Collecting the Halcyon Days
“Stones in the road?
I save every single one.
One day I’ll build a castle.”
– Fernano Pessoa
I’m sitting in my living room, in my favorite chair, an overstuffed plush orange lazyboy my hubby bought when I found out I was pregnant. It rocks and today, I’ve got the recliner down and my feet on the floor, gently rocking my infant daughter while she sleeps. She turned 4 weeks old yesterday, a full month since she came into our lives and I don’t want to put her down. She smells like talcum powder and breastmilk and her tiny lips pout in dreamfrown as her eyes REM beneath nearly translucent lids.
On the sofa next to us, my husband sleeps. He’s shirtless, his long back speckled by the fading light which streams in from the picture windows. He snores but the sound is muffled by the plush arm of the sofa, so a calm quiet pervades the room. I hum softly to my sleeping daughter, rocking and sipping a cooled cup of tea.
For the first time in my entire life, I am unfathomably content. I need nothing, want nothing except to be here in this room, in this moment.
When my second daughter is born, we will not have the same quiet. Sabel brings music and laughter and, in the beginning, much crying and colic. She is light, vibrating so intensely that the airwaves around her squeal in shock and delight.
I fail to stop and catch the moments. Instead they cascade, one into the other like a waterfall and we swim in the tides created by her wailing and flailing and sometimes it feels like I’m drowning from lack of sleep, lack of quiet.
These two grow fast and furiously. From toddlers tumbling down the hallway to kindergarten games.
Safyre, at five years old, sits in child’s chair in the living room, a clipboard on her lap, #2 pencil in her right hand. Sabel sits before her on the rug, afternoon sunlight streaming in from the picture windows.
“Teacher says A-B-C-D. Now repeat,” Safyre intones.
“Ah-Ba-Ka-Da,” Two year old Sabel responds diligently. I watch from the sofa.
“Good job, Sabel,” Safyre says. “Now count 1-2-3,” and holds up cards for each number.
They may not remember “playing school” but I will. These are the moments I cherish. I collect them like playing cards found on the ground. An ace picked up here, a queen discovered there until I have enough for a game of memory. Then I lay them out before me, usually at night after the girls sleep, and shuffle through them, reminiscing.
Ten years since I became a mother and I have a box full of memories. The memories are a shelter I’m building against the cold winter to come. They are the warm, lazy days of summers past. These halcyon days evoke a pleasant ache, nostalgia for what has changed, what we’ve lost and how they’ve grown. Time, the insatiable river doesn’t necessarily drown us but carries us downstream, away from each other, away from these quiet moments of simple togetherness. I hold tight to the halcyon days because these memories, like the wings of a kingfisher, bring me back to myself, back to the time and place where I felt happiest and most at home.
I look with anticipation, anxiety to what lies ahead. I see them growing up, growing away from me. I see them wrapped up in school tests and activities, in friendships and later, relationships that I will know nothing about. I see them in shorts and tshirts or bikinis on summer beaches with their friends, sneaking cold beers and listening to music that sounds like irritating noise to me. I see them facing challenges and dangers, of nights out and of boys and men who may not always be kind. I see them in careers and accomplishments and hopefully a life of love and joy, and most likely a life grown far beyond me. I want that for them, a future filled with possibility.
And I am grateful for the present, for these ephemeral days together, no matter how fleeting.
At night, we curl up in bed and one climbs in on each side of me. Dad is away on business and so they sleep snuggled up next to me and in the dark I tell them stories about my childhood.
One time I lost my two year old baby sister in a TG&Y store. I don’t mean to tell them this story but it spills out of me, a yarn unspooled from the skein. They ask questions: What happened? Why did you lose her? Did she run away? Did someone take her? How old were you? How old was she?”
We were standing in the toy section, she holding a doll monkey, with limbs made from socks. I have one dollar in my pocket and I want a book, two if I can manage it. I’m definitely not buying another stuffed animal. So I grab the doll from her hands, thrust it up into a high shelf she can’t reach and lead her away, dragging her small, resisting body down the aisle.
Only nine years old and I’ve been babysitting near my entire life. I lift her easily and plant her on my hip, tickle her under the chin until she’s smiling and giggling. We go to the stationary section and in a basket on a lower shelf, heaped in no particular order, is what I’ve been looking for: cheap paperbacks sold 2 for $1. I’m hoping to find a few Phyllis A Whitney YA mysteries, my adolescent obsession. The lighting in the store is dim, the section we’re in tucked away at the back, so I have to get down on the floor and lean in close to the books to see the titles. I hand my little sister a coloring book and crack open a box of crayons and then turn my attention to the paperbacks, trolling through the entire basket looking for something I haven’t already read.
