I like to imagine sometimes that Oldest had a conversation with God the day he was born. Something like this:
“Hey, Kiddo, it’s about time. But I think you should know, most babies are more comfortable head-down. You’ll have plenty of chances to be upright after you’re born.”
(Cheerfully) “No thanks, I’m good!”
“Look, I realize it’s hard to tell from your perspective, but foot-first really isn’t the way to go.”
(Still cheerful, but firmly) “Thanks, but I’ve got this. Really.”
When he’s driving me nuts, I have to remind myself how much I admire his confidence and strength of will. Even when it hurts.
* * *
Recently I overheard Oldest trying to help Youngest with her pronunciation:
“It’s CHIP-munk, not CHICK-munk.”
“Yeah, well, that’s how I do it.”
That is her default response to many things. She is unapologetic for who she is and how she does things. She is not afraid to take up space in this world. She stretches me further than I thought I could stretch, and yet I admire her deeply.
* * *
The spring that Middle was three and her brother was five, I signed them up for swimming lessons together. Being in the water filled her with joy, and him with terror. As we drove to class one day, he announced that he wasn’t going to get in the water at all that day. I tried to reassure him. Middle joined in.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I’ll take care of you.”
Did I mention she was three? And the little sister?
Middle is quiet-strong. She does take care of people, and she wields an influence I never expected a nine year-old to have. She sees things, and understands, and even though I know there’s a lot going on beneath the surface she surprises me on a regular basis.
* * *
There is a story my dad likes to tell about his grandmother—Mutti, they called her. She was creative, and musical, and I imagine sort of feisty, and lived in a small town in North Dakota. She was also very small, and the way the story goes, she once removed a floor grate in order to clean a furnace duct and somehow accidentally fell into the duct. She stuck out her elbows and caught herself but couldn’t climb out, and so she hung there for what must have been hours until her husband got home from work and pulled her out.
I have told myself that story often through the years, especially during hard times. I tell myself in order to remember: I came from that kind of strength.
* * *
When I was in fifth grade I had a lot of conflicts with a close friend. I hate conflict, and usually try to avoid it at all costs, and I couldn’t understand why it was happening. I remember my mom telling me, “Some people look at you and see a girl who is quiet and soft and delicate, and they think that means they can take advantage of you. It is a surprise to them to discover that they can only push so far—that at your core you are strong, and cannot be controlled.” It is something she told me often through the years, in different ways at different times. It became a sort of story in itself—a continuing one, still evolving, but always with the thread running through it, “You are strong. You are strong. You are strong.”
* * *
I love hearing people’s stories. They are intimate, living things. They are invitations—chances to live alongside what somebody else has lived, and learn a little of what they’ve learned. Do not be fooled into thinking a story is ever just a story. It is a piece of somebody, a way of knowing them, a way of knowing yourself. A way to better grasp what it is we’re all made of.
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