needles and stork-shaped scissors.
I’ve only just reignited my passion for the hobby, but I have the feeling many tacky samplers (why hello there, “Hang in There Kitty”) are in your future.
There’s too much to say, LJ, which is ironic, since Elliot Eisner wrote that “Poetry was invented to say what words can never say.” Suffice to say, I said what I could about why I love what I love in this letter.
3. Marrying Your Father
It was supposed to be sweater weather; instead, it was 80+ degrees in October. It was supposed to have a horse and carriage; the carriage broke so we faked the whole thing for pictures. It was supposed to be perfect, and yet, for all of its imperfections, it was.
It was supposed to last forever. Six years in, so far, so good, Lily. I have married my best friend, and despite our occasional bumps in the road, we still, first and foremost, call each other buddy. I hope to look back and say, someday, the rest as they say…
2. Having You
Will I ever get over the miracle of you? Even by the time you hit your teen years and go from treating me like the mall’s middle-aged beloved stranger to its horror-inducing Santa, I still think I might be a little obsessed with your wonder. I’ll try, though, for your sake, to seem really blasé about it, like I don’t think of each of your eyelashes as its own wish come true.
1. Finding God in Finding Dory–Of my friends/readers that are atheists or Christians, I don’t know who this paragraph is likely to offend more. But the truth, the peace, the path that I’m now walking makes me think of the scene in the Disney fish film where (spoiler alert: highlight blank space for text) Dory’s parents have been waiting for her entire lifetime for her to find them again. And each day, they go out and lay seashells across the ocean in every direction, hoping that she’ll pick up one of the trails and follow it back to them.
If God is those parents, Lily June, religions are the shells. And I’m starting to feel as if, as much as some people want to find God, God, too, might actually want to be found. I’m starting to believe that a kind and loving God would leave seashells, breadcrumbs, fingerprints of His existence everywhere to lead us back to Him. I hope that doesn’t sound new or particularly revolutionary to you, LJ, but it has rocked my world to come to that conclusion after this long–that not only does God want you to find Him, he spends your entire life leading you to Him. The question that lingers over my life now is this, what do I do for others now if I feel like I’ve found Him?
(I am not the type to become a missionary. I’m more like Roseanne from the TV show in the 90’s who, in response to the question from her son of what religion their family is, answers, “Basically, we’re good people.” To which her husband pipes up, “Yeah, but we’re non-practicing.” But I’ve decided that, in 2017, I want to do more for others.)
I am grateful for 32 years worth of such bizarre joys and discoveries. Here’s to the next thirty-two (and hopefully, after that, thirty-two more, and then, greedily, thirty-two more and more…)
- By Harry Whittier Frees – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ds.04028. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31395174