Saturday, July 10, 2010

All Smiles

We used to use the word inscrutable to describe Opal.

For many months, until just recently, she has taken her sweet time getting used to the people in her surroundings. She would examine her environment with an expression of unwavering concentration. It was never a frown, simply the look of someone gathering the available information to make a proper and thorough assessment of how to best proceed.

The earnestness of this initial bout of baby-seriousness was heart-breaking, though she always eventually relaxed. Eventually.

We often talked about how she never seemed to easily give away what most adults so eagerly vie for from a baby: a smile, a giggle, a snuggle, a reach. And, during that time, we appreciated her tendency towards acting as more of a mirror to those who were nearby rather than showing off or people-pleasing. (And, if I recall correctly, Jesse and I also went through our own process in lightening up from caring so much about how people interpreted Opal, doing our best not to succumb to generic phrases like "she's tired" or "she's hungry" or "she's going through a phase where she wants her mommy.")

Today, inscrutability is no longer the case.
It didn't happen overnight, but Opal has successfully transitioned away from her phase of baby-austerity for reasons that were self-inspired and unbeknownst to me.

We journeyed to Vermont for a wedding a few weekends ago. We spent upwards of five hours in a full airplane, window-seat, not enough room to bend forward for something without knocking up against the tray table. We blitzed through the arsenal of toys we packed long before the plane reached cruising altitude and resorted to entertaining our daughter using the germ-laden safety card and Sky Mall magazine pages (may they rest in peace). My metal water bottle, the shade of custom gold jewelry, was a life-saver. We were able to squeeze out a couple of fifteen minute naps, induced by even shorter nursing sessions. Our girl was exhausted and desperately requesting to be put down on the ground so she could practice her new floor skills and stretch out the baby-muscles.

And yet, in spite of each and every uncomfortable nuance and detail of it, Opal was constantly offering up a smile to anyone who was willing to look up. And not the tentative, what-a-cute-baby-is-it-a-girl? kind of smiles, but full-on, no holding back grins. As she sat on my lap, or faced outward in the sling when we were still in the terminal, I could judge her expressions without being able to see them, solely based on the reactions they induced from others, which were sudden and immediate, like a flashlight in the eye.

The woman who sat in front of us on the place couldn't help but to turn around a number of times. Well hello again!she said as if Opal were a neighbor she continued to greet over the fence.
The teenage boy across the isle with a tuft of lopsided red hair waved and giggled in spite of himself.
The flight attendant cooed and asked how old she was and where we were headed.

As we waited for our flight to leave to come home, I walked Opal around the terminal in her sling, facing out, again unable to see her face. (I often wish for an invention, something of a tiny review mirror to wear on the wrist, to help me see her face when she's facing forward in the sling so I know if she's smiling, has spit up or has circles of dried snot under her nose.) And every time we walked through a bit of a crowd or high traffic area, people not only stepped aside to make room for us, they engaged with her. Waving, beaming, looking up from conversations and cell phones, whispering to their friends and pointing.

I would have probably remained relatively anonymous had I been traveling solo. Now, it's no secret that I am the first person to strike up a conversation with my seat-mate on the plane or bus, but I've never been inspired to work a crowd. Opal was absolutely working the crowd, and bringing me along for the ride, making it pretty challenging to get too wrapped up in myself or take the whole thing too seriously. Each moment my mind sunk into over-thinking about the hours we had ahead of us, or how to get Opal her much needed sleep, or how hungry she must be, poor thing, I'd look up to find that she was holding another completely non-verbal conversation with a stranger. Oh, hello there. Yes, she is a happy baby. Oh, you have grandkids of your own? How old? Of course I'd love to see a photo.

It was as if I was constantly being handed the phone without knowing who was on the other end: Here. My Mom wants to talk to you.

I'm not sure how to articulate this without cueing up the cheesy after-school-special music, but here we are again with this precious almost-nine month old kiddo getting me into a place of self-reflection. By watching her throughout these travels, it occurred to me just how much I pick and choose who to open myself up to, especially while traveling, depending on a laundry list of variables. (And I would even venture to say that I'm someone my friends would describe as relatively friendly.)

Opal held nothing back, even when she was undoubtedly hungry and it was the middle of the night and we were still wandering around some strange airport terminal when she should have been at home asleep and sandwiched between her bunny and doggie. She even smiled at the militant airport security guards and a maybe-homeless man with skin of leather and his life in a duffle on his back. One security guard said he'd never seen a baby who was nearly as cute as his granddaughter and pulled a creased wallet-photo from his pocket of a gorgeous baby, close to Opal's age, with onyx eyes and black curls gathered in a bow. The dusty nomad's face changed completely when he looked down at Opal. His eyes went from half-mast to wide open and his crooked-tooth smile was doubtless and absolute and shaved decades from his face.

These men transformed before my very eyes. Had I been without Opal, they may very well have been invisible to me. I may have spent a much larger section of the day forgetting how colossal the world is when when you keep looking up.

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