At Granddad’s House

Dad was cleaning out the kiddie pool when we arrived at his home on West Manning Street. He wore carpenter jeans and was shirtless, the midmorning sun making his red belly shine. “At Granddad’s house,” Levi said from his car seat. “Granddad spray hose!”

I got the kids out and Levi got naked then ran for his pool. He put on goggles, which he calls safety glasses, then took the hose from Dad, began to fill his pool. “It’s not nice to grab things out of people’s hands,” I said in my broken-record mom voice.

“Oh, he’s alright,” said Dad, wiping the sweat from his face with a forest green bandana. He pulled on his shirt–a work polo the color of red clay–then reached for the baby. “Hi, Little! You’re looking very alive today.”

Holding Virginia in one arm, Dad pulled a patio chair into the shade of his big umbrella. “Have a seat, daughter.” Levi had filled his pool and was now watering Dad’s planter-box garden–the tomatoes, squash, peppers, okra. “How about a La Croixe?” Dad asked as I sat. “I’ve got your favorite flavor, orange.”

He brought me a cold can. The humidity made it sweat. I popped it open and drank. “Better than a beer in this heat,” I said.

“It’s oppressive,” said Dad. And then, “Would you look at your little boy?” Dad sat beside me, the baby on his lap. “Look how self-engaging he is, how happy, free.” Levi was jumping and splashing in his blue plastic pool, sliding around on his belly, pretending to be a shark. “You have a beautiful family, Claire.”

“It’s your family too, Dad.”

“Yes, yes. Thank you. You know it makes me glad to be a part of you all.”

“Us too. I don’t know what I’d do if we didn’t have Manning to come to in the mornings.”

“Manning gives,” said Dad. “Our sanctuary.” He paused, looked up at his giant hackberry then to the cars passing beyond his front yard. The cars that kept coming, carrying passengers living lives of which we would never know.

“Grass needs to be cut at least once more before summer’s out,” Dad said. “I’ll get to it eventually. Boy, I tell ya. Life is unfinished business. You have to compartmentalize it all. Put what’s left undone on a shelf.”

“I like that,” I said. “There’s so much I can’t get done that I wish I could now that I’m a mom.”

“Sweetheart, that’ll never change. Just do what’s most important, what best serves you and your family. It’s tough. Believe me I know. I’m an artist. I want uninterrupted focus. But you can’t have that all the time when you’re a parent. Especially at your juncture of young motherhood. Just know you’re doing a great job. You’re putting in the work. It will pay off.”

Levi was drinking the pool water out of his yellow pale even though I’ve told him countless times not to. I sighed. “It better.”

Dad laughed. “Levi’s rowdy. Into everything and testing his boundaries. I remember those days with you, your brother, and sister. You have to stand your ground. Show him your love, but daughter stand your ground. You know what I always say. If you don’t drive your train, somebody else will.”

I was taking in everything Dad was saying (he’s always been a practical philosopher) when Levi yelled out, “Get in, Granddad! Granddad, get in!”

“Granddad’s in his work clothes, grandson.”

“Get in, Granddad. Get in now, please.”

“Boy, you’re persistent. That will serve you well in life. I guess I oughta get in.”

“Ha. So much for standing your ground,” I said.

Dad handed me Virginia, grinned big. “I’m Granddad now. I get to bend my own rules.” He went inside, returned in his swimsuit. “Okay, Levi, make room for toddler two.” Dad plopped down in the pool, making a good bit of water spill out. “Hey, this is nice! Thanks for getting me in here, grandson.”

“Yeah. Yeah, Granddad.” Levi filled his yellow pale with water then dumped it over Dad’s head.

“Woo-hoo-hoo! Well okay then,” said Dad, wiping water from his eyes. “If that’s the way it’s gonna be then you better watch out.” Dad took the hose and sprayed Levi in the belly. Levi screamed and laughed. Dad laughed too. A rowdy toddler and a big man in a tiny pool, having the time of their lives.

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Letters to Levi now out on Amazon!

Hello,

Just an update that my newest memoir, Letters to Levi: The Education and Adventures of a New Mom, is now available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Please be sure to check it out and let me know what you think!

