We sat outside the tent on a gloriously hot summer morning; the sun shining through the bluest of Black Forest blue skies, warming my skin and doing a very nice job of drying out the night’s condensation from the roof of the tent. H was writing up his travel notes, I was knitting, scribbling a few notes of my own and chatting to Pip as he pulled up on a tree stump, and the girls were off playing in the little play area a few feet away. Elma, as always, was on the roundabout, for once not surrounded by a group of older girls who wanted to make her their pet, just sitting, lazily spinning and looking up into the trees. And Kitty had made friends.
All through France the girls had very much kept to themselves, perhaps put off a little by some of the French kids’ tendency to march up to you and demand “what is your name!” (Kitty, telling me about it in the tent later turned with a conspiratorial glance, “I didn’t tell her Mummy!”), and perhaps happy just to be with each other when everything else felt new and different. But in Switzerland there were smiles and by the time we got to Germany it was lovely to see them falling in with the group games in our car free camping. A lot of the others were also English which probably helped but I went to find Kitty for supper one evening and found her sat quite happily with two other girls doing some colouring in. They didn’t have a single word in common but perhaps there is a universal language of sparkly glitter pens and pictures of unicorns.
The next morning she was eager to go and find her friends again, and we kept half an eye open as they played on the swings or piled on the roundabout. And then it was clearly time for the stream. The car free camping (truly a genius idea when you have small children) was the other side of a stream from the car park and while there was a bridge, the little brook and its stepping stones were oh so much fun and at most times you’d find at least some of the children jumping back and forth or wading in the cool water.
The leaders set off, and Kitty, walking alongside, suddenly realised where they were headed and looked back and over to us. And oh how I recognised that look and the silent entreaty that came with it. It’s the look and the thought that I remember from childhood all the way up into my teens, the “please Mum may I and also please be cool in front of my friends”.
I smiled back, and with the tiniest of hand gestures waved her on, down to the stream with her friends, and out of our immediate line of sight.
And then ever so coincidentally I just happened to need to get my scissors from the car, and on my way back, well it was just so lovely up on the bank above the stream that I thought I’d sit on a tree stump and drink it in for a while while I wrote a few notes. Far enough away that I wasn’t really there, and near enough that I was there if she needed me, or at least as a depository for wet clothes when the inevitable happened so she could keep on playing.
And saying yes and letting go suddenly made almost five years feel like it had gone past in a flash. The little voice in the back of my mind whispered “that’s your baby, wasn’t she just a few months old yesterday, isn’t she actually tiny and bumbling and so very young and fearless”. And so I looked and looked and my heart sang back “yay, look, she’s having so much fun. She’s strong and tall and surefooted and not bothered when she slips and lands in the stream on her bottom, and this is exactly the sort of experience we wanted her to have while we travelled! yippee!”.
I know that in a few years it won’t be memorable, and in a few years she and I will both have grown enough that I won’t even follow at a distance, I’ll have faith that she is big enough and has enough common sense not to get into too much trouble. But this was the first time we stretched that safety net a little bit, the first time that she wanted to run off and play and the first time that I’ve had to make good on my mental promise to myself to give her (and her brother and sister) the kind of freedom to explore that I had growing up.
And hearing her sheer joy and enthusiasm when she told us all about it later on, I’m so glad I didn’t bottle it. Now I just have to do it again, and again, and again.