I can barely see my toes inching out underneath my gaze full of baby limbs and breath. It’s not all that different from the bulgy baby belly that I wore last year, but this summer I wear this babe, who wraps his arms around my body, on the outside. I may not be able to see my toes exactly, but when they finally reach the creek water, I know it instantly. It shocks my feet into feeling, and my initial reaction is to pull up, step back to the pebbles on the bank. But I go forward again. The rubber of my flips flops cools. I brace for it. Of course, that second time doesn’t jar so much and I pause my feet longer in the water. The arches of my feet relax and I release my breath, allowing myself to feel the relief in this hot day.
I am at the creek that runs behind my mother’s house, the house where I grew up. It meanders it’s way through the nature conservancy that I was lucky enough to have in my backyard. These pebbled crusted mud banks were my playground. This chilled water was my sea; the banks on the other side my faraway lands. Today, as so often I am inclined to do in this squelching summer heat, I gather up the Little Ones, push forward with nothing but the promise of reprieve calling us creekward.
The beauty is not lost on them. They find wonder in all the smallness, and are awestruck with all the bigness. The cold water is just another part of the creek’s deliciousness for them. They dash in and out without hesitation. I wonder when it is that I stopped being so numb to it, became timid at it’s edge. I take note to remember this tenacity that I see in them.
Our collection grows: piles of sticks in various sizes, in differing stages of decomposition. Rocks with smooth weightiness, pebbles with jagged edges that remind me of teeth. Always a piece of glass or two, a jolting artifact that seems uncharacteristically out of place, reminding us of the world that seeps in on either side. Our treasure hunt stretches out as indefinitely as our time playing here. Has it been fifteen minutes? Or two hours? Under this tree canopy, I am uncertain of time’s harsh constraints.
The sun streaks gloriously through the trees, leaving mottled shadow pictures on the surface of the water that dance as both the creek and the trees move in rhythm. I hang back, witness the confident steps of independence from the Eldest. He proves his meddle and charges his sister onward into the unpredictable current away from the safety of the edge. He tells me strongly “I’m not worried about the creek, Mama.” In his world of anxiety and impotence, I am thankful for a place that, though not under his domain, is somewhere he can experience mastery and peace. And it becomes my peace, too.
The Middlest, in all her gatherer glory, is chasing after a rock deep under the surface of the water. Those shadow pictures dance and deceive, and all it is is one faulty step too many toward the edge of our sand bar. She looses her bearing and the mud sucks her down. She is on her belly, swimming more fully than she had intended, gulping that brisk water. She comes up wailing, though no worse for the wear, and we praise her brilliance, her pluck, her strength. The rock is lost. Her hiccuping tears wane, and later she again treads out to that very spot. She wears her insecurity visibly, but with her bravery, too.
At some point I nestle myself and the Littlest onto the pebbles, and he hungrily grasps at my shirt, my neck until I can satisfy him. It may just be the oxytocin as I pull him in to my bosom, but I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of this moment. I listen to the chickadee whistle out “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.” I follow the path of a white butterfly as it darts from this side of the creek to the other, lighting on the tall grass, stopping to rest on a branch before traveling back again. The squeals from upstream as my mother and her dog chase the Little Ones in great big splashes turns the edges of my mouth up in their harmony. I suck in the earthy mud smell deep into my nose, down into my throat. The warm breeze tickles at my skin, and I feel enveloped as it seeps around my body and into my creases. Even the far off sound of the highway seems magical in this moment, a hum almost like distant chanting.
The sun is falling behind the trees now, and the cold of the water is finally settling into our bones. Without the sun’s warmth, the teeth have been set chattering, and we reluctantly rinse the creek dirt from our hands, our feet. We hold hands, and with great remembrances already, slodge our way down the worn path back to the house. My brain gets a little stuck, because I can’t quite seem to tease out this miracle of time: these are my Little Ones, telling their story, but it is such a familiar one I can’t understand that it isn’t mine.