Here’s what you have in store:

Life is full of adventure, whether that adventure is about exploring the great outdoors or exploring the wilderness of new motherhood. For author Claire Henley Miller, it is both, and her new book beautifully narrates the journeys she made throughout her first year with her son, Levi.

In Letters to Levi, Miller writes to her son, telling him about his first days, the things they did, the way he seemed to wake to the world, and the way she woke to the world anew through him. She candidly shares everything from going into labor to what it’s like to survive a cross-country move with a new baby. From natural birthing to learning how motherhood means making sacrifices for your baby, Miller shares parenting tips and insights for new mothers who, like her, are rediscovering themselves after childbirth.

With this new motherhood biography, Miller continues the narrative she began in her first book, Mile 445: Hitched in Her Hiking Boots.

Thank you and enjoy!

-Claire

Yeehaw!

The early morning fire redeemed my rotten night’s sleep. Virginia had rolled around all night in the tent, cried every hour to be fed. A tree had fallen and crashed in the creek not ten feet from us. And college students at the site next-door had stayed up until two, in deep (and loud) discussion on manslaughter versus murder.

“You can lie to me,” one student, a chubby, curly-haired boy pretending to be prosecutor, had proclaimed. “But you can’t lie to God.”

Now I lay in the tent alone, head sunk into my pillow. Outside I heard Virginia coo and Levi say, “Help you, Daddy. Daddy, help you.” Then I heard wood shift and I smelled the fire–the rich warming flames. “Hurray!” Levi said. “Levi help Daddy make fire!”

I lifted my eyelids, heavy as mountains. I looked out the mesh window of our tent. The sun was just coming up, cresting over the dark green ridge running along Abram’s Creek. It was Saturday, the best day of all, the day of freedom true. I pulled on a light sweatshirt and crawled out of the tent. “Momma wake up!” Levi said, his voice bright as the day. Virginia smiled big and kicked the air, making her bouncy seat seesaw, when she saw me. “Momma!” Levi ran over and grabbed my hand. “Look! Levi make fire, yeah!”

“Thanks for taking over with the kids this morning,” I said to Caleb. He stood by the cooler pouring milk from a water bottle into Levi’s sippy cup. “Last night was rough.”

Caleb nodded, sipped some milk from Levi’s orange cup. “Anything for you, my love.”

I sat in my red camp chair, a rocker, and nursed squirmy Virginia. She would not settle, distracted by centipedes and daddy long legs skittering down the dirt. Her gaze turned to the fire then to the rising trees. Smoke sailed to the trees. The sun touched the smoke, making it shine from between branches like a shattered spotlight. “I love the way that looks,” said Caleb about the smoke. “The streaming showers of light.” He unfolded the camp grill, rolled sausage links onto a pan. I strapped Virginia back in her bouncy seat, whipped up pancake mix at our picnic table then made instant coffee. Levi poured the creamer into my steaming cup. More creamer landed on the table than in my coffee. “I sorry, Momma. Levi sorry.” His voice was soft and sad. I stroked his small shoulder. “In this family, bud, we don’t cry over spilled milk.”

I took Levi to the creek after breakfast. Caleb, reclined in his lounge chair reading Bugs, Beetles, Spiders, & Snakes, watched over the napping Virginia. A well-worn dirt path led from our site to the water. Mountain Laurel reflected in the clear shallow creek. We waded in barefoot, atop a smooth bed of stones. We skipped a thousand stones (well, Levi just threw his in), and counted the rings left by the rocks. The creek was quiet and slow. Water spiders dotted it like rain. A breeze came through and wrinkled the flat water. “Snake!” yelled Levi. He pointed and jumped. The snake traveled up the other side of the creek, twirling through the water like ribbon. Having heard Levi, Caleb got out his binoculars. He watched the snake a minute then flipped some pages in his book. “Round head, round pupils,” he called, taking a second look through the binoculars. “Looks like cottonmouth, but just a common water snake.”

