Head over heels in love with baby Olive

By Libby Copeland
Sunday, May 9, 2010

We walk a lot, Olive and I. She was born almost nine months ago, our first child, and she is lovely and smart and strong and all the other qualities parents ascribe to their babies. (But really, she is.) Mostly I tote her on my chest in a carrier, my hand around the back of her head, and as we go to and from the playgrounds near our home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, I think about things I never used to think about. We cross the street and I think: Everyone was a baby once, with the softest skin. Even that tough, pouchy-eyed guy in the truck. Isn't that weird?

I think: What shortcomings of mine will she vow not to emulate when she's 20? What exactly will make her bristle when someone says "you remind me of your mother"?

Her hair is fluffy like cotton candy; in the wind it sticks straight up. She smells wonderfully of spit. I am in love.

The other day Olive and I were on the playground outside our building, and an elderly couple emerged. The woman, who walked haltingly with a cane, paused to peer through the chain-link fence at Olive in her baby swing. Old women like to stop and talk to Olive, who grins gratuitously at them. She praised Olive's smile and started telling us stories about her daughter and granddaughter, and how this time is precious, worth more than diamonds or furs.

The woman's mate had kept walking, using the same ploy adults use to keep their toddlers moving, until, several yards ahead, he paused and waited tautly as his companion reminisced with great tenderness. She couldn't help herself; the words tumbled forth in a rush of history. She'd move a foot toward the man and stop again to beam at Olive. She spoke with familiarity, as if we were picking up a conversation from the elevator. At last the man said, "Today?" in exasperation. The woman ignored him, said that thing about diamonds and furs again. Told a dirty-diaper story. "Today?" the man asked again. The woman turned. We have plenty of time, she told him. It's just breakfast, she said. And she kept on talking.

We don't have time. I'm terribly conscious of it. Every moment is gone as I notice it. In our old lives all we had was time -- wasted time, long evenings, late mornings. But now: Isn't it strange how time compresses, how you can be nostalgic for a thing even as you're in the midst of it? I've never been so aware of how unstable life is, how it never pauses, not even for a night. In her sleep she is growing. In the middle of the night she pulls herself up to stand for the first time, and can't get down. She cries. My husband goes in to save her.

Now Olive tries to pull herself up constantly, everywhere -- on a glass coffee table and a rocking chair. We are just her spotters; we crouch behind her strong, chubby legs. There's an inevitability, an urgency, to this first stage of life, the way the body and the brain keep growing. She observes, she imitates, she experiments, with or without any concerted effort on our part to teach her. If she's fast or slow, we can't take credit or blame. Hardy dandelion child.

Much, much later the body goes the other way with just as much irresistible force. We pass more old women, and I realize that Olive may have these elbow dimples once more. Eventually, if she lives long enough, many of the things she needs us for now she'll need again. The feeding, the washing. Hands under her arms when she walks. It's so unfair I won't be able to do it again.

We walk. She falls asleep in the carrier with her head on my chest. I've never known this much fullness, can't think too hard or it becomes overwhelming. I try to focus on now, the things I can be sure of.

I am sure of my favorite parts of her, like the soft expanse under her chin, where pastes of pureed broccoli hide. When we kiss it, she delivers an oddly deep belly laugh, like a tiny old man. Her mouth stretches wide like a rubber band and I see her upper gums, pink and naked. I do so many things imperfectly, and it is all just perfect to her.

I think: I did nothing to deserve her. Gorgeous weed.

Libby Copeland, a freelance writer in New York, was a reporter and editor in The Post's Style section from 1998 to 2009. Her e-mail address is libbycopeland@gmail.com.

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