She is sitting in the booth by herself, positioned in such a way that she can see around almost the whole restaurant at a glance. As we settle in at the booth next to hers she says, 'You can set that baby down right here and I'll watch him! I raised three boys.' We smile and chat a little bit and then refocus on rationing cheerio's and wiping hands and scraping pizza grime off the high chair. She scans the restaurant occasionally, offering to help the kids who are too short to reach the soda machine refill their ice, talking to young families who walk past. As I watch her, she just emanates care - her momma heart eager to meet any need in the restaurant.
Robin can't resist any place with a crane game, so he takes Shepherd to go play and she and I are left at our booths - eating alone, together. I scoot over to the side of our booth closest to her.
"So you raised three boys? How did you do that?" I ask.
"Oh you just love 'em and love 'em. And they'll always love their momma. And make sure to let him play sports. Boys need to keep busy." How nice to hear that reassurance. They'll always love their momma.
We talk for a long time about her family, and I realize that it somehow isn't uncomfortable that we aren't talking face to face, but rather side by side with a wall in between, like in a confessional.
"I'll be eighty this year, and the best years of my life were the ones I spent raising my boys." At this point I'm glad she can't see me because I feel the cry knot forming in my throat. All she must have seen and done in eighty years, and her favorite moments were the ones where she was trying to get three boys dressed and ready, changing diapers, nursing fevers, cutting the crusts off of sandwiches, helping wiggle loose teeth free. The best years.
Robin and Shepherd come back sporting a red ball and a rubber duck that's dressed like a pirate, and we finally stand up and talk to her at her table. She is pretty and stylish, and she lights up when Shep reaches for her, when we thank her for her advice. "Y'all are good parents. I can tell!" She says as she waves goodbye to us from her little perch in the corner.
My baby boy turns one this weekend. It's hard to believe that at this time last year I was still waddling around, eating peaches by the 4 lb box and napping all afternoon. At this time last year his tiny newborn clothes were all washed and waiting in his drawers, our hospital bags were packed, we were still hoping he'd come early. We had such a one-dimensional picture of what it looked like to be parents. It's hard to believe that a year ago I only knew this squirmy, strong, smiley boy as a jumble of knees and feet and elbows... And just like that one of the best years has flown by already. And when I say it's flown by, I don't say it in that sad helpless way, like there are only a few good years left and then it's all downhill to the grave. It's flown by like a little swallow, wild and whirling and incredibly sweet... flown by in a way that keeps you looking at the sky hoping to catch another glance.
Shepherd napped in my arms today, like he did in those first early weeks. I kissed his forehead and stroked his hair, wild and stiff from where he had rubbed banana into it, and watched as his eyelashes would flutter, his feet would flex, a smile would flicker across his face while he dreamed. Now we eat peaches by the 4 lb box together. His clothes are all over his room because as I fold them and put them in his basket, he unfolds them and throws them behind him. Parenting has been confusing and fun and hard and joyful and a lot of trial and error, but we're doing it, and we're loving it.
I had been reluctant to receive this year as one of the best. Because isn't your best year just supposed to be the answer to "describe your ideal day" multiplied by 365? Isn't is supposed to be one you look back on and see only sunshine? Well... Apparently not. It's becoming evident that the best years must be the ones you look back on with the most thankfulness. This year has forced me to be stronger than I thought I could be, to be more present than I had been since probably my own childhood, and to be thankful for things I might not have noticed or appreciated before Shepherd. It's been a growing year, for all of us.
So. Cheers, to all of our best years. May we know them when we see them.