My dear Ellie,
You are two years old today! I'm not sure how that's really possible, but here we are. The other day I was looking back at baby pictures of you and I had a hard time comprehending that the little peanut in those photos is the same person as the sweet toddler I spend my days with now. You're growing into such a big girl!
This year has brought huge changes for you. When I wrote my last letter, you had a couple teeth, were uttering a few words, and we were positive walking was imminent for you. My, how you've changed!
One year ago you were primarily saying only "mama" and "dada." We were starting to teach you baby sign language and you had picked up a couple of signs. In seemingly no time at all, the baby sign language exploded and you were a signing fool for a while there. We became particularly familiar with your signs for "milk," "all done" and "more." You also learned a ton of animal signs - you love animals! But not only did you master a ton of signs since my last letter, but you have also phased them out. You speak more words than I can count now, including stringing many into sentences that seem to be more complex by the day, so you have no need for sign language to make your desires known anymore. You can ask for anything you want or need, comment on things, discuss memories, narrate your day and your play. Some of my favorite things to hear you say are: "Bless you, Mama" when I sneeze; "Mama come?" when you want me to join you on an adventure; "That's silly!" when something tickles your funny bone; and of course, "I love you." You have also started saying "I miss[ed] you" when I get you up in the mornings and it about kills me. You also say "Ellie so sad" after you cry which shatters my heart into a million pieces. Probably your most frequently-used phrase is "Mama hold you!" when you want me to pick you up!
I'm constantly impressed by how much you know and remember. It seems that every day you say something new and I find myself thinking, "where on earth did she learn that?!" You are not shy about asking what things are and you don't hesitate to try to repeat the word when we tell you (which means you say pretty tough words already, like "octopus," "pepperoni," and "macaroni"). It is also incredible to watch you processing and making note of your world and experiences. For example, if we ask you if you met Pooh Bear, you will think back to our meal with the Hundred Acre Wood characters at Disney World last month and say, "I meet Pooh! Meet Piglet! Meet Tigger! Meet Eeyore!" You seem to remember that experience and want to give the full story. You're also able to remember specifics about not only our daily routines, but also our weekly activities. For example, you can remember the differences between the different story times we go to. If I tell you we're going to the library, you tell me you're going to play with the dinosaurs (which you currently pronounce as "damon-dra-dur-durs," for some reason) in the library play area and get a sticker (from the librarian after story time). If we're going to Barnes & Noble, you tell me you're going to "make a crap" (meaning craft) and play with the trains. You recognize places as soon as we get in the parking lot and remember details about your last time there. As another example, when we took you to one of my doctor appointments once, Daddy gave you a bite of apple. The next time we took you back there, you asked for apple. We hardly remembered your apple experience, but you sure did! You are just so much more an active participant in your world now, which is so cool to watch.
You also love to play pretend these days. Not only do you act things out with your toys (pushing a train and saying "choo choo," feeding/changing diapers for your baby doll, etc.), but you like to pretend that you are different people/animals/things. You pretended to be various Disney princesses at first after our Disney trip, then you morphed into other Disney characters, and now it is basically a free-for-all. You will pretend to be everything from Cinderella to Daisy Duck to a train to a cat to a rhino to a lawn mower to a football. Sometimes, all before breakfast!
Your doctor says that an active imagination can be a good indicator of intelligence, and I believe it. You are so smart. In addition to all I've already mentioned, this year you learned your colors and shapes, are working on your letters and thus far, I've heard you count to 18 (it's possible you can go higher but are just holding out on me!). You love books and like when we spell things for you. You are always eager to learn, and you seem to learn very quickly!
Another major development this last year brought for you is, of course, walking. You started walking in earnest around 15 months old, right before we went on a big midwestern road trip. You walked just in time to help march in with the Peabody Ducks as Honorary Duckmaster at the Memphis Peabody Hotel, which thrilled me to no end. I will always associate your early steps with an image of you happily stomping your way down a Memphis street after we stopped for lunch on that trip. You were just so pleased with yourself and I was so, so proud.
