I used to go to the mall - Northwoods - when I was little. My grandparents would take me and I'd toddle along beside them, hand elevated to hold one of theirs while we walked and looked and smiled at people.
There was a fountain on one end - right in front of the toy store - and it had lights that glimmered beneath the flowing water. I would always ask for pennies to toss - making wishes as I stood on the bottom railing of the barrier around the water and rested my chin on the top one. We'd ride the escalators among the smaller shops and I was always allowed to push the buttons on the elevators in the department stores. And I always left with something - typically a stuffed animal - clutched in a tiny hand.
Nearly 30 years later, I tagged along as the next generation repeated the same activity, sitting between the Ones as we drove to a mall near my house. We parked the van and wandered inside, small hands lifted to hold both of mine, and looked around at the shops before deciding to go downstairs.
"I don't ride escalators," Little One said before she and her grandma began to descend the stairs. Smallest One, Grandpa and I rode the escalator, her tiny hand still in mine, before moving toward the playground tucked in a corner. The took off shoes and ran on the bouncy carpeted surface, waiting patiently to climb the steps to go down the slide until I offered a rather impatient glance at the woman whose daughter was blocking their way for a good 2 minutes. Once she was removed, fun was had by all with the slide and the climbing and the crawling through tunnels.
Instead of pennies in a fountain, I fed quarters into machines that played music and gently moved various cars so that Smallest One could play pretend. As I decided between vanilla and chocolate at her ice cream truck, I swiped my credit card so Little One could get a juice and finally coaxed the elder to prance along while nearly dragging the younger away from the one of four toys she'd not ridden.
The child wants everything. A chance at the claw to uselessly pluck at a stuffed animal. Her own juice. Ice cream. Cookies. A picture with the Easter Bunny.
To the latter we agreed and I smiled as she charged up to the rabbit and said hello, offering that she was 3 and her favorite color was green before climbing up on the seat next to him. My mom spoke to Little One, encouraging her to move closer to the costumed creature and promising he wouldn't touch her or look at her or even lean any closer. She mustered her courage - this grown-up version of the first baby I ever loved - and edged just into the frame of the photo, out of reach of the terrifying bunny and clutching her grandmother's hand.
"Look happy," I encouraged and Smallest One grinned widely as Little One's lips curved as well. And after two quick snaps, we had photos to approve as Little One took a wide berth around the bunny with no small amount of pride that she'd braved one of her biggest phobias. (Humans dressed as animals.) Photo package in hand, we exchanged a swimsuit - our stated purpose for the expedition - and debated toys before each selected one.
I smoothed Little One's hair as we were seated for lunch, smiling as she read me part of her menu and telling her she was learning so much at school. I remember reading to my grandma, going to fetch books from the closet in the hallway and curling up next to her as we worked through Heidi before naptimes. And I smiled as I looked around the table, loving all of them rather desperately, and felt a sharp pang when considering that they'll lose my parents as I lost my grandparents.
Still, pain and loss seemed far away as we sipped milkshakes and selected balloons. "My favorite color is green," Smallest One noted to our waitress before asking her to please return with a balloon.
We had later settled on my driveway, enjoying the sunshine and coloring with chalk while my parents did some shopping. When the kids across the street came home from school, there were soccer balls and noise and games which Little One and I mostly ignored. Smallest One, however, watched with open curiosity and beamed when the much-older girls called to ask if they wanted to play.
"I do!" Smallest One called after consulting with her sister. "I have to ask my Aunt Katie but I want to come over and play!" She looked at me and smiled beautifully. "Aunt Katie," she said as though I hadn't heard her, "those girls asked me to play and I want to go."
"You want to go?" I confirmed, thinking they were older and seemed very cool and I'd probably be nervous to go over and play with strangers. And I'm an order of magnitude older than she is.
"Yes!" she replied, bouncing with excitement. "They asked me and they're so nice! So I will go over there."
"I will help you cross the street," I replied, loathe to transfer any of my anti-social tendencies to the happy little girl who bubbled with eager friendliness. So we crossed the street and she was welcomed to the small group while I returned to her sister and continued our art project. I kept an eye on her as she chattered with her new friends, telling them about her visit to Aunt Katie's and her sister and mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. And Chienne and Sprout and her cat at home. And I admired - ever so much - her confidence and sheer force of her tiny personality. Even as I better identify with her older sister as she plays pretend and fusses with toys and quietly reads her stories.
The two of us invited Grandpa to join us for dinner while Smallest and Grandma made it an early evening. We had appetizers and drinks - a little slushy for Little that turned her mouth blue - and talked. And when she was cold, I unzipped my sweatshirt and draped it over her shoulders, shaking my head when she refused to relinquish it and wrapped the familiar fabric around her tiny frame. It fell to her knees as she climbed in the back seat of the Jeep and I kissed her cheek before closing the door behind her.