I wearily trudge up the stairs, my knee joints groaning in pain. Annoyance is writ large on my face as I open the door to Ammu’s bedroom. Ammu and Pattu are lying together, arms encircling each other. Ammu is holding on to Pattu’s earlobe in a gesture that is strangely comforting.
I split them up and shoo Pattu back to her room reminding her that it is a weekday and that she can share sleeping quarters with her sister over the weekend. She gathers her pillow and blanket and walks reluctantly through the shared bathroom to her room which is bathed in the glow of the pink nightlight. I tuck them both in, whispering admonishment should they attempt to sneak into each others’ room again. They smile, nod and dutifully close their eyes.
I am in my study, relishing the few hours of me time, half on alert for giggling noises from above. I realize with a start that they will be turning a year older in a few short days. Didn’t it seem like just now that I was shopping for 6 and 6X clothing? Earlier this evening, I stood in front of their shared closet space dumping their clothes on the floor, discarding and sorting them into piles. With each tiny shorts I put away, I felt a pang for the years and memories left behind.
“We have to wear green for St. Patty’s day,” says Ammu. “If we don’t the leprechauns will get us,” she growls, her fingers extended claw like. “Try this on,” I say as I toss a skinny jean to her. She shimmies and wiggles her lean torso into the garment which fits like second skin. Hands on her hips, she half turns to see her backside and for a second, I can almost imagine a teenaged Ammu inspecting herself in the mirror for fit and shape. I shake my head and urge her give the pant back to me.
The days seem to stretch between one birthday to another but the years seem to be flying past. Once acquiescent kids now rebel. They talk back, they make faces, roll their eyes and mutter under their breath. I can feel the mutinous thoughts radiate from them as I insist they follow rules when it comes to finishing homework or washing hands with soap and water as soon as they are back from school. The biggest change this past year has been in the way appearances matter to them.
“My friends will laugh at me,” is a common refrain whenever Pattu does not want to wear something. Both the girls are quick to tears and easy to dismiss people as mean. Even as I try and reason with them, I half understand the pressures of wanting to fit in, be liked and accepted.
Ammu prowls the kitchen foraging for snacks as dinner time approaches. I send her back to the dining table with promises of food following her. I set bowls of steaming hot rice and vegetables and sit back to watch them blow carefully and savor their food. As they grow, their palette has expanded. If Ammu craves spice, Pattu craves nice. One girl eats cereal for breakfast while the other waits patiently for piping hot dosas with a side of chutney.
They lace up their shoes themselves, don layers of jackets and are raring to go long before the school bus gets to our stop. Nascent friendships and the lure of free play pull them. I watch from the sidelines as they try to join existing cliques. I ache with them as they are brushed off and stand together outside the group. Some days Ammu sits at the kitchen island, eyes brimming with tears as she recounts some vague injustice done to her. I hug, wipe away tears and promise a better day hoping it will come true.
Each day, they bring back homework and we struggle through it as a team. As they wrap up and push their folders away, I feel a curious mixture of pride and relief. As they bound away to their imaginative play, I stand lingering over their neat handwriting, sometimes tracing my fingers over what they have written. I moon over misspelled words and naive bravery that only children can express in words on paper. I snap a picture or two and file them away.
I look back on the year gone past and see minuscule changes adding up. Outgrown clothes, independent reading, two digit addition and subtraction, projects for women history month, longer hair, increased attention to clothes, gossip over evening milk and snacks, whispers late in the night, rebellion and a need for family like never before.
Happy birthday sweethearts! May you grow up to be sassy, bold, bossy girls.