Monday, September 15, 2008

Baby books and the mailbox at the end of the street

As a first-child, my early days are well-documented. First holidays, first steps, first teeth, first foods; it's all there in my mother's distinctive southpaw penmanship, neatly noted on yellowed scrapbook pages from a time when I was the center of her young life. I don't say that conceitedly, I say it with parental experience. Your first child is fated to become the body about which your nuclear family life suddenly orbits, from the moment you first hold their tiny hands and look into their eyes, squinting against the bright lights of the room. Unless you're made of stone, there's no helping it. When you see your child for the first time, you're hopelessly in love, and you want to capture every moment of that feeling.

With the first child, you also realize how much you're Winging It. I remember hitting this moment about two weeks after my son was born, when we'd pretty much figured out diapering and feeding and napping, and then thinking OK, now what? That gave way to a highly scrutinized life: every outfit photographed, hours of videotape of the drool-and-barf variety, first crawling, first major holidays, first steps, first time on a bike, first day at school. All carefully cataloged and documented, up to a point. That point is called "siblings" and it's a big one. My own baby book suddenly stops after my third birthday, when my sister arrived. My own son's book is very much the same, stopping nearly cold after his fourth birthday. One child makes the orbits of your life change, but two children makes those orbits eccentric. Still in love, still cherishing the moments, but somehow not being able to get it jotted down. Up until two weeks ago, daughter's baby pictures were still in their sleeves from Costco, before my wife got tired of tripping over then and filed them all in a pretty flowered box, where they will probably sit for another six years. It's even worse for the third: her milestones are marked with conversations like "Hey, the baby has another tooth!" "Really, how many is that?" "I don't know, eight or nine. We need to get to soccer practice." As much as our Good Intentions want us to observe our kids through a viewfinder, Real Life doesn't allow that.

The bike-riding rule at our house is that you are to turn around when you reach the last mailbox on the street. Once the kids got steady and fast enough to ride ahead of Mom and Dad, the Last Mailbox is our invisible fence, a local landmark and the edge of our comfort level. Our house sits smack in the middle of our block, so from space, our little skaters/scooters/cyclists could be seen making long, oval transits along the blacktop, whirling past our home but pulled in by its gravity at suppertime. Within the past two months my middle child started riding without training wheels, and this weekend, she made the leap into learning to read; something just clicked in her brain and she's started sounding out words in books, on signs, in the car. She's got it. Like her older brother, she'll soon be ready to pedal beyond the edge of our neighborhood, over the canal bridge at the end of the street, and into the World Beyond, reading all the way.

There's no way for me to jot this down in a tiny space even if one was provided in her nearly-blank baby book (sorry, second-child.) To her I say: even though I don't have obsessive photographs of your first years, I love you, I love you, I love you, and I'm very proud of you. Keep your eyes up on the road, and know that I'm right there watching.

Learning the Bicycle by Wyatt Prunty

for Heather

The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she'll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned to let her go.

1 comment:

CStanford said...

This is very sweet, and very welcome reading for me as an expectant father.
I guess that every first-time parent has wondered if they'll be able to give the same love and attention to subsequent children. I know I have, and I can imagine us going through the same process with our record keeping. But it's good to be reminded that there are other ways of showing love too.
I really look forward to teaching my daughter how to ride a bike.