HI TELLA! Opal greeted her big cousin Stella so often we decided to do a celebratory dance once she reached 40-times and for every count of ten thereafter. (Of which there were many.)
HI TELLA in mid-tea party. HI TELLA in the car. HI TELLA in the middle of lunch, 10, 12 times during the duration of the meal.
Also frequented, but not quite as often, were phrases that included the names of other family members: What Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa doing? Where Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa go? and my personal favorite because it almost always took place in the midst of a tea party or reading a book: Tea party Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa? Read book Tella/Ama/Uncle Kees/Papa?
That's exactly what we're doing, honey.
Tella evolved into TellaBella by the end of the trip, as did Abigail from Abby.
There were the toys at Ama and Papa's house, which were graciously included with room and board. The chunky little Fisher Price People that fit into the little school bus (Wheels on the bus!), the motorcycle that fit into the school bus, the tiny matchbox car (just one little coveted thing that was easy to lose—where car??) that fit with the motorcycle into the school bus. There were the tiny plastic dolls, the size of kids-of-barbies that lined up perfectly on a half-folded washcloth to be put to bed, and the cross-sectioned dollhouse with doors and windows to squeeze things through to be—surprise!—discovered on the other side. There was the dolly carriage that carted the green soccer ball as it's most preferred costumer, B riding in the deck below.
Opal loved the length of distance from one end of the family room, through the kitchen and to the other end of the dining room, allowing for even more breadth if she continued left into the living room, to run through as thunderously as her tiny little figure would permit.
There were the child-sized pieces of furniture which Opal greeted like familiar articles from a past life. Finally an object-peer, something me-sized in the midst of this obnoxiously ever-s0-large world. (Note to self, just suck it up and buy that $50 micro-suede baby-size lazy boy I've been eyeing for weeks at Costco.)
The leather chase lounge was my mom's when she was young. She and her brother, both now in their sixties, posed for many pictures—black and white, ruffled edges—on that tiny couch at an age only a few years older than Opal is now. In the photo I'm thinking of, a Christmas tree dripping with tinsel sits off to the side, their Cocker Spaniel Candy lies at their feet.
For Opal, the satisfaction was apparent when it was realized that, yes, it was just that easy. None of the boosting, stacking, climbing that was required for normal-sized furniture. No adults casually loitering by the edges just in case. Each time her feet touched the ground as she sat there, she gave a look as if to say why has no one told me this was possible?
(Alas there was one other time. It was a casual dinner in February at a friend's house who has three small children. They each had name-embroidered, low-to-the-ground wide-armed lounge chairs lined along the wall in their playroom, the same ones we had just ogled at Pottery Barn merely days earlier. When my friend picked up that I recognized the chairs and even knew the exact price with the add-print, add-monogram features, she mentioned casually that the kids' grandma got them for Christmas. Through the course of the entire evening, Opal wanted to do nothing but climb from chair to chair.)
Then there was the toddler-proportioned rocking chair in the living room. Opal was much less stable on that, seeing how it's sole purpose was to tip back and forth, but she derived great pleasure from climbing in and asking Tella to read her a book. She'd hold on to the arms and rock without allowing her focus to even slightly waver.
There was Snickers, the spring-loaded plastic-bouncy horse who lived in the backyard. Stella had an elaborate care-routine for Snickers involving hand-selected snacks—mostly pine needles and fallen leaves—and grooming. She included us all in on the action, putting us to work like well-respected employees. Opal was honored, albeit slightly obsessed, with feeding snickers. She spent long stretches of time gathering yard-bits into her little bowl and placing them into Snickers' slightly chipped plastic mouth, frozen in mid-gape. She was unconcerned with how each of the painstakingly gathered snacks would instantly fall from Snickers' mouth into a heap on the lawn below.
As luck would have it the last night of our visit happened to be, according to Stella, Snickers' 4th birthday. So she fashioned a very special bowl of snacks with 4 small sticks for candles and we—Stella, Opal, Chris and myself—all sang Happy Birthday and helped her blow out the candles. Chris then pulled out his smartphone and played the Beatles' Birthday song—yes we're going to a party, party— while we all danced like loons around the yard and Opal continued to gather snacks for Snickers, looking at us like we were all mad.
While we're talking about Uncle Kees, there were many sweet moments of knuckles and high-fiving and splitting her sides with giggles when he said Blagoyavich in that silly, wacky voice. And there was the time when I was preparing Opal's bedtime milk and wasn't able to pick her up at the same time. She was tired and clinging to my leg and crying when Chris said, do you want me to pick you up, honey?
Yes (sniffle), she said, and reached right for him. The moment was so pure and trusting and one of the many moments where it was apparent how at home Opal felt in the arms of her family.
Opal's bedtime ritual was established on that very first night. She was overtired from the day of travel and unable to settle into the unfamiliar surroundings, in spite of the handful of articles-from-home that always travel with us: B, a home-blanket, the noise machine with projected ceiling frog, favorite books, homeopathic chamomile and milk from her personal sippy. Well after midnight, when Opal was continuing to wail and fuss, Ama brought in a huge, Daytona-beach-worthy boom-box and whispered how about lullabies? She played a lullaby CD that became the cornerstone of all sleeping routines. Music? Opal would say as I layed her in the pack-n-play, as a reminder for me to push the play button before slipping out the door.
Opal adores Abby the dog who, as I mentioned before, became Abigail by the end of the visit. A morning ritual quickly ensued—how I love a vacation's potential for temporary rituals—of taking Opal out of her sleeping room, down the hall into the main bedroom where Abby snored in front of the fan while Opal repeated where Abby? It would take some time to wake her due to the fact that she's lost much of her hearing, and even more time to coax her down the stairs with us. (She's an old girl and has a limit to how much up-and-down she can take in one day.) But the extra challenge only added to our celebration of success, which was often, truth-be-told, motivated with treats.
How lovely were those mornings were when Papa got home from his bus route and we all had full bellies and the coffee was still warm. That time of day, the sun pours so generously through the back door and onto the floor where the grown-ups also sit comfortably in the lap of a two-year old's imagination. I could have spent all morning eavesdropping on—and participating in—the elaborate play-worlds Opal conjured up with her Ama and Papa: the voices,the characters, the laughter. The understanding.
Many of those mornings I thought to myself, maybe we should just cancel our plans for the entire day.
(Xoxoxo to all my precious midwestern kith and kin. This one's for you.)