My 12-year-old holds a heart in his hands.
"Do you like the blue?" he asks. We're in Venice, a place known for glass beads and tiny fragile animals. I nod. Jamie has always associated me with blue as he knows it's my favorite color.
"Who is the necklace for?" Jamie's dad asks him and Jamie shrugs it off. We don't press him for details. He asked to go back to the store just with me. He's done this before, making sure he picks something I'll really wear.
"Oh, wait, look at this!" He displays a turquoise heart, thinking it over. "But maybe the regular blue is better?" His huge eyes are the same eyes that stared up at me from his bassinet, back when it was just us. Jamie and I were our own magical pair; my husband was in medical school and then residency, working days in a row. Jamie's first long sentence was "Da-da work hospital nighttime a lot." I had few friends -- I was the first one to get married, the first to have kids, and while my old friends were still dating and changing jobs, I was changing diapers. And my new friends, those close bonds that come in your 30s, I hadn't met yet. Was I lonely? Yes. And yet Jamie and I had so much fun. We talked all the time, made rice sandboxes in which we hunted for pennies, did finger painting, explored various towns on foot and cooked blueberry coffee cake when we came home. Sometimes at the end of a long day -- and those days seemed to stretch out forever -- he would sit on my lap, say nothing, and just put his palm flat over my heart.
"You're sure you like the blue one?" Jamie asks. Now 12, he has the same full-lipped smile, the same exaggerated eyes, but new pimples, a body changing rapidly; his jeans are bigger than mine, his feet closer in size to his father's. He pilots his moods without a flight map.
I smile at him. He's very thoughtful, always remembering his siblings or parents. Today, he has pocket-money, and surveys the Venetian store carefully. "I just want to make sure I pick the right necklace," he says. "Whatever you choose will be great," I assure him. I can picture the heart on my neck, dangling where he used to rest his palm. He hands his money over to the store owner, who asks if it's gift. Jamie nods. I imagine unwrapping the necklace, Jamie's face when I put it on.
Jamie holds his purchase as though it might break. Back at our rental flat, the younger kids are asleep and my husband sits reading while I head to bed. The shutters are closed to block the bright moonlight. "I can't say goodnight to the moon," Jamie jokes when he pads in and sits on my bed. It's an old story now, when he was a toddler and couldn't reach Daddy to say goodnight, I would have him say goodnight to the moon. One night, the clouds blocked the moon and a toddler fit ensued. Now, Jamie sits waiting for me to speak. I know what he wants me to ask, and I feel my own heart start to split but do it anyway.
"So," I say. "Who is the necklace for?"
"How did you know?" He laughs and shakes his head, then smoothes his hair.
"I just had a feeling," I say. I do not tell him that -- just for a while -- I thought the gift was for me. That somehow we crossed a bridge from when every paperweight, each macaroni necklace and drawing, each haiku, was brought to me to now, to here where the world has opened up and there are so many people he can love, so many people to meet. This is not the last heart on a string he will give.
"I thought, you know how you got that ink? I could use the quills we collected and write her a letter about Venice and then give her the necklace." He waits again.
"She is so lucky," I say. "You're really thoughtful." I tell him how I'll be there no matter what, that sometimes hearts get stepped on or worn around the neck and then lost, and how special it is that he thought to spend his money this way. He beams and then asks if I should carry the necklace for him so nothing happens to it. In the past I have been the treasure-keeper, the protector of glass or cameras or iPods.
"It's your responsibility," I tell him.
"Yeah," he says. "I'm, like, carrying a heart in my hands." He squeezes my hands and we sit, laughing about the day for a minute.
"Well," he says and leans down to hug me, "I love you."
"I love you, too," I tell him. And then I let him go.
Cottage Blueberry Crumb Cake (nut-free)
1 cup wheat flour
1/2 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup applesauce
2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp butter, melted
1/2-1 cup blueberries
granola for topping (optional)
Oven to 375. Sift first 5 ingredients. Add everything else except blueberries and mix until just blended. Grease 8×8 pan (or individual ramekins) and pour just over half of the batter in. Spread blueberries on top. Cover with rest of batter and sprinkle with granola. Bake for 30 minutes until set through and golden brown on top. Serve with love, warm with ice cream or whipped cream or left over for breakfast at room temperature.