Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.
“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.
“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”
I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.
My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.
At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.
But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.
Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.
Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.
I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.
Until it’s gone.
I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.
I do now.