My son and I walk to preschool on a cold and bright morning. He holds my hand and drags behind, recounting a dream about ninjas and dragons. I’m barely listening. At the edge of the road, I notice that a thin layer of ice covers what is normally just a puddle in a rut. It's the kind of ice that's easily shattered with a boot.
I point this out to my son with some caution, because once he's absorbed in such things, it's hard to draw him away. For instance, if you put a box of Legos in front of him, he will self-entertain for hours. This may be a beautiful thing on a Saturday afternoon, but it's a difficult thing on a Monday morning. We're already running behind. But today, in this moment, I want to be the kind of mom who stops to crunch ice with her son on the way to school.
For about three minutes I am that mom. We crunch ice with our boots until the puddle becomes a cocktail of mud and rocks and shards. Then I get antsy, thinking ahead to the rest of my day. “Let’s go,” I suggest. But now my son is determined to find a stick and stir the puddle – so determined that he refuses to hear me.
I stand facing the road, my back to him, wondering why I'm impatient to get to my dark office where I will spend hours grading papers. “Let’s go,” I say again. I fold my arms over my chest and remind myself to breathe.
Whenever I think about patience, I think about my sister.
When I was a child, our town center had the kind of parking meters where you’d lift a little flap, insert a coin into a quarter-sized hole, and turn a knob to send the coin down.
For whatever reason, these meters weren’t emptied very often, and sometimes there would be a nickel, a dime, or even a quarter, just waiting there, easily grasped by little fingers. My half-sister, who was in her 20s then, used to babysit me every week. Sometimes she would walk me to town to buy candy and on the way she would stand and bear witness as I checked every single parking meter. There were at least a dozen.
Sometimes only the edge of a coin would be visible, but I had figured out that, with a bit of extra effort, these coins were retrievable, too. On a good day, every meter on the block yielded several coins, and I filled my pockets. It took us at least 15 minutes to complete what should have been a five-minute walk.
This didn’t happen once or twice. This happened every week for at least two seasons. One day a different relative accompanied me to town, but she didn’t approve of my meter-thieving and she expressed this by walking briskly ahead of me every time I stopped.
The following week, I reported this to my sister who responded: “She probably just doesn’t remember what it’s like to be a kid.” In that moment, I began to understand that my antics required some patience.
It would take decades for me to fully appreciate how much patience my sister had with me. As I approached and entered adulthood, I’d remember the parking meters every few years and think: wow. And now today, on this cold bright morning, through some kind of time-space alchemy, the mere memory of her patience has bought my son three more minutes of ice-stirring.
“I’m getting tired of waiting,” I tell him finally. He lifts his head, drops his stick, and runs to catch up and take my hand again. As we walk, I vow to remember my sister more often, to give my son time and space to explore his world, even when – especially when – I have bills to pay and papers to grade. It’s never easy, though, to give my attention over to life’s small wonders.