One of two sentiments usually surfaces when I’m around small children.
The first is annoyance — usually evoked in a hot and cramped public space by the squeal and blabber of high-pitched voices. On airplanes, the echoing cries of babies itch my nerves and frustrate my already-sleep-derived body. In grocery store lines, I let out an exasperated sigh at the kindergartener elbowing me in the thigh, biting my tongue as they proceed to trample my toes in excitement. It’s not that I dislike children. I’m just helpless to the annoyance that bubbles up when children exacerbate an already-irritating situation.
The second, much kinder sentiment is a mushy-gushy, heart-melting adoration. It’s accompanied by “oos” and “ahs” and wide-eyed smiles in an attempt to greet the child as one of their own. I’m able to observe the child, decorated in pastels and armored with an unsuspecting look of curiosity about everything in the world. Smiling at their endearing energy, I’m nostalgic for my childhood misadventures.
But occasionally, my encounter with a child (or two) evokes both annoyance and adoration, making them one and the same.
One particularly warm Saturday, I was walking to meet my sister for lunch at a hotpot restaurant. Before I could even question the decision to eat hotpot on a 104-degree day — before I could even connect my airpods — erratic footsteps and high-pitched squeals broke my silence. Two young girls in identical pigtail braids and flowery blue dresses darted from my periphery to the center of my vision. I caught a glimpse of their straight-cut bangs, resting just above their twinkling eyes. Both looked around 5 years old with insurmountable energy.
Their laughter was incessant as they criss-crossed my line of sight. I suddenly felt old and immobile with my enormous sunglasses and lethargic gait. Their parents lagged behind me, leaving the twins (I assumed) to flit about the fenced-off path. I should’ve figured we were all heading to the same place. Why else would the children be in a state of such joy?
And thus my walk proceeded, trapped between the giddy twins in front and their strolling parents behind me. I felt like the family’s older daughter or even the babysitter, caught between two distinct stages of life and unacknowledged by either. After I realized that I would be stuck in this situation until we reached our destination, I decided to observe the twins whose presence was so hard to ignore.
I watched as their shiny black braids spun around their faces, the ends like the bristles of paint brushes. The two sisters linked hands, chubby fingers interweaved in a messy knot. They exchanged remarks about the heat, preschool, their dresses, and what desserts they wanted to indulge in after hotpot. The more I watched and listened, the more I wanted to join them. I wanted to shrink into my favorite green dress with pink flowers embroidering the neckline and boast playful braids that would bounce with my footsteps. I wanted to reach out and grasp onto my sister’s hand, spilling everything on my mind without filter or regard. Were we ever that close?
Undoubtedly we were, because in asking that question, I felt the depth of the love and affection I had for her. But when I searched for a specific memory as evidence of our connection, my mind drew a blank.
Growing up, I found it annoying that my sister would ever want to match with me — outfits, hairstyles, hobbies, favorite ______s. There were too many times that I was “too cool” or “too busy” to give her my full attention. And now I don’t have the chance.
She’s like me now, I thought. Busy with other people and experiences and things that don’t involve me. We’d meet at the hotpot restaurant, but we’d never be able to hold hands and skip in sync. Instead she’d arrive by bike or bus. Certainly, when we met, her eyes, just like mine, would inquire and empathize and listen. But the time we’d have would be limited and the gap in our understanding of each other would only widen. That gap was nonexistent in the twins who strode shoulder-to-shoulder up the steps to our destination.
I blinked and tried to frame that image in my memory. The matching dresses danced in the wind, carried by the jubilant spirit of sisterhood. Caught up in comparing sisterly relationships, I heard someone say my name.
I glanced up, eyes still framed by sunglasses and brows knit. My sister walked up to me with a smile. There was no jumping or squealing, no excessive declaration of joy. I moved in for a hug, pushing down the loss and longing that had bloomed in the past few minutes.
“You ready for a good meal?”
I nodded. “I’m so ready.”
“Same as always?”
Perhaps I was still trapped in the past, because I didn’t respond for a second. When I looked at her again, I found myself met with the same eyes I knew so well. I saw hints of anticipation and expectation peeking out from the guarded nonchalance of adulthood. I grinned.
“Of course. Get what looks good and we’ll share everything.” In a rush of nostalgia, I linked arms with her and we half-skipped, half-stumbled into the restaurant. The waiter gave us a look but I was too busy laughing to notice.