By Emma Wilkins
She was about my mother’s age, petite with long grey hair and an equally delicate dog. I steered the pram to the edge of the footpath to let her pass. Instead of walking by, she stopped and spoke.
“I’ve been watching you for years!” she said.
What’s more, I wasn’t surprised.
Over the years I’d sometimes wondered whether anyone in our neighborhood had ever glanced out their window before dawn and squinted at a strange, shadowy figure walking down the street. I imagine the sight of me with a small child strapped to my back, legs protruding, right and left, would have resembled that of a hunch-back with four arms.
In time I also wondered whether those whose bedrooms faced the street had ever heard a strange, rhythmic click-clack (me, with a slightly bigger boy, rolling down old footpaths with a pram) and dreamt of trains.
More recently I’ve wondered whether anyone in one particular house on one particular morning woke to the word, “DUMPLINGS!”
In case its occupants are reading, I’ll explain: An even bigger boy, who’d long outgrown my back—who would soon out-grow the pram—was asking me, at 5am, about our dinner plans.
For once, I had a plan, but my answer was too soft for him to hear. Mindful of the hour, I repeated it; not louder, but more urgently: “Dumplings!”
“WHAT? WHAT YOU SAY?”
That was us.
A few years back, my mother got talking to a woman she’d sat next to on a plane. The woman said she and her travel companion were close friends who walked together daily. When she mentioned their suburb, my mother described me.
They could picture me instantly, and when my mother told the story later on, I could picture them. The next time we crossed paths, we stopped to chat.
Now, a stranger who’d been watching me “for years” was telling me where she lived. It was a street I’d been passing each morning since before our youngest child, now four, was born.
“I think of myself as Crazy Walking Lady,” I told her, laughing to show I wasn’t actually crazy. Too quickly she confirmed: “You are.”
I’d never noticed her, but she said she’d been watching from her window since my current companion entered the world. I told her he starts school this year; I’m bracing for the day he says: enough!
“No!” she said. “Keep going!” As if we could stop time.
She told me it was nice to meet me—“finally”—and then we parted ways.
Weeks have passed but somehow the routine is yet to change. Our youngest child still wakes in darkness, calls to me, or pads into our room. I quietly dress, we both sneak out. Outside I strap him in a pram that’s carried him for hours; kilometers, years.
He still happily complies, though he’d refuse during the day; it’s what we do, it’s what we’ve always done. We leave his father and his brothers fast asleep, and walk before the dawn.
I was a morning walker well before I was a mother, but “morning” then meant at or after sunrise, not before. Afterwards I had a live alarm clock, I had company, and weights.
At first I’d strap them on my chest, later they’d be tucked against my back, and finally, seated in the pram: awake, alert, quizzing me about our day, our plans, the world, making me hiss “DUMPLINGS” far too loud.
All three woke with the birds. Sometimes it was 5am, but quite often before. Sometimes I tried to settle them, mostly I gave up, snuck out. Even if I’d barely slept I didn’t really mind. The movement lulled them back to sleep, our absence let the others stay asleep. And I was free to walk and dream, to drink the morning sky, to think, to pray.
In time they grew more wakeful. Later they would babble, before long they’d converse. Sometimes I’d tell stories, made up as we went, and starring them.
As each child started sleeping longer, we’d start walking later, or I’d slip out all alone while they slept on. Until, that is, another came along.
But not this time.
Our third child is now four years old. He is seventeen kilograms. Soon he’ll be trotting down our street in a small-but-still-too-big school uniform. Soon he’ll say he’s too big for the pram. And this time, there’s no baby on the way. This stage is drawing to a close, for good. But what a stage it’s been. And what a way to start each day.
Thanks to these early starts, I know where the local wallabies feast, where possums hide, where the watchful dogs and wakeful people live.
I’ve seen the first planes of the day blink sleepily across the sky as the last stars fade from view. I’ve witnessed sunrise after sunrise—some a gentle blush, others radiant, intoxicating gold. I’ve lost an hour’s sleep a day, or more, I’ve gained another world.
In winter, when clear nights stretch longer at both ends, I’ve walked beneath a canopy of stars, and tip-toed upon ice. I’ve seen frost beneath the streetlight that will not survive the sunlight. Strangely once, in summer, we saw snow.
One year I saw a meteor, another time a comet—tail and all. I cannot tell you how astonished, how in awe I felt. I’ve even seen a line of satellites, drifting in formation—a mystery solved online once home, a wonder at the time.
And though I knew the moon is prone to grow and shrink, to rise and fall, I’d never noticed how, across the weeks and months, it swings and dances all around the sky.
Some mornings it is nowhere to be seen. The clouds create a roof that’s prone to leak or cave right in. But even when the rain’s relentless, out we go—why stay inside? My boy is sheltered by a plastic covering, I have a raincoat and I’m willing to be washed.
Two weeks after a stranger says she’s been watching for years, another lady says hello to me. She’s crossed from the opposite footpath, she’s pushing a pram herself; she’s in her sixties, maybe seventies, but she looks strong and fit. She tells me she’s a runner, has seen me many times for many years. She asks how many years it’s been, how many kids. I tell her more than 10, and three, all boys.
The lady introduces me to her companion, her five-month-old grandson. He’s just slept over at her house—a first! Slept through, too! So when he woke she thought, why not? Come on! Let’s walk.
Before we go our separate ways the lady says that, seeing me, she sees herself, some 30 years ago. And what she often thinks is what she tells me now: “you’ll be me, one day.”
An aging grandma said that I’d be her one day. Her words did not confront me, I felt glad. She said it joyously. She was content with what she’d been and had become. Her children now had children, she had reached another stage. It wasn’t sad; it was the very stuff of life.
Yesterday I saw myself in thirty years. Today, I left my baby with his brothers and his dad, and walked alone.
Emma Wilkins is a Tasmanian journalist and freelance writer who currently spends more time wrangling children than words, but enjoys both immensely. She loves thinking and writing about faith, friendship and literature (and, until recently, pushing her youngest child up steep hills in the dark). Connect with her on Facebook.
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