My daughter didn't want to hold my hand this morning.
On our walk to school, I reached for her fingers, cold and damp from the morning rain. I wanted to warm them, hold them, squeeze them into my palm. For one brief moment her hand slipped into mine, and I felt the comforting velvet of her skin, the tiny ridge of knuckle bumps, the moon-shaped edge of her thumbnail. Then, remembering her independence, she wiggled from my grasp and skipped along the sidewalk, putting distance between her body and my own.
This is what Angie does now that she is nearly seven years old. She wants to walk ahead of me, choose her own outfits, and pour her own orange juice. She once counted on me for these things and many more, and I did them without thinking, really. I reached across the table to cut her hamburger into quarters or remove the paper from the tip of her drinking straw. I put the toothpaste on her toothbrush and set her pajamas out on the bed. But she doesn't need me for these things anymore. The list of tasks she can do for herself gets longer every day.
Still, there are times when I insist on holding Angie's hand. I reach for her whenever we walk through a dark parking garage or a crowded farmer's market, and again when we cross the intersection in front of the pediatrician's office. She knows how to cross the street, how to look left and right and then left again, but sometimes she forgets. She's too busy singing a song about dragons or trying not to step on a worm. So I hold her hand. I wrap my palm around hers and pull her close to me, no matter how hard she resists.
When Angie was a baby, I counted her age first by the week and then by the month, as most new stay-at-home moms do. We do this, I suppose, because that's how abundant time feels. It's like summer zucchini; there's so much, you can't even give it away. Every hour feels like a day, every day feels like a week. Each afternoon, I held my sleepy princess in the rocking chair of the nursery, watching the leaves on the oak tree outside our window go from greenish-gold to fiery red, then fall to the ground in a cascade of cinnamon brown. I studied her face: the slope of her nose, the blonde peach fuzz on her cheeks, the curve of her top lip as she nursed at my breast. When I blinked, the trees were budding again. Angie was walking, and then talking. My baby was no longer a baby.
Two weeks after she started kindergarten, Angie let go of my hand for the first time. During one of our morning walks to school, she slipped her fingers from mine and wrapped them around the blue vinyl shoulder strap of her Spiderman backpack.
"I don't need to hold your hand anymore, Mama," she said, her blue eyes scanning the street ahead, searching for Lena or Patrick or any other classmates who might've been watching.
"All right," I said. But really, it was not all right. It was terrible. It was an empty, needless feeling, like finding the perfect recipe for all that zucchini after you've given the last one away. I wanted to snatch her hand back, pull her close, and plant kisses all over her face, but the point of mothering is knowing when to hold on and when to let go, even when letting go renders you useless.
My daughter was a late walker. She took her first steps at 14 months, much later than the other children in our mommy-and-me playgroup. Before she walked, she held both of my hands, reaching high over her head, like a tiny gymnast swinging from a human trapeze, and toddled back and forth from the kitchen to the living room until her pale, dimply legs gave out.
Her first steps came on a cloudy day in early winter, after her father had returned from a week out to sea. He had just set his bags down at the front door, kneeled on the tan carpet at the edge of the living room, and stretched his brawny arms to her. She slipped out of my hands and hobbled over to his, on uncertain but determined legs.
One year later, he left us for another woman, and Angie and I packed our things. We rented our own place, the bottom half of an old Victorian that once belonged to the town doctor. The house was worn and drafty, with peeling paint and rotting front steps, but the covered porch was wide and welcoming. We had no living room furniture, no kitchen table, or curtains for the windows, but those things would come in time. Before the first month's rent was due, I got a job at the local pharmacy and put Angie in the daycare down the street, where she played with blocks and practiced her alphabet, while I counted cholesterol pills for strangers.
After work, she and I made dinner together. I showed her how to snip the ends off green beans, and she showed me how to sing "Little Bunny Foo Foo." In her company, I felt better, safer, and more stable. The disappointment and shock of our loss disappeared. We had each other, and so we had everything.
On the weekends, we went on long walks through the neighborhood, past the corner store and the Methodist church, down the hill toward the train tracks. When the sun dropped low in the sky, it cast our shadows long and lanky along the sidewalk. We held hands back then, held them low like ripe fruit on fragile branches.