Minnows nipped my feet. They glinted in the sun like tinfoil. A dragonfly bounced up and down on the creek, hunting the dancing water spiders. Upstream a girl and two boys (siblings I presumed) splashed and roughhoused in inner tubes. They were having so much fun I couldn’t help but smile. “That’ll be you and Virginia one day.”

“Mm hmm,” Levi said, as sure of this as me. And then, “Momma, Levi gotta poo poo.”

The bathhouse was dark and dank. The red-tile floor was slippery with mud. We entered the handicap stall and Levi did his business, which was cute and funny to watch because it looked like the toilet would swallow him whole. Levi flushed, his favorite part, then we went to the sink to wash hands. Right before I picked Levi up for him to reach the faucet he screamed. He jumped impressively high, clung to me like a frightened cat. “What is it, bud? What?”

“Bug. Big, big bug.” The toddler was near tears.

I looked at the base of the sink. There in a shadowy hole in the cinderblock wall crouched a silent black cricket.

“That is a big bug,” I said. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Back at our site Caleb was lying in the tent next to Virginia. She’d awoken and Caleb was nibbling her fingers and toes, making her laugh. Her whole face beamed with joy, her eyes bright and squinty like upside down crescent moons. Levi hopped in with them, ran in small wild circles, screamed like a maniac, and summersaulted atop the sleeping pads. “He gets too crazy in the tent,” I said, although I loved watching him play. “Why don’t we go for a walk?”

Black eyed Susans lined the gravel road stretching along the creek. Levi stopped to pick one. “Here, Momma,” he said, handing the yellow flower up. “Thank you, buddy. What a beautiful gift.” I put the flower behind my ear, kissed Levi on his cheek. “Levi pick Momma flower, yeah!” And you know something? Pride beautifully suits the young child who sees he’s done something good.

Soon we came upon a pasture of grazing horses. Virginia, strapped against my front in the gray baby carrier, screeched with excitement. “Oh, big horse!” said Levi. “That big and strong like Daddy!”

“Thank you, sonny,” said Caleb, wearing in his expression Levi’s style of pride.

The horse owners, a family of five, sat at a lone picnic table eating lunch. They waved to us as we walked by; the dad called out, “Yeehaw!”

“Yeehaw!” Levi replied. It was a new word for him. A word he took to instantly. One he said again and again for the rest of the day.

Nobody Has Ever Lived A Better Life Than Me

7.8.19

After a six-hour delay at Newark Airport with the toddler and the infant—a delay that, by the way, ended in our flight being cancelled—I needed a drink, a stiff drink. It was dusk. We waited outside Delta’s departure gate for Caleb’s mom, the same gate where she dropped us off in the early afternoon. A warm drizzle combed the air, clearing the cigarette smoke. Cars and taxis plowed through, dropping people off, picking people up, honking and shoving, somehow squeezing in. Caleb gripped Levi who kept trying to jump in the busy street. I sat on the sidewalk by our bags, openly nursing Virginia. It was too hot and humid to cover myself with a blanket, see. People stared. Well, fine. It’s just a boob, I thought. Besides, it’s not as if I came up with how babies were made to eat.

Weather caused the delay. Inside the terminal we’d watched out the wide window on parked planes and seated baggage handlers as the sky rolled out into comforters of gray. “Should we stay or leave?” Caleb asked after the gate attendant—dark and curvy with black shiny hair—announced again that our plane was stuck in Charlotte. We were trying to get home after spending the Fourth with Caleb’s clan. His grandmother is ninety-four—a mother of ten, grandmother of twenty-three, great grandmother of twenty-seven—and this was her final Fourth of July celebration to host at her home on Indian Lake. She just moved into assisted living and her home is now for sale. People were calling it the end of an era because Grandma Liz has put on the Fourth for her bright giant family these last thirty years. She hangs flags and banners, buys red, white, and blue beads and plastic American flag top hats. Patriotic pinwheels twirl and shine down the perimeter of the backyard all the way to the lake. The kids swim and kayak and play King of the Raft. The adults watch from the dock and hundred lawn chairs in the grass, eating BBQ and drinking beer, telling stories and laughing with heads thrown back, loving each other through the simplicity of catching up on life.

