Almost every weekday I get off the bus and walk home, a matter of some ten or eleven blocks. I use this time to shift gears from a pragmatic, goal oriented, get-stuff-done mindset to an emotionally connective mindset and to center down and prepare for the draining of my last reserves of mental energy. Most days, Angela will be making dinner, and will need me to draw the barbarians away from their siege of the kitchen, where until I get there she often does her work moving one leg between the oven, the sink, and the refrigerator while pivoting on the one Millie’s hanging on.
For the past year or two it has been my habit to call the house a few blocks before I turn the corner at the bottom of our hill and let Angela know that she can send Mara out. Mara runs out of the house, often without shoes or a coat no matter what it’s doing out, and runs down the hill to meet me. The rule is, she has to wait until she sees me turn the corner before she can come down the street.
When she was a little younger she ran all the way, her hair flapping from side to side and her flip-flops or her bare feet or her sparkly princess dress-up shoes slapping the sidewalk, and hit me with all her force. I had to brace myself to absorb her momentum and lift her into a swinging circle. Then I would set her down and we would walk up the hill while she told me whatever it was that she could hardly wait to tell me all day; they had donuts, she had a playdate with Gwyneth or Lily; she started her swimming lessons; the lady at the store gave her a sticker; one of the cats got out or threw up. It has always been my favorite part of the day.
Over the past year Mara has gradually stopped running all the way. Sometimes she peters out a few yards in front of me, and sometimes a nice rock or a catkin or an autumn leaf on the sidewalk will arrest her downward career completely. For Millie’s part, ever since she learned to walk she is always in the living room waiting for us when Mara and I walk in, waiting with that full-faced smile. She hugs me or hands me something or points at something and says her word for it, and then having performed her welcoming routine she runs off at full throttle to the kitchen and Mommy.
Lately a new thing is happening. On a few of those nicer days, Angela brought both girls out to meet me. Mara would be running ahead, and Millie would be on her own feet — she insists on walking, and by now she knows that I am out there somewhere, approaching. Daddy returns. Those few outings have engendered in Millie a dissatisfaction with simply waiting inside while Mara runs off out of sight of the big picture window. She now wants to come out, too, and she doesn’t want to come right back into the house. She wants to “mack”, which means walk.
As tired as I am and as eager as I am to get into the house and change into my playclothes and pour me a cuppa joe, I cannot resist Millie’s tugging on my arm. “Mack”, she says. “Mack”. So for the last couple of evenings, Angela has gone back inside to prepare dinner and make me a cuppa (taking my heavy backpack into the house with her, the dear), and I have let Millie drag Mara and me up to the top of our hill.
Tonight I called and Angela said Mara would be right out, but when I turned the corner I couldn’t see her as I usually do, standing on the steep sidewalk outside our house, craning to get a glimpse of me before shooting down the hill. I kept waiting as I walked but she didn’t come out. I stopped and talked briefly about the efficacy of various anti-mollusc tactics with neighbor Brian — out picking kale in his parking-strip garden for his family’s dinner. When I finally came within a few yards of our house I saw under the rhododendron canopy to where Mara’s rainboots and the lower hem of her yellow raincoat moved slowly along our front walk, and beside Mara’s feet tromped a smaller pair, also fluttered over by a yellow raincoat. Mara’s is a little small for her, Millie’s a bit large.
My heart did one of those flippity flops I’ve been getting a lot of lately. Mara had actually waited for Millie and was leading her by the hand. She forgets that Millie’s stride is much shorter than her own and Millie biffed on the steps down to the sidewalk, but Mara picked her up and Millie’s excitement about being on an outing eclipsed any inclination she may have had to express alarm about it. I felt pride in my elder daughter at that moment and great hope, and for my younger I felt the thrill of boundaries breached, the expansiveness and vitality of the toddler on a jail-break.
As twice before, Millie grabbed my hand and started pulling and telling me she wanted to walk. So Mara and Millie and I walked up to the top of the hill. It had rained today and the ground was wet and the giant earthworms that sometimes emerge after long-awaited rain were stretched out from the edges of the sidewalks, their corrugated bodies glistening in the light of nearby streetlamps, their toes in their holes. We learned that if you touch them they zoom back into their dens — all the way back in, suddenly, the same way sea anemones retract their feelers instantly when you reach a finger to touch them. None of them had stretched so far that they were fully outside their hole, which I found remarkable. It made me wonder what they were doing, since they obviously weren’t going anywhere. Maybe they’re taking worm baths. Mara, who used to put slugs on her forearm while she hunted for more and did not know to be afraid of spiders, is now a bit more spooky about creepy and crawly things, and declined to touch them. But Millie was enthralled with the power that her forefinger exhibited, and touched every single earthworm that Mara found for her.