She used to say she was Bubbles, the gentlest of the Power Puff girls. Before that she was Po, the sweetest of the Teletubbies. These days she is Piglet, the smallest and wisest of Winnie the Pooh’s friends. To Kara, her mother, she is no one else but Julia. But to me, she will always be the little pink lotus bud, the one who reminds me of the cycles of time. She turns three on Tuesday.
We begin each morning by watching the goings-on in the garden pond. Some snails are nibbling at the decaying lotus leaves. I lift one of them from its sticky perch, and at once it withdraws into its shell. A few tadpoles are swimming with the fish, while an indifferent frog sits still on a mossy stone. A lizard briskly emerges from the water and momentarily glistens in the sun. Julia points at a yellow butterfly, barely distinguishable from the tiny flowers of the peanut plants.
But the center of our attention, the focus of our daily contemplation of life, is always the lotus. And on this particular day, this magnificent plant offers us not one but three radiant pink flowers. They are all in full bloom, and are about to close, to assume the final pose of halfclosed buds swollen with memories of wind and sun. Tomorrow they will be gone.
But my granddaughter and I will be back every morning searching for the promise of another bud. I take as many photographs as I can of each flower from the moment it signals its presence as a tentative bud until its last appearance on the surface of the water as a floating bouquet of tiny pink candles. At certain times of the year, when the water in the pond is rich, the buds come in quick succession. Then we have a hard time telling the flower that was yesterday’s bud from the one that came before it.
I tell Julia that she is like a lotus bud. Soon she will be like a radiant flower like her mother and grandmother. And before she realizes it, there will be other lotus buds admiring her and waiting for their turn in the pond. A bit of your mother and your grandmother, I tell her, lives in you, and in turn you will pass this on to those who will come after you. So you see, I say, though the flowers may wilt and die, their beauty is immortal. It reappears in every new bud.
She probably will remember little of this philosophical gibberish when she is old. It does not really matter. Maybe I say these things not so much to her as to the little child inside me whose impossible wish is to witness the birthing and closing of all the lotuses. For I would really hate to miss her own blooming.
But a lotus, in any event, is perhaps hardly the metaphor to associate with Julia. She does not possess its stillness; she is a hyperactive child. She loves basketball, and every morning when every sinew in her body is fully awake, she takes my hand, and orders me: “Lolo, let’s shoot the ball.”
I have realized that more than shooting the ball into the basket, it is dribbling the ball that is truly difficult for a little child. It requires a synchronicity of movement – the harmonizing of bouncing and dribbling – which can be the most frustrating activity in the world. Julia simply refuses to throw the ball into the basket without dribbling it first. She is slowly mastering this preliminary ritual. I remind her that the main event is the shooting itself, but she will not hear of any suggestion to short-circuit the process. She has an admirable concept of achievement; she rejects any applause or even a consoling remark for failed attempts. But she insists that I bear witness to her every triumph.
I am now convinced that the self of a person suddenly emerges between the ages of two and three. This is the point where the child just matter-of-factly begins to refer to herself as “I” rather than “Julia,” for example. From this moment on, she assumes a perspective of her own that is different from that of the adults around her. She is no longer just Julia, the object of others’ perception. She is also above all now a subject, a separate “I.”
Since June this year, Julia has been attending pre-school. Last week, she surprised her teacher by submitting a drawing with a clear signature at the bottom: “Julia.” I don’t know if she colored it pink, for that’s the color she pairs with her name. She comes to me as I work at my desk, tells me she wants to write, and then proceeds to switch on the laptop computer. She points at the icon for Word and asks me to open it. She types her name on the screen and asks me to color it pink. After that she writes all the names by which she refers to all of us in the house, and we are each assigned a color. We end this ritual by printing the precious document in full color.
Julia’s own self, no doubt, has emerged, but this is not yet quite the “thinking ego” of Kant, the one that reflects and remembers and yearns to make an account of its thoughts. I would often ask her what school was like today. She would look at me as if to ask what I meant, and say nothing. Her Lola Karina thinks she might be a natural Buddhist, someone who has learned to live perpetually in the present and who cannot be bothered by the past. It’s a romantic view, but I am more inclined to think that the ability to remember and to talk about it is something that is learned.
Sometimes I feel I am spending more time with Julia than I ever did with my own children when they were growing up. But I know this is just an impression. Every time I look at my granddaughter, glimpses of her mother at play return to me with the vividness of a lotus in full bloom. This recurring sensation humbles me and reassures me of life’s enduring capacity to renew itself.