Standing at the sink with my back to the rest of the kitchen, I hear a sound I cannot identify and turn to investigate. Two pairs of shoes, one women's, the other a toddler's, have been deposited in the middle of the floor.
Katie, my 20-month-old granddaughter, has carried them all by herself down the long hall from the mudroom — quite an accomplishment for such a tiny person — and now looks at me expectantly.
I can't remember another time in my life where an invitation for a walk elicits the urge to weep. Tomorrow I am leaving for Seattle after this week in Minneapolis. Because it is dusk and her bedtime is drawing near, we cannot go out, so I redirect her focus instead. Yet how I would love to take her up on it. She has shared her outside world with me each day, weather permitting. By the end of the week we have evolved a private ritual.
It starts with shoes. First, we retrieve them from the mudroom. We put Katie's on first. "Make a knot ... then another knot," I chant as I tie her shoes. When I put on mine, she joins me on the word ''knot," its crisp sound easy to mimic. Next, I help her with her coat, offer mittens (always refused), put on my own coat and then — we are ready! We open the door together, descend ''the big step" onto the side porch, and we're outside.
A saucer of pebbles sits on a small table on the side porch at Katie's house. As soon as she is outside, Katie helps herself to a handful. I encourage her to put them back on the first day, thinking she might put them in her mouth. But I have learned to just watch this ceremony. She will deposit them in a place of her choosing when she's ready.
With each walk she holds onto them longer before deciding where to put them down. On our last afternoon out, I notice them — a history of our week together — small deposits tenderly hidden in many places like petrified eggs spawned by extinct and landlocked fish.
We never go very far. We don't need to. Birds sing, so we sing back. "Peep, Peep." We hear one bird that calls, "Katie, Katie," and it especially delights us. Small green blades of grass are pushing up through the late-winter quilt of brown. Crisp leaves tumble across the lawn, propelled by the wind. Tiny sticks wait to be picked up, airplanes fly overhead, and "Mr. Sun" comes out to make shadows. Clouds billow across the sky. We see dogs on leashes and wave to passers-by.
But the best part is the neighbor's large white mailbox decorated with bird decals — five on each side, each one in a different pose. I lift Katie up to see them the first day, and every walk after she asks to be lifted up. We count the birds and touch their pictures several times before she is ready to be put down. In this ceremony the warmth and contact of our bodies and hands obliterate everything else. Our world is a place where tired parents and the challenges of adjusting to a brand-new sister do not exist. For this moment, the world is free from every care — even the headachy worries about Iraq.
Eventually, Katie gets to the end of what seems like an invisible tether and we turn to walk toward home. As we amble along, there's much to discover all the way back to the steps of the side porch. "Bye-bye, sky," we say as we open the door to come into the house. "Bye-bye, stones." The saucer of stones looks as full as it did the first day, a tray of appetizers waiting for the next party.
Now, back in Seattle, I've resumed my routine of walking alone each early morning in my neighborhood. I find myself spotting small stones and noticing that, even here, there are birds that call "Katie, Katie" from the treetops.
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