If you are a parent, or soon-to-be one, or will be one in the future, this has happened, or will happen to you one day:
You are standing in line at your local food store, as I was last week. Your just-turned four year-old is twisting and turning on her heels in the checkout line, singing in her sweet, slightly off-key voice and stopping every now and then to give your legs a squeeze and to pipe up, in her little voice, Mama I love you! The people around you smile to themselves as they listen to you, any anxieties they might have about the speed of the checkout clerk shelved temporarily as they enjoy the sweetness that follows your daughter everywhere she goes. An older woman in front of you—maybe in her upper 60s, or lower 70s, looks down fondly on the two of you and then reaches out to pat you gently on your arm.
Treasure her now while you can, she says, perhaps looking at you wistfully and knowingly over her bifocals. They grow up so fast!
I always smile right back when I hear this and I tell them I know, oh I certainly do know all about this, even though my daughter is four and my son--my first baby, the one who made me a mother--is now a contrary seven-year old, all loose teeth and arms and legs at right angles.
And I have a clear memory that surfaces at times like that: I remember being in an Eckerd's drugstore in upstate, New York, where we used to live before moving down South. L., my son, was only ten days old and I had him my Snugli front pack. If I close my eyes tightly I can almost conjure up how the weight of his small body felt curled against my chest, and how I would cup his tiny feet in my hands when I stood in line. Someone next to me oohed and ahhed over my newborn and asked me how old he was. Ten days old! I replied proudly, savoring the sound of all those days. I remember, too, thinking to myself how could he be ten days old already, this tiny boy who only a heartbeat before, it seemed, had been minutes old. Then I blinked and found myself in the checkout line at Eckerd's, my ten-day old son sleeping against my chest.
But still, I don't think I quite realized how quickly those days slipped away. Ten days old became two months old and then six months old and then it was his first birthday, and we were cutting a Winnie-the-Pooh cake and watching him toddle around my parents' living room. And now here I am, miles from where we first started, my son six months into second grade, and my daughter four and still dreaming of her Little Mermaid birthday cake. So I do know what kind, well-meaning older ladies mean when they tell me, oh so earnestly, to savor these days. I may not have fully understood it back then, when I was a brand-new mother, and each day with a tiny newborn felt like a long, sleepless year--but I know it now, through and through; it's in my eyes when I watch my daughter dance and sing, and when my son slips his hand into mine as we cross the parking lot--like some timeless legacy, it's a part of me now, just as it's been a part of all mothers and always will.