The magic of instant friendship.

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I came home from work the other day to find my little lady in her bedroom, lying on the bed with her laptop open and the Christmas lights she keeps strung around the room all year long plugged in. She was creating a website for a school project and had her phone propped up next to her so that she could FaceTime with a friend. Sounds like pretty much any thirteen-year-old in America, right? But this isn’t just any friend–this is a friend she met at the pool in Mexico when we vacationed there four years ago, and he–yes, he–lives in Virginia. So while she’s doing her pre-dinner homework here on the West coast, he’s playing around on his flight simulator on the East coast where it’s three hours later in the evening. They giggled and chatted as they worked on their individual pursuits, so I closed the bedroom door and went to change out of my work clothes, thinking how small the world must seem to them. I mean, I’ve met people and lost people and found them all over again (or never found them again at all) so many times throughout the years–to think that keeping in touch and seeing the face of someone you met so randomly is this easy for them seems strange. Their world is so different.

Her muted laughter drifted from her bedroom down the hall as I unwound my scarf and took off my earrings, and I thought about the day these two unlikely friends met, and about the way I’d pulled some hotel stationary from my pool bag and scribbled some thoughts as they played together under the sun. Though I hadn’t seen the paper in a few years, I knew I still had it tucked away somewhere, so I went in search of it. I found it folded in fours and tucked between the pages of a leather-bound journal in a drawer. Here is what I wrote:

She’d waited four days. Four long days for a playmate. Four days of settling on Mama as a swim date. Four days of conducting the ocean in its rise and fall with her long arms, unaware of my camera trained on her.

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And then finally he came. Not the fellow nine-year-old girl she’d hoped for. Not someone she could talk Barbies with, but a dark-haired eight-year-old in swim trunks and a black swim shirt with a pirate emblazoned on the chest. Prior to his arrival, there’d been fits and starts of “What’s your name?” and unremarkable snubs by girls who already had sisters and friends to play with. They didn’t need her. These repeated social letdowns had left her wrapped in a towel in tears by my side all week, but in one swift move of friendliness and curiosity, this boy in the pirate shirt had taught her one of life’s special secrets: sometimes boys are just easier.

He asked her where she was from and quickly explained to her why our four-hour trip from PDX to Cabo would take five-and-a-half hours on our return: “Headwinds or drag,” he said knowingly. “I’m kind of a plane expert.” He told us he was a member of the Beckford Barracuda swim team back in Richmond, Virginia. He told us he could swim the backstroke in 1:12, and that he knew how to have underwater tea parties. He told us he’d be happy to help us with our fries, which we were snacking on poolside on this, our first all-inclusive vacation and our first trip to Mexico. I slid the plate in his direction.

I could see that she was put off by the fact that he didn’t need her name in order to pursue this friendship, and that he seemed to want to share with her every piece of information he’d ever gleaned during his eight years on planet Earth. His desire to bring her into his world was charming, in my opinion, so in addition to “Sometimes boys are just easier to make friends with than girls,” I whispered another of life’s little secrets in her ear before she dove back into the pool: “Sometimes boys like to talk. A lot. Just let them. You’ll get your turn when they finally run out of things to say.” She nodded and snapped her aqua-tinted goggles back into place, took a deep breath, and dove into the turquoise pool after him.

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“Holly,” he said sometime later. “Want to go in the jacuzzi?”

“Sure.” She shrugged, trailing after him.

Want to go in the jacuzzi?” my husband intoned, eyebrows raised. “I thought she hated the jacuzzi! I thought she was the jacuzzi police–’No one under sixteen allowed.’”

“Not anymore,” I smiled, watching as she followed her new friend across the pool deck.

Now, post-jacuzzi, they have set up camp on a shared towel under some stranger’s umbrella, the roiling Sea of Cortez a backdrop to their games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and hand claps. I watch them with mild envy as my baby replaces me as her only playmate on this trip, and wonder what impression this brief friendship under the sun will have on either of their young hearts. Will this self-professed “plane expert”–this boy who patiently explained to my daughter that she lives in the Washington with Seattle in it, not Washington D.C. where the president lives–will he grow up and remember this day? Will he one day think of blonde-haired, red-shouldered Holly from Spring Break in Cabo? Will he write about her? Perhaps fashion a poem as a grad student about a long-legged girl in a purple bikini who swam with the dolphins but wouldn’t race him in the backstroke? Or will it fade from memory for both of them, lost as many things are in the haze of childhood–like the pink sun setting just west of the crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez?

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s truly my favorite time of the year, and not just because I love Christmas (but I love Christmas–I really do! And I’m a huge dork about it. Anyone want to come over to my house and listen to Wham! sing “Last Christmas” for the 431st time this season?) It’s also my favorite time of the year because by December I’ve spent about six months planning and envisioning, researching and dreaming, and I finally get to zip Holly into my wedding dress for our annual birthday photos.

Like all good ideas, this one was borrowed and adapted, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I know I’m not alone in wanting to document the passing of time by doing a sentimental yearly photograph. I actually got the idea from a parenting magazine back when I still had a newborn. There was a short article about a lady who had taken her own mother’s gaudy 1960s bathing suit (a boxy affair covered in loud floral print and with cone-shaped pleats on the bust) and posed her daughter for a picture each year on her birthday wearing the bathing suit. She took the photos in front of the same wall, and the progression from a barely-standing toddler draped in this bathing suit, to a lovely eighteen-year-old who actually filled the suit out, was really very charming and sweet. I flipped the page and forgot all about it.

Flash-forward to my own daughter’s third birthday. The lady with the bathing suit popped into my head, and I thought, “That would be cute to do with Holly, only in my wedding dress instead of a bathing suit.” So I pulled the pink tulle over her soft blonde baby head, and eased her little arms through the dress. I didn’t have a plan at that point–just the idea of seeing the progress of her growth each year by using my dress as a measuring stick–so I sat her in front of our oak sleigh bed and snapped a few pictures. They were sweet and simple, done with a point-and-shoot camera. I packed the dress away and planned to do it again the next year.

And I did. And the year after that, and the one after that…and then, this year, we set out to do it for the tenth year. Those early birthday shots were pictures of her doing whatever she felt like doing: posing or just standing, the sweetness of her baby face (3rd birthday), or the funny way her missing front tooth juxtaposed against the wedding dress (6th birthday), and even the year we just put the dress on over her rain boots and play clothes and went to the park in our neighborhood to play on the swings (8th birthday), acting as the backdrop for our “wedding dress pictures,” as we’d come to call them.

But then I started thinking of the potential and of all the fun we could have as we carried this on through her 18th birthday. We went up to Timberline Lodge on her 9th birthday (the day after Christmas) and got her posing in the dress with the snow falling outside the windows of the warm lodge. The next year we went to Astoria on a gorgeous, crystal-clear winter day and let her take a handful of colorful balloons all around town. For her 11th birthday we went to Disneyworld, and I got shots of her in all of the parks and on South Beach. This year we flew to L.A. and did Disneyland, then followed it up with a real “L.A. day” (I called it the, “If Holly Went to Hollywood, What Would Holly Do?” year). We got shots with the fabled Hollywood sign behind her, some on the Walk of Fame, and then we ended the day at the Santa Monica pier just as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, where I think we got some of our best photos to date.

It makes me really happy every year to dream up new locations and ideas, and I spent a fair amount of time this fall googling from which street and which neighborhood we could see the Hollywood sign (answer: 5th and Windsor in Hancock Park–a beautiful and quiet neighborhood lined with amazing houses and giant palms), and picturing my baby with her hands in Marilyn Monroe’s hand prints, so it was pretty awesome when it all came together. We had amazing weather the last day of our trip, and there wasn’t even a wisp of smog hanging over the hills. I love watching the years fall away through the lens of this fun tradition, and I’m pretty amazed at how far this $50 dress has traveled. It started on a beach on Maui when we got married, it’s seen snow, flown more miles than a lot of people do, and just in the past two years I’ve shaken sand out of it from both coasts. I’m already nostalgic for the years gone by, but I can’t wait for her next birthday…I’m already dreaming of getting my next shot.

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