The World at 86 Centimeters

“It’s good to be short sometimes. You can reach things in the low cabinets more easily.” The line didn’t make much sense, but it made a few hundred people chuckle for two seconds. That was all the time I needed to find my poem in the binder resting on the podium behind which I, at five feet even, was standing on a stool so I could see the audience. I was in twelfth grade. It was a school fundraising dinner, and I was reading a poem I had written for the honorees.

I’ve always been short. My mother says I could have been taller if I had slept more. She explained the way height should theoretically be determined, if it was based purely on genetics. For girls, you take the parents’ average and subtract three inches. For boys, you take the average and add three inches. The rest is based on other factors like sleep, nutrition, and health. At least that’s what my mother says. She’s a doctor, so I tend to believe her about these kinds of things. Both of my parents are 5’5”. So my mother says I should have reached 5’2” if I had slept more.

My younger son, Yaakov Shalom, is really short. When the Israeli nurses saw him dropping percentiles, they panicked and sent him for testing. The pediatrician put him on a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet when he was a year and a half old. It was like Atkins for babies, plus magic growing powder, called Polycose, that I sprinkled dutifully onto every meal. She also had me get his hand X-rayed to check his bone age. His bones are nine months younger than his chronological age. That means he should eventually catch up; he’s just growing at his own pace. I take him to an endocrinologist every few months, anyways. “He’s still young. He’s probably just growing at his own pace. Come back in another six months, and we’ll measure him again.” Now, nearly three years old, at 86 centimeters and 11 kilos, Yaakov Shalom is round. And squishy. When he’s wearing a blue blanket sleeper, I call him my big, blue, teddy bear.

The experience of walking with a young child is refreshing and enlightening. I’m so lucky I get to do it almost every day, on the way home from preschool. Yaakov Shalom notices everything. Since he’s so short, he sees all kinds of things on the sidewalk that I ignore when I’m not with him. He points to rocks, flowers, pinecones, twigs, dry leaves, candy wrappers, puddles, and small patches of dirty snow. “What’s that?” I tell him. “I want to step on it.” Okay. “I stepped on it!” he declares triumphantly.

It’s not just the things low down that short people notice. I just realized recently that since small children are always looking up at grown-ups, they notice things above our heads, as well.

“Look, Ima, it’s a helicopter!”

“No, that’s an airplane.”

“Look. Someone on the roof. What’s he doing on the roof?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s fixing it.”

“So high!” He motions with his hands.

I never cease to be amazed at what amazes him. How does he manage to find new things to marvel at every single day. The truth is, I do say, “How wonderful are your works, O G-d, all of them You have made with wisdom.” every morning, but I don’t always stop to think about it when I’m walking down the street.

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder,

You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger.” –Lee Ann Womack,

“I Hope You Dance”

I’m sure I also used to marvel at the world. I know I also used to walk on walls with my hands out for balance. I would follow a helicopter with my eyes until it passed behind a tall building and then wait for it to come out the other side. I climbed trees, made clover necklaces, and stared at anthills. On countless winter days, I stood outside with my face up, mouth open wide, catching snowflakes with my tongue. At least once, I picked wild blackberries from the bush in my backyard and ate a few before washing them, without telling my mother.

I used to laugh more, smile more, and worry less. My husband says I still had a sense of humor when we were dating. I’m not sure when that changed. He claims I’m still funny, occasionally. Maybe I lost my sense of humor when I stopped drinking coffee, when I was pregnant with my oldest son. I’ve been either pregnant or nursing, or both, for the last seven years straight, so I never got back onto coffee. I think caffeine is what kept my sense of humor running in high school. It certainly wasn’t sleep. So it shouldn’t be lack of sleep that has turned me into the stick-in-the-mud that I am now. (My husband claims I’m not.)