Meanwhile Grandma Liz sits on the back porch, sipping the fruit of her labor. People wait in line to speak with her. She’s spunky in her bare feet, orange tribal mumu, and black-rimmed cat eyes. Her glasses contrast chicly with her soft white hair. Silver bangles wrap around her forearms, so when she moves she clinks. She speaks sharply and deliberately, no wasted words. “People used to tell me I was crazy for having so many children,” she said when it came my turn to give her a hug. “Now they say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky!’ See, because there’s always someone over here. I’m not lonely.”

At the start of this year’s celebration, everyone gathered round Grandma Liz. Her porch became her stage and, sitting up tall, she declared, “I have the best children and grandchildren. Nobody has ever lived a better life than me.”

Beautiful, I thought. Wow. What a powerful thing to say after ninety-four years of life. I, however, was not feeling this way today when the gate attendant got on the loud speaker again and announced our flight was cancelled. In our six hours inside the terminal Virginia pooped through her onesie twice and soaked my shirt with spit up. This was nothing compared to Levi. He lost it over a toy monster truck that belonged to someone else. How my toddler screamed and threw himself on the ground—red in the face, real tears gushing out—over that silly monster truck! In fact he made such a scene that the owner of the truck—a five-year-old boy eating fruit snacks and wearing a Paw Patrol tee—hid it in his backpack then asked his mom if they could move seats. We moved instead—not because of Levi’s meltdown, but because now he was running away from us. He weaved through the hustling crowd coming out of security, his bright blonde hair flashing between legs. A young woman in leopard-print leggings and sleek white sneakers was speed walking while staring at her phone when Levi sprinted by. She almost tripped over him, jumped back and shrieked. “Wild animal on the loose!” I said as I passed her, jostling poor Virginia’s head on my chase.

It’s amazing how fast a miniature human can run. Levi almost escaped the terminal before Caleb scooped him up. The boy flailed and screamed. He was tired like the rest of us of waiting and merely expressing what we all felt. Still, it’s no excuse to act like a fool. But it’s tricky to discipline in the airport. “I don’t think we should spank him in front of all these people,” I said to Caleb. “Should we do timeout in a bathroom stall?”  To this Caleb replied, “Gross.”

Now we waited on the drizzly curb to be picked up. When Caleb’s mom arrived we all packed into her Volkswagen Golf. “I bet you’re psychotic,” she said to Caleb and me on the drive back to Grandma Liz’s. “How did the kids do?”

“Virginia got an A,” said Caleb, head heavy against the car door. “Levi got a D-.”

Caleb’s mom laughed. “At least he didn’t fail.”

“Yeah.” Caleb sighed. “Yeah.”

We flew out two days later on a Monday. All Sunday flights were booked. I was itching to get home, back to my nest where it’s easiest and most comfortable to care for my kids. But here’s the silver lining. Sunday was beautiful and we spent it on the lake. Virginia napped on an outdoor chaise lounge while Levi, clad in his blue lifejacket and nothing else, tried to catch the minnows. Remnants from fireworks littered the yard. The sky was blue and the air smelled muddy like the lake. People were out in speedboats skiing. Geese floated along the banks and, would you know it, a bald eagle soared by, its white head and tail feathers aglow in the sun. I lounged beside Virginia while Caleb played with Levi. Watching them I sipped the fruit of my labor. And let me tell you. This is always more nourishing (and better tasting) than a stiff drink.

It Won’t Last Forever

6.16.19

A long, hilly gravel road breaks off Cherohala Skyway and leads to Whigg Meadow. It’s a big bald, five thousand feet high, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Caleb, the kids, and I arrived at dusk, after a day of swimming in Indian Boundary Lake. There we’d built a thousand sandcastles and worked on teaching Levi to not steal other kids’ floats. Now Dad was helping Eric stake in his yellow tent in the middle of the windy hill. My brother’s girlfriend Erica was chopping sweet potatoes and chicken atop the cooler, and Dad’s good friend Cheryl was lounging on a quilt, her hiking boots kicked off, cold drink in her hand. The sun was starting to set. It was cold up there. The mountains beyond rolled blue and strong. I placed the sleeping Virginia in my brother’s flapping tent. Levi dove in the tall grass, rolled all around. Dad’s big white dog Studley did the same. I cracked open a beer and took a seat–my first all day?–in Dad’s green camp chair. Caleb walked to the edge of the bald, for a moment’s peace, I know. He looked out a long time–well, three minutes or so, which is a long time to yourself when you have a wandering toddler.

