I fell in love in church. It wasn’t the first time.
He was sitting across from me, and he was perfect: round headed, bald, floppy-eared. He was wearing an orange and white striped onesie and clutching a plastic giraffe. Six months old, would be my guess. It’s the age of enchantment for me, when babies are compact little packages with wide eyes and goofy smiles. When you hold them, they clutch handfuls of your shirt or hair. When you shift them to your hip, they settle comfortably, as though in a padded recliner.
You’d think I had never seen a baby, let alone had a baby. Let alone three sons, and then four grandchildren. I’ve had plenty of time and ample opportunity to indulge my love of 6-month-olds, plenty of rocking and stroller pushing. Plenty of teething and sleepless nights. Still, they pierce my heart.
It’s a kind of watershed, that midpoint in year one. The milky blue gaze of the newborn has focused, now taking in the swirling carnival of light and color, discerning its shapes and rhythms. Voices, once a muddled mass of sound waves, now belong to faces. Arms and legs no longer threaten to fly away if not tightly swaddled. Thumbs and toes are discovered, tasted, found delicious. The looming, oversized creatures who come and go morph into real people.
The baby in church commutes from one set of willing arms to another: mother, father, grandfather taking turns at keeping him reasonably happy and quiet. Each grownup has a particular entertainment style, and I watch the transition from jiggling to bouncing to sideways swaying and the corresponding little crows of delight. I could not tell you what the sermon was about, but I feel a rush of reverence, and a certain longing.
It’s not that I want the full-time care of a tiny child again. Raising children is a young person’s business, my late father used to say, and he was right. I was a mother at 21, green as grass. What I lacked in experience, I made up in boundless energy. In those innocent pre-Internet days, I didn’t know how little I knew. Still, I could function on an hour of sleep a night. I could read a baby’s cries like a book: hungry, tired, wet, sick. I could walk into a room and elicit a toothless smile worth more than the Hope diamond. I didn’t know much, but somehow it was enough.
What I long for is that clarity of vocation, the uncompromising job description, the non-negotiable daily deliverables. I long for a time when being present wasn’t the most important thing. It was the only thing.
Little children, little problems. That was the succinct wisdom of the grandmothers on the playground bench when I grumbled about my three under the age of 6. The baby in church becomes the daredevil 8-year-old, the mouthy 12, the sullen teenager. There are whole years when the smile that once illuminated your days seems to vanish behind a cloud of gray adolescent angst. Then it is only the sense memory of a 6-month-old’s starfish hand on your cheek that keeps you steady and moving forward.
I catch the baby’s eye, smile, waggle my fingers in a silly wave. He studies me, sucks meditatively on a set of plastic keys. And then, bouncing upright, he grins at me across the aisle. It feels like a bona fide spiritual experience, as though in this Sunday morning hour I have traveled through a lifetime. We look at each other, and he waves his keys, and the organ starts the closing hymn as somewhere, a door opens.