A first birthday is a powerful marker of time. When you have a baby, you have a new way to measure a year: in weight gain, in consonant sounds, in sleep patterns and in spoonfuls of purée. Each month takes on new color.
In August, Clara laughed. In January, she ate bananas and avocados. In May, out popped a gap-toothed smile. In July, she hugged me back. Constant surprises.
I filled an album with first-year photos and we flipped through it with great fascination. Most change is sneaky. This kind of change is bold and blatant, letting us in on the secret. Clara’s transformation over one year holds as much drama as a time-lapse of an exotic flower–from nothing seedling to gorgeous bloom in minutes, like magic.
Some friends (also multicultural couples with very young children) came over to celebrate on Bastille Day, the day before Clara’s actual birthday on the 15th. The plans were last-minute, made less than a week before when we were picnicking in the park under Lebanon cedars, the kids playing on blankets.
Keeping the birthday low-key, just Victor and I, suddenly seemed a shame. We needed to celebrate this wild year. It wasn’t just Clara who had changed. We had survived a year of thinking like parents, solving new problems, creating a family culture (which, for awhile, just meant we played rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to change an absolutely vile diaper). My friends were enthusiastic, understanding the significance of this day–especially, maybe, when living abroad–and so it was planned.
We had a little fiesta. I hung up the sunny decorations my mom had thriftily sent from the States in separate standard envelopes. Adriana, who’s Mexican and American, and who seems to have a natural talent for celebration, brought pico de gallo and guacamole and rosé. As soon as she arrived, she stood in my kitchen frying cheese quesadillas for a crowd. Victor made empanadas and prepared mangos and pineapple. I made tre leches cake with luscious whipped cream on top (made by shaking cold cream in a chilled jar like there’s no tomorrow–in the absence of a mixer, try this–it works!).
Seven adults and three people between the ages of one and two was about all our small apartment could handle. The three little ones played, crawling and stumbling over each other, flinging toys, eating fruit. The rest of us sat wherever there was room, sweating as the 4 pm July sun burned through the windows. We balanced plates just out of reach of six chubby fists. The cat, in shock, fled the scene.
When Clara was just about depleted, we hurried her to her highchair. We sang–first in English, then in French. Victor and I, the sweaty, joyful, proud parents, grinned for the camera while Clara sobbed, overwhelmed by so much noise and attention. Things were better when we cut her a fat square of tre leches cake. She gobbled down every crumb, whipped cream dotting her nose. We served seconds of cake before the babies brought the afternoon to a close by collectively deciding it was time for a nap.
It is a new skill, this learning how to follow a conversation with one eye always on a small, ornery person–or a couple of them. This anticipating danger or just the likelihood that someone will pitch a toy off the balcony if given the chance. As our guests stood to leave they surveyed the scene with some regret.
“I feel bad…your house was perfect when we got here and look at this!” We looked. It certainly made an impression, that was true. Victor said it perfectly when he responded, “Well, I think we’re just going to have to get used to this.”
Clara, in her first year, has accompanied me to the Louvre, to Abbot Kinney boulevard, to a blues festival, to a crowded Kansas City BBQ restaurant. When she turned one I saw the end of all that. Or at least the end of the ease of all that. There’s to be no more letting her sleep in a stroller as we linger over coffee or dinner. Her presence will be felt.
The past few weeks have seen her throwing food–motivated by a simple fascination with gravity. She’s been emptying any box or basket she can find of all its contents. Helping herself to a snack from the pantry. Pouring water on the ground and playing in it. Producing quite a terrifying troll-growl when she wants more grapes. She gets bored, now. She likes sitting in her stroller but it must be rolling, giving her new sights to see.
We’re going to have to get used to this.
Her new skills and capabilities bring new joys as well as new frustrations–for her, for us. But the other night while I am putting her to bed after a tiresome afternoon, I hold her close and think that it is like holding the future. She is pure possibility. She smells of her dinner–butter and parmesan on pasta. She looks up at me in the evening dim, bright round face glowing like the moon. She lays her cheek against my collarbone. The curls at her neck are damp from the sweat of summer. I think–savor this! I think–this, here, is the good life.