I took Milo and Floyd for a morning walk in the cemetery. It was cool yet, but warming, the sun burning overcast into California blue. We walked a paved path on the side of a hill marked with graves. I showed Milo how if you stand just so, the sound of the fountain below bounces off a headstone and makes it seem as if there is an invisible waterfall right beside you. You can run along and hear the water sounds pulsing in your ears as you pass each stone.
There are low retaining walls on each side of the path; roly polies scuttled across them in the morning light. I pointed one out to Milo, touching it gently with my forefinger. He chortled with delight.
“Him maked ball!”
“Now watch,” I said. “Quietly.”
Just when it seemed the roly poly would never uncurl, it did, and Milo, excited, exclaimed, “Him comin’ out! Him comin’ out! Here him… oh! Oh. Him maked ‘nother ball.”
“Shhh… you scared him. You can’t make a roly poly come out, but he will if we are quiet.”
“So quiet,” I whispered.
“And ‘neaky!” he whispered back.
“Yes, so sneaky.”
It was a lesson in patience and quietude. Three times the roly poly started to uncurl. Twice Milo leaned in too close and his shadow fell across it. It tucked its legs in and snapped shut.
“Oh!” said Milo.
“He thinks you’re a birdy coming to eat him!” I said. He giggled.
“My not birdy ’cause my not have any wings.”
The third time, Floyd flounced by with his jingling collar and sniffing black nose. Milo admonished, “No, F’oyd, no! You ‘cared dat yittle ball-bug.”
And then we did it. We sat still enough, long enough, that the small terrestrial crustacean came fully out, on its back, legs treading the air in seeming futility. I know that a roly poly can flip itself — my sisters and I spent many a childhood afternoon in roly poly observation — but I still had to repress the urge to reach in and give it a boost. It looked so helpless, but it wasn’t. Little by little, the roly poly got itself rocking side to side until finally it reached a couple legs to the ground and then, flip! It was over and on its way.
Milo loved this. A new game. Every other minute he had to stop to challenge another roly poly to a demonstration of its innate skills for self-preservation: first a ball, then a wait, then a struggle and a flip. Roly polies don’t dwell: once they are on their feet again, they scuttle on, business as usual.
As a parent, these moments and lessons are wonderful. They are also tedious. An adult can stop to harass a single roly poly and then be satisfied. A three-year-old, however, is willing, able, and driven to experience something like this again and again… and again. As Milo stopped for the tenth or twentieth time, I started to urge him to abandon the roly polies and continue our walk. Then I stopped myself and took a breath instead, looking up at the trees and sky, reminding myself that we had nowhere to be, no rush to leave. I had taken a run early in the morning, so my daily exercise needs were already met; and Floyd goes romping up and down the hills, exercising himself, whether we cover miles of ground or just sit around making daisy chains. This walk was about Milo, not me. I could take an hour out of my morning to move at his pace. The pace of a roly poly.
Watching Milo watching roly polies, I picked a yellow dandelion and held it to my nose. In adulthood, dandelions became a nuisance when we lived in Pennsylvania and our yard was overrun with them. But in my midwestern childhood, they were only delightful: pretty little flowers we were allowed to pick and use as we pleased. They never lasted long as bouquets, but we picked them anyway. We opened the hollow stems and touched the watery inside parts on our sunburns and scabbed knees, like aloe. We rubbed the yellow blossoms on our wrists and chins and the backs of each other’s hands, watching the yellow come off on our skin.
And when they turned to seed, we wished and blew them away into the wind.
“Here, Milo,” I said, “I picked a dandelion for you.”
He took the yellow weed from me and looked at it suspiciously, “Dis dandy-yion?”
“Yeah. It’s a dandelion for you!”
He blew on it. He blew again.
“Oh, darn it,” he said. “Dis one not ripe yet.”