If I could bottle up age four, pictures of rainbows would always cover my walls. The letter “m” in mom would be big and shaky, the “o” not quite closed. There would forever be tutus in the laundry, and mismatched socks on her feet. A beloved collection of animal ear headbands strewn across the bathroom sink.
“Can I help too?” would echo off the house walls as I cooked dinner, vacuumed the floor, sprayed cleaner on the windows and table.
Observing birds would be our favorite pastime. Endless laughter at the robin who pecks the side mirror of our car. Wonder at the big owl who lives in our pine tree. At the bright red cardinal that likes to perch on the fence across the street.
Afternoons would be for her small, soft hand in mine. Walks home from preschool. Stops to pick up leaves and berries, and acorns off the sidewalk. Followed by big questions, like “Why can’t I ride my scooter home?” (you could, but isn’t your hand in mine nicer?) and “When can my best friend come to play?”
If I could bottle up age four, I would always lose at Candyland. Forever be looking for the pieces of I Spy Bingo. Always dancing to Cotton-Eyed Joe instead of clearing dirty dinner plates. Her hugs would always be warm and tight. Sick days and sad days and tired days would be for curling up in my lap.
She’d never take the doll seat off her bike. Or pass a dandelion without picking it for Mommy. Or eat anything but macaroni and cheese for lunch.
But of course, age four is impossible to bottle. I see it in her leggings, each day a little shorter. I see it on the calendar. Her half-birthday is this month.
So instead, I thank God that she’s healthy. And think of all the good that lies ahead.
Like age six.
Oh, if I could bottle up age six. We’d always be fishing, even after the fish had migrated south. Every evening we’d throw the football until Dad could sneak away from his computer for a few passes before dark. Forever I’d be stepping over sports cards and Legos and toy sharks.
I would never stop learning new football trivia. Washing Under Armour tights so he could wear shorts year-round. Or reading Who Would Win books and debating whether we’d rather come face-to-face with a great white shark or saltwater crocodile.
On Mondays, he would skip afterschool activities for homework time with Dad, sneaking into my husband’s office to do his math and reading work in the chair beside his desk.
Other afternoons, he’d find Mommy for reading time, his voice gliding over the words like he’s done it forever, only faltering to laugh at a joke or point out a new fact about a shark. This would be rare because Six has become a human encyclopedia overnight, remembering almost everything he watches, reads, or observes.
Hugs would still be warm and tight. Walks to school would sometimes mean his soft, bigger hand in mine. Celebrations would always include the griddy.
In the mornings, I’d yell, “You need a sweatshirt with that!” and “Run up and get your socks!” In the afternoons, he’d forever want meatballs for dinner. Before bed, he’d never stop turning on his aquarium night light with the moving fish.
But I can’t bottle up age six. So I thank God that he’s healthy. And think of the good that lies ahead.
Like age nine.
Oh, to bottle up age nine. It would be like harnessing the winds of an approaching storm or freezing a caterpillar as it prepares its chrysalis. Socks would always match. As would outfits. Her room would always be messy, her dresser covered in honey-scented slime containers and hair clips, bright scrunchies, and novels on natural disasters.
On her walls, her medals would jingle every time I opened the door. Along with her familiar refrain of “Can we please take down my butterfly curtains?” and my familiar answer of “Yes, of course!” Though I’d forget to every night, my subconscious was not ready to say goodbye to the child hanging on her walls.
Afternoons would be not for playing but for homework before practice. But first, she’d always take out her yellow school folder, eager to show me her latest schoolwork. Most of these projects would not yet be graded because what makes her proud isn’t some letter but the creation.
Sometimes our house would get loud with new worries about being on time for school and practice. Of acing tests and competitions. Yet other times, it would feel too quiet as she whispered secrets over the phone to friends. Most of these she’d share at bedtime as we snuggled together beneath her blankets.
And in her free time, she’d always be the leader, still happy to lose herself in games of make-believe with Six and Four.
Like she’s doing on our street, a football and basketball lying in our front yard, the John Deere power wheels loaded with backpacks for an adventure. Six is driving, and Four’s riding shotgun. Nine directs from her bike.
As I listen to Nine’s assertive voice, I know I can’t bottle it up, just like I couldn’t bottle up age six or four or one or three. But still, I am glad. If I had bottled up today, I couldn’t know ten, eighteen, or thirty-three. And l want every year of memories God gives us.
So instead, I take a video to remember, capturing their smiles and laughter-filled voices. And I pray one day, their sound will guide me like a beacon back to the feel of those soft hands, the warmth of those tight hugs, and the smell of Paw Patrol shampoo after bath time.
And when it does, the memories of age four and six and nine will reemerge like the flash of a firefly. So fleeting and yet so beautiful, their imprints are permanently etched on my heart.