Angie's favorite game was shadow tag. She dropped my hand and jumped ahead to stomp on the gray curve of my figure along the pavement. Her foot landed on my shadow head or my shadow shoulder, sometimes my shadow heart. "Gotchya!" she yelled. I reached out to tag her back, but she dodged and ran away, her long brown ponytail flapping in the breeze of her own momentum.
My paychecks were small then, and there was only enough money for one bed. After prayers and lullabies, Angie and I crawled under a quilt as blue as the night sky, and I wrapped my tired body around hers. I missed my husband, missed his voice and his smell and his skin. My tears fell on Angie's hair. I kissed her forehead. She was all I had left, so I snuggled her close, as close as I could get her. If I could have, I would have pulled her back into my body and held her there forever.
Later on, when my paychecks were bigger, I bought a walnut dresser instead of a second bed. I preferred to stay with my daughter at night, in case she woke up, in case she had a bad dream or reached for me in her sleep. What if she got scared or lonely? What if she felt sad or lost? Those nights, and every night for the next three years, I would crawl under the covers with my daughter, not because she needed me but because I desperately needed her.
After I said goodbye to Angie this morning, I stood by the fence and watched her walk through the schoolyard. She passed the flowering pear tree, the painted hopscotch, and the green bench where teachers sit during recess. She moved slowly and easily, like she had all the time in the world, and then finally rounded the corner to her classroom.
At home, our apartment was quiet, as it always is when Angie is away. It's easy to feel present and necessary when she's home, asking for a popsicle or begging me to pretend she's a dog. But when she's gone, I feel abbreviated. Suspended and waiting, I attack my list of small purposes: fold laundry, buy groceries, pay bills, mail packages.
Angie hates errands -- especially going to the post office because she's too little to see over the counter. "Mama, I need a pickup," she says to me, lifting her arms. I know the other customers inside the post office will think she's too big for that kind of thing, but I do it anyway. She wraps her legs around me, like a baby koala, and watches the clerk weigh the boxes and affix the postage.
This morning, I carried my packages down to the parking lot, still slick from the rain, and loaded them into the car. When I closed the trunk, I saw the white-haired woman who lives in our apartment complex. She stood to one side of the parking lot, at the edge of a large puddle, wearing green clogs and a blue raincoat.
I see her often, shuffling along the sidewalk with her canvas shopping bag swinging side to side. Slow and stiff, she moves without lifting her feet, like a penguin on ice -- cautious and distrustful. Her face, pale and pinched, is pulled into a permanent scowl.
Over the years, I have imagined her a dozen ways. She is a retired English teacher who collects jigsaw puzzles or a shut-in who keeps too many cats and smells like litter. Maybe she is a college professor, a hoarder, a novelist. In any scenario, though, she appears to be alone. She never has visitors, never stops to chat or even make eye contact with me. Instead, she shuffles along, looking down at her feet, concentrating on every step.
Now, her eyes cast downward once again, she stood on the precipice of the puddle. As I pulled out of my parking space and drove toward the end of the lot, she waved her hand in my direction, as though she were hailing a cab. I stopped the car, rolled the passenger's side window halfway down, and waited for her to speak.
She stood still and said nothing.
"Yes?" I asked, finally.
"I can't get to my car," she said, still looking down. "I need help."
Her Oldsmobile was only 20, maybe 30, steps away, but scattered puddles lay in her path, and she seemed bothered by them. I looked where she was looking: down at her feet, at her ankles, which were bare and bloated and covered in webs of puffy, purple veins.
"I need help," she said again. I put the car in park.
"How can I help you?" I asked, and for a moment I was afraid of what she might say. What if she asked me for something I couldn't give? What if she was sick or confused? What if she collapsed? Would I be able to carry her?
She looked small and worried. I wanted to help her, not just around the puddle but through the rest of her life. I wanted to protect her, to shield her from physical pain and loneliness, from feeling lost and uncertain. I wanted to meet her need, and in doing so, maybe meet my own.
The woman lifted her gaze, slowly, with purpose. I saw her eyes. They were pale blue, tired, and clouded by cataracts.
"Hold my hand?"