We were at a country wedding on the weekend. It was a perfect, clear and crisp winter’s day and the couple were married in a short ceremony under a simple canopy in the watery sunshine. Afterwards we moved inside to an old farm building with wonky, handmade bricks paving the entry-floor, wreaths of greenery and fairly lights wound around the exposed beams, and a huge, roaring fire in one corner to which we all instantly flocked, hands out.
It wasn’t a big wedding. Most of the people there were family or life-long friends, so there was an easy, informal camaraderie to the room. No set places or awkward conversations with strangers at the table.
At the back of an old wooden stage, a DJ played the kinds of tracks you hear at every wedding, everywhere, and the children, an assorted gaggle of cousins ranging age from five to fifteen, busted their best moves. My two, as the youngest of the group, were often the ringleaders, dragging their older cousins back to the dance floor whenever they showed signs of waning. Later, after the bridal waltz, the grown-ups joined in too, couples dissolving into laughing groups with children riding on shoulders, as we all stumbled through the half-forgotten moves to Nutbush City Limits, YMCA, and the dreaded Macarena. Actually I think they played that one twice.
As the afternoon lengthened and the night grew dark around us, our little party carried on, a bright oasis of laughter and music, shining out from the middle of the otherwise empty fields.
One of the uncles was the first to fold, slumping in his chair beside the table, chin on chest. People posed behind him, bunny-ear fingers hovering over his head, but he gently snored, oblivious. Next to go was Ralph. I sat him beside a table to adjust his shoelaces for half a minute, and in that time he simply lay down, put his thumb in his mouth, and closed his eyes.
Then he opened them again and said, “Mummy, I’m too hot.” I carried him out to the entrance room, stepping carefully in my heels over the wonky, ancient brick floor, and eased the two of us down into an armchair. It was much cooler out there but I put a coat over Ralph and watched the party through the swinging glass doors, as he fell almost instantly asleep.
People came and went, pausing to smile or kiss his dark curls, but mostly it was just Ralph and me, his soft breathing, his sleeping body keeping me warm. I soaked it all in, painfully aware that this time for us, him sleeping in my arms, was not a forever thing.
Recently my friend Sally shared online about the joys of being a parent to her two grown-up girls. She talked about how there is a lot of airspace and celebration given to the precious moments we share with our small children, but less about the changed although still beautiful relationship that comes when they are adults. I was glad she shared these stories - I’m always glad when I hear stories about parents with older children - because I know that my own “precious moments” with my little ones are limited. “Our children are only on loan,” Sally’s mother told her, and she told me, and I wonder if my own compulsion to share these moments with you is because I am trying, through my words, to freeze them in time. As if by writing them down I am forced to be more mindful of them, to appreciate them, before they are gone forever.
Inside the function room, the DJ began playing Walk the Dinosaur. I couldn’t see the stage from my little armchair but from what I could hear, every guest at the wedding aside from me, Ralph and the sleeping cousin was up on the stage, dancing and singing along. And not one of them could hold a tune.
When it was time to leave, my husband gathered up coats, bags and our daughter, and I eased myself clumsily out of that chair, still holding the leaden weight of my not-so-little boy, and clutching a coat over his back to keep him warm as we ventured into the winter night air. I made slow progress back to the car, trying to pick out footsteps in the broken and bumpy unlit path, wearing heels, and carrying a heavy, sleeping child.
Once off the path there was no light at all aside from the stars and we got lost, turning first one way and walking a hundred yards or so before realising our mistake and turning in the other direction, then finally inching our way down over a ditch and into a paddock, to where the parked car gleamed dully in the distance. I shifted Ralph’s weight in my arms, clasping a wrist in each hand to stop him from slipping… and then with a yell I didn’t realise had left my lips until I heard it, stepped into a puddle of mud half-way up to my knees.
Ralph woke to my yell, and we stood there precariously, me holding still him up but unable to get out of the puddle, since my shoes were sunk so deep in mud that they stayed behind whenever I tried to lift my feet out. When my husband came to rescue us, I needed to hold onto his shoulders with both my hands to leverage myself (and my shoes) out of that puddle.
Back on dry land, I poured mud and water out of my shoes as though they were goblets, and hobbled in my swampy, stocking-feet over to the car. The children woke themselves up just enough to find the whole scenario extremely amusing, except that from time to time Ralph would pause the laughter and remember his part in the episode, saying, “Mum, you could have dropped me!” in shocked and accusatory tones.
The moon rose on our drive home. Both children slept in the back seats, and Mr B and I kept up a quiet conversation with one another, more to help him stay awake as he drove, than because either of us had anything particularly important to say. While we chatted, the moon came up big and yellow, a lumpy kind of almost-full-but-not-quite moon. A floating quince in the sky. I watched it as we sped past shadowy trees and black hills that rose and fell beside the road, my mind drifting away from my wet feet and back to the upholstered armchair where Ralph had slept so angelically in my arms, until the city lights ahead stole the moon’s glamour and signalled that we were almost home.
I paused at our front door - a heavy, sleeping Ralph once again resting his head on my shoulder - and smiled up at the quince-moon as it quietly watched us from the eastern sky. I wondered what we looked like from up there. All the moments and events of our short lives, both momentous and minute, weighted equally and witnessed in silence. Weddings, funerals, dancing shoes, swampy shoes. Lovers uniting, marriages ending, mysteries solved, questions forming.
If I think my time with my children is all too short, this must be laughable to the ancient moon, for whom ten years or twenty pass like a breath.
Early the next morning I stepped outside the same front porch, my own breath making mist of the air around me, and watched a hot-air balloon rise in exactly the same patch of sky where the moon had bid me goodnight a few hours earlier. The dawn was very still, and the balloon seemed to be suspended for a moment, not drifting. With its yellow and cream stripes, being almost-but-not-quite round, it looked as though the quince-moon had swathed itself in a coat and defied the very laws of space, refusing to orbit and instead choosing to pause, at least for a little while, in our company. As if maybe she cared.
And then with a loud “pschhh” and a flash of orange flames, the pilot trapped more warm air under the balloon, and it began to rise, slowly floating away from me and into the east. The spell was broken, the moon was gone, and I went inside to make breakfast.