Wonder. Awe. Fascination. That’s what I saw in my niece’s eyes when I pulled a tiny carrot from the soil like a magician does a rabbit from a hat. Katarina was mesmerized by this root vegetable that was just her size while her sister Tessa taste-tested herbs, letting out excited shrieks. It seemed nature amused them as much as their twin birthday cakes would an hour later.
To celebrate the girls turning two, I coaxed the family into a little gathering at my house. Last year, we had a big party for the twins in my backyard. This Saturday afternoon would be low-key. The day before, I picked cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, and lettuce from my garden and fixed a salad. I’d dried oregano, parsley, and basil and added that to the pasta sauce with seasoned ground beef. I unearthed a garlic clove and used it and the herbs to prepare garlic butter for an Italian loaf.
I started decorated the dining room while the cakes were cooling, figuring out how to fit seven adults, three kids, and two booster seats while leaving walking room. A folding table from the shed fit nicely at the end of the great table, perfect for the kids. A Happy Birthday banner hung over the piano above where the twins would sit. I could see the girls laughing there long before they arrived.
Rather than bake one cake, I opted to make a small strawberry cake for each girl. I frosted Tessa’s with pink vanilla icing, Kat’s with purple. With a decorating tool, I used white icing around the sides of the cake to create a garden fence. On the face of each cake, I’d used green icing to write their names, then added vines and blue flowers. Kat’s said “Happy” at the bottom and Tessa’s said “Birthday”.
I was trying to create an underlying garden theme. The kids would take home flower tattoos and the adults would get to pick a flower-framed photo of the twins that doubled as decorations. There are dozens of canned party themes that would have looked great, but the girls don’t really recognize Strawberry Shortcake or Tinkerbell yet. Granted, Tessa likes Cookie Monster, but that wouldn’t vibe with my girly color scheme.
A garden, though – plants, flowers, leaves – that’s something the girls understand. I remember the first time Tessa stuffed a handful of grass in her mouth. The face was nothing short of comical, the corners of her mouth turning downward and her eyes narrowing. I don’t think it was what she expected. While on vacation, I took Kat and Tessa out on the paddleboat and they picked flowers from the reeds. Tessa kept throwing them back in the water. Kat kept putting them in my hair, having seen me do the same to her.
At two, they are so distinctively different. Tessa’s an early bird while Kat likes to sleep in. Tessa assesses every situation. Kat dives in head first. Kat prefers purple and will tell you so. Tessa can figure out how to get into just about anything (even leftover birthday cake, but she did share with her sister). And simply because they are twins, growing up in the same environment with the same genes, they will be compared to one another for the rest of their lives.
Twins help simplify the controversy of nature vs. nurture. They serve as control models. Each child has the same schedule, eats the same food, and receives the same amount of attention. They were born moments apart in the same delivery room with DNA from the same parents. Kat kicked herself out first, and so for years to come we’ll be making bigger sister jokes.
That’s predictable. We can say we won’t compare the two girls, yet it happens naturally. I am blessed to get to watch these two tiny humans grow. The same excitement I get when I see a ripe tomato on my vine seizes me with every new word and new skill the twins pick up. A garden theme seemed appropriate for their second birthday as they are both blossoming in unique ways.
When I planted my first vegetable garden this spring, I had my doubts about its profitability. I hoped I’d yield a bounty of fresh herbs and greens to enjoy fresh from the soil. I dreamed of making salad and pasta sauce with items harvested from my garden, and I was able to realize that dream this weekend. There was such a healthy pride in having grown my own produce and seasonings.
I didn’t know that we would venture out into the back yard for a little field trip before getting the party started inside. I turned over leaves to unveil cucumbers, and my nephew J.J., nearly six, said, “Wooooow! That’s cool.” He’d seen me pluck the carrot for his little sister, and asked me to get one for him.
“Well, J.J.,” I explained. “These carrots aren’t ripe yet. If we pick them, they’ll die, they won’t get to grow, and we won’t be able to eat them. Do you still want me to pick you one?” He shook his head and went off to play in the herb garden with his daddy. He’s older. He understands life and death. He wants Mommy to trap the spider and release him outside.
That’s J.J.’s growing conscience, and it’s sweet and inspiring. Once, his cousin was disappointed that J.J. was offered a reward if he could help find a missing toy, so J.J. told his cousin he would give him the dollar if he found the toy. I knew what I was planting when I sowed seeds in my garden. Each little packet was labeled.
How do you sow kindness in a boy? How do you nurture his character? How do you help him thrive in a world not controlled like a garden bed? Katarina and Tessa may be two seeds planted at the same time, and they’ll be raised in the same soil, but I don’t believe we get to know what we’re growing when we plant children. They aren’t labeled beyond male and female.
They aren’t born passionate and inspired. That comes in moments like Kat and Tessa had in my vegetable garden, playing with tiny carrots and basil leaves. Moments when their eyes light up and they don’t need words to communicate their wonder and awe. In this age of discovery, they’re forming their opinions and preferences about everything, familiar and foreign, in this world around them. They respond to their environment with traits so unique they’ve been present since birth.
Someone asked me then why I had planted catnip, and I looked up at Charming as I answered. I’d planted it for his cat. I just sprinkle a little dried catnip on Charming’s carpet, and she responds by rolling around in it, purring in her herb-induced euphoria; I squeal with excitement when I watch her, like Tessa and the herbs. Cat, child or adult, we all benefit from a therapeutic dose of delight.
That’s what I wanted to make when I planted that garden. I labored in its soil, tilling it and turning it, planting seeds, pruning dead leaves, weeding the ground, training up vines, watering it daily, fertilizing on occasion. I had to believe that that the work would be worth the reward if I would endure it. This weekend, I found it was as I served pasta sauce, salad, and garlic bread prepared with its harvest. It was a dose of delight.
That’s also why I hung the streamers and blew up the balloons. I imagined, with great anticipation, how much fun everyone would have at the birthday party celebrating these precious girls’ two years of life. As I baked the cakes, I pictured the girls with frosting covering baby faces smiling from ear to ear. That happened. The work is worth the reward with these therapeutic doses of delight that come so naturally to children and cats.
There were two cakes because there are two lives to celebrate. They’re similar yet different, and there’s a more complete picture when they’re together. That’s going to guide their lives. Kat and Tessa will be compared because we’re not distracted by a nature vs. nurture dialogue. We’re surprised and delighted, inspired and amazed by the girls’ differences, and we celebrate them more than the similarities. They’re what makes Kat and Tessa who they are, individually and together.
I hoped that I would see a sea of vegetables in my back yard, and I knew what to expect if the garden thrived. Who Kat and Tessa and J.J. will become is mere conjecture. When we sow children, we don’t know what we’re going to get. That’s where there are daily doses of delight for all ages.
Wonder. Awe. Fascination. That’s the response to a gift in the eyes of a child. Or a cat. Or me.