Favorite number. I don’t get it. Numbers are functional. Asking for a favorite number is like asking what my favorite gasoline is, or my favorite nail, or screw, or spark plug. My favorite is the one I need at the moment that is close to hand. They serve a function, not a fancy. My only favorite number is “Free,” which doesn’t count as a number.
My youngest daughter, however, has a favorite number. At first I thought it was just the biggest number she could think of. This summer when we were renovating the kitchen, she walked into the dining room, and surveyed my carefully laid underlay with screws every four inches, and said, “Whoa. There must be eighteen screws in there.” At the time it felt more like 1800, so I wasn’t amused. When discussing future family sizes, she often announces that she will have eighteen babies. (Reminded, of course, by her fertility challenged mother that one doesn’t always get to pick.)
We became aware, however, that it went beyond big. Sometimes it was funny, like when Jonathan was counting to twenty for hide and seek with the children. He got to eighteen, and heard, from inside a closet, “Yay! Eighteen.” Other times it was inappropriate, like when Jonathan was reading Judges 20 in family worship. “Eighteen thousand men of Benjamin fell, all of them men of valor.” “Yay! Eighteen.” Sometimes it is useful, like when the other kids get 20 minutes of screen time, but she negotiates 18. She can even set the timer herself, because she knows 18. Although one time she set it for 18 hours and 18 minutes. Two eighteens are better than one.
Last week I had the blessing of driving to Fredericton with only the snickerdoodle. On the way home we slowed down at the 218 kilometer mark so she could see it and say “Yay! Eighteen.” When we passed exit 188, she said, “It’s an eighteen and a broken eighteen.” The entire family has begun looking for eighteens just because it makes our youngest say, “Yay! Eighteen.” Eighteen has become her thing. When the older children get eighteen as an answer in their math problems, they call her over and show it to her. When they find something with 18 written on it, they automatically assign it to their youngest sister.
When my mackerdoodle was the same age that the snickerdoodle is now, I was often quoting her to people and listening to her little quirks. The two youngest children have speech issues. The oldest got to be the only one speaking for a long time. I don’t have those same moments with my youngest. I am catechizing and teaching spelling and reading and grammar and math. I am drawing maps for history and experiments for science. I am answering a thousand questions an hour, and only a fraction of those come from my almost five year old. The cuteness gets lost in the mist of daily doings.
I am always aware of the tension between what must be done and what must be noticed, because it is so fleeting. I didn’t realize that my mackerdoodle had been aware of that same tension. Earlier this week she had been doing nine times tables, so the number 18 was making regular appearances on her work. The snickerdoodle would stop every thing to come and see every single 18. On the last problem, the mackerdoodle looked into my face and said, “One day she isn’t going to say ‘yay. eighteen.’ any more. One day it will just be another number again. Please write it down so we don’t forget.”
From now on eighteen will remind me not only of my wonderful third child and her child like wonder at the things we barely even notice, but also of the growing maturity in my oldest who doesn’t want to forget the days her little sister said, “YAY! EIGHTEEN.”