And now walking has morphed into all kinds of things, including running ("so fast!" you say!), jumping and most of all, dancing. You love to dance, and you will do so whenever the mood strikes you. When we leave our Friday story times, we walk down a sidewalk with speakers in the landscaping that are always playing pop music, and it has become a tradition to stop and bust a move before heading back to the car. You wiggle and shake and spin and jump and I cannot get enough of it. It's funny and sweet and inspiring, the way you dance because the music moves you, without regard to time or place or audience. Passersby love to watch you, too, and I beam with pride when I see you put a smile on a stranger's face. People can't help but notice you and I love to see you bringing a little of the joy to them that you bring to me each day.
Another major milestone this year was weaning. You and I ended our nursing relationship just after the New Year, when you were 21 months old. It was bittersweet for me, really. I knew you were okay with ending that chapter, and really, I was, too, but it was still hard to actually draw it to a close. You handled it without missing a beat, though, and we replaced those close, snuggly moments with cuddling in the rocking chair, singing and praying together before bed. (You still suck your thumb, but we'll worry about weaning from that habit later!)
Speaking of bed, you finally started sleeping through the night this past summer, probably right after we returned from our midwestern road trip in May. Before that you were still waking up two or three times a night and your mama was tired. Now you are an excellent night sleeper (11-12 hours/night) and generally take one nap per day for two-three hours. Thank you for that!
I have mentioned both our road trip and our Disney trip a couple of times now, so it bears noting that you are an excellent traveller. This year you visited six states (both by plane and car) and five theme parks, and were a total champ about it. In fact, you sleep better on the road than you do at home, and you handle sightseeing days as if it were your normal routine. You seem excited by the new places and experiences and I sure do hope that is something that you keep with you through your life.
In other news, this year you grew about six inches in height, gained about 10 pounds, sprouted 12 teeth, and finally grew enough hair to warrant a bang trim and enable me to give you "piggies." You have loved: playing outside, the water (splash parks are a hit!), Sesame Street (Elmo in particular), your Cozy Coupe, playing peek-a-boo, animals (particularly cats), books, and music (you've even started singing!). Also important to note: we moved to Jacksonville, Florida, and you got a room of your own, where you love to play in the mornings and afternoons. As always, you took the move in stride and adapted quickly to your new environment.
To be honest, Ellie, you have grown so much this year that sometimes I have a hard time remembering you are still so little. As we near the alleged "terrible twos," I'd be lying if I said the whining and tantrums haven't increased a bit. I understand you're going through a challenging time, testing out your autonomy and figuring out how much control you have over your world. And sometimes I think I am unfair to you, because I expect you to process and respond to situations as an adult (or at least, an older child) would. It's hard for me to remember that really, you are still a baby who sometimes just needs her mama, not a big kid who can fully handle anything that comes her way. You just seem so grown up sometimes. When you're having a rough day, I do my best to remind myself that you are still just a little one and to cherish those moments. I know a day will come when it will take more than a little cuddle from your Mama to fix everything.
On a related note, I wanted to conclude this letter by sharing one of my favorite little anecdotal stories from this year. When we first moved to Jacksonville, Daddy was working long hours (teaching and coaching football) and you and I were left to entertain ourselves all day. Before we got our second car, we generally did this by taking walks around the apartment complex property. We made a habit of kicking off our walks with a visit to a stray neighborhood cat, who could reliably be found near a ground-floor unit around the corner from ours (the residents there put out food for him). In order to get there from our front door, we had to walk down the sidewalk for a short distance and then navigate some stepping stones that, suffice it to say, have seen better days. Those stones were cracked and broken and uneven, making for some treacherous ground - especially for a toddler who was still mastering walking in general.
Since you started walking, you have never been a hand-holder. You are far too curious, independent and eager to explore to be encumbered with the likes of parental hand-holding. So, you were generally running off ahead of me down the sidewalk towards those stepping stones. But when you reached the end of the sidewalk, you would stop for just a moment and reach your hand up in the air to grab mine so I could help you across the uneven ground. You never hesitated or looked up to make sure I was there first; you just knew that I was. Even with as independent as you always were, you knew that I was right beside you, ready, willing and able to help you with the uncertainty before you. That simple gesture meant so much to me each and every time, and I relished the opportunity to help you feel safe when you were unsure. Then, as soon as we crossed those stones and you were once again sure of your footing, you would drop my hand and run ahead once more.
