In the autumn of 2009, when I took this photo, I was the mother of a four year old and a seven year old, walking to school hand-in-hand on both sides. My swirling girls danced in the kitchen each afternoon, fell to their soft bottoms on the hardwood floor and laughed, got up and did it again. I side-eyed the one who had yet to finish her milk and the one who distracted her, but there was so much joy every afternoon in that kitchen that I know I also joined in the dance. I worried and I danced. I leapt and I fell. The leaves outside our windows fell and fell.
“The trees are all naked!” my littlest one said, in shock, one day in late October, and I wrote it down in my list of cute-things-they-said.
We were always together, we three.
In the autumn of 2012, I had already been running for two years.
My older daughter had signed up for a fun-run with Girls on the Run in third grade, and I’d been terrified that I’d hold her back in the race. I trained as though it were real. I took it seriously, despite my imposter syndrome, despite my mushy muscles. The 5k had been miserable and my daughter unprepared, but running stuck with me. I rewarded myself with stops for beauty, found anywhere, and signs of humanity that made me cock my head and wonder, pause, and take a photo.
In 2012, I only ran when my children were otherwise managed, home asleep with my husband still there, or at school. The dozen churches on my favorite routes were scenery, background noise, uninteresting compared to the wealth of flowers and lake views to photograph, but this one caught me. The rest of the sign was an invocation to come to an event, but this afterthought, this by-the-way, stuck at the bottom in the leaves, caught me off-guard.
For some people, I realized, suddenly, children are not the first consideration. For some people, children are a by-the-way.
Someday, I knew, I would feel that way. It sounded like another planet.
In the fall of 2013, one daughter is held mid-air, womanhood above her and childhood below, her enthusiasm bound for things that only future-me, musing now in her sixteenth year, can imagine. The other daughter’s shirt rises up above her belly in the middle, barely a hands-length below her meandering aorta, the culprit for all her challenges with eating. Her sly grin belies a level of frustration constantly below the surface — unable to swallow well, unable to see well, she is nagged through each day even as she is adored, cuddled, lavished with love and encouragement.
They are still girls, but only just barely. One will start stretching away, slowly, and one will have her challenges unearthed one by one, aging her before her time.
I want to reach through the photo, climb in, wait in the leaves to catch them.
I ran slowly on our main drag very early yesterday morning, wide sidewalks passing large homes and big brick retaining walls, ivy and showy gardens. As I ran, parents were sitting quietly on their porches with coffee, in sweatpants, still not ready to wake sleeping school children and begin the slog through breakfast, lunch bags, permission slips, walks to school with trumpets and show-and-tell souvenirs. One woman came out and carefully vacuumed the trunk of her car, carrying empty bags of pretzels to the garbage when I ran past later. I was wistful. I am not jealous.
True, the long cuddles on the couch, the being-needed, the being-expert, the moldable girls and our meld-able lives were precious, the best time of my life without a doubt, but that’s not why I’m envious. I’m envious of years where nothing big has been handed over yet — where there is a chance their children will forget that morning snappiness their parents had, where they have never seen the ways their parents have really failed them. I’m jealous of the relative smallness of each betrayal; the children like their friend’s mama’s macaroni and cheese, but they always come home to you.
I was out early after driving my older daughter to a coach bus for a school trip to Canada. She has a credit card, a smart phone, a suitcase carrying more makeup than I’ve ever owned, cumulatively. She has two more years of high school, and then she’ll be gone. Her sister will leave three years later, and then I will fall off the parenting tree, the only tree where I’ve ever felt comfortable, competent, necessary and irreplaceable. I will miss them around me — their bright green freshness against my deep red fullness.
As I stood in the dark, sticky dawn with my oldest girl, she laid her head on my shoulder for a moment.
“I’m going to miss you, Momma,” she said.
“Me, too,” I said, and I meant both of us.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. This week’s prompt, hosted by Kristi Campbell of Finding Ninee and Kenya Johnson of Sporadically Yours is a five-minute (or, you know, maybe thirty-minute) stream-of-consciousness post on “Leave” (which can be leaving somebody, someplace, or fall leaves).