It is New Year’s Day, 2012, and you are one day shy of thirteen months old. Now that you’ve outgrown the red onesies and the monthly progress photo shoots, I’ve set a goal of writing you an annual letter, each year from now until (ideally) your eighteenth birthday. But then your birthday passed and I didn’t get around to writing the letter. Then Christmas. Then New Year’s Eve. Now the calendar has turned and, if I don’t get on it soon, your annual letter will come on no occasion more special than “the day Mommy finally remembered to write it.” So here it is, your first annual New Year’s Day letter.
We — your family — at least the part of it that traces back through your maternal grandfather — celebrate New Year’s Eve as a family tradition. It is important to me that you feel connected to this tradition, although it’s also highly traditional to find it distasteful (you’d be in good company among the generations of cousins who have preferred pizza). The tradition is this: we cook a supremely malodorous foodstuff, which goes by the wonderfully ethnic name bagna cauda, and everyone has to eat some in order to obtain good luck in the New Year. I made this year’s bagna out of two cans of anchovies, six cloves of minced garlic, and a stick of butter, all warmed on the stove until it cooked down into paste. (Olive oil is also an acceptable, traditional ingredient. Cream, no matter what your great-uncle Alan tells you, is not.)
Your father doesn’t like the stuff, but takes an obligatory taste every New Year’s Eve to ensure his continuing good fortune. I eat the rest. Some day I hope you will join me. In the meantime, I apologize for any good fortune of which I’m depriving you by not feeding you bagna cauda. At thirteen months you are a wonderfully adventurous eater — you have, to date, enjoyed sauerkraut, sashimi, palak paneer, injera with tibs, pâté de campagne, tortilla chips, oyster pie, collard greens, quiche lorraine, and hummus — but there are some things that, in my opinion, can wait. You’ll have plenty of bagna later in life.
Your life. Natalie’s life. The life of Natalie Eleanor Martin, the vast majority of which is yet to be lived.
You’ve been with us long enough — thirteen months of your actual company, plus an additional ten of your offstage presence — that you’d think by now we’d be over it. But your father and I are blown away afresh, several times a day at a minimum, at the breathtaking miracle of you. You are such an incredible kid, Natalie, with your tousled honey-blonde mullet and sparkling dark eyes and velvety baby skin and perfectly musical speaking voice. When I walk into the room, you meet my gaze, light up, and declaim “Mama!” and it just slays me. I’ve accomplished a number of things in my life that make me proud, but most of those accomplishments began and ended with me. You, meanwhile, started with me and kept going. I can’t even think of you as my greatest accomplishment, since so much of what you are is all you, and will continue to be. You’re your own greatest accomplishment, Natalie, and every day with you is better than the day before.
When I was pregnant with you, I was excited, but also terrified. I had no idea how I’d deal with a fussy, quarrelsome, difficult infant. Now I can say, with a year’s hindsight, that I still have no idea how to deal with a fussy, quarrelsome, difficult infant, because you were none of those things. At the risk of jinxing your adolescence or your eventual sibling(s), I’ll say it aloud: you were easy, Natalie. You never did anything that didn’t make sense. And you’re the only baby I’ve ever heard of who’s been this way.
It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s true: you were the perfect infant. You were not colicky or fussy. You hardly cried at all, and when you did, you were easily soothed. Most importantly, you slept like an angel. You’d wake to eat, and nine times out of ten, you’d drift right back to sleep at the boob without troubling your folks with any loud noises or necessary diaper changes. You napped for three hours in the morning, and then another three in the afternoon. You slept through the night at four and a half months and kept doing so until you caught your first bug at almost nine months. Even now, you are more likely than not to sleep through any given night without waking up. And if you do wake up, it’s just to make a few noises and then drift back to sleep after judicious application of a botbot or a binky.
Everyone told me to enjoy your infancy because it would fly by, and I did enjoy it, but it didn’t fly by. Yes, it’s tough to believe that you’re already a year old; but every day of that year was a day fully lived, every moment a gift, and I savored them all. I can’t believe my incredible luck, and yours: we live in a really neat place at a really neat time, and the family you chose to be born into is terrific, not to mention besotted with you. Even when you would have one of your rare nighttime fusses and I’d be up rocking you in the dark, it felt like a privilege, a scene without which my life would not have been complete. (I might have felt differently if you’d been screamier or less sleepy in general. But — it bears repeating — you were perfect.)
Even so, I was thrilled when you got into daycare and I could go back to work. My job is better now than it was before, and I’ll confess, I’m glad that you’re not home alone with a nanny. I am delighted that you spend your days in a room full of your peers, surrounded by fun toys and books and high spirits, supervised by competent professionals who take terrific care of you and have taught you (among other things) how to eat solid food, how to drink from a sippy cup, how not to hit people, and what to do when someone tells you to Come Here. It takes a village to raise a child, and they’re my village.
(As are your grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors and dozens of folks who love you just because you’re Natalie. You would not believe the support network you’ve got here, and will always have.)
They had good material to work with, too. You get all the credit for being you, Natalie; the rest of us can instruct and advise, but you’re the one who executes. You have always intuitively recognized what a situation required. When we took you on a plane for the first time, you figured out all by yourself that it was wisest to nap through both takeoff and landing. When relatives would visit you, you understood that the proper reaction was one of instant and delighted recognition. When we’d plop you down in a high chair in a strange restaurant, you knew that the right thing to do was to keep calm, smile at the wait staff, and eat, or at least play quietly with, the food we’d share with you. Where many babies are shy or scared or overwhelmed by the unceasing firehose stream of life experiences that pummel you in your first year, you never flinched or stepped back from anything interesting. New person? New place? New foodstuff? Bring it on! Natalie’s game. Natalie can handle it. We can always count on Natalie.
And now you’re a year old, and you can toddle across a room at speed, deliver a toy into my hand upon request, perform feats of fine motor coordination that wow your pediatrician, and, my favorite, giggle and fling your arms around my knees. We’ve loved you from the moment we met you, but roughly between eleven and twelve months, you very clearly started to love us back. You are not stingy with your love; you’ll just as happily run up to hug your grandparents, or your favorite teachers at daycare. But when you catch my eye, break into a full-face grin, and come tearing across the room to crash into my lap, this is a moment unique to us, a mother-daughter thing. You’re the daughter. I’m the mother. And even a year into it, that’s still an amazing thing.
I love sharing these moments with you, and I wish that you could remember them. There are so many little things that I would love to preserve in amber for you, so that we could look back on them together some day with a chuckle. Like the way you love to poke people’s noses to hear what sound effect they’ll produce. (This was the hit of my office holiday party, incidentally.) Or the way I blow you three big kisses goodbye when I drop you off at daycare, and you wave back at me with a big smile. Or the lullaby I improvised to rock you to sleep: Mommy loves you best, you’re my baby girl. Natalie, Natalie, Natalie, Natalie, you’re my whole wide world.
You are, my baby girl. You are.