I had a moment last week. It was my youngest child’s 36th birthday — not a benchmark, I know. Not 16 or 21 or 30 or 40. But startling nonetheless. All the numbers are: Friends’ ages. Years married. Years out of high school. The year 2013.
If the devil himself had appeared at my door in those few minutes when I was trying to figure out exactly how my baby got to be 36, I would have followed him into a you’ll-have-to-pay-for-this-with-your-soul time machine to go back — not specifically to the day my youngest was born, but to a few weeks, a few years, even a decade later.
They were such good times. I knew it then and I know it now. The years when you can lock your door at night and the people you love are right there, on the couch, in their beds, all within shouting distance. “Goodnight, Mary Ellen.” “Goodnight, John Boy.” There’s nothing better than this.
Stay just this way, I said to my children when they were 7 and 5 and newborn. And when they were 8 and 6 and 1. And when each was 9 and 10 and 11 and 12. Stay little.
I used to chide my kids about growing up on the sly — growing teeth and bigger feet in their sleep, or when they were at school or at a movie or a friend’s. They laughed and said I was weird. But this must have been what happened because I was there, front row, center seat, watching them every day. Listening to them, memorizing them. And they never changed. They never got taller or bigger or funnier or smarter.
Not in front of me.
I loved who they were just as they were. So it was always a surprise that I loved — just as much — their next incarnation, the older child I didn’t want them to be.
And when the last one left for college there were no more “Can I’s?” and “Will you?” and “Goodnight, Mom.” No child left to memorize?
“Have we reached the end?” asked Pooh.
Yes, I suppose it seems so . . . and yet,”
“It is also the beginning.”
That’s what my father tried to tell me. “It’s only the beginning, Bev. You’ll see.”
Now my youngest is 36. When she was 2 and her brother and sister were 9 and 7, their grandmother stopped by late on a summer afternoon. We were on the patio, blowing bubbles. The 2-year-old was chasing them. Grandma squeezed onto the old yellow swing next to the older kids. I got the camera and took pictures.
A lifetime later, I think of that picture. I am that grandmother now. In my office on top of an overcrowded bookshelf sit big ceramic letters that my grandchildren painted and presented to me last Mother’s Day: WE (next is a multi-colored heart) LOVE MIMI.
Every day I look at those letters painted with love and lots of creativity.
My father said that the end of something is always the beginning of something else. They were my beginning.
I miss my children young and if I could, I would crawl into the picture of that summer day and sit them on my lap and sniff their necks and drink in their little-kid voices.
But I would not choose then over now, who they were over who they are.
Numbers can be scary: years lived, grown children’s ages, actuary charts. But numbers can be exciting, too. For my grandchildren, the numbers are 10 and 9 and 8 and 8 and 5 and 5 and 3 (“Almost 4, Mimi!”).
Sometimes when they are all here, on the couch, in their beds, within shouting distance, I say “Goodnight, Mary Ellen.” “Goodnight, John Boy.”
And I know what I have always known: That there is nothing better than this.