They are good girls.
I hear these words often. Say them too.
And they are true. My husband and I are living here, in the wild heart of my hometown Manhattan, and raising three daughters, the Rowlets as I call them—almost 7, just 5, months from 3—and they are indeed sweet, thoughtful, kind creatures. Good girls. The thing is that we are not perfect parents. We try hard and love deeply, but we stumble and, like all members of our species do, fall short at times. We grow frustrated, succumb to candy bribes, hand over iPads. We do what we have to do. And it all seems to be working okay. So far so good. Knock on wood.
But the thing is, we are not doing this alone. There is another parent in the mix, hovering, helping: Mother Nature. Even in this metropolis, she lingers and instructs. Teaches lessons about humility and honor, reverence and responsibility, admiration and awe. My girls, though young, are aware of her presence, her power, her playfulness. They are smitten with her offerings—bold weather, a keen daytime moon in a bright blue sky on the walk to school, piles of crunchy leaves in autumn, beautifully twisted sticks, rocks that call to be collected—but it is the animals that mean the most to them.
We have a garden. And this is a privilege, an unusual treat in this concrete jungle. The girls spend as much time as they can in the garden, twirling around barefoot or in rain boots, blonde hair tangled and flying, blue eyes ablaze with wonder. They find worms and rolly-pollies and they scoop them up, cradle them gently in their tiny dirt-caked palms and bring them to us. Look! Look! They delight in chasing our resident squirrel—Mrs. Nutcracker—and prepare her peanut butter and popcorn sandwiches. They throw their khaki vests over pajamas and go on spontaneous safaris, they “bird watch” with toy binoculars, scribble lists of their findings. When they are tired or verge on typical kid-fare tantrums, we often shoo them out there, to the green space out back. Invariably, they spot something living worth loving, a little life, and smiles and serenity return.
We spend a lot of time walking city streets and we make a point of talking to the pigeons. Good morning! How is your day? My girls ask questions about their plumage, why one is brown and another gray, where they go at night, why some people dislike these birds. We often don’t have answers for them. And then there are of course the sundry dogs that bring joy. There is a puppy on our block named Truffles and his owners walk him at the exact time we wait on the front steps for my eldest daughter’s school bus. We sit out their in our pajamas and coats, waiting for him to come by. And when he does, they pet him and accept his slobbery kisses. And smile. My littlest says that he is her best friend.
We have two cats of our own, Eli and Buck. They are fat and happy boys rescued from St. Croix. They are part of our family. Our little girls love them, help feed them, tolerate their occasional swipes. When we visit Moo-Moo (my mother who lives two blocks away in the home where she and Dad raised five Donnelley girls), our kids are greeted by a spirited pair of dogs. They are a bit rough and tumble, these fellows, but my girls love them. Occasionally, my mother’s cat comes out to say hello. The girls have started asking about Dad’s fish carvings and duck decoys and pig statue. There are animals everywhere and my girls have eyes for them.
On weekends, as long as it is not prohibitively cold, we go to our very favorite place in Central Park: Turtle Pond. We go to the dock and the girls peer down at the water, wave hello to the sunning turtles. We often set up a picnic and the girls run around barefoot in the grass and then run to the rocks to talk to the ducks. There is a castle by the pond. Belvedere Castle. My husband has been dreaming up a children’s book we might all have to write about a family who lives there, a family who grows so busy with modern city life that they make a wish to turn into turtles. And they do. They slow down. Sport shells. Swim around.
At night, before bed, we read books and brush teeth, but the girls have started a new tradition. Can we do Animals? they croon. And each night we oblige. Mother and father, exhausted from the juggle, lounge on the daybed in my daughter’s room as our girls take turns acting out different animals. They are dragonflies. Flamingos. Polar bears. Owls. Creatures. Night after night, performance after performance, they demonstrate to us, and to themselves, their animal selves, that there is indeed a wide world of life beyond their little bodies. It’s as if they can see something so hard for us adults to see: that we humans are related, and fundamentally, to other beings—that we are part of something so much bigger and more complex.
It has hit me just recently that we are indeed raising three little naturalists, three little animal lovers, in the middle of this very urban, human world. It is a different kind of naturalism, sure, a different kind of love, naturalism and love tangled up in urban roots, informed by an unfolding and deep affection for their city, their home. As the daughter of a certain fly-fishing philosopher, a man who loved humans and nature, a man who would have given anything to live longer, to be around to witness these three little humans fall in love with the natural world that so inspired him and sustained him, I am both humbled and proud.
They are good girls, Dad. Wild ones.