It marked our second night to be camping with our little people (our site was down at Indian Boundary), and we were worn out from it, yes! but glad to be in nature. The sun inched down; the clouds turned pink. Cicadas hummed and the wind, it howled. Levi’s sunburned cheeks popped like cherry tomatoes from where he lay in the grass. The tall grass waved in the wind; its graceful flowing twists and bows beautiful as a ballet.

“Come over here, Levi,” Cheryl called, and Levi went and sat next to her.

“Levi cold,” he said, so Cheryl wrapped him up in her sweatshirt. “Full moon,” said Levi, pointing up to the glowing orb.

“That means no stars tonight,” said Cheryl, a busy nurse who takes to the woods to unwind and recharge every chance she gets. “But at least we got a good sunset.”

“I hope you and Erica don’t freeze up here tonight, son,” Dad said to Eric. He was zipping up his coat, putting on his hat.

“I told you already, Dad, we have down bags.”

“Well, I worry about these things. I wish you’d just stay with us at Cheryl’s cabin. What if the wind picks up even more? Can your tent handle that?”

Eric held his tongue. Erica, an OBGYN with a calm demeanor and strong mind, looked up from her food prep and said, “We can always sleep in the Jeep if it gets too bad.”

“They’ll be fine, Pete,” snapped Cheryl. “Now sit back and enjoy this. It won’t last forever.”

“Granddad sit back. Granddad enjoy,” said Levi, staring up at the brightening moon.

“Well then, okay,” Dad resigned. He did as he was told.

Just then Caleb walked back and sat in the grass beside me. He drew his knees to his chest. “You don’t get to see a sunset like that every day,” he said. The mountains were dark as shadows now. The lightning bugs came out. “Levi, buddy,” said Caleb. “Did you see the fiery clouds?”

Your Leg Cramping Up?

6.10.19

I was having a moment in the ocean. I was alone, waste deep. Virginia was with Locksley on the sand. Levi, with Caleb back home. It was wavy out there. Wind blew, making the water fly. I was surrounded by the waves, by the wind, by God’s big cloudy sky. I went under, opened my eyes. The saltwater stung but not too bad. It was too murky to see. A wave swept over me as I resurfaced. I wiped my eyes, faced away from the beach. In the distance, floating pelicans drifted and bobbed. Surfers yee-hawed as they sliced through the waves. I bodysurfed a good one, went a little too fast, felt free. That’s what it was. Freedom. A moment of it. A moment of it just being me. A moment of remembrance. I’m not just a mom, I remembered. I’m myself too.

Then I looked back at our umbrella and chairs and saw Virginia was crying. Locksley was pacing the beach with her, waving at me to come in. My moment was up. Well, that was okay. A mother must care for her child. Plus my sister looked annoyed. “I didn’t come to Folly on my only day off to hold your screaming child,” I knew she was thinking. I started back.

Almost to shore, I stepped on something slimy and flat. It wrapped itself around my foot then struck below my ankle. Sharp pain shot down to my toes. “Locksley!” I yelled reflexively, but the whoosh of waves drowned out my voice.

“Oh my gosh, Claire, your foot is bleeding,” said Locksley, meeting me on the shoreline with my crying babe.

I took Virginia, bounced her up and down. “Something got me out there. But I think I’m okay.”

“It’s bleeding a lot. Ugh. Come on. We have to go talk to the lifeguard.”

“I’m telling you it’s fine.”

Locksley shot me the stink eye.

“Okay then,” I whined. “Let’s go.”

