The happiest kid I think I've ever seen was in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens yesterday afternoon. We first saw him ahead of us on the path, grinning and waving at us over his father's shoulder -- first wildly with one hand and then, presumably when that hand got tired, with the other.
We couldn't help but grin and wave back.
Later, as we sprawled in the grass under a tree, we watched him toddle down another path only to get caught up by his father, who swung him high in the air and on to his shoulders. Even from across the lawn we could hear him cackling with glee.
We wondered what it might be like to be parent to such a happy child, to have strangers be drawn in to your world the way we'd been drawn in, and whether the child's joy was a reflection of his parents or something all his own. I speculated that any kid of mine, if the former, would probably just be cranky. Hers, in that scenario, quietly pensive.
I mentioned that I'd been happy like that too, at the ripe old age of four or so. She was surprised that I could remember that far back, though I insisted that I could.
But later, while daydreaming contentedly on the train ride home after my afternoon in the sun, I realized that I don't really have any idea what I remember from so long ago. What I know for sure is that every night when one or the other or both of my parents tucked me in, I would demand a story "about when I was little." So at two I heard stories about my mom biking around Oakland with me strapped in the baby seat on her bicycle, and when I was three I heard stories about our apartment in Ippendorf where I was befriended by two horses and my "Oma" gave me too much Kinder Shokolade and I got sick. When I was six and we moved to Westchester I heard stories about my friends in California and our European travels the summer after kindergarten in the Bronx.
These stories continued through elementary school and were told so many times that they couldn't possibly have remained the same over the years, and yet still somehow remain true.
I got a birthday card in the mail earlier this week from my aunt Ellen. Not a birthday card for me, but rather a birthday card that my parents had sent her back in 1993, and which she has kept safe all these years, and which she's now bequeathed to me. In it my father jokes about what a piss-ant Ellen was as a kid, and how unsympathetic and unsupportive his wife must be to doubt for a second that he was anything but the perfect, supportive brother. He also writes about how he and I had recently begun our lifeguard training class, and that though we were not the best in the group we were doing fine, and that I was particularly pleased because this meant I would earn a lot of money at the lake that summer for not much work.
I don't always know the difference between what I actually remember and what I learned later and merely absorbed through those nightly bedtime stories, but sometimes I'm not sure it really makes much of a difference.
The first night that we were back in Riverdale after our months-long jaunt through Europe the summer that I was six, it was August and sticky with heat and we were jetlagged and cranky and couldn't sleep. I remember walking in the wee hours of that morning (two o'clock? four?), just us kids and Dad, up and over the highway to the park by the school, where we played on the swings and basked in the cooler night air, and then went home before dawn, contentedly sleepy and finally ready for a few hours in bed.
This memory, at least, I am almost positive is real, and is all mine.
The excitement about the lifeguarding job I'm not so sure of, despite being older then and theoretically capable of remembering. I don't remember being all that excited about it ($7/hour was a lot of money back then, no doubt, but what sixteen year old wants to work seven days a week all summer?), but I think he was excited about us taking this class together, and I can give him that at least. And so, once I can stop reading it every night and stop running my fingers over what I can only imagine are tears smearing the ink, I will slip Ellen's birthday card into the dad-box, still tucked safely away in my closet after all these years.