Watch Them Grow

The gray makes it easier to return to NYC.

Easier to return? I write that and pause. New York City is the place to which you return when you've had all you can take of somewhere else. According to Bob Dylan at least. When I came here in my 20s, I would hardly have relied on advice from anybody else.

There is no enough of the White Mountains, though. No enough of big, loud, overflowing family dinners, Van Morrison playing in the background, no enough of cold, splashing river swims, of waking up to the sound of birds, just birds, nothing else. No enough of singing "Kookaburra" rounds, to watching cousins laugh and dolphin dive and come tearing in the door in the late afternoon sun-drenched and waterlogged and hungry and happy and only worried about whether they can stay up late enough to get a good view of the stars. 

Anyone who has read this blog in the past knows I am always torn about returning to NY, always debating: Country or city? Small town or the ever new and renewing urban landscape where you can, Lin Manuel-Miranda tells us, be a new man? I have continually searched—and usually found—evidence that in some ways I interact more with nature here in Manhattan than I ever did outside it. I have recognized New York City for the small town that it is. Come to appreciate our neighborhood for the river town that it is. Enjoyed the easiness of living simply here. As my sister pointed out, I've lived here longer than any other place, and yet it still has something of a temporary feel for me, worth considering, a very strong possibility. 

I have wondered if I would actually find the things I imagined existed in a smaller town. Those questions I had seven years ago about whether kids run loose like we did have been answered many times over. (For the most part, a resounding no.) Now even the questions themselves feel quaint, out of date. Friends of ours—across the street neighbors—have just moved to Vermont. We said goodbye to them in the firefly-filled garden. Many times over Wally and his friend had imagined what they'd do and where they'd hang out once they were in middle school and high school. In our little bohemian village, hardly anyone ever leaves. With all its community and continuity, it is not a good example of living in Manhattan. Just as the happy splashing afternoons and family dinners are not a good example of living in New Hampshire. Everybody knows you can't evaluate a place when you're on vacation. Those deep breaths, those mountain views, those post-pool glasses of chilled wine, those trays of grilled eggplant and potatoes cascading in from the back porch—none of those would be your real life. 

It is strange, this particular return, to a kind of routine. A new one: Wally to camp for the week. And an old one: Petra to her preschool. I thought Petra had a week more to go, the last week of July. I never bothered to check of course because this is me. But I assumed if the last month was July, the days would go through July. Makes sense, right?

It turns out the year runs for only three more days, making tomorrow the last day. It has been nearly two years from when, with a little toddler in tow, and soon to be second-grader Wally, we toured the empty classrooms in August. Two years, nearly, from when the nuns showed us the dolls lined up for September with their white dresses not only washed but starched and ironed too. The little play kitchen. The wooden blocks. The quiet courtyard playground. "We'll take it!" we said, before the tour was halfway through. "Where do we sign?" Or rather Alex said this in Spanish. The nuns were from Malaga, Cuba, Columbia. The patron saint of their order was, they told us gleefully, Petra Perez. There was no reason they would know Perez (Alex's last name) is not in Petra's. No reason they'd know he gave her instead a blood name, Arroyo. River. 

I remember that summer I ran into a mother I kind of knew with a daughter maybe a little older than Petra. She was trying to decide whether to put her child in full-time preschool or part-time or no time and stay home with her. We had our girls with us as we tried to talk on the sidewalk and although I'd planned on full-time preschool, clearly I'm always open to re-thinking decisions, so I wondered along with her. During the two minutes we talked, the girls pulled, and squeezed, and pinched, and fell, and squabbled, and needed water, and needed snacks, and wanted to pet the giant, unfriendly dog, and lost a shoe, and dropped the top half of a banana and didn't want to eat the bottom nub of the banana and wanted to throw the peel away themselves and the conversation, the little we had, was like—obviously, we need someone to help us take care of them for as much time as we can if we hope to do anything else, even finish this conversation. But then as we were already going separate ways down the street, she, I think her name might have been Sarah, it might have been Anne—I don't know, I couldn't hear—said something about how you try to figure out all these arrangements when they're little and then suddenly they'll be in Pre-K and then that's it. They're in school full time and that's it.

And I said, I know. I know exactly what you mean. And we both kind of smiled and both kind of made a gut-wrench face as we were pulled in opposite directions and I've seen her in passing but I don't think we've ever spoken again. 

But it stayed with me. It's like wishing you could have a minute of quiet at the dinner table but knowing in a few years you'll be lucky if they want to join you at the dinner table. And wishing they could play quietly in their room and not need you in there to find the penguin-thing or help them tape together the moon chart they ripped or whatever but knowing before long they won't want you in that room at all. The door will be shut and you'll have to knock and you'll be lucky if you get a grunt of an answer.

I am almost done reading a parenting memoir Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman. I know her face from the pages of excellent advice in the Real Simple magazine. I know her name from wishing I had a name people knew in the world of writing about parenting. 

I love this book. 

Reading it is pure pleasure. 

She gets so many things. She says so much I'd never have the guts to say. The words sing off the page. Yes, yes, yes—the glee and the frustration and the wonder and reminding us that we have to stop worrying about what might happen and try to enjoy all that we have. 

I love it so much that I don't want to finish it. I put it down and find her blog instead. On the first post, there are pictures of her kids Ben and Birdy as....Teenagers? What? Playing Minecraft? Not possible. This little Birdy, whom she carries on her hip, the little girl who comes padding into her room at night? What happened? What did I miss?

