"How was your day, sweetheart?" "What did you learn about?" "Who did you play with?" "What did you have for snack?"
The ride home from preschool is only four minutes long, so we stick to the basics. His answers are usually the same: his day was good, he forgot what he learned, he played with Benjamin and Isaac, he had apple slices and popcorn for a snack. Occasionally he mentions something specific -- a game they played, a song they sang, a worm spotted in the dirt. But generally speaking, his answers are as predictable as the questions I ask.
That is, until he mentioned Caroline.
My eyebrows went up as I glanced at him in the rear view mirror. Who's Caroline? Benjamin and Isaac are 2/3 of the boy posse that Everett's been a part of for two years. He's never uttered a word about playing with anyone but them ... let alone a girl.
But there it was, a new answer to the old question.
"I played with Caroline today. She is sooooooooo funny, mommy."
I was intrigued, but upon further investigation, didn't learn much. They played in the sandbox; no big deal. We moved on to the topic of snacks (he opted not to eat carrots that day).
Little did I know, Caroline would become a household name in the following weeks. Caroline this, Caroline that. His face lit up like a Christmas tree when he talked about her, a crush if I've ever seen one. But is it too soon? He's only four.
My suspicions were confirmed the day before the Valentine's Day preschool party, when Everett seemed especially concerned with which valentine Caroline would receive. We sat around the coffee table together Sunday afternoon. I cut printable dinosaur valentines, while he carefully wrote "Ev" on each one.
"Mommy, I want to give Caroline the purple one, because Caroline loves purple," he told me. I nodded and handed him a purple valentine. He smiled while writing "Ev" along the bottom.
"Mommy, do you think I can put a special sticker on Caroline's?"
"Sure, babe ... what kind of sticker?"
"A flower sticker, because Caroline loves flowers."
This was the extent of my knowledge of Caroline: she liked purple, she liked flowers, she had a good sense of humor. Well, and my son was smitten with her.
We finished the rest of the valentines, attaching red suckers to the back of each one with decorative tape. I got up from the table to get ready for a yoga class, but not before Everett grabbed Caroline's valentine and told me he "just wanted to hold it" for a little while.
The next morning, in our typical rush to get out the door, I was zipping up my jeans with a toothbrush in my mouth when Everett asked if he could wear hair gel. Everett never asks to wear hair gel.
"Why do you want hair gel today, Ev?" I asked.
"Because I want to look handsome for Caroline," he said with a bashful grin.
What's a mother to do? I obliged.
We arrived at preschool a few minutes late, and I walked in with him to help put the valentines in the kids' bags. Carson made himself at home near the train table while I walked from bag to bag with Everett, reading the name of each student to him.
"This one is Benjamin's ... this one is Jake's."
Everett reached into his bag of valentines and made thoughtful choices. He told me which kids would like a T-Rex best or which kids preferred blue.
And then we got to Caroline's bag. I fished out the special valentine with the flower sticker and Everett held it carefully in his hands for 10 whole seconds with a dopey smile on his face before dropping it in her bag in slow motion.
When the last valentine had been delivered, Everett whispered to me, "I'm going to go find Caroline!"
I carried Carson out to the parking lot on my hip, but not before noticing Everett standing next to the playhouse with a little girl in pigtails. She was wearing a navy blue shirt with a pink heart. Aha. I tried to gage the situation. Everett clearly adored her, but did she adore him back? Was the feeling mutual? Did she talk about Everett to her parents, too? My heart ached at the possibility of a one-sided crush.
When I returned around 11:25 for the valentine party, the kids had just finished their cookies and milk. Everett waved at me before pointing to Caroline on the swings and running to join her. I watched them swing in unison, rays of sunshine beaming off the tops of their dirty blond heads.
I snapped a picture for his preschool yearbook.
She hopped off eventually, and so did he. They parted ways for a few minutes; Everett joined a friend on the seesaw and she sat down at a picnic table with another kid. At 11:50, Mrs. Brown rang the bell, signaling that it was time to come back inside to gather backpacks. Everett leapt off the seesaw and sprinted to the picnic table. I watched in amusement as he waited for Caroline to get down so they could walk inside together.
When we got home, Everett couldn't wait to dump out his valentine bag. He turned it upside down and let all the valentines fall to the floor as Carson let out an excited, "Wooooooow!"
Together we sifted through tiny cards, candy, crayons, and small bags of goldfish crackers. I knew what we were all looking for, even before he asked.
"Mommy, which valentine is from Caroline?"
In a sea of Paw Patrol and Minions store-bought valentines, hers stood out among the rest. A simple pink heart, with a red heart glued in the middle.
Happy Valentine's Day! From: Caroline
Simple. Handmade. No candy attached. Well played. I handed it to Everett and watched his face light up. I couldn't help but wonder again: is Caroline looking for Everett's valentine right now? Did she notice the sticker?
He carried that valentine around for the rest of the day, stopping to stare at it any chance he got. When all the candy had been eaten, I threw away the bag full of valentines, but not before placing the pink heart in Everett's memory box.
He has a lifetime of falling in love ahead of him, and I know he won't always confide in me. Keeping her valentine is just as much for me as it is for him: to remember this first crush, when he was only four and asked for hair gel and wasn't embarrassed to tell his mom all about a girl.
p.s. The following week, Everett's preschool teacher sent me this:
I guess the feeling is mutual.
(I should probably meet her parents soon.)