I had a project to work on today. I sat in front of my computer and opened up my photo file to begin. I take tons of pictures. As my kids get older, I feel anxious about the time passing. I want to capture it all. To remember every school musical, every teacher, their orthodontist, trips to the zoo. I think it is because I don’t remember these things from my own childhood; I want to preserve it for them.
Today, I was searching for something older so I scrolled back to the beginning and began to go through. The digital age started right around the time E was born, so there they all were. I know I may be biased, but she was the most beautiful baby. Strangers in the hospital remarked about her. She’s so dainty and pretty, they would say. You can tell she’s a girl.
I find myself staring at these pictures, and the ones in the months that follow. My daughter, or so I thought. I dressed her in clothes that I loved, nothing too frilly and pink. I remember shopping for her in those early days, wandering around the infants department and being drawn to the things that were a little edgy and different. She wore cool clothes, many from friends handing down their own kid’s hip leggings and dresses. T-shirts, shorts, skirts. She looked adorable.
I search harder. I look into her eyes. I’m looking for a sign, for something. I can’t figure it out. She looks happy in some, confused and upset in others. Can I read into these images of my little child dressed up as a girl? Am I just looking for something that isn’t there? Or is it there and I just can’t see it?
The phase of sweet summer dresses didn’t last long. As I scroll through the months of photos, dresses show up only for special occasions. Eventually she started to scream like she was being burned when I would pull out a dress, so I stopped trying. For years, her clothes were always from the girls department, even if they were fairly gender neutral (but she could always tell – the little satin trim on the plain red t-shirt, the gentle gathering at the sleeve.) After the bathtub talk, she asked to just wear clothes from the boys department. Boxer shorts. Yes.
Changing her wardrobe was the single most impactful action we’ve taken in her life. She was so much happier after that. She moved differently. She settled in. Those pictures are also there. They make me feel settled in too, like when I used to spoon the most perfectly healthy food into her little mouth as a baby. Like I was really, really taking care of her.
Right around that time, she asked me if I would ever make her wear a dress again. No, I said, never again. I defended myself: I haven’t made you wear a dress in while.
Uncle M’s birthday party was the last time, she told me. That was four years prior. Four years. She remembered because it was important to her. I see pictures from that party in my file, too. I made her pose by the fireplace before we left. She looks vaguely happy and awkward standing by herself in the room. She is wearing a super cool dress made by my friend and a giant coat that is swallowing her up.
I’m finding it hard to look at these photos, so many all at once. It’s painful in some abstract way that I can’t pin down. The pictures become a swirl – a swimsuit, a halter top, a braid. Images so far away and yet right there. It makes me feel achy, like I lost something precious and small. Sidewalk chalk washed away by a summer rain. A seashell slipping through my fingers into the ocean, where it belongs.