Taking inventory while hiking
I take my niece to the woods near my parents' house, where there's a gravel road that leads through dense trees to a pond. At the pond is a rickety dock—though the signs say No Swimming and the water is murky enough I'm not sure you'd want to anyway.
A— brings a small purse with her. About halfway up the road, there's a foot bridge that takes you off the road and onto a narrow trail. It's here that she stops to show me what's in her inventory. Her purse has a small drawstring and a vibrant print—I believe it's something my parents picked up for her in Costa Rica. The contents is as follows:
One paper fan that's printed with the face of a frog
"In case we get hot!" she says, fanning herself. Though we are both in jackets. Spring in Oregon has been dragging its cold wet feet before it will give way to summer. But I am delighted in how seriously she's attended to her preparations for this hike.
She puts everything away and adjusts the fox ears on her headband. "C'mon let's go!" she says, bounding up the road. The two dogs strain on their leashes to follow.
I walk slowly after her. Recently, my husband and I decided not to have kids. I mean, I have my step-daughter and step-son, but that's enough for us. The coinciding of that decision must be part of why this particular hike with A— sticks out in my mind: even as I feel the relief of leaving the burden of that decision behind, I am aware that my niece will be the only person I ever see grow up. The childhood where I thought I could go out into the world with only the contents of a small drawstring purse is gone—and now, I will never get to relive it again with a child I'm raising as my own.
Isn't that what makes a memory so sweet? Or a single breath? Precious, because it will never come again.
Up at the pond, A— is already peering into the water. "Look!" she squeals. "A newt! Isn't it so cute!" When my niece is excited, she takes big belly fulls of breath and then expels all of it at once as she talks. "Another one!" she says. She places her palms together on the side of her face. "Awww!" she says. We watch the newts in the shallows. They hardly move, though A— is adamant that I not let the dogs get too close to the water lest they swim away.
She counts four more. "These are all rough-skinned newts," she says. Authoritatively. The only thing that tears her away is the promise that, if she walks around the pond with me, I will help her count all the newts we can find. "I want to study newts when I'm older!" she says.
By the end of our walk, we've counted twenty-four. This kind of quantifiable richness is not enough for everyone, but it's more than enough for me.