A tall skinny boy wearing polarized sunglasses sat hunched over in the lifeguard stand texting. He didn’t notice us walk up. “Um, hi, excuse me,” said Locksley squinting up, her hand over her forehead. “My sister just got bit by something in the ocean, and we’re not sure what to do.” The lifeguard kept texting until hitting “Send.” He didn’t sit up but lowered his sunglasses, checked out my red-bikini clad sister, then finally glanced my way. Still bouncing the baby, I twisted my foot to show him my dripping wound.

“Stingray,” he said lackadaisically. “Your leg cramping up?”

“No.” I wiggled my toes. “But my foot is a little.”

The lifeguard, clearly inconvenienced, put down his phone and pulled out his two-way radio. He sighed. “I have to call my supervisor.” Then he pressed a button and the radio beeped. “Got someone at stand five with a stingray sting,” he said into the device. “Better hurry.”

Hurry?” said Locksley, her annoyance now directed at the lifeguard.

“Sure your leg isn’t cramping up?” asked the lifeguard again. He set his radio aside and again picked up his phone. “I’ve seen grown men in tears from stingray stings.” He said this staring at his glowing screen.

“I’ve given birth to two children naturally,” I said, trying to be funny. “This is nothing.”

“My mom’s given birth to nine naturally,” he said. “So there.”

“Is she going to be okay?” Locksley budded in. “She’s visiting me here in Charleston, and this is her last day before she and her baby fly home.”

“Uh, yeah. She should be fine. But we need to act quickly.”

Should be fine?” said Locksley. “Act quickly?”

My little sister had had enough. Thankfully the supervisor pulled up just then on a green Gator UTV. He wasn’t much older than the lifeguard, with a good head of hair and an even better tan. With him was a five-gallon bucket of steaming water. He got out and examined my foot. “Stingray alright,” he said, speaking with an authority that betrayed his blonde peach fuzz. He helped Virginia and me into the off-road vehicle then placed my foot in the bucket. The hot water hurt worse than the sting. “Stay like this for thirty minutes to let the venom dissipate. And let me know ASAP if your leg starts to cramp. Looks like we got to you in time.”

Seagulls circled overhead. A crowd began to gather. A boy toddler ran up and tried to climb into the Gator before his mother yanked him away. “That lady in there is hurt,” she snapped. “Oh, and she has a baby. Give her her space!” I wanted to laugh. What a ridiculous situation! Minutes before, I was free in the sea. Now I was on lockdown, the five-gallon bucket my ball and chain. Then something dawned on me. “I’m a nursing mother,” I said to the cocky supervisor. “Should I be concerned about the venom getting into my milk?”

The poor boy blushed. This was painful for him. “Oh…Well…Uh…I would think your, uh, milk should be fine.” His voice cracked. He couldn’t look me in the eyes. “You know, since you aren’t showing any major signs of a bad reaction.”

“You guess her milk should be fine?” Locksley was now making ticked-off gestures with her hands.

The lifeguard above us snickered at something on his phone. The supervisor cleared his throat, whipped out his phone. “Let me look it up.”

Long story short. My foot felt fine after about ten minutes of soaking in the terribly hot water, and there was no alarm for my milk. A quick Google search on behalf of the embarrassed supervisor along with my maternal instincts confirmed this. Still I waited an hour before nursing Virginia again to be safe. By then I’d forgotten all about my moment of freedom in the waves. My focus was on the wellbeing of my child, as well as on my sister’s peace of mind, because she was a nervous wreck, sure I was a goner.

“But my leg never cramped up,” I reassured her as we walked back to our chairs. Virginia had fallen asleep on my chest. She lay heavy against me, mushy and warm, mouth open, drool slipping out. Again I was on lockdown. But this lockdown was nice, a precious moment of motherhood.

“Okay, okay,” said Locksley. “Good.”

We sat down, stared out on the sand stretching into the great wide blue. We stayed like this several seconds before Locksley shook her head. “People,” she said. “I swear. Can you believe that snooty lifeguard?”