Then one day, you didn't need to reach for my hand anymore. You could do it yourself. And all at once I was both overwhelmingly proud of your ever-increasing strength, coordination and confidence, and saddened by the realization that those stepping stones had become just another item on the ever-growing list of Things You No Longer Need Me For. I know that list will only continue to grow exponentially as you get older, bigger and stronger, but it was a very tangible reminder that my time to guide you and protect you is limited. I know that's good, and it's how it's supposed to be, but it can be hard for a mother to stomach.
But Ellie, I will always remember the feeling of your little hand grabbing onto mine as we marched forward onto those stepping stones, and I hope you will always remember it too, in one way or another. I hope that you will always know that no matter how big or strong or self-sufficient you are, whenever you face uncertainty, my hand will be there, right beside you. Don't hesitate; just reach out. Whenever you need me, I will be there to help. Always.
Now I have written all these words and I'm not even sure I have really conveyed how much I love you. Ellie, you have made my world such a bright, happy, joyful place. You make me laugh every day and our family would not be complete without you. It has been the greatest privilege of my life to watch you grow over the past two years, and all the words I could type could never fully express how proud I am to be your mama. I have loved serving in that role for these two years and I can hardly wait to see what the future brings for you and for us. You are one special little girl, and I will never understand how I got so lucky as to be your mama. You really are my sunshine.
Happy birthday, Lovebug. I love you.
All my love,
* * * * *
Happy birthday again! And congratulations on completing as eventful of a year as you may have for the rest of your life! How do I even begin cataloguing the myriad milestones and memories I want to remember happened between my last letter and this one? And how do I avoid listing so many things that I end up obscuring the ones that matter the most? Before I even start, I need to admit that I am not entirely convinced this letter is supposed to help me remember your year or that you would even be interested in hearing such things. For instance, I am sure that by now you have gotten really good at walking, and it doesn't matter much that you started and began perfecting this skill in year two. You may or may not still get a huge kick out of running and jumping (side note - how awesome would it be if you actually are an Olympic track athlete?). I'm also sure you still speak in reasonably fluid sentences, identify colors and shapes, count past 18 consistently, and recognize most letters. You no doubt continue to feed yourself with silverware (though I assume you have added knives to the mix), pick out your own jammies (though you may not call them "jammies" anymore) and sit forward-facing in the car. So, rather than list the things you did this year, I will instead focus on my hopes and dreams for you, my dear daughter.
First of all, I hope you are still as immensely curious as you are right now; that you still love books and understanding new words and things and that you continue to learn from your peers when they aren't trying to teach you and from older people when they are.
I hope you still have strong opinions, though I hope they have developed beyond being about what you want to eat, who you want to hold or carry you or what you want to do or have done for you. It is essential to live your life with conviction and to believe in what matters most to you. Similarly, I hope you continue to be as passionate as you are now, though I hope you have stopped losing it whenever someone goes against your will or suggests you do something you do not want to do.
I hope you still dance when the mood strikes you and I hope it is almost as often as it is now. That you continue to be as sociable around other people as you are now but that you also maintain the ability to have just as much fun by yourself, though I certainly hope this will take place outside of your crib and at times other than when you should be napping.
I hope you try foods without throwing as big of a fit, but also that what you choose to eat is almost as healthy as it is now.
Finally, I hope you seek out new experiences whenever you have the chance and even sometimes when you don't. While you don't have to visit six states, five professional baseball stadiums, multiple beaches, Disney World and a famous golf course every year, I do hope you make it a point to travel sooner as opposed to later. People tend to regret the things they don't do far more often than the things they actually do.
Before I let you go try to top this year with your third, I need to mention the new baby on the way. As your mama and I are awaiting the arrival of your little brother, people seem to be making a big deal out of fathers wanting sons and mothers wanting daughters. Though this seems natural, I need you to know that I can't imagine feeling more fulfilled in life than I am at this moment with my family of three. You are and will always be my little angel and I love you more than I can begin to express. I would not dream of trading you for anyone or anything in the whole world.
Happy birthday, Belle!