After some time the silence permeates my concentration.
I look up. She’s not there. The coloring book abandoned on the floor at my feet. I drop the book in my hand and run, searching up and down the dime store aisles while calling her name softly. If any adult finds out I’ve lost her, I’ll be in big trouble. Nerves like a live wire explode all up and down my arms. I think about children kidnapped, milk carton photographs and unspeakable loss. I want to cry and a lump of fear heavy as a poorly-made poundcake sits in the pit of my stomach.
My sneakers squeak loudly on the white linoleum floor as I slide up and down aisles, calling softly: “Julie? Julie? Where are you? Hey Julie?”
Then sweet relief! There she is, standing in the toy section, climbing up the shelf to reach the stuffed monkey I’d tucked away.
“What did she say? Did your mom find out?” Safyre asks from her side of the bed. “No. Nothing. I never told anyone and she was too young to remember.”
Now, all these years later, I still feel giddy with the wave of relief. It reverberates through my blood, a tide still washing ashore. I shudder under the blanket, hug both my daughters against me, their bodies warm and soft. I stop talking and they both fall asleep.
I want them to know what I did wrong. I want them to take care of each other. I want them to see how I failed and to learn from it. I want to remember.
In the fall, we drop Safyre to school. She’s started kindergarten and two year old Sabel goes with me to the park.
We walk and roll on the grass – so rare in Kuwait and such a textile pleasure. At two she is shy and reserved but she loves to explore and will follow me anywhere – to the market, to the park, to the moon. I snap her out of her car seat and plunk her down onto the grass and she watches first as I lay down and roll. Gardeners at the edge of the park stop in the middle of tree trimming to watch us. Sabel laughs and laughs. She pulls the grass up in handfuls, releasing whiffs of the fresh smell of green and earth. She crawls into my lap and I rock her as she reaches one hand up to twirl my hand and uses the other to bring the blades of grass to her nose. We lay down and look at the sky. Kuwait’s sky is high and blue and serene.
When the sun is out, it’s impossible to be outdoors but if there is even a hint of cloud, the sky turns creamy, like a Monet painting. Today is fine and clear and we walk down from the grassy hill to the playground, her little hand in mine.
At the playground, I take off her sweater and help her climb up the few steps of the baby slide. Its plastic and the steps are wide but at first she refuses to go. So I climb up it myself, squeezing my plus size frame up the steps and into the narrow cabin at the top of the slide. When I’m positioned at the apex, she comes round to the side and watches as I slip down. I can lay down on the slide, with my head at the top and my feet almost reach the ground. She doesn’t care. I’ve broken the invisible barrier, the unfamiliar, and up she goes before I can even stand up and race around to the staircase. She’s at the top, standing and I thank God for the cover that keeps her from falling off the side. Then she’s laying down just as I had and quickly slides to the ground. I meet her at the bottom and we’re both laughing and clapping.
“Well done, Suba! You did it!”
“Slide. Slide,” she wants to go again.
We do that for a half an hour without stopping, so many climbs up, so many slides down until finally I say its time to go pick up Safyre from school.
“Slide. Slide,” she demands and starts climbing again.
I agree to one more, then two and then five and finally, kicking and screaming I carry her from the park and strap her into the car seat.
She won’t remember our day at the park. I have photos on my phone but they don’t tell the whole story – the 5,000+1 slides, the smell of the grass, the clouds in a creamy blue sky. I carry those memories in my skin.
These are the halcyon days. The freedom of a few hours together in a park, playing and picnicking on the grass.
Motherhood is an adventure – terrifying, life affirming. And I revel in it. I once thought I would never have children. Prone to roaming, to moving jobs, cities, countries, I didn’t settle down until my mid 30s and then only after moving to a foreign country, marrying a foreigner.
As I sit here rocking my newborn child, a surge of pleasure rolls through me. My skin tingles with the purity of my happiness. I know it won’t last. That challenges and heart ache will come. That fights and fears will pockmark our lives like potholes in the road. I know there is so much that I don’t know and so much I will have to learn.
Motherhood is transformative and I’m still at the beginning, the caterpillar just nibbling on its first taste of milkweed. A decade will pass before I see in sharp relief the gentle ease of that warm summer day against the years and years of stress and fear and perhaps, ultimately, solitude.
So I hold the memories as close as my daughter in my arms, and rock.
Jamie Etheridge is an American expat writer, mother, full time journalist, blogger and casual knitter living with her hubby, two daughters and their adorable MinPin, Bella, in Kuwait. They have sandstorms stronger than category 4 hurricanes, two seasons (hot and hell) and an unexpectedly wonderful life full of family, friends and community in one of the most arid places on earth.