All of This

5.24.19

Nothing too spectacular happened on our campout at Abram’s Creek. We arrived on a Thursday evening, before the Great Smoky Mountains’ Memorial Day crowd. The campground was empty, save for one giant tent—a tent mansion if you will—looking out on the creek. The tent owner, a big bald man with a heavy drawl, called out to us after we set up our much-smaller tent then went to take a dip. “I seen S-N-A-K-Es in there. But they mostly been swimmin’ on the other side.” He spelled out snakes, I’m guessing, because Levi was with us. Maybe he thought the toddler wouldn’t get in the water if he knew what slithered there. Maybe he just liked to spell. Regardless of the reason, it took me a minute to comprehend what he was saying. When you have a toddler and an infant and are perpetually running on sleep deprivation, your brain slows way down.

The water was beautiful, forest green and gently flowing. It was shallow and cool. Its floor of smooth stones massaged my weary feet. I say weary because when you have a toddler and an infant you never get to sit. You also get no time to pamper yourself and have to be creative. I washed my face and arms with the clear mountain water. I sank into the deep meditations of the toads. If only I had some cucumbers for my eyes. My spa day at the creek would’ve been whole.

The sun was sinking slowly. Caleb held Virginia. Levi stood near, emulating me as I bent to pick up flat round rocks to skip. Mine glided almost to the other side of the creek. Levi’s plopped in a foot in front of him. “Takes years of practice to become a good rock skipper, bud,” I said. Levi looked down, hands at his side. “Oh.”

We did see a snake. Mere minutes, in fact, after our spelling-bee neighbor’s warning. Caleb spotted it up stream, swimming right at us. I picked up Levi and ran, which is hard to do in knee-deep water holding a tall thirty pounds. I know I looked ridiculous. Caleb, on the other hand, kept his cool and stayed very still. The snake passed him by. “Looks like a harmless water snake,” he said. “No diamond-shaped head.” Levi and I were now safe on land. The snake slid into its bank-side burrow not far from where we stood. “Let’s at least move downstream,” I said. “If there’s one, there’s a thousand,” Caleb replied.

Next morning we hiked. The pancakes, bacon, and fried eggs we’d cooked on the camp stove fueled us. It was a sunny day, humid and still. The trail stemmed from the campground and was hilly and wide. I carried Virginia in her carrier against my chest. Levi walked with a long stick—what he called his trek pole—in hand. He stopped every three seconds to examine a root or rock or long brown centipede crawling up the trail.  “It’s like walking with a dog that has to stop to sniff everything,” said Caleb, watching Levi poke the fallen mountain laurel petals with his stick. Caleb was right. We’d been at it ten minutes and had stopped maybe thirty times. At one point on our hike Levi even dropped his shorts, picked a good tree, and peed.

You can imagine we didn’t get very far. Several backpackers on their eight-mile journey to Cades Cove passed us. Levi chased them, shouting, “Big backpack! Big!” “It’s good you’re starting him off young,” a petite, white-haired woman carrying a pack bigger than her said as she approached us. We were stopped again, this time at the trickling creek crossing where Levi was wading and splashing, and where Caleb was scanning for arrowheads. The woman must’ve been in her late seventies but she moved through the woods like a breeze. She smoothly crossed the creek then, without looking back, waved. “No one can take this away from him,” she called.

Hours later, at sunset, Levi said, “I’m tired,” He was wrapped in a towel, his hair wet and dripping, watching the campfire. He and I had just returned from playing in the creek, where two twelve-year-old boys swimming up and down it in masks and flippers had captivated Levi. “Levi sleep in tent,” the toddler said pitifully, bright flames reflecting in his eyes. I slipped his yellow Hot Dog Johnnie’s tee over his head, took him inside the tent, and laid him next to his sleeping sister. You could hear the creek through the mesh, feel the slight breeze coming off of it too. I rubbed Levi’s back and sang to him until he fell asleep, then I returned to the fire. Caleb was snoring in his camp chair. When you have a toddler and an infant who are somehow in bed at the same time, it’s good to take advantage and close your eyes. I sat down for perhaps the first time that day. I watched the fire, the wild hot flames, then I looked up at the sky for the stars. They burned brighter than the fire. They burned white light in the black dark—little lit windows, they were, into a world unknown.

“Spectacular,” I whispered.

Caleb stirred. “What?”

“This,” I said.

“What?”

“All of this.”