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Rocks and Rainbows


Running along the bike path near our house on the way home from an ice cream outing, Liddy jumps into the air over and over again, determined to reach heights high enough to grasp a leaf off a branch. Finally, finally, she gets one.

Feels so good getting what I want,” she whispers fiercely to herself, repackaging and redefining Iggy Azalea’s omnipresent “Fancy” lyrics into something suited to the mindset of an eight-year-old.

Liddy holds onto the leaf all the way home, pleased not only with her success but with the precise shade of green the leaf holds, the smell and “crispiness” of it.

“You have to feel this, Mommy,” she says, holding the crumpled leaf out to me like a gift. “Smell it.”

At not-quite nine, there is still, for Liddy, such pleasure to be taken from ordinary things. She begs me to buy her a glittery ring as a memento when we are on vacation and I realize, following her eyes, that it is actually the tiny cardboard gift box it comes in that she’s after.

At home I offer her another jewelry box, inky blue and felt-covered. She examines it, opening and closing the hinged lid, and then asks breathlessly, “Can I just have this?” and slips out the spongey cushion inside. She runs with it to her bedroom and adds it to one of her collections of tiny, valueless (to the adult eye) treasures.

On Liddy’s bedroom floor is a large poster board—a work-in-progress she calls Crafts No One Would Think Of. She peels the outside frame from a sheet of stickers, leaving the stickers themselves behind, and uses the frame as a stencil to trace indiscernible shapes on the poster board, coloring them in with a bright pencils. Over the shapes, she tapes a curtain of fringe made from salvaged beige packing material.

“A rainbow! A rainbow!” she shrieks from the backseat of the car one day. I look in the rearview mirror and see that she is looking not at the sky but in her hand, where she is trying to catch hold of a shimmer of colors reflecting off the metal seatbelt.

Decades ago, just after graduating from college (and long before marriage and kids), my now-husband John and I served as VISTA volunteers in Austin, Texas. John worked with Tibetan refugees, and his organization’s big annual fundraising event culminated with the building of a Sand Mandala, a dramatic, traditional work of art created painstakingly by monks over several days’ time.

John was there when a group of young school kids came through to watch the monks building their masterpiece grain by colorful grain. The kids’ attention held for all of a few minutes before they began wandering the building in search of something more interesting. A few of them approached the organization’s information table with its pamphlets and newsletters.

“Free business cards?” one of the girls exclaimed, incredulous. The message was repeated across the group of kids and there was a rush on the table.

For years, the expression “free business cards” represented, for us, our nieces’ and nephews’—or really, anyone’s—inexplicable interest in the otherwise mundane things of the world. It was a funny anecdote then. Now, the chance to experience moments like it is something I savor.

I know—because I also have a ten-year-old—that Liddy’s admiration for small, ordinary things will evaporate without notice someday soon, and will be replaced by a desire for things like Beats headphones or her own bathroom. But for the moment, at least, it is alive and in full force.

Lately, Liddy has been collecting rocks. Not dramatic, surf-worn stones from the coast, but ordinary silt-colored rocks plucked from driveways and the crevices of our neighborhood’s concrete sidewalks.

She rinses them in the sink and polishes them with a paper towel, then arranges them by color on surfaces all over the house.

“I think I’m going to have a rock sale,” she announces one morning, studying her finds.

I stifle a laugh and aim for diplomacy. “Okay, so…who are you expecting will want to buy these rocks?”

And then, her eyes go wide with disbelief as she asks the all-important question:

Who wouldn’t?”

Photo by Megan Dempsey

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This entry was written by Karen Dempsey

About the author: Karen Dempsey has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her @karenedempsey.

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