There is a woman who lives down the street in a house that sits behind so many flowers I almost can’t see the front door. I can’t put a number on her age, but she’s not the kind of woman who fears getting older. Her hair is a solid dark gray, but still long and thick. Her skin is tan and cheerfully weathered, but not yet paper thin with popping blue-green veins.
I have no idea what her name is. She told me once, when we met at our neighborhood block party. That was five years ago, and now I’m too embarrassed to ask for a reminder. In my head, I call her Grandmother Willow, after the wise tree in the Disney version of Pocahontas. To be honest, I never tried to file her name away. She lives on the far end of the street. I figured we’d wave when we crossed paths, but we’d probably never talk again.
The week after the party, she stopped by on a Saturday afternoon to invite us to her church. She began pausing at our house when she biked home from the grocery store, one leg planted on the curb to brace her bike, the basket overflowing with bakery treats. She appeared regularly, telling us about how our house has changed over the decades, how she likes our newly planted impatiens, how she’s still in touch with the man who grew up in our house decades ago.
And then, two years after we met her, Grandmother Willow was on our front porch again, offering us a tiny, bright pink blanket she had crocheted for our newborn daughter.
It was that fussy first baby who pushed me into my ritual of a taking a morning walk. I would bundle my squalling infant into her bucket car seat, click it into the stroller, and push her down the street with my right hand while holding my Kindle in my left. I didn’t get much reading done—the baby constantly needed help finding her pacifier, or had thrown a beloved toy overboard, or was shrieking because she didn’t like jostling when we hit cracks in the sidewalk—but that was ok. The point wasn’t the book; it was the walk.
The fresh air felt like a baptism as we turned left out of the driveway. Take a deep breath, hold it, exhale and send the sins of the morning away. Move farther from them with each slow step you take. Our walks were the only thing making me feel like I could survive the day.
We could see Grandmother Willow from halfway down the street. She’d stand in her usual pose, a few steps off the curb, her back to the street, hands cupping a mug of coffee. She would be wrapped in a zip-up sweatshirt, looking at her garden.
I’m always jealous as we approach her. How wonderful it must be to wake up when you want, to greet the neighbors while you sip your coffee and slowly lay out your plans for the day ahead. There is no rush to shower before the baby wakes, no endless wails of a child who’s only quiet in your arms.
When we reached Grandmother Willow, I’d pace in front of her driveway, careful to keep moving so the baby wouldn’t fuss while we talked. “Ashley, and baby Hadley! How are you girls today?” Grandmother Willow never once forgot our names.
I’d paste on a smile and try to say something that got at the heart of how good motherhood is, but also how unsteady it was making me. I could never find the right words, but I think Grandmother Willow knew what I meant anyway.
“You remind me so much of myself,” she’d say at these meetings. Grandmother Willow had birthed three kids in short order, a daughter followed by twin boys. She tells me about those hard early days, ones where she’d push them in their stroller all the way to the library for storytime, just to let someone else keep them happy for a few minutes. On the way home, she’d stop by the doughnut shop that’s long since closed and buy them treats for 25 cents apiece.
I just stared at her as she told these stories of young motherhood, wondering how on earth she’d done it.
“It’s just one foot in front of the other, that’s all,” she’d say.
Of course it is. That’s how any of us gets through life. But as I put one foot in front of the other, turning in serpentine blocks until we were headed back home, it didn’t feel like I was getting much of anywhere.
Now that infant, Hadley, is a chatty three-year-old. She says hi every time we see Grandmother Willow, her one-year-old sister, Reagan, waving happily from the front of the double stroller. Our talks are much the same as ever: how are my kids, how are her grandkids, what lovely weather we’re having, your garden looks great this year.
Grandmother Willow has never told me to savor these days; I think she knows it’s poor advice for anyone who eats most of her meals cold while a small child throws that same food on the floor.
But I can see it in her eyes: she misses this. She’s not just looking at her garden in the morning, seeking weeds to pull and shrubs to prune. She’s remembering her home full to the brim with life. Every messy, loud, uncomfortable shred of it.
I still feel a twinge of longing when I see her enjoying her peaceful mornings. Sometimes I wonder if she’s secretly jealous of me, too, wishing she could relive the chubby cheeks and sticky fingers just for a moment.
Then the baby loses her toy and Hadley nearly topples out of the stroller trying to reach for it, and the spell is broken. We wave our goodbyes; I push the stroller forward.
I can’t stop staring at the two blonde heads in front of me, both girls giggling as they play some wordless game only sisters can understand. We wind around our neighborhood in the same endless loops. I’ve given up on bringing a book. Half the time we barely make it around the block before someone is hungry or tired or needs to use the potty.
But these walks are different than they were before. Somehow in three years of parenting, I’ve finally begun to feel like I’m on the right path.
We carry on, one foot in front of the other, until we’re back in our own driveway. I take my baby steps, knowing there will be sweetness on the way to wherever they lead.
Guest post written by Ashley Brooks. Ashley Brooks is a work-at-home mama to three kids under four. She believes in the power of small stories, long books, and iced mochas. You can find her encouraging everyday creativity in others at the Chasing Creative podcast and www.ashleybrookswrites.com.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.