by John Janelle Backman

Something odd was happening, but I didn’t see it till fifteen minutes in.

Odd happened a lot with this three-year-old, our only child, surrounded by our friends and their scurrying tumbling kids during a backyard party. She paid them no attention at all, engrossed by her project in the turtle sandbox fresh from Kmart, as I watched her from crumbling steps in our backyard.

What did she have in mind? Who knew? All I could see was the movement of sand: chubby hands clumping it into piles, arms smoothing out grand expanses with sweeping motions. She’d move a clump from her right to her left, the pink-checked sunsuit twisting with her torso, then back to her right again. I couldn’t see her face well—she’d bent it to the work—but it seemed knit in a frown of concentration.

Three-year-olds have short attention spans, experts say: four minutes, six, eight. Which is why odd slipped in at fifteen minutes, together with an epiphany:

You don’t know what you have here.

The longer she moved the sand around, the more it riveted my attention. I kept checking my watch to mark the time. The rest of the scene blurred into obscurity. To this day I cannot tell you who was there, or whether I was supposed to be carting food from inside to the partygoers in the backyard. I just stared.

My watch hit forty-five minutes and her work went on. You don’t know what you have here clutched at my solar plexus with a sense that both unnerved me and drew me in.

That clutch re-emerged here and there as she grew: when she asked what of meant, when she threw off her perpetual reserve to sprint through a meadow she’d never seen, when in college she laid aside all the dreams we had for her, one by one. Every time, she startled me with the awareness that best beloved and total stranger can describe the same person, and it can happen over and over again.


Image by Maria Varshavskaya via Pexels