Leonie, as of about three o’clock in the morning, is now eight.
The girls and Val are in the tent right now, enjoying the first chapter of a book that was one of the gifts tonight.
It is still, as calm a night as we’ve had since we made camp here on the beach at Las Frailes, just inside a National Marine Reserve, toward the end of a little string of palapas beside a fishing camp and, south down the beach, several grand houses and resorts in various stages of retreat from the elements and the reduction in tourism and capital corresponding to multiple financial crises.
This place is really something, and a pretty special setting for a birthday (or otherwise). There’s a lovely sand beach that carpets the bay and stretches for miles, warm, clear water and a coral reef on the north end off the shore that we can simply wade out to and push the girls around on their boogie boards, the two of them screaming through their snorkels as they spot parrot fish, schools of angel fish, and throngs of neon colored tropicals we can’t even begin to name.
There are whale parties here. In the mornings as the sun rises, half a dozen or more of them will simply decide to play offshore, executing full breaches and lazily spinning in the air before they crash back into the water, while the others in the group will wave their tails enthusiastically, slapping the surface of the water with their flukes before taking their turn at flight.
There was a proper party for Leonie, too – Val and I baked a cake, something we’ve become quite proficient at doing without an oven (we heap coals on a dutch oven Ashek and Alex have been good enough to lend us) and there were cocktails, and song, and then the presents.
It’s something else to have an eight year old on your hands, and I watch her and wonder what it will be like as the rest of her life accelerates towards her, towards all of us, and her childhood erodes as it must.
The best you can hope for, I imagine, is that the erosion happens organically, and that some version of your sense of wonder is durable enough to stick around forever, child or not.
Just a handful of days ago in La Paz we were looking for a new pair of sandals for her, and she located and insisted on a pair of black shoes with slightly elevated heels – nothing inappropriate, mind you, but certainly not flat, and it struck me as being of some significance in the same way that when, shopping for a swim suit in the summer, she demanded that she have a bikini like mom.
As our first, of course, she’s taught us about as much about life as we have her, which seems fair. We imagined, for a while, that she would be some kind of predictable blend of the two of us, and of course, every now and then she goes ahead and does something that forces us to accept that she’s not located on some linear path between Val and myself, but is indeed her own person, and a pretty remarkable one at that.
She’s got a funny sense of humor, too, still in its exploratory phase, and she likes to try out everything from absurdities to almost old school, Henny Youngman type one-liners (in Quebec, I asked her on a hike what she’d do if she saw a caribou step out onto the trail in front of us, as she said, “ask him to take a picture of us”). I may be partially to blame there, insisting from time to time that we listen to old Bob Newhart recordings, and early Steve Martin.
She’s also great with Sylvie.
Admittedly, that is a function of necessity, as she hasn’t got a lot of other kids she can play with in our journeys, but I also believe that she takes her job as big sister very seriously, and is concerned with doing it well. She rarely treats Sylvie as anything less than a peer, and is confident enough in herself to let Sylvie take charge when their games or other circumstances dictate.
While she’s not completely cautious, she’s prudent, taking physical and social risks only after giving herself time to asses.
This is not to be confused with her being timid. The first time she saw frogs in a pond in Maine, she stripped out of her clothes and eased herself into the water amongst the reeds and silently and patiently stalked them. When they got too close, she would quite literally pounce on them and more often than not walk out of the water with a confused, trapped, bullfrog in her hand.
She catches butterflies, geckos, and skinks with the same quiet, focused tenacity, and crabs from Delaware to La Paz are no match for her. She is quite a hunter, so it turns out that without even knowing this leonine trait of hers, we named her very precisely.
She’s interested in everything around her, but is less interested in owning physical things than might be expected of a little urchin. Where Sylvie is a collector of items, and always has been, Leonie seems to be truly content with a single possession of hers – her Lulu, the muppet that my folks originally gave me the Christmas right before she was born, in anticipation of me putting on shows for her.
I put the thing up on top of our dresser and the infant Leonie would stare at it from our bed, and then one day (before she could yet speak) she pointed at it, and kept pointing at it, until we brought it down and gave it to her. Since then, Lulu has yet to leave her side.
One day at my desk, perhaps three years ago, I got the unimaginable call from Val: Lulu had been lost. Coming home from a trip to get groceries, juggling kids and packages, somehow Lulu had tumbled from the stroller and, despite frantically retracing the route and combing the aisles of the store, Lulu was gone.
The expression that people use, something along the lines of feeling that there is some impossible weight in the pit your stomach and the very bottom of you is falling out, is startlingly accurate.
I raced home, numb with worry, and spent the afternoon racing about with Val putting up posters and hoping against hope that we’d get a call that night from a neighbor saying that they found her.
We didn’t, of course, and we ended up having a woman in Vancouver, who made muppets for a living, reproduce Lulu from photos, and we christened the doll “NewLu”, and I will say that for her part, Leonie kept herself together during this whole frantic period (which lasted a couple months) much better than we did.
As upset as she was without Lulu, I think at some level she was satisfied with how sincerely upset we were too, and so passed some parental test for empathy well enough that even as we were going to pieces, she didn’t.
On this trip, Lulu has been safely stowed away in Leonie’s sleeping bag, waiting to comfort her to sleep every night.
At some point, of course, Lulu will fade and be replaced by something else in her heart, maybe even a person, and Val and I will be equally frantic and undone if there is loss and heartbreak for her. I hope then that our empathy will salve the wounds in the same way it did for her with Lulu.
But for now, our little huntress continues to calmly, bravely, take this adventure in stride while growing out of her shoes at an alarming rate.
I don’t know exactly what things will be like when there are nine candles in the cake, or nineteen for that matter, but I can’t wait to find out.