Newman writes about how, when it comes to our kids, "...we lose them metaphorically all the time. Their little selves are swallowed up by their bigger selves, and they're all nested in there...". She warns us that one day Birdy's favorite stuffed monkey will be "in a box with the rest of the castoffs" (153), 
but she did not prepare me. I thought maybe now they'd be say 9 and 12 now, at the final cusp of childhood but...not past it, not sleeping until noon!

Somehow this always gets me. The same thing when I read a post and don't realize or stop to think that it's from say 2013, which shouldn't be that long ago, but in kid years is absolute antiquity, and then I go to the current post and see the current version of the kids and my mind hurts. Wait, wait, wait—what?

I had even checked the copyright date in Newman's book (2016) as a precautionary measure and hadn't stopped to think about how she collected essays from over a span of time and even then who knows how long between the collection and the publication, and anyway, there Ben and Birdy are still sleeping when they're supposed to have been up for hours already.

For goodness sake, Rachel, wherever you are (you are here), remember Annie Dillard. You're not a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, you're a mom in Manhattan. You're studying human children, two of them, not muskrats, but: 

"At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive."

The mountains, the sea, Chelsea Market, the playground across the street. The important thing is to stop and be wholly attentive. 

Petra of the River and Wally of the Olive Tree, whose relatives came here on boats from Poland, from Russia and Ireland, on planes from Brazil. Your father moved here at fourteen, your grandfather and great grandparents grew up in Brooklyn. Your first cousins live here, in Gowanus and South Ozone Park. Your very bedroom—the place you'll fall asleep tonight—was the room my grandmother slept for more than half a century. We can zig zag any path around this island and I could narrate a personal history tour no matter what streets we take. We know the crossing guards by name. The kids know all the neighborhood dogs: Wolfie, Rocco, Logan, Buddy, Joey and so many more. Just today I spoke with a woman who said her father designed the playground that used to be in the spot nearby where my kids play almost every day. My sister and I used to play there when we came to New York. "We might have played together!" We squealed. Could a town get any smaller than this?

You are country kids who love to run outside in the rain and help baby frogs get back to the pond and listen with deer ears for the sound of leaves rustling. You are city kids, too, who love the playground to be teaming with other kids, who would rather wait in line and take turns than have a swing all to yourself, who know in your bones the importance of community, who place group harmony, more often than not, above your own needs. Let me be wholly attentive to you. Let me attend to everything growing right here, wild and radiant.

One lone seagull flies overhead. I'm getting ready to close up shop for the day. It's a nice place to live. Maybe I'll stay.

Maybe my kids will grow up knowing one parent finds life here a bit strange. Like I did, but in reverse. Instead of a dad who says, How do you live without a decent slice? Without talking to your neighbors? Without hoards of kids around playing stick ball on the street? Without music pouring out of car windows and a park you can walk to and access to anything, even if you don't access it, but just knowing you can? Instead they'll hear, How do you live without long stretches of time to yourself? Without going outside in bare feet and pajamas?  Without making your own footprints in the snow and lying back on your sled and just staring in the silence up at the open sky?

They will grow up, like I did, hearing about this enchanted land and maybe one day trying to move there.

Wally and I were teary tonight thinking about how tomorrow is Petra's last day at San Jose. True, she'll only be onto Pre-K next year, but it is a full day. It is school. It is official. You have to show up on time. She is moving out of the stage, in a way, where she belongs only to us. 

She was unfazed. Not dwelling on it. Laughing and being silly and singing "Umbrella" by Rihanna and begging to play the game where she is a princess who wants to go to a party and get married. What does that mean, get married? we ask. You dance, she tells us, and shows us how. Slow dancing—she stands on the piano bench, her hands on my shoulders.

Later in the dark room, with the neon stars on the ceiling, with the same blue-striped wallpaper that was there when the room was my grandmother's, Petra did something she hasn't done in a long time. She asked me to hold her "like a baby" and sing her to sleep.


  1. Beautiful, so beautiful, Rachel. Thank you for the Catherine Newman reminder! She was one of the writers who first drew me to Brain,Child. I love her work, but still haven't read Catastrophic Happiness, which sounds like the perfect book for me right now. I love following Petra's milestones, especially because they feel like previews of what's to come for Isabella. I'm somehow perpetually surprised, blindsided, awestruck when these changes occur. Who are you now, child? And who am I, and who are we to each other? Age 3 has felt challenging, that leap into increased autonomy, strong will, mercurial moods. I love these images of Petra: unfazed, singing, dancing, and then asking to be held like a baby and sung to sleep. Oh gosh, and the paragraph about the conversation with your friend--or attempt at conversation--while the girls "pulled, squeezed, pinched" etc etc etc. You capture it so perfectly! Regarding the question of city or country life, it seems like you've struck the right balance. Your family vacation in the White Mountains sounds so lovely!

  2. Thank you Sarah. How kind you are. Oh yes, Brain, Child. Some of the essays—at least one—from the book were published there. I think you'd love the book. There's one that comes before it, Waiting for Birdy, which I haven't read. I too feel blindsided and awestruck by the changes and I love the way you've described Isabella's in your writing. You're so wonderfully aware of your own changing role, aware that her changes mean you have to think about yours as well and the new dynamic between you. Petra is mercurial too, and more defiant than I would have imagined. I think now that the kids are so much easier than in those hallucinatory, sleep-deprived, can't-even-take-a-shower days, I sometimes forget just how often we still have the "pulled, squeezed, pinched" situations, with some variation, and longer stretches in between. The White Mountains have some kind of magic. Can never get enough of the Kancamagus Highway—tried river swimming there for the first time this summer. (Realized how much this feels like a letter—as you once wrote—as I'm about to sign off "Hope you're well." And indeed I do hope you are!)


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