Ella awoke on her birthday bleary-eyed and maybe a little hung over from the Halloween sugar rush. I think she forgot it was her day until Trish and I hoisted her onto our bed, where she’d pattered like most mornings, and sang to her. It didn’t take long, though, to remember she was due some presents.

She ran downstairs and her eyes latched on immediately to a baby stroller Trish picked up a few weeks ago at a yard sale. The new bike sat prominently in the middle of the room, but she didn’t give it a glance, not until she’d opened presents from her grandma and her god mother, and unwrapped the clothes she knew she was getting. I started getting a little worried. We went through all the bike drama, and now she didn’t want the thing.

Finally, when the bike was the only object left to pay attention to,  she stroked it like a horse and slowly climbed on. Then she started riding around the stairs and into the kitchen and we couldn’t get her to stop. And we started talking about the party later in the afternoon.

This was Nov. 1. The night before, one of the little girls across the street had a birthday party, her fourth. Ella was one of the five kids on the street who went, and as usual she was the quietest. She amazes me, how introverted she becomes when she’s around other kids. Most of the others are pre-school or daycare kids, so I suppose they’ve been inured to the shouting and squealing and pushing. Ella mostly sat quietly at the table — but that didn’t keep her from munching a couple of cupcakes. She loved her costume and relished showing it off. She wore a dinosaur head that growled when she bowed and roared when she leaned back. Her two big tri-toed feet boomed when she walked.

After the party all the kids went trick-or-treating and Ella wasn’t shy about collecting her booty.

So I thought all of the excitement and revelry would have prepared her, and when it was time for her party she’d throw right in.

Only two little girls came; the little boy we invited couldn’t make it. The DINK neighbors behind us were here, and one-half of the DINK couple next door. The little girls’ parents came. All folks Ella knows. There was the usual party atmosphere — the girls seemed to be playing well. So it surprised me when the neighbor girls’ mother started scolding Ella for pulling her daughter’s hair.

Everything stopped. All eyes turned to Ella. I said, “Ella, did you pull her hair?”

Patrick, the DINK behind us, who Ella really likes, rode quickly to her rescue. “That’s the story but nobody actually saw it happen.”

But the wound had already been inflicted. Ella probably had pulled her hair. Not out of meanness, as my Grandmother used to say, nor out of spite. She did it because she can’t say, “Excuse me, could you give me some space, please,” and have the physical presence to reinforce her wishes.

Ella stood still, like she was suddenly on stage with the worst fright imaginable. She wrung her hands, a frown overtook her face and tears just came rolling down her cheeks. “I’m tired,” she said, between heaving sobs. “I want to go to my room.”

Trish obliged, and for several minutes they played alone upstairs.

When it was gift time, Ella appeared ready for action.

Dinner even went pretty smoothly.  I had baked a cake, painted it blue and drew a green frog on it.

But when we all started singing “happy birthday,” the sobs returned and she crawled under the table. Only the promise of eating the green frog brought her out.

She loves her new bike, the baby stroller and a special belly dancing … thing, all sparkly and jingly — from her Aunt Jen and Uncle Doug in Turkey. She got books and a tea set from friends in Nashville. She got a lot of stuff.

As for the emotional ride, I wonder what it’s all about.  Was she incredibly happy? Was she scared? How must it have felt, a little kid with all these grown-ups and a few other kids singing to you. Don’t children want to be the center of attention? Have I screwed something up?

Whatever it was that got her tongue, it wasn’t permanent.

Two days later, strolling through the grocery store, Ella starts singing, in her best playground voice, her “Baa baa black sheep” and Mary had a little lamb” medley.

“Baa baa back wheep have you any woool, yes wir yes wir thee bags fuuuuh. Maaaaaary had a whit-le wamb, whit-le wamb, whit-le wamb. Maaaaaaaaary had a whit-le wamb because she had to go to wooool.”

Ah, the voice of a 3-year-old.

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