My daughter and I flew jellyfish kites on the same hill that hosted her sledding accident the previous winter. Lanie had ponked into a thin light pole while the other bundled children sailed right past it, stopping only when their momentum ran out. I didn’t see the ponk—she was sledding with her father—but after we put her to sleep that night, he said it was as if she had aimed for the pole, as if her sled were a huge magnet. There’d been nothing for him to do but watch the inevitable unfold, check her for signs of concussion, then dry her tears before they froze to her face.
On this day the snow was long-gone and the air above the hill was crowded with kites and those creepy drones that sad dudes seem to enjoy showing off to children. Lanie’s jellyfish kite was yellow and mine was gray. The kites came in a two-pack, and I let her have the kite that would look best against the sky.
It was fairly gusty, which meant we didn’t have to do a lot of running to make our kites go. This was a gift because we both wore shoes that were barely attached to our feet. I am not the parent who excels at outing preparedness. I grab water, yes, but forget snacks and sunblock and to double-check the appropriateness of our footwear. But when the sound of Lanie’s flip-flops thlocked past me, I congratulated myself on my laid-back parenting style. Sneakers might have supported her arches, but they wouldn’t have at all added to the day’s ambiance.
Our jellyfish bobbed around together like sing-a-long dots showing the way back to the chorus until Lanie’s kite blew to the ground. Hit a wrong note. She didn’t sigh or say “damn”—she only stared in the direction of her fallen jellyfish. I’d learned not to rush Lanie, not to expect her to travel at my speed. After a full minute, she said to me, “My kite fell down.” She expressed this matter-of-factly, not a whine or a complaint.
“I saw.” My own jellyfish was still in the sky, flirting with a dragon. They couldn’t stay away from each other, they dared not get too close.
Lanie reeled in her kite. As she wound the string back around the spool, she said, “Mom, do humans have secret face signals?”
“What do you mean? Like winking?”
“No, winking isn’t a secret. It means ‘we both know the same thing.’”
“Are secret face signals a Mallow Mavens thing?”
She’d been watching this cartoon about cereal marshmallows who became superheroes when exposed to milk, and I was increasingly sure that the twenty-three minutes of peace the show afforded me was outweighed by how much it chipped away at my daughter’s intelligence.
Lanie shook her head. “You never understand what I’m talking about.”
My child-self wanted to argue. That’s not true, nuh-uh, not fair, I understand you constantly, every moment, and it’s using up all the energy I would like to be using elsewhere.
I nodded slowly to summon my parent-self. “I’m sorry it feels that way. Help me understand.”
She looked up at me without tilting her head, a gesture of partial forgiveness.
“Sometimes when I’m looking at a person, like a stranger, they make a certain face. Or, not a whole face. Just eyes. They make big eyes at me.”
“How? Can you show me?” I tried to split my attention between her face and my kite. I needed to keep it flying, otherwise we were only two people standing on a hill.
“Mom! Big bug eyes! Like this!” She bugs her eyes and really there’s only one way to make eyes bigger—so I get why she was mom-ing me.
“They make that face when they see that you’re looking at them?”
“Yeah. I don’t know how they all know what it means when I don’t.”
As I considered how to best word my next sentence—carefully devoid of accusation—a family of five spread their picnic blanket near my feet, assuming I was the kind of person who would give up on chasing my kite for them, who would let it fall instead of tramping right over their mayonnaise meal. “Is it possible… that… you are, sort of, staring at these people?”
Lanie watched the family unload their food, the plastic tubs, the slotted spoons. She watched the youngest child sit down in the middle of the blanket, not helping, right in the way. She watched a drone hover above us and then go back to where it came from.
“I stare at everything. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not everyone is as curious and perceptive as you are. You’re special.”
“Dad says you need to stop saying that.”
Lanie looked out and experienced the hill, everything at once. She watched one of the picnickers, a young boy, dip cucumbers into a white sauce. She watched the woman next to him slice an apple with a knife. She watched the man on the blanket fiddle with the corner, folding it up and down. She watched a person walk by while staring at their phone, even though the screen reflected the sky. She watched the light pole stay put. She watched my kite flirt and whip, and she watched me, her mother, trying to provide answers that were gentle, yet true enough. “So, when they make big eyes at me it means they want me to go away?”
I wanted to pull her into me, too hard and too tight, and let her and her laser eyes take life in from the safety of my armpit.
“No, I don’t think it’s that. I think they want you to stop seeing them so much.”
She began unraveling her kite string again, recalibrating her place in the world as she figured out how much string she’d need for the height she wanted. In the moment before she started running fast she said, “I don’t think they get to tell me that.”