“We’re thinking of trying again.”
Balboa says this quietly, without looking up from the bridge of blocks and books she is helping five-year-old Linnea and six-year-old Tommy build across the imaginary River Blue, named for Balboa’s sky-blue scarf meandering across the nursery floor.
At breakfast, Ruby said she needed to gather herbs today. Alone. She said it rather pointedly, her sharp eyes on her granddaughter. Balboa had not looked up from her plate, studiously carving a bite-size morsel from her frittata. She put down her fork, picked up her juice and in one long, dainty, glub-a-glub, drained the glass and set it down.
“I’ll take your nursery shift today, Ruby” she said. “It would be nice to have some time with Mama Rose.”
If Balboa was a little chary of seeing the wee ones, she showed no sign of it the moment she walked through the door and Linnea grabbed her hand.
“C’mon Balboa!” she had said, pulling my tall daughter across the room to the block cupboard. “Show me how to build stuff! I want to be an arc-i-teck just like you when I grow up!”
Balboa laughed, and before you knew it, she and Linnea and Tommy had built an entire town under a bluff. Now they’re constructing the bridge to connect this town to one they plan to build on the other side of the river.
They’ve built foot-high supports adjacent equally high cliffs made of books. The supports are narrow blocks, piled one on top of the other, and none too stable. Gingerly, Balboa lays a 12-inch ruler on top of one support piling and brings it down to rest on the other. It barely stretches, with half an inch to spare on each side.
“What do you think, Kids,” she asks. “Will it support my car?” She pulls a cylindrical block from the construction pile and raises it to the bridge.
“Wait!” Linea squeals, bringing her hand up like a traffic cop. “It’s gonna fall! I know it is.”
“Yeh,” Tommy says. “It’ll be neat! Come on, Balboa. Put the car on the bridge and see if it falls.”
“First, Tommy, I’d like to hear why Linnea thinks the bridge won’t hold.”
Linnea sits back on her haunches and studies the bridge. She lies down on her belly and scooches over so her head is almost under the ruler.
“See,” she says. “The pilings are jittery. They’re not solid like a real bridge. When you put your car on the ruler, it will make the ruler creaky, and when the ruler gets creaky, it’s gonna wobble, and when it wobbles, the pilings will wobble, and when they wobble, they’re gonna fall down.”
“I see,” Balboa says. “Like this you mean?”
She sets the car just barely onto the ruler, back far enough that most of its weight is supported by the piling. The column wobbles, but it doesn’t fall.
“Well, it would fall if the car tried to cross the bridge,” Linea says. “The pilings are holding it up now.”
“So the pilings can support the weight of the car,” Balboa agrees, “but you think once I move the car onto the bridge all will come tumbling down? Like this?” She sets the cylinder a little further onto the ruler, just barely away from the piling, and sure enough, the bridge collapses. Only a few blocks remain stacked on one another.
“I know! I know!” Tommy says. His face is flushed with eagerness. “See how the down-low blocks stayed? What if the bridge were only that tall? I bet you could put the car further out before it fell.”
“Hmmm. Let’s try it.” Balboa helps the children remove books until their cliffs are the same height as the surviving pilings.
Quickly they reassemble the bridge, but clever Linnea speaks up. “It still won’t work, Balboa. It’s still gonna fall. We should build the bridge right off the cliffs. See? Like this.”
She shoves the piling blocks aside, moves one set of books a few inches closer to the other, and spans the chasm with the ruler. This time, about three inches of ruler sit on each cliff.
Tommy picks up the cylinder and sets it on the bridge, picking it up and setting it a little further along till it has crossed the span. The bridge holds.
Linnea smiles, but down on her belly again, scrutinizing the setup, she is clearly thinking of the next step in the puzzle.
“What if we move the cliff back a teeny bit,” she asks Tommy.
“Yeh, let’s see how far we can pull ’em apart before the bridge falls again,” he grins.
“I’m going to sit with Mom while she rocks little Rosalie.” Balboa ruffles Tommy’s sandy hair as she picks herself from the floor. He and Linnea are so busy moving the cliff, they don’t notice her leaving.
“My budding engineers,” she says, taking a seat in the empty rocker next to mine. She pulls it closer. “Rosalie asleep?”
“Yes. I suppose I should put her down so I don’t wake her too soon, but I feel such joy when I hold her. She smells so sweet.”
Nodding toward the children working out the many ways they can build their bridge, I tell her, “You’re wonderful with them.”
“We are, you know,” she says, looking me in the eye, a bit of smile in her eyes, around her lips. Of course she’s not talking about how wonderful anyone is with Tommy and Linnea. Her eyes are clear, but reveal a hint of the suffering she’s been through these last months.
“We’re going to give it another go. We want more than one child, and we waited so long to settle down and start a family that we don’t want to waste any time now. But I’m scared, Mom.”
“I know, Sweetheart. I’m a little frightened for you myself.”
“Bettina says there is no reason we shouldn’t be able to have a dozen children if we want, but I don’t know what I’d do if we lost another baby.”
There is the tiniest hint of a quaver in her voice and her eyes fill with tears, then she laughs out loud as in unison we spout the phrase we both learned at Ruby’s knee:
Life’s nothing without risk!
“This is a lot bigger than a scraped knee from jumping off the tool shed roof,” she says, “though I remember screaming like I hadn’t just barely missed the tines of the pitchfork we’d left lying on the ground!”
“Thank goodness all you got was the wind knocked out of you. It could have been much worse! What were you thinking when you jumped off that roof?”
She laughs. “Well, I was gonna fly, of course! I just knew I could fly. All I needed was someplace high to start with and I’d be a bird! It wasn’t only that day, y’know. I’d tried before, and I kept trying because I knew I could fly. I got the wind knocked out of me so many times, and worse a couple o’ times, before I finally gave up and submitted to the twin facts of gravity and a wingless body.”
“Some things don’t work out like we expect, no matter how hard we try, do they? Is that what you’re afraid of? That this might be like flying?”
“Yeah, maybe.” She bites her lip.
“Thank goodness you have a strong woman’s body that was built for birthing, then!”
She laughs again, her whole face lit with a glow that has always been exclusively and perfectly Balboa’s. My heart swells with joy and love for this woman whose very being is one of life’s greatest gifts.
She throws back her head and laughs harder. The children look up and smile. Baby Rosalie raises her head from my shoulder and sleepily looks around, then lays back down, gurgles, heaves a big sigh, and falls heavily to sleep again.
“You’re right, Ma,” Balboa grins, eyes full of mirth, not tears. “I may not have wings, but I surely do have a woman’s body built for birthing.”
She rocks back in the chair, gently setting it to and fro. Eyes closed, smiling widely, she whispers, “Maybe we’ll have half a dozen.”