This morning I am making you a cake, per your request like I do every year. This time you asked for something so simple, I almost prod you for more. How about raspberry jam filling? Chocolate shavings? Rainbow layers? But no, all you want is a lemon cake, leaving the icing up to me. You give me that closed mouth smile that means you’re happy but a little hesitant, like you’re waiting for permission. “A lemon cake?” I say. “You got it birthday girl.” And you break out into a wide grin.
I hunt and gather ingredients in between toasting bagels for breakfast and slathering peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread for school lunches. Flour, sugar and baking powder come down off the pantry shelves along with pretzels to pack for mid-morning snacks. Vanilla, oil, eggs and butter join the dry ingredients gathering around the mixing bowl already on the counter. The most important ingredient, though, isn’t in the kitchen.
I wave you off to school – daddy’s driving today – and make my way to the lemon tree. This time of year, it’s so heavy with fruit its branches bend under the weight. Half a cup of juice, two teaspoons of zest – how many lemons is that? I circle around the squat tree searching out the plumpest, yellowest fruit. Some are almost perfectly round while others more oval. Some are misshapen or still a little on the green side. I reach for one and give a gentle pull. The fruit that comes away without too much effort are the ready ones.
Ten. Double digits. Not a small thing. When your older sister turned 10, it felt like an accomplishment on my part and a time of reckoning: after a decade of mothering, I could look back at the parenting highlights with pride and feel confident that I’d learned from the places I’d stumbled. Somehow your 10th birthday feels more momentous, in a quiet kind of way.
You were the youngest for six years and then became a middle child, yet neither of those “labels” truly applies to you. You are entirely your own person and I thank you for it. Your pinpoint observations and deliberate questions force me into the deep end of mothering where I have to swim, not just tread water. You demand attention because you are curious and smart; you thrive on conversation and knowing and letting me know that you know. I must put down my phone. I must stop scurrying around. I must really think about what I’m going to say next because you will turn my words over in your head, make them your own and store them away in your heart.
You are a little more cautious than your sisters, afraid of making a mistake. I have learned to honor your fears, to let you have them instead of trying to magic them away just because it makes me uncomfortable to see you anxious. We don’t have to be happy all the time. We don’t have to be perfect or right the first time or ever. We’re both learning to be with these truths. Then there are the times you astound me with your courage, like when you went to sleep away camp for the first time last summer all by yourself. I know how hard that was for you, but you did it anyway. I wasn’t sure if you’d find your place, but I had to let you go. This summer you’re going for a month.
Then there is your enormous, glittering love. Your eyes sparkle with it, your face shines with it. I watch you with your little sister, tender and kind, even braving her not so gentle attempts to “play” with your hair. You hug with abandon, flinging your fast growing body against mine like a puppy. I have to tilt my head a little so that you can still tuck under my chin, your glossy brown hair tickling my collar bone. You’ll stay that way for as long as possible, never being the one to break the embrace. You’ve taught me how to stay in it with you, melt into the long snuggle. Yes, you are 10, growing up beautiful and wise, venturing out on your own a bit more, discovering who you will be little by little, but still holding fast to my branches.
I pluck four perfect lemons from the tree, choosing the ones that come away easily from their stems. I bend over them in my cupped hands and inhale their sweet, tangy scent. I smile and give thanks for this winter fruit, a beautiful gift, just like you.