When you ask H and S how old they are, they put up four fingers – one at a time – hold their thumbs down with the other hand, smile and say, “Four-and-a-half.” They’re independent and witty, curious and thoughtful. They’re my little buddies these days, as much as they are my babies. But part of my amazement with their age is that by then, my own happiest childhood days had already been committed to memory, marked as favorite places to venture back to…
To the beach, with my feet in the sand for the first time, taking tentative steps toward the rolling waves – and the huge one that I inhaled as it knocked me down. I can still hear my father’s laugh, see his warm smile that reached all the way to his eyes when he asked me, “Did that taste good?”
To the liquor store where my father bought cigars, that sold Andes mints by the piece. I’m certain he was great company, but that’s a foolproof incentive for a four-year-old to go along for a ride.
To “365 Bedtime Stories,” from which my father read a story or poem for each night of the year, then carefully bookmarked the next day’s with the blue ribbon attached to the cover.
It’s not hard to imagine why that time – and these memories – have had such an impact on my life, because they were my last memories of my father as well as my first. He died of a heart attack a few months before I turned five: the exact same age my little girls are right now.
I can’t help observing H and S through my lens of precious memories and untimely loss, analyzing what attachments, thoughts and insights I might have been capable of back then. Maybe it’s why I’m so sentimental, why I cry before I celebrate when the girls reach a milestone. It’s probably the reason why our family traditions are my religion: seasonal things like pumpkin-picking and decorating for Christmas, trips to our favorite places like Rhode Island, Disney and the Caribbean – and even our day-to-day ones, like “girls nights” and our special Wednesday night dinners on “Daddy’s late night” at work.
And as much as the thought of my daughters enduring a loss like that terrifies me, I count my blessings all the more that my husband and I are both here to raise our little girls, to experience the family life I’ve always wished I had – in all its beauty and insanity, its proud moments and its quiet ones. Even the not-so-quiet ones, when my husband crawls around on the floor with the girls, roaring like “a scary lion” or lets them ride on his back and pretends he’s a dinosaur.
It’s as if the gift of my own family has helped me heal in ways I didn’t realize I needed to. Among all of the new favorites the four of us have established together, my old favorites live on, but with enhanced meaning. New memories. One of the girls’ favorite places to go is the beach. I love watching them run screaming from the waves, but somehow, I’m still the one getting knocked over. And scraped up. While telling everyone else to be careful. And I can always count on them for company when I’m in the mood for chocolate. They’ve had a favorite chocolate store – in Newport, RI -since they were two.
Needless to say, story time around here frequently honors my father’s memory. Although some nights, we feel more like “Disney Princess 5-minute Stories” than anything else, the girls each have a special bedtime storybook (in a Disney version, of course) because it’s like the one my father used to read to me. They already know it’s special, even though it will be years before they can really understand why. They ask questions about him, and they hug me and tell me they’re sorry he isn’t here. We tell them he’s “in the stars,” watching over us (with my husband’s mother, who passed away when the girls were three months old.)
“We’re gonna read this book to our babies when we grow up,” they tell me.
Nothing would make me happier. (But I promise to be understanding if they decide to go with the five-minute version.)