I am in central Missouri in springtime for the first time in seven years.
My nephew, who was just four when I left for college, is now a quick-witted 11-year-old with feet the same size as mine. I see him nearly every day, from a safe distance and always outside. Our adventures, like our trip this weekend to the valleys and bluffs just south of town, have set the tone for this period of unexpected homecoming.
I skip down the trail enjoying the gently humid air and the sunshine catching nascent elm leaves as he darts between grape vines dangling from the trees. The forest floor is littered with plants I learned by heart as a girl: spring beauties, bloodroot, May apples, wild ginger, trout lilies. Their familiarity has made me forget, on more than one occasion, how long it has been since I last ran through a Missouri spring.
As we pass below jutted bluffs and make our way down to the creek, I watch my nephew explore, teasing the water’s edge. Aspects of who he will become shimmer in the late afternoon light: the side of his jaw that will grow more defined, the kooky and mischievous grin that may one day smite a girl, the strength of his growing legs that will send him high above me. I bask in this idea as he takes a daring leap to a boulder rising out of the water. He makes it, just barely, and his shoe dips into the creek. It all starts with a shoe.
He jumps back to the bank and now a foot is in the water. Now the other. Soon it’s an ankle. Then up to his calves and he is wading in the creek–with that kooky grin plastered on his face. I’m grinning too. “Ok, that’s deep enough, we don’t want to get your shorts wet,” I advise.
As we make our way down the creek under the shelter of tall sycamores, he dips in a bit deeper and the cuff of his shorts touch the water. I know it’s done for. In five minutes, he’s shoulder deep, hurling himself after his “drowning” florescent orange hoodie that just must be saved. I sit down on the rocks beside the deep pool and make a willing audience.
Now, he is playing the part of a lifeguard who is too nervous to get in. But never fear! In a quick spin, he is himself again and bravely charges after the jacket. It is too rich a moment to worry about the cold that will inevitably follow or the concerns that may come from Grandma and Grandpa who are plotting along down the trail after us. He is 11 and his little being may just need this.
I do not know what it is like to be a child in a global pandemic. To be told that you can’t be within ten feet of your aunt, or see your friends, or go to school because of an invisible enemy. But I do know how good it feels to be alive on a spring afternoon.
In the shelter of these bluffs, the rest of the world melts away to just the three of us: aunt, nephew, and creek.