I smiled pleasantly at the parents, then said "Hi!" to the little girl. She grinned toothily at me, shrugging her shoulders and turning her head shyly to the side. Captivated, I was barely able to take my eyes off of her for the rest of the short ride to the airport.
She was probably four years old. She was holding a dollar bill, probably so that she could tip the shuttle driver. She was playing with it, talking to her parents, making silly noises, and just generally being a child. She was delightful.
She looked at the ceiling and asked, "What's that?" Her dad explained that it was a bar for people to hold onto when they are standing. I briefly pictured myself standing up, grabbing onto the bar, and demonstrating. Realizing it was too high for me to use properly, I pictured myself holding onto the bar and dangling from it, swinging lightly back and forth. I resisted.
She looked at the luggage rack. "What's that?" Her mom explained that it was for holding people's suitcases.
"A ladder," she said, and pointed. I looked, and the side of the rack, with its horizontal shelves and horizontal support beams, did indeed look like it would make a good ladder.
"Yes you're right that does look like a ladder," said her dad thoughtfully.
"It is a ladder," she insisted.
"Can we climb it?"
The ladder didn't actually go anywhere, and she was very small. I probably would have told her we could climb it, but we wouldn't get anywhere. There wasn't a door in the roof.
"That's not safe," her mom told her.
"No that's not safe with the bus moving," added her dad.
I was mentally wondering if this was a good enough response for her, when she found the obvious loophole. "Can we climb it when the bus stops?"
"No, because then we have to go find our airplane."
This seemed to satisfy her, and she leaned back on the seat with her knees up by her shoulders. The bus turned right, and she collapsed dramatically in the opposite direction against her mother's leg. She rested her head on her mother's thigh and relaxed, her little legs limp and twisted, and her mother stroked her hair. I watched with a jealous fascination. She was completely safe, surrounded by loving parents on either side, and trusted completely that they would take care of her.
I don't mentally remember being that small, but my body has a memory of it. That knowledge that all falls will be caught, that you can collapse and lean and look around and twist, and somebody big will hold you safe and comfortable. My body remembers it in water, that relaxed realization that you don't have to keep your own balance. You don't have to stay upright as you leap to catch a frisbee, or twist and twirl and fall. The water will catch you gently and keep you from harm.
Do you remember being so small? Do you remember being supported by giant hands, as you started your first ventures through the world? Sometimes I miss it, this faint memory that I don't really have. And I'm not even really that big. How strange to think, that every big person was once a tiny child. How puzzling it must feel, now and then, to be so far removed from that time.