On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I took a picture of you standing next to the window in your nursery. The sun illuminated half your face, and you were holding a wooden train in one hand. When you heard my footsteps, you turned around, threw back your head and giggled. Your smile was all gums.
You had no idea what had just happened in New York City.
I have kept that picture on my desk ever since. It reminds me of a time when I could solve all your problems simply by walking into a room. It reminds me of a time when your world was our home. It reminds me of a time when everything you were — tired, hungry, happy — was usually apparent to me.
Back then, you liked to line up your trains in a row. Sometimes you sorted them from biggest to smallest, and then smallest to biggest again. You organized them by color or by the shininess of their wheels. You were always industrious like that. Even at 1 year old.
“I wonder if he’ll be an engineer like his dad?” I said. “He’s very systematic.”
A few years later, you wore your Superman pajamas with Velcro cape to the grocery store and preschool. When other kids laughed at your choice of clothes, you convinced them that Superman is cool. Soon, all the other kids wanted a Superman cape, too. You have never caved to peer pressure.
“He’s a natural leader,” I said. “I wonder if he’ll go into politics?”
By kindergarten you were showing great interest in science and math. The teacher gave you extra assignments to satisfy your curiosity. Uncle Will got a kick out of watching you do puzzles. You were so serious and determined.
“Maybe he’ll be a scientist,” I said. “He’s very good at math. Just like his dad.”
Later in elementary school, you got involved in sports. Baseball was your favorite. You read all the history, and your bank of ready-to-answer trivia rivaled Dad’s.
“Maybe he’ll work for a baseball team,” I said. “He’s so good at player stats and strategy.”
Oh, the strategy! By fourth grade, you were beating dad at chess and your favorite pastime was Axis and Allies. Woe was the person who thought you didn’t know every major player in World War II. You memorized all the battleships, countries, leaders and outcomes. You kept maps tacked to your wall and went over the war strategies again and again.
“Maybe he’ll join the Navy,” I said. “Just like his dad and grandfathers.”
You made lists and more lists. Foreign countries were a fascination, and you ranked all the nations in the world by land mass and population. Then you ranked languages of the world according to how many people speak them.
“He’s a natural historian,” I said. “Maybe he’ll be a professor.”
All along, though, the one thing I knew for sure was that you got all your traits from Dad.
Then one day, while I was washing dishes, you came up behind me and began reading aloud about the unrest in Ukraine. I thought you were reading from the newspaper. But when I turned around, I saw that you were reading from your own writing. Light from the kitchen window illuminated half your face and highlighted your shoulders, which are about to surpass mine and are becoming more broad. Your voice was deeper than I ever remembered it being.
I struggled to hear the words you read, distracted as I was thinking about your younger self standing by the nursery window. I could tell, however, that each of your words were carefully chosen and fit into the sentences like a puzzle piece. You paused occasionally to fix something—“this word would be better if I moved it here”— and I could see the concentration on your face. I have that same far-away stare when I’m working with words.
You started talking about submitting some of your writing for publication. I remembered the first time I sent an essay to Chicken Soup for the Soul. I told you how to format your submission.
When you walked away, your younger brother, Owen, said, “Wow, he’s like the next Charles Krauthammer, isn’t he, Mom?”
I didn’t answer. I had learned by then not to try to guess what you will become. I had never really known. (And since when does Owen know about Charles Krauthammer?)
But to connect with you over writing was better than any Mother’s Day gift. Ever.
That day in the kitchen, I saw that you are not “just like dad” or just like me. You are Ford.
I realized that joy would come not from guessing at what you’ll become, but from watching you show us what you’re becoming.
And I knew that in any case, what I wish for you is more success and happiness than your dad and I ever could achieve.
Sarah Smiley is the author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.