“I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

In ninth grade, I was Alice in the school play. I can imagine how Alice must have felt when she suddenly shrank down small enough to fit through a rabbit hole, small enough to get into Wonderland. Had the door been bigger, Alice would still need to be small in order to appreciate all that Wonderland had to offer. As much as we try, grown-ups simply cannot wonder the same way as children.

I still occasionally stop to watch doves squabble over a bread crust or a seat on an electric wire. I still appreciate sunsets, when I stop running for long enough to notice them. I am usually running. I run to catch buses, run to work, run to class, run home, run to pick my kids up from preschool, run out shopping, run to doctor’s appointments. Mostly, I stop running when I’m with one, or all, or my kids. They have short legs and don’t run very fast. They’re also too busy admiring rocks to rush. I don’t usually get excited over rocks, anymore.

A few weeks ago, while I was waiting for a bus, shortly before sunset, I saw a blackbird with a yellow beak that seemed to extend back around its eyes. It had white streaks on its wings, only visible when it spread them to fly. It hopped between shadows and bright sunbeams, peeping. Then I noticed another, and another. There must have been at least five blackbirds. Suddenly, they were all peeping and tweeting and squeaking. One voice stood out. I looked in their direction, beyond them. There was an intruder, a white-spotted, brown, crowned woodpecker. Apparently, they were trying to kick him off their turf.

I wouldn’t have noticed these birds if I hadn’t been waiting for a bus. I wonder if I’ll still appreciate nature after I eventually get a car. With a car, I won’t have an excuse to sit at bus stops and watch birds.

Recently, I was out walking with all four of my kids. We passed a fence with a green vine growing on it. Suddenly, Yaakov Shalom was trailing a meter behind me. I stopped and looked back at him. My Pokey Little Yaakov Shalom was staring at the vine and pointing.

“What is it? Ima, what is it?” We all looked. A leaf? Then I saw it, too.

“Oh, you see a flower?”

“A flower, it’s a flower. I saw a flower! What flower is it?”

“It’s a pretty flower,” I answered.

Naftali Tzvi was the first to identify it. “It’s passion fruit. They have them near my school.”

I looked again and realized he was right. The vine was covered with flowers and budding fruit at different stages of growth. I gave the kids an impromptu botany lesson and explained how the flowers fall off and the fruit grows in their place. Eight eyes began to comb the vine for small, green passion fruits.

“Here’s another one!” Naftali Tzvi’s fists jumped up to the sides of his face, framing his wide smile, and he literally shook with excitement.
“Here, here, look!” Yaakov Shalom pointed a chubby little finger.
Ima, look. I found another flower!” Ayelet joined in.

I stood back, resting one hand on a stroller handle, and smiled and nodded at each new discovery. “Good. Wow, you’re finding so many.” Much more than the fruit, I was enjoying my children’s passion for life.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game.” –Joni Mitchell

Last week, I saw snow for the first time in over a year. Having grown up in Syracuse, NY, I will always have a warm place in my heart for these cold flakes. On Friday night, at the peak of the storm, which to me didn’t seem like a storm at all, my husband and I took a short walk around our white neighborhood.

“Look at the trees!” I squealed, jumping up and down. I stepped on a fresh blanket of snow, then picked up my boot to reveal the footprint.

“Snow! Real snow!” I started humming “Winter Wonderland.” In my mind, I was digging tunnels through snowbanks taller than me. I was huddling on a blue sled with my older sister, her hands tight on my waist, so I wouldn’t fall as we zoomed down a slick hill. I was sitting on the back of a brown couch, feet dangling above a heating vent, watching from my picture window as my driveway turned from black to white in mere minutes. I was lying on my back in the snow, swinging my booted, snow-suited legs from side to side, making a snow angel.

In my mind, I was 86 centimeters again.

About the Author
Miriam Burstein is a mother, teacher, freelance writer and translator and blogger at She holds a Master's degree from the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program in Bar Ilan University. A US ex-pat, she has been living in Israel for fifteen years.
Related Topics
Related Posts