It was a humid summer night in August during our visit home to Canada and we were staying at Laolao and Laoye’s house. The moisture in the air whispered that rain was on its way, so I quickly asked my mother where she kept the candles. We lit them in various places around the house as the sky got uncharacteristically dark around 6pm.
My 2-and-a-half-year old daughter, Echo, likes to point out the obvious as all toddlers do, so she chimed excitedly about how it was “getting dark out!” and the sun was “going sleepies!” As she stood by the open sliding glass doors, she hastened to describe what she felt from the air as the sky gathered itself up. “Mommy, look outside!” she said, calling me over.
She still sometimes switches to Mandarin when she’s forgotten the English words, so she exclaimed “Gua feng le! Gua feng le!” (“The wind is blowing!”) as I slid the glass door shut. “Yes, honey, it’s very windy because it’s going to rain!” I replied, scuttling to the windows while she trailed me like a curious shadow.
No one was the least bit surprised when the house was plunged into darkness during supper, the power cut off by the early evening storm. It still caused us all to freeze for a moment, the sole movement provided by the flickering candlelight on the table.
It was Echo’s little voice that broke the silence, launching into a particularly spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday!” Much to our amusement, we realized she associated lit candles and shutting out the lights with birthday parties. We were still laughing when she asked innocently in her newly-adopted polite, full-sentence mode: “Mommy, please can I have some cake?” What a treat to be taken from the inconvenient tedium of a power outage to the adventure of a birthday party thanks to her infectious thrill.
After dinner, we had to skip Echo’s bath (electric water pump) but picked up a candle and had a dimly-lit story time before bed. My parents’ house has tall ceilings in the living room; as we walked to the guest bedroom, my daughter got excited again. She pointed wildly to the ceiling, squealing: “Big Mommy up there!” I looked up to find my giant, elongated shadow creeping across the living room ceiling with an impish, curly-headed sidekick bouncing at its elbow. “There’s my little shadow,” I thought. I smiled.
That night, we skipped story time in favor of playing with shapes and shadows on the wall while telling our own stories about the animals we created. There were the requisite butterflies, barking dogs, and big-eared rabbits, and even a surprise horse from my husband. It reminded me of the delicious childhood delinquency of forbidden flashlight play at sleepovers, hands dancing in front of the light.
Echo’s is the age of great discovery. We adults have long ceased to be impressed by candlelight’s ability to elicit mysterious shadows, not to mention so many other small delights. It takes a toddler to remind us of simple pleasures.
Every night, Echo gets a song before bed. But on that August night, she didn’t choose any of the usual suspects. Ever her personal jukebox, I was at her bedside starring in a duet with my enormous shadow, my only spotlight a tiny candle’s flame, singing a very raucous version of “Happy Birthday” to each of her toys in turn. It was the audio icing on our imaginary birthday cake.
This article originally appeared on p49 in the November